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Patti Smith: Save This Rock and Roll Hero

Although it’s easy enough to get a contrary impression from one of her triumphant New York appearances, Patti Smith is in trouble. She’s caught in a classic double bind — accused of selling out by her former allies and of not selling by her new ones. Maybe she’s just too famous for her own good. Habitues or the poetry vanguard that provided her initial panache, many or whom mistake her proud press and modest sales for genuine stardom, are sometimes envious and often disdainful of her renown as a poet, since she is not devoted to the craft of poetry and they are. Music-biz pros both in and out or her record company, aware that her second album, Radio Ethiopia, is already bulleting down the charts, are reminded once again that print exposure is the least reliable of promotional tools in an aural medium, not least because the press can be fickle. Somewhere in between are the journalists and critics, who count as former allies and new allies simultaneously, and who can now be heard making either charge, or both.

Cut to Patti Smith on her first gig in the Bottom Line, last December, wearing a T-shirt that says CULT FIGURE. It’s possible to accuse Patti of taking herself too seriously, but you can’t say she doesn’t have a sense of humor about it. She knows that her audience — “my kids,” she calls them, more maternal than you’d figure — has the earmarks of a cult. And she knows that her band can be described as a critics’ band. Patti herself has been a practitioner of rock criticism — “rock writin’,” as she calls it, always having preferred celebration to analysis and analysis to cen­sure — and her first guitarist and lead mentor, Lenny Kaye, made his living that way until less than two years ago. She’s always had critic fans, and these fans have spread the news, so that by now Patti has probably inspired more printed words per record sold than any charted artist in the history of the music — except maybe Dylan or the Stones. Two of her critic fans, Stephen Holden and John Rockwell, even spurred her commercial good fortune. Holden, then working in a&r, tried to sign her in 1974, but before RCA could be persuaded to come up with the few requisite bucks, Clive Davis waded in waving much bigger bucks. This was shortly after Rockwell’s report on Holden’s activities in the Times, which Davis insists had nothing to do with his own timing.

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Although Patti was personally acquainted with more than a few critics, the nationwide journalistic excitement she initially aroused went far beyond cliquishness. Like Bruce Springsteen, she answered a felt need. Nineteen seventy-five was an especially lousy time for up-and-com­ing rock and rollers, at least in the opinion of those who make copy out of them. The insistence of the record companies, booking agencies, and concert promoters on professionalism seemed to have produced a subculture of would-be studio musicians who were willing to apprentice as touring pros just to build up a bankroll and establish themselves in a growing industry. Patti wasn’t like that. She recalled a time when rock and roll was so conducive to mythic fantasies that pretentiousness constituted a threat. Patti had her pretentious side, everybody knew that, but in her it seemed an endearing promise that she would actually attempt something new. Moreover, she had earned her pretensions: what other rock and roller had ever published even one book of poetry without benefit of best-selling LP? Nor was it only critics who felt this way. A rock audience that includes six million purchasers of Frampton Comes Alive!, spins off dissidents by the hundreds of thousands, many of whom are known to read. People were turned on by Patti Smith before they’d seen or heard her. Even in New York, the faithful who had packed into CBGB’s for her shows were only a small fraction of her would-be fans, and elsewhere she was the stuff of dreams.

The problem with this kind of support is that it is soft — it’s not enthusiasm, merely a suspension of the disbelief with which any savvy rock fan must regard the unknown artist. In Patti’s case this openness lasted even after her first album, Horses, came out in October 1975. Patti has always attracted a smattering of sensitive types who are so intrigued by the word “poet” that they pay no heed to its customary modifier, “street”; these poor souls will attend one show and leave early, wincing at the noise. But they don’t count — it’s the informed fence sitters Patti could use. There’s no way to know how many of the almost 200,000 adventurous rock fans who purchased Horses feel equivocal about it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if half of them balanced the unusual lyrics, audacious segues, and simple yet effective vocals and melodies against what is admittedly some very crude-sounding musicianship. These were people who wouldn’t rule out the next LP — a genuine rock poet deserves patience, after all — but wouldn’t rush out for it, either. For although Patti is a genuine rock poet, what she does — her art, let’s call it — is not calculated to appeal to those attracted by such a notion.

Patti is actually far from the first published poet to have turned to popular music in the rock era, and contrast with some of the others will be instructive. Recall with pleasure Leonard Cohen, who for almost a decade has been singing his verses in an all-but-tuneless yet seductive monotone to pop-folk cum European-cabaret backing, or Gil Scott­-Heron, who declaims both poetry and songs over soul-jazz polyrhythms. Apprehend briefly and then banish from your mind Rod Taylor a/k/a Roderick Falconer, who in both his Sensitive and Fascist-cum-Futurist incarnations has attempted to sell his rhymes with the most competent rock musician Los Angeles could afford. Or consider, if you will, Rod McKuen and his numerous strings.

Now let me name three more poet-singers, all of them considerably closer in spirit to Patti Smith — David Meltzer, who is quite obscure, and Ed Sanders and Lou Reed, who are not. All three are distinguished by a salient interest in those innovations of voice and prosody that occupy dedicated poets as opposed to versifiers good or bad; moreover, their alliances are vanguard as opposed to academic. Meltzer, who recorded one mordant, playfully mystagogic LP out of flower-power San Francisco with his group, the Serpent Power, can be found in Donald M. Allen’s seminal Grove anthology, The New American Poetry; Sanders, the versatile avant-gardist who was the focus of the Fugs (a group that featured occasional early performances by Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso as well as the permanent contributions of Tuli Kupferberg), was included by Ron Padgett and David Shapiro in Random House’s An Anthology of New York Poets; and Reed, who (unlike Jim Morrison) had appeared in little magazines before rock-legend status made publication a sure thing, has been in Anne Waldman’s Another World anthology. None of them is a major figure in these contexts, although Sanders is certainly very talented. But all of them craft poetry of a very different order of sophistication from Leonard Cohen’s melancholy anapests or Gil Scott-Heron’s Afroprop, however much one may value listening to either.

The instrumental styles over which the first poets I named presided, although as disparate in both content and some quality as their words, share a committed professionalism. Each is molded to the preconceptions of a well-imagined audience, and each in its own way is smooth and predictable, proper accompaniment for the verbal “mes­sage.” In contrast, the music of the avant-gardists strikingly amateurish, with all three bands using what might be described as found drummers — poet Clark Coolidge in the Serpent Power, general-purpose bohemian Ken Weaver in the Fugs, and friend-0f-a-friend fill-in Maureen Tucker in the Velvets. Yet the Fugs never got their rock and roll together because they were satirists, not because they couldn’t play, while the gentle anarchy of the Serpent Power now sounds coherently conceived, almost a folk-rock version of the ominous minimalism that the Velvets created out of their own limitations.

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Like the Fugs and the Serpent Power, the Velvets never hit very big, although like the Fugs they did sell a fair number of albums on sheer notoriety. Yet it seems undeniable to me that they were one of the five great American rock groups of the ’60s. Like Question Mark & the Mysterians and the Dave Clark Five, the Velvets were minimal first of all because their expertise as instrumen­talists was minimal, but their acquaintance with avant-garde ideas — not only Andy Warhol’s aesthetics of opportunism but, for instance, the trance music of La Monte Young, with which John Cale, trained classical musician and amateur rock and roller, was quite familiar — meant they could turn their disabilities to artistic advantage. They created a deadpan, demotic, jaded, oddly sensationalistic music that was primitive both harmonically and rhythmically and all but devoid of flourishes. They were always hard-edged and usually quick, never slow and heavy at the same time. This was music that worked with Reed’s words, not behind them; the two united were the group’s “message.” Eventually it inspired a whole style of minimal American rock, a style that rejects sentimental­ity while embracing a rather thrilling visceral excitement. Patti Smith, a vanguard-allied poet who also appears in Anne Waldman’s anthologies, performs directly and consciously in this tradition.

Because the minimal style is simple — if not in the conception, then at least on the surface that results — the people who play it get hurt when it doesn’t achieve instantaneous popularity. But it’s hardly good old rock and roll. In the era of the Dave Clark Five, a similarly impoverished music sold well, but it sold on a bright, calculated cuteness that the Stooges and the Dolls and even the Ramones have never come near. And unlike the heavy metal kids who are their closest relatives today, minimal groups have always eschewed self-pity and phony melo­drama. They evoke factories, subways, perhaps war­fare — all the essential brutalities of a mechanized exis­tence — in a sharp rather than self-important way; they provide none of the comfort of a staged confrontation in which a proxy teenager, arrayed in the garb and mien of a technocratic immortal, triumphs over his amplifiers. Minimal rock is too narrow to be comforting; it frightens people.

I trust it is obvious that I don’t mean to define “minimal” as strictly as an avant-garde composer like La Monte Young or Philip Corner might, but rather in the traditional sense of “less is more.” In this case, the maxim implies simplicity in an urban context and irony through understatement, all with populist overtones. Good old it’s not, but, though the melodies be spare, the rhythms metro­nomic, the chords repetitive, at its most severe this is still rock and roll, a popular form that is broadly accessible by the standards of a SoHo loft concert. Even those groups that further reduce the Velvets’ ideas — the Ramones, for instance — also tend to soften their cerebral sting, most often with pop touches from the ’60s. One reason Horses, produced by John Cale, was so well received critically­ — and sold so much better than critics’ albums like the first Dolls or Ramones LPs — was that it managed to meld the pop notes with both basic instrumentation (the back-up singing on “Redondo Beach”) and poetic fancies (the revelatory transition from Johnny’s horses to “Land of a Thousand Dances,” or from the sweet young thing humping the parking meter to “Gloria”). But Patti’s and Lenny Kaye’s public pronouncements on rock and roll have always indicated that something rather different was also to be expected.

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Sure Patti and Lenny love mid-’60s pop-rock. Patti’s fondness for both Smokey Robinson and Keith Richard is well documented; Lenny’s credits as a record producer include Boston’s poppish Sidewinders and Nuggets, the recently reissued (on Sire) singles compendium that defines the original punk rock of a decade ago at its most anonymous and unabashed. But Lenny also christened heavy-metal music and has been known to say kind things about abstract shit all the way from Led Zeppelin to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, while Patti’s rock writin’ included paeans to Edgar Winter as well as the Stones. Moreover, both have always been enamored of unpunkishly hippie­-sounding notions about rock culture and the rock hero. Patti sometimes seems to prefer Jim Morrison to Bob Dylan and obviously relates to Keith Richard more as someone to look at than someone to listen for — as does Lenny, which is doubly dangerous. It is out of all these buts that Radio Ethiopia — which by comparison to Horses is ponderous, postliterate anarchically communal — proceeds.

Unlike almost all of my colleagues, whose reactions have ranged from liberated hostility to bitter dismay to affectionate tolerance, I am an active fan of Patti’s second album. It’s unfortunate that its one bad cut is its title cut and lasts 11 minutes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I reached a place where I even liked that one. I’ve already gotten there with “Poppies” and “Pissing in a River,” two cuts I originally considered dubious, as I did long ago with some of the more pretentious stuff on Horses. If by bringing in producer Jack Douglas Patti intended to make an Aerosmith record, as some have suggested, then her intentions are irrelevant, as artists’ intentions so often are. Personally, I believe Patti’s smarter than that. She knows the Patti Smith Group (as she now bills herself) isn’t good enough to make an Aerosmith record, and she also knows it’s quite capable of something better. It’s priggish if not stupid to complain that Radio Ethiopia‘s “four chords are not well played” (to quote one reviewer). If they were executed with the precise finesse of an Aerosmith, or a Black Sabbath, or a Chicago blues band, then they would not be well played.

For although there is no such thing as an unkempt heavy metal record — technocratic assurance, control over the amplifiers, is the soul of such music — unkempt rock and roll records have been helping people feel alive for 20 years. When it works, Radio Ethiopia delivers the charge of heavy metal without the depressing predictability; its riff power — based on great ready-made riffs, too — has the human frailty of a band that is still learning to play. “Don’t expect me to be perfect,” Patti warned her full-house cult at the Palladium New Year’s Eve in between her final skirmishes with the sound system. “You never know what our show’s gonna be. But what it will be, even if it’s fucked up” — and she fucked up herself, momentarily, pausing vacantly as she tried to figure out just what to say next — “it’ll be all we got.”

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It went against habit for me to go see Patti that night: I almost never attend concerts when I’m sick, I almost never smoke dope anymore, and I’m superstitious about spending New Year’s Eve in the company of strangers. Nevertheless, there I was at the best concert of the year, nursing a bad cold and a pleasant high and engulfed by Patti’s “kids,” who looked to average out to college age, juniors and seniors rather than freshmen and sophomores. The crowd wasn’t as loose as it might have been, but I liked its mix — a few arty types among the kind of intelligent rock and rollers who almost never come out in force anymore, a sprinkling of gay women among the hetero couples. When Patti came on, these sophisticates rushed the stage like Kiss fans, and eventually two women took off their tops and had to be dissuaded physically from dancing on-stage. I hadn’t seen the like since a Kinks concert in 1973 or so, when such hijinks already were blasts from the past, and the climax was better, the true “My Generation.” It began with Patti wrestling a guitar away from her female roadie, Andi Ostrowe, and ended with Patti — joined, eventually, by Ivan Kral — performing the legendary guitar-smashing ritual that the Who had given up by 1969 or so.

And that was only the ending. Because I’d never seen Patti’s opening acts — Television (ex-lover) and John Cale (ex-producer) — out of a club setting, I assumed they’d have trouble projecting to a big audience, but in fact, the Palladium seemed to theatricalize them. John Cale filled the whole hall with the same set I’d seen him premier at CBGB’s less than two weeks before, not because his band was tighter, although it was, but because his obsessive riffs and yowls assumed dimensions unrealizable in a Bowery bar. And the transformation of Tom Verlaine into Tomi Hendrix is so near completion that the always indecipherable lyrics are now totally subsidiary to the band’s ever denser and keener instrumental work. Both acts indulged in basic arena showmanship moves. In fact, it occurred to me during Billy Ficca’s drum solo and Verlaine’s understated yet inevitably show-offy unaccompanied guitar finale — both of which were boring, naturally — and then again during one of Cale’s showier screaming sessions that if these acts were to open for, let us say, Aerosmith in Louisville, Kentucky, they’d definitely pick up fans. The kids, unable to articulate what was off about them — Cale’s jowls? Verlaine’s wobbly voice? their plan clothes? — would eventually succumb to talent.

Granted, this might have been the dope fantasy of a New York rock critic. But more likely it says something about what can happen to minimal rock — namely increase. Two years ago, Television was an affectless song band of barely discernible instrumental attainments, but Verlaine was always a talented guitarist in there somewhere, and he has evolved into a whiz as rapidly as his band has learned how to rave up. Similarly, Cale is by now a veteran rock multi-instrumentalist, minimal mostly by historical asso­ciation. Both retain the dry, oblique edge of an approach that loses a certain formal interest as it gains in virtuosity, but they may really be ready to go out there; perhaps they will comfort and frighten the heartland with a little more intelligence than has been customary.

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The Patti Smith Group is ready to go out there as well, of course — but they insist on their own terms. When Patti first sought a label two years ago, her monetary ambitions were modest, but she demanded an absolute creative autonomy that new artists almost never get — or even seem to care about — anymore. (The much-bruited $750,000 guarantee, which includes promotional outlay and picked-up options, came almost by accident al the end, I am told, when a hotshot lawyer entered the game.) This unfashion­ably ’60s-ish quirk has meant, for instance, that Patti has run her own ad campaigns; she herself came up with the wonderful line, “3 chord rock merged with the power of the word.” It has also meant that she exercises a producer’s control over her records, no matter who she calls in to advise her. The title cut on Radio Ethiopia, a white-noise ­extravaganza in which Patti yowls incomprehensibly and plays a guitar at Lenny Kaye, who yowls incomprehensibly on his guitar, really isn’t Jack Douglas’s kind of thing.

Actually, I’m a sucker for the idea I perceive in “Radio Ethiopia,” a rock version of the communal amateur avant-gardism encouraged by the likes of jazzman Marion Brown. And it works acceptably on stage, where Lenny’s sheer delight in his own presence gets him and the band through a lot of questionable music. But I’ve never found Marion Brown at all listenable, and l guess I’d rather see the “Radio Ethiopia” idea than play it on my stereo. The same does not go, however, for the other dubious artistic freedom on the LP, the swear words.

Due to what I’ll assume is the merest chance, language was never an issue on Horses, despite its less than oblique references to ass-fucking and the dread parking-meter fetish. But the problem did arise soon enough on the unairable Jive 45 version of “My Generation” (the B side of “Gloria,” it includes the line ‘We don’t want this fucking shit”), and has become almost an obsession of Patti’s with Radio Ethiopia‘s “Pissing in a River.” Mike Klenfner, the “promotion and special projects” veep at Arista who has made Patti a special project indeed, tried to convince her to title it “In the River” and shuffle the words into something like (really) “sipping in a river,” but Patti was adamant. It’s almost as if her accommodations to radio on this LP, for that is how she understands its heavy tendencies, had to be balanced by a blow for free speech, although I seem to recall her protesting about whether “the people” own the radio stations at her moderately disastrous Avery Fisher Hall gig last Match. By that time she was in trouble with WBCN. the key FM station in the key (for Patti) Boston market, after sprinkling a non-bleepable interview with fucks and shits. More recently, Patti willfully tossed a fuck into — of all places — a Harry Chapin Hungerthon on WNEW-FN, and since then has been in trouble there as well, although how officially or pervasively remains in dispute. At the Palladium, we all recieved a flier offering Patti’s side of the story. Its theme: “We Want The Radio And We Want It Now.” Perfect.

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This crusade is clearly an instance of the People’s Park fallacy, in which one’s allies — the members of one’s cult — are confused with “the people.” The people are different from you and me, Patti — there’s more of ’em. Broad-based rock-and-roll alliances (Peter Frampton’s, say) have rarely been of much use for anything as practical as a crusade anyway, but I’m willing (even eager) to suspend my disbelief about that. The larger question is whether Patti can gather such an alliance. She appears to have the makings in New York, but not nationwide; in some former strongholds (San Francisco, for instance) she’s slipping. I think this is primarily because her music is harder to digest than she is prepared to admit; insofar as she can be said to be censored, it is because program directors now regard her as more trouble than she’s worth and are faced with no public outcry to the contrary.

And yet wouldn’t it be wonderful if she stuck at it and won? The swear-words-on-the-radio issue is admittedly not as important as Patti thinks it is, but it’s not “boring” or “trivial” either. The airwaves really ought to belong to “the people,” and the vast preponderance of “the people” who listen to FM stations like WNEW or WBCN would clearly welcome or at least tolerate a degree of linguistic freedom that the FCC, the owners, and the advertisers, all committed to the status quo and least-common-denominator inoffensiveness, now make impossible. To pretend that this bucket in the ocean of our cultural impotence is boring or trivial is to construct one more defense against the challenge that Patti throws down before us all. She dares us not to settle into our lives. She dares us to keep trying for what we want as well as what we need.

Patti’s unawareness that this is not a propitious time to launch such a challenge is of course typical of the trouble she’s in. This is not someone who is long on analysis. She is a utopian romantic whose socioeconomic understanding is so simplistic that she can tell a Hungerthon that rock-and-­roll power will feed Ethiopia (which is probably the main reason she has WNEW pissed off, by the way); she is an autonomous woman with such shameless male identifica­tions that she can cast herself cheerfully as a rapist in one poem and begin another: “female. feel male. Ever since I felt the need to/choose I’d choose male.” Clearly, her line is not calculated to appeal to the politicos and radical feminists who actually live up to her challenge; it can also be counted on to turn off most intelligent, settled adults, by which I mean people pushing Patti’s age — 30. But Patti won’t miss those uptights — she wants kids. Her sense of humanity’s potential is expressed most often in the dreamscape images of heavy rock: sex-and-violence, drugs, apocalypse, space travel. She theorizes that rock and roll is “the highest and most universal form of expression since the lost tongue (time: pre-Babel).” She believes that the “neo-artist” is “the nigger of the universe.” In short, she would appear to be full of shit.

