Saturday, August 07, 2010

A Fond Farewell.

It was February 1983. I was working in lower Manhattan and it was a Friday – payday, my favorite day. As I was want to do, I cashed my check and headed down to J&R Music World to pick up a few records. On my way I stopped at a news stand and noticed the cover of The Village Voice. There was a feature titled, “Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome.” I picked it up, turned to the feature column, and that was the first time I had ever read anything by Robert Christgau.

It was the annual Pazz & Jop critics’ poll, and Christgau was the self-appointed “Dean” of the critics, writing about the past year in music. What I remember most about that column was how I couldn’t seem to put it down. The writing was mesmerizing. I had read other critics before – my current favorite had been Wayne Robbins of Newsday – but seldom had I seen such a socio-political take on what I had always perceived as basically an entertainment industry. Christgau wasn’t so much talking about the music as he was talking about what it meant socially and sometimes politically. He could see past the mere album tracks and get at the heart of what drove the music, and more importantly perhaps what the music might be driving back. In a sense he was more a music sociologist than a mere music critic.

I soon learned he wrote a monthly column called The Consumer Guide, in which he would write reviews of various records he had listened to. Each month I would pick up a copy of The Village Voice and read his reviews, each one entertaining and instructional at the same time. There were two themes that I came to accept about his writing that have been a constant: One, he considered all genres, with the exception of metal to be equally important and vital to pop music; and secondly, he could be brutally honest. If a record was bad, he had no qualms about saying so. He had always felt it his duty to speak his mind, regardless of whom it might upset.

And make no mistake about it, Christgau pissed off a lot of artists. When he panned a Lou Reed album in the ‘70s, Reed went after him on one of his later songs. In typical Christgau fashion, he took it in stride, giving the record a C plus, which probably only pissed Reed off more. Ironically throughout the ‘80s, Reed released a number of albums that garnered considerable praise from Christgau, including The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts, acknowledged by many critics to be among his finest recordings.

Month after month and year after year I religiously read Christgau, in the process expanding both my record collection and my understanding of popular music. Though formally a rock critic, he was the least complimentary of rock music, preferring genres such as funk, new wave, world music, reggae, alt-country, jazz and rap, which would later go on to be known as hip hop. I credit him for expanding my horizons beyond the typical middle-class white suburban humdrum lifestyle that many of my friends had found themselves trapped in. The ‘80s was a treasure trove of musical delights from the likes of Kid Creole & the Coconuts, George Clinton, Hüsker Dü, Prince, Grandmaster Flash, Tom Verlaine, Tom Waits, Ornette Coleman, James Blood Ulmer, Lucinda Williams, the Mekons, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, R.E.M., Black Uhuru, Laurie Anderson, Madonna, Public Enemy, Sonic Youth, John Prine and more. Eclectic would be a word in a half. It was controlled chaos and I was lapping it up like a starving puppy dog.

And throughout all the many months and years of writing reviews, which included three books on the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, Christgau never wavered or lost his edge. Well into his 60s he remained the industry’s most authentic and consistent critic with no one fit to dust his record collection let alone hold a candle to him. Not even being fired from the Voice in 2006 deterred him. He continued to publish his work on MSN, Blender, Spin and Rolling Stone in the same manner with which he had become acclaimed at the Voice.

But as they say all good things must eventually come to an end. On July 1, 2010, Christgau announced in the introduction to his Consumer Guide column that the July 2010 installment would be his last on MSN.

“Barring miracles unlikely to ensue, this is the final edition of Christgau's Consumer Guide, which MSN has decided no longer suits its editorial purposes. The CG has generally required a seven-days-a-week time commitment over the 41 years I've written it, and I'm grateful to MSN for paying me what the work was worth over the three-and-a-half years I published it here. But though I always enjoyed the work, work it was, and I've long been aware there were other things I could be doing with my ears. So while I have every intention of keeping up with popular music as it evolves, being less encyclopedic about it will come as a relief as well as a loss.”

Whether this means that Christgau is hanging up his typewriter or just cutting back from his workload remains to be seen. Writing consistently honest and provocative music reviews for over four decades can take its toll on anybody, and if there was ever anyone who earned his retirement more it would be Christgau. He probably would think it overly sentimental to say this, but better to go out on top with one’s reputation unscathed than to trudge along, eking out a living and selling out to the very industry that gave you your start.

And that’s why I think we may have seen the last of Robert Christgau, at least so far as doing monthly reviews are concerned. Though he may occasionally reappear on NPR and do the odd review or two for Rolling Stone, this is likely to be the end of the line for this giant, and I for one will miss him greatly. At 68 he had reached the zenith of his profession and though he continued to piss off artists whose albums he found, shall we say, wanting, no one could doubt his integrity. If it’s true that you call ‘em as you see ‘em, than Robert Christgau was truly a diamond in the rough who had no peers.

There's no adequate way to express or calculate what impact the retirement of Robert Christgau will have on popular music. The industry has lost a legend, and I suspect we will not see his kind for a long time, if at all. In deed with the changes that are currently going on in the music industry – the rise of the MP3 player and iTunes – the CD itself may be all but instinct in a few years. The need for a critic to review an album at that point will most likely be moot.

There's a scene from the end of the movie Patton that seems a fitting analogy to what has transpired here. The general's own words sum it up best. “There’s only way for a professional soldier to die; that’s from the last bullet from the last gun from the last battle of the last war.” Robert Christgau has not died, but what he did for a living, whether any of us knew it or not, or even whether any of us liked it or not, was rapidly dying before him and us. Perhaps this was his way of bowing out gracefully while he still had some control of his destiny. We may never know.

What we do know is this: he left us a lifetime of reviews that will survive him and future generations of music fans. And I suspect that when we look back over the last four decades of rock and roll, we will be the wiser and richer for having known him and for allowing him, in some small capacity, to expand and enlarge our world and make it a bit less predicable.  I will miss his wit, his humor (biting though it may have been), his thoroughness, his honesty, but most of all I will miss the diversity he brought to a craft that far too often settled for the familiar and safe, and which rarely, if ever, pushed the envelope passed the confines of the tried and tested.  Christgau was nothing if unorthodox. 

Over the many years, the artists may have changed, but Christgau was always there to catalogue it all for us.  It's hard to imagine what this industry would've been like had he not been here, and now we get the chance to find out.  You could say we took him for granted, but I suspect at the end of the day we will all miss him.

Farewell, Robert, and thank you.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoy Christgau's reviews for their economy and thoroughness. He was one the few rock critics who understands the purpose of his job is to save his audience time & money by pointing them away from bad music and towards the good, hopefully with a justification of why it is so. That said, whether any critic likes or dislikes something doesn't cause the music to become any better or worse than it was made to begin with.
When Christgau fumbles or misses the boat on a artist or style of music, I find it to be because his outlook can be too socio-political (and too urban). He also doesn't seem to know much about the technical aspects of music (theory), which leaves him with a sometimes inaccurate understanding of the intentions & influences of the artists he reviews.
His list of A+ albums includes many ridiculous and even idiotic selections.