Robert Christgau, Rock & Roll Radical

A Q&A with the legendary rock critic as he releases his memoir, 'Going Into the City'

Robert Christgau's new memoir 'Going Into the City' traces the life and career of a legendary rock critic. Credit: Joe Mabel

A few decades ago, a young Robert Christgau famously dubbed himself the Dean of American Rock Critics. These days, that's a little like being the dean of Southwest Missouri A&T. But at the time, when rock criticism was inