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Chuck D: All Over the Map

THE DAY BEFORE PUBLIC ENEMY’S monthlong tour with Anthrax began, we drove out to the nondescript Hempstead office building that Chuck D, Hank Shocklee, and their crew have occupied since they were running Long Island’s first hiphop sound system back in 1982. S1W’s PE merchandisers, Media Assassin Harry Allen, and other employees contributed to the general hubbub. On the walls of the front office were samples of PE fashion: Spike Lee-style baseball shirts and hats, tour jackets, T-shirts, the whole nine. Chuck corralled us into a cramped conference room whose dominant feature was a map of the United States complete with zip codes. As he lectured us on the vagaries of hiphop as a national phenomenon, Chuck often rose from his chair and pointed to regions on the map to make himself clearer. The conversation began with Chuck in­terrogating Christgau about how he became a writer and ended with him apologizing to Tate for once branding him a Village Voice porch nigger. It lasted close to three hours, and for the most part Chuck didn’t duck our questions, although he did forestall them with his ver­bosity — as John Leland has said, Chuck may be louder than a bomb, but he’s a lot less succinct. Needless to say, what follows is an edited version

1. WHO HAS SPARE TIME?

CHRISTGAU: How much input did the old crew have into Apoca­lypse 91? Hank, Keith, Eric­—

CHUCK D: Hank is the master­mind of all.

CHRISTGAU: Was he on this re­cord now?

CHUCK D: Yeah, that was Hank.

TATE: Y’all work like Miles now, it’s just like, you come to the stu­dio, you do your part, and it’s al­ready there?

CHUCK D: No, it’s not like that. The Bomb Squad is still the Bomb Squad.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think here’s any musical evolution on the new record? Do you see it as being different musically as op­posed to lyrically?

CHUCK D: The difference lyrical­ly and difference musically is it’s more focused — it’s more hard. It’s sort of like Bum Rush the Show. Each album we do differently. I think I got real creative on the last one. Less creative on this one. You know, you venture off into different sounds and techniques and —

CHRISTGAU: The mix isn’t as dense, would you say?

CHUCK D: Of course. That was intentional. We hope to be trendsettters and not followers. The main difference on this is just tempo. We like to think of things as tempo first and not sound. Other people would probably say sonics before tempo. No. We’re in tune to tem­po — we was the first rap group to really tempo it up, on “Bring the Noise.” That was 109 beats per minute. These tempos basically give you a Midwest, middle-of-the-country feel, with a little bit of east-west hard edge.

CHRISTGAU: How do the BPMs range?

CHUCK D: A lot of them are in the 96 to 102 range, which people will say is slow for PE, but then again, these are people that — what’s danceable here [points at East Coast on map] don’t mean shit. I just come from Kansas City.

CHRISTGAU: So, the music is getting hard.

CHUCK D: On this album. I might just bug out on the next one. But when I bug out, it’s going to hit 85 to 90 per cent of the places. It might not hit here [points to New York] at all. But give me the rest, I’ll take it. Fear of a Black Planet was the most successful album we had — not because of all of the hype and hysteria. It was a world record. Because of the different feels and the different textures and the flow it had, I can do it — get the same feeling [more pointing] here, here, here, here, you know what I’m saying? Just in L.A., a kid is breaking down the rappers from different areas and he says, Public Enemy, man, ain’t even like y’all from New York, it’s like y’all from somefuckingwhere, like, you’re fucking everywhere. I say, well, we are from everywhere, and it reflects in our music, and it reflects in our lyrics, you know. I’m a person — I ride on Grey­hound through the middle. I ride Greyhound through Arkansas and Arizona. I’ll sit on Greyhound for hours just listening to my music, look out the window and write, you know. Yo, I just drove — went down to Disneyworld. I could drive like — see, there’s always a job in the business. Let’s say they say, Chuck, you out of the busi­ness, man, I’ll be a bus driver. I know the fucking roads, man.

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CHRISTGAU: What do you do with your spare time?

CHUCK D: Who has spare time?

CHRISTGAU: Everybody has some spare time, man.

CHUCK D: Well, my business and my thing I like to do is more fun than anybody else’s —

CHRISTGAU: I live the same way, but nevertheless, I got leisure, you’ve got —

CHUCK D: Well, sometimes I just like to go in my fucking basement and just fucking watch fucking TV or videotapes. I can’t really watch too many movies. I usually like watching sports. I watch sports, you know —

CHRISTGAU: Do you listen to music much?

CHUCK D: I listen to Motown, I listen to a lot of tapes — usually when I’m on the road, when I’m on the airplane. When I’m home, I don’t really listen to music as much as I like to watch videos.

TATE: Music videos, or just —

CHUCK D: Music videos and sports. Music and sports. I can’t watch movies, really, except for black movies. I just seen Livin’ Large yesterday and you know, to the average person it might be like a three­-cent movie, but I had a good time watching it. You know, me and a couple of the brothers’ families went out. I said, yeah, that’s some kind of dope.

CHRISTGAU: You listen to any jazz or blues?

CHUCK D: I wasn’t a jazz fanatic. My pops, like, was a jazz person — all that abstract shit. I was like, nah.

CHRISTGAU: Not for you?

CHUCK D: Not for me at all. I like blues more than jazz. ‘Cause blues deals with lyrics — more feeling, you know what I’m saying? And it has so much ironic twist in it — it’s usually about the slightest shit that black people talk about, you know, day by day. And I do a lot of hanging in places like down South, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Atlanta.

CHRISTGAU: Do you listen to any metal or white rock?

CHUCK D: Yeah, once in a while. I like watching the videos more than I like lis­tening to it.

TATE: When you hang out down South, do you hang out in music clubs, or do you just hang?

CHUCK D: Music clubs, Beale Street, the whole nine. I always liked the blues. But I’ve liked it more since I’ve been able to go to these places.

CHRISTGAU: It would be great to sample some of that shit. You hear very little in the way of blues samples.

CHUCK D: Well, you know, musically it moves me, but lyrically, man, I’ll be like saying, Goddamn. And that’s why I try to move a lot of rapping and rap music the same. At the end of the day, I don’t know what the fuck you write about, just make somebody just say, Damn, you know. That is a good point of view, you know what I’m saying? I mean, look at N.W.A — you might not agree with what the fuck they’re saying, but you at least know at the end of the song, like, yo, these motherfuckers meant this, that’s what they’re saying, you know?

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2. HARDCORE RESPONSIBILITY

TATE: People talk about positive and neg­ative images of rap, and then there’s a whole other line of thought that says the music is important no matter what it’s talking about ’cause it’s creating a forum for discussion.

CHUCK D: It’s important to be positive because you got to understand, the only time that the structure wants to put any­body black up there in the spotlight is if we are athletes or entertainers. If all the athletes and the musicians are going to get projected like that, we’ve got to say, damn, we’ve got a little bit more responsi­bility than the average white musician that comes along and just wants to talk about his dick. ‘Cause we’ve got to say, all right, yeah, this is a story to tell, but at the same time, this is probably going to be the result of it. I mean, I talk about a drive­-by, I might start drive-bys in St. Louis. That’s a tight line, and we’ve got to deal with it, ’cause we’re going to be listened, watched, and followed a lot closer than a lot of white kids.

CHRISTGAU: But you just said N.W.A at least had their own point of view­ —

CHUCK D: They’ve got their own point of view, that’s coming from an artistic point of view, but socially —

CHRISTGAU: You’ve got your doubts about that sort of representation?

CHUCK D: ‘Cause I see the fucking re­sults of it. And you got to have a structure in the society, in the school system, that’s able to say well, this is the right, and this is the wrong. We could say that families are supposed to do it, but we ain’t got family the way it’s supposed to be. So I mean, we’ve got to go to a school or structure that can teach us family.

CHRISTGAU: You got kids yourself?

CHUCK D: I got a daughter.

CHRISTGAU: How old is she?

CHUCK D: She’s going to be three next week. And you know, that shit is a moth­erfucking task. [Laughter.]

CHRISTGAU: I know. I got a daughter, Greg’s got a daughter.

CHUCK D: I’m saying, you know, people have to be taught how to do certain things. And then, let’s go back to the music, the positive and the negative. A guy’s going to talk negative shit because that’s what he sees. Rappers only talk what they know. I mean, sometimes you’ve got people going off into the fantasy world, like the Geto Boys when they talk about mind playing tricks on me, Chuckie and stuff like that, and make analogies saying, well, you can’t talk about me because, hey, all these fucking crazy movies coming out and nobody’s getting any heat for that. But we have a double-edged sword hang­ing over our head, a guillotine, that’s say­ing, well, we do this, we’re going to be followed — you know, people going to do this shit in reality. And I believe that.

‘Cause I mean, everywhere I go, I mean, I go to prisons and, you know, brothers — if they get no guidance from zero to 16, they’re going to follow something that can relate to them best. And if something can relate to them best that they really, really like, they’re going to follow it. They’re going to say, I got to kick this mother­fucker tonight. Boom, boom, boom. And later on, they’ll be like, damn, damn. Like that brother that got to go to the fucking joint now for killing that Jewish guy. And ain’t nobody fucking behind him now. He gotta go to the fucking joint. He gonna get fried. Somebody didn’t tell him to put his brain in gear. Now he’s gotta suffer the consequences. I feel sorry for him. Be­cause I’ve talked to a lot of brothers in jail, and usually brothers in jail are in for impulse. Boom!

That’s why I start talking about the 1 million bottle bags. Because I tell you a lot of shit be starting off because of distorted thinking like, damn, usually broth­ers that know each other, be like drinking. They be like, “What you say?” “I ain’t say shit, man.” “Your fucking mother.” And then somebody got a fucking nine or Uzi in the territory, and the shit escalate to even a higher pitch, couple of people in there going, “Yo, just, chill, chill, chill.” And sometimes you get, you know, “Fuck that, motherfucker.” And it all be starting because motherfuckers is fucked up.

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CHRISTGAU: Do you drink at all?

CHUCK D: I don’t drink. My crew don’t even touch meat. Me, I eat it, if my wife cooks it at the crib.

TATE: Did you talk with Ice Cube about the St. Ides thing?

CHUCK D: Yeah, I mean I briefed it on him. You know, he said, “Yo, man, just trying to get out of it.” Trying to stop it, but he’s contracted. I said, “Yo, Cube, hey, there ain’t nothing against you, I mean, it’s your thing, your guilt thing, but you should have had quality control.” The people at St. Ides said, “Well, we really respect you Chuck D, you know.” I told ’em I don’t respect y’all, fuck y’all. I see the results. I’m not just fucking read­ing stats. You’re in the black community, you can run, you can’t hide. There ain’t nowhere you can go and live and say, well, I’m going to be far away from it. Nowhere.

I’m seeing results whether it be Mem­phis, Houston, St. Louis, Chicago, De­troit — it could be the smaller fucking cit­ies. I’ll take you right in the ‘Velt, Roosevelt — one square mile. Got 14 delis in there, and every single deli got Ice Cube’s poster. The people say, well, why do you give so much of a damn? Well, because I’ve got to live in this mother­fucker. And I’m grown. Once you’re over 18, fun and games got to be put to num­ber three. Responsibility and business got to be one and two and you can have fun and games and shit, but once you under­stand those number one and two things, you understand that fun and games are being played on your ass. I tell mother­fuckers in a minute, you can be hardcore and be positive. Thieves and pimps and murderers, man, motherfuckers got to pay a penalty. The problem is that some white boy coming in and trying to remedy the situation and we need to start doing it ourselves. The more grown people you have that understand they’re adults and take control of their community, the less bullshit you have coming in. And you used to have something like that until quote unquote so-called integration.

TATE: Desegregation.

CHUCK D: Yeah, right.

TATE: That’s what all the older folks used to talk about. If you were doing any kind of crime, you just knew not to do it in nobody’s face. If you were drinking, you didn’t drink in public, you didn’t fall down in the street.

CHUCK D: It was a time, right. It was hardcore. Hardcore will never die and need to come back. You can be positive in the hardcore. Hardcore got this connota­tion that other people put on it of saying that it’s negative and no, no — hardcore, it’s like you taking control. I tell brothers, you say you hard, but your life harder than you. How hard can you be? Your life kicking you in the ass. Fucking world is harder than any motherfucker.

This stuff should be coming to people when they’re three, four. Especially young black males, three, four, seven, eight. And it gotta come every day. That’s what the father does, is supposed to do. I mean, my pops had to work, but my pops was able to give it to me at the right time. And I think the key is in the black structure in society. We have to rebuild the black man, young black males got to be built to be men. And I think with that, then you will start seeing a clearer picture, you know. It’s — a lot more simple than it is complex.

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And I think that’s something that’s defi­nitely got to be taught through the school systems. I mean a lot of things have to be taught to us. Once again, I go back to slavery. Slavery has done a lot of fucking detriment, where it’s almost irreparable unless we’re going to fucking eight-hour-a­ day training sessions that satisfy our intel­lect but also satisfy our wants and needs, you know. I mean, mentally and physical­ly. School’s got to be school. And a school for black people, black kids, definitely it got to be different from white kids.

The remedies and how it can get done is all in the government’s hands. We talk about reparations, I’m not talking about, sending everybody a fucking $10,000 check. If you went outside and gave moth­erfuckers $10,000 each, those mother­fuckers wouldn’t know what the fuck to do with it. I’m saying, you got to have a fucking training programming medium so people will be able to say, well, damn, now I’m being taught how to think.

TATE: That kind of begs the question of whether the government wouldn’t just as soon black people stay where they are.

CHUCK D: I don’t think the government wants to see that happen. First of all, they’re saying we’re only 10 per cent, so we have to submit to whatever goes down. But we’re a growing quote unquote 10 per cent. And in order for them to satisfy black people in the year 2000 they better come up with some shit. They already came up with a result of genocide that got us fucking each other up. I’m saying, we need to come out of that dead zone. We come out of that dead zone then we can talk about plan two, three, or four. It’s either got to be this way or it’s going to be fucked up, it’s going to be crazy. That’s why I said, “Welcome to the Terror­dome.” I wrote that record at the end of ’89, to signify the Terrordome is the 1990s. It’s a make-it-or-break-it period for us. We do the right thing, we’ll be able to pull into the 21st century with some kind of program. We do the wrong thing, the 21st century is going to be gone, there’ll be no coming back.

CHRISTGAU: I buy that.

CHUCK D: Outta here. Over with.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think that PE or rap in general is doing anything to stop this from happening from a practical point of view?

CHUCK D: I don’t know how much effect it has — I’m not here to judge effect or results. A lot of times, the weight that a lot of people put on Public Enemy is because they don’t see these other things. When I first did Public Enemy my role was bringing information, saying, well, bro, there’s a Karenga, there’s a Farrak­han, there’s people out there that have been studying in whatever field. There’s a Dr. Welsing. Check these people out. We need to get into it, ’cause these people have put in 40 or 50 years of unacknowl­edged time, for the benefit of where we should go.

But Public Enemy’s just one fucking thing. I’m only one motherfucking person. And I’m saying to each and every black person, you look in your family—it might not be your immediate family — you’re gonna find either murder, drugs, alcohol abuse, and disease, or jail, somebody get­ting jailed. I’m saying you can run but you can’t hide. Which means that everybody gotta be able to at least work forward or try to remedy the situation.

TATE: You’re really talking about person­al accountability. You’re not in this neces­sarily believing you’re going to change the world.

CHUCK D: No, no, of course not. There’s no one motherfucker that can change the world. I’m saying that my fucking job as an adult is just to make sure that my community is all right for me — or whoev­er, a child or adult— to live in.

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3. TCB

TATE: When I saw you down at the con­ference in D.C., on one of the panels you said, Yeah, a lot of people think I spend a lot of time reading this, that, and the other thing. The one thing that I really study is the music business. How did you become so fanatical about the business?

CHUCK D: I approached Hank back when he was a monster DJ out here — I used to be a fan of theirs [Spectrum City, Hank’s sound system]. I just saw that one of the gigs I went to there wasn’t enough people there, and I came up to Hank out of nowhere and tried to explain that it was presented wrong. I thought, you know, in order to catch people’s attention, you know, fliers should be done in the same way most black people buy things. And later on, I was just toying around on the mike at Adelphi. They had never really allowed MCs, and I guess I was the one. Hank liked me because of the way I sound. So we became partners in ’79, and we would wait for people to hire us. But that begun to be a dead end road because you always dealt with somebody that wanted to just rip you off. So that’s when you say, Yo, man, we rocking the house, but somebody’s always leaving out the back door with the money. So I say, Yo, man, look, we going to do this. I keep the people busy and you keep that person at that door.

TATE: The both of your families are businesspeople?