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Well, so did Rimbaud, who, while no longer dominating Patti’s cosmology, continues to exemplify her artist hero, theoretical inadequacies and all. I say artist hero, not artist, to avoid the absurdity of comparing poetry, but Patti’s poetry itself is a place to begin. Both rock critics and poets have been known to put it down. Observers of the world of poetry inform me that some of this censure can be attributed to envy, and I suspect the same of the rock critics. In any case, as a reader who reveres Whitman, Yeats, and Williams and whose tastes in contemporary poetry — at those rare times when he has wanted to read it — have run to Creeley, Wieners, Padgett, Denby, I’ve found most of Patti’s published work likable and some of it remarkable; one poem — “judith,” in Seventh Heaven — strikes me as, well, a great poem, and one great poem is a lot. Still, I’ll go along with the poet who told me he liked her wit and quickness but found her work unfinished. Patti reports that she works hard, tediously hard, on most of what she writes. But if it didn’t seem unfinished at the end, like her rock and roll, then it wouldn’t do what she clearly wants it to do.

In her search for a “universal form of expression,” Patti rejects the whole idea of the avant-garde. She will talk about the way Bobby Neuwirth and Eric Andersen encouraged her to write but never mention Frank O’Hara, who others cite as a major influence on her. Obviously, she doesn’t want to be associated with the avant garde’s limitations. But this in itself is a kind of vanguard position that places her firmly where she belongs — in the camp of anarchists like Jarry or Tzara, as opposed to the unofficial academy of formalists like Gide or Mondrian. Avant-garde anarchists have always been especially fascinated by popular imagery and energy, which they have attempted to harness to both satirical and insurrectionary ends. Patti simply runs as far as she can with the insurrectionary possibility: Her attempt to utilize the popular form authentically is her version of the formal adventurousness which animates all artistic change.

Can I possibly believe that this deliberately barbaric sometime poet and her glorified garage band are worthy of comparison with Rimbaud, Jarry, Tzara, Gide, Mondrian? The short version of my answer is yes. The long version must begin with a reminder that Jarry and Tzara are obviously more relevant than Gide and Mondrian before returning inexorably to Rimbaud. One poet I spoke to posited rather icily that Patti reads Rimbaud in transla­tion. This is more or less the case — but it is also one appropriate way to get to the whole of what Rimbaud created, whether monists of the work of art like it or not. For although her verse may strive (with fair success) for a certain unrefined alchimie du verbe, it is Rimbaud the historical celebrity Patti Smith emulates — the hooligan voyant, the artist as troublemaker. Even the formal similarities — such as Patti’s exploitation of the cruder usages of rock and roll, which disturb elitists much as Rimbaud’s youthful vulgarisms did — are in this mold. For if Patti is clearly not the artist Rimbaud was, she can compete with him as an art hero, at least in contemporary terms. Rimbaud, after all, would appear to have quit poetry not to make up for his season in hell but simply because he couldn’t find an audience in his own time. So far, that has not been a problem for Patti.

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Of course, one understands that even the most attractive art-hero/celebrity must actually produce some art, lest she be mistaken for Zsa Zsa Gabor, and that it is appropriate to scrutinize this art critically. Well, here is one critic who values it highly. Settled, analytic adult that I am, I don’t have much use for its ideational “message,” for the specific shamanisms it espouses — astral projection, Rastafarianism, whatever. But I’m not so settled that I altogether disbelieve in magic — the magic power of words or the mysterious authority of an assembly of nominally unconnected human beings — and I find that at pivotal moments Patti quickens such magic for me.

The secret of her method is her unpredictability. To a degree this is assured by the very ordinary technical accomplishments of her musicians, but even her intermit­tent reliance on shtick and intermittently disastrous tendency to dip into onstage fallow periods help it along by rendering those moments of uncanny inspiration all the more vivid and unmistakable. Actually, her comedic gift is so metaphysical, so protean, that sometimes her musings and one-liners, or even her physical attitudes as she sings, will end up meaning more than whatever big-beat epi­phanies she achieves. But when she’s at her best, the jokes become part of the mix, adding an essential note of real-world irony to the otherworldly possibility. “In addi­tion to all the astral stuff,” she boasts, “I’d do anything for a laugh.” Thus she is forever set apart from the foolish run of rock shaman-politicians, especially Jim Morrison.

Discount Morrison, assign Jimi Hendrix’s musical magic to another category, and declare Patti Smith the first credible rock shaman, the one intelligent hold­out/throwback in a music whose mystics all pretend to have IQs around 90. Because spontaneity is part of the way she conjures, she is essentially a live artist, but through the miracle of phonographic recording conveys a worthy facsimile of what she does in permanent, easy-to-distribute form. I don’t equate these records with Rimbaud’s poetry or Gide’s fiction or Mondrian’s paintings, although without benefit of historical perspective I certainly do value them as much as I do the works of Jarry or Tzara, both of whom survive more as outrageous artistic personages, historical celebrities, than as creators of works of art. Since popular outreach is Patti’s formal adventure, I might value what she does even more if I thought she could be more than a cult figure — and retain her authenticity, which is of course a much more difficult problem. But in a world where cult members can number half a million and mass alliances must be five or 10 times that big, I don’t. If you like, you can believe that her formal failure reflects her incomptence. I think it reflects her ambition, the hard-to-digest ugliness and self-contradiction of what she tries to do.

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Now Patti must live with that shortfall, aim for her half million or 350,000 as if they were worth all her will, and go on. Clearly she’s determined to survive. She works hard; she’s committed to touring although it wears her out; she tries to be punctual and cooperative, with obvious limits on the latter. Significantly, especially for those of us who used to root for the New York Dolls, she seems to have her record company solidly behind her. Bless Clive Davis’s pretensions and hope that the two of them together can play Patti’s long tether out to the end and then cut it cleanly. Patti talks in terms of five years or maybe less. As a retired rock cult figure she’d make a great Zsa Zsa Gabor, only with real books. I can just hear the savants of 1982 dismissing her writing and undervaluing her shtick. But me and the rest of her Cult, we’ll just turn on the tube and get zapped.

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Notebook for Night Owls: The Velvet Underground

Nineveh

Andy Warhol’s new discotheque seems to be an attempt to instill permanence into a private joke. Presided over by the Velvet Underground, and decorated with colored lights, slides and films, it occupies a long mirrored room atop the Polski Dom on St. Mark’s Place, and has the air of a dancing party out of “The Masque of the Red Death.” Most discotheques seem to have been constructed around Sartre’s famous principle that hell is other people, but Warhol, being an innovator, has gone further than other entrepreneurs. He has so arranged his discotheque that his patrons tend to feel, after five minutes in the place, that they have wandered into some evangelist’s vision of Nineveh and that perhaps it is time to mend their ways.

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The room is, of course, very dark, and it is streaked with reddish light. The Velvet Underground, consisting of three guitarists, two dancers, and a pretty girl named Nico who sings a little, disport themselves for most of the evening on a raised stage against a back projection of films and slides. Since the musicians in the group, although loud, are comparatively unskilled, the patron’s attention is mainly focused on Gerard Malanga, who dances continuously, in a style which combines feverishness and languor, in front of the band. He wears leather pants and a tee-shirt imprinted with a picture of Marlon Brando, and he is occasionally partnered by a girl named Ingrid Superstar. But the real star of the show is a strobe beamed upon the audience but usually kept focused on Malanga. When he dances inside the strobe beam Malanga shimmers as if he were in a St. Vitus attack.

Halfway through their set Gerard Malanga and Ingrid Superstar pick up a couple of coiled leather whips and, while the musicians play a song of which the only distinguishable line is “Whip your mistress till you reach his heart,” they do a sadomasochistic ballet which ends with Malanga kneeling with his head against Ingrid Superstar’s thighs while she pantomimes whipping him. This piece seems to impress the audience profoundly. All the dancers on the floor stop to watch (all except one couple who appear to be part of the show and who continue all night to dance a sort of ritualistic Watusi), and a few people whisper to their partners that poor Malanga needs a rest. Then the group swings into a fast number, complete with whistles and sirens, the lights begin to flicker wildly, half the audience covers its ears, and Malanga dances off the stage to recover from his exertions.

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It was at this point, on the night I was there, that a thin dark girl in a blue pants suit seized her escort and announced to him that she was going immediately to church. Her partner, who was dressed like Lord Byron in a flowing ruffled shirt, pointed out quite sensibly that since it was past midnight she might be better off going to bed, but the girl said that the weight of her sins had grown so heavy upon her that she could not rest another minute without confessing them. Several people in her vicinity nodded approvingly. ♦

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

The Velvet Underground at Max’s: No Pale Imitation

The Velvet Underground at Max’s Kansas City? At first I thought it was some kind of joke. As if someone was trying to rig a re-run of the Terrible ’60s by conjuring up old ghosts in old haunts. The Velvets, after all, had been the darlings of the Pop/amphetamine culture, whose spiritual center was often to be found at the round table in Max’s back room, and it was not inconceivable to imagine some entrepreneur attempting to cash in on what would certainly be a premature revival of those jaded, faded years.

But no. The Velvets have changed considerably since they left Warhol’s gang. No more demonic assaults on the audience. No more ear-wrenching shrieks of art. No more esoterica. “We once did an album with a pop painter,” Lou Reed told the audience last Wednesday as the group began a two-week engagement upstairs at Max’s, “because we wanted to help him out.” “You’re doing better without him,” a fan yelled back.

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And so they are. It seems the Velvets are now back to where they once belonged, functioning as a genuine rock ‘n’ roll dance band, dedicated to laying down strong rhythms and a steady beat that gets the vital juices flowing. No fuzz tones, no academic exercises. They were always good musicians, sometimes precocious and lacking discipline, but admired by their peers, nevertheless, for originality and innovation. Now they are all bloody virtuosos, with a mature sense of knowing when they are good and enjoying it. The result can be positively exhilarating.

The audience told me that. Opening night, of course, was something of an event, a kind of Old Home Week that brought together various elements of the rock/pop hierarchy, plus nostalgia seekers and true believers, most of whom had not seen the Velvets since they exercised at the Gymnasium three years ago. I don’t know what they expected to hear, but they certainly weren’t disappointed.

The Velvets served up scads of crisp, new material, along with what Lou calls “rock ‘n’ roll versions” of the group’s old standards, like “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “I’m Waiting for My Man.” The first set was done “in concert,” with the audience seated behind tables, but in no time at all everyone was fighting the urge to dance. People started smiling, sometimes in amazement, as the boys began pulling these incredible notes from their instruments, and then they started beating time on their knees and bobbing their heads.

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By the time they were halfway through the first set people were yelling “Right on!” and you know what that can do to a performer, especially if he’s white and the guy yelling is black. The room is small, and very conducive to that kind of rapport. After two nights of this the group was firmly convinced that they had done the right thing by coming into Max’s to make their return appearance on a New York stage.

By Friday, night they were at the peak of their power. The word must have gotten out that the Velvets were back and in rare form, because the audience was right there from the beginning. They applauded the first notes of each old number and when Doug Yule, playing lead guitar, went into the bluesy, heart-tugging solo on “Sweet Nothing,” which is the Velvets’ “Hey Jude,” they went wild, interrupting it twice with applause.

I don’t know what effect this will have on their careers, but judging from past audience reactions to the Velvets (and other groups), I would say things are at an all-time high. I, for one, have always believed that the Velvets have never received the attention they deserve, but I attributed this to the fact that they have never tried to be commercial. They seemed to enjoy being artsy and esoteric. I also think that they were so indigenous to New York City that they were probably too sophisticated for the rest of the country. Oh, they always had a loyal following, even in the most obscure burgs, but it was all purists. No mass market. They’re more eclectic now, so things may change.

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They have made significant contributions to rock music, that’s for sure. They have influenced many groups, including the Beatles, the Stones, and the Airplane (who lifted one of Maureen Tucker’s drum riffs line for line and used it on one of their biggest singles). The Velvets are also the foremost exponents of something I call white/urban East Coast rhythm and blues, a form that doesn’t rely on a white singer doing black face. All rock has black roots but the Velvets are one of the few groups around (along with the Stones) who have succeeded in developing their own style without coming off like a pale imitation. They have managed to evoke a culture born of the Long Island Expressway, and what’s wrong with that?

They’ll be at Max’s another week, at least. Two shows a night, Wednesday through Sunday, starting at 11:30. There’s a $3 admission fee, but once inside you can relax and enjoy. There’s no hustle. ♦

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1970 Village Voice review of the Velvet Underground's last performances at Max's Kansas City

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

Lou Reed Rising

Naked Lunch Becomes TV Dinner: The Rise of Punk Rock

No “legendary” rock band of the 1960s has proven more legendary than the Velvet Underground. The name alone (before it was abbreviated by fans into “the Velvets”) carried a special resonance, evoking Genet decadence, whip-and-leather s&m, Warhol chic, and European ennui. And even though other urban bands (the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Rascals) were more commercially successful at the time, the best songs of the Velvets (“Sweet Jane,” “Candy Says,” “Waiting for the Man,” “Beginning to See the Light”) have an emotional texture and a sharply defined drive which propel the songs beyond the time in which they were written.

Yet when one tries to think of the Velvet Underground photographically, one draws a grainy blur. The great rock stars of the ’60s live vividly in our memories through their photos; one thinks of the Beatles first in their suit-uniforms, then in their glossy Sgt. Pepper outfits, of Hendrix in his black-nimbus Afro and layers of scarves, of countless shots of Jagger pouting and preening and hip-thrusting. Yet the Velvets, except for the imperially lovely Nico, seemed not to occupy visual space at all. Even when one listens to their live albums now, it’s impossible to imagine what they looked like playing their instruments — they don’t come into focus. This shadowiness makes the power of their music all the more provocative since it means that not theatricality but its absence is what gives that music its current urgency. The Velvets didn’t have a strong stud-star at center stage (as did the Stones and the Doors) and didn’t provide a good-vibes community atmosphere (as did the Dead and the Airplane) and didn’t attempt to stagger the audience with histrionics (as did Alice Cooper and just about everybody else). What makes the Velvets vital now is not only what they had but what they lacked: stylishness, ornamentation, politics, and a hedonistic ethos.

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I first heard the Velvet Underground in the record library of Frostburg State College in western Maryland; the album, their first (with a jacket painting by Warhol), was the only rock album in the entire collection, and that distinction intrigued me. Yet, except for their chanteuse, Nico, and her ghostfloating vocals on “Sunday Morning” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” except for Reed’s quirky phrasing and John Cale’s merciless viola on “Black Angel’s Death Song,” the music was unenthralling. The liner-note quotes about “three-ring psychosis” and “Warhol’s brutal assemblage” described a realm of experience that was for me as faraway and nocturnally exotic as Apollinaire’s Paris, or Brecht’s Berlin. At a time when the most popular bands on campus were corporate entities like Grand Funk Railroad, Chicago, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, it was difficult to connect with a band that dedicated songs to Delmore Schwartz. What I didn’t know at the time was that the Velvet Underground had already disbanded, that they had left behind not one studio album but four; only when I came to New York and discovered a dingy copy of White Light/White Heat in a Canal Street 99¢ bin did the music of the Velvets hit me with its careening bloodrushing force.

Now, three years later, their music is even more compelling. And though the Velvets were either ignored or denounced in their prime — they go undiscussed in Charlie Gillett’s The Sound of the City and Carl Belz’s The Story of Rock, and even in Stephen Koch’s vertiginously brilliant book about Warhol their music is described as “the hideous ‘acid’ maundering … of insufferable navel-gazing guitars” — it’s clear now that they were the supreme American avant-garde band. With the Warhol affiliation no longer impinging upon their aesthetic, the music can be freshly heard and appreciated for its radical primitivism. “Sister Ray” is still throbbingly dissonant, a river of electronic fever, and the best of Loaded is as vibrantly alive as if it had been recorded last week at C.B.G.B. by white-shirted kids with virginal Stratocasters. This is true precisely because the music of the Velvet Underground was in no way formally innovative. The Beatles, the Mothers of Invention, the Grateful Dead — all were more experimental, eclectic, and orchestrally inventive, yet there’s something wanly dated about their music now … it’s as pale and faded as old Peter Max posters, or discarded copies of the EVO. Once the values and sentiments of the psychedelicized counterculture lost their sway, the audaciousness of the music seemed sheer pretentiousness — intricate toys being passed off as sacerdotal gifts. The desire for community was so fervent, and the reverence for pop stars so fanatically intense, that when John Lennon sang, “I don’t believe in Elvis … don’t believe in Beatles,” people reacted as if he had said something shattering, something revolutionary. If someone next week sang, “I don’t be-Aretha … don’t believe in Roxy,” he’d earn a tempest of derisive laughter. And rightly so.

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Well, the Velvets never fell for the platitudes of transcendence (via acid) and community (via rock) which distance us from so much of the Sgt. Pepper era rock. The dynamics of the Velvets’ music — its disorderliness, loneliness, melancholy, abrupt joyfulness, claustrophobia (contrasted with the wide blue vistas of much post-Woodstock rock), chiaroscuro shadings (contrasted with the Peppery psychedelicized rainbows), antihedonism, and druggy wistfulness — are consonant with the tensions of the Ford era. Though there’s a pull of litany in their songs, the Velvets were never purveyors of salvation — they were always too thoughtful, too tentative. Their modest expectations, their distrust of charisma (both political and cultural), and their disdain for grand gestures are attitudes congruent with the apolitical politics of Jerry Brown. (Is this why Alexander Cockburn plays “Sister Ray” at least five times a day?) It’s a leaderless time, and the Velvets never believed in leaders; their music always stressed survival over community. Even their most beautiful love songs (“Pale Blue Eyes,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror”) were about the distances between people — about the inability to penetrate the mystery of the other. The drug they sang about was not a vision-inducing agent like acid, or a partytime pass-it-around substance like pot, but the drug that most completely isolates one from others: heroin. The Velvets’ music was about nihilism, the nihilism of the street, and this barely bridled energy — what John Cale called “controlled distortion” — is expressed cinematically by Martin Scorsese and Sam Peckinpah novelistically by William Burroughs, musically by post-Velvet rockers like Patti Smith (who sings “Pale Blue Eyes” more passionately than Lou Reed ever did), Roxy Music, David Bowie, the Dolls, Talking Heads, and Television.

The Heads and Television may even be more commercially successful than the Velvets originally were because both are more melodic, more visible (unobscured by multimedia effects), and more photogenic. The Heads look like a still from a Godard movie (“La Chinoise,” maybe) and Tom Verlaine looks like Artaud from Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” But since they’re as yet unsigned, the underground-rock breakthrough which is most precipitous is embodied in a wonky little wacker named Jonathan Richman, the auteur-alumnus of a Velvet-influenced band called the Modern Lovers.

This Jonathan Richman, a feral child of Rocky and Bullwinkle, will soon be shuffling his way across the FM dial and into America’s bruised bosom. Richman has already received moderate airplay and modest notoriety with his soupy contributions to Beserkley Chartbusters, Vol. 1, particularly his witty celebration of highway life called “Roadrunner,” which offers a fine antidote to Springy’s overripe imagery. An album of keen documentary interest has just been released which may make Jonathan Richman a household name in every household in which Mary Hartman is the smiling madonna. It’s called Modern Lovers and it’s a demo tape produced by ex-Velvet John Cale for a Warner Bros. album which was never made. The Velvet influence is reflected not only in the music (the organ work, for example, is strongly reminiscent of “Sister Ray”) but in the expression of angst.

