Books: The last temptation of Christgau

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The Independent Culture
Grown Up All Wrong: 75 Great Rock and Pop Artists from Vaudeville to Techno

by Robert Christgau

Harvard pounds 18.99

You're really very intelligent," Christgau, rock critic at the Village Voice for quarter of a century, is informed. "Why do you waste your time on rock 'n' roll?" It's an innocent question he attempts to dismiss, but which subtly warps all the writing here. Brought blinking into a world where rock's acceptance is assured, Christgau's pioneering efforts reveal a wish for intellectual respectability, in conflict with a desire to use rock's crudity. The result is a series of strong arguments for a staggering array of artists - from black-face minstrel Emmett Miller to Bette Midler, Nat "King" Cole to Nirvana - half- crippled by creaking attempts at slang.

This failure of style gnaws at his book. Christgau compensates by understanding a simple truth: that rock's "active relationship with an audience" is what makes it radical. And so he follows that audience, from Gershwin to Garth Brooks. As the title implies, his book is a narrative of the ageing, not only of rock'n'roll, but its fans, not least himself.

There's a sense of something at stake in Christgau's early writing which doesn't return. Compare his 1975 inquiry into Janis Joplin to a 1994 piece on Kurt Cobain. Joplin is not only nailed as a subtle, self-aware talent - she is also the peg for Christgau to make a stand against the "numbing spiritual entropy" of the times. His sadness for Cobain is more functional. Punk energises him most of all. A 1979 piece on the road with The Clash pushes him to extremes of enthusiasm, and typically clumsy candour: as the potentially apocalyptic China-Vietnam war starts, and a Clash gig nears, "as it happens, my wife and I had just been getting ready to make love".

Subsequently, only race sharpens Christgau to such peaks. Public Enemy are accused of anti-Semitic lyrics in a 1989 controversy which sucked in blacks and Jews. The rappers inspire Christgau to radical identification, to tear at rock's Gordian knot, its bonding of blacks and whites. "It feels shitty to moralise tortuously," he bursts, from the swamps of the argument that's claimed him. "How can I expect to explain why I think black anti-Semitism is understandable ... in what's supposed to be a music piece?" Unlike his attempts at feminism with L7 (too respectful, too tame), Christgau puts his talent over the parapet for race, swings in the wind for convictions he can't even be sure of, as if he senses that to lose his grip on it would be to lose his claim on rock at all.

Thereafter, it's middle-age spread. Domesticity has rarely been countenanced in rock. But Christgau, in his confessional way, insists on including the intertwining of music and his marriage. As he learns to love records in a holiday log cabin, applies memories of married sex to erotic rock, or bonds with his daughter at a Janet Jackson concert, the music Christgau admires inevitably comes to reflect such a life. The audiences he finds himself part of have lost track of hip, and so has he. Breaking down the barriers of cool, he exults in "the enormous store of Elvis music that didn't articulate a shift in American mores", and the suburbanites who roar on Garth Brooks. Most touchingly, he says a word for Michael Jackson's followers as child abuse allegations envelop him. In a country equally disillusioned since the 1960s by politics and pop, it's a brave attempt to reach out to rock's silent majority.

It's also evidence of fading taste, of a man trying to hang on to music as he feels his faith that it means the world ebb with age. On other pages, he follows the invariable refuge of rock intellectuals, looking to "world" music for new sensations. But, articulating interest in American pop (DJ Shadow, Sleater-Kinney), he strikes only glancing blows.

With his stylistic infelicities and faltering finger on the pulse, weakness for American taste at its crudest and self-exposure, Christgau is a writer very much like his heroes, at least as he assembles them here. It slowly dawns on you that this is why his book is so good. It's a history of flawed rock'n'roll by a flawed rock'n'roll writer, an ambitious, enthusiastic folly.