CHUCK D: My father had his own busi­ness at 40 after he went through the same bullshit in the white corporation, and he was working in the corporation for 20-some-odd years and all of a sudden they had a fucking attitude of, you know, well, maybe he could go somewhere else.

TATE: What kind of a corporation was it?

CHUCK D: The fabric business — 979 Third Avenue, the D&D building. He worked in a couple of companies in the fabric business. Jack-of-all-trades. But his official title was really shipping and receiving manager, you know, warehouse manager. He knew all about the business.

CHRISTGAU: And then what’d he start to do at 40?

CHUCK D: He just dropped it and what he did, all his contacts and all his friends, he started a trucking company that dealt with undercutting the other trucking com­panies. It was rocky for about two years and then it coasted. Still was a battle, because it was a lone one-man thing, bat­tling the structure. But I learned a lot from my father. He just said, you know, if I’m making less, fuck it. Eventually, you know, what it gives you in peace of mind is more important. My moms couldn’t understand it, you know, but then later on she did. But that move taught me a lot. It just showed me that business is the only way to go. I don’t care if I’m making $10 on my own, it’s better than getting $100 from somewhere and you don’t know when, it’s coming from.

CHRISTGAU: What were you doing be­tween ’79 and ’84?

CHUCK D: ’79 and ’84 we was what you’d call the hiphop movement in Long Island, Queens.

CHRISTGAU: And you were making money off of hiphop?

CHUCK D: Yeah, we was making money. Paying bills. Wasn’t making profit, but we was paying bills. And what drove us is, like, yo, you’ve got to pay these bills. Lighting and rent and shit like that.

CHRISTGAU: So you weren’t making a profit. How were you eating?

CHUCK D: I was in college just like you.

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4. OUT OF ONE PEOPLE, MANY AFROCENTRISMS

TATE: One of the things that you read all the time about all the rappers that come from the suburbs — there’s this idea ’cause you’re in the suburbs, you don’t know any­thing about racism, discrimination.

CHUCK D: That’s bullshit. There’s apar­theid out here like a motherfucker. There’s a lot of black people out here but it’s in pockets. Roosevelt is one square mile but in Merrick it’s like no blacks there. You know, they ask for ID — how is that different from a pass?

TATE: I have a friend that grew up in Elmont. Right next to her neighborhood is this huge high school. And they rezoned her neighborhood out of that, so it’s still like a predominantly white high school.

CHUCK D: If you look into cities, cities are just places that say, come on up from down there so we can put y’all in one area, stack y’all on top of each other, we’ll make it easy for you to get you a job. And that’s why we’re catching so much hell in cities today. People are saying, what about the Crown Heights thing, the Brooklyn situation? I say, Brooklyn’s a fucked up place to be. The shit ain’t right for you. The place is getting packed and packed, more and more, they stacking people on top, and there’s no way to fuck­ing have a clear fucking type of thinking there, you know, when you’re all tight with everybody. And then when you’ve got two fucking communities just getting bigger and bigger, forcing into each other, shit’s going to break wild if everybody don’t get no explanations on how to take care of themselves. The city ain’t never been right for us, you know what I’m saying? I always look back, like in Africa, we were always nomadic people. You know, shit get crazy — go, move, you know what I’m saying? Get the fuck on out of town.

TATE: You were in a program that was run by the Panthers, right?

CHUCK D: It was two years, summer school. At their house. Panthers, Islamic brothers, just brothers in the neighborhood, students, you know. And it was the thing that turned me around, turned a lot of us around. It wasn’t like what it gave us then — we noticed it years later. You know, “Hey, remember African American Experience?” At this time in America around ’77 and ’78, motherfuckers was like laughing at dashikis, and we said, Damn, that shit was sort of fly back then. We’re not saying that we would wear them, but, you know, we had a respect for that, whereas a lot of kids in other areas was like, what? And it came up the roots that that supplementary education gave us. These guys and these sisters weren’t saying don’t go to school, which a lot of people were using as an excuse: Oh, man, school ain’t teaching me what I need to know. Yeah, but you got to know that because right now we have a lot of people in America, we have potential and talent for a lot of different things but we’re unskilled.

CHRISTGAU: So you’re in favor of an Afrocentric curriculum, obviously.

CHUCK D: It’s the only key to our surviv­al —

CHRISTGAU: Can you tell me what Afro­centric thinkers you especially relate to? Do you read a lot of this stuff?

CHUCK D: I read a lot of it. But you know, basically, it’s the same story interrelated.

CHRISTGAU: Wait — give me a couple of names. Asante, Williams.

CHUCK D: Ah, man, come on. Asante’s cool, you know, Karenga. I mean, every­body — I think a lot of brothers, I mean, going back to Marcus, got concrete plans. A lot of brothers had concrete plans for the time, but then again, we have to real­ize, times, they’ve really changed.

I think all the black philosophers have something in line. Like people talk about Stanley Crouch, how much of an asshole he is. I think, deep down, he wants to see something better for black people even though he might sound like an asshole. It’s just that a lot of brothers that fight for the struggle, they fight for the struggle so long that they get beat down by white supremacy and don’t realize it. So their views become so radical that every time you hear their mouth they sound like, “This nigger antiblack or what?”

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CHRISTGAU: Do you think the aspect of Afrocentric theory that’s about the great­ness of ancient black civilizations is as important as it’s made out to be? Or are you more interested in contemporary his­tory, all the aftereffects of the slave trade?

CHUCK D: Contemporary stuff. I think that’s important. But I’m really dealing with, you know, everything. And history is everything. White capitalism, white su­premacy, slave trade, movement of blacks, and black people catching hell all over. That takes studying. And a mother­fucker in the eighth grade should have that down. Those are the basics. You don’t understand that shit from fourth to eighth grade and it doesn’t get drilled into you and it doesn’t make you feel good. Learning should be feeling good like a motherfucker. Learning should be some­thing like, Damn, man, I’m learning a lot today.

You know, you walk into a fourth and fifth grade, in a black school — quote un­quote black school — today, I’m telling you, you’re finding chaos right now, ’cause rappers came in the game and threw that confusing element in it, and now kids is like, Yo, fuck this motherfuck, you know what I’m saying? School, I’m telling you, the educational system from here to here is at war, I’m telling you. In the ’90s, by 1995, it’s gone. I’ll tell you, I do speaking engagements, I went to fuck­ing Evansville. White high school. Eighty per cent white. And every one of the white kids is number one like this, What’s up man, uh, yo. [Laughs.] Yo, thanks a lot man, y’all teaching us a different perspec­tive, because I only can take so much of this Patrick Henry bullshit.

CHRISTGAU: Well, now that you’ve set up this expectation, and you’ve got this fucked up school system, do you think this school system is so fucked up that it’s just as well that they ain’t listening? Or don’t you think it might be a good idea for them to learn how to do their addition and read and write?

CHUCK D: It don’t take mothers long to take skills down. They spread it, they try to make it interesting, you know what I’m saying? Skills is skills. To get those basic skills down — they spread it so fucking far apart, 12 years, and you’re taking 12 years of skills. There’s some of them are unnec­essary skills, know what I’m saying? If you had kids saying, well, damn, I want to, like, put Nintendo computers together, it might be advantageous for you to — well, you better do good in calculus or trig or some shit like that.

So I don’t make some statement like, yeah, I hope to make some money to send my daughter to college. I hope to make some businesses that she can run. And that’s the fucking thing about capital­ism — we as black people keep looking for fucking jobs, we ain’t getting no jobs ’cause there’s a tight rope on white busi­ness, and they definitely ain’t giving a black face a fucking job because business is family.

CHRISTGAU: It’s Farrakhan’s orienta­tion to that kind of thing that you like best about his program.

CHUCK D: A lot of things I like best, you know what I’m saying? You can’t say it’s just that one thing, it’s a lot of things. But, yes, self-sufficiency is the best program.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think he’s actually achieved that?

CHUCK D: Farrakhan’s one man.

CHRISTGAU: I know that. I’m talking about the NOI [Nation of Islam]. Do you think the NOI is actually —

CHUCK D: NOI is full of individuals that treat it like an organization and many brothers in the NOI have small businesses. It’s not just some big fucking corpora­tion juggernaut. It’s not that. Basically, it’s an organization of united brothers and sisters around the country that say, Yo, now, we’re going to do for ourselves.

CHRISTGAU: Do you buy the notion that some sort of an African-centered religion might be very useful in making this hap­pen, in giving this sense of community? Not necessarily the NOI, but say the kind of thing Asante talks about.

CHUCK D: No. I just think that we could still have the various different philoso­phies and different viewpoints of life. Everybody ain’t made out of a cookie cutter. Everybody got different opinions — every­body got different tastes and different feelings on how they want to look at life. It’s only, there’s a right way and there’s a wrong way, you know what I’m saying? The wrong way is getting in somebody’s path and disrespecting nature, which is God’s plan — we only got one place we know we and other human beings can live. And the white structure and the Eu­ropean structure has proven contrary to both. It’s fucked up other human beings, and it’s fucked up the planet.

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5. CARLTON RIDENHOUR AS CHUCK D

CHRISTGAU: Visually, how do you pro­ject your own persona? Do you think about how you look?

CHUCK D: Do I look in the mirror and bust pimples?

CHRISTGAU: No, I’m just talking about how you present yourself visually, how you think about that.

CHUCK D: Well, out of strength. Back in the day, I was like the first to put on a black Raiders hat, because it was a black hat. One of the few black hats you could find. The Raiders had kind of silver and black, and I said, Well why not, kind of dope. They didn’t make Raiders hats, I would have been in trouble.

CHRISTGAU: So you do think about this. Now broaden it out a little bit. How was Chuck D different from Carlton Ridenhour?

CHUCK D: Because he is on the wall. Ain’t no different. Maybe it’s a little dif­ferent five years later, because I know that I’m older and I got more responsibility, but shit, it’s not that much different.

CHRISTGAU: You set yourself up as a teacher, right?

CHUCK D: I set myself up as not only a teacher, but an older brother. ‘Cause when I was working the hiphop, you know, people was saying, Why y’all fuck­ing with them kids? When me and Hank first got involved, we said, Yo, man, we into the music, we’re going to give our communities something, some kind of outlet — 15-, 16-, 17-year-old brothers. ‘Cause older brothers was what? Either being locked up, going off into the work­ing world, and saying, well, fuck it, I got my thing. Or, they were going in the fuck­ing army, especially the army. But what they would leave is a whole bunch of brothers, 16, 15, 14, 13, with no direction. And they wasn’t really listening to their parents. Once again, there’s a lot of single parents and then the parents that was there — there’s such a gap, you know what I’m saying? Brother come home, bring home his Run-D.M.C., and the father, he only into his fucking Anita, you know what I’m saying? And never the two would communicate.

Other people came and said, Damn, saying you’re older in rap is like taboo. I started making records when I was 26, know what I’m saying? So I just threw all that shit out the window. ‘Cause when I was growing up, I liked the Tempts. You didn’t look at them as being old mother­fucking men. O’Jays — bad as a mother­fucker. So I said, well, basically your older brother can communicate to younger brothers ’cause younger brothers want to get to where their older brothers are. I got a car, I ain’t got to go to school no more, and I’m working, I got a little bit of mon­ey with me. Somebody 14 saying, Hey, it ain’t bad, I can relate to some of that.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think that your fans think you’re wiser, more knowledge­able than you actually are?

CHUCK D: I’m using age as a weapon. Me and Ice-T probably talk to more brothers than anyone. And Ice-T got a couple of years on me. I say, look man, I been through what you did and some. And they’re, “Bro, fuck it, man, you got this and you got that.” I say, “How you know? Still black in America. I know exactly where you heading to.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”720494″ /]

6. WHO TO SOCK IT TO

TATE: There was an article, long time ago, where you were quoted as saying, there’s no way a homosexual could be a black leader. And there’s also that whole charge that you’re homophobic —

CHUCK D: I’m not afraid of them. I’m just not one. I’m not on that side. I’m just not on their side.

TATE: Yeah, but what does that mean about how you feel about people who are on that side?

CHUCK D: That’s their thing. Do what they want to do. I can’t tell them who to sock it to. I mean, that’s their thing. Would I let a homosexual in my kitchen to eat dinner? Yeah, why not? Would I let him into my room while I’m sleeping­ —

CHRISTGAU: Well, but I’m sure no ho­mosexual is interested.

CHUCK D: How could I be afraid of a homosexual? Can’t be afraid of them.

TATE: A lot of people are afraid of them. Afraid of what they represent.

CHRISTGAU: Or they’re afraid of what might be inside themselves, too.

CHUCK D: I think they’re a little con­fused. That’s my personal viewpoint. Love got a distorted fucking viewpoint on it. Who gives anybody a badge to say what love is? Love — homosexuals can come from lack of love as well. From somebody not really knowing what true love is. Heterosexuality — a lot of people think it’s love is not love either, you know what I’m saying? Love can be a concern, it can even not be sexual.

CHRISTGAU: You’re not saying that ho­mosexuals who love other men don’t really love them?

CHUCK D: No. I’m not saying that at all. They can love them all they want. I won’t love them. Not in that way.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think there could be a —

CHUCK D: A homosexual leader?

CHRISTGAU: Black leader? Bayard Rus­tin, for instance?

CHUCK D: Leader — why would sexuality have something to do with it?

CHRISTGAU: Don’t ask me.

CHUCK D: I don’t come out and say, Yo, man, I’m a heterosexual, so why does your sexuality have to do with anything? What business is it —

CHRISTGAU: I’m glad to hear you say that, Chuck. That’s the way I feel about it.

[related_posts post_id_1=”729080″ /]

CHUCK D: But no, this is what I’m say­ing. A lot of homosexuals, they call it out of the closet. They use it as a badge. That ain’t no badge, It’s like somebody going and saying, Yeah, well I fucked nine bitches three weeks ago.

CHRISTGAU: It’s a badge because it’s a source of oppression, that’s why.

CHUCK D: They use it as a badge, I’m telling you. What the fuck does your sexu­ality got to do with anything?

CHRISTGAU: It can have a lot to do with whether you’re free to live your life the way you want to live it.

TATE: It wouldn’t be an issue if people weren’t kicking people’s asses.

CHUCK D: No, no, no. Number one, I think — this is number one — it’s like this. If sexuality becomes an issue, then the fucking society, twisted as it is, it’s going to come out like it’s going to come out. I’m like saying, what’s the fucking whole point of pushing it — all right, yeah, I’m fucking these motherfuckers, but accept me anyway. I don’t give a fuck who you’re fucking.

CHRISTGAU: A lot of people do, Chuck.

CHUCK D: It’s a waste of time.

CHRISTGAU: I’m glad to hear you say that but it worries me when homosexuals or perceived homosexuals get beaten up by straights, for whatever reason.

CHUCK D: But why would anybody wear sexuality as a badge?

CHRISTGAU: Because they’re oppressed as a result of it.

CHUCK D: You think they’re oppressed ’cause of them wearing it as a badge.

CHRISTGAU: I think they’re oppressed ’cause they’re gay.  

TATE: It’s like, historically what happens is somebody says, That motherfucker’s a faggot, I’m going to kick his ass. It’s not like this person’s going around wearing a placard, but it’s because of the prejudice that exists towards this person’s sexuality. They get oppressed.

CHUCK D: My whole point is like no­body — you know, this is an average thing in the neighborhoods, like, homeboy was just with a girl, right? And usually in the neighborhoods, it’s like, motherfucker’s got to tell a story. Like, all right, that you getting that pussy. I don’t want to hear that. You know, I’m bored with you, let’s talk about something that’s constructive, but you getting that ass, you know what I’m saying? That’s the same thing, it’s like, that’s bullshit talk.

TATE: It’s like if you espouse black nationalist philosophy you’re going to get your ass kicked in this society. But nine times out of 10, if you believe in it, you’re going to put that shit out there, ’cause that’s what you believe.

CHUCK D: That ain’t got nothing to do with my sexuality. Somebody come over and say — suppose my point of view is like this — I’m Chuck D, I ain’t fucking no white bitches. What’s the point of that? I say, Yo, I don’t like white women, black women is what I like. You know what I’m saying? That’s not even a point. That’s not even the issue. A lot of things is be­hind the closet. A lot of things should remain behind the closet, you know what I’m saying? A lot of things should remain behind closed doors. True or false?

CHRISTGAU: Not necessarily, Chuck.

TATE: It’s like, your sex life is probably behind closed doors. But somebody sees you in the street and decides they’re going to kick your ass ’cause —

CHRISTGAU: Or if you’re told you can’t teach elementary school because you’re gay, which happens, that’s bullshit. And gay people have to protect themselves against that.

[related_posts post_id_1=”594245″ /]

CHUCK D: This is what I’m saying. A motherfucker goes out, and he’s effemi­nate or whatever, and the mother going to beat him up, that’s a stupid motherfucker. But if that causes people to come out and say, Yeah, fuck it, I’m gay: I’m like say­ing, All right, OK.