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Fascinating is the contrast between the New York of Loaded and the Boston of Modern Lovers. Where the cityscape of the Velvet Underground is cluttered yet lonely, Richman’s ironic rhapsodies about Boston conjure up a city which is somnolently empty, a city visually and aurally impoverished.

I’m in love with the modern world
Massachusetts when it’s late at night
And the neon when it’s cold outside
I got the radio on
Just like a roadrunner

(“Roadrunner”/Jonathan Richman/Jonathan’s Music)

And here is Richman faced with the mysteries of amour at his local bank:

There’s only three in the other lines
In my line, well, I count eleven
Well, that’s fine cause I’m in heaven
I got a crush on the new bank teller
She looks at me and she knows

(“The New Teller”/Jonathan Richman/Jonathan Music)

Small wonder Joni Mitchell is having sleepless nights …

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Yet when Susan Sontag wrote that new art is painful because it hurts having your sensorium stretched, she was anticipating Richman’s effect. For he has an unforgettable voice: off-key, off-pitch, so achingly widehorizonly flat that it makes a Rothko painting resemble a lunar landscape by comparison. When he performed last year at C.B.G.B., he lazily strummed his acoustic guitar and yammered mindlessly on about Love, wonderful Love, and how wonderful it is to have a girlfriend to share Love in the Modern World with, strum strum strum, and after the audience gave him exaggerated bravos, he performed his special version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” for the third or fourth time.

Wedded to such an instrument of torture, Richman’s Weltschmerz-pose could make him a sui generis rock star, though we’ll have to wait until his first solo album is completed for Beserkley Records before we’ll know if he can stretch himself, or if he’s just a dandy with a gift for punky pinched irony.

Punk humor, a healthy parody of rock machismo, can be found in the music of the Dictators (who sing: “The best part of growing up/Is when I’m sick and throwing up/It’s the dues you got to pay/For eating burgers every day … “) and the leather-jacketed Ramones, in the Daffy Duckery of Patti Smith, in magazines like Punk and Creem, and in television heroes like Fonzie and Eddie Haskell. It’s a style of humor which reverses banality, thrives upon it, and enjoys juxtaposing it with high culture references in order to create a comically surreal effect.

Of course, the rock-and-roll regent of punkish irony is ex-Velvet Lou Reed whose solo albums include Transformer (with Reed’s most popular song, “Walk on the Wild Side), two live collections, Sally Can’t Dance, Berlin (my favorite Reed work, a misery-drenched masterwork: sunless, spiteful, and cold-bloodedly cruel), and Metal Machine Music, a two-record set of such triumphant unlistenability that it crowned Reed’s reputation as a master of psychopathic insolence. What Reed learned from Warhol (though he could have learned it equally well from Mailer or Capote) is careermanship: making yourself such a commanding media figure that even when your latest work is a pathetic package of retread riffs and coffee-grind lyrics, people will still be intrigued by the strategy behind it.

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In the forging of an emblematic identity, Reed not only turned himself into a clown but into a cartoon. When he played with the Velvets, he looked like a bright brooding college kid in sweater and slacks; now, in the premiere issue of Punk magazine, a hilarious interview with him is interpolated with cartoons showing him grumbling, sneering, wrecking television sets — transformed from Joe College into a metamphetamine W. C. Fields. The diva of American rock critics, Lester Bangs, has described the decline of Reed’s artistry thusly: “Lou Reed is the guy who gave dignity and poetry and rock ‘n’ roll to smack, speed, homosexuality, sadomasochism, murder, misogyny, stumblebum passivity, and suicide, and then proceeded to belie all his achievements and return to the mire by turning the whole thing into a monumental bad joke … ” Bangs sees Reed’s post-Velvet career as one long graveyard stroll, noting that after the breakup of the Velvets, “People kept expecting him to die.”

Instead, he became a death-artist, a performer in pursuit of ultimate separateness (a pursuit very much like Warhol’s futile quest for perfect pristine stillness), and after absorbing chemical cannonades which left his brain as battered as Charles Bukowski’s face, Lou Reed survived and parodied Death on the Installment Plan. “Heroin,” for example, was a song which was dropped from the Velvets repertoire for a while because too many people embraced it as being pro-smack, when in fact Reed intended the song as a sort of exorcism. Yet only a few years later Reed would not only perform “Heroin” in his solo act but would take out a syringe, wrap the microphone cord around his arm, pretend to shoot up, and hand the syringe to someone in the audience. When Cher said that the music of the Velvet Underground would replace nothing except suicide, she was unknowingly anticipating the rue-morgue antics of Lou Reed and his progeny. Just last week I heard one of New York’s underground bands, the Miamis, do a song glamorizing the La Guardia bombing incident, and at one point the lead singer proclaimed, “There’s no such thing as an innocent bystander!” Maybe he and Reed should take a ride in De Niro’s taxi …

Where Lou Reed used to stare death down (particularly in the black-blooded Berlin), he now christens random violence. Small wonder, then, that his conversation ripples with offhanded brutality: though he probably couldn’t open a package of Twinkies without his hands trembling, he enjoys babbling threats of violence. One night, when a girl at C.B.G.B. clapped loudly (and out of beat) to a Television song, Reed threatened to knock “the cunt’s head off”; she blithely ignored him, and he finally got up and left. No one takes his bluster seriously; I even know women who find his steely bitterness sexy.

After dumping all this dirt, I have to confess that this walking crystallization of cankerous cynicism possesses such legendary anticharisma that there’s something princely about him, something perversely impressive. There’s a certain rectitude in Lou Reed’s total lack of rectitude: one can imagine him sharing a piss with Celine in some smoky subterranean chamber, the two of them chuckling over each other’s lies.

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In the absence of Celine, it’s encouraging news that Reed and John Cale may soon team up again, for Cale could force Reed to exert himself, and Reed’s presence could help raise Cale’s visibility. Though Cale is currently touring with the Patti Smith Group, doing a rambunctious miniset along with the encore numbers, he’s still a tiny figure in the rock tapestry. The post-Velvet career of the classically trained Cale (he studied with Aaron Copland) has been stormy, flamboyant, and fueled by alcohol. But his output has been prolific: Vintage Violence, Church of Anthrax (with avant-garde composer Terry Riley), Fear, Slow Dazzle, and, most recently, Helen of Troy. Where Reed did his deathwalk by looking like an emaciated survivor out of The Night Porter, Cale went the rock-Dada route — performing cunnilingus on a mannequin during a concert, playing guitar in a goalie’s mask, lurching around with Frankensteinian menace. Like Reed, Cale has been treated as a joke yet, unlike Reed, his latest work is worthy of serious attention — Helen of Troy is a classic of drunken genius. The album lacks the stylishness of his earlier work and at first listen, everything seems askew — the mixing is odd (the bass dominates, the vocals seem distanced), the pacing seems muscle-pulled, the lyrics offhand then arrowy — and then the sloppiness shapes itself into force and beauty. Island Records has not yet decided whether or not to release Helen of Troy in America. Which is indecision bordering on criminal negligence. In the meantime, seek out the album through stores which deal in English imports and see if it doesn’t haunt your nights like a reeling somnambulist from the cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Indeed, the Velvets and their progeny are all children of Dr. Caligari — pale-skinned adventurers of shadowy city streets. Richard Robinson, author of The Video Primer, has a video tape which shows Lou Reed and John Cale rehearsing for a concert to be performed in Paris with Nico. After Reed runthroughs “Candy Says,” they perform “Heroin” together: Reed’s monochromatic voice, Cale’s mournful viola, the dirgeful lyrics (“heroin … be the death of me …”), the colorless bleakness of the video image … a casual rehearsal had become a drama of luminous melancholia. What was blurry before became indelibly vivid, and the Reed/Cale harlequinade melted away so that one could truly feel their power as prodigies of transfiguration. For them — as for Patti Smith, Eno, Talking Heads, and Television — electricity is the force which captures the fevers, heats, and dreamily violent rhythms of city life, expressing urban disconnectedness and transcending it. Electricity becomes the highest form of heroin … listening to the Velvets, you may have been alone, but you were never stranded.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Lou Reed and John Cale — Together Again Back in the Day

The Village Voice has a long history of brilliant and dynamic music editors, and Brian McManus fits that tradition. In 2014 he decreed that it was time for America’s original alternative weekly to take a look at its hometown’s music and put together a compendium of the fifty best albums ever made about New York City.

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Staffers at the editorial meetings campaigned for albums they felt absolutely had to be on the list, ranging from Sonny Rollins’s The Bridge (number 27) to Afrika Bambaataa’s 1983 Death Mix (number 23). With only fifty slots available, the discussions at times got intense. The Velvet Underground and Nico, that seminal New York City band’s first album, was a given — it came in at number 7. And, of course, Mr. New York himself, Lou Reed, had to be represented as well, and everyone knew the obvious choice. But I made a forceful pitch for a different album, one that also featured Lou’s partner in rhyme (and assonance, and feedback, and distortion, and abrasively transcendent melodies) from those heady days of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable — John Cale. I lobbied for and won a spot on the list for 1990’s Songs for Drella over Lou’s own musical broadside New York.

That did not sit well with some of the Voice’s readers, leading us to use a quote from one angry comment as the headline to a follow-up article: “ ‘I Fucking Hate This Generation’: Memorable Comments on Our 50 Most NYC Albums Story.” In that piece McManus allowed me space to double down on my unpopular choice, and so it was with more than a little satisfaction that I recently came across this insightful 1989 review of a very early live performance of the ambitious Drella song cycle. Rock writer Rosemary Passantino first captures the flavor of that preview night: “It was an international crowd dressed in black, black, and black. French, Spanish, and Czech conversations blended with Brooklyn and New Jersey accents.” Then she goes on to nail one of the most compelling aspects of Drella, which to this day helps set it apart from the two songwriters’ solo catalogs — and indeed from their entire Velvets’ output: “Reed and Cale’s familiar jagged rhythms and raps still surprised, like veteran street fighters’ broken bottleneck swipes…The tension of ‘Black Angel’s Death Song’ remains, but the music was more exquisite, under glass, stripped of the jam panic of youth, ego, and addiction. Cale boxed Reed into his minimalist corner, while Reed bullied Cale beyond his neat charts.”

In other words, both artists had matured and were again — just like in the Velvets’ most uproarious days — arriving at a sonic space very different from what either could do on his own. Although there was no love lost between the duo after their acrimonious break in the late 1960s, the contrastingly talented collaborators rose to the occasion for the sainted Andy — soared, in fact, to some kind of heavenly melodic realm their devout Catholic subject would have (perhaps did and does still) appreciate.

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Good Evening, Mr. Reed

At one point or another on New York (Sire), Lou Reed commits every mistake in the activist singers’ handbook. Too often, these protest lyrics are gracelessly over-explicit, leaving you no room to discover anything. There are ironies so predictable that hearing them savored sets your teeth on edge, and moments of pathos undermined by their agenda-serving function. The blunt speech makes the sloppy thinking stick out — you want to know more precisely who’s being indicted, or accused — and one line exposes a whole style’s built-in fallacy: declaring “This is no time for phony rhetoric” is rhetoric. Beyond that, our poet of the heart’s back doors is now writing about subjects he’s only every bit as on top of as any newspaper reader. Sometimes less — it’s Richard Secord, not William.

I like the record better every time I play it, and I play it all the time.

Musically, New York’s among his very best. It reads worse than it sounds; irrespective of their other qualities, when you listen with lyric sheet in hand the words crowd out what his voice is doing to and with them, not to mention everything else going on. Once you quit reading, you’re hooked, even though three songs or so still sound lousy.

I could talk forever about just the guitar sound on New York, how basic it is, and how infinite. But it’d be bad faith to take the art and dismiss the politics — I don’t like the distinction, and I do like the politics, though Lou seems only fitfully aware that artfulness isn’t their enemy. I respect this album, and Lou and I do go way back (on my end anyway), so I owe my lover’s quarrel with it and him my best shot.

Admittedly, hearing a politicized, socially conscious Lou Reed is weird. He hasn’t worked out how he feels about those associations either — after including “Bono” on a list of fanciful names for his unborn child in one song, in another he denounces self-righteous rock singers claiming a direct line to God. More broadly, he can’t make up his mind if his message is best served by keeping the messenger unobtrusive, or whether he should remind us that he’s Lou Reed, who after all has a distinctive take on this stuff.

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The unacknowledged subject of New York (I assume the title’s a switch on ’73’s Berlin: he used to be out there, now he’s right here) is Reed’s own change of heart, and his coming to grips with how best to honor the demands that today’s political imperatives put on a materially comfortable, middle-aged avant-gardist. In some ways, the submerged themes are more provoking, and almost certainly more pertinent to his actual audience, than the trenchant but unsuggestive narratives packing the album’s surface — people getting shot, blighted ghetto lives, bad crud washing up on the beach.

Well, Lou can’t live without dichotomy. But this born aesthete has usually framed the argument with himself in different terms. Up to now, his solo career was about the choice between his faith in rock & roll primitivism and — contradictory, he thought — high-art aspirations. At least in the liner notes, that schizophrenia crops up again here: Lou goes out his way to say you can’t best the basic rock & roll combo, but also directs that New York should be experienced in one sitting, “as though it were a book or a movie.” (Why not as though it were an album? you wonder.)

In the grooves, on the other hand, snaggly, unadorned riff-rock wins out, to its and Lou’s permanent glory. But while I delight in New York’s great noise, I find the rationale behind it as specious as I did the high art vs. riffraff dilemma. I think Reed’s now willing to accept basic rock as his best medium on the grounds that it’s so serviceable — i.e., that it’s generic structures have grown so familiar that today they can carry any message desired, the same way folkies conceived their use of Appalachian or Elizabethan ballads. While the music sounds wonderful, it doesn’t do the job he wants it to.

“Romeo Had Juliette,” the opener, does achieve not only grit but immediacy, its signature guitar phrase impatiently wheeling past every billboard the lyrics put up. (All right, fuck it: it’s cinematic.) But most often, the music doesn’t support or amplify what the songs are saying — except in melodramatic lapses like the climaxes of “Strawman,” the worst cut. On “Dirty Blvd.,” Reed brings in Dion on the coda, but instead of being brained by the intended irony — here’s what the Belmonts’ street corner looks like 30 years later — you’re just blown away by the beauty of Dion’s vocal, which takes off from the sputter-butter riff and makes the same notes, well, sing.

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Above all, the sound’s autonomy keeps reminding you that Lou’s coming to his subjects from the outside. It isn’t as anachronistic as folkie ballads, but it isn’t contemporary either. It stays identifiably his, and even more identifiably not theirs — the urban underprivileged he’s depicting on the record’s most problematic songs.

They stay a “they” in other ways, too. The archetypal Lou Reed song makes you feel compassion for somebody you never understood and never expected to feel compassion for. Here, though he tries earnestly and usually unsentimentally to imagine his way inside the skull of, say, a Latino teenager on the Dirty Blvd., you never believe he met the kid. You also know beforehand that compassion’s the emotion you’ll be called upon to feel.

Folkies turn the disenfranchised into victims the same way bureaucrats turn them into statistics. Reed only commits that sin outright once, on his Vietnam-vet tearjerker “Xmas in February” (the title tells it all). More characteristically, and astutely, his subject is brutalization: these aren’t the noble poor but the degraded poor, and even at his remove Lou understands that the worst of what society does to you is what it makes you do to yourself. On “Endless Cycle,” he dresses in different socioeconomic drag the Oedipal patterns that have long fascinated him autobiographically, to modest, persuasive effect — only the title is schematic.

Among the other songs, “Sick of You” is the sort of sardonic-surreal bead-stringing — shaggy-dog protest — that hasn’t ever quite worked for anybody. Faring considerably better is “Last Great American Whale,” which you expect even less of — Lou the environmentalist is his one role here that always throws you. But in making his endangered species a mythical beast, the singer can endow him with wonder (“They say he could split a mountain in two/That’s how we got the Grand Canyon”).

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Still, the shift in tone between these cuts and “Halloween Parade” is the difference between caring about something because you know it’s important and caring because it’s important to you. Honesty begins at home; as Lou takes in the sights on Christopher Street on the gay community’s national holiday, noting which faces are familiar and which are missing forever, you’re moved by the realization that in a sense this is the return of the prodigal son. His acknowledgement that to him AIDS is a death in the family is, among other things, reparation for his denial of his gay past in the ostentatiously heterosexual albums that have followed his marriage, an apostasy for which many gays probably never forgave him. This album’s finest moment is the throwaway line at the end of this song, voicing a hope as determined as it is unwarranted: “See you next year.”

“Halloween Parade” is also almost the only song whose specificity fully lives up to the album’s name. If anybody can claim New York as a title, it’s Lou; the irony is it would’ve fit nearly any of his other solo LPs better. Here, he’s so bent on being all-inclusive that he generalizes too much — what true New Yorker gives a fuck about the state of the rest of the union? This Jersey homeowner is most believable when he caps “Hold On” ’s catalogue of flashpoints with “That’s New York’s future, not mine.”

Partly as a result, left sounding more anomalous than it probably needs to is “Dime Story Mystery,” Reed’s farewell to his old band’s erstwhile patron, Andy Warhol. His sense of occasion for once accurately recognizing the obvious move as the right one, he designed the song to bring back memories of the Velvets, both in the flesh (Maureen Tucker sits in on drums, as she does on “Whale”) and in spirit (an uncredited string part simulates John Cale’s viola). Even the fact that the religious imagery feels pretentious also makes it feel apt. The problem is that “Mystery” is the final cut, leaving unresolved an album whose structure demands that it end with a definite Yes or No. It would’ve made more sense to close with “Beginning of a Great Adventure,” the tune about Lou’s impending or anyway potential fatherhood, or would that have been too Hannah and Her Sisters-ish for him?

Whether he’s expecting or not, Lou sounds rejuvenated. Getting politicized may not always make him more interesting, but it sure makes him sound more interested. Even so, I wonder what it means that my favorite song on New York is the one whose politics I most disagree with. “Good Evening Mr. Waldheim” disposes quickly of its early, unexceptionable targets — Waldheim for being Waldheim, and the Pope for receiving him — to take urgent issue with Jesse Jackson over his imputed anti-Semitism and refusal to repudiate Farrakhan.

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The ironies pile up fast: the Jew doing the chastising used to bandy the work kike around pretty freely in interviews, and for another thing one of Reed’s inspirational numbers here, “Busload of Faith,” is built around a Jacksonian image. Nevertheless, after some sententious moments (“What about people right here right now/Who fought for you not so long ago”), Lou reluctantly decides that he and Jesse share no common ground.

I like the song partly because its sprightly tune strikes just the right conversational level, before at some imperceptible moment ratcheting off into what you only gradually notice is a ferociously intricate guitar duel (both Reed and co-guitarist Mike Rathke sound like they’re playing through clenched teeth). I like it more because its tension gives it something even the best cuts here otherwise lack, namely developments: you really want to hear whether Lou’s good will or his doubts will win out in the end. Though Reed would hardly see it this way, the song’s existence is a tribute: you can’t imagine a singer addressing another politician this familiarly, at least with any but ironic intent.

But I like it best because I disagree with it, and therefore have to think about why. That challenges me in the way political music is supposed to, and seldom does. In a recent interview in the L.A. Times, Lou backed off from implying that his album could change people’s attitudes; instead, he defended preaching to the converted, which he described as giving sustenance to people who might otherwise believe that no one else felt as they did. It’s an interesting justification — if only since it lines up New York with the rest of his oeuvre in ways you might otherwise have missed — and I bet anything he didn’t think of it until after he’d finished making the record.

