by Pune Dracker
Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2018.
Pune Dracker on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Robert Christgau about his book Is It Still Good to Ya?: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967-2017 (Duke University Press), which is among the final five selections in the category of Criticism for the 2018 NBCC Awards.
5 Important Things You Should Know About Robert Christgau’s Is It Still Good to Ya?:
1) The subtitle promises “Fifty Years of Rock Criticism 1967-2017” and gloriously overdelivers, thanks to a definition of pop music that encompasses everyone from Bob Marley, the Spice Girls and the Sex Pistols to Eminem, Thelonious Monk and Miranda Lambert;
2) The book comprises 97 (!) essays, ranging in length from a paragraph to almost 20 pages, and the Dean of American Rock Critics would prefer that you read them front to back, thank you very much;
3) Xgau knows
his way around an ending:
“With every phrase, he turned English into American and American into music” (Frank Sinatra)
“I hope he goes broke.” (R. Kelly)
“It’s enough to make you wonder whether he’s capable of resting in peace now.” (David Bowie);
4) It’s going to get political, and
5) Unmute your speakers, because you’re going to want to keep YouTube cued up as you read.
I recently caught up with the author in the East Village apartment he shares with his wife, writer Carola Dibbell, to see if there’s anything else he’d add to the list.
Pune Dracker (PD): You basically invented the genre of rock criticism—how did you go about choosing what to include from all you’ve written over the past 50 years, and how to organize it?
Robert Christgau (RC): Well, they let me go really long with this book—it’s 165, 000 words, and that’s really long!—and I also wanted to change up the pace, with some longer and some shorter pieces. For sure I was aware of a chronological tendency-slash-imperative. I was awarded a Guggenheim to prepare a world history of popular music, so the general essays based on that research appear in the early part of the book, and the artist essays later on also proceed in roughly chronological order. And as I prepared this book, not one, not two, but three crucial artists died—Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen—and so I wrote new pieces about them.
And I knew that I wanted to end with the New York Dolls—a band that I loved in the 1970s that miraculously after 30 years made another wonderful record. I mean, I swear by that record!
PD: The book is a total goldmine for music fans, and yet so, so much more. Among the most powerful essays in the book are “Music from a Desert Storm,” a provocative look at radio playlists during wartime, “Music from a Desert War,” featuring 3 albums born in the ravaged Sahara, and your response to 9/11.
RC: I felt that I had to be more explicitly political, because the world changed on September 11, 2001, and it forced us all to adjust our world views. I’m certainly a person of the left, and that has always been a crucial part of everything I have written, but I felt that jihad had to be dealt with as itself. And as it happened, I had written a piece about Arabic music during the first Iraq war, so I had something to base it in.
PD: And for those not yet familiar, there’s a primer on the pioneers of African popular music—a pleasant surprise you warm us up for with #7 of the “Ten-Step Program for Growing Better Ears:” Musically, all Americans are part African.
RC: Yes, I wanted a section that was specifically about African music—among rock critics of my orientation, I’m the person who knows this stuff. I’ve been interested in African music since 1962, and regard Africa as being ultimately the font of what makes American pop music of worldwide importance.
PD: You’ve included a lot of women artists in your book—from Etta James and and the McGarrigle sisters to Lady Gaga—but I’ve noticed that women aren’t as well represented as rock critics.
RC: Unfortunately, the numbers are still crappy, but when I got to the Village Voice, I did everything I could to get as many women writing in that section as I could. I really was quite proactive about it. I even jawboned my wife into it, and she became great at it when I could make her do it. In her way she’s legendary, because she does write so well, in such an original way.
And she’s really nothing like me as a writer, except in so far as she made me be like her as a writer!
She really encouraged me to be funny. The first years we were together we would go to shows, and I would take my notes and start writing my reviews, and Carola always knew what everybody was wearing—always! She was really good at describing what bands look like. There’s a phrase somewhere in my writing—“the exaggerated calm of a very nervous person”—I think that’s about James Taylor—and that’s her line.
PD: Yes! You also give her credit for comparing Aretha Franklin’s voice to chess pie—“or your mother’s cooking, ‘cause you know there’ll always be more!” And you refer to her as your “juiciest” editor in your book’s dedication.
RC: She edited every piece in this book. And I was genuinely flattered—it seems like a silly thing to say that you’re flattered that your wife read your book!