TATE: But that’s usually why people do become militant — because somebody’s try­ing to destroy them because of their identity.

CHUCK D: But there’s still some things that — I don’t know — that’s just a personal point of view. I think more gays, you know — their business is their business. That’s my whole thing. Do the job. Why should the sexuality be a fucking post­card? This is who I like fucking, this who I’m in love with. If I came out and said, This is what I like fucking and this is my fucking agenda, I’m not really getting the job done.

CHRISTGAU: I just want to see if l can get a straight answer. Do you think that there’s prejudice against gay people in this society?

CHUCK D: Of course there’s prejudice, but at the same time I understand that a lot of it — I don’t want to say that it’s brought on themselves. I say a lot of it should remain behind closed doors.

CHRISTGAU: All right. Circle again.

CHUCK D: That’s my feeling. Because, if it comes out it really is —

CHRISTGAU: Do you think it’s right to contribute to that prejudice?

CHUCK D: No.

CHRISTGAU: When Flav says Cagney beat up a fag in the New York Post song­ —

CHUCK D: Flavor doesn’t like homos. And a lot of people say, Yo, man, fuck them. Look, you’re asking me, you’re talking to me —

CHRISTGAU: I mean, if we’re all human beings, and all the rest of that nice talk, so are homosexuals, and they ought to be treated like human beings.

CHUCK D: Well, treat them like human beings. I’m saying that’s cool. I mean, I ride a train with one, ride a bus with one. I’ll even do business with one. I do busi­ness with them all the time. I’ve been doing business since I was fucking 12 — in the D&D building — got nothing but ho­mosexuals in it. That was one of my first jobs. My father always said, those are the people, this is what they do. You do what you do, they do what they do and call it a day. My whole thing is — it doesn’t be­come an issue with me. It’s a waste of my fucking time. Talking about homosexual­ity is almost like talking about Jews, you know, it’s a waste of my fucking time. I don’t spend much of my day talking about either.

CHRISTGAU: Or thinking, I’m sure.

CHUCK D: Like, yo, their thing is their thing, you know what I’m saying? My whole thing is usually black people. And to anybody whoever might do whatever they want to do, it’s like, Yo, that’s your program, you know what I’m saying? And when people ask me questions about it, sometimes, it gets difficult, because I’m like, you know, I haven’t studied other people’s religions to tell them this and that. You know a lot of times when you talk about Jewish people, I would like to say, I don’t know. Here in America I look at things in black and white, I’m not breaking down nobody’s classification.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720871″ /]

7. HARD AND SOFT

CHRISTGAU: On the new record, there’s an anti-Quiet Storm song [“How To Kill A Radio Consultant”].

CHUCK D: I hate Quiet Storm. My wife loves that shit. I don’t understand it.

TATE: Boy-girl thing.

CHUCK D: All you fucking do is go to sleep to that shit.

CHRISTGAU: Well, no, there’s other things you can do. But that’s behind closed doors, Chuck. Many would say it’s good fucking music.

CHUCK D: I think a beat is better.

CHRISTGAU: But do you think romantic music is like escapist bullshit? Is that how you feel about it?

CHUCK D: To me personally, I think it was better r&b in the ’60s. It ain’t because I’m trying to sound like an old mother­fucker, but I just think that more heart and soul went into the concern over the lyrics and the lyrics led somewhere. The brothers back then and sisters back then sang a tune and the lyrics was kicking, and the music was felt. I mean, you know, today, I mean I love the fuck about of BBD [Bell Biv Devoe] and shit, ’cause it’s something I can relate to, I like Keith Sweat, and I like a lot of new guys. But I can’t go too much past them.

CHRISTGAU: Not even Luther?

CHUCK D: I respect Luther as a skilled artist. Whether he’s my skilled artist? I brought Power of Love to the crib, I have doubts I’ll be cracking it, though. Not my cup of tea.

CHRISTGAU: I know the feeling. But there’s a sense in which PE’s music is very much boys’ music.

CHUCK D: Right.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think that those hard beats express everything that you want to be, spiritually? I like hard beats a lot. But I also want to be compassionate, sensitive, as well as angry. PE’s music­ — it’s so militantly unromantic.

CHUCK D: But it romanticizes certain things that we tend to ignore. I mean — I wrote a love song, “98” [“You’re Gonna Get Yours”]. That was my love song, man. It wasn’t that that 98 was all there — ­barely had four wheels. man. But that was my motherfucking shit, you know.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think you can do a song like that about women, about love and women? ‘Cause you don’t do it at all.

CHUCK D: Why should I write that song? I’ll leave that up to Luther.

CHRISTGAU: Because if creating strong young black men is what your central thing is about, and you’re deep into the family, then it seems to be that there’s a place where hard beats stop, spiritually. It can get you so far.

CHUCK D: There’s a place where hard beats stop. And it stops at the end of my record. You want to listen to something that’s mellow, then you want to listen to somebody else. L.L. might give you that song; Bobby Brown might give it to you.

CHRISTGAU: And you hope somebody does.

CHUCK D: Somebody does, anyway. I tell you what I think, though, I just feel like cursing is kind of played. The Geto Boys took it as far as you could take it. When I went down South, the album that I could play that met the medium of everybody in the car — my sister-in-law, and my other sister-in-law, she’s 14, my daughter, my niece, they’re like three and four, my wife — so you know, I was surrounded by Apaches, I can’t be playing Boyz N the Hood soundtrack now. I got my tapes here — can’t play Robin Harris. You know who we ended up playing six times? L.L. Mama Said Knock You Out. It was hard enough for me, nice enough for the wife. It’s like the hardest pop record ever made. I had to give it to him. He made a fucking hard album without cursing.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722337″ /]

8. IT’S A BLACK THING, YOU GOT TO UNDERSTAND  

CHRISTGAU: You just toured with the Sisters of Mercy and you’re touring with Anthrax now too? Would you say you’re targeting the white audience, or it’s just what happened?

CHUCK D: It’s just what happened.

CHRISTGAU: You said that the 1990s were a crucial time for black people in this country. At your most optimistic, how would you envision race relations in this country shaking our, say, 25 years from now? At your most optimistic.

CHUCK D: That’s when it’ll start.

CHRISTGAU: What do you mean?

CHUCK D: It’s going to take 25 years of hard work amongst ourselves to even get to that point. For us having an under­standing of ourselves and our community, saying, well, we do well with you or without you. That’s the only time you respect somebody, when they say, I can do with you or without you. We got to get it going on. Usually, we’re just, Help me, can you help me, sympathize with me, ’cause we ain’t got it going on. I mean, be realistic. What we really need white people to do is just support us in our theories — just stay the fuck out of the way for a little while and if you’re going to do anything, just throw money and don’t ask for it back. It’s a hard thing to swallow, but, you know, you’ve got to understand. I’m in the middle of a tornado just as well as Greg. This is a mess that we didn’t start and we’re trying to find our way out of, you know what I’m saying?

CHRISTGAU: Do you think white people can help at all in this? Do you think that nothing we have to say —

CHUCK D: Throw some money.

CHRISTGAU: No ideas.

CHUCK D: No ideas, money talks.

CHRISTGAU: So you’ve got no interest in reaching white people? It’s just incidental?

CHUCK D: My interest is reaching black people and whites who are good enough to listen and they want to fucking listen, fine.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think you can do them any good that’ll end up doing you good?

CHUCK D: They’ll at least know our side and our perspective. Whether it’s the truth or not —

CHRISTGAU: It’s your perspective. And is that an important part of what you have to achieve here? ‘Cause after all, I mean — in your most optimistic projection, you see that it’ll take 25 years. And that’s assum­ing —

CHUCK D: Minimum.

CHRISTGAU: I understand. That seems realistic to me, at a minimum. But that’s assuming that the white people who still run this country and probably still will, certainly still will —

CHUCK D: Or their sons and daughters.

CHRISTGAU: Or their sons and daughters — will let you do it, won’t get in your way. And of course, they will get in your way, no question about that. The only question is how much.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724831″ /]

CHUCK D: They can only get in one per­son’s way. They can’t get into fucking millions of people’s way. I’m a realist. I’m saying, we don’t get our act together this decade, it’s over. I’m not going to wait for that 25: I’m not going to wait for race relations. What’s going to happen, it’s go­ing to be utter chaos 25 years from now. White people are going to be killed just like black people are getting killed. Sense­less. Without mercy. It’s going to be like — it’s going to run rampant. You’re going to see more white mass murderers, more motherfuckers that qualify to be in asylums on the streets. You’re just going to see more madness. You can’t pile mad­ness on top of madness, then it gets to a height where it gets totally crazy.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think there’s any way in which the success or failure of this project depends on what happens economi­cally in this country? I mean is it more likely to happen if some economic exploitation stops that doesn’t just apply to black people, it applies to white people as well? Do you have an economic vision that exists alongside the racial vision?

CHUCK D: I’m not an economist, so­ —

CHRISTGAU: You’re not a historian either.

CHUCK D: I’m not a historian and I’m not an expert on racial theory either. I think Dr. Welsing and the other people’ll tell you a lot better than myself about what my feelings … Of course it’s got to get better economically in order for this thing to come about. If it doesn’t get bet­ter economically, we have to figure out what we can do with what we got.

CHRISTGAU: Well, a certain portion of white racism comes out of economic resentment and fear.

CHUCK D: A great portion of it. But after everybody’s economically satisfied who knows what other racism —

CHRISTGAU: Damn right. No question.

CHUCK D: You’ll see shit coming out­ — motherfuckers want to be that way just ’cause, fuck it, I just want to be this way. You know, it’s like with a lawn, right? You can have crabgrass, right? Cutting it ain’t going to do a damn thing — going to just grow back. It’s got a fucking deep root, that motherfucker, you know what I’m saying?

CHRISTGAU: And how do you do that?

CHUCK D: I’m not an economist. I know I’ve given a lot of ideas but you gotta say but this whole interview has just been my ideas. I could be right, I could be wrong.

TATE: I know what you’re getting to in terms of — you’re moving towards the whole idea of some kind of alliance, I guess, between —

CHRISTGAU: Obviously it’s what I think. But I really wasn’t moving towards any­thing — I really wanted to know what he thought.

CHUCK D: Economically between blacks and whites the only alliance that will hap­pen will be black businesses and white businesses. That’s just like I do. I work with anybody, like the Mafia, man. Now, for — I’m not working for no one again. I tell companies right now, I’m in a busi­ness dispute with this particular company that I’m working, and I might say, no exclusivity on this end, I’m giving you exclusivity on this end — none. I know too much about slavery to be a slave again. I don’t care how much money you throw on the table. It’s just like — I’m not working for no one again.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713841″ /]

9. P.S.

CHRISTGAU: OK. Enough. As far as I’m concerned. Is there anything else you want to ask?

TATE: Nothing.

CHUCK D: [To Greg.] I want to just apol­ogize for that porch-nigger statement. I was mad. I can take criticism from any­body. But at that time, it was like I couldn’t see just getting criticized while I think I’m trying to do the right job, you know, in a white paper. I can get criti­cized all day long in the Sun, or Amster­dam News, or even on the block. I’m like, all right, I take my licks. But I felt like, damn, at least if I had talked face to face with homeboy, I could have explained it, being that he’s a brother.

CHRISTGAU: Think the Voice is after your ass? Do you still think that?

CHUCK D: No. I break it down to people, just like the Voice. RJ Smith — I don’t like that motherfucker. I just don’t like him. Why? ‘Cause I just feel I don’t like him.

CHRISTGAU: You think he shouldn’t have reported that stuff that Griff said?

CHUCK D: Yeah. But as far — RJ Smith, it’s not so much that, it’s just, damn, we got a chance to get this nigger’s —

CHRISTGAU: That ain’t what happened.

CHUCK D: It’s a big story for me.

CHRISTGAU: That ain’t what happened.

TATE: I mean, if he didn’t, listen, some­body else at the paper —

CHRISTGAU: I would’ve. Damn right I would’ve. What Griff said to David Mills was intolerable. Intolerable. And you gotta deal with it.

CHUCK D: I know, I deal with it. That was a situation where, you know, you have a nice guy running the ship, and expects everybody to do their fucking job correctly, no mistakes. And when the shit happens — you know, for different rea­sons, you’re like, damn, can’t a mother­fucker do a job right? And that was that. I’m not going to do that ever again. I’m cutting the motherfucker off and watching the blood drip if they make a mistake. Look man, I built this house for every­body, the least thing you do is live in it and don’t fucking burn it down because you on some old tip, because you ain’t feeling love for a minute. That’s one thing I learned from that shit. Lead the ship and rule with a fucking firm grip. I told Flavor, man — they offered Flavor a St. Ides commercial. I said, Flavor, man, you take that shit, I’ll cut you off publicly so fucking bad.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713650″ /]

CHRISTGAU: What’d Flav say?

CHUCK D: Flav still considered it. Said, ­Come on, you know me. I got a check and balance before any of that shit goes out.

TATE: Speaking of your responsibility, what about the Dee Barnes situation?

CHUCK D: That shit was foul. So I went out there not too long after that and I know Dre’s crew and all, ’cause they worked with us on tour, and I was like, How the fuck can y’all let this happen? They was like, Yo, Chuck, you know, he was drunk. I said, y’all fucking dumb. That shit was foul, man. But my whole thing is like, I won’t get another brother in print, I won’t attack black people in print — unless they come out in the media, or in the same print, and attack me.

CHRISTGAU: All right. There’s one other question. Along with the Dee Barnes thing, seems to me I gotta also ask about the New York Post song and the incident with Flav. Do you think —

CHUCK D: They printed his address. That’s why I was mad. I tried to sue the Post. Tried to sue them. My lawyer told —

­CHRISTGAU: Do you think that the inci­dent itself wasn’t worthy of reporting?

CHUCK D: ‘Cause you don’t know the incident.

CHRISTGAU: Was he brought to jail?

CHUCK D: She kicked his ass. Look, his girl kicked his ass, he smacked her back, right? She didn’t call the police, she called the news station. From Channel 12 out here in Long Island, the Post took it.

CHRISTGAU: That’s your version of what happened with Flav?

CHUCK D: Yo, I wasn’t there.

CHRISTGAU: Flav’s version of what hap­pened with Flav?

CHUCK D: That’s people’s version that was there. He’s not big enough. She was beating his ass, you know what I’m say­ing? I mean, my whole thing is like this­ — there’s bigger and better news to be put­ting on there. Many of us rappers’ posi­tions are being closely watched. And there’s people out there that realize that our words are meaning a lot, no matter who we might be. If I do the slightest thing — that’s why I say, all right, I’m grown and responsible. And adults make mistakes. But when you’re spotlighted — ­especially if you’re black — they’ll take that mistake and they’ll fucking run with it. Just like, you know, a brother was telling me, it was this major-league sports team. This brother was a future perennial all-star, you know. They pinned drugs on him — and he never even took drugs in his life. But they pinned drugs on him so he couldn’t renegotiate his salary. They pinned drugs on him and then he was eventually just run right on out of the league. So it was like, OK, we’re spotlighting you, but the smallest amount of salt in the game will fuck you up. You know? They’re just waiting for Chuck D­ —

CHRISTGAU: I don’t deny that.

CHUCK D: Chuck D arrested for rape with a white woman, Public Enemy’s over with. It’s over with. It’s gone. ❖

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

John Lennon, 1940-1980

In 1971, I wrote something about John and Yoko that they liked a lot, and to show their appreciation they invited me and my girlfriend Dominique to John’s 31st birthday party — in Syracuse, where a Yoko Ono retrospective had been mounted. I’ve never been one to hobnob with the stars, but who could resist John Lennon? He’d always been my own personal Beatle, and probably yours. He was the one who could have been a friend of ours, the one we might have known in school or on the scene — the bohemian, the artist, the intellectual. Still, even after the party jet and the room down the hall from ex-Beatle security, I was reluctant to intrude. But this was the only famous person Dominique had ever wanted to meet in her life, and she wasn’t about to let the chance slip by. Eventually we got to the Lennon suite, where J&Y watched themselves on the news and signed 26 autographs for Dominique’s fifth-grade class. Among those present was Ringo Starr, grumpy because he’d called room service an hour before and there was still no food.

“Did you tell them who you were?” Lennon asked.

It should go without saying that Ringo hadn’t.

“Well, why not?” Lennon asked. “You’ve got the fucking fame — you might as well get something out of it.”