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1989 Pazz & Jop: New Kids on the Block

Somewhere nearby you’ll find 1989’s cash crop, the list of 40 albums that has long been the leading export of the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. Give it the once-over — you’ll be glad you did. Judiciously employed, the critics’ top 40 will serve as a dandy consumer guide, and not only that, it’s got a hook. The obvious-in-hindsight winner and the unprecedented top 10 tell a story about shifting tastes in American popular music, a story that’s just beginning even though it’s been brewing for a decade. It’s the story of a new beat, a new sound, a new aesthetic. It’s the story of racial nightmares and crossover dreams — of dysfunctional prejudice, resurgent Afrocentrism, cultural desegregation. And it’s also the story of rock and roll eating itself and then rising from its own leavings like some mutant bottom-feeding carp, a giant goldfish with a yen for the sun.

I’ll tell the story as best I can, but I’ll tell it more briefly than has been my custom. No, I’m not written out after the decade opus I recently dropped hereabouts; in fact, having plowed through the voter comments, which are excerpted in chunks and snippets throughout the supplement, I feel compelled to clarify my views on the album, which this poll still honors among rock concepts and artifacts. But for some years a related story has also been emerging from Pazz & Jop — about consensus, or fragmentation, or pluralism. It’s become increasingly obvious that no one voice can sum up the poll with the kind of authority that was plausible a decade ago, and thus I’ve invited three additional essayists to usurp my space. Voice columnist Nelson George is the most prominent African-American rock/pop critic (and critic of African-American rock/pop); Arion Berger edited the LA Weekly music section for most of 1989; and chronic nonparticipant Tom Ward joins a great rock critic tradition by denying that he’s any such thing.

Given my space limitations, I’ll dispense with the details posthaste. The 16th or 17th poll was our biggest ever: 255 critics nationwide made our deadline. The P&J affirmative action program showed moderate progress among African-American voters (19 to 29, near as we can tell) and none, taking into account the increase in voters, among women (39 to 45). But there was a major generational leap: spurred in part by 25-year-old Poobah (and Voice music editor) Joe Levy, we got ballots from well over 30 professional/semiprofessional critics aged 25 or younger. What’s more, 12 of the kids’ top 15 acts were 25 or younger themselves. But even without the youth vote, the five under-25 artists in the top 10 would still have finished top 11, and this is news. Only once before has the poll been so top-heavy with whippersnappers — Prince–Replacements–R.E.M.–Run-D.M.C. in 1984 — and somehow De La Soul–Neneh Cherry–N.W.A.–Soul II Soul–Pixies has a fresher look. It’s not just their haircuts, either — it’s their professional experience, or lack of it. Run-D.M.C were 1984’s only newcomers, to the racks or the poll. This year young artists put four debut albums in the top 10. With an indie EP and album behind them, the Pixies are veterans by comparison.

Oddly enough, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising isn’t the first debut album ever to finish on top — nor, strictly speaking, the first teenaged winner. It shares both distinctions with 1977’s No. 1, identified with its 21-year-old front man but also showcasing a memorable young bass player: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Amerindie loyalists please note, however, that it is the first winner not distributed by a major label. Whether these are significant parallels, cheap ironies, some strange amalgam of the two, or none of the above remains to be determined, with generational disagreements at least as intense as racial ones. Without the black vote, De La Soul still would have won; without the youth vote, they would have finished behind old farts Neil Young and Lou Reed. And when I toted up a minipoll of the 26 over-40s I could identify, I was surprised to find De La Soul down in eighth place, substantially behind not just Reed and Young but gangsta-minded bad boys N.W.A.

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Then I thought again and realized that I’d handicapped De La Soul to win myself — until I played the record a couple more times and decided it was just too slight to go all the way, knocking it out of my own top 10 in the process. I wonder how many of my fellow graybeards went through something similar. Very much like the Neville Brothers’ fourth-place Yellow Moon, which topped the 40-plus tally while finishing 17th among the 25-and-unders, 3 Feet High and Rising is so smart, so warm, so musical that only a pigfucker and/or stick-in-the-mud could dislike it. These three suburban kids rapped without swagger or inferrable threat; their dumb humor and original sound were out there for all to hear. But though they won handily, they did so with the weakest general support (the lowest points-divided-by-total-voters quotient) of any winner in P&J history, because they were also arch and obscure. Three- to four-minute song lengths looked like pop moves and sounded like deconstruction, the title evoked the music’s childlike growing pains but turned into a dick joke, the beat didn’t go on, and oldsters who don’t tumesce at the drop of a sample found themselves enjoying the group at a distance. I mean, Yellow Moon has a groove, Jack. Let po’-boy purists complain that the production’s cold not cool — this is essence of second-line, the rhythm of the spheres. True, I wasn’t sure it belonged on my list after it barely left my cassette case all summer. But faced with a lousy year, I remembered the Wild Tchoupitoulas and gave it the nod.

The big Pazz & Jop story is clearly black artists — only three times have blacks placed even three albums in the top 10, and this year suddenly they jump to five, adding the six top singles for good measure. But there’s more, because those darn Negroes have more than one groove, and these grooves don’t all mean the same thing. If once, to adapt a notion from Pablo Guzman, the punk groove jolted pop to its roots, by the late ’80s white rock settled for stasis as it raced through its forcebeats (or marched through its power chords or slogged through its grunge or tiptoed through its funk lite or trotted through its jingle-jangle-jingle or rocked through its rock and roll). At the same time, Prince and various Jacksons and Yo! MTV Raps were reminding forgetful bizzers that white Americans love it when colored people sing and dance. And slowly, painfully, a lot of rock criticism’s left-leaning ex-/quasi-bohemians learned to think on their feet — with them, even. But they didn’t all think to the same beat, or agree on how much a beat could mean. In the ’60s we called this different strokes for different folks.

De La Soul’s rhythms were the most dissociated in the top 10, the Nevilles’ the steadiest. And so voters raised on TV quick-cuts found truth in De La Soul, which won with the weakest general support (the lowest total-voters-to-points quotient) in P&J history, while baby boomers anchored to the big beat since childhood held fast to the Nevilles’ line. Accustomed to rhythmic signification, black voters came on strong for the easy, house-inflected world-funk of Soul II Soul’s Keep On Movin’, which except maybe for The Raw and the Cooked was the most meaning-free album in the top 40, adding just a patina of Afro-universalism to an affirmative groove believed to speak for itself. Cross-demographic fave Neneh Cherry put varied rhythms in the service of varied messages, and cause célèbre N.W.A. was juiced by both mastermixer Dr. Dre and the Federal Bureau of Investigation — and came in second with the oldest voters as well as the youngest, a lesson in who cares about rebel attitude around here. In the short run, rock criticism is a fun gig; as lifework, it favors hardasses.

Not that all critics have rewired their sensoriums for future shock, or abandoned literary concerns; not that the straight four-four has suddenly lost all force or appeal. Granted, the poetic women who loomed large in 1988’s music headlines took a tumble this year, from Tracy Chapman (third to 37th, though she was fifth among black voters) to Michelle Shocked (sixth to 64th) to 10,000 Maniacs (29th in ’87 to four mentions) to the Sugarcubes (35th to one mention). And even if the Chapman and Shocked followups were objectively disappointing, as one might say, I smell the fickle media in this shortfall: although it was like Kate Bush never went away, at 92nd Laurie Anderson gets my most-underrated nomination, and the last time the tied-for-90th Roches made such a good album it finished 11th. Instead journalists got their literary four-four from the folks who took out the original copyright — for sheer news value, old white guys (with one woman allowed in the club) rivaled young black ones. Last January you could have gotten 100-1 on a hall-of-fame exacta of Neil Young, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones, and upped the odds astronomically by throwing in a secondary legend like Bonnie Raitt, Aerosmith, Don Henley, or 23-year-old P&J debut band NRBQ.

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None of these records is as automatic as jam addicts complain, but half of them are as boring as John Cougar Mellencamp’s or Graham Parker’s, neither of which made top 100. So I’m proud that my fellow 40-and-overs put only the two best in their top 15: Young’s Freedom, as masterful a total album as he’s ever made, and Reed’s New York, praised for its clunky politics as it gets over on its cannily tossed-off music. Like Tom Petty, who turned in the most undeniable record of his life by accident, they proved that rhythms don’t become extinct and grace isn’t always something you strive for. And like the ever craftier Mekons, plus maybe the ever tamer Replacements and conceivably the ever more lapidary Elvis Costello (just not, please, the terribly tortured Bob Mould or the fatally fussy XTC), they also demonstrated that the old rockcrit ideal of the good song, with a tune you can hum and a lyric you can put your mind to, will still sustain the occasional long-playing phonogram. But rock and roll future they ain’t. Rap is.

Critically speaking, hiphop is the new punk, nothing less. Not merely because it put six homies plus dabblers Neneh Cherry and Quincy Jones on the album chart and three others among the top six singles artists, but because the youngest writers — and I don’t just mean specialists like those at The Source, the national hiphop mag founded by Harvard undergrad Jon Shecter — are behind it so passionately. For sure a general rhythmic reorientation has been crucial to its upsurge, but that’s only the root: as has long seemed inevitable to anyone with a sense of how pop forms evolve, rappers are finally positioned to pick up where the Clash left off (and Bruce remains). Stressing the verbal while taking care of music more diligently than their punk counterparts, so competitive that artistic one-upsmanship is an obsession, sharing rock’s immemorial boys-into-men egoism, and committed to the kind of conceptual in-your-face that Nelson George thinks is overrated and most rockcrits live for, rap has gotten serious about its fun. Arion Berger may be right to consider its world-shaking pretensions delusory, but not many in her critical generation are inclined to give up on the dream.

A peculiar aspect of rap’s new status is that it implies spectatorship rather than participation. Though many of the new rap-oriented critics are African-American, more of them are white. And though the Beastie Boys and now 3rd Bass (who finished 50th, just ahead of Ice-T, and were preceded from 41st by Soundgarden, Rickie Lee Jones, Beleza Tropical, the Bats, the B-52’s, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and late-’88 holdovers Guy, Bobby Brown, and Lucinda Williams) won’t be the last white rappers of distinction, the genre is no more likely to be taken over by Caucasians, as we’re sometimes called, than bebop. Formulating an Afrocentric ideology certainly won’t be any worse for young whites than slipping into a Eurocentric one; probably it’ll be better. But until cultural desegregation is in full effect (sometime after the revolution, that is), I foresee a bifurcated music subculture, unwieldy no matter how essential. A similar audience structure didn’t do bebop much harm. But bebop never had a broad-based black audience; it was boho music, critics’ music, rarely even hinting at any politics beyond the black self-determination of its creative practice. In contrast, rap is activist and street-directed, and it’s already won over as many white fans in this country as punk (or bebop) ever did. This could get very interesting.

In fact, it’s plenty interesting already. Boys-into-men is putting it mildly — not counting metal (and I still don’t see why I should), rap is the most sexist and homophobic subgenre in the history of a music that’s always fed off male chauvinism. This excites critical concern, as it damn well should — N.W.A. can play at fucking tha police all they want, but Eazy-E has the symptoms of one sick case of short man’s disease, and if there were any justice Roxanne Shanté would add his jimmy to her pickle jar and start a collection. Rap’s friends as well as foes attacked its sexism plenty in this year’s poll — almost as often as they went after Public Enemy’s much better publicized anti-Semitism. Both topics — often counterbalanced by potshots at the even viler ideology of former crit heroes Guns N’ Roses — are aired in the “Public Enemies” section, but given bifurcation, I’m struck by the virtual absence of complaints about rap’s more sweeping racial chauvinism. When in “Black to the Future,” to choose just one example, Def Jet tells an audience he assumes is black, “But the enemy is not your brother/It’s that other motherfucker,” he’s articulating a healthy solidarity while leaving the “other” dangerously vague — the context disses racist whites going back to the slavers without specifying whether there’s any other kind. Such complexities often get lost in full-fledged political discourse and must be nearly impossible to pin down in a few lines of rhyme. Hiphop critics have their work cut out for them.

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I assume it’s the hope of avoiding this work, and the useless guilt and whiteskin arrogance it will surely entail, that steers critics to role models like Queen Latifah and Boogie Down’s KRS-One, whose standing I take as a mixed omen. Chuck Eddy is always too reluctant to believe that consciousness comes naturally to human beings, but he has reason to mock rap’s “plethora of literate, well-meaning, eclectic, professional, ambitiously conceptual albums-as-artworks” — if there were any justice, 67th-place Shanté would have topped Latifah (and I didn’t think so at first myself). As usual, Eddy is overstating. Rappers are pretentious in a fairly rude way when they’re pretentious at all, which Tone-Loc and Young M.C. and even N.W.A. aren’t; in rap, artistic advance is as likely to mean house effects (a specialty of both Latifah and Shanté) as Malcolm X or Langston Hughes or Sun Ra (83rd, by the way). But now that it’s attained both commercial and critical respectability — meaning acceptance in a white world that can’t be trusted to care for the music’s long-term cultural vitality — you have to wonder when it’ll get eaten up. Just because it’s stayed healthy longer than any rock subgenre ever doesn’t mean it’s discovered the gift of everlasting life.

One of the failed white rap groups to come down the pike in 1989 (three mentions) has a name for this dilemma: Pop Will Eat Itself, a classic middlebrow-deconstructionist misprision of the sampling that underpins rap’s historical intonations and seemingly indefatigable vitality. For art-student types like PWEI, this extreme dependence on the past, however irresistible, portends the music’s ultimate doom. And indeed, it’s certain that the professional musician’s eternal complaint — “What will they have left to sample after they’ve put us all out of work with their thievery?” — will find a correlative in rappers who adjudge it cool to work with a band. It’s also conceivable that sometime in the intermediate future sampling will just wear out — that for reasons we can’t yet fathom, listeners will get sick of it the way many are now sick of the straight four-four. But assuming (and praying) that the soundbite method isn’t stymied by legalisms, I’d guess that there’s enough material out there to keep rap going past the intermediate future — whereupon the world may be ready for another round of James Brown rips. To be honest, I’m not bored by them yet. Of course, the right four-four still rings my chimes too.

Rap’s “naïve” (Berger’s word, in a more limited context) assumption that it will overcome — affirmed rhythmically and vocally even when the words are as hyperreal as N.W.A.’s or Public Enemy’s — has got to light up critics whose subcultural representatives are as dolorous as the Cure or the Jesus and Mary Chain or even Galaxie 500, the closest Amerindie got to an up-and-comer in 1989. For rock and rollers who came up with the Sex Pistols, postpunk/garage crunch/chime constitutes a groove with the same compelling personal resonance that the Nevilles’ smooth syncopations or Charlie Watts’s rock and roll essence has for their elders, and many young critics voted for more guitar bands than rappers. But beyond the Pixies, who except for Sonic Youth are the only Amerindie band to rise in the poll (much less enter the top 10) since the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, these preferences tended to be local and/or personal. At this point, postpunk is so vast, so various, and so devoid of focus or leadership that fastening on a guitar band is like picking a world-beat album — a lot of them sound pretty good, with more precise decisions up to happenstance. And if not everyone in the lineup of college-radio-type 51-to-100 finishers — Jayhawks, Camper Van, Voivod, Faith No More, Syd Straw, Indigo Girls, Exene Cervenka, Stone Roses, My Bloody Valentine, Frogs, Masters of Reality, Yo La Tengo, Walkabouts, Young Fresh Fellows, Mudhoney, Smithereens, Pogues — is altogether bummed out or defeated, none could be called confident; the good humor that’s their version of positive rarely lasts more than a song or two. No wonder their contemporaries spectate elsewhere.

The confidence factor cuts both ways, however. The main reason some critics still don’t get rap is — well, call it rhythmic, or cultural. Hooked up to the straight four-four, they don’t understand rap as music — they have trouble thinking on their feet. But rap’s positivity puts another kind of cap on its critical consensus. Because we’re usually serious and often dour ourselves, critics aren’t as ready as the average culture consumer to buy rose-colored glasses or happy feet. Drunk on romance, a rock critic will still refuse a steady diet of love songs, preferring to savor one or two. Defiance is our meat — as extreme as we knew the Sex Pistols’ rage to be, few of us were inclined to deny its conviction and truth value. And today, ridiculous though most may find the gloom of gothic or industrial, a modest pessimism is regarded as seemly — in a world whose salvation is in doubt, musicians are allowed to mix just a few smallscale epiphanies into their existential confusion, nothing grander. Hence, most of rap’s boasts and calls to action bounce off critical skeptics, and silliness takes De La Soul only so far.

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But rap does at least retain “underclass” credentials — despite the middle-class heroes it’s generated, and unlike dance music, which rarely gets the same respect even though it’s quite popular among poor people. Together with goofy-to-organic reinterpretations of Public Enemy’s deep mix, house borrowings — standard keyb and piano hooks, diva soul, fuzzed-out bass, looser beats — dominated rap’s musical development in 1989. But while Janet Jackson and Quincy Jones and pomo poet Madonna all brush up against dance music good as any rapper, only Soul II Soul and, as it happened, Neneh Cherry came out of the club world. Even on the singles chart there’s a paucity of dance flukes — unless you count Digital Underground, the Oakland electrorap crew whose forthcoming album handicaps as a Pazz & Jop sureshot, they begin and end at Inner City’s 24th-place “Good Life,” which finished a crucial two places ahead of the undeniable current crossover “Pump Up the Jam” (hope it shows up in 1990). Instead, as if to put their imprimatur on rap’s seriousness, the critics sorted rap singles out from rap albums — of the seven in our top 25, only one appeared on a charting LP, or longform, or whatever the synonym is these days.

This is a major omission. Most house hits are irreducibly cultish, but I still put three of the poppier ones in my top 10, and given the chance might have gone higher (I didn’t find out what “This Is Acid” was till six months after it imprinted itself one hot Bronx Zoo Saturday, and I’ve yet to lay hands on a copy). There’s really no question that insofar as the new rock aesthetic is rhythmic and sonic it’s happening at least as much in the clubs as at the intersection of Mean Street and Yo! MTV Raps. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean J. D. Considine’s call for a new dance-music criticism will set off any stampedes — if rock critics mistrust rap’s positivity, they feel something approaching contempt for house’s. And while contempt generally demeans the beholder, it’s not as if the disdain is gratuitous. Hard-core dancers whose minds still function in the daytime infer a social vision from the communal ecstasy (and sore tootsies?) of the dance floor, and they’re not just jiving. But they are jiving a little. Because if on the one hand (foot?) utopian fantasies are always revolutionary, on the other they’re always escapes. And despite the pomo bromide that every little escape helps breach our invisible prison walls, this apparently unsavable world is currently offering plenty of contravening evidence.

The claims I’ve made for rap may sound old to nonbelievers — I’ve rooted hard for the stuff ever since making a Sugarhill best-of my top album of 1981. But as far as I’m concerned I’m just reading the tea leaves. Though as usual I’ve voted for plenty of rap this year, I gotta tell ya — between the trans-stoopid “Pump Up the Jam” and the mysterious “This Is Acid,” it’s the dance records that feel extraordinary on my singles list this year. Too much of the rap breaks down into sustaining pleasures (Tone-Loc and “Fight the Power”), forbidden sojourns (2 Live Crew and “Terrordome”), and album cuts without albums (Digital Underground and A Tribe Called Quest). What’s more, at the top of my album chart itself you’ll find something I never expected to put there again: three phonograms anchored to the straight four-four.

