By the late seventies I started to notice that the Village Voice, and Robert Christgau in particular, had no patience for mellow singer songwriters like James Taylor, or overly serious progressive rock bands like Genesis. They were about rock and roll in all its ebullience and pock-marked beauty. To my horror, I would see seemingly simplistic rock and roll records like the New York Dolls being rated over my oh so serious heroes like Jackson Browne.
Wow, was that like a bucket of cold water! They really seemed to enjoy bashing anything “tasteful” – in other words anything that I’d be tempted to put on to impress my parents that rock music was serious.
To be fair, Creem magazine had always shared this aesthetic, but when I was reading it back in 1973, I thought it was in thrall to the glam rock fad going on at the time. But it turned out to be part of a grander tradition that had also looked askance at the psychedelic era (which, let’s face it, didn’t age very well) with it’s long guitar solos and hazy pronouncements that said little more than “there’s a weird smell in the bathroom.”.
All of this upended my thinking. So there were difference schools of thought! Which led to the question: if the critics themselves didn’t agree, why listen to any of them?
Was one school of thought any more valid than another? Well, yes, I thought. The one you found yourself agreeing with, right? But not so fast. Didn’t that just make it another dead-end tribe? Yes, unless it challenged you and taught you things. Then it was something better. It helped you avoid the trap of listening to the same thing over and over again.
But it also meant meant that you shouldn’t expect to absolutely love everything the first time you heard it. I have a long history of not getting things the first time around. But sticking around has almost always paid off.
The Voice helped me look back at the 70s in a new light, and encouraged my hesitant forays into punk rock.
My first was Talking Heads More Songs About Buildings and Food, based on a rave from Robert Christgau. The first time I put it on, I heard maybe four good songs surrounded by a lot of weirdness. But those four were enough to keep me hanging in until I got the rest (“Found a Job” being the most audacious, and maybe now my favorite.) Within a week I loved it all, and it remains one of my all time favorites.
And there would be others that seemed even more forbidding, like the Sex Pistols. I listened anyway. Some things I never got (Pere Ubu), but so what? Half the fun was the exploration. The trick was to not get discouraged. Just learn something about the music, the reviewer and maybe myself.
And move on to the next record.