Is It Still Good to Ya? sums up the career of longtime Village Voice stalwart Robert Christgau, who for half a century has been America's most widely respected rock critic, honoring a music he argues is only more enduring because it's sometimes simple or silly. While compiling historical overviews going back to Dionysus and the gramophone along with artist analyses that range from Louis Armstrong to M.I.A., this definitive collection also explores pop's African roots, response to 9/11, and evolution from the teen music of the '50s to an art form compelled to confront mortality as its heroes pass on. A final section combines searching obituaries of David Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen with awed farewells to Bob Marley and Ornette Coleman.
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Read an Excerpt
History in the Making
Ten-Step Program for Growing Better Ears
1 Don't give up now.
2 Have a few drinks — smoke a joint, even.
3 At the very least, lighten up, willya?
4 Forget about soothing your savage beast.
5 Repeat three times daily: The good old days are the oldest myth in the world. Or, alternatively: Nostalgia sucks.
6 Go somewhere you think is too noisy and stay an hour. Go back. 7 Grasp this truth: Musically, all Americans are part African. 8 Attend a live performance by someone you've never seen before. 9 Play your favorite teenager's favorite album three times while doing something else. Put it away. Play it again two days later and notice what you remember.
10 Spend a week listening to James Brown's Star Time.
Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, 2001
Dionysus in Theory and Practice
I'll begin with a few excerpts from Robert Palmer's wonderful Rock & Roll: An Unruly History, which interrupts a narrative hooked to a PBS series with three essays that add up to an avant-primitivist revision of rock and roll history. Climaxing number two, "Delinquents of Heaven, Hoodlums of Hell," is a section oddly entitled "Safety Zone," the most inspired exposition I know of the trope or claim or theory at hand, which begins: "The ancient Greeks enshrined philosophical dualism in their hierarchy of gods and myths, identifying spiritual forces or powers that embodied two basic tendencies in society and culture: the 'balanced, rational' Apollo and the 'intoxicated, irrational' Dionysus."
If this could be clearer and truer, that's nothing new. Scholars and theoreticians have always used the Greeks as a metaphor bank, imposing theoretical templates on a piecemeal historical record. Palmer's template derives from The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche's long, murky riff on an Apollo-Dionysus polarity he copped from German romanticism. But Palmer never mentions Nietzsche. Having cited the reputable E. R. Dodds to establish that music and dance are means to, or is it blessings of, Dionysian "madness," he relies primarily on rogue ethnomusicologist Alain Daniélou, who equates the Greek wine god with the Indian phallic god, Shiva.
Palmer grants that "compared to an ancient Dionysian revel — trances, seizures, devotees tearing sacrificial animals to pieces with their bare hands and eating the meat raw — a rock and roll performance is almost tame." But he insists that in the wake of Your Hit Parade and Father Knows Best, early rock concerts became "temporary autonomous zones": "a kind of functional anarchy that manages to exist within a more or less repressive mainstream culture precisely because it is of limited duration and scope." Whereupon, in a wickedly if also lazily disruptive formal touch, he shelves scholarship and gives over half his six- page exegesis to descriptions of the Rolling Stones, not in concert, but wreaking mayhem at a Memphis hotel in 1975 and then, grayer and calmer fourteen years later, turning into "mere musicians — professionals." But this is OK, Palmer quickly adds; in fact, "that's the beauty of rock and roll." To be specific: "The lifestyle can be perilous, the rate of attrition remains high, but the survivors can go on practicing and perfecting their craft while the younger generation's best and brightest assume the Dionysian mantle and get on with the main program, which is liberation through ecstasy. ... As rockers, we are heirs to one of our civilization's richest, most time-honored spiritual traditions. We must never forget our glorious Dionysian heritage."
This language is so redolent that I've now quoted it four times — including, unfortunately, in Robert Palmer's obituary. Keith Richards survived; his prophet did not. But even if you've never encountered Palmer's version, the Dionysus theory you know about. Nietzsche's dichotomy is now boilerplate. Ruth Benedict held that whole cultures were Apollonian and Dionysian, although in the end she never described a Dionysian one. Ayn Rand, various Jungians, and endless New Agers have taken up the theme. It's proven so adaptable in the world of letters that a 1996 article in the journal of the Virginia Community College Association was called "Apollo vs Dionysus: The Only Theme Your Students Will Ever Need in Writing about Literature." And Nietzsche's full title, of course, is The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music.