PD: The people reading this interview are mostly going to be readers and writers, so…off the top of your head, can you recommend for us 5 songs or albums that do interesting things with language and lyrics?
RC: Ahh (smiling), this top of the head stuff…
I might be able to do artists…
PD: Okay, that’s fine.
RC: Well, let’s not mention Bob Dylan because they already know him…
PD: Agreed, he’s a given.
RC: The first person that pops into my mind is John Prine.
And early Kanye West—the first 3 albums, before he goes bonkers
Also Jay Z.
(aside) I don’t wanna also say Lil’ Wayne, that seems unfair
(silence, and then…)
Chuck Fucking Berry! One of the greatest! He only wrote maybe 50 or 60 major songs—but boy! did he see things about the english language that nobody else saw.
PD: I think that’s four…unless you wanna count Lil’ Wayne, or no?
Well, this isn’t the way I’m supposed to be doing it, but…
M.I.A.— the first 3 albums. Really all of them, but the first 3 are the best.
So I named 3 people who are rappers—that’s not so unrepresentative at all. I know 3 hours from now, I’m gonna be kicking myself about things I didn’t think of, but off the top of my head, I don’t think that’s a bad list.
PD: Speaking of Chuck Berry, I noticed you used a word he invented—motorvate, from “Maybellene”—several times in the book. Are there other recurring words or phrases from lyrics that show up in your writing?
RC: What I’d like to think is that my own style is imbued with 50 years of listening hard to lyrics. And one reason even literary English has become so much more colloquial in the last 50 years—to its immense benefit—is the democratization and racial integration of American popular music. That’s in no way to detract in the slightest from Ira Gershwin or Cole Porter or Johnny Mercer or Irving Berlin, a non-native English speaker who wrote simple lyrics that said an enormous amount. Without these great pioneers—and I would not have understood how great they were when I was coming up—there wouldn’t be a further disrupture created by the rise of rhythm & blues that turned into rock & roll.
And Dylan changed it, too. His real effect—a much more crucial effect as far as literature is concerned—is to simply get the attention of people who consider themselves literary and attract their attention to popular music. I’m not saying they're stick-in-the-muds who never listened to popular music—I’m saying they began to conceive it differently.
PD: In the piece on jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman, you quote Lou Reed as saying that Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” ran through his head every day. What songs run through your head every day?
RC: It would be a mistake to say that anything runs through my head everyday—it just wouldn't be accurate. I’m less likely to get hung up on one piece of music because of the volume of music, the sheer profuseness of it, I live with. I don’t have the same kind of touchstones that other people do.
PD: Yeah, that makes sense. But what about those songs that just work on you on a different level, like they’re part of your blood?
RC: “She Loves You.” “Maybellene.” Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud” that I write about in this book. Certain songs by Wussy, the rock band that I’ve most enjoyed in this century….
And when I’m asked to list my favorite singles of all time, I always rank Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk” first. I can still play that any time—it was my first conversion experience.
A lot of the songs that do matter the most to me are the songs that matter the most to my wife. Her experience of music is less profuse, so she still responds as a fan. So I don’t have the same touchstones that people do, but those that I do will develop in a very specific way. For example, when we’re riding in a car—and we don’t own a car, so it’s only when we’re away. I always bring music with me so we play albums. There’s something about riding in a car when you have a distance to do with the music on. When you’re silent, then the car is just filled with the music. I can remember this happening with a record I know is great that I hadn’t heard in a long time—Moondance by Van Morrison. I can remember us just sitting there enthralled.
On the other hand, I also remember us taking a drive in Croatia, and pulling something off the iPod—a rap album by Big Baby Gandhi—and for an hour we sat there agape at how good it was. And we didn’t talk, because the music was so good and we were too interested in it. We got to our destination before it was entirely over, and we would have been so sorry that we had to leave the car. So we didn’t.
Robert Christgau currently contributes a weekly record column to Noisey. In addition to four dozen Village Voice selections, Is It Still Good to Ya? collects pieces from the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Spin, Billboard, and many other venues, including a hundred-word squib from the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. The most recent of Christgau's six previous books is the 2015 memoir Going into the City: Portrait of the Critic as a Young Man. He taught music history and writing at New York University from 2005 to 2016.
Pune Dracker is an MFA candidate studying nonfiction and poetry at The New School.