Sex, Drugs & Rock Criticism: Richard Goldstein on the Sixties

'Another Little Piece of My Heart' writer on hanging with Stones and Janis Joplin: "She was terribly insecure"

Richard Goldstein on the "Early Rock Critics" panel at the Pop Conference 2015 in Seattle, Washington on April 18, 2015. Credit: Joe Mabel

The story goes something like this: In 1966, a 21-year-old journalism school graduate named Richard Goldstein walks into the office of Village Voice editor Dan Wolf and makes an impassioned pitch to become "a rock and roll critic." When the young man finishes his plea, the 50-year-old Wolf asks, quite understandably, what exactly that is. I don't know, says Goldstein. Well, try something, says Wolf. And so, rock criticism as we know it is born. At least that's one version of the story.

In his quietly extraordinary new memoir, Another Little Piece of My Heart: My Life of Rock and Revolution in the '60s, Goldstein doesn't belabor the claim to being the first person to write about rock music: Crawdaddy! founder Paul Williams probably had him by a few months, and Rolling Stone founding editor Ralph Gleason, known primarily as a jazz critic, had been writing rock-concert reviews for years. In any case, the Voice writer's beat was different. He called his column Pop Eye, and with its equal interest in the audience itself, the media, and emerging social trends, it in many ways prefigured the pop-culture landscape we know today. Goldstein understood the pimpled fanboy–rock star dynamic, the mooning eyes of the front-row screechers ready to stampede. He too wished to be transformed by rock and roll.

In those potent years, Goldstein witnessed up close most of the major players and scenes, from the Monterey Pop Festival to the Chicago DNC. The names are big (Morrison, Joplin), but the mood is intimate and largely forgiving — until it comes to sham prophets like Timothy Leary and the Maharishi, or the dulcet fripperies of the song "MacArthur Park" ("The moment when I decided that rock as a revolutionary force was dead"). In 1970, he gave up rock writing for good; a scrapped interview with a zombified Jimi Hendrix was among the last, and he spent the next 34 years writing about politics, gay rights, and culture for the Voice. (Full disclosure: I worked with him there briefly in the early 2000s.)

Goldstein took time out from teaching at Hunter College to speak to Rolling Stone about discovering rock as a liberating force, bonding with Janis Joplin and the legacy of the Sixties.

What was your favorite music growing up?
Well, I sang doo-wop as a teenager. I grew up in a housing project in the Bronx. The gods of the neighborhood were these Italian guys; you couldn’t join their gangs if you were Jewish. But you could sing with them, and so I did. We would sing anywhere. Those were peak experiences for me, and literally an introduction to the possibilities of rock.

What were your favorite groups back then?
I adored the girl groups — my first real rock piece was on the Shangri-Las. I understood entirely where they were coming from as girls from Queens. They seemed like the people in my neighborhood to me. In college, I became a folkie, but I never quite lost that gutter side of me, that love of music that wasn't liberation anthems but actually just sex. Fierce moves and big hair: Those were my values as a kid.

And what about rock and roll?
Well, of course I was a nerd. And I think it shows in the pictures of me. I did try to cover it up with hippie attire and long hair But I was always uncertain and quite nerdy. Rock and roll was a way to get beyond that.

As the book says, I had a lot of sexual issues when I was young. Parts of my sexuality were hidden from me, and I was able to project those hidden feelings onto the music. By adoring rock stars, and seeing rock and roll as a kind of magical, sexual force, I was able to experience things that I couldn’t experience any other way. Not that I didn't have sex, but only with women — mostly with women. These are just hidden parts of my personality — I guess the homosexual parts. For me rock music was a way into a self I wasn’t fully aware of.

What the most memorable early piece you wrote about rock?
The third piece I did was the Rolling Stones. I got invited by them to a press event on a pier in the Hudson River. They hired a boat because they couldn't stay in any hotel because of the fans. I watched fans attack Brian Jones, ripping his clothing and throwing themselves across the windshield of their limo. I got into their limo because Charlie Watts took mercy on me and shoehorned me in, even though I was too scared to ask any questions. I watched this spectacle in a state of complete astonishment.

How did things change as more drugs came into the scene?
I didn't start out using drugs; I felt that if I did marijuana I would turn into Norman Bates. But a guy turned me on to it, and I realized I could function. In interviewing rock stars, you got stoned with them. First of all, there were no press agents, no publicists of any sort. It was you and the person. Rarely was there anybody else in the room. So getting stoned with them was a sort of rite of trust. If you didn't get stoned with them, they would think you were straight — ironic, but the word meant "normal" back then. And then acid came later. The first time was with a musician, but not a well known one in Lake Tahoe. That's when I learned to do drugs — with rock stars.

You famously wrote a critical review of Sgt. Pepper for the New York Times. But later you said you changed your mind.
I didn't get it because the record wasn't really rock. It didn't belong in any genre that I could think of, so I didn't know how to receive it. I think I was quite a puritan when I reviewed that album. I'm much less puritanical about music now, and I think so are most music listeners. And then the other thing: One of my speakers blew out, so when I got the press record, I only had one speaker. You’d put your head between the speakers, with the speakers right against your ears—no earphones. And you’d put it on peak volume. That’s how I heard most records that I reviewed. When one blew I didn’t hear the bass line very well, so it was even less like a rock record. It felt chaotic and cluttered, too showy and all of that. There are people who think I was right, and maybe I was. I don’t know. There’s no right and wrong about a piece of music. All there is, is the consensus.

