Jun 01, 2010, 06:33AM

When Is a Pop Music Critic Too Young?

The New York Times’ Ben Ratliff recently reviewed the re-issue of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. Problem is, he was a toddler when the original came out in 1972, calling into question his credibility.

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A couple of days before the release of the spiffed-up Exile on Main St., the last superlative album the Rolling Stones made before succumbing to age, boredom, vices and personal squabbles—more generous fans point to 1978’s Some Girls, a spirited comeback for the group, but aside from “Shattered” and “Beast of Burden” I was never sold—I read Ben Ratliff’s review in The New York Times and it nearly gave me hives. Ratliff’s a noted critic and author, but his take on Exile was an odd one, and left me wondering where this guy was in 1972 when the double-LP caused a glorious sensation. As it turns out, Ratliff was born in 1968, and so when he writes, in expressing his lukewarm feelings about Exile, “That era of Stones music, fantastic. [Exile], not so much,” it explained a lot.

That Ratliff, by happenstance of birth, missed out on what he calls “the creative peak” of the Stones certainly doesn’t disqualify him from writing about the band, but without that disclosure—that he’s critiquing from a historical point of view, not as someone who bought and wore out Stones records when they first came out—it gives this particular essay an unsettling whiff of the counterfeit. For example, months ago I purchased a box set of unreleased recordings and radio show appearances by Hank Williams (Hank Williams Revealed), who died before I was born in 1955. Although I’ve read several books about the influential country/rockabilly/folk legend and first discovered his music after seeing The Last Picture Show in ’71, I’d never be able to write about the man as if I were a contemporary.

Pop music critics, regardless of age, can hold forth on whatever they want, but in the fairly rare instances when classic albums from more than a generation ago are given a new shine by companies trying to make a buck on older fans who are suckers (and that would include myself) for previously unheard demos and studio noodlings, I’d just rather read about them from an author who was alive at the time of the original release. This isn’t mere Boomer hubris, for by the same token, my kids would rightfully scoff at a sexagenarian’s long take on a new Interpol record.

I don’t know if Ratliff was even aware of this disconnect upon taking on the re-mastered Exile, but even though his piece has a lot of information and background on the famous record, including quotes from a conversation he had with Mick Jagger, knowing that he never heard, say, “Paint it Black” on the radio when it came out in ’66, makes me suspicious of his gut-level feelings about the Stones.

His first sentence bears this out (particularly after I bought the “new” Exile and re-read his piece): “A lesser-known version of the Rolling Stones’ “Loving Cup,” found on the bonus disc of the new reissue of the band’s 1972 album, “Exile on Main St.,” seems to me the best thing the Stones ever did.”

Say what? Stones fans banter back and forth, even to this day, about the group’s greatest records—Ratliff prefers Let it Bleed and Sticky Fingers; I’d go with Beggar’s Banquet and Between the Buttons—but a discarded version of “Loving Cup” (one of Exile’s lesser songs, in my opinion) is the “best thing the Stones ever did”? Perhaps it was Ratliff’s intention to open his article with a provocative opinion—there’s been so much coverage of this reissue that it’s possible he was straining for an original insight—but give me a minute and I could tick off 25 Stones songs that bury this “new” “Loving Cup.” Such as: “Salt of the Earth,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Connection,” “Jigsaw Puzzle,” “Street Fighting Man,” “Under My Thumb,” “Ride On, Baby,” “Sweet Virginia,” “Monkey Man,” and “Sympathy for the Devil,” just to get the conversation started.

Granted, Ratliff is a regular jazz and pop critic for the Times, but it makes you wonder—even in this diminished era for freelance writers—why the paper’s arts editor didn’t assign this Exile “event” to someone, maybe Greil Marcus or Robert Christgau, who experienced that particular record and the Stones’ “creative peak” as young men. To put it in perspective: Marcus was an early stalwart at Rolling Stone, who famously led off his review of Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait in 1970 with “What is this shit?”; Ratliff, on the other hand, wasn’t even 10 when the Sex Pistols and Clash, among others, flipped rock ‘n’ roll on its head once again, defiantly mocking flabby 60s groups like the Stones.

There are no regrets here for buying the Exile reissue, although the bonus disc is pretty much a bust, with the sole exception of an alternate take of “Soul Survivor” featuring Richards instead of Jagger on vocals, with a completely different set of lyrics. Unlike Dylan, whose “Bootleg” series over the years has often contained revelations, with unreleased gems as well as cleaned-up versions of song that were only available via bootleg, if the extra tracks included in this Exile are any indication, the Stones didn’t leave much behind that was worthy of release. However, it’s an opportunity to re-examine the sprawling, outrageously eclectic menu of material that defines Exile. Jagger was far more involved in this project than Richards, so it makes sense that the vocals, muted on the ’72 release, are ramped up.

