Thursday, March 09, 2006

Since someone asked for it a while back, here's the full transcript of the interview I did last year with Robert Christgau for the EMP Pop Conference.

Seattle Weekly: Let’s start with the obvious: Why the Coasters?

Robert Christgau: There’s a list in the back of Grown Up All Wrong of how this [book] isn’t my pantheon and there’s a bunch of artists who, if it were my pantheon, there’d be essays on. The Coasters are one of the seven or so artists I listed. They’re very, very important artists for me the way other people on that list, like Thelonious Monk and the Ramones, are—both of whom are also funny, by the way. So given that, and this notion of masks, and the question of racial stereotyping in the Coasters’ songs is a real one, and also just the fact that alone among the great figures of the ’50s, they didn’t pretend to be expressing themselves. They were basically very theatrical. I thought it would be a good idea. Plus I happen to have the long out-of-print Coasters biography that now goes for $50 on my shelves. I’d never read it, so I read it. Bought it in England—I thought, “Hey, I should buy this.” It cost me $3. Very glad I did.

I’m finding stuff on all of the Coasters is very hard. Turns out one of them was gay, and one of them was a great comedian. They’re all dead, except for one guy who’s taken over the legacy, Carl Gardner, the lead singer from the beginning of the Robins till now, which is now more than 50 years. It turns out, you know, that I’m finding more to my alarm than to my pleasure, because it’s making the job much harder, nobody has ever written anything about the Coasters. There are little paragraphs in other things—vocal groups or, more commonly, Lieber and Stoller. Some of them are very good little paragraphs. The liner notes that [late musician and New York Times pop critic] Robert Palmer wrote for 50 Coastin’ Classics, the Rhino [anthology], is easily the best thing that’s ever been written about them, not surprisingly.

SW: He did a lot of that kind of writing in the early ’90s, didn’t he?

Christgau: Yes. His Bo Diddley essay [for The Chess Box] is superb. This isn’t that good. But there is one good thing—-Robert Palmer’s liner notes. They’re really good.

The other reason I did it is that after I had this idea, I said, “Is there really this uneasiness about this stuff?” And I said, “Let’s look at the two people most likely to love the Coasters and see what they have to say about it: Charlie Gillett and Dave Marsh. And yeah, they both expressed an uneasiness about it, Gillett in a sort of defensive way—a “This isn’t really true but you could say” way, and Marsh in a far more apologetic way in [his 1989 book] The Heart of Rock and Soul. Then I wrote my proposal. But Gillett and Marsh are the main people I can find who expressed this. I think the feeling is much more in a manner of the neglect—because they really have sort of fallen off the map.

SW: Both Lieber and Stoller are still around, right?

Christgau: Oh, yeah, very much. Lieber’s one of the great hipsters. He’s really a complete character, and also an egomaniac.

SW: Lieber and Stoller have been the subject of a lot of the kind of attention the Coasters weren’t.

Christgau: You know, if I had to hierarchize, that makes sense. The most important thing I’m going to say in my lecture [is that] the Coasters are not the most important thing [Lieber and Stoller] did. Neither was Elvis, which was just a money-making sideline. The most important thing they did was [the Drifters’ 1959 single] “There Goes My Baby” and [Ben E. King’s 1960] “Stand by Me,” which completely changed the shape of black music. They absolutely changed it. That’s when it happened. I think it would have happened anyway, but they were the ones who did it. I guess you could say, “That would have happened anyway; the Coasters wouldn’t have. The Coasters were specific to them and to their sensibility, whereas the idea of sweetening R&B music and starting to symphonize it, turning it into soul music, that was an inevitability, but they were the actual agents of that transformation. I’m just starting to think hard about how [lyricist] Lieber uses language.

When you first heard “Young Blood,” did you think that it was about underage poontang or about guys who can’t keep their hard-ons in their pants? In that particular case, it’s couched in terminology, but its dynamic is about sex and generation, not about race. When I was 15, it wasn’t because I had such an uncontrollable hard-on, either, I just assumed the young blood was them. It could quite well have been my particular misapprehension. I was also surprised to learn that [my wife] Carola’s favorite rock and roll song of the ’50s was “Searchin’,” which I did not know until we started talking about this. It was certainly in the top five or ten for me.

SW: You said you started thinking about this presentation in terms of masks, and you’ve done a lot of writing about minstrelsy studies—most prominently, the essay “In Search of Jim Crow” for the February 2004 issue of The Believer. Do you feel that’s brought you back to the Coasters?

Christgau: No. The way I would describe it is to say that minstrelsy is one subtext of the EMP theme. Lindsay Waters said to me that he thought [the conference] was about minstrelsy. I don’t see it that way at all. This could just be my stupid guess, but as soon as I saw it, I thought of all the hoo-ha that was the first year of authenticity, and I thought they just turned it on its head. I’ve been interested in masks [since] I studied Yeats as a senior in college. Yeats wrote about nothing but masks. It was one of his great themes.

SW: You’ve written about, to put it indelicately, racial transvestism. This is a very amateur theory, but do you think people haven’t really tackled the Coasters because it was maybe too complex a subject?

Christgau: No, I don’t. The main reason would be a very serious bias toward undeniable prime creators in rock historiography. And even though Presley does not qualify, because he was an interpretive singer, he seems that way anyway, for understandable reasons. Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry—those are prime creators. The Coasters? They’re product. In some kind of way, they’re product-—collaborative, and calculated in a lot of different ways. I think for that reason they don’t have the same kind of greatness associated with them, because we think of greatness in those very romantic, individualistic terms. I think that’s the chief reason that they don’t get what I think is their due.

