Long Live the King

I’m a long-time reader of Robert Christgau and a participant in Expert Witness, his blog. As you may have heard, MSN is canning Bob’s gig there. It’s been a great community, a wild ride. Here is my final post there:

"In my life, music has two, almost polar-opposite roles: It’s always been a special safe place to go where you (almost) never get hurt, let down, double-crossed, betrayed. But music has also been my #1 social vehicle, and I’ve met more people through music than any other way outside of work. Let me say that slightly differently: I’ve met more great people through music than any other way period. (And, yes, I bonded with my blessed wife and my three life-long best friends professionally and musically at the same time.)

I remember the moment when my musical tastes diverged from my barely-teen peers—an ad in Creem (I’ve tracked the edition down, June 1976) promoting the first Ramones album. That ad screamed out transgression, joy, mayhem—it said that there was something risky behind the door that would open if I heard this music, and that there was no going back.

It’s hard to explain the challenges of getting ahold of non-mainstream music before digitalization and the internet. I had to special-order that Ramones record at the local record store because no way was that being stocked in Mobile, AL. And eventually the back pages of Trouser Press and, later, Goldmine, became lifelines for music I read about but couldn’t lay hands on.

The situation improved dramatically when I went to college in Nashville in 1981, mostly because there was a wonderful used record store—the first one I’d ever come across— only a block from my first dorm room, The Great Escape. But as my musical boundaries expanded (the first club show I saw was at Cantrell’s, October 1981, Jason and the Scorchers opening for REM pre-Chronic Town) more guidance was needed.

Having learned that the first (red) Rolling Stone Record Guide was conservative beyond utility (the Pere Ubu review did it), I grabbed Robert Christgau’s ‘70s Consumer Guide when I went home in 1981 for Thanksgiving. And I’ve never really gotten my nose out of that thing. I eventually triangulated that this Christgau guy wrote the Consumer Guide column in all of the used issues of Creem that I was buying at the Great Escape and soon I was subscribing to the Village Voice to get his columns pronto—which made me something of a commie at Vanderbilt. The rest is history, as they say. (And guess what? Xgau was also blurbed in that Ramones ad I saw when I was 13, a fact I only discovered recently. It all makes sense!)

Until Expert Witness happened, I’d communicated with Robert Christgau exactly twice. Once after I figured out who he was and had bought the first CG book, and realized that I could capture his recommendations going forward but that I’d missed the 1981 Pazz and Jop Poll with his Dean’s List for that year. With tremendous trepidation (and throwing in a dollar bill for the copy costs) I asked him if he would mind sending me a copy of his year-end expertise. “Keep yer buck” he wrote back. Much later, I tracked him down after 9/11 and got a kind note in response, as well as a Rachid Taha tip.

So regarding Expert Witness, you know what it is and I know what it is—Expert Witness is something we know so well that I don’t really feel like it can be put into words without diluting the experience. But who knew that there was this community, so widely dispersed geographically and in interests and age? Who knew that our host (and occasionally the elegant-like-Susan-Sontag-in-the-‘60’s Carola) would be not just overlords but part of the general population? Who knew that folks we all knew and revered from their writing, like Tom Hull and Milo Miles and Joe Levy, would show up and teach us so much?

But to me there is this: I went to medical school and then residency mostly assigned to a tough part of Atlanta, and for basically 6 years straight during that time I was on call every fourth night taking care of patients and hanging out with my colleagues-in-training who shared this experience with me. We saw things you’ll never believe, we did a lot of good for people, and we had a lot of fun together inside and outside the hospital. I’d count 8-10 of this group as my deepest, take-a-bullet-for-them friends, but another 100 or so that I could connect with at any time our paths cross and instantly regain an important connection. It’s not that I haven’t made friends since then, I’ve got more than I deserve. But that instantaneous connection, that shared experience, that deep look into a colleague’s eyes and knowing exactly what was going on—how could that ever be recreated? And believe me, that experience is miraculous.

For twenty years now, I’ve been telling the trainees who I teach and mentor that they should recognize that they will never develop such intense personal relationships as the ones they are now cultivating with their peers in the trenches during medical training. And for years this has held true for me. Until Expert Witness happened.

Expert Witness is just as vivid and important a shared experience for me as my residency was. I’ve made friends I’ll hunt down in my travels. I’ll share my tough moments. I’ll always have my eye out for someone wearing a Wussy t-shirt. And I’ll always be there when any Witness gives me a call.

There is something epic about how Mr. Christgau has crafted his writing, his art history of the musical now. But in some weird way his writing expands into something even more alive here at Expert Witness. I should say more about Mr. Christgau in this post, but I think I’ll fall up short. Bob, I wish I could have introduced you to my grandfather Ollie Starke, you two would have loved each other.

And now, I’m going to lay my head down and turn off the lights. In the morning, the sun will come up and it will be another day for all of us here. And lots of other people too. But only we will know what it meant, what it means, to be a Witness. Be good.”