Oddly enough, that “improvement” makes Richards’ singing on the terrific “Happy” even brighter and it’s no longer necessary to labor over deciphering the lyrics. Jagger/Richards compositions were never really impressive for the writing, but “Happy’s” an exception with the junkie Richards joyfully belting out these words: “Well I never kept a dollar past sunset / It always burned a hole in my pants” and “Never got a flash out of cocktails / When I got some flesh off the bone.” And “Tumbling Dice,” the radio hit from Exile that washed over the summer of ’72, also has some great lines: “Women think I’m tasty, but they’re always tryin’ to waste me / And make me burn the candle right down / But baby, baby, I don’t need no jewels in my crown / ’Cause all you women is low down gamblers / Cheatin’ like I don’t know how / But baby, baby, there’s fever in the funk house now.”

And it’s a pleasure to listen again, over and over, to a couple of the Stones’ most underrated songs: “Sweet Black Angel” and “Torn and Frayed.”

It’s quaint now, I guess, that the Stones’ ’72 tour, while raucous, exhilarating and security-heavy, concluded at Madison Square Garden that July, instead of Shea Stadium, where they’ve played in recent decades as a nostalgia act. The Stones are given credit for popularizing the Tequila Sunrise, their breakfast beverage of choice that summer; all of a sudden Jose Cuervo had an uptick in sales. I was fortunate enough to see one of three Garden shows in ‘72—tickets were obtained by lottery, and my friend Dave Cicale was a winner and invited me along—and had Ben Ratliff been in attendance I’m betting his view on Exile on Main St. would be different. (It’s a measure of how the industry has changed so dramatically that when I told my nephew I had “great seats” for the concert, his face screwed up, trying to figure out why there would be seats at a performance.) As I recall, Jagger was especially creepy and haunting during “Midnight Rambler,” and “Rocks Off,” “Bitch” and “All Down the Line” were standouts. And the capper was an encore featuring the opening act Stevie Wonder returning to the stage to sing “Uptight” and “Satisfaction” with Jagger and the Stones.

As a middle-aged fellow, my concert days have passed, although I’ll happily watch my 17-year-old son perform in clubs around in Baltimore. And though Ratliff’s suspect review of Exile doesn’t qualify as a lock ‘em up offense, it nonetheless bugs me no end, for he wasn’t there when it all happened.

  • I don't know, Russ. It mostly sounds like you're just a little cranky because the guy wasn't as into the album as you were. I mean, nobody can write about Mozart or Shakespeare because we all weren't alive when they were? For myself, I think it's nice to get fresh perspectives. And you know what? Fuck Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau. They're both moronic boomer fanboys who have had decades to spew their barely articulate roots fetishizing twaddle. Good for the Times for giving someone else — anyone else — a go. And, yeah, I was barely up and puking when Exile was released — and while it's one of my favorite Stones albums, I have to say that in general I find their music monumentally overhyped. I much prefer Zeppelin or ZZ Top or Donovan from that era. But, you know, different strokes and all that.

  • Noah, you had me with a very reasonable response until... the very mention of ZZ Top.

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  • Seriously. You much prefer ZZ Top to the Stones. Pack it in, Berlatsky.

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  • I think so, though they wont be able to comment from personal experience on any social effects or hysteria caused by such an album.

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  • Have you all heard ZZ Top's first few albums? Yeah, they're heads and shoulders above the Stones; great hooks, amazing guitar, possibly even more amazing drums. Much wackier use of blues influence. They're fantastic. And, hey, you know, if Jimi Hendrix says Billy Gibbons is a bad-ass guitarist, I think that's good enough for me.

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  • ZZ Top had some good records. I don't think anyone is going to dispute that. But Zeppelin? One of the most overrated bands in history. As for your curmudgeonry, Russ, I'm afraid this looks a little too much like "get off my lawn," except instead of a lawn we're talking classic records. A reissue is a reintroduction, and it calls for the young and the old to partake. I'm all for the fresh-faced as well as the leather-faced taking a crack at highbrow cultural-music analysis, but you seem most put off by his opinion on the "Loving Cup" outtake. So I'd like to ask you: what if a 70 year old had written that? It's just an opinion, one you disagree with, that ultimately has little bearing on age. As for farming the review out to some old saw, that would raise my eyebrows: senior/top critics are supposed to take on the big reviews. It's where their clout comes from, for better and for worse.

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  • Hey, hey, get off of my lawn, don't hang around 'cause three's a crowd, on my lawn, baby! Actually, Ratliff is a senior critic at the Times. And, as I wrote, of course young and old can write about a reissue; in this case, however, it would've been helpful to the reader if Ratliff disclosed his retrospective view, rather than making it appear (unconsciously or not) as one who'd been around when the record came out.

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  • Russ, I gotta say that Noah has a point (excepting the Donovan/zztop crack) I was born in 69 and am a fan of the Stones. I prefer Bowie, Cream, Yardbirds, and Zeppelin, but love the Stones all the same. In fact, my parents often claim that I got my love of music from having my crib located next to the stereo speakers where my father would regularly play the Stones. Now, I admittingly missed much of the social significance of the Stones, but that hardly makes me unable to compare and contrast their music to others. In fact, I'd bet you that most people don't realize what a rebel Mozart was at the time he composed. Same could be said of Blues and Jazz greats. In other words, social signifigance is an important part of music, but it hardly is the end all be all of the art form. Same can be said for painting, photography, writing etc.