You had a close friendship with Janis Joplin, and you describe her succumbing to the "the machine."
Yeah, she became a nomad of the industry. She had lost her communitarian support system when she changed bands. That's my impression. The guys in Big Brother and the Holding Company adored her: They hugged her musically when they played, and they took care of her on the road. I think that's why she ended up losing her life, this uprooting. She was a very insecure person, and we bonded over our doubts about ourselves.

A lot of really great rockers in the Sixties were very fragile people, unlike today. You have Amy Winehouse, but for the most part they're very strong people, with enormously strong egos. Lady Gaga is not going to have a nervous breakdown — I don't think, anyway. I don't see Beyonce being fragile — and that's great. It creates an image for young people. But many of the great artists in the Sixties were very fragile people, borderline personality. And Janis was one of them. She was terribly insecure about her hair, believe it or not. So many women imitated her, but she felt that her hair was, really, a mess, and Janis never lost the sense of herself as an outcast that she had as a girl growing up in Texas. That's how we related to each other. I'd never seen someone get so drunk before performing. I had no idea about the heroin.

When I found out she had overdosed...it was the last straw. I went into a terrible depression and writing block that took me a long time to crawl out of. I couldn't write about rock music any longer, because too many people whom I cared for — and not all of them were famous — had died.

Janis never lost the sense of herself as an outcast. I'd never seen someone get so drunk before performing. I had no idea about the heroin.

There seemed to be some disappointment in the book, a feeling and desire for change that maybe didn’t quite come through.
I think the Sixties produced a lot of changes. Multiculturalism comes from the Sixties. So does feminism, gay liberation, environmentalism, sexual freedom in general — even veggie burgers. A lot of things people take for granted today come from that decade. Most people had better lives as a result of the Sixties. But what didn't change is the social justice agenda: equality. We're less equal than we were as a society, and certainly racial justice has never been achieved. This was a huge priority. Almost everything of importance in the Sixties had something to do with race, including the music. Black music became front and center in a major way — black music by black people. And that’s never changed.

All of the things that did change were economically profitable. Multiculturalism created a new market. Feminism has, unfortunately, meant a cheap labor force. Gay liberation, gay marriage, means a new wedding industry. The things that didn't change are things that demand that you give people money. Like racial justice. It means there has to be a program that redresses poverty — so it costs money. Same with economic equality: You have to tax people and distribute the wealth. These things failed. So to the extent that we thought we were changing the world...we were only making new markets. And we ended up as an advance force for the free-market economy. Maybe this is the way things work in history; I'm not saying we failed. But I certainly think our major goals in terms of justice were defeated.

You say that the black movement for civil rights influenced many movements and changes, like gay rights. But where do you see black rights today?
I think that civic equality, via voting, was advanced in the Sixties. But economic equality and social justice have been pushed back since then. In one way, there are more famous and prosperous black people, like the president. In another way, there's a greater struggle because economic injustice is worse, and police violence is worse. Police are more heavily armed, for one thing.

So you think the police are more violent?
I do. I think there's more fear because there’s more up-push from black people in a different way. During the riots of 1968 when 110 cities were in flames [after the assassination of Martin Luther King], the death toll was maybe about a 100. I don't think that was that high considering the scale of the violence. Today, you don't even have to burn down a building to be shot; you just have to be in a car, or run away, and you end up with eight bullets in the back. Or just selling cigarettes on the street and ending up choked — this was impossible to imagine in the Sixties. So in that sense, I think it is worse. And because there's been an advancement of some sort, there's a sense of it being more painful. On the one hand, you have a black president, and on the other you have this grave danger for ordinary people. This remains a struggle for my students to wage.

What do you say to your students about how to wage this struggle?
Wage it. Refuse to accept it. Get on the street. Move your ass. An Instagram is not a life. Understand and feel the ecstasy of moving with your peers in pursuit of a just cause. It's a great pleasure that young people have more or less forgotten, that's been repressed for them. That's why I think the Occupy Movement was so important. It doesn't matter what it did or didn't do. What matters is young people got off their asses, and they understood what protest is for. The solution is to stomp it down — it's still "no justice, no peace." Also to force the government to give money to poor people, tax the rich — and that’s something that you do at the ballot box. You have to do both.

I'm not talking about overthrowing the system — this is something that was an illusion of my youth, and we didn't succeed in that anyway. I am talking about simple clear paths to justice. That’s something you have to struggle for, and it constantly has to be struggled for. I'm glad there are struggles for women's rights and gay rights, but those people also have to stick up for racial justice. That’s where it all comes from. If you're a feminist or a gay liberationist, if you're going to get married to someone of your sex, the reason that's happening is because of the black struggle. And so you have to pay your dues. You have to acknowledge your debt and participate in securing justice for everybody.