Since I’ve been misconstrued as proclaiming “the death of the album” or some such, I want to be very clear. It’s the “great album” I have my doubts about, and by that I do not mean a Consistently Realized Work of Art Demonstrating Revelatory Literary Depth and Sonic Imagination. Taking different strokes into account, those will continue to manifest themselves — for all I know, Spike qualifies. But as I once said about great artists, a great album demands a great audience, and in view of rock’s galloping fragmentation, the idea that any album can invoke much less create such an audience seems increasingly chimerical. It so happens that 1989 saw the release of two Consistently Realized Etc. albums tailor-made for the different folks in my generational and racial fragment, who cannot in themselves constitute a great audience. Never mind that Neil Young’s Freedom did better with the electorate at large than with Neil’s fellow 40-and-overs, who didn’t even find room for The Mekons Rock ’n’ Roll in their top 15 — those two records summed up the traditional rock sensibility, in which the need for continuity equals the longing for a steady groove. Yes, it’s true that one merely rearticulates longstanding frustrations, confusions, and limitations while the other proclaims the imminent death not just of the great album but of the traditional rock sensibility. That still doesn’t mean there won’t be more.

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But it may suggest that, great or not, they won’t mean much, and here’s where this “death of the album” business starts making sense. Put it this way: even in popular music terms, albums are epiphenomena. What they’re really about is consistently realized careers — nothing less, but nothing more. I uncovered pretty much the usual number of gooduns in 1989, and those who find my tastes reliable can use this annual Dean’s List as still another consumer guide. Enjoy, because I did; I love my albums, don’t hear enough of them. But over the past decade I’ve stopped understanding rock history in their terms. Granted, they’re such tidy artifacts that it’s possible 100 years from now rock history will be written in their terms if it’s written at all. Like all great-man theories, though, that history will be a gross distortion. Anybody with a modicum of pop sense has always known this, but in the ’80s, multiplying media as well as galloping fragmentation have made it inescapable — even as the convenient annual construct generated by this poll, the album summary may well merit more disbelief than anyone should be asked to suspend. Right, at some level “hip-hop is the new punk” seems both statistically justifiable and poetically just. But even if you think albums mean more than I’m ready to claim, it was a lousy year. The numbers say so —  prorated, never have the leaders gathered fewer total points. And so does the poetry.

Initially, it was a sense of poetry that moved me to break precedent and list a commercially unavailable item as my No. 1. Pulnoc’s Live at P.S. 122 (the title handwritten on the inset card of this soundboard cassette) was in fact my leisure longform of choice in 1989, but that was no more my criterion this year than it ever has been — what made the difference was that not even Young or the Mekons sounded, well, great in quite the same way. And when Eastern Europe exploded in December I felt as if maybe the four-four had something to do with history after all. More phoenix than carp, Pulnoc are an amalgam of three of Prague’s Plastic People — who started a year after NRBQ and suffered lots more than the road for the rock and roll life — and four of that seminal Czech band’s 25-ish fans. They don’t seem any more explicitly political than Charlie Parker — I don’t understand Czech so I’m not certain. But they mesh trancelike vocals, hypnotic hooks, draggy drones, and guitar work not unreminiscent of Neil Young all into an ineluctable four-four that could make you believe in rock and roll future yet again. I trust that their cleverly orchestrated publicity blitz will win them an official U.S. release in 1990, and I’m betting that in their way, which is naïve in one respect and wiser than you’ll ever be in another, they believe in the great album. They are contravening evidence that walks and talks and plays the guitar. I have not the slightest doubt that sometimes they long for escape just like any other human beings. And achieve it too.

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Top 10 Albums of 1989

1. De La Soul: 3 Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy)

2. Neil Young: Freedom (Reprise)

3. Lou Reed: New York (Sire)

4. The Neville Brothers: Yellow Moon (A&M)

5. Neneh Cherry: Raw Like Sushi (Virgin)

6. N.W.A.: Straight Outta Compton (Ruthless)

7. Elvis Costello: Spike (Warner Bros.)

8. The Mekons: The Mekons Rock ’n’ Roll (A&M)

9. Soul II Soul: Keep On Movin’ (Virgin)

10. Pixies: Doolittle (4AD/Elektra)

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Top 10 Albums of 1989

1. Public Enemy: “Fight the Power” (Motown)

2. Neneh Cherry: “Buffalo Stance” (Virgin)

3. Soul II Soul: “Keep On Movin’ ” (Virgin)

4. Fine Young Cannibals: “She Drives Me Crazy” (I.R.S.)

5. Tone-Loc: “Wild Thing” (Delicious Vinyl)

6. Young M.C.: “Bust a Move” (Delicious Vinyl)

7. Madonna: “Like a Prayer” (Sire)

8. The B-52s: “Love Shack” (Warner Bros.)

9. Tom Petty: “Free Fallin’ ” (MCA)

10. Rolling Stones: “Mixed Emotions” (Rolling Stones)

—From the February 27, 1990, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1984 Pazz & Jop: The Rise of the Corporate Single

The 11th or 12th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll is fraught with many significances. You got capitalism rampant and alternative capitalism and maybe even alternative politics, you got 1984 come true and the light at the end of the tunnel. You got three top 10 bands from Minneapolis and try to make a “sound” out of that Mr. Bizzer; you got three top 20 albums on Black Flag’s label and try to beat that Walter Yetnikoff. You got a Panamanian law-student-turned-sonero-turned-law-student and an Obie-winning musical and a British invasion that went thataway. You got three “black” albums in the top 10 and six “girls” who just want to have everything. You got a shitload of rock and rollers past 35 and more than a couple pushing 50. But for the moment let’s reappropriate that line from singles-charting Deniece Williams. For the moment, let’s hear it for the boys.

The boys in question aren’t young turks like Minneapolis’s Replacements (now at Warners in spite of themselves) or NYC’s Run-D.M.C. (now running for “kings of rock”) or Britain’s Smiths (cut ’em off at JFK). In fact, they’re boys only in the most abstract sense. As he turned 35, Bruce Springsteen put out more exuberantly than he had for almost a decade at least in part because he no longer dreams about being a teenager forever; at 26, Prince is an old pro with six LPs behind him. And between them they dominated American popular music in 1984 — not as monolithically as Michael J. in 1983, of course, but jeez. They dominated commercially. And in the opinion of the electorate — to nobody’s surprise, since they’re old Pazz & Jop faves and had already topped several smaller polls — they dominated artistically as well.

The critics’ runner-up album, Purple Rain, has sold some 10 million copies and spun off four major-to-huge singles b/w non-LP B sides, one of which, “When Doves Cry,” won our poll in a walk, with its follow-up, “Let’s Go Crazy”/”Erotic City,” finishing sixth. The winner, Born in the U.S.A., is now quintuple platinum behind Springsteen’s last-chance power drive on what was once AM radio. His three top 10 singles (bringing his career total to four) sported not just non-LP B sides but disco remixes by Arthur Baker; Baker deserves as much credit as the ur-rockabilly neoclassic “Pink Cadillac” (a B that got 17 votes on its own) for propelling “Dancing in the Dark” to number two on the singles list, though “Born in the U.S.A.” made 15 on its own stark authority. Pretty good, huh? Never before have two artists finished one-two albums and one-two singles on our own charts, let alone Billboard’s too. And when I compared previous polls I really got impressed with these boys. For with one exception, Born in the U.S.A. and Purple Rain are the biggest point-getters, proportionally, since Pazz & Jop went over 50 voters back in 1976 — not counting This Year’s Model in 1978, they’re the only albums ever named on more than half the ballots (56.7 per cent apiece) and the only albums ever to earn more than seven points per respondent (7.3 and 7.0; This Year’s Model averaged 8.1, with London Calling’s 6.7, Imperial Bedroom’s 6.6, and Thriller’s 6.3 trailing).

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Me, I was rooting for Bruce, who finally overcame my abiding distrust of his abiding romanticism. By enlarging his sense of humor and adding a vibrant forward edge to his music, he got tough, as the Del-Lords might say, which means refusing despair as well as nostalgia and born-to-lose mythopoeia. Despair was my problem with Springsteen’s baldly anti-pop Nebraska, and it’s also my problem with Prince’s quirky, dangerous, unabashedly pop Purple Rain. For Prince, Purple Rain is ingratiatingly unsolipsistic — but that’s only for Prince, aptly described by Howard Hampton as a “meta-Byronic auteur” who’s “callow, insular, and arrogant in all the time-dishonored rockstar traditions.” What’s someone who doesn’t trust Bruce’s romanticism to make of romanticism that doesn’t even promise to abide — that dances by apparent preference on the lip of apocalypse? As if in illustration, Minneapolis’s pride accepted one of his made-for-TV American Music Awards while Alternative Poobah RJ Smith and I tallied the “When Doves Cry” mandate: “Life is death…,” he announced, and waited the full three beats of a born bondage-master before adding, “…without adventure.” Whew — another close call, climaxing, typically enough, with a message marginally salutary and not exactly true. And yet there’s no denying his achievement. Unabashedly pop though he may be, he’s no Michael J. (or Lionel Richie, or Tina Turner). Rather, he’s the first black to appropriate “rockstar traditions” and put them over since Jimi Hendrix, and you can bet your boody he won’t be the last. So, especially given the rhythmic bent of the electorate — who but Arthur Baker would have figured dance stalwarts Vince Aletti and Michael Freedberg for Springsteen voters? — I predicted a handy Prince victory. And instead got Bruce by a head, a margin reflecting the more responsible artist’s marginally more nutsy critical support.

This close finish suggests that Springsteen’s victory isn’t any more a vindication of what he personally stands for (compassion as agape, maybe agape as conscience) than Prince’s would have been (eros flirting with compassion). It’s more instructive to see both as the stars of this year’s big story: an art-commerce overlay unparalleled since the poll began. The onset of hegemony makes critics even more nervous than marginality-their-old-friend always has, and their ambivalence is drastically apparent in the results. On the one hand, we’re not just talking gold albums; about 10 or so selections will eventually achieve that distinction, which is par at best. We’re talking one multiplatinum blockbuster after another, a formidable chunk of the biz’s 1984 profits, well-made albums by such artists as Tina Turner (album at 5, singles at 3 and 24), Cyndi Lauper (album at 11, two singles at 10, video at 2), Van Halen (album at 25, single at 5, videos at 3 and 6), ZZ Top (album at 32, video at 7), and even Huey Lewis and the News (whose Sports finished a creditable 49th, between Lindsey Buckingham and John Lennon/Yoko Ono; 41 through 47, by the way, went The Black Uhuru, Eurythmics, XTC, Van Dyke Parks, That’s the Way I Feel Now). And on the other hand, we’re talking unkempt indies rising: Los Lobos, Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and Run-D.M.C. in the top 10 with Minutemen and Meat Puppets right behind (previous top 20 high was four, including Island/Mango’s Sunny Ade as an equivalent of Warner/Slash’s Los Lobos, in the big indie year of 1982). And amid a record 14 Corporate-Hits-for-Radio and a complement of airplay pleasures and damn few straight dance records come two all but unprogrammable Amerindie smashes, both spawned if not made in Minneapolis: the Replacements’ “I Will Dare” tied for 17th and Hüsker Dü’s outrageous “Eight Miles High” an amazing fourth.

There’s no factionalism to speak of here, no rad-lib or boho-bourgie split. Forget Los Lobos and the Replacements with their Warners connection and Run-D.M.C. with their (that’s right) gold album and stick to Pazz & Jop’s rawest indies, the three SST finishers: of the 23 voters who listed two of them, 15 supported Bruce or Prince (or both) as well, just as a random sample might have. The common thread? Ho-hum Tim Sommer (who says he likes both albums) may have tripped over an actual idea when he labeled Zen Arcade and Double Nickels on the Dime “coffee table hardcore,” but not because they flaunt their chops and certainly not because they’re slick or well-made. It’s because their double-LP size proclaims their ambitions in recognizable terms while obscuring their limitations — which are by no means crippling but which a lot of critics listen right through. Which is understandable. You look around at America and conclude that it needs yowling nay-sayers even more than it did in the yowling nay-sayers’ heyday, back around ’77 or ’80 or ’82 or whenever. You’re aware that these are articulate yowling nay-sayers, with big ideas. And if you’re like a third of the voting critics, they’re where you make your stand.

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I don’t want to be reductive — tastes differ. Me, I like to have my raw and cook it too. I love the Dolls and the Clash (and the early Beatles) because they yowl tunefully, which is also why I prefer Let It Be to Zen Arcade and Double Nickels (and Hüsker Dü’s Metal Circus to the Replacements’ Hootenanny). On strictly aesthetic grounds, others may well find this disposition a touch genteel; they may simply get more of a charge out of Hüsker Dü’s dense rush or the Minutemen’s jerky beats. But even the strictest aesthetic grounds are usually informed by or productive of general beliefs, and it’s those beliefs I’m trying to pin down. I’m a fan of the SST albums myself — “Turn on the News,” the enraged never-a-single that leads off side four of Zen Arcade, gets my nomination for song of the year. On strictly aesthetic grounds, I ranked the perhaps pop but definitely fucked-up Let It Be, a more precise and impassioned piece of half-a-boy-and-half-a-manhood than Bruce ever pulled off, just a shade below Born in the U.S.A. And I’m also high on Los Lobos, whose powerful third-place showing was the poll’s most gratifying surprise (and an even bigger one than the soft finish of third-handicapped Cyndi Lauper). Let me emphasize too that the critical resurgence of the indie album reflects serious drawbacks in the way popular music is now produced. But for all that, I thought 1984’s real action — its excitement, believe it or not — was in corporate rock.

I reached this conclusion listening to the radio — specifically, CHR, which is bizese for Contemporary Hit Radio. In January, April, and August three blatant white-male CHR commodities zapped right through my defenses and diddled my synapses directly, as the biz intends. Such a trend can’t show up clearly on the Pazz & Jop charts because it’s not about peaks of top 25 magnitude; it requires an array of essentially arbitrary stimuli kicking off the desired consumer responses in a much vaster array of individual record-buyers. For me the taste treats were John Waite’s “Missing You” (the most unequivocal such commodity to chart, though the loathsome “Like a Virgin” came damn close) and the Romantics’ “Talking in Your Sleep” and especially the Thompson Twins’ “Hold Me Now,” while for Greil Marcus they were .38 Special’s “If I’d Been the One” and Barry Gibb’s “Boys Do Fall in Love” and the Cars’ “You Might Think,” and for James Hunter (long a proud addict of this particular media-fuck) Foreigner’s “I Wanna Know What Love Is” and Elton John’s “Sad Songs Say So Much” and Steve Perry’s “Oh Sherrie.” Once again I don’t mean to be reductive; it’s not as if the manipulation I’m describing doesn’t interact with meaning, in critics and normal people both. In fact, such meaning-mongers as Bruce and Prince and Tina and Cyndi (and Van Halen and ZZ Top and Huey Lewis?) engage in musical practices much like those of “Missing You” and its soul siblings. It’s just that at their best they put the same surefire elements — which these days boil down to multiplex hookcraft, resonant production, and a sense of caged energy and/or weathered emotion — to richer epistemological uses.

Manipulative pop is always around, but in 1984 it was more plentiful and more meaningful — better — than at any time since the early ’70s, or maybe even the halcyon mid-’60s, whose pre-prog radio most critics started pining for back when punk reminded them about fast three-minute songs. Because the accumulated craft of Generation ’77 and its pop-rock allies finally had somewhere to go, you could hear a winning professional elation in artists as diverse and ultimately insignificant as Billy Ocean and Bananarama and the Pointer Sisters and Duran Duran and Talk Talk and John Cougar Mellencamp. Say what you will about CHR, you have to admit it plays pop hits even diehard rock and rollers can love. So we got what we wanted, more or less: stations that both registered on the Arbitron scale and didn’t make us barf. And now, since we’re rock and rollers, we’re wondering whether we lost what we had. For some critics, of course, this isn’t a question; the guys and gals who use rock and roll first and foremost to one-up all their stupid co-humans are in no way assuaged by the blandishments of CHR. But even hidebound populists who love CHR remember one big advantage of their recent marginality: music whose formal-expressive potential isn’t limited or leveled by marketing considerations, including the perfectly honorable need to communicate. All the Born in the U.S.A. in the world isn’t going to make us give up United States Live or “World Destruction,” as long as they’re still out there. Which we want to make sure they are. Keep your fingers crossed.

It would be unfair to brand the CHR-oriented multiplatinum blockbuster a conservative force — not even Bruce and Prince, and certainly not Tina and Cyndi, were established singles artists before this year. But the new dispensation sure does have its downside. So far, at least, though programmers may get more cautions about burnout potential, it’s created a singles logjam, because once an album yields a couple of smashes radio demands more of the same, pushing the current star in preference to some lesser-known corporate knight-errant with an equally obscene independent promotion budget. And while it may be an accident of timing — I do remember the Beatles, really — I note with dismay that blockbuster artists tend to be marketed as individuals. While Purple Rain makes one of its Biggest Statements by (gasp!) billing Prince’s band, I dare you to tell me who’s in it, and while you’re scratching your head swear you don’t picture David Lee Roth when you try to remember what Eddie Van Halen looks like; if it isn’t quite enough to make you send letter bombs to MTV and People, you still have to wonder whether Susanna Hoffs (she’s a Bangle) or Paul Westerberg (the irreplaceable Replacement) will prove suitable for framing. Finally, CHR induces artists and especially producers to forget the album as a whole and concentrate on three or four (we hope) singles. That’s why I first figured Private Dancer for a B plus and kept She’s So Unusual out of my top 10 — wonderful though the best parts of both records may be, their filler sounds more like filler than need be.

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Which leaves the indies precisely who-knows-where. Five years ago their chief use was singles and EPs, but now they may have inherited the album (and group?) aesthetic the way the Labour Party inherited the British railways after World War II. Since they’re largely populated by artists who are in it for love, all that keeps them from coming up with good albums-as-albums is budget (the dire strait of Zen Arcade) and talent (their most songful bands do show a taste for upward mobility). Ignoring imports and disqualifying Warners-supported Los Lobos, the seven indie albums the voters selected are way up from 1983’s three and 1981’s two but not as impressive as 1982’s nine, so we shall see; on my personal list, much shorter than it’s been for the past few years, the 24 indies constitute an all-time high. In any case, I believe the indies will continue to get by economically on scuffling distribution, u-drive-it tours, alternative disc jockeys, and let us not forget press support (bet there are more Pazz & Joppers on SST’s list than on CBS’s). Plus, certainly, the occasional bonanza of a major-label buyout or coop deal.

For the most part, though, majors and indies seem destined to function almost as parallel industries. The blockbuster system has shown a welcome appetite for salable oddities, but also a deplorable readiness to spit out the unsalable ones real fast. A recent casualty is 30th-ranked King Sunny Ade, who after failing to break beyond a U.S. audience of 50,000 or so (nice bucks for an indie, red ink for a major) has split with Island; assuming he has nothing multinational up his capacious sleeve, he will no doubt be encouraged to put out his Nigerian records on Shanachie or Rounder or some such, but who knows when he’ll invest time and money in a powerful Afro-American fusion like Aura again. Nor are oddities who sing in English exempt. In a worst-case scenario, the likes of R.E.M. and X could quickly be forced to reveal just how much love they’re in it for as the once-fashionable Ms. Lauper burns out in the general direction of the floundering Culture Club, the underemployed Men at Work, or even the disbanded Stray Cats. That would leave the indies free to earn ever more decent returns from off the unblockbusting markets they serve, though the artists’ crimped dreams and audiences’ crimped demands would eventually leach excitement (and after that profits) from their music. In a best-case scenario, the Replacements or Los Lobos or X or R.E.M. or the Bangles (or even — ick — Let’s Active or the Del Fuegos) could turn into the next megaplatinum oddity. Whereupon indies would start farming out potential bonanzas — I can see it now, Hüsker Dü in the studio with Liam Sternberg for Geffen — and tending new ones, who might or might not grow both sturdy and odd. Certainly the EP list, which ended up showcasing a San Francisco comedienne, a Nashville mother-and-daughter act, and a callow Captain Beefheart (two of whom I voted for myself), bodes poorly. In past years Los Lobos, R.E.M., the Bangles, the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets, Let’s Active, and the Lyres have all made their Pazz & Jop debuts on EP, with the Replacements and Hüsker Dü barely missing. This year only Jason evinces major potential, though Tommy Keene might turn into a less gooey Let’s Active and the Butthole Surfers could conceivably bubble up from below.