The composer whose spirit Nietzsche thought uniquely worthy of the Greeks was his soon-repudiated beau ideal Wagner. But Apollo-versus- Dionysus has since been taken up by Stravinsky, Britten, and most prominently Richard Strauss — whose greatest hit was named after Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra — as well as analyses of Beethoven, Liszt, Bizet, on and on. It surfaces frequently in jazz commentary too. So rock has competition for the wine-bringer. But Google the name of a rock demigod plus the word "Dionysian" and you'll hit paydirt. The trick doesn't work with black artists, where who else but Jimi Hendrix is the only big winner, or with Bob Dylan, who's on record as insisting that Stagger Lee was "not some egotistical degraded existentialist dionysian idiot." But Beatles Stones Velvets Zep Patti Ramones Pistols Nirvana PJ Harvey Smashing Pumpkins — hell, why not? Tori Amos likes to throw the word around. Phish's corporate arm is called Dionysian Productions. LA's Dionysus Records has been purveying "the finest in Garage-Surf-Rockabilly-Exotica-and more" since 1984.
Rock's champion Dionysian, however, is that egotistical degraded existentialist idiot Jim Morrison, dubbed Bozo Dionysus by Lester Bangs. Morrison is said to have named his band during a bull session about The Birth of Tragedy. And in Arnold Shaw's The Rock Revolution, he sums up the history he gleaned at UCLA: "In its origin, the Greek theatre was a band of worshippers, dancing and singing on a threshing floor at the crucial agricultural seasons. Then, one day, a possessed person leaped out of the crowd and started imitating a god." This is garbled, but its dancing and singing and leaping and god act all evoke a Doors concert better than a performance of Also Sprach Zarathustra. Yet here's the odd thing. Not only do both Morrison and Nietzsche, with their intense commitments to different kinds of music, validate that commitment by reference to literature, but neither bothers to guess how the original Dionysian music might have sounded or, really, functioned. So I thought it might be instructive to try and find out.
To begin, say there are three Dionysuses: the Dionysus of myth, of cult, and of festival. Not that they sort out so neatly, of course — Euripides's The Bacchae, for example, was originally presented at one kind of Dionysian festival and purports to represent cultic practices that have since been imported big-time into the mythic record. In almost all accounts Dionysus is the son of the great god Zeus and the mortal mother Semele and gestated in Zeus's thigh after Semele was murdered. And although recent archaeological finds indicate deep Greek origins for the god, in post-archaic Greece he was universally believed to be an outsider — perhaps from Thrace, which we call Bulgaria, or Lydia or Phrygia in Asia Minor. Dionysus gathers around himself such a complicated entourage of tales and histories that ass-covering contemporary scholars find it convenient to subsume them all under the heading "god of paradox." Half human, half divine, he's the bringer of madness and the deliverer from madness, lord of masks and maenads, of the underworld and raw meat au jus; he's the phallus god who turned femme and lost his beard. And always Dionysus is the god of wine.
Leaving out lots of good stuff, that's the Dionysus of myth. In varying versions — only one of which, the Pentheus story Euripides and later René Girard made so much of, involved human sacrifice, and only one of which, the myth of Dionysus Zagreus that Nietzsche appropriated, has Christian overtones of divine suffering and rebirth — the Dionysus of myth was the god called upon in cult and celebrated in festival. Unfortunately, the cult of Dionysus was even more secretive than most cults. Palmer's man Daniélou defeats this inconvenience by positing that Dionysus was an essentially unchanged descendant of Shiva, whose jism-jetting erections are amply documented. But most settle for secondhand evidence by skeptical or hostile sources scattered over a thousand-year period. Here's Livy in Rome: "When wine, lascivious discourse, night, and the intercourse of the sexes had extinguished every sentiment of modesty, then debaucheries of every kind began to be practiced, as every person found at hand that sort of enjoyment to which he was disposed by the passion predominant in his nature." Although "the beating of cymbals and drums" is as musicological as Livy gets, Palmer would go for that. Problem is, all Livy knew for sure when he wrote it in 186 BC was that he wanted the Roman senate to ban the god then called Bacchus, as it then did. There's better info in that old muso Plato: "In a Bacchic frenzy, and enthralled beyond what is right by pleasure, they mixed lamentations with hymns and paeans with dithyrambs, imitated aulos songs with their kithara songs, and put everything together with everything else, thus unintentionally, through their stupidity, giving false witness against music, alleging that music possesses no standard of correctness, but is most correctly judged by the pleasure of the person who enjoys it, whether he is a better man or a worse."