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  • I'm sorry if I'm not about to hand over the dialogue on 70s rock to deep cuts off Tres Hombres. A haw haw haw haw...

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  • "Hendrix named Gibbons his favorite guitar player during an appearance on "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson." http://www.famoustexans.com/zztop.htm You all know better than Jimi? I sincerely love Donovan too. Much superior to Dylan. In my opinion.

  • Critics of any age can write about any album but it's when they get this self-righteous attitude that it gnaws at me. I once read a write-up of Highway 61 written by someone no older than 25. That would've been fine, but he wrote like he knew what it was like when it came out, and tried to use this to his advantage. That bugs me, but music criticism, likes literary or film criticism, doesn't have an age limit/minimum for me.

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  • Does it really matter all that much that Hendrix named Gibbons his favorite guitar player? Does that say something particularly interesting about ZZ Top, the band, that I'm not getting?

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  • Never mind the weird ZZ Top fascination. Donovan wrote a LOT of great songs, but "much superior" to Dylan. I guess that was meant to provoke: it did.

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  • Hey Zach. I don't know; Hendrix seems like he should know whether someone is interesting musically or not. Maybe if he liked Billy Gibbons, ZZ Top had something going for it, and doesn't deserve to be dismissed out of hand. That would be the only point. Different people have different tastes, obviously. One of the things that happens if you go back to the same critics all the time is that you end up with the same canon, which can be (a) boring and (b) restrictive, for both listeners and musicians. People may or may not dismiss ZZ Top, but they've been quite influential (Steve Albini is a fan, I believe, for example.) Similarly, the current crop of freak folk people probably owe more to Donovan's example than to Dylan's in a lot of ways. The Stones and Dylan are both about a certain kind of roots fetishization and a certain kind of authenticity. ZZ Top and Donovan come at those things quite differently. To sum it up, maybe, the Stones and Dylan are punk rock — they're about being raw, real, and loose. Which is fine — but it's worth pointing out that their place at the top of the canon is about valuing those qualities over others. If you look for different things, you maybe get different outcomes. Which is one good reason to maybe let some new folks have a shot at arranging the furniture.

  • "but it's worth pointing out that their place at the top of the canon is about valuing those qualities over others." Quite a leap of faith, that. That might be how you characterize their popularity, but for the millions upon millions of others it's probably just that they make superior music. Time will tell (it already has).

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  • True, Donovan is hardly insignificant. Then again, some of today's folkies owe to the example of Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band. But Dylan as punk? The guy's about as calculated as a pop star could be.

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  • Andrew, time hasn't told anything! It's only like 40 years — and time is really, really, really long. Who knows who people will be listening to in 100 or 200 or 300 years or 3000, for that matter. You wait long enough and the sun explodes and even Shakespeare is forgotten. You have a case, make your case; don't depend on eternity to make it for you, because eternity really doesn't care. It's not a leap of faith to say that valuing certain artists involves valuing certain qualities. The Rolling Stones are not more technically proficient than ZZ Top — they just aren't. So then you must be resting your enthusiasm for the first over the second on something else. What does "superior music" consist of, then? Just the fact that more people happen to like it over time? Is it complicated songwriting (in which case Donovan kicks the Stones' ass, I'd argue.) When you say you like the music better, you either can articulate a reason, in which case we can talk about it, or you can't, in which case it's effectively just how it strikes you, in which case I'm not sure why I should take shit for liking ZZ Top more than the Stones. (Or Destiny's Child more than the Stones, for that matter.) Or to put it another way; if you're going to have a canon, you need to have criteria. If you don't have criteria, you don't have a canon. Greenlight, Fairport Convention and Incredible String Band are really important too, yes — and I love both of them as well! I think you're right that Dylan is quite calculated..but wrong that punk is not. The Sex Pistols and the Ramones — they put an awful lot of care into their images. Punk's not about spontaneity, but about calculated half-assedness, which I think does describe Dylan.

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  • Well, Noah, Time Waits for No One, as Mick sang, so I'll buy the anti-eternity argument. And you're right: Lydon was calculating, although Sid wasn't. But I still think you're wrong about Dylan: his "near-death" motorcycle accident was calculated, since he knew he'd probably croak if he continued at his '66 pace. John Wesley Harding was calculated, in reaction to Flower Power, and wasn't half-assed. And his biopic No Direction Home, which he shrewdly got Scorsese to wave his pedigree over while he did the legacy work himself, was 100 percent calculation. Nothing half-assed about it.

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  • Noah, no one who has ever seen Don't Look Back would ever make the ridiculous claim that Donovan > Dylan. Go rent it or something.

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