New blood might also come from abroad, of course. But as a matter of local loyalty and revealed truth Pazz & Joppers have favored American artists throughout the ’80s, and I don’t see that changing in the short term. Anglophilia did make a comeback with the voters in the wake of the widely rumored British Invasion of 1983. Yet though every winning act except for the Police and Malcolm McLaren (whose 23rd-ranked single didn’t spin off an album until mid-December) was back on the racks in 1984, only U2 (who aren’t English and fell from sixth to 29th) repeated, joined by romantic tyros the Smiths and artists of colour Special AKA and Linton Kwesi Johnson. (If the Pretenders are British, Tina Turner’s white.) Of the others, the Eurythmics (tied for 43rd), Elvis Costello (70th! — lowest previous finish 11), and Big Country (also not English and down from 15 to 92) made top 100. Richard Thompson and Culture Club were lower, Aztec Camera was much lower, and David Bowie justified my steadfast faith in rock criticism by garnering not a single mention. Other Brit bands were heard from, of course — watch out for Bronski Beat, the Waterboys, perhaps Sade, perhaps the The — and a few young Americans also got their comeuppance (Violent Femmes 85th heh heh, Dream Syndicate 94th). But on the (American) trade charts and the (American) critical charts both, this was an American year.

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I’ll try not to prattle on too much about how rock and roll nationalism connects up with the easy-going monster who sits atop the American hegemony to end all American hegemonies. But I will surmise that the affection of the American record-buyer for Bruce and Prince (and Madonna and Motley Crüe) has something in common with the affection of the American voter for Ronald Reagan, that the common element may not be all bad, and that as always those who crave progressive change might well pay closer attention. If Americans are to change, they’ll do so as Americans, not universal humans, and their music is an encouraging index of what Americans might become if not how they might become it. Read what you will into the burlesque escapism of “Ghostbusters” or the pathological deceit of “Like a Virgin” (or the pulp-fascist sadism of Shout at the Devil), I trust that most Voice readers, if not most New Republic readers, still prefer rock and roll’s hegemony to the president’s. And if you want to believe that critics sense trends first, as they often do, then maybe rock and roll portends something better than world destruction.

A few pollyannas may discern smashed sexism in the record-breaking six top 20 albums by women. But especially since there are only two or three more in the next 30, I’ll just applaud the return to “normal” 1979-1982 levels, hope Private Dancer proves less flukish than 1979’s 10th-ranked Bad Girls, pray Cyndi and the Bangles don’t go the way of the underrated 53rd-place Go-Go’s, and give thanks that neither Madonna album snuck into the top 100. I’m more encouraged by the 10 black albums in the top 40 (three on the staying power of 1983 product by one Clinton and two Womacks) in a bad year for funk and traditional black pop. Whatever it portends, there is a renewed integrationist mood in the music marketplace, and with major misgivings about who does and doesn’t share the wealth I have to call it healthy. Even Ron Wynn, whose late ballot included his annual anti-crossover sermon, has half-succumbed: surrounding 97th-ranked Solomon Burke among his 15-point albums were Private Dancer, which utilizes white musicians almost exclusively, Purple Rain, which flaunts a flamboyantly integrated band, and Run-D.M.C., by a group with every intention and some chance of cracking the heavy metal market (and don’t be sure you’ll like it — or hate it — when it happens). We also had our first salsa finisher, Rubén Blades, who’s reportedly preparing an all-synth followup. Given the wide (and even) age spread, generational consciousness seemed at once more acute and less hostile — not many kids blaming their pain on their elders or elders condescending back (though Chrissie Hynde’s nasty “I’ve got a kid I’m 33” was one of the year’s great moments). Which may be because rock and rollers are figuring out who their enemies are — our easygoing monster definitely has them thinking. The usual cultural subversion and pleas for peace were augmented this year by lots of music that’s explicitly political rather than just objectively progressive or socially conscious: from the relative subtlety of Laurie Anderson and Clinton and Springsteen and Hüsker Dü and the Del-Lords and the born-again Ramones, all of whom make the agitpop of the movement ’60s seem pretty tame, to the militance of the Minutemen and the Special AKA and Rubén Blades and Linton Kwesi Johnson, possibly the greatest artist in the history of Trotskyism.

On the whole, then, I find myself cheered by Pazz & Jop ’84, and surprised. Although congenitally unpessimistic except when rattled, I’ve spent the past six months grousing about the worst year for albums since 1975, and now I realize I was wrong. With my Dean’s List at 50 and climbing — which seemed impossible even as RJ and I tallied in late January — I’ve looked back and discovered that not until 1978 did I get above 49 without best-ofs; in 1980, I didn’t get above 49 with them. Counting only compilations drawn from recent history, I can add five guaranteed A’s to my list (John Anderson, George Jones, Marley, Parliament, Scott-Heron), with half a dozen more looking good. Of course, my 1982 and 1983 lists did go up to 70 without best-ofs, and the slippage still makes me nervous — in the absence of cultural upheaval there was some satisfaction in settling for broad-based energy and skill. But as I might have figured in the year of the major-label single — a year when the quaint notion of the album as “artistic unit” lost its last vestiges of bizwise usefulness — most of the decline was in major-label albums, down from 42 to 26. So what else is new? I’ll take anything I can get from the big corporations, but I consider it correct to expect as little as possible, and my dismay at the dip in first-rate LPs was more than offset by an unexpected bonus of consensus: although as always I smell some ringers in this year’s poll, from the Smiths and Let’s Active to the eternal Rickie Lee Jones, every album in the voters’ top 20 was at least an A minus by me. They’ve — we’ve — arrived at a balance of shared pleasure and informed rage that I think fits the real limits and possibilities of the music we all love.

To prophets and fools this will seem not just small comfort but closet (if that) liberalism, a self-informed fellowship of rowdy dissent that can in no way mitigate the present and future political/cultural disaster. And as far as I’m concerned they should yowl all they want about cooptation and War Is Peace and counter-hegemony feeding on hegemony and true oppression caught in the gears, because they’re sure to be telling some of it true. Congenital nonpessimist that I am, though, I just don’t believe they see the whole picture. I’m very aware that there are all kinds of ways for me to be wrong, but I don’t believe the world as we know it is coming to an end. And in my own little sphere I’m delighted to see co-workers closing ranks in response to the unequivocal social crisis that one way or another underlies various ambiguous musical developments. I have even less idea what the future holds than I usually do. But I am pretty sure that insofar as music can help us through — and maybe what distinguishes me from prophets and fools is that I no longer think that’s very far — we still have the stuff.

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Top 10 Albums of 1984

1. Bruce Springsteen: Born in the U.S.A. (Columbia)

2. Prince and the Revolution: Purple Rain (Warner Bros.)

3. Los Lobos: How Will the Wolf Survive? (Slash)

4. The Replacements: Let It Be (Twin/Tone)

5. Tina Turner: Private Dancer (Capitol)

6. R.E.M.: Reckoning (I.R.S.)

7. The Pretenders: Learning To Crawl (Sire)

8. Hüsker Dü: Zen Arcade (SST)

9. Lou Reed: New Sensations (RCA Victor)

10. Run-D.M.C.: Run-D.M.C. (Profile)

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Top 10 Singles of 1984

1. Prince: “When Doves Cry”/”17 Days” (Warner Bros.)

2. Bruce Springsteen: “Dancing in the Dark”/”Pink Cadillac” (Columbia)

3. Tina Turner: “What’s Love Got To Do With It” (Capitol)

4. Hüsker Dü: “Eight Miles High” (SST)

5. Van Halen: “Jump” (Warner Bros.)

6. Prince: “Let’s Go Crazy”/”Erotic City” (Warner Bros.)

7. (Tie) Afrika Bambaataa & The Godfather of Soul James Brown: “Unity” (Tommy Boy)
Run-D.M.C.: “Rock Box” (Profile)

9. Chaka Khan: “I Feel for You” (Warner Bros.)

10. (Tie) Cyndi Lauper: “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” (Portrait)
Cyndi Lauper: “Time After Time” (Portrait)

— From the February 19, 1985, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1983 Pazz & Jop: Who Else? A Goddamn Critics’ Band, That’s Who Else

Only rock critics will understand how such a thing could be, but for a while there it looked as if R.E.M.’s Murmur — known jocularly among skeptics as Mumble — might actually outdistance Michael Jackson’s Thriller in the 10th or 11th annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. This dire possibility reflected the ambivalence with which the most happening year in American pop since whenever filled those who make their livings (or at least cover their expenses) writing about rock and roll. Quintuple platinum or no quintuple platinum, rock critics found 1983 an overwhelming year in all the wrong ways. To quote Chuck Eddy, the West Bloomfield, Michigan, free-lancer whose 11-page ballot gave me the idea of sharing my essay with the voters this year: “There are only a couple of 1983 records that really matter to me (have become part of me, have changed me, have taught me important things about life or love or Woody Guthrie or food or baseball, have reminded me of stuff I already knew but forgot, you know what I mean).”

I know exactly what he means. Since the passion for music-that-matters defines rock criticism, every year voters worry that it’s becoming extinct. And since “matter” is as subjective a concept as “boring,” for some of them it does become extinct, whereupon they either start faking it or find a more remunerative vocation and play their old records a lot. But never before has the nay-saying reached such a pitch, and never before have I been so disinclined to explain it away. For years I’ve cited the continuing abundance of excellent albums, which many nay-sayers now readily acknowledge, as a healthy alternative to any perceived dearth of — how shall we say it? — intense significance. But while the flow in no way abated in 1983, I noticed an unwelcome new pattern in my listening — it was rare that I played any album for pleasure once I’d reviewed it, and even rarer that such pleasure went deeper than the aural surface. In fact, if I’d followed Lester Bangs’s dictum and arranged my list in strict order of turntable time, my top 10 would have comprised tuneful groove albums from Gilberto Gil to Neil Young. More specific modes of signification just didn’t sing to me.

I still believe that if more voters had more access to more music they might feel better about things. No doubt narrow-minded trend-hopping pseudointellectual sloth — epidemic among rock critics, as any empty-headed out-of-it antiintellectual good-for-nothing could tell you — contributes to this problem. But have a heart — so do time and money. Most critics are now semiprofessionals who buy or if they’re lucky trade for many of the records they hear, while those who remain on the mailing lists often work in offices where any noise louder than the muffled clickety of word processors is frowned upon. I was struck by the experience of Utility Poobah Steve Anderson, who got to know two of his top 10, Womack & Womack’s Love Wars and the Local Boys’ Moments of Madness, only because I slipped him my extra copies. How was he to figure out on his own that he’d take to those and not to the Blasters’ Non Fiction or Hilary’s Kinetic, which I also gave him? Worse still, how is he to guess which of a confusing, ill-reviewed bin of reggae or hardcore or funk or Brit-hit records to take a flier on? Full appreciation of democracy’s pluralistic bounty requires a pluralistic affluence which most rock critics are too marginal to enjoy.

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And marginality gives rise to ambivalence like nobody’s business — cultural marginality even more than economic marginality. Early rock journalism was a subsistence living at best, but at least in the ’60s it was on the inside of a collective experience which combined pop reach and profitability with defiance of the so-called mainstream. The broad thrust of rock criticism ever since has been to sustain that paradoxical synthesis as popular rock and roll became the mainstream — hence what I like to call semi-popular music. But it’s been so long since pop reach and profitability seemed a natural part of rock and roll that for many younger critics (and musicians) the whole idea of, to choose a telling instance, vital top 40 radio seems like an insupportable contradiction. And these days it probably is. Yet ponder this mixed message. Not surprisingly in the absence of albums-that-matter, Pazz & Jop’s oft-heard singles-are-better-than-albums plaint swelled this year into a deafening unison chorus. And not very surprisingly, given the shape of the year, the singles list was dominated by biracial top 40 smashes rather than the customary indies and imports and new wave airplay hits and black dance records. What does seem strange is that for the first time more than half of the top 25 also appeared on the top 40 albums — the ones that don’t matter. In other words, the classic pop process in which music is tested by massive exposure and validated by public pleasure didn’t end up making our voters feel good. It didn’t instill in them that sense of pop community which rock criticism was invented to analyze and celebrate.

I accept in part the common sense explanation for this statistical oddity — that with singles where the action is, the best we can expect is half-assed albums with great singles on them. Indeed, lots of nay-sayers apply this analysis to Thriller itself. Of course, like incorrigible art-rocker Michael Bloom (“If I never hear ‘Beat It’ again it’ll be too soon”), some voters aren’t fans at all; about a quarter of the 207 P&J respondents weren’t sufficiently impressed with the biggest pop phenomenon since the Beatles to list him in albums, singles, or videos, all of which he topped. And while a 75 per cent response is phenomenal anyway — only “The Message” has ever equaled it — one doesn’t expect that the biggest pop phenomenon since Elvis would have encountered even that much resistance at the time of, say, Rubber Soul. By now the natural orneriness of rock and rollers has been all but institutionalized in predictable patterns of reaction and polarization — Boston Rocker readers recently ranked Michael just below Quiet Riot and Duran Duran on their go-away list. I think Jackson’s achievement holds up so well critically that I wonder whether some of the scrupulously well-reasoned debunking to which he’s being subjected doesn’t have a lot of kneejerk in it — if it doesn’t signal a willful refusal of any pop community at all.

Not that I’d claim Thriller as the best LP of 1983 myself — it’s uneven enough that I suspect its biggest supporters of trying to bolster their dreams of pop community by ballot-stuffing. In fact, I ranked it 30 in 1982, and then exercised my option of upping it to 6 as a “late-breaking” 1983 album. (Thriller might have won even bigger if our rule — which allows any record receiving at least half its previous year’s total to carry that total over, with the earlier points subtracted when the same critic lists a record two years running — had been clearer.) For me and the voters, something similar happened in 1980 after MJ broke five singles off 1979’s Off the Wall, though back-to-back comparison with Thriller quickly destroyed my attraction to the fashionable minority theory that Off the Wall is the superior album. I do truly hope Michael isn’t planning to wed Brooke Shields on MTV in an all-out chart push for “The Lady in My Life.” But for me every Thriller hit except “P.Y.T.” has thrived on massive exposure and public pleasure, including “The Girl Is Mine” (which I’ll take over “Michelle,” Rubber Soul fans) and “Thriller” itself. In fact, “Thriller” is the rare song that’s improved by its video, which fleshes out the not-quite-a-joke scariness of showbiz power for Michael (and his fans) and the not-quite-a-joke scariness of “the funk of 40,000 years” for (Michael and) his (white) fans.

One sign of how lukewarm Pazz & Joppers felt about albums this year is how few points they alotted the ones they liked — a mean of 10.6 (and a median of 10.0) in the top 15, as compared to 11.3 in 1982 (when the scarcity of albums-that-matter also occasioned much gnashing of teeth) and 10.9 in the two previous years. But Jackson averaged 13.1, and R.E.M. was right behind at 12.8, a remarkable index of collective enthusiasm in albums with so many mentions. For some critics, in other words, Murmur was a semipop event the way Thriller was a pop event. And significantly, only 29 named both albums.

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While willing to grant that my failure to make a deep connection with R.E.M. may be generational (see Managing Poobah Tom Carson’s explication de texte), I’m with the Jacksonites — choosing Murmur as a Pick Hit over the Blasters’ amazingly durable Non Fiction was my personal miscall of the year, and as I relisten dutifully all that happens is that Murmur slips further down my list. A “consistent and enjoyable” record, sure, steeped in pop usages ripe for rehab from its hooks to its guitars, from Mitch Easter’s deceptively offhand textures to Michael Stipe’s deceptively inarticulate soul. But what it has to say (assuming Carson’s not explicating through his hat) defines it irrevocably as a critics’ record, not just in the know-nothing way that term is used to dismiss disquieting innovations, but in its central preoccupations. That is, Murmur’s subject is the dilemma of cultural displacement to which the broad thrust of rock criticism addresses itself, and while I take this dilemma seriously, I go back far enough to crave pop outreach nevertheless — even when the central preoccupation of the music involved is the glamour and danger of the star system, which is in a sense the dilemma’s obverse and in a sense its cause.

Which brings us, yes it does, to video. I didn’t spend much time pondering my decision to substitute a video poll for last year’s rather inconclusive compilations competition; I just wanted to give traditionalists and retro-rockers a full franchise by opening the album vote to reissues. (The 16th-place, 19.8-points-per-mention finish of Jerry Lee Lewis’s import-only 12-disc Sun Sessions box, virtually unavailable as a promo, was some show of strength; The Jackie Wilson Story came in 68th, The Best of Slim Harpo 74th, and Big Maybelle’s Okeh Sessions 95th.) But the voters gave the video option a lot of thought, as their quoted outpourings only begin to suggest, and a full one-third declined to participate for reasons ranging from regretful ignorance to indignant avowals of the ineluctable modality of the audible. This negative fervor seems fishy to me; beyond all the sociopolitical analyses and perception theories, many of which I go along with, I smell turf war. I’ve already stated my own objections to videos in general and MTV in particular, but I like some and even learn from a few. Anyway, if displaced adpeople are going to use rock and roll to power their shitty little movies, I want to provide the most demanding rock and rollers with a chance to give them what for.

The voters did just that, selecting not songs but audiovisual artifacts — the top five were also top-25 singles, but in radically scrambled order, while only one of the remaining selections even finished among the top 40. What’s more, MTV’s effect on the rest of the poll was negligible — the only artists the critics might have underplayed without it are the Eurythmics (oh well), Eddy Grant (lose some, win some), and (mustn’t forget him) Michael Jackson. Basically, that’s a plus — I go through all this because I believe that people who convert their musical perceptions into written discourse have a special role in keeping the music honest. But there’s also a sense in which it’s a minus — just one more example of how unremarkable the results were. I mean, Men at Work’s Cargo surely deserved a mention or two.

In the end, I don’t blame the poll’s conservative drift on the voters so much as on the year. With three of eight albums repeating from 1982, it was the worst year for black artists since 1978, which given the singles list should signal Stevie Wonder to get hopping and George Clinton to move his release schedule up to October or so. It was also a terrible year for women, with Exene Cervenka, Annie Lennox, and the recrudescent Linda Ronstadt (come back, Ol’ Blue Eyes, all is forgiven) the only finishers, though Chrissie Hynde, Christine McVie, and Yoko Ono are already righting that for 1984. Blacks and women would have done better if the list had gone down to 50 thusly: UB40’s 1980-83, Divinyls, Moses, Culture Club’s Kissing, Jett, Midnight Oil, Ramones, ZZ Top, Green, Plimsouls. Offsetting the strongest finish in almost a decade by Mr. Bob Dylan, who admittedly made his strongest album in almost a decade but still hasn’t made me like it, was the heartening shortfall of expedient work by David Bowie and the Rolling Stones and overpraised work by the Police.