Turn Plato's values upside down like they deserve and you have a presentiment of popular music. But "enthralled by pleasure" doesn't mean much. As with Livy, Plato's facts are secondhand at best — thirdhand is likely. And while like any good postmodern I shrink from blanket generalizations about human behavior, I'd like to suggest a tentative one, which is that the guy who didn't get invited to the party always believes the guy who did is having a ball. Historian of religion Walter Burkert is part of an antisex wing of Dionysus scholarship that includes Nietzsche. But Burkert has studied ancient cult practices as scrupulously as anyone, and he finds it impossible to "associate them with the concept of orgies." He also concludes that most if not all of Dionysus's initiates were women, usually women of means, and that after "days and days of fasting, purifications, exhaustion, apprehension, and excitement," their big debauch was the chance to wolf down some roast sacrifice. Yet Burkert does allow that for "a few special individuals" initiation could provide "a veritable change of consciousness in ecstasy" to which wine was essential, and adds that "certain kinds of music" opened up pathways to the divine. He also quotes a Christian-era source: "This is the purpose of Bacchic initiation, that the depressive anxiety of less educated people, produced by their state of life, or some misfortune, be cleared away through the melodies and dances of the ritual in a joyful and playful way."
With their trances, seizures, and gore, these initiations are as close as we're going to get to Palmer's "ancient Dionysian revel." Yet cults weren't the ancient Dionysus's main venue. Far more amenable to outside observation were uncounted festivals in rural and urban places. These were more open-ended and less fraught than initiations — more rock and roll. A festival that jumbles rural Dionysia and what was called the Anthesteria climaxes Aristophanes's The Acharnians, and even correcting for the playwright's comic will and dirty mind, it smells like one of those orgies Burkert can't find as Aristophanes's farmer hero calls for "dancing-girls" to grab his "rejoicing prick." We know a lot about the Anthesteria, the spring festival of new wine, because we have a thousand of the illustrated 3.2-liter jugs from which the watered wine was quaffed. These depict dance moves ranging from capers and acrobatics to mimetic set pieces, often by satyrs or men in satyr costumes, and many varieties of music-making.
As even Livy knew, the true Dionysian instrument was the drum. Greece was not a percussion culture compared to Egypt, where Osiris's celebrants were far more polyrhythmic. But the tympanon, which generated a deep thump from a single animal-skin side, always came out for Dionysus, as did giant castanets called krotala. Symbolically, however, the double-reed aulos, which used to be translated flute but had a bigger oboe sound, also ruled. Charles Keil suspects that the Macedonian dauli music he describes in Bright Balkan Morning, music he deems unrecordable due to its fluctuating overtones, descends from aulos-and-tympanon. The Anthesteria made room too for the panpipe, and for Apollo's ruling-class ax, the lyre. Then there was song. Remember Plato? "They mixed lamentations with hymns and paeans with dithyrambs"? Happy-sad speaks for itself, but you should know that paeans were for Apollo, more dignified than Dionysus's dithyrambs. In absolute terms we have barely an inkling of how all this sounded — certainly not the rhythms, tempos, or God knows scales. But most likely it was perceived and received more like rock and roll in 1955 or rock in 1967 than Wagner in 1872. And its social history is redolent.
Dionysus was a minor god in Homer's time. Only after 700 BC did his fame start spreading, in festival at least as much as cult. This was a grassroots movement — a grassroots movement of people who liked to party. Did it have graver meanings? Perhaps something to do with how inadequately Apollo's paeans lightened mortality's pall. Did it threaten the state? Made it nervous, maybe. Was it explicitly "versus" Apollo? It seems the Germans made that up. Did it offend bigshots and bigdomes? Plenty, but it also attracted some — most people like to party, and Dionysian partying featured big jugs and wild music. So naturally various Greek politicians proceeded to coopt it.
Shortly after 600, Cleisthenes of Sicyon cut into the authority of the Dorian nobility by transferring a local choral festival from the Dorian hero Adrastus to Dionysus. And by 500 or so, Dionysus and his dithyramb were fixtures of Athenian life, because the midcentury tyrant Peisistratus, in an end run around both the aristocracy and a potentially anarchic popular force, had by then instituted the Great Dionysia, a rival to the aristocratically controlled Pythian Games. In other words, Apollo versus Dionysus reduces to a power struggle between hereditary rulers and the populist big men who supplanted them. And before too long Dionysus's dithyramb, once what a rakish classicist calls "a merry song sung by anybody who was feeling up in the world (usually after a few jars)," came to be performed by an elaborate chorus, complete with choreography as contained and "noble" as all official dance in Greece. Pindar, the untranslatable poetic titan who was the last great spokesman of the Greek aristocracy, was one of its masters.