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A few weeks later the J&Y entourage picked me up on Avenue B, where the limo attracted more attention than the star–one of the local youngsters thought I was the Beatle, while another didn’t know what a Beatle was. After sitting around awkwardly in my dingy living room for a few minutes we repaired to the Cookery for discussions of Chuck Berry’s jail years and celebrity as a depletable resource — John wondered whether he should lay low for a while. He seemed astonishingly quick and intense — partly, no doubt, because he was. But it’s also true that unprotected by professional obligation I found myself starstruck, and I remember the meeting, our last, with some embarrassment — even as we analyzed how finite his fame was the man radiated an energy that befuddled me, just by being John.

More than most pop stars, Lennon tried to do good with his fame, but that doesn’t mean he had much success. By the time I’d met him there’d been bed-ins and the beginnings of war-is-over-if-you-want-it, so mystically well-meaning that they cost him almost nothing and accomplished little more. But less than a year later he squandered his resources on the ill-fated agitprop of Some Time in New York City — the most politically ambitious and artistically impoverished music he ever recorded. After that came the traumatic separation from Yoko and the half-hearted professional rock, a vocation for which this compulsively honest and necessarily direct artist showed little taste. In the end he chose — bravely and wisely — to lay low, to keep silent until he had something to say. Reunited with Yoko, finally a father again, he retreated into domestic pursuits, and when the couple returned to the studio after five years it was their pursuit of mutual retreat that they celebrated. One astute observer said Lennon seemed “infantilized,” which is true, but while the record was no Imagine or Plastic Ono Band, I found its candor irrefutable. Lennon had always seemed like someone who might make good new rock and roll when he was 60 — and I was 58. Nothing about Double Fantasy damaged that fantasy for me.

Well, the dream is over. Lennon’s death was unprecedented. This tragic superstar wasn’t another chronic suicide; he wasn’t killed, or even murdered. He was assassinated, a fate heretofore reserved for kings, politicians, and captains of industry. Yet as I sit here alternating between my records and WNEW’s all-night vigil, I must admit that my feeling of loss is qualified by a false sense of inevitability. We’ve been expecting this to happen, haven’t we, ever since Phil Ochs wrote “Crucifixion” and various assholes (the acid freak who introduced me to the Doors was one) began imagining Bob Dylan’s martyrdom?

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As I began writing it bothered me that I wouldn’t know much about the alleged killer, Mark David Chapman, until after deadline. Then I decided that whether the putative motive was ambulatory anomie or personal ressentiment or even twisted politics, the underlying pathology would be the same — the anonymous eating the famous like a cannibal feasting on testicles. But that’s too simple. As my wife said despondently an hour after the event: “Why is it always Bobby Kennedy or John Lennon? Why isn’t it Richard Nixon or Paul McCartney?” The fact is obvious enough. Dylan, of course. Jim Morrison, possibly. Neil Young, conceivably. But Paul McCartney? Neil Diamond? Graham Nash? George Harrison? Ringo Starr? Never — because they don’t hold out hope, even if they’d sort of like to be able to. John Lennon held out hope. He imagined, and however quietistic he became he never lost that utopian identification. But when you hold out hope, people get real disappointed if you can’t deliver. You’re famous and they’re not — that’s the crux of your relationship. You command the power they crave — the power to make one’s identity felt in the world, to be known. No matter that the only thing you’re sure it’s good for is room service. No matter that you’re even further from resolving anyone’s perplexities than the next bohemian, artist, or intellectual. You’re denying your most desperate admirers the release they need, and a certain percentage of them will resent or hate you for it. From there, it only takes one to kill.

Of course, many more of your fans will be like Dominique — enthralled, yet basically self-possessed. And they’ll mourn. ❖

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From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

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.

Categories
From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Elton John: The Little Hooker That Could

There is something wondrous about Elton John, and something monstrous. The preeminent rock star of the ’70s seems out of time, untouched by the decade’s confusion. Unlike most of his compeers, he consumes music omnivorously — his tastes suggest fuel rather than food — and he pursues this fame with such single-minded compulsion that to accuse him of escapism sounds silly, like accusing a runaway freight train of antisocial tendencies.

Always the metaphore that arise are mechanical. As the great inheritor of Philadelphia pop-rock, in which rock and roll ceases to be an uncontrolled natural force and turns into a product understood and exploitable, John’s records are artifacts rather than expressions of a palpably vital individual. Of course, they share this artifactual quality with some of the best popular music of our time — he exquisitely crafted recordings of Randy Newman or Paul Simon or Steely Dan, or of the current kings of Philadelphia soul, Gamble and Huff. But with such artists the metaphors are from nature — what they create is like a fly preserved in amber. What Elton John creates is more like a Coca-Cola sign.

Not counting a soundtrack and a live album and a greatest hits and a collection of early efforts as yet unreleased here, John’s newest LP, Rock of the Westies — number one, of course, containing one number-one single so far — is the ninth album (including one double) the singer-songwriter has loosed upon the American public since the time of his debut at the Troubadour in Los Angeles in August, 1970. By the standards established for today’s pop, such productivity is gross, proof in itself that Elton must be doing something wrong, and the alacrity with which he works is equally suspect. The songs begin with lyricist Bernie Taupin, whom Elton met in 1967 by answering a want ad; although the two once spent a lot of time scuffling and still tour together, they rarely see each other socially any more. Taupin will write the lyrics for an album over a two-week flurry, spending perhaps an hour on each one, and send them on to Elton, who works out chords and melody for each lyric unchanged, a process that usually takes less than an hour. Recording takes a few weeks at most. John has said he believes pop music should be disposable; the way he grinds it out, he might pass for a garbage processing plant.

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Yet there are few people who like rock and roll, or any pop music, who remain unreached by Elton John. It’s not just that he’s so pervasive, although that helps; quite simply, the man is a genius. No matter how you deplore his sloppiness, or his one-dimensionality, or his $40,000 worth of rose-colored glasses, you will find yourself humming “Take Me to the Pilot” or “Bennie and the Jets” or “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” Not all of them, perhaps; maybe not any of those three. But the man’s gift for the hook — made up whole or assembled from outside sources — is so universal that there is small statistical likelihood that one of them hasn’t stuck in your pleasure center. Or your craw. Or both.

For of course a good hook does not guarantee aesthetic merit — it is merely a means to aesthetic merit, and far from a foolproof one. The chorus of “Take Me to the Pilot” is as compelling a melody as John has ever concocted, but the lyric is gibberish, and every time the melody leads me to the gibberish I resent it more. Or again: John’s affected pronunciation of discard (“disz-gard”) is a kind of hook in itself, and also a turn-off in itself. In “Bennie and the Jets,” on the other hand, the way some fairly standard notions about rock stardom are embodied in the music — the whole damn song is one enormous hook — makes them vivid and convincing.

Hooks are integral to hit singles; they are what makes disc jockeys and radio listeners remember a record. The heedless fecundity of John’s recording habits tends to produce hit singles; one cut or another is bound to be right because it’s all so hit-or-miss. So when John is praised critically, it is usually as a singles artist. Inevitably, though, some of John’s monster singles present him at his most monstrous — not so many any more, granted, but you can’t just disregard (or diszard) those that do. His Greatest Hits is a hodgepodge. But there is a compensation — John processes so much music that it is possible to sort out the garbage on that jumble of long-playing discs by analyzing their hook content.

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On his two worst albums, Madman Across the Water and Please Don’t Shoot the Piano Player, hooks are both rare and dull; the same goes for at least half of the double-LP, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and the second side of Caribou. On the two early song-poetry efforts, Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection, the hooks are often there, but the way they drip with nasal sensitivity (wiped by Paul Buckmaster’s orchestral embroidery) you wish they weren’t. A similar sensibility reemerges in a less fulsome musical context on Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, the autobiographical bildungselpee of earlier this year, but the concept fails, and its failure as a whole diminishes its better parts.

That’s already six and a half discs gone, but what’s left is at least five years worth of good rock and roll. Honky Chateau, album number four, which announced John’s and Taupin’s escape from the excesses of their own romanticism, sounds even crisper today, when you can be sure it wasn’t a fluke. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (number six) is uneven but goes places, including not only “Bennie and the Jets” and one of John’s two hit Rolling Stone rip-offs, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” but also the unheralded “Your Sister Can’t Twist.” This raver is one of John’s masterpieces, overlaying surf-sound harmonies and midway organ on an intensified send-up of Danny & the Juniors’ “At the Hop,” itself the most intense Philadelphia pop-rock record ever made. The first side of Caribou (number seven) leads off with an even nastier Rolling Stones rip-off, “The Bitch Is Back,” and never lets up. My favorite cut is called “Solar Prestige a Gammon”: “Solar prestige a gammon/Kool kar kyrie kay salmon/Hair ring molassis abounding/Common lap kitch sardin a poor floundin.”

Which brings us to Rock of the Westies, which I didn’t like when I first put it on and now think is Elton John’s best album. This is nothing new. Despite his considerable commercial skill and fabulous commercial success, John does not suit my (rather permissive) notions about how an artist should behave, and although (or perhaps because) he is five years younger than me, he is not a child of the ’60s the way I am. He threatens me, and like most people I know I tend to fear and distrust him, so I write him off all the time. On this record I took a blasé approach, comparing him to the Bic pen, a formerly dependable product which can no longer be counted on to write every time.

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Then, in a bad mood one night, I lay down and read the lyrics along with the music. I grew angry. Not that the lyrics were bad in themselves; in fact, they were Taupin’s best batch ever, maybe a real goodbye to the yellow brick road. Taupin had written about race and class before, but not with this sort of toughness and clarity and irony; there was even a contribution from a woman, backup singer Ann Orson, about the contradictions of working-class marriage, the first outside composition ever to appear on an Elton John album. But the music … arghh, the music. This Bic was not only writing, it was leaking on my shirt; between the band’s machine-tooled hard rock and Elton’s automatic good cheer, it was crossing the fucking words right out.

The next day, you guessed it, I found myself singing not one but three or four of the tunes — the “Take Me to the Pilot” effect, in a way, although rather than leading me to gibberish the music was, in effect, the gibberish itself. I’ll shake this off, I said to myself, but I could not resist playing the record again … and again. Both sides. Hooked again.

Only one of the nine songs on the album bothers me much any more, and even that one I’m not sure about. The title is “Billy Bones and the White Bird,” with lyrics that more or less match, and the hook is the only one I noticed before reading the words — Elton chanting “check it out” over an echo-ish Bo Diddley shuffle, very contemporary-sounding, and therefore irrelevant to the old-salt spirit of the lyric as I understand it. With Taupin, that last is an essential proviso — half the time he does not bother to make himself understood, which given the middlebrow claptrap he is capable of when he does (“Hollywood made you a superstar/And pain was the price you paid”) often seems a blessing — but what made this album different was that it applied in a new way. The difference was irony — the lyrics were clear to begin with, but shifted nuance over repeated listenings. And as I listened I found their toughness and clarity and irony enriched by the music and by John’s abiding high spirits.

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“Grow Some Funk of Your Own,” is the greatest in a long line of south-of-the-border songs that began with the Robins’ “Down in Mexico,” because the nastiness of the slumming impulse underlying such tales is implicit in the marimba accent of the band’s own funk and the Spanish accent John assumes when quoting the avenging boyfriend (“he was so macho,” Elton whimpers). The faked-up Caribbean inflections, both oral and instrumental, of the hit single, “Island Girl,” imply a naive racism belied by the impassive but sage cruelty of the lyric’s conclusion — that is, the “inappropriateness” of the music ultimately elaborates the song’s irony. In contrast the temper of both “Street Kids” and Ann Orson’s “Hard Luck Story,” fired by the band’s drive, cuts through John’s arbitrary ebullience, giving us a glimpse of its works that only does the songs credit. And on “I Feel a Like a Bullet” Taupin finally justifies his penchant for mixed metaphor by providing Elton with an alibi: “You know I can’t think straight no more.” Some variation on that line would have improved a lot of their songs.

None of this analysis is meant to imply vision or intent. John and Taupin are such good partners because they share, over and above their commercial energy and a certain generalized ripe sentimentality, a blankness of artistic personality. Although it is only Taupin’s lyrics that can elevate John’s music to anything more than the most trivial aural diversion, John seems as indifferent to their quality as Taupin himself does to what they contain.

Don’t get me wrong — Taupin can be an excellent lyricist, and it’s a very good thing that he writes for John. Captain Fantastic excepted (and even that had its share of moments), his relative anonymity has saved his superstar mouthpiece from the onanistic banality of superstar lyrics; because he can walk the streets like a real person, it’s no strain for Taupin to write songs that are actually aboutthings. But Taupin’s wide-ranging historical and cultural subject matter, added to the old romantic staples, serves only to redefine the meaning of commercial songwriting in this time; he treats the various social issues with no discernible commitment or consistency. For all we can tell, they might as well be moon-June-spoon.

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And this, how-you-say, impartiality is perfectly suited to John’s singing, which is not interpretive in any ordinary sense of the term. The man has a ballad voice, which is adenoidal and sensitive-sounding, and a hard rock voice, which is adenoidal and insensitive-sounding, and he can simulate a few surface effects, like the accents which adorn this album. In its way, his style is quite distinctive — that is, his vocal timbre is unmistakable — but it is indubitably mechanical. Its automatism is best demonstrated by that song I quoted from Caribou, “Solar Prestige a Gammon,” which is written entirely in words that only sound like words or that can’t possibly mean what they seem to mean. Needless to say, John sings it with all his usual cheery conviction, which I assume is his way of telling us something.

If you like, what it tells us is monstrous. Such arrogance. That mindless cipher makes untold millions a year; that pudgy robot is a hero and an object of fantasy sex. But to say that Elton John lacks the lineaments of a conventional artist is not to say he is a cipher; to say that his singing is mechanical is not to declare him a robot. He is a star because people love his music and are immensely attracted to his immense vivacity. The best way to explain him is to steal an idea from Greil Marcus: Elton is the superfan, the ultimate music consumer. This is literally true — his collection of popular records is almost certainly one of the largest in the world, and he seems to listen to all of them. Who knows how much of his listening he puts to use? The most remarkable proof is on this record, which involves his first major personnel switch since the departure of Paul Buckmaster: a half-new Elton John Band. There is a tendency to forget Elton’s musicians; since he is a machine, it can’t matter who backs him. But that was a good band, and it does make a difference, because these guys kick more ass than the old guys. An especially useful addition is a second keyboard man, James Newton Howard, whom Elton found on an all-instrumental solo LP released awhile back on Kama Sutra. I played that record when it came through and dismissed it, but Elton heard something there. That is the superfan’s reward.

And finally, the superfan’s reward is the fans’ reward. Elton is our tabula rasa — the very sureness of his instinct for sales make him a kind of one-man Zeitgeist. If he can be maudlin or stupid or hedonistic or self-indulgent — the new album is very tight until the song endings, which tend to repeat the same riff ad tedium — so can we, and those of us who reject those flaws in ourselves will reject them in him as well. But if he can produce incisive music without even willing it, as seems possible, well, perhaps there is more room for optimism there than in the strivings of a lonely artist. Maybe, in fact, Elton John isn’t out of time at all. Maybe he is one small indication that some things about the times are already aright. ❖

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

Frank Sinatra: The Last Crooner

Frank Sinatra: 1915–1998

By Gary Giddins

Nobody was shocked to learn of Frank Sinatra’s death at 82 — everyone was surprised he lingered as long as he did. Yet his leaving inevitably focuses attention on a shared history. High arts never unite us as intimately as popular ones, and Sinatra’s absence is unmooring on several levels, least of which is the mourning for a great artist, since he was no longer productive. We’re mourning the symbol of his generation, a guy who counts for far more in the patrimony of the baby-boomers who now control the media than Saul Bellow or Arthur Miller, who were born in the same year. He roamed in the gloaming of our mutuality for nearly 60 years, from 1939, when he recorded “All or Nothing at All” with Harry James, until last Thursday. His legend outstripped, as legends will, the details of its making. He was one of those outsized figures who so perfectly embody the experiences and outlook of his time and place as to become a vessel for dreams and herald of the future.

The generation he personified and transformed was the one that fought the “good war” and spooned to Der Bingle; bought the first TVs to watch boxing and Milton Berle in drag; wore snap-brims and wide ties and cotton handkerchiefs that peaked from breast pockets like heraldic crests; smoked guiltlessly; drank mixed holdovers from Prohibition (often made with rye); laughed at Bob Hope and ogled Rita Hayworth; thought movie musicals were an immortal idiom; gambled in Vegas to rub shoulders with wiseguys; put their kids through colleges they never would have dreamed of attending themselves; trusted in God and let cholesterol take care of itself; and quaked in horror at rock and roll — in short, the generation that spawned the ’60s the way day precedes night (or is it vice versa?). Ladies and gentlemen, Big Daddy has left the building.