Of somewhat more concern is the relative paucity of rookies — not first-time old-timers like Tom Waits and Paul Simon, but fresh blood. I count maybe seven up-and-comers, the fewest in many years, with Aztec Camera, Culture Club, and the Replacements the only ones that inspire much hope in me; this is what happens when young avant-gardists hang in there, I suppose, but it portends hardening of the arteries nevertheless. Even more distressing is what happened to independent labels. Except for Twin/Tone — home of Minneapolis-St. Paul’s irrepressible Replacements, the biggest and most gratifying surprise of the poll — and Richard Thompson’s Hannibal operation, only the reissue specialists at Charly/Sun and the gloom merchants at Factory/Factus fully qualify. The continuing semi-independence of Mango (where the marginal finish of 1982’s fourth-ranked Sunny Adé, whose Ajoo also finished 90th, makes the juju king look more like a critical novelty than is flattering to him or the critics) and Slash (where the Violent Femmes, though maybe not the Blasters, would have done just as well without Warners) is better than nothing, I guess, but I’m worried about what the latest pop explosion could mean for the visibility of the alternative capitalists who provided me with more than two dozen of my favorite 1983 albums. Trickle-down theory has never held much appeal for me.

Independent labels from the Brill Building manqué of New York dance music did gain one on the singles list, weathering the contemporary-hits blitz just as the Lyres’ good little Ace of Hearts garage-band simulacrum did. And aided by a time rule designed to favor rookies and indies (which disqualified well-supported “mini-LPs” by the Style Council, Roxy Music, and U2), both categories made big noise on the EP list, with Los Lobos and Let’s Active the T-Bones and R.E.M.s of the year and the powerful outreach of Jason and the Nashville Scorchers (whose record has been picked up and improved by EMI America) a promise of Flying Burritos to come. Since the EP is speed-rock’s natural medium, I’m also pleased that this year two hardcore-identified items finished in the symbolic money.

I could go on, believe me, but I’d only be objectifying my own feelings, which more than usual are in no special harmony with those of the electorate. This is only appropriate. My pet metaphor for P&J ’83 takes its cue from the surprising showings of Reed and Richman and Thompson and Dylan and Newman and Parker and Waits and Simon, not to mention X’s John Doe and Aztec Camera’s Roddy Frame and the Blasters’ Dave/Phil Alvin. Every one of these artists has the lineaments of what in 1969 or so began to be called a singer-songwriter; since it’s known by now that songwriters (and singers) are most effective when they conceive music as well as melodies (and words), they work closely with bands, but they’re still basically expressing themselves, giving private responses a form that’s musical before it’s either collective or public. I wouldn’t sign off before offering up my own hard-earned lists — longer than ever this year to underline my continuing faith in pluralism. But I want to leave as much space as possible for other voters to give their private responses public (and in total context even collective) form. It won’t keep the music honest by itself, but maybe it’ll help a little.

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Top 10 Albums of 1983

1. Michael Jackson: Thriller (Epic)

2. R.E.M.: Murmur (I.R.S.)

3. Talking Heads: Speaking in Tongues (Sire)

4. X: More Fun in the New World (Elektra)

5. The Police: Synchronicity (A&M)

6. U2: War (Island)

7. Lou Reed: Legendary Hearts (RCA Victor)

8. Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers: Jonathan Sings! (Sire)

9. Richard Thompson: Hand of Kindness (Hannibal)

10. Bob Dylan: Infidels (Columbia)

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Top 10 Singles of 1983

1. Michael Jackson: “Billie Jean” (Epic)

2. The Police: “Every Breath You Take” (A&M)

3. The Pretenders: “Back on the Chain Gang”/”My City Was Gone” (Sire)

4. (Tie) Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force: “Looking for the Perfect Beat” (Tommy Boy)
Prince: “Little Red Corvette” (Warner Bros.)

6. Eddy Grant: “Electric Avenue” (Epic)

7. Michael Jackson: “Beat It” (Epic)

8. Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel: “White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It)” (Sugarhill)

9. Run-D.M.C.: “It’s Like That”/”Sucker M.C.s” (Profile)

10. Talking Heads: “Burning Down the House” (Sire)

— From the February 28, 1984, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1982 Pazz & Jop: Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome

Because jazz criticism is one of the many things I know too little about, Otis Ferguson was only a name to me when The Otis Ferguson Reader came my way last fall, and I hope his admirers will accept the compliment I intended when I claim him (for symbolic purposes, at least) as the first rock critic. Remembered mostly for his movie reviews, Ferguson also wrote extensively about the music of the swing era, and there’s something about his attitude that strikes a chord. The man was a born democrat: having worked his way through college, he refused to take on airs when the job was done. Actively hostile to any hint of sham, fad, or dilettantism, he tried to describe complex aesthetic interactions so that laymen could understand them. But he refused to compromise in the other direction either. Unlike the run of fans and/or hacks who always dominate music journalism, he loved language for its own sake, written and spoken both, which means he was committed to taking colloquial risks in a honed style — he went for contemporaneity and a feisty edge without worrying about whether he’d sound dated or stilted later. He valued music’s soul and inspiration no more and no less than its shape and meaning.

Like any sensible person, Ferguson knew you couldn’t write about American music without writing about Afro-American music — he was calling blues “America’s single biggest contribution to the form of music” quite early in the life of that cliché. But he also knew that “people who talk too glibly about racial differences always get left out on a limb, sooner or later,” and added: “When it comes to the best musicians, the matter of race is a tossup as far as I’m concerned.” Ferguson was adamant if not defensive on this point — he once took John Hammond to task for “saying ‘white musician’ the way you’d use the term ‘greaseball’ ” — partly in reaction against ’20s Afrophilia, which was often not just dilettantism but elitist European. But when it came to the best musicians he got unlikely results from his tossup, devoting 13 pages (in the Reader, $10 from December Press, 3093 Dato, Highland Park, Illinois 60035) to Bix Beiderbecke against Louis Armstrong’s one, 24 pages to Benny Goodman against Duke Ellington’s six, four pages to Red Nichols against Sidney Bechet’s two bemused mentions.

People who talk glibly about racial differences might get judgmental about these statistics, but I respect Ferguson too much for that. Anyway, he did better than many of his colleagues, and even the worst of them had alibis. White musicians were more accessible, white musicians drew more readers, white musicians had (to quote Ferguson) “melodic discipline,” and “more definite organization,” white musicians “did more to spread the fame of jazz.” All of this is credible, useful, and perhaps even true; as a naif who regards jazz as an essentially black idiom, I was inspired by Ferguson to test the spritz of MCA’s delightful recent Red Nichols reissue, and I’m glad I did. But then I turned to Sidney Bechet’s RCA twofer from the same period (“his soprano saxophone can still be heard today”), and let me tell you — Bechet blew Nichols away.

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People who talk glibly about historical parallels always get left out on a limb sooner or later, so I hope I don’t push my analogy farther than it wants to go. But I kept thinking about Otis Ferguson’s Negro problem as the ballots for the ninth or 10th annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll rolled in. If Elvis Costello’s victory wasn’t exactly hot news, his margin was respectable — he got a much bigger vote than the Clash in 1981, and did better proportionally than a comparable consensus choice, Graham Parker in 1979. But no matter how big a piece the winner cut off, most voters seemed weary of how stale, flat, and unprofitable the pie had become; the dejected Britcrits at Trouser Press, for instance, declined to name a number one album this year, placing Imperial Bedroom, which topped their in-house poll, at a symbolic number two. And if I once again failed to share all this dolor, it wasn’t in the hundred-flowers bloom spirit that inspired me to list my 60 top albums a year ago; though I did find another 60 gooduns, down-the-middle sales and borderline creativity both sagged ominously enough to put a crimp in my natural rock and roll optimism. Starting in early November, however, seven of my favorite 1982 albums, every one a variation on a theme, restored a lot of my fire. And if they weren’t likely to lift the mood at Trouser Press, a journal white supremacist enough to make Rolling Stone look like a hotbed of affirmative action, George Clinton’s Computer Games, Marvin Gaye’s Midnight Love, Prince’s 1999, Grandmaster Flash’s The Message, Chic’s Tongue in Chic, Material’s One Down, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller made it a pretty damn good year after all.

Except in re poor Tongue in Chic, which got shut out, the critics shared my enthusiasm to a moderately unprecedented degree. Prince, Gaye, and Jackson finished 6, 8, and 15, while in 1980 Prince, Stevie Wonder, and Jackson finished 8, 9, and 13 — with no Sunny Adé or Ornette Coleman to siphon off tokenism votes. And Adé’s showing was very impressive in itself — unknown to American critics a year ago the African rhythm king finished fourth, higher than any black artist in the history of the poll except Wonder (who won in 1976). And while Ornette’s 13th-place finish doesn’t sound all that much more commanding than Dancing in Your Head’s 15th in 1977, 1982’s sampling of 216 respondents, 67 of them from cities other than New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and San Francisco, should have been much harder to crack than 1977’s 68-critic in-group. It wasn’t, and for good reason: just as established critics were converted and new ones created by punk/new wave in the late ’70s, so now many young critics young and old are gradually learning to hear music that falls under the rubric of funk.

And the albums weren’t even the big story. Like “new wave,” the term “funk” exploits a serviceable vagueness; it’ll fit all the black records I’ve named if you stretch it around Sunny Adé a little. But funk in its purest form was the first cause of the pop event of the year, perched securely atop the singles list. Never in Pazz & Jop history has any record occasioned such blanket ecstasy as Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message.” About 75 per cent of the voters put it in their top 10s, usually at number 1 or 2; the best percentage any album has earned was This Year’s Model’s 60 in 1978, and in three previous years of singles balloting no title has made even a third of the lists. Nor was this New York chauvinism; “The Message” did even better in the boonies (as I jocularly refer to cities off the NY-LA-Boston-Frisco axis) and the ’burbs (my pet name for LA-Boston-Frisco) than in its hometown, where it was subjected to a small gay boycott (though at least three gay voters ignored the “fag” references and named it anyway) as well as NY’s all too predictable antitrendie backlash. In any other year, the 104 votes for Marvin Gaye’s polymorphous vocal-percussive tapestry “Sexual Healing” would have been a definitive pop event all by itself. In any other year, the eighth-place finish of 1982’s most influential dance record, Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force’s “Planet Rock,” would have tempted me to praise of Kraftwerk and other universalist indiscretions. In 1982, however, the sinuous synthesized skeleton against which Melle Mel and company pitted Duke Bootee’s street-surreal rhymes combined the best of Gaye’s body rock and of Bambaataa’s futuristic world-spirit — and it had a message, too.

Nor did the funk stop there. Last year “rock” by Laurie Anderson, the Rolling Stones, Kim Carnes, and Yoko Ono surrounded Flash’s “Wheels of Steel” in the top five; this year, except for the rejuvenated Pretenders, all of the five white artists in the top 10 — led by the Clash, who gained inner-city credibility while at the same time proving so middle American that more than half their 18th-place album support came from the boonies — scored with black dance records of one sort or another. In fact, this was a year in which good black radio proved more open to good white music than any white radio did to any black music: black supremacist Ron Wynn, who attributed 1982’s “vibrant, exciting music” to “the growing rift in black and white pop tastes” (with that vague word “pop” leaving room for agreement), deplored the way “white junk like Toni Basil” (pop tastes do differ) crowded out such worthies as Jerry Butler. White supremacists, on the other hand, will probably view the entire singles list as a huge liberal miscegenation plot.

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If in my mongrelizing depravity I seem to be prophesying interracial rockcrit hegemony, however, remember Otis Ferguson. Like rescued L.A. bluesman Ted Hawkins (heir to this year’s Longhair-Nevilles traditionalist vote) and former Blood Ulmer drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson (who finished 13 places ahead of his old boss), Adé and Coleman qualify as critics’ faves, like Aretha Franklin (in her first P&J charting ever), Prince, Gaye, and Jackson are black popsters who “cross over,” and while Gaye’s outreach is a simple little matter of genius rather than of conscious stylistic modulation, crossovers do by definition accommodate white journalists along with white everybody elses. I want, need, and love both pop and esoterica, but I’d be more encouraged if the voters shared my passion for the in-betweeners — if George Clinton (on whom word-of-mouth started late) had bested Richard Hell or even Lou Reed, also crazed old-timers recently arisen from the slough of despond; or if Grandmaster Flash’s LP (which would have made top 40 if only Tom Smucker, supposedly one of my best friends, hadn’t flued out on his franchise) had finished with Mission of Burma’s Vs. or the Dream Syndicate’s Days of Wine and Roses or the Fleshtones’ Roman Gods or even X’s Under the Big Black Sun, also groove albums of dubious verbal acuity. I’d be more encouraged if the black artists in the top 15 had finished even higher — in December I thought an Adé or Gaye victory conceivable. And I’d be most encouraged of all if I thought the flowering of funk was dispelling the gloom of white rock critics as irresistibly as it ought to be.

On one level the fact that it doesn’t makes perfect sense. Because most of the critics are white (though part of the story is how many good new ones aren’t), they find it easier to identify with white musicians, especially after five years of minor miracles from various punks and new wavers. But this isn’t as natural as it may seem: it’s a heritage of the old “progressive” sensibility and the radio it helped spawn. One reason I enjoy black music so readily is that as a child of the ’50s I grew up enjoying it — more than white music, and damn right I was aware of the distinction. Not that I came by funk spontaneously. Beguiled by progressivism myself — and therefore trained to get off on stuff that many young critics can barely hear at all (Donald Fagen, say, or Warren Zevon) — I had to retool my ears (at the urging of colleagues like Joe McEwen, Ed Ward, and especially Pablo Guzman) to understand how the new black music means; I had to learn George Clinton’s and James Brown’s language. After five or six years, I’m still working at it, and I suspect I won’t succeed to my full satisfaction without a lot more help from the likes of Barry Michael Cooper and Gregory Ironman Tate, who’ve breathed it all their conscious lives. But I can tell you that this language renders a lot of progressive standards not invalid (they still work for Zevon and Fagen) but irrelevant. If history is any guide, funk usages will eventually be taken for granted by everyone who listens to popular music; complaints about meaningless lyrics and indistinguishable rhythms will someday seem as off the mark as Otis Ferguson’s appeals to “melodic discipline” and “more definite organization.”

Unfortunately, this doesn’t do anybody much good right now, because the pop future has to begin with your own pleasure in your own time. Unlike fan Tim Sommer, who berates “ethnic patronization” at least partly because funk is stealing hardcore’s thunder, or hack Blair Jackson, who signs off with cheery threats of “death to critics who think Grandmaster Flash is ‘important’ ” (somebody fly out to San Francisco and mug that biz-sucking hippie!), I think it’s healthy for young critics to force-funk themselves, as some do. Those African rhythms are famous for their je ne sais quoi, after all, and with Britishers like the Clash and Gang of Four and ABC (my conscience interjects: and the Human League and Joe Jackson?) outracing their attenuated U.S. art-funk rivals (I don’t mean you, Devo and Talking Heads) to black radio, many cool folk have decided that perhaps it’s time to look beyond the latest smart garage band. In New York this is unavoidable anyway — funk is literally in the air of one of the few American cities with a genuinely integrated street life. But the aging new wavers who are the principal funk converts still suffer from Ferguson’s Syndrome — their new pleasure doesn’t provide that essential existential satisfaction, because the language is still a foreign one.

I wonder how Ferguson, who died in World War II, would have adjusted to bebop. Would he have continued to turn out tersely emotional appreciations of the surviving swing giants, or would he have come to terms with those forbidding rhythmic changes the way Budd Johnson and Coleman Hawkins and Woody Herman did? The question matters because funk may well be changing rock and roll as fundamentally as bebop changed jazz. I’m aware that I made a similar claim for the punk forcebeat just four years ago, but one doesn’t cancel out the other. On the contrary, funk is stage two, providing the undeniable popular base that punk (and bebop) never achieved in this country — though it did in Great Britain, probably one reason the top British postpunk funkers make better pop than their American counterparts, wholehearted but never simple-minded.

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What rock and roll has always held out — more than any theme or even sound — is the pop edge, the promise that there’s a future out there for remarkable ordinary people to make. Sure it’s possible to say something new from a well-explored place — in a sense, not only Donald Fagen and Warren Zevon but George Clinton himself did just that in 1982. But because pop seizes the moment so decisively, it can be used to fixate on the past as well as ride into the future — it can serve nostalgia as well as progress. In my view, that’s just what Tom Petty (57th) and Graham Parker (50th) and Joni Mitchell (39th) and maybe even Fleetwood Mac (36th) are up to these days. And it’s my commitment to the future that makes my favorite albums of 1982 shake out more or less as follows.

1. Ornette Coleman: Of Human Feelings (Antilles) 16; 2. King Sunny Adé and His African Beats: Juju Music (Mango) 16; 3. Richard & Linda Thompson: Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal) 14; 4. George Clinton: Computer Games (Capitol) 13; 5. Flipper: Album/Generic Flipper (Subterranean) 9; 6. The English Beat: Special Beat Service (I.R.S.) 8; 7. Marvin Gaye: Midnight Love (Columbia) 7; 8. Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Wise Guy (Sire/ZE) 6; 9. Donald Fagen: The Nightfly (Warner Bros.) 6; 10. Lou Reed: The Blue Mask (RCA Victor) 5

11. Ian Dury & the Blockheads: Juke Box Dury (Stiff) 12. Marshall Crenshaw (Warner Bros.) 13. James Blood Ulmer: Black Rock (Columbia) 14. Professor Longhair: The Last Mardi Gras (Atlantic Deluxe) 15. Clint Eastwood & General Saint: Two Bad DJ (Greensleeves) 16. Warren Zevon: The Envoy (Asylum) 17. Prince: 1999 (Warner Bros.) 18. ABC: The Lexicon of Love (Mercury) 19. Ray Parker Jr.: The Other Woman (Arista) 20. Itals: Brutal Out Deh (Nighthawk)

21. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five: The Message (Sugarhill) 22. Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska (Columbia) 23. James Booker: New Orleans Piano Wizard: Live! (Rounder) 24. Gang of Four: Songs of the Free (Warner Bros.) 25. B-52’s: Mesopotamia (Warner Bros.) 26. Chic: Tongue in Chic (Atlantic) 27. Sweet Pea Atkinson: Don’t Walk Away (Island/ZE) 28. Bonnie Hayes and the Wild Combo: Good Clean Fun (Slash) 29. Material: One Down (Elektra) 30. Michael Jackson: Thriller (Epic)

31. The Roches: Keep On Doing (Warner Bros.) 32. Van Morrison: Beautiful Vision (Warner Bros.) 33. Orchestra Makassy: Agwaya (Virgin import) 34. Rank and File: Sundown (Slash) 35. Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society: Mandance (Antilles) 36. Tom Robinson: North by Northwest (I.R.S.) 37. CH3: Fear of Life (Posh Boy) 38. David Johansen: Live It Up (Blue Sky) 39. Sound d’Afrique II (Mango) 40. Trouble Funk: Drop the Bomb (Sugarhill)

41. Devo: Oh, No! It’s Devo (Warner Bros.) 42. X: Under the Big Black Sun (Elektra) 43. Talking Heads: The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads (Sire) 44. Bonnie Raitt: Green Light (Warner Bros.) 45. A Flock of Seagulls (Arista) 46. Soweto (Rough Trade import) 47. Ferron: Testimony (Philo) 48. Descendents: Milo Goes to College (New Alliance) 29. Psychedelic Furs: Forever Now (Columbia) 50. Lee “Scratch” Perry and the Majestics: Mystic Miracle Star (Heartbeat)

51. Richard Hell and the Voidoids: Destiny Street (Red Star) 52. Jive Five Featuring Eugene Pitt: Here We Are! (Ambient Sound) 53. Ted Hawkins: Watch Your Step (Rounder) 54. Laurie Anderson: Big Science (Warner Bros.) 55. Speed Boys: That’s What I Like (I Like Mike) 56. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Ice Cream for Crow (Virgin/Epic) 57. Alberta Hunter: The Glory of Alberta Hunter (Columbia) 58. “D” Train (Prelude) 59. Mighty Diamonds: Indestructible (Alligator) 60. Joe “King” Carrasco & the Crowns: Synapse Gap (Mundo Total) (MCA)