Before too long, the dithyrambic chorus morphed into Greek tragedy, judged the most sublime of art forms even by some Chuck Berry fans. You can read whole books about tragedy and never guess that a third of it was sung. Note, however, that tragic music was dominated by the aulos, which like Dionysus himself came to be regarded as exotic, disreputable, low-class — at best non-Greek in origin (which like Dionysus it wasn't) and for Plato and lesser snobs as a carrier of cultural contagion. Tragedy enjoyed a creative life of barely a century, but the classics continued to be performed along with the New Comedy that succeeded it. Actors toured and professionalized, and so did musicians — there were virtuoso auletes, kitharodes who wowed the crowd with runs on the concert lyre. They formed guilds that lasted for centuries. The first harbinger of the American Federation of Musicians translates as the Commonalty of the Artists Concerned With Dionysus. Perfect.
Mere musicians — professionals. Over a longer timespan, this is Palmer's story, an exotic music of freeing frenzy brought to heel by rationalizing exploiters, only "the younger generation's best and brightest" don't do their part. So rather than an avant-primitivist continuum we have the kind of decadence decried by, of all people, rock criticism's most distinguished classicist: Nick Tosches, a major Pindar and minor Doors fan who believes rock was formally exhausted by the late '60s. But before we get too disillusioned, let's remember that in the bargain we get tragedy, which for all its overrated sublimity is some kind of recompense. And remember too that the Dionysian reality that got rationalized was rarely if ever as ecstatic as that postulated by Palmer or Nietzsche. Wine festivals probably didn't occasion as many rejoicing pricks as jealous playwrights and censorious legislators believed; the Dionysus who embraces death in affirmation of the collective life-force is a Nietzschean figment; the maenads who tear Pentheus limb from limb in The Bacchae are a Euripidean device. Nor need we regret this loss. One of the hundred reasons I wish Robert Palmer was still alive is so I could ask him how he felt when Alain Daniélou, the most extreme contemporary Dionysian of any standing, argued that the caste system is a natural way of life and a small price to pay for Shiva, whose maxims include: "Women are light-minded. They are the source of all trouble. Men who seek liberation must avoid attaching themselves to women."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Is It Still Good to Ya?"
Copyright © 2018 Robert Christgau.
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Table of ContentsIntroduction. Robert Christgau's Greatest Hits: Volume UUU 1 Prologue. Good to Ya, Not for Ya: Rock Criticism vs. the Guilty Pleasure 9 I. History in the Making Ten-Step Program for Growing Better Ears 19 Dionysus in Theory and Practice 19 B.E.: A Dozen Moments in the Prehistory of Rock and Roll 27 Let's Get Busy in Hawaiian: A Hundred Years of Ragged Beats and Cheap Tunes 34 Rock Lyrics Are Poetry (Maybe) 42 "We Have to Deal With It": Punk England Report 48 Rock 'n' Roller Coaster: The Music Biz on a Joyride 65 Not My Fault, Not My Problem: Classic Rock 76 A Weekend in Paradise: Woodstock '94 81 Staying Alive: Postclassic Disco 96 Harry Smith Makes History: Anthology of American Folk Music 103 Getting Their Hands Dirty: Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life 107 A Month on the Town 111 U.S. and Them: Are American Pop (and Semi-Pop) Still Exceptional? And by the Way, Does That Make Them Better? 