I wrote a piece about Atlantic [Records] about 20 years ago, which I need to pull out and re-read. The other thing that happens is that even though everyone remembers Atlantic Records as the great wellspring, their artists are not remembered as being the great wellsprings. That was the only label where people were produced. It’s the only label where Jerry Wexler talks about Lieber and Stoller, he’d say, “And everything was in tune.” Leonard Chess and Syd Nathan and the Bahari brothers and the guy at Duke, I forget his name, and half a dozen other guys, Lubinski at Savoy—they didn’t care whether things were in tune [laughs]. They just sort of said, “Go play this, and I’ll give you $20.” That was Leonard’s way of doing things. There’s less mediation. And indeed, you know, there’s definitely something. Sam Phillips, see, he was probably a little smarter about all that stuff, but he quite clearly had the idea of letting it happen in a way that the Erteguns and Wexler just couldn’t stand to do. For that reason, all the Atlantic music is a little neater in retrospect, and for that reason, it’s not quite as powerful in some sort of existential way. I did write about that. I got a note from Wexler that said, “Thanks, I think.” [laughs]

SW: I wanted to ask about your involvement with the Pop Conference over the years.

Christgau: I was on the committee for the first year and I did the keynote the first year. What can I say? [Weisbard] had been my editor at the Voice. We’re very close. He called me up and asked me. He’s one of my best friends, and some would claim disciple, though anyone who knows Eric knows he’s too headstrong to be anyone’s disciple. But we certainly think about a lot of things in similar ways.

I think the EMP Pop Conference is the best thing that’s ever happened to serious consideration of pop music, not just in this country but as far as I know in the world. I’ll say that without hesitating, and I don’t know anybody who knows anything about it who doesn’t agree with me. I mean, I know people who are resentful who probably wouldn’t say that. What did Rebbie Garofolo say the first year? “The word on the street is that it’s too white.” I said to the person next to me, “What street is that? University Avenue? School Street?” There are people who’ve never come close to it who are not stupid—[Anthony] DeCurtis, who’s got his own fiefdom down at Duke. [They’ve] never wanted anything to do with EMP.

SW: You’re teaching now, right?

Christgau: Right, at the Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, run by Jason King and Jim Anderson.

SW: You’ve got a foot in the academic world, then.

Christgau: I’ve always had a foot in the academic world. I’m one of those people. I’ve won my Guggenheim, I’ve won my NAJP fellowship, and I taught writing at NYU and other places. I’ve taught at the New School, too. Usually, I’ve been a writing teacher, at the New School in ’93. Now I’m teaching music history. I also did a lecture series at M.I.T. I’ve always paid close attention to academic work about pop music, probably more than anybody except for DeCurtis-—more than Greil, I would say.

SW: Would you recommend your students go to the conference?

Christgau: I will tell two stories. First year, my wife came with me, and she came armed with a complete guide to Seattle, so she could go to museums and find restaurants while I was going to boring panels. She never left the building. She had exactly the same experience that I always have at EMP, which is that whenever I get bored for a second, there’s something else I wish I was at and I go to it. Then, two years later, I brought my daughter, who was then a high school senior. We said, “There’s an amusement park there.” And she never left the building. It’s tremendously entertaining. Obviously, it’s for people who actually care about pop music. And my wife, Carola, in particular, she cares through me—and she’s a very good critic—but [it’s] because I put a gun to her head. Nina’s a little more passionate, but Nina was just a high school student. Supposedly, this was all over her head, and I guess probably some of it was, but enough of it wasn’t. I don’t think either is going to come [this year], for money reasons, but they’re sorry, and they know that if they were going to go, they’d do nothing but go to the conference.

There are two reasons. First, there’s a lot of journalists talking, and journalists tend to be more entertaining than academics. The other thing is that the academics now really understand that they’d better put on a show, or they’re going to be in trouble [laughs]. They can’t get away with what they get away with in academic conferences, which is to be boring. I’m not saying every academic is boring, but every academic at this conference is aware that standards of literacy and being communicative are very high, that this is the big show. I’ve seen some dull presentations—it happens among the non-academics, too. But because it’s a three-ring circus, there’s always something good going on.

SW: Can you name a few highlights of the first three conferences?

Christgau: They’re sort of impressionistic. [Spin editor] Jon Dolan reading off his computer screen the first year—something he’d probably finished about eight minutes before he came onstage. [New Yorker writer] Sasha Frere-Jones, two years ago, thumbing through this manuscript that must have been about 40-45 pages, saying, “Oh—-that was a good concert”—-flip, flip, flip [laughs]—-so that he could get through in 20 minutes, and being, as he always is, incredibly funny. Ned Sublette being put on to substitute for someone who was a no-show at my presentation the second year and completely blowing me off the stage and probably being the best thing at the conference. He’s just an incredible speaker. Josh Clover being incredibly dense and funny. My nephew Julian Dibbell, looking very bleary-eyed and not having shaved in a long time, giving a talk which somebody who taught computer stuff told Lindsay Waters, “Well, that’s the next three weeks of my course.” The [Ego Trip] Wheel of Fortune, and the female rap critic symposium, [Jon] Langford’s lunchtime presentation . . . I could go on.