I ought to mention that this year’s top 60 is less final than 1981’s was. Not only are Roxy Music, Mission of Burma, two Bunny Wailer imports, and other stragglers awaiting judgment, but this turns out to have been a banner year for best-ofs. I like the Ray Parker Jr. and the Billy Stewart even more than the Squeeze and the Stevie Wonder (which ran 1-3 around Chuck Berry’s The Great Twenty-Eight in an informal compilation ballot we solicited), and would name John Lennon and the Bellamy Brothers and Ambient Sound’s Everything Old Is New and perhaps Shalamar and even (can it be?) Abba (behind Okeh Western Swing and the Coasters and tied with the reissued Africa Dances in the balloting). I should also announce that with an extra week to think I’d switch Pazz & Jop points and places between George Clinton and Sunny Adé; unfortunately, my ballot was due February 1 like everybody else’s. About singles I’ll say only that my firm criterion — real pleasure imported by the record heard as a single — befuddled me into omitting Flipper’s “Sex Bomb,” which I stopped playing when I got Flipper’s album. Criteria be damned, I’d now rank it number 4 anyway — a “Louie Louie” for our time:

1. Fearless Four: “Rockin’ It” (Enjoy) 2. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five: “The Message” (Sugarhill) 3. Marvin Gaye: “Sexual Healing” (Columbia) 4. New Order: “Temptation” (Factory import) 5. Stacy Lattisaw: “Attack of the Name Game” (Cotillion) 6. Musical Youth: “Pass the Dutchie” (MCA) 7. Pretenders: “My City Was Gone” (Sire) 8. Weather Girls: “It’s Raining Men” (Columbia) 9. Peech Boys: “Don’t Make Me Wait” (West End) 10. Flipper: “Get Away”/”The Old Lady Who Swallowed the Fly!” (Subterranean)

11. P-Funk All-Stars: “Hydraulic Pump” (Hump) 12. Yazoo: “Situation” (Sire) 13. Captain Sensible: “Wot” (A&M import) 14. ABC: “The Look of Love” (Mercury) 15. Anti-Nowhere League: “So What” (WXYZ import) 16. Gang of Four: “I Love a Man in Uniform” (Warner Bros.) 17. Stripsearch: “Hey Kid”/Emily XYZ: “Who Shot Sadat?” (Vinyl Repellent) 18. Cheap Trick: “If You Want My Love” (Epic) 19. Prince: “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” (Warner Bros.) 20. Bonnie Hayes and the Wild Combo: “Shelley’s Boyfriend” (Slash)

21. Joe Piscopo: “I Love Rock n’ Roll (Medley)” (Columbia) 22. A Flock of Seagulls: “I Ran” (Jive) 23. Gap Band: “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” (Total Experience) 24. Treacherous Three: “Yes We Can-Can” (Sugarhill) 25. Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force: “Planet Rock” (Tommy Boy) 26. Dangerous Birds: “Smile on Your Face”/”Alpha Romeo” (Propeller) 27. Eddy Grant: “California Style” (Ice import) 28. Althia & the Donazz: “Virgin Style” (Circle import) 29. Anne Waldman: “Uh-Oh Plutonium!” (Hyacinth Girls) 30. Gary U.S. Bonds: “Out of Work” (EMI America)

I’ve had second thoughts about EPs, too. After scoffing all year I found myself smitten with loads of ’em — haven’t even mentioned my 1-2 in print till now. The EP is a confusing category, conceived by Poobah Tom Carson and me as a disc alternative to the now discontinued local band competition. And once again the winner wasn’t even a local band, but rather a marginal mainstreamer who’s already released five LPs and who with the help of his Lord Jesus Christ came up with what can only be called the most inspired California-rock of the year, wisely promoted by Warners in a budget format. And if T-Bone Burnett only converted me after I returned Trap Door to the active pile in 1983, well, the same goes for R.E.M., his drug-crazed opposite numbers from the Athens of the South:

1. Angry Samoans: Back from Samoa (Bad Trip) 2. The Waitresses: I Could Rule the World If I Could Only Get the Parts (Polydor) 3. R.E.M.: Chronic Town (I.R.S.) 4. Oh OK: Wow Mini Album (DB) 5. Minor Threat: In My Eyes (Dischord) 6. T-Bone Burnett: Trap Door (Warner Bros.) 7. Pop-O-Pies: The White EP (415) 8. Replacements: The Replacements Stink! (Twin/Tone) 9. Mofungo: “El Salvador”/”Just the Way”/”Gimme a Sarsaparilla” (Rough Trade import) 10. Steve Almaas: Beat Rodeo (Coyote)

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Return now if you will to my album list and we’ll ponder the future some more. First, count black LPs, not such a clear-cut task in this mongrel-eat-mongrel world. Disqualifying the English Beat and Material, I get 27, only two more than I named last year, but with a striking change in racial makeup on the cutting edge: five (as opposed to two) of my top 10 are black, as are 16 (as opposed to eight) of my top 30. Then try another parameter applicable to our theme: age. Three of the artists in my top 10 are over 40, just like me, and four more (giving Richard Thompson a break) over 35. Youth chauvinists should jeer at my old fartdom now, while they still can — it may indeed be that my chronic indifference to Elvis the C reflects my advancing years and the complacent rationalism consequent thereupon. It so happens, however, that Marvin Gaye (b. 1939) also made the critics’ top 10, and as we proceed down the two lists something strange happens. Only four more over-40s, including two superannuated (not to mention dead) New Orleans pianists whom I classify as rock and rollers just to be ornery, appear in my top 40; on the critics’ list you’ll find seven more. And where I list seven over-35s in all, the critics come up with a total of nine. Old farts abound.

Fascinating figures, and I mean to have them both ways. On the one hand, they make hash of the ancient canard that rock and roll is strictly for the young — if not literal teenagers then at least untrammeled striplings. The reason outmoded “progressive” standards can rejuvenate pushing-40s like Richard Thompson and Lou Reed — who share 1982 comeback honors with Bryan Ferry (b. 1945) and George Clinton (b. 1940), and may they and others like them prosper for decades to come — as well as suiting such 35-niks as Donald Fagen and Warren Zevon is that they (artists and values both) still actually do (or anyway, can) progress. Richard and Linda’s final album really is their loudest and clearest. Lou’s most contented and apparently conventional album really is (with the aid of Robert Quine and black bassist Fernando Saunders) his supplest. And Avalon, which finished higher than any Roxy Music album since 1975’s Country Life, combines the funk feel Ferry introduced on Manifesto in 1979 with the English electrosheen of his own heirs’ synth-pop for the most unabashedly romantic music this ironic romantic has ever made.

But as much as I admire many of the other oldster albums the critics selected — Morrison’s and McCartney’s and Fleetwood Mac’s and (to be nice) Mitchell’s — they do carry a rather nostalgic collective weight; they recapitulate the past and do what they can to ignore the future. Such encumbrances don’t even touch Adé and Gaye and Coleman and Shannon Jackson, whose mean age must be 43 or 44, because these men are working a tradition — significantly, a specifically musical rather than cultural tradition — that’s just begun to flower. And if I’m doubly partial to George Clinton, it’s not because he’s been in the vanguard of that tradition for so long that he could coast for five years and still be on the one. It’s because he’s also a master of such supposedly Caucasian specialties as stance and persona and pop mind-fuck — and because the humility and vulnerability of his comeback album, an album directly inspired by New York dance radio in general and his heirs Flash and Bambaataa in particular, are sharper, deeper, funnier, warmer, and more irreverent than Lou Reed’s or Warren Zevon’s.

I’m aware that Imperial Bedroom also has its formally progressive rep, but when the best line any of my normally loquacious correspondents can feed me on the album of the year is Roy Trakin’s “tongue-twisting puns for the post-Porter generation,” things are obviously desperate. I know, it’s all about emotional fascism; I know, it’s even got a lyric sheet. Try reading the damn thing — the words are almost as hard to follow on paper as in the air. I say it’s Elvis at his fussiest and I say the hell with it. In fact, like the headline-scrounging old commie fart I am, I much prefer (and was rooting for) the album that handicapped as its chief rival: Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. A risky, eloquent, and successful pop mind-fuck, Nebraska cut Reagan to bits with a dignity that screamed no joke and broke AOR without a hook or a trap set. Only problem was, it was — and I use this term advisedly — boring. It was boring even if every one of its 800,000 owners played it obsessively for months on end, which I doubt. It was so monochromatic that even as it screamed no joke it whispered no exit — and maybe no future. It may have been a pop mind-fuck, but it wasn’t quite a pop event, because the very terms of the mind-fuck impelled Springsteen to negate the rock and roll hope he’s always traded in. Next time I hope he puts it all together.

But meanwhile we must take our quest for the future to the only place any sane rockcrit fan would expect it to end — ye olde new wave. As per tradition, numerous debut albums grace our list, and as per neo-orthodoxy, quite a few of them aren’t from England, new wave’s commercial center: New York’s Marshall Crenshaw and Fleshtones (and Laurie Anderson?), San Francisco’s Flipper, Austin’s Rank and File, L.A.’s Dream Syndicate, Boston’s Mission of Burma, and (on the EP chart) Athens’s R.E.M. I like all of these artists, some a great deal. I find Marshall Crenshaw’s pop touch surer and more graceful than that of such top-10 debut-LP predecessors as the Go-Go’s (10th in 1981), the Pretenders (fourth in 1980), the Cars (ninth in 1978), and maybe even the B-52’s (seventh in 1979), and I hope he gets another record into the poll someday, something none of the aforementioned have yet managed. I’m crazy about Flipper and on Rank and File’s side, and I hope that over the next year they gain more in musicianship than they’re certain to lose in conceptual panache. But I sense in every one of the others an insidious postgarage formalism in which hooks and a certain rough emotionality, even sloppiness, are pursued as ends and signify only themselves. That’s why I call them groove bands — they’re more interested in a sound than in what a sound can say. Granted, they do share an aesthetic project — they want to jolt the white rock and roll of the pre-arena era into self-conscious musciality. That’s why I like them. But it’s not exactly what I mean by a commitment to the future.

I can hear my more apolitical white readers snorting even now at the Dean’s latest integration tract. But this isn’t a moral plea — it’s a prediction, not just about critics but about the shape of the popworld. Sure I’ve been an advocate of black pop approximately forever; I dreaded Ferguson’s Syndrome before I ever heard of the man, and I’ve always fought it (in myself as well as others) on the general historical principle that, in the end, black music will out. But that never meant that I believed rock was essentially (as opposed to originally) a black idiom, and it never turned me off good new white rock and roll — it just prepared me to hear great new black albums (and singles, and more singles) as they arrived. In 1982 they arrived in profusion, as did an unprecedented array of successful white imitations and modulations, and while I wouldn’t expect a precise repeat in 1983 — Gaye and Michael Jackson will no doubt be silent, reggae is unlikely to be held to a novelty single — I do sense something seismic happening. In 1978 the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll announced a “triumph of the new wave” that seemed certain to crash against an immovable, monolithically profitable record biz; in 1982 the biz was in a panic and new wave looked like one of its only hopes. In 1982 the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll suggests (somewhat more tentatively) a reintegration of American popular music in the teeth of the most racist pop marketplace since the early ’50s, and I’m betting that by 1986 some kind of major commercial accommodation will have been achieved. If Sunny Adé can’t be king of MTV, maybe Prince can be prince.

What remains for critics black and white isn’t to praise every half-assed funk crossover black or white. I mean, Men at Work finished a very modest 66th and the Stray Cats got three mentions. But the white critics are going to have to give up a lot of their prejudices — against populism and chic and conspicuous consumption, against homiletics and sexual posturing, and perhaps (although of course this doesn’t mean you) against black people themselves. Even harder, they must learn how to hear how lead basslines and quintuple rhythms and cartoon chants and harmolodic abrasions and party rhetoric can make meaning and reshape time. And hardest of all, they must feel the ways in which funk’s pleasures really are their own — as human beings, as Americans, as rock and rollers. Meanwhile, the black critics, who will almost certainly multiply, have a lot of explaining to do. They’d better insist that the music they love really does make meaning, and get hip to how white music means as well — perhaps even get an inkling that rhythms natural and unnatural aren’t the only way to a better life. In short, rock critics are going to have to stop settling for fandom and/or hackdom and turn into critics for real. And maybe those who didn’t bargain for anything quite so heavy should get off the bus right now.

Oh lordy — it could be the end of us all.

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Selected Ballots

RAJ BAHADUR: Devo: Oh, No! It’s Devo (Warner Bros.) 19; Joe Jackson: Night and Day (A&M) 18; Paul McCartney: Tug of War (CBS) 13; Marshall Crenshaw: Marshall Crenshaw (Columbia) 12; The Jam: Dig the New Breed (Polydor) 11; The Who: It’s Hard (Warner Bros.) 7; The Jam: The Gift (Polydor) 5; The Chieftains: Cotton-Eyed Joe (Island) 5; Shoes: Boomerang (Elektra) 5; Roxy Music: Avalon (Warner Bros.) 5.

DEBRA RAE COHEN: New Order: 1981-1982 (Factory); Gang of Four: Another Day Another Dollar (Warner Bros.); Hi Sheriffs of Blue: Hi Sheriffs of Blue (Jimboco); R.E.M.: Chronic Town (I.R.S.); Konk: Konk Party (99).

CAROL COOPER: Explainer: “Lorraine” (Sunburst); Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: “The Message” (Sugarhill); Kurtis Blow: “Tough” (Mercury); Imagination: “Just an Illusion” (MCA); Marvin Gaye: “Sexual Healing” (CBS); Vanity 6: “Nasty Girls” (Warner Bros.); Kid Creole and the Coconuts: “No Fish Today” b/w “Annie I’m Not Your Daddy” (Sire/ZE); Sharon Redd: “Beat the Street” (Prelude); Isley Brothers: “The Real Deal” (T-Neck); Barry White: “Change” (Unlimited Gold).

BLAIR JACKSON: I don’t listen to singles — I think the artform sucks.

GREIL MARCUS: The English Beat: Special Beat Service (I.R.S.) 20; Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska (CBS) 20; The Mekons: The Mekons Story (CNT import) 20; Bunny Wailer: Tribute (Solomonic import) 10; Jive Five Featuring Eugene Pitt: Here We Are! (Ambient Sound) 5; Au Pairs: Sense and Sensuality (Kamera import) 5; Flipper: Album: Generic Flipper (Subterranean) 5; Jeff Todd Titon/Fellowship Independent Baptist Church of Stanley, Virginia: Powerhouse for God (University of North Carolina Press Records) 5; Warren Zevon: The Envoy (Asylum) 5; Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Ice Cream for Crow (Epic) 5.

DAVE MARSH: Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska (CBS) 16; Michael Jackson: Thriller (Epic) 15; Richard and Linda Thompson: Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal) 15; Steve Winwood: Talking Back to the Night (Island) 12; David Lasley: Missin’ 20 Grand (EMI America) 7; Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul: Men Without Women (EMI America) 6; the English Beat: Special Beat Service (I.R.S.) 5; Bettye Lavette: Tell Me a Lie (Motown) 5; Richard “Dimples” Fields: Mr. Look So Good (Boardwalk) 5.

JOHN MORTHLAND: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: The Message (Sugarhill) 15; Lou Reed: The Blue Mask (RCA) 14; Flipper: Album: Generic Flipper (Subterranean) 13; Trouble Funk: Straight Up Funk Go in Style (JAMTU) 13; Richard and Linda Thompson: Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal) 11; King Sunny Adé and His African Beats: Juju Music (Mango) 9; Laurie Anderson: Big Science (Warner Bros.) 8; Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Ice Cream for Crow (Epic) 7; Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society: Mandance (Antilles) 5; “Live” Convention “81” Bee-Bop’s #1 Cut Creators (Disco-O-Wax) 5.

KIT RACHLIS: King Sunny Adé and His African Beats: Juju Music (Mango) 15; The English Beat: Special Beat Service (I.R.S.) 30; Marvin Gaye: Midnight Love (CBS) 5; Fleetwood Mac: Mirage (Warner Bros.) 5; Ted Hawkins: Watch Your Step (Rounder) 5; David Lasley: Missin’ 20 Grand (EMI America) 5; Prince: 1999 (Warner Bros.) 5; Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska (CBS) 20; Richard and Linda Thompson: Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal) 5; Robert Wyatt: Nothing Can Stop Us (Rough Trade) 5.

GREGORY IRONMAN TATE: Michael Jackson: Thriller (Epic) 10; Prince: 1999 (Warner Bros.) 10; The Time: What Time Is It? (Warner Bros.) 10; Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: The Message (Sugarhill) 10; James Blood Ulmer: Blackrock (Columbia) 10; Trouble Funk: Drop the Bomb (Sugarhill) 10; Bad Brains: Bad Brains (ROIR cassette) 10; David Byrne: The Catherine Wheel (Sire cassette) 10; Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Wise Guy (Sire/ZE) 10; Aswad: New Chapter in Dub (Mango) 10.

RON WYNN: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: “The Message” (Sugarhill); The Gap Band: “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” (Total Experience); Aretha Franklin: “Jump to It” (Arista); Zapp: “Dance Floor” (Warner Bros.); Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force: “Planet Rock” (Tommy-Boy); Weather Girls: “It’s Raining Men” (Columbia); Gary U.S. Bonds: “Out of Work” (EMI America); Junior: “Mama Used To Say” (Mercury); Stevie Wonder: “Do I Do” (Tamla).

LESTER BANGS: 1. Robert Quine Orchestra: I Heard Her Call My Name Symphony (Columbia) 2. DNA Live at Madison Square Garden (Prestige) 3. Richard Hell Sings the R. Dean Taylor Songbook (Tamla) 4. Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Heard Ya Missed Us, Well We’re Back (Factory) 5. The Clash: Rappin’ with Bert ’n’ Big Bird (Guest Artist: Oscar the Grouch) (Sesame) 6. Ramones: 14,000,000 Records (Epic) 7. Sue Saad and the Next with Robert Fripp: Jiggle Themes from Prime Time (Verve) 8. Lichtensteiner Polka Band: Hamtramck Oi Gassers (WEA) 9. Brian Eno: 24 New Songs with Brides & Everything (Egregious 2-album set) 10. Miles Davis: Rated X (Alternate Take) (Columbia).

Top 10 Albums of 1982

1. Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Imperial Bedroom (Columbia)

2. Richard & Linda Thompson: Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal)

3. Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska (Columbia)

4. King Sunny Adé and His African Beats: Juju Music (Mango)

5. Lou Reed: The Blue Mask (RCA Victor)

6. Prince: 1999 (Warner Bros.)

7. The English Beat: Special Beat Service (I.R.S.)

8. Marvin Gaye: Midnight Love (Columbia)

9. Marshall Crenshaw: Marshall Crenshaw (Warner Bros.)

10. X: Under the Big Black Sun (Elektra)

Top 10 Singles of 1982

1. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five: “The Message” (Sugarhill)

2. Marvin Gaye: “Sexual Healing” (Columbia)

3. The Clash: “Rock the Casbah” (Epic)

4. Prince: “1999”/”How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” (Warner Bros.)

5. Soft Cell: “Tainted Love”/”Where Did Our Love Go?” (Sire)

6. Musical Youth: “Pass the Dutchie” (MCA)

7. Pretenders: “Back On the Chain Gang”/”My City Was Gone” (Sire)

8. Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force: “Planet Rock” (Tommy Boy)

9. (Tie) ABC: “The Look of Love” (Mercury)
Aretha Franklin: “Jump to It” (Arista)
The Human League: “Don’t You Want Me” (A&M)

— From the February 22, 1983, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.