120 What I Listen for in Music 130 II. A Great Tradition Pops as Pop: Louis Armstrong 135 Not So Misterioso: Thelonious Monk 140 First Lady of Song: Billie Holiday 149 Folksinger, Wordslinger, Start Me a Song: Woody Guthrie 154 Caring the Hard Way: Frank Sinatra: 1915-1998 159 Like Ringing a Bell: Chuck Berry: 1926-2017 161 Unnaturals: The Coasters with No Strings Attached 165 Black Elvis: Same Cooke 172 Tough Love: Etta James 176 The Excitement! The Terror!: Miles Davis's '70s 181 Sister, Oh Sister: Kate and Anna McGarrigle 185 Two Pieces About the Ramones: 1901. Ramone2. Road to Ruin Nevermore: Nirvana 196 A Long Short Story: The Go-Betweens 200 Generation Gaps: The Spice Girls 204 Ooh, That Sound: The Backstreet Boys 206 Tear the Sky Off the Mother: 'N Sync 207 The World Is His Boudoir: Prince 208 Two Pieces About Aretha Franklin: 2091. Queen of Pop2. Familiar and Fabulous Two Pieces About Bob Dylan: 2141. Dylan Back: World Goes On2. Secrets of the Sphinx Ain't Dead Yet: Holy Modal Rounders 220 How to Survive on an Apple Pie Diet: John Prine 221 The Unflashiest: Willie Nelson 225 III. Millennium Music from a Desert Storm 231 Ghost Dance 238 The Moldy Peaches Slip You a Roofie 241 Attack of the Chickenshits: Steve Earle 245 Facing Mecca: Youssou N'Dour 249 Three Pieces About M.I.A1. Burning Bright2. Quotations from Charmin M.I.A.3. Right, the Record IV. From Which All Blessings Flow Full Immersion with Suspect Tendencies: Paul Simon's Graceland 259 Fela and His Lessers 267 Vendant l'Afrique 270 Dakar in Gear 275 A God After Midnight: Youssou N'Dour 278 Franco d Mi Amor 279 Forty Years of History, Thirty Seconds of Joy 285 Tribulations of St. Joseph: Ladysmith Black Mambazo 289 Music from a Desert War 292 V. Postmodern Times Growing by Degrees: Kanye West 301 The Slim Shady Essay: Eminem 303 Career Opportunity: The Perceptionists 314 Good Morning Little School Girl: R. Kelly 316 Master and Sacrament: Buddy Guy 319 The Commoner Queen: Mary J. Blige 321 A Hot Little Weirdo: Shakira 323 What's Not to Like?: Norah Jones 326 No-Hope Radio: Radiohead 330 Rather Exhilarating: Sonic Youth 334 Adult Contemporary: Grant McLennan: 1958-2006 337 Titan. Polymath. Naturalist: Ray Charles: 1930-2004 338 He Got Us: James Brown: 1933-2006 339 Old Master: Bob Dylan 342 Estudando Tom Zé 343 Gypsy Is His Autopilot: Gogol Bordello 349 Triumph of the Id: Lil Wayne 353 Brag Like That: Jay-Z 357 Paisley's Progress: Brad Paisley 362 Smart and Smarter: Vampire Weekend 367 The Many Reasons to Love Wussy 372 Hearing Her Pain: Fiona Apple 377 Firestarter: Miranda Lambert 381 Monster Anthems: Lady Gaga 384 Dancing on Her Own: Robyn 388 Three More Pieces About M.I.A.: 393 1. Spread out, Reach High: M.I.A.'s Kala 2. Illygirl Steppin Up 3. Spelled Backwards It's "Aim" The Unassumingest: Lori McKenna 400 VI. Got to Be Driftin' Along Who Knows It Feels It: Bob Marley 407 Shape Shifter: David Bowie: 1947-2016 411 The Most Gifted Artist of the Rock Era: Prince: 1958-2016 414 Forever Old: Leonard Cohen: 1933-2016 416 Sticking It in Their Ear: Bob Dylan 419 Don't Worry About Nothing: Ornette Coleman 420 Sensualistic, Polytheistic: New York Dolls 421 Index 425
What People are Saying About This
“Robert Christgau is music writing's great omnivore, and his appetite hasn't diminished in the sixth and seventh decades of his life. The twenty-first century has been a tumultuous one in popular music and Christgau brings his gimlet-eyed wit, deep knowledge, and inimitable heart to this era with the same verve he had as a countercultural kid. Long may the Dean live; as this collection proves with ease, we still need him.”
“Christgau is the last true-blue record critic on earth. That's pretty much who I make my records for. He's like the last of that whole Lester Bangs generation of record reviewers, and I still heed his words.”
“All these years later, Robert Christgau is not just rock criticism's ‘Dean,’ he's its most rabid defender and most withering internal vetter. His prose is still brilliant, offering as much pleasure, sentence by sentence, as anyone's. This book nearly always excited me, and the writing buoyed me along even when the ideas made me want to hurl it across the room. I'm glad I didn't: this is a book to be treasured.”