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There was not much difference — you could look it up — between media coverage of Sinatra’s passing last week and that of Bing Crosby 21 years ago, when his brood ran the media. But there is a big difference in the DNA of their fables. Crosby’s was based on being the nicest guy in town; when posthumous rumors suggested he was something less than saintly, his historical standing took a nosedive. But Sinatra was a famous dickhead — we already assume the worst, no matter what posterity reveals, and we don’t give a damn. A richer testimony to his contemporaneity cannot be imagined. His danger level is part of what makes him attractive; he played the troubadour with as much bravado as François Villon. Still, to everyone born after Hiroshima, Sinatra remains always slightly alien, no matter how much we love his music — he recalls a style as antiquated as terms like “bachelor,” “divorcée,” “illegitimate child.” The revival of ’50s lounge drivel is no more than a lunatic kitsch trip and Sinatra’s artistry will outlive it — but not his style, which will be interred with his body in Palm Springs. If you don’t believe it, buy a tri-cornered hat and call yourself a revolutionary.

The music is another story, or more precisely another two stories, for early and later Sinatra are as distinct as early and later Billie Holiday. Where she went from flaming youth to clouded vulnerablity, he went the other way. Indeed, the jet-age Sinatra who makes us soar, and whom we dreamily emulate, could hardly be more different from the bony wartime crooner who clawed his way out of Tommy Dorsey’s band to lay siege to the Paramount — the eager balladeer, his greased and wavy hair a mark of his defenseless youth. Not that his seemingly unaffected voice wasn’t recognized instantly as the magical instrument it was — intimate, earnest, and pretty; romantic and woebegone. It ached, but stoically. It swung, but reflectively. It caressed, and gently. Even the male factor — the pure baritone edge that shaped his every phrase — was equivocal. With men overseas and their women unattended, Sinatra allowed himself a measure of musical androgyny that underscored his identification with the women. The swooning girls his press agent hired astutely pegged Sinatra as a singer whose sexuality, in those years, stopped one step short of carnality — what can you do in a faint?

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The androgyny grew more pronounced as the bow-tied beanpole, his face as quizzical and angular as a marionette’s, learned to emote his ballads with daring operatic drama and design. “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” one of several Sinatra classics by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, typifies his ability to combine genders as he brings bel canto to pop. Cahn’s lyric is characteristically simple:

I fall in love too easily.
I fall in love too fast.
I fall in love too terribly hard
For love to ever last.

How is one to approach the title phrase? Is it rueful, knowing, complaining, ironic, diffident? Sinatra sings it like a frightened doe, but without a trace of sentimentality. He makes the lyric deep, an expression of the singer’s dramatic plight. We’re in act 3, scene 2. Queen Ava, having thrown the Prince’s betrothed (actually his daughter in disguise) from a castle turret, has hied to the barbarian king. Alone in his chamber, Prince Frank learns the terrible news and turns to his loyal jester, Dinoletto. “E strano,” he sighs, and sings, “I fall in love too easily.” The first two lines are small-voiced and quiet, but in an early example of Sinatra’s skillful technique, the third vents an unwavering, plaintive authority that glides upward along one unbroken breath, followed by a rest that heightens the poignancy of the final five words. For Sinatra, the words define the music and the music defines the words — so simple, so obvious, so why can’t everyone do it?

What women surely recognized in his oddly gentle baritone was a degree of tenderness and sympathy rare in the daily opera of radio. When he sang “Try a Little Tenderness,” Sinatra wasn’t merely a wise young man advising the world’s husbands on their love technique, he was identifying with women as someone who knew about the world’s brutishness. Crosby was, from the beginning, a model of virility; the young Sinatra was vaguely feminine, and consequently a bit subversive. You have to go to the records for his inventive highs in those years, because the movies and the fan mags cheapened him, marketing him as a naif, an innocent in a sailor suit in need of a strong, maternal woman. In 1946, a sexual confusion bordering on camp found its apogee in the climax of the disastrous Till the Clouds Roll By, as the camera arcs into the sky to catch a pristine and gleaming Frank, standing atop a column and missing only a ribbon in his hair to pass as a Ziegfeld adornment, as he sings “Ol’ Man River.”

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He needed a makeover, no question, especially with his idol turned rival, Crosby, now enjoying the greatest popularity of his life. Crosby had always been generous to him. “A voice like Sinatra’s comes along once in a lifetime,” he often said. “Why did it have to be my lifetime?” But postwar audiences pleased by Bing were tired of Frank. For a while he had a television show in which he wore a mustache and hustled cutlery. His movies declined, and so did his recordings — the heights he could still scale (“I’m a Fool To Want You,” “The Birth of the Blues”) vied with depths of commercial desperation. A faithful New Dealer, he was accused of Communist sympathies by rabid pundits, including Lee Mortimer, whom Sinatra rapped in the mouth, bless his soul. It didn’t help.

And then, with alarming suddenness, Frankie grew up, reinventing himself on the threshold of 40. He left the mother of his three children for Ava Gardner, which cleared up the androgyny business fast. Soon he put on weight, parted his hair, and changed his music. Perhaps it was his reportedly suicide-prone marriage to Ava that did for him what hormones couldn’t — toughening his vocal edge, teaching him something about despair, resolution, bitterness, and hatred. The first recordings in his epochal new contract with Capitol stand as a definition of artist-in-transition. Even the cover of Songs for Young Lovers suggests the persona change. In one shot, he’s got the hat, the hankie, and the smoke — he’s Richard Widmark in Night and the City. In the other, he’s leaning against a streetlight while two entranced couples walk by, ignoring him; put him in a skirt and he’s poised to sing ”Love for Sale.” The performances, arranged with sly ingenuity (this begins the collaboration with Nelson Riddle), are suave, notwithstanding a few false steps and gauche embellishments. Perhaps the highlight is ”Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” a song closely associated with the young Crosby, but no more.

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By the 1956 release of Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, he had the accomplishment and attitude of an old master, as well as a dark vocal edge that was at once appealingly uncertain — an accidental virtue of his pitch problems — and implacable. Recently, a fanatic Sinatraphile label issued running tapes from some of his recording sessions, illustrating the extent of his musicality. That he was an interpretive virtuoso who plotted his phrases with military efficiency was obvious, but I had assumed his arrangers or conductors ran the sessions. Not true. Sinatra ordains dynamics, tempos, and phrasing; the conductor hardly makes a peep. Still, a firm and unwavering control was always implied, which is one reason I especially treasure such anomalous recordings as his 1962 version of “Pennies From Heaven” with Count Basie, whose stamping four-beat is dramatically different from the thudding backbeat Sinatra preferred — it’s a wide-open range of possibilities. Rising to the challenge, Sinatra goes beyond the usual embellishments, and in his second chorus configures one canny melodic inversion after another.

He could not have continued in that vein forever, but I doubt there was anything he couldn’t do superbly every once in a while. Sinatra’s career on records spanned 54 years, during which time he enjoyed spectacular successes in movies and more modest ones on radio and television. The immensity of that body of work will fuel rediscovery and reassessment long after his iconicity has become vestigial and the controversies he inspired have faded from popular memory.

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

PRIMARY COLOR
By Tom Carson

RONALD REAGAN has probably already forgotten where he was when Sinatra got shot. “For God’s sake, Ronnie,” Nancy must be prompting him right now, “the bald guy I used to take those long lunches with, remember? When you were in the East Wing rambling to Gorbachev about Harry Cohn, and thinking the whole time you were rambling to Harry Cohn about Gorbachev.” But between the two — and Reagan, not Bing Crosby (who dat?) or even Elvis, is Frank’s true competition — there’s no question which icon packs more oomph. In office, the older Reagan served as an emissary from a false history of his compatriots; the older Sinatra, who was never out of office, from a real one. It’s like the way World War II didn’t really end until Churchill kicked the bucket. Older Americans wouldn’t so keenly lament the peaceful death of an 82-year-old if he hadn’t been the last surviving embodiment of an era now all but unimaginable even to those who lived through it.

If future historians don’t come to grips with Sinatra’s bizarre status as a primary color in the postwar U.S. palette, they’ll never make sense of the canvas. What’s been mostly ignored in the obits is how even in his dotage Sinatra remained white America’s last completely satisfying definition of masculine style — to somewhat disconcerting effect, let me add, since its underlying values had been debunked by feminism and Mario Puzo a quarter century before his death. Yet however much Frank the swinger’s double standards tarnish Frank the singer’s standards, no comparably compelling image of male conduct has emerged to replace it. Aside from fitting right in at the fin de siècle garage sale, guyville’s chronic outbreaks of wistfulness about the Rat Pack — whose latest installment went into overdrive last Friday — testifies to the lack of alternative models that even most women, as pop fans if not politicos or human beings, have found palatable in the long run. Remember when Ms. was waggling Alan Alda at us like a remonstrating finger? So much for that.

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Although a taste for coarseness sometimes denotes sophistication — Billy Wilder comes to mind — Sinatra was the flip side, revering sophistication as only a coarse man could. That would make him just another case study in horse-headed upward mobility if it weren’t that, unlike most aspirants, he wasn’t intimidated by prevailing definitions of sophistication; his version of classiness strikes a peculiarly native chord because it’s an invented classiness, without a pedigree. One reason he did as much as Levittown to shape the mores of America’s postwar middle class is that they’d never been middle class before. It took a peasant to teach the midcentury’s new bourgeoisie how to comport themselves as aristocrats. So long as we’re stuck with class systems, America’s incoherent version is better than the coherent kind.

The voice didn’t hurt, of course. Over the weekend, I called my mom to offer half-joking condolences; like the ones about Nixon, our running gags about Sinatra date back to my college years. She laughed, and told me she was reading in her garden with a stack of his CDs for background music. “That sounds like a nice way to spend a Saturday,” I said. “It is,” she said, holding up her phone to the speakers. “Listen.”

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

A PERFECT DAY
By Touré

ONE NIGHT years ago, a woman I’d long wanted was finally coming over and I put on a Sinatra album. When she heard it she laughed so hard she went out of the mood. That was the end of her, and the end of playing Frank for company. For women there were Marvin, Barry, Prince. Frank was for the best nights — the alone ones. I had discovered him in Wall Street, when Charlie Sheen was just beginning to conquer Michael Douglas and Daryl Hannah and for one moment everything was as it should have been. In the background Frank sang, “Flyyyyy me to the moon/Let me plaaaay among the stars” — and I understood immediately. This was the sound of insurmountable confidence and cosmic rightness. I never knew whether Nancy was Frank’s wife or his daughter, or who Bobby was and why his socks mattered, or what Woody Allen’s wife’s mother had to do with any of it. I knew only that Frank had the sound of a man who would never lose. Could never. A man I could turn to long after midnight on Sunday, when I was all alone, the lights dimmed, steeling for another week of battle, and ask, What happens in the end, Frank? How does it all work out? And no matter how great the evidence to the contrary, he could convince me, “The best is yet to come/And babe, won’t it be fine.”

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Last Friday, the last day of the 20th century, I got into a cab, one of those roomy new minivan ones. It was the hottest day of the year, and the cab was perfectly air-conditioned — the cooled air grazed your skin like on Sunday afternoons in the Hamptons. But we got stuck in traffic by Union Square Park. I rolled down the window and looked out at two very young girls, maybe seven years old. They had been roller-blading circles around the park and were sweaty and worn out. One wanted to stop, but the other begged for one more go. “All right,” the first girl replied brightly to her little bestpal, “this is the last one.” She paused and then added, without a speck of doubt on her soul, “the best one.” She said it with an unquestioning certainty that if they so decided, then life would play out that way, in the best possible way. And everything could be as it should be. As Frank would’ve wanted. And in that moment I thought that between these two little New Yorkers and this cab and this beautiful day, Frank’s Homegoing Day, that maybe New York could be the greatest city in the world and could live up to being sung about by Frank Sinatra. But now I think maybe, somehow, someday, life itself will be just right and as it should be, and life will live up to being sung about by Frank Sinatra.

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

EITHER-AND
By Robert Christgau

HEY, FOLKS — Frank Sinatra and rock and roll aren’t mutually exclusive. Not that Mr. My Way could sing the music he once adjudged “a rancid-smelling aphrodisiac,” as with typical elasticity of principle he eventually tried to. (Remember “The PTA, Mrs. Robinson, won’t OK the way you do your thing/Ding ding ding”? How could you forget?) And not that his Northern, urban, assimilationist style had any rock and roll in it. But it wasn’t as antithetical as Rudy Vallee’s, Nelson Eddy’s, Mario Lanza’s, John Raitt’s, Eddie Fisher’s, or, shit, Tony Bennett’s. Like innovators from William Wordsworth to Chuck Berry, Sinatra was driven to intensify formal language by making it more speechlike. Magically, within severe standards of pitch, timbre, and enunciation, his singing is every bit as colloquial as Bob Dylan’s, Carole King’s, or Rakim’s — probably more so.

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Pop is a cornucopia and a continuum. Either way, most of the music I adore is rock and roll. But not all of it. And none of it excludes any of the rest. So when a savvy young critic praises Sinatra for delivering her from punk’s canon of authenticity, I feel sad. When a broadly experienced older critic uses Sinatra’s genius to bewail the impersonality of contemporary pop, I pray my arteries hold up. Either-or is for Sidney Zion. I want the world and I want it now.

Many claim they don’t identify with Frank Sinatra — they just bask in his artistry. But that’s not how singing works. Sinatra the man’s gruesome amalgam of confidence and insecurity was configured in his so-called pitch problems — the way every line he sings seems to waver slightly as he holds it firmly in the grip of his technical command. More than anything else, it was the ambivalence built into his certainty that made him the century’s quintessential voice for so many of us. And it was the intelligence built into his body that made him just right for any rock and roller with a grain of sensibility.

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

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

The Clash See America Second

N’I like to be in Africa
A beatin on the final drum
N’I like to be in USSR
Making sure these things will come
N’I like to be in USA
Pretending that the wars are done
N’I like to be in Europa
Saying goodbye to everyone

— “Guns on the Roof”

‘Course we got a manager
And though he ain’t the Mafia
A contract is a contract
When they got em out on yer

— “All the Young Punks”

At 5 p.m. February 16, as I knocked on Caroline Coon’s door at the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge in Cambridge, the first Chinese troops were advancing across the Vietnamese border, but of course we didn’t know it yet. What we did know — me because I’d reached her by phone earlier — was that snow and cold had delayed the Clash’s equipment truck on its overnight Washington-Boston run. Coon quickly informed me that at showtime minus two hours it still hadn’t arrived. She was ob­viously overextended, and obviously worried that I expected her to entertain me in some way, but I just wanted to make contact with the band and split, which is what I did.

By around 7:30 I was inside the Harvard Square Theatre, an 1800-seat venue that astonished promoter Don Law by selling out in an hour for an English band that was on only one commercial Boston radio station. I’m told every new wave band in the city was on hand, which is over a hundred tickets right there, but even more numerous than punk types were short-haired, unstoned­-looking (I said looking) versions of the kind of high-IQ fan Bonnie Raitt gets. This was a crowd that liked to read music — I had my own moment of astonishment when someone asked for my autograph. But it was also a crowd that liked to listen — kids who hadn’t been born when Bo Diddley first recorded clearly knew his beat as well as his name. In the row behind me sat Boston’s pioneering new wave disc jockey, a mild young man with pink hair named Oedipus. A few hours before, he and several others had been fired from the only commercial Boston station­ — one of three major FM outlets in the U.S.A. — that was playing the Clash, but few in the audience knew it yet. There was that feeling in the air that we used to call good vibes, only the anticipation was sharper, the kilowatt potential more focused.

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Coon had made clear that the concert was doomed to start late — the P.A. finally got in at 6:30 — and the sound check was just end­ing as I arrived. Recorded music, all titles an­nounced, began with the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.,” the Monkees’ “Steppin’ Stone,” and reggae by Dillinger. At around 8 the local opener, two girls and two boys called the Rentals, kicked off hard, dragged into some arty slow stuff, and came back up to a climax entitled “Gertrude Stein”: “Coca-Cola Coca-Cola/Pepsi-Cola Pepsi-Cola/Orange soda orange soda.” Their set was not enhanced when eight Cambridge cops and a platoon of Don Law’s beefy red­shirts ejected two punky nuisances — who’d been hitting on people as if they’d read how in an old N.M.E. — with the kind of en­thusiasm we used to call brutality. After what was literally a brief intermission, Bo Diddley and an all-black trio surprised me pleasantly by rolling the audience down some funky grooves, easy blues lopes as well as variations on Bo’s signature shuffle.

Less than half an hour later, the Coasters’ “Riot in Cell Block Number Nine” blared out of the P.A. as the crew lowered a back­drop of stitched-together flags and the band advanced from the wings. Joe Strummer came on denimy, still bezippered and fati­gued, but Paul Simonon’s slash-necked red uniform was even more glamour-boy than the fishnet item I’d seen him wear in Leeds 16 months before, while Mick Jones, whose turquoise shirt was not only unbuttoned most of the way down but also turned up at the collar, seemed to have achieved most of the evolution from ’70s to ’50s punk — all of the Clash had slicked-back hair, but Mick’s was almost long enough for a d.a. with sly teddy-boy overtones. Glaring riot lights searched out these details as the musicians paced the stage. Then Strummer and Jones sheared into the chords of “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.” and we were off.

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No one has ever made rock and roll as in­tense as the Clash is making right now — not Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis, not the early Beatles or the middle Stones or the in­spired James Brown or the pre-operatic Who, not Hendrix or Led Zep, not the MC-5 or the Stooges, not the Dolls or the Pistols or the Ramones. On a brute physical level, their combination of volume and tempo is unrivaled. Anybody with capital can turn up the amps, of course — the hard part, as an im­pressed Stanley Crouch theorized after the band’s Palladium appearance, is for the mu­sicians to turn themselves up even higher, something not even Robert Plant and Jimmy Page ever try for more than a minute or two, despite the cushion of heavy metal’s rhinoce­-beat. And fast heroes from Little Richard to the Dolls and beyond have known when to slow down, resorting to the change-of-pace much more readily than the Clash, whose dip into “Stay Free” and a speedy “Police an Thieves” induced no one in the orchestra at either concert I attended to sit, although by then simple fatigue had dropped a few. Even the Ramones do ballads and medium-tempo rockers, and the Ramones’ formalistic poses enable them to generate exhilarating music with almost no expenditure of interpretive emotion, while the Clash’s dense and expan­sive song structures, freer stagecraft, and ur­gent verbal messages demand interpretation. For the Clash, every concert is an athletic challenge far out on the shoals of expressionism, whence few new wavers return without a mouthful of brine.

And as usual, Joe Strummer seemed to be spitting something out. But his muttered im­precations about orchestra pits and Harvard City Rockers were part of the fun, and if his largely incomprehensible intro to the ob­scure “Capital Radio” — only the first few words, “Complaint time, complaint time,” emerged loud and clear from between his stumpy teeth — in fact referred to Oedipus, nobody (including Oedipus) let it get him or her down. Words, wonderful as they may have been, weren’t the point. Clearly, these first-hour ticket-buyers were among the 50,000-plus purchasers of the U.S. pressing of Give ‘Em Enough Rope, on CBS’s Epic la­bel, and the almost 50,000 who have made The Clash, on English CBS, the largest-sell­ing import album ever in this country. They were familiar with the five singles too; they probably knew half the words by heart, which is all you can expect without crib sheets. But what gave the event its drama wasn’t just the singalong cheers and out­cries — “Guns Guns shaking in terror/Guns guns killing in error”; “This is the city of the dead”; “Need a little jolt of electrical shock­er”; “Clang clang go the jail guitar doors” — ­or the clamorous, life-giving onrush of the music. It was the natural theatrical force of Strummer himself, not so much exhorting the audience directly as alerting it to the sym­bolic world it shared with him. In his most characteristic move — which he can ease with a modified buck-and-wing or heighten by collapsing toward the floor — his shoulders hunch, his eyes narrow and peer upward, and his finger points as if bombs have just darkened the ceiling. His concentration is awesome. Even during instrumental breaks or the songs Jones sings, he is a fierce pres­ence, scowling while he thrashes out his rhythm part or communing with drummer Topper Headon as if to get closer to the god of beats-per-minute.

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On our side of the P.A., this was an ecstat­ic experience. But behind the fucked-up mo­nitors, trying to make sense of the guitar Mick had borrowed after finally demolishing his decrepit ’52 Les Paul, the band felt they were putting out a lousy show, and they brooded together as press and friends abided first in the auditorium and then backstage. Eventually Mick sauntered out and took me aside for a spliff. The last time we’d seen each other, in Max’s last fall, we’d discussed fas­cism. This time Mick regaled me with a tale of love, hate, and Les Paul. “It was older than I am,” he kept saying, and it had sur­vived a broken neck at the hands of a stoned-hippie Dutch theatre manager, but the night before, in Washington, after going out of tune throughout the tour — a friend who’d caught the band’s disappointing U.S. debut in Berkeley complained about just that — it had started giving him shocks, one or two per song. So Mick, figuring one of them had to go, smashed the thing to bits; his first stop in Manhattan would be 48th Street. Telling me about it cheered him up. I asked after his mum, and learned she was flying in from Ironwood, Michigan, to see her boy play for the first time the next night. He’d be (1)  breaking in a new guitar (2) at the Palladium (3) for his mother. Pressure.

There was a lull during which I wished Oedipus luck in what he regarded as a union­-busting dispute. Then, suddenly, the whole Clash entourage was trooping off to the tour bus, so quickly that the seven minutes it took me to get my stuff from a nearby parking lot almost weren’t enough. I was last aboard, with three of the Clash already behind closed doors in the bunk section. Only Topper Hea­don remained in the bow. I later learned that he’d suggested shoving off without me if I was going to be fucking late.

“Hello, I’m Bob Christgau,” I said, stick­ing out my hand.

“Hello, I’m rude,” said Topper Headon.

In England, the Clash are now much more than the great punk inheritors — they’re a ma­jor pop group, complete with an album that entered the charts at number two and a bit of backlash in the only trade press in the world that regularly accuses artists of undue com­mercialism. Not that that’s the Clash’s crime, exactly — it’s more their failure to resolve contradictions that only they were brazen enough to confront forcefully in the first place. Like everyone else, they watched in frustration as punk disintegrated into faddish sectarianism. Despite their commitment to Rock Against Racism, their pilgrimage to Ja­maica was summed up in a song about “a place where every white face/Is an invitation to robbery.” And worst, in a time of rampant nationalism in British music they softened on America. The producer of their second al­bum turned out to be Sandy Pearlman, American ex-rock critic of Blue Oyster Cult fame (and Pavlov’s Dog infamy), apparently nominated by the band’s U.S. label. While recording they split with manager Bernard Rhodes, a former used-car salesman whose hostile, obscurantist style — like that of his mentor, Malcolm McLaren — made it seem that he’d just as soon tour Patagonia as Penn­sylvania. Then Jones and Strummer spent weeks mixing down with Pearlman in San Francisco, and dallied in New York as well.

No one misses Rhodes, now etching himself on musical memory the way Mike Appel did with Bruce Springsteen — in court. New manager Caroline Coon has been close to the band personally as Paul Simonon’s (somewhat) regular companion, but her credentials are far more substantial than that: She was both head of a hippie-era legal services program for drug arrestees and one of the first rock journalists to lay out the standard class analysis of punk. In short, her radicalism would seem to have deeper roots in a lived life than that of Rhodes, who has attacked the band’s American overtures bitterly. Yet she clearly agrees with her group that American rock and roll is barely breathing and that no one is better qualified to resuscitate it than the best rock and roll band in the world. Not surprisingly, it was Coon the administrator, rather than Coon the ideologue, who was I running what they called the Pearl Harbour Tour.

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Sitting across from me in Waylon Jen­nings’s plush outlaw bus, rented out of Nash­ville for the duration, Coon began to com­plain —for the first time in public, she insist­ed — about Epic Records. This was no shock. The parent corporation has always seemed quite unimpressed with English CBS’s plum. After rejecting the band’s magnificent debut album, first on the product-think grounds of sound quality and then because it had already sold so much as an import, Epic shilly-shal­lied for a long time on tour support for Give ‘Em Enough Rope. The predominant feeling in the company is simply that it will cost too much to break the band here. The same money — between $50,000 and $70,000 for this abbreviated swing through presold loca­tions (every venue was full), with $30,000 or so covering actual travel debits and the rest going into auxiliary promotion — could have been invested in a more established band, say a pretty good one like Cheap Trick, with a far more certain payback in additional units sold. Or it could be used to hype more pre­dictable new hard rock product like Trillion or the Fabulous Poodles.

Not that Coon was running down this kind of bottom-line reductionism to me. Her beefs were more in the area of day-to-day cash flow, and they were completely credible. If she hasn’t convinced Epic by now that these aren’t musicians whose great dream in life is to puke on their grandmothers, she’d do well to take her wares elsewhere. Coast-to-coast by bus with one plane hop from Oklahoma City to Cleveland, eight appearances in seven cities in 15 days, is a cruel grind. But the band stayed up, the Clash stage crew works faster than any I’ve waited for in years, and even the snow-delayed Cambridge show went smoothly. I’ve heard a few reports of blown interviews, and the press doesn’t seem to have made press conferences in California very interesting, but the group definitely made a sweeter impression than it used to when Rhodes was in there pitching. These were decent lads who knew what they were about. I’ve never encountered a more efficient tour.

I say this as someone who proceeded to spend over 13 hours getting from Cambridge to Manhattan. The first delay came when the driver spent an unaccountable stretch of time out of the bus. Eventually it developed that his bags had been stolen, a disclosure that stopped all conversation and so alarmed Hea­don — who’ d suffered a similar loss on the fall tour — that he was soon whispering to Coon that maybe the few dollars he’s won from tour manager Ace Penna could go to the driv­er. Still feeling Jones’s spliff, I offered (over Coon’s protestations) to put up 10 bucks my­self before discovering that I had only a five, four ones, and some 20s. Headon bid valiant­ly for 20, got nine, and disappeared into the back, returning 15 minutes later with a col­lection of about $80 for somebody who prob­ably made more in a week — after expenses, of course — than any of them.

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At around two, Jones and Strummer came forward for take-out food, and shortly after the fried egg and American cheese sandwiches, Headon set off a firecracker that scared the shit out of Jones. Both Headon and Strummer seemed genuinely concerned about this, and spent some time comforting their mate, patting his thigh and apologizing with surprising fervor. Then Jones and Strummer returned to the bunks and Hea­don, who’d been poking fun at my note-tak­ing all night, told me how at 14 he’d earned five pounds a night in trad bands around Dover, unable to leave the stage for a piss be­cause he was underage. After years of tae kwan do, a Korean martial art, his slight body was all sinew. His great dream in life was to break 15 sticks, to skins, and a frame in one night without making a mistake. Only Billy Cobham, Headon told me, has ever bro­ken a frame. Cobham, of course, is built like a football player.

Soon the bus halted again, this time for real — the brake linings had frozen. A few of us sat around a restaurant until 6, when I suggested to Strummer that he’d better get some sleep. There was room in back for me — Bo Diddley finds bunks confining and spent the night in a big corner seat — and I sacked out till 11. When I got up, I found the following additions to the cursory jottings in my notebook:

Skiddley Daddeley
Hamster Fur
Webbed Feet
473 Miles — Texas
Long Hair — Bear
Sid Vicious over …
Manhattan skyline …

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It was not until 4 o’clock, back in my apartment, that I learned — from a friend, by telephone — that China had invaded Vietnam. As it happened, my wife and I had just been getting ready to make love; instead, we tuned to WINS and sat on the bed, holding hands and talking about the end of the world. Apo­calyptic melodrama, I know — the world is never going to end. Of course not. But that was how it struck us at the time. And as the radio wound around to local news I was pos­sessed with the need to get up and put on Give ‘Em Enough Rope, the side that begins with “Guns on the Roof.” I put it on loud. It made me feel better.

Like almost all Clash fans except product-think symps, I was a little disappointed in the follow-up to The Clash, which (tinny sound be damned) may well be the greatest rock and roll album ever recorded. I mean, ordinarily I seek verbal wisdom in books — ­what rock “poetry” really involves is slogan and images and epigrams, or else settings that transfigure ideas and emotions sorely in need of some transfiguration. But on The Clash, the words did more than specify the tremendous force (and subtler cleverness and difficulty) of compelling music. They made you think all by themselves. “The truth is only known by gutter snipes,” Joe Strummer asserted in “Garageland,” and although the street roots of this rebellious diplomat’s son turned out to be hippie-squatter rather than dole-queue, his gutter truths were convinc­ing and gratifying. The working-class youths he and co-composer Jones imagined didn’t let their grim analysis get them down. Simul­taneously (even clashingly) truculent and cheerful, cynical and fraternal, they refused to become immobilized; their actions may have struck more experienced (and privileged) well-wishers as primitive — “If someone locks me out I kick my way back in”­ — but at least they were actions. Here at last was art with access to a contemporary, white, English-speaking proletarian culture. It pos­ited kids whose very determination to survive took guts and whose unwillingness to give up the idea of victory was positively heroic.

On Give ‘Em Enough Rope this generous vi­sion was stymied by perplexities all too famil­iar to experienced well-wishers. This major (and privileged) pop group sounded as wea­ried by the failure of solidarity, the persist­ence of racial conflict, the facelessness of vio­lence, and the ineluctability of capital as some bunch of tenured Marxists, and I wasn’t ready to settle — they’d amazed me by coming up with a new beginning, and just like my English colleagues I wanted them to amaze me again by carrying it through. But the familiar contradictions followed upon the invigorating gutter truths for excellent rea­son — they were truths as well. And at a time when two supposedly communist nations were girding up to ravage each other (not to mention me) I found that the way Give ‘Em Enough Rope transfigured its old ideas and emotions was useful in a way I hadn’t felt much need of before. The music channeled my fear into anger and lent me the spirit to do what I had to do. Which was go to another Clash concert, and if you weren’t there I’m sorry. As Alan Platt put it in The SoHo Week­ly News: ”It would be a pity if the impending nuclear holocaust prevented you from seeing this band.”

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I found the vibes at the Palladium inauspi­cious, not because of potential H-bomb but because the edge of anticipation was dulled by curiosity-seekers — bizzers, celebs, plain old rock and rollers. Opening were the Cramps, who are finally achieving the contemptuous rigidity they have sought so faithfully for so long; I’m glad the Clash tried to hire local bands with women in them, and would suggest the Erasers, Nervus Rex, or even DNA next time. Bo Diddley was backed by an intriguing combo — four black men and a white woman guitarist — but (with no help from the show-mes in the audience) couldn’t make it jell. Yet from the moment the Clash came on the crowd was on its feet, and that this was only to be expected says a lot in itself. Perhaps heightened expectations were why the seen-it-all audience was still holding back a little at the encore of a perfor­mance the musicians themselves thought the best of the tour. That was when Strummer announced (quite undefensively, I thought) that New York was as tough as London. Shortly thereafter the Clash broke into a brief rave-up on “London’s Burning” that scorched New York good. I’ve run across those who were basically unmoved. But I’ve heard stuff like “swept away,” “almost-tran­scendent,” “left me slack-jawed” from doz­ens of others.

Those not too familiar with the band re­ported themselves transfixed by Strummer, but the more knowledgeable raved about Jones, who had some night. In Cambridge his spare leads had worked almost sublimi­nally, skimming the edges, but at the Palladium he cut through the tumult, intensifying both the concentration and the canny disarray of the music with his clangorous counter-statements. He also sang as if his mother might be listening, getting through the tricky “Stay Free” — a greeting to a mate out of jail that translates the band’s new political wari­ness into personal warmth — without a clinker. What impressed me about Strummer was how his strumming drove the band, freeing Simonon’s bass for the military embellish­ments he favors and allowing Headon to nudge the music toward an occasional Jama­ican accent. Not that there’s too much of that yet. These boys force the rhythm for sure.

I’d hoped the Clash would commemorate the onset of World War III with a well-chos­en propagandistic flourish, but it could almost have been any rock gig that happened to feature lines about wealth distribution and letter bombs. When Mick came center stage to sing “Hate and War” — “An if I close my eyes they will not go away/You have to deal with it/It is the currency” — he mentioned that the song had special meaning on the day China invaded Vietnam. And that was how he dealt with it. But after the concert, in a dressing room crammed with paparazzi bait, he flourished a paraphrase of the old Tempts’ song: ”If it’s war that you’re running from,” he sang without a clinker, “There’s no hiding place.” Then he cited Nostradamus, not my idea of a reliable source, and offered his own prediction: “I figure they’ll pick off two or three cities by the end of the year. Or do you think I’m doomsayer-mongering? Am I some kind of nihilist, Christgau?”

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Obviously, people who go out and do what they have to do with as much determination as the Clash aren’t nihilists. A harder-line po­litico than me might even suspect they’re get­ting too goddamn constructive. Do they want to turn into the Who or something? Well, in 1979 terms, maybe they do. This band re­vives insurrectionary international conscious­ness as a rock dream. And puny as any rock dream may seem in the face of World War III, that one is a long way from where we are. Epic apologists talk about how the Clash start out from “below ground zero” as a result of all the punk stuff, but in fact the band has a deeper hole to deal with — the one in which the music biz, records and radio both, hoped to bury the kind of rock and roll that is an abrasive, and/or inspirational force in peo­ple’s lives.

I’m a skeptic, but I find it hard to believe that a band this good isn’t going to dig its way out. They’ve clearly impressed Epic, but if Epic doesn’t take the shot — the band wants additional support for “a proper tour” begin­ning in June — someone else will. And then maybe they can get to the place Strummer described a few months ago in the British magazine Time Out: “All we want to achieve is an atmosphere where things can happen. We want to keep the spirit of the free world. We want to keep out that safe, soapy slush that comes out of the radio… All we’ve got is a few guitars, amps, and drums. That’s our weaponry.”

What else can a poor boy do? Lots of things. But these particular poor boys have their work cut out for them. ♦

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

The Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan Goes Public

It might be said that over the past few weeks Bob Dylan has gone public. He has shown up to see Paul Smith and Muddy Waters and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; he has sat in at the Other End; he has hung out. One night around three in the morning, after Bobby Neuwirth’s club set, Dylan sat and performed new material for over an hour at the Other End bar — a song about Joey Gallo, a song about marrying Isis — and except for Muddy Waters all of the aforementioned musicians were part of an audience that included more than one journalist and several hundred gawkers. Also present was that old Dylan imitator, Ian Hunter, who was having his head blown off — not only had Dylan identified him as a member of Mott the Hoople (which he’s not any more, as if Hunter could care) but he’d known all the tracks on Hunter’s (or was it Mott’s) first album. Unbelievable.

This is news. For almost a decade, Dylan’s need to armor himself against the attentions of his admirers has played a large part in the way we think about him — even though sightings have been common sine early 1968, it has been the alarming 18-month period of complete seclusion just before then that’s stuck in our minds. Of course, all that began to change subtly after his 1974 tour with the Band. If it’s going too far to say that Dylan has been demythified, then at least what remained of his divinity has dissipated, with all his party scenes and benefits and rumors reduced to the goings-on of a Major Rock Star who can almost keep his co-stars’ groups straight. But since for his acolytes from the folk days these hootenanny visitations seem to portend a New Eden, old friends singing songs of innocence and experience together once again, it is well to remind ourselves that the beginnings of the change were quite unelevated — commonplace almost by definition, since they served to reintroduce Dylan to the commonalty.

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The process began with the tour itself, a Major Rock Event of a familiar kind, and was accelerated by reports of breaches in that magical domestic fortress that had long separated Dylan from ordinary mortals. But it has also involved a fact that is arguably as much economic as it is artistic: a sudden profusion of recorded material following three years of near-drought, years that yielded a total of eight new tracks, a movie score, and a corporate rip-off. In contrast, the past 18 months have brought forth five discs (not counting two halves by the Band) — four albums, two of them doubles: Planet Waves, Before the Flood, Blood on the Tracks, and the newly released Basement Tapes.

The critical front-runner among these albums is clearly Blood on the Tracks. I myself called it Dylan’s best since John Wesley Harding when it came out in January — and then didn’t play it three times before I began to write this piece. Listening now, I am stirred once again by the tact and persistent musicality of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” and by the dovetailing delicacy of “Tangled Up in Blue” (lost love recalled) and “Buckets of Rain” (love’s loss foreseen) — stirred, in fact, by the sheer craft of the whole endeavor. Dylan has never been a confessional writer, but this control of aesthetic distance on Blood on the Tracks is a small coup: “Tangled Up in Blue,” which cannot describe the facts of his life, and “You’re a Big Girl Now,” which can, are both enlivened by the same seemingly autobiographical intimacy, but both are without question comely objects first and foremost.

That’s the critic in me talking, of course, the same fellow who’s always making deadline judgments before the listener in me has a chance to live with the music. The listener admires Blood on the Tracks, likes it a lot, but he thinks: it’s meaningless to call it Dylan’s best album since John Wesley Harding when he never feels like putting it on. To the listener, Blood on the Tracks sounds suspiciously like product, and when it comes to product he happens to prefer Steely Dan to Dylan just as he prefers Hydrox to Oreos or Lorna Doones.

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Not that Dylan is capable of putting out product in the manner of a Major Rock Professional. He has always resisted that. It has been his practice to just go into the studio and cut, so that a lot of what gets onto the LP you buy in the store is first and second takes. Chuck Berry and the early Beatles were recorded this way, but over the past decade it has become customary (if not compulsory) to put more quality control into the manufacture of rock and roll, and Blood on the Tracks sounds as if it consents to what is best about such standards. It has pace, flow, variety; it tolerates few if any gaffes; it is well made. This is partly because Dylan decided to re-record some of the original Eric Weissberg sessions with other musicians in Minneapolis, which enabled him to combine two different musical moods on the same disc. Much more telling, though, is the way the record shifts vocally, from a mock-callow whine to variants on the rounder and juicier rock and roll voice of New Morning and Greatest Hits Volume II.

Dylan’s alacrity in the studio hardly commits him to spontaneity, especially to spontaneity as it is commonly understood — the free play of the undefended self and so forth. On the contrary, Dylan is always guarded — he knows almost exactly what will happen when he records. Each release is intended to objectify a preordained concept that is both quickened and preserved for posterity by his instant studio technique. Particularly since Blonde on Blonde, the vehicle of each concept has been a voice that in some way exemplifies it, the most extreme example being the high lonesome tenor of Nashville Skyline. This is to say that Dylan has continually and deliberately remodeled his singing voice, with a dual purpose: to project himself into the world and to armor himself against it. For him to relax this control on Blood on the Tracks is yet another kind of going public. But it also relinquishes the obsessiveness that makes eccentric records like Planet Waves and Before the Flood so compelling for me.

Unlike many people I admire, I’ve never played my Dylan records repeatedly or even regularly. Their conceptual strictness has discouraged both easy listening — even Nashville Skyline, for all its calculated pleasantness, never fit smoothly into my days — and full personal identification. And so the listener in me subconsciously vetoes the critic; there are times when I crave a specific Dylan record with a fervor of the will no other artist can arouse in me, and I value him immensely for that, but only rarely can he just be part of a stack. Lacking the totally committed professionalism of meaningful/listenable masterpieces like Layla and Exile on Main Street, Blood on the Tracks fails to achieve what I suspect was intended for it — a place in the stack with just such records, all of which it melts or freezes just because it is so distinctively Dylan. I could make up reasons explaining why it’s as precise conceptually as anything he’s done — the many voices of love, something like that — and there’s no way it won’t rank high in my year-end top 10. But it’s a half-measure.

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The Basement Tapes, on the other hand, is no kind of measure at all, and that is its secret. These are the famous lost songs recorded with the Band at Big Pink in 1967 and later bootlegged on The Great White Wonder and elsewhere. Of the 18 Dylan compositions included, 12 have by now been heard in legitimate commercial versions by other artists, and another, “Down in the Flood,” was recut by Dylan himself for Greatest Hits Volume II; one of the remaining five, “Going to Acapulco,” has never ever been bootlegged, and neither have any of the six Band songs, which I would adjudge to be among their very best work. Sound quality has been greatly improved. Greil Marcus, who wrote the notes, tells me he hears instruments that are entirely inaudible on his second-generation tape. All of which begins to sketch in the complicated recording history of work that was never meant to be reproduced at all.

Well, not quite. The Band songs are relatively polished; it is said that the scaricomic “Yazoo Street Scandal” was presented as a demo to Clive Davis, who rejected it. But the Dylan songs are work tapes at best, first stabs at arrangements barely roughed out, preliminary even by Dylan’s abrupt standards. The main reason they were taped was so that they could be transcribed and copyrighted by Albert Grossman’s office. They weren’t ever supposed to go out to other artists, much less be circulated among the faithful as proof that the avatar was alive and creative in Woodstock. So the music is certifiably unpremeditated, a candid shot from a hero who has turned to his friends and coworkers after coming too close to death to enjoy the arrogance of power any longer. The concepts that are to arise from this interaction among equals will eventually take form as the dry, contained John Wesley Harding and the supercharged, eccentric Music From Big Pink; at this juncture, however, artist and group have arrived at a more moderate synthesis, merely simple and quirkish, and couldn’t care less whether they’re only passing through. No organizing principle keeps the music in line.

The basement tapes were the original laid-back rock, early investigations of a mode that would eventually come to pervade the whole music. Not that they suggested any of the complacent slickness now associated with the term — just that they were lazy as a river and rarely relentless or precise. In 1967, this was impermissible. Even the Grateful Dead, who were also trying to meld individualistic musicians into a rocking flow while rummaging through the American mythos with an antirealistic aesthetic, were so fixated on the triumph of Sgt. Pepper that they forsook the sweet relaxation of their debut album for Anthem of the Sun, a technologically brilliant failure. An inspired artificiality was the rule. I suspect that both Dylan and the Band were afraid, if not consciously then instinctively, that their concepts had to be strong and pure if they were to survive this heady competition. So instead of nurturing the basement music, they transformed simple into dry and contained and quirkish into supercharged and eccentric. And maybe they did right. Remember that the bootlegs didn’t show up until 1969; I wonder how they would have been received in late 1967.

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But I wonder primarily for purposes of argument. I find this music irresistible, and I can’t believe that any slicking up to which Dylan and his boys might have succumbed would have harmed it. Like a drunk falling out of a first-story window, it’s just too loose to break much. Over the years it’s been the more writerly “serious” songs that people have talked about — not only “I Shall Be Released” (omitted here), but “Tears of Rage,” “This Wheel’s on Fire,” “Too Much of Nothing,” “Nothing Was Delivered” — and to this group can now be added “Going to Acapulco,” which I would describe (roughly) as the lament of the singer-songwriter as gigolo, so mournful about “going to have some fun” that he anticipates the watchtower: “Now when someone offers me a joke I just say no thanks/I try to tell it like it is and keep away from pranks.”

Like the others, this is a richly suggestive piece of work, and like the others — especially “Tears of Rage” — it’s all the richer for being surrounded by pranks. The many nonsense songs here are unequalled in Dylan’s work; even Greil Marcus’s comparisons to the likes of “Froggy Went A-Courtin'” falls a little short. Could Pecos Bill boast: “I can drink like a fish/I can crawl like a snake/I can bite like a turkey/I can slam like a drake”? Could Carl Perkins tell Sam Phillips: “Gonna save my money and rip it up!”? What are we to make of Turtle, “With his checks all forged/And his cheeks in a chunk”? And why don’t you get that apple off your fly?

These songs are too contemporary to be subject to pop notices of timeliness. Just as “Going to Acapulco” is a dirge about having fun, so “Don’t Ya Tell Henry” is a ditty about separation from self, and when the complementary irony of these two modes combines with the Band’s more conventional (“realistic”) approach to lyrics, the mix that results can be counted on to make as much sense in 1983 as it did in 1967. The power of melody-lyric-performance transcends petty details of sound levels (which vary enough to shock any well-respected studio technician) and shifting vocal styles. We don’t have to bow our heads in shame because this is the best album of 1975. It would have been the best album of 1967, too. The music is so free I bet it can even be stacked, but I’ve been playing it too repeatedly to find out.

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What is most lovable about the album, though, is simply the way it unites public and private, revealing a Dylan armed in the mystery of his songs but divested of the mystique of celebrity with which we has surrounded his recording career for almost a decade. It would be impossible to plan such exposure, and however much the album’s release has to do with generous royalties from CBS or the supposed sagging of the Band, it’s nice to know that he feels secure enough to do it. There he is, folks. When he giggled at the beginning of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” he was just being coy; the mishap ceased to be a mishap once it was pressed and released. But when he almost breaks out laughing in the middle of “Please, Mrs. Henry,” he’s really there.

The night after Dylan’s impromptu bar concert, I checked out the Other End, not so much for the listener in me as for the critic/journalist, who didn’t expect Dylan to show and would have felt like an asshole to miss him. What all of us got instead was some good music — Jack Elliott and Mick Ronson backing Patti Smith on “Angel Baby” qualifies as a blessed event — and much okay music and Bobby Neuwirth scratching his own back. I found the vibes insular and self-satisfied. But Dylan is reported to be happy to be back on the street again, and if it makes him happy then I’m happy too. Good music happens there.

When I talk about Dylan going public, though, that won’t be what I mean. I’ll be talking about The Basement Tapes, the singer-songwriter exposed in front of hundreds of thousands — I hope millions — of listeners. What a friendly thing to do.

This and other classic Voice stories can also be 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 in 2018.

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Richard Hell: An Antidandy at the Peppermint Lounge

RIFFS

It was the only area appearance of rock bohemia’s legendary symbol, but on June 25 the spanking-new downtown Pep was crowded with refugees from 45th Street — ­rock and roll youth out to get laid, lighter on hitters than the Ritz, but nowhere near as effete as Danceteria or as schlumpy-­collegiate as Irving Plaza or CBGB. The one familiar face I spotted was that of Terry Ork, Richard Hell’s original im­presario. At two Hell came on with his latest band, who aren’t called the Voidoids even though they feature Ivan Julian and aren’t called the Outsets even though that’s their name, delivering a brief intro in his patented kindergartener-on-the-nod drawl: “Hello ladies and gents — we were children once.” Then they launched into “Love Comes in Spurts,” the song Hell chose to kick off his debut album almost five years ago. As the set rocked on I no­ticed a few ravaged old-timers observing from the sidelines. I also ran into Giorgio Gomelski, the Rolling Stones’ original im­presario, who dubbed Hell “a symbol of elegance,” spraying me with saliva as he did so.

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As we collegiate schlumps often forget, it’s not impossible to symbolize bohemia and elegance simultaneously (cf. Walter Benjamin on the Flaneur). But though Hell apparently values his red top, which he wears on the cover of his follow-up album, it proved less noteworthy than the black leather and ripped T-shirts out of which he constructed the avant-punk anti­dandy back when Malcolm McLaren was strictly a haberdasher. Hell put on a strong show, but he made no waves in a casually dressed-up audience to which he related only as the professional entertainer he’s never much wanted to be. Once he defined, and I quote, a blank generation; now he disparages, and I quote again, the lowest common denominator. Over a five-year haul, symbolizing bohemia can get to be depressing work.

At the time of Blank Generation, Hell really was the quintessential avant-punk. With no more irony than was mete, he presented his nihilistic narcissism not as youthful hijinx but as a full-fledged philos­ophy/aesthetic, and though he never quite put his heart into proselytizing, he was perfectly willing to go along with im­presarios who considered his stance com­mercial dynamite — and to con others when the money ran out. Nor was he merely purveying a stance. Though it was the musicianship of Bob Quine — a much denser, choppier, and more nerve-wrack­ing player than his romantic rival, former Hell associate Tom Verlaine — that made the Voidoids the most original and accomplished band of the CBGB era, Quine was and is a sideman, worth hearing in any context but lacking the visionary oomph to create one. The band was Hell’s, and that it embraced former Foundation Ivan Julian, whose slashing leads I’ve misiden­tified more than once as Quine in a warm mood, and future Ramone Marc Bell, a converted heavy metal kid of surpassingly simple needs, says a great deal for his ambition and his outreach. That it sold bubkes, of course, may say just as much for his laziness and his hubris. But the prob­lem didn’t begin, or end, with Hell. The impresarios were just plain wrong.

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So Blank Generation stands off in its own corner of the boho cosmos as the ultimate CBGB cult record. It had no ap­parent antecedents, and until Destiny Street was finally released by Marty Thau, the New York Dolls’ original impresario, its only descendant was Lester Bang’s Jook Savages on the Brazos. If the new album feels just a little tired despite its undeniable attractions, it’s not because Hell’s musical concepts have been lowest­-common-denominatored. With Material’s Fred Maher replacing Bell and postpunk engineer (Y Pants) and bandleader (China Shop) Naux on second guitar, it’s fuller and jazzier than Blank Generation with­out any loss of concision or toon appeal. Although producer Alan Betrock is a noto­rious pop addict, it was Nick Lowe who added ooh-ooh backups and cleanly articu­lated thematic solos to “The Kid with the Replacable Head,” back when Jake Riv­iera was doing time as Hell’s impresario; the version Betrock oversaw is chock full and coming apart, a real New York rocker. What’s changed is Hell’s head. He’s matured, as they say, and I’m not sure it suits him.

The problem begins with the two theme cuts — the title parable, a vamp-with-talk­over in which nostalgia and ambition are rejected in favor of the good old here-and-­now, and “Time,” in which an inescapable medium-tempo melody is attached to lines like “Only time can write a song that’s really really real.” Both are grabbers, and both soon let go, as music and poetry re­spectively. Elsewhere, the bohemian sym­bol’s destiny seems bitter indeed, as a glance back at Blank Generation makes clear. “Lowest Common Denominator” is the only all-out putdown, but where “Liars Beware” reviled power brokers, Hell is go­ing after scenemakers this time, no doubt the hitters and collegiate schlumps who’ve ruined his favorite hangout and orgiast’s dream. In “Down at the Rock and Roll Club,” “sexy love” was communitarian “fun,” but now he prefers to “get all de­-civilized” at a “dropout disco” that sounds more like some after-hours hideaway than the Peppermint Lounge. In fact, all the old escapes have lost their magic. “Ignore That Door,” a throwaway rave-up that’s the most sheerly fun thing on the record, op­poses scag as unambivalently (vaguely but unmistakably) as “New Pleasure” praised it, and twice Hell complains of feeling “alone.” So where “The Plan” and “Be­trayal Takes Two” equated private sex with Faustian sin, these days the poéte maudit manqué is looking for love that doesn’t come in spurts. In “Staring in Her Eyes” he explicitly surrenders his narcis­sistic nihilism (and his “looking around”) to achieve the bliss described in the title, which sure as shooting he takes to an un­healthy extreme: “Stare like a corpse in each’s eyes/Till you never want to come alive and rise.”

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Admittedly, the song is affecting even at that, its lyricism intensified, as so often with Hell, by the yearning inexactitude with which he pursues its melody. And I sympathize in principle with Hell’s new head, as you probably do. I just don’t feel he has his heart in it. “Betrayal Takes Two” is a genuinely evil song, a seducer’s alibi worthy of Kierkegaard before Christ, while “Staring in Her Eyes” is sweetly creepy at best — a little easier to sell, perhaps, and a real truth for the chastened Hell, but with less to express and hence less to tell us. And no matter what Marty Thau thinks, it won’t be very easy to sell. Hell might conceivably follow in the foot­steps of David Johansen, the New York Dolls original, who now makes a decent living as a legend, but there’s a big dif­ference between the two — Hell’s aversion to the lowest common denominator. He’s just not a professional entertainer, and though his regrets over the multiplication and fractionalization of rock bohemia may be justified, his potential audience is no blank generation. Yet it was with that anthem that Hell tried to climax his show. It went over all right, of course — it’s a good song. But the audience remained rock and roll youth out to get laid, and the Pep didn’t look any more like a dropout disco when he was through. ■

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Beastie Boys: How Ya Like ’Em Now?

“Beastie Boys: How Ya Like ’Em Now?”

August 15, 1989

On the rap report card Kool Moe Dee stuck into How Ya Like Me Now back in ’87, the old-schooler proved an easy marker — only two of the 25 pupils fell below Public Enemy at 80 B. The token nonentity Boogie Boys got 7 or 8 in teach’s 10 categories for a 77 C+, and way below that were the perpetrators of history’s best-selling rap album, the Beastie Boys, with a 10 in sticking to themes, an 8 in records and stage presence, and a 6 or 7 in vocabulary, voice, versatility, articulation, creativity, originality, and innovating rhythms. Total: 70, barely a C.

You can laugh off these grades, but with Moe Dee’s archival L.L. Cool J tied for fifth at 90 A, they did represent his sincere attempt to formalize the values of his fading artistic generation — values upended by Public Enemy and the Beasties. A career nondropout who earned a communications B.A. while leading the Treacherous Three, Moe Dee idealized upright manliness; having come up in a vital performance community, he didn’t consider records important enough to mark for hooks, mixing, sampling, pacing, innovating textures, and what have you. Like most rock pioneers, he couldn’t comprehend the upheaval he’d helped instigate: a music composed in the studio by copycats so in love with rap that they thought nothing of stretching it, mocking it, wrecking it, exploiting it — going too far, taking it up and over and out and around, making it better.

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If Public Enemy was a threat — collegians with a radical program, arrogantly burying their pleasures deep — the Beasties were an insult; they dissed everything Moe Dee stood for. Sons of the artistic upper-middle class (architect, art dealer, playwright), they laughed at the education Chuck D made something of and Moe Dee strove for (two years at Bard, a term at Vassar, two hours at Manhattan Community). Like millions of bohos before them, they were anything but upright, boys not men for as long as they could get away with it. As born aesthetes, they grabbed onto rap’s musical quality and potential; as reflexive rebels, they celebrated its unacceptability in the punk subculture and the world outside. And of course, they were white in a genre invented by and for black teenagers whose racial consciousness ran deep and would soon get large.

The way the Beasties tapped the hip-hop audience says plenty for the smarts and openness of their black manager and the black kids he steered them toward, but also testifies to their own instinct and flair. From Anthrax to Maroon, those few white imitators who aren’t merely horrendous don’t come close to the Beasties’ street credibility. We were probably right to credit Rick Rubin with all the what-have-you that as of late 1986 made Licensed To Ill history’s greatest rap album, but in retrospect one recalls the once-fashionable fallacy that George Martin was the fifth Beatle. Certainly the Beasties’ unduplicable personas and perfect timing were what Rubin’s expansive metal-rap was selling, and most likely a fair share of the music was their idea. We didn’t think they could top themselves not because they were stupid or untalented — except for a few cretins in the Brit tabloids, nobody really believed that — but because their achievement was untoppable by definition. Outrage gets old fast, and rap eats its kings like no pop subgenre ever.

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Lots of things have changed since late 1986. The Beasties’ street credibility dimmed as “Fight for Your Right” went pop and Public Enemy turned hip-hop to black nationalism. Due partly to the Beasties and mostly to how good the shit was, Yo! MTV Raps brought black rap to a white audience. History’s biggest-selling rap single (and first number-one black rap album) was recorded in L.A. by a former repo man. After feuding with his black partner, Rick Rubin transmuted into a metal producer, and after feuding with their black manager, the Beasties became Capitol’s first East Coast rap signing since the Boogie Boys. Chuck D. and Hank Shocklee undertook to mix up a since-aborted album of the Beasties’ Def Jam outtakes. And if the Beasties’ Paul’s Boutique doesn’t top Licensed To Ill, though in some ways it does, it’s up there with De La Soul in a year when L.L. Cool J is holding his crown and Kool Moe Dee is showing his age.

Avant-garde rap, Licensed To Ill was pop metal, foregrounding riffs and attitude any hedonist could love while eliminating wack solos and dumb-ass posturing (just like Kool Moe Dee, metal fans think David Coverdale has more “voice” than Johnny Thunders). Paul’s Boutique isn’t user-friendly — I don’t hear a rock anthem like “Fight for Your Right,” or street beats like “Hold It, Now Hit It”’s either. But give it three plays and a half a j’s concentration and it will amaze and delight you with its high-speed volubility and riffs from nowhere. It’s a generous tour de force — an absolutely unpretentious and unsententious affirmation of cultural diversity, of where they came from and where they went from there.

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For versatility, or at least variety, they drop names: check out the names they drop: Cezanne, Houdini, Newton, Salinger, Ponce de Leon, Sadaharu Oh, Phil Rizzuto, Joe Blow, Bob Dylan, Jelly Roll Morton, Jerry Lee Swaggart, Jerry Lee Falwell. Or the samples they exploit less as hooks than as tags: Funky Four Plus One (twice), Johnny Cash, Charlie Daniels, Public Enemy, Wailers, Eek-a-Mouse (I think), Jean Knight, Ricky Skaggs (I think). For innovating rhythms, there are countless funk and metal artists I can’t ID even when I recognize them. For vocabulary, start with “I’m Adam and I’m adamant about living large,” or maybe “Expressing my aggressions through my schizophrenic verse words” (rhymes with curse words), then ponder these pairings: snifter-shoplifter, selfish-shellfish, homeless-phoneless, cellular-hell you were, fuck this-Butkus. Not what Moe Dee had in mind, of course. But definitely what all avatars of information overload have in mind, or some of it: “If I had a penny for my thoughts I’d be a millionaire.”

These Beasties aren’t as stoopid or stupid as the ones Rick Rubin gave the world (or as Rick Rubin). In fact, one of the most impressive things about Paul’s Boutique is what can only be called its moral tone. The Beasties are still bad — they get laid, they do drugs, they break laws, they laze around. But this time they know the difference between bad and evil. Crack and cocaine and woman-beaters and stickup kids get theirs; one song goes out to a homeless rockabilly wino, another ends, “Racism is schism on the serious tip.” For violence in the street we have the amazing “Egg Man,” in which they pelt various straights, fall guys, and miscreants with “a symbol of life”: “Not like the crack that you put in a pipe/But the crack on your forehead here’s/A towel now wipe.” Hostile? Why not? Destructive? Not if they can help it without trying too hard. They’re not buying.

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Just to dis Def Jam — check “Car Thief,” which also takes on the presidency — the Beasties couldn’t have picked more apposite collaborators than L.A.’s Dust Brothers, one of whom co-produced the aforementioned number-one rap album. But where Loc-ed After Dark is simplistic, its beats and hooks marched out one at a time, Paul’s Boutique is jam-packed, frenetic, stark. It doesn’t groove with the affirmative swagger of Kool Moe Dee or L.L. Cool J, and its catholicity is very much in-your-face — as is its unspoken avowal that the music of a nascent Afrocentrism can still be stretched (mocked? wrecked?) by sons of the white artistic upper-middle class. Having gotten rich off rap, the Beasties now presume to adapt it to their roots, to make Paul’s Boutique a triumph of postmodern “art.” Their sampling comes down on the side of dissociation, not synthesis — of a subculture happily at the end of its tether rather than nascent anything. It impolitely demonstrates that privileged wise guys can repossess the media options Moe Dee was battling for back when they were still punks in prep school. After all, this deliberately difficult piece of product will outsell Knowledge Is King. One can only hope Moe Dee is race man enough to take satisfaction in its failure to overtake Walking With a Panther, or Loc-ed After Dark.

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Dropping In on the Grateful Dead

I tried to roll a joint before walking over to the Palladium to see the Grateful Dead for the first time in four years last Friday, but ended up asking my wife to do it. I’d never mastered the knack, even when I was in practice, and this would be the third or fourth time I’d smoked my own grass in — hmm — about four years. All of these instances, I should add, have taken place since I made a buy in honor of Graham Parker’s Palladium appearance last De­cember. Turn on, tune in, drop in.

I am, or have been, a certified Grateful Dead freak; I don’t know how many Dead concerts I’ve attended, but it has to be more than 25, which for this record addict is a record. What’s more, I never made a conscious decision to lay off. In fact, the last time I’d seen them, at Nassau Coli­seum shortly after Pigpen’s death in March, 1973, I couldn’t tear myself away from “Sugar Magnolia” and go write my review, while the time before — Roo­sevelt Stadium in July, 1972 — I had left with some relief (and no deadline) during the same song. Yet somehow I never got back. I continued to admire the staunch commu­nalism of Jerry Garcia’s countercultural values, but their spaced-out myopia of these values became harder and harder to take as history got harsher and harsher. A parallel spaceyness was increasingly ap­parent in records I struggled — and eventu­ally failed — to find praiseworthy. With Pigpen’s r&b pulled out by the roots, the Dead’s music was defined by Bob Weir’s strained rockabilly when it touched earth at all. What a combination — a ’60s nostalgia trip in the attenuated country-rock mode of the middle ’70s. So what if they ran their own record company? I was better off savoring my memories.

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It was basically to check out these memories that I went to the Palladium. Anti-psychedelic propaganda notwith­standing, Dead heads tend to be quite bright. But it should go without saying that the group inspires (and attracts) enlightened hipness rather than analytic acumen or musical savvy, which means that most of my acquaintances remain decidedly unconverted. When the Dead applied for State Department assistance on an Asian tour last fall, I found it impossible to locate cuts on either of two relatively strong albums that would convince a panel of open-minded jazz and folk professionals that the band was worthy. In that skeptical context, Jon Landau’s old charges about “absence of a lead singer with a competent voice” and “no drive” became quite vivid. I went home and put on Live/Dead, once one of my favorite records; it sounded aimless. Even Workingman’s Dead, their best-made LP, lacked punch. I began to wonder whether my former fanaticism was based on anything more substantial than good dope, and misconstrued vibes.

When we arrived at the Palladium at 8:30, punctual by Dead standards, the music had already begun, and the vibes were unmistakable — hair was shorter, but the eyes had that old glow. The music sounded good, too; even skeptics find something nice to say about Garcia’s gui­tar, and he was ringing through the smoke as we took our seats. The tune — from Blues for Allah, their worst, most recent, and biggest-selling studio LP — was predictably desultory. But when a Dead jam climaxes properly, Garcia’s keen lines transfigure the surrounding babble into a strain of polyrhythmic rhapsody not ordinarily encountered at the Palladium or anywhere else. I was aware, as this climax recurred three times in the course of the song, that I was being subjected to the Dead’s basic tension-and-release trick, but that didn’t make me enjoy it less. Unfortunately, nothing exhilarating occurred during “New, New Minglewood Blues” — or the always long-winded “Tennessee Jed.” In fact, I was quite bored, and not in the spirit of friendly rumination I used to love them for eliciting — I was worrying how long they’d play. Not until Garcia’s opening solo on a Donna Godchaux feature did anything interesting catch my ear. I decid­ed to toke up immediately. And immedi­ately the concert got better.

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But I swear that it really did get better. In any case, cheers and whistles from the audience increased in loudness and number, and mine were among them even though the effect of the dope was not to bring me into the music but to put me more attentively outside it. I noticed with some disapproval, for instance, that the ripple effect I’d always admired in Garcia’s playing was achieved, at least this time, by an improvisationally elementary device: He was running triplets up and down the scale, four at a time, so that when he merely held a single note for two beats the contrast was arresting almost by definition. Soon, I also noticed, however, that into all this repetition he was sneaking a few very attractive melodies. Then, for the final raveup, he suddenly attacked the guitar with a bluesish (almost Jamesian) slash that made all that rippling melody seem a diversion in subliminal retrospect. We’d been set up, and we loved it.

Joints were shared by strangers during the half-time intermission, a rite now rare enough at concerts to be newsworthy. But although the dope continued for the rest of the show, it was the two numbers that opened the second set — Gary Davis’s “Samson and Delilah” and a long, slow “Sugaree” — that were the high point. Only “California,” which sounds like their first groundbreaking new song in at least five years, and Garcia’s transmutation into Chuck Berry on the flaccid (and too well­-received) finale, “Around and Around,” really turned me on. But when the cheering stopped it was 12:45. My wife and I would both have sworn it was an hour earlier.

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In other words, although this was not (for me) a great Dead concert — great Dead concerts finish in total abandon — it kept me occupied the way nobody’s concerts do anymore, not for two hours, much less four. Appropriately, my number one occupation was figuring out just what the Dead are and have been. Clearly, not your textbook Great Rock and Roll Band. They do lack drive; even at the climaxes they roll rather than rock. Their good drummer, Mickey Hart, is into jazz rhythms, and their ordi­nary drummer, Bill Kreutzmann, has never had the chops to push the band, although since Phil Lash plays bass strictly for lyrical input and harmonic guidance, pushing the band would be uphill work for Steve Gadd or Keith Moon.

More complex is the issue of vocal competence. By their own standards, the Dead learned to sing — to project their voices — around 1969. Their equipment has never been overwhelming; even Bob Weir, the loudest, has always wavered slightly. But insofar as they are incompetent, it is not as singers, but as lead singers — they project voice but not character. They do add the appropriate emotional color to the words and notes, of course — weary plain­tiveness, happy energy, whatever — but the color is there for musical rather than dramatic reasons; even when Weir shouts out “One More Saturday Night,” to choose the most far-fetched example available, there is something slightly detached about his ebullience. This deadpan quality is much more apparent in a typical perform­ance by Garcia or Donna Godchaux (who has moved from pianist’s wife to backup chick to part-timer in good standing); it often makes Weir’s own “El Paso” seem oddly off. By instinct or design the Dead refuse to provide the easy psychological referents that most people (including me) seek in vocal music. What’s left is the music itself. Performing personas­ — Weir’s callowness, which becomes ever harder to tolerate as he passes 30, or Garcia’s beneficence — are inescapable for musicians on view for dozens and even hundreds of individual spectator-hours. But even these tend to merge into the Dead’s version of the ultimate reality.

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The source of this vocal anti-stance is clearly the affectless singing of bluegrass and string-band music. But it makes for surprising alliances. Yes and Cleo Laine, for instance, use the voice for emotional rather than musical effect. The Dead distinguish themselves from such showoffs by their vaunted modesty. Garcia (not to mention Mickey Hart and Keith Godchaux) is not averse to letting us enjoy his techni­cal virtuosity, but always in the service of the larger pattern; in their own way, the Dead are as anti-virtuosic as the Ramones. This in turn suggests other alliances. ­Television, say, or Eno, who in his con­siderably more abstract way also exploits rock and roll usages to build patterns that move back and forth between the reflective and the ecstatic. To me, such connections are instinctively right. They add an enlightening dimension to the Dead’s status as musty avatars of the counterculture. This can’t mean that all those déclassé longhairs were actually as avant-garde as they thought they were, can it? The thought of finding out is enough to make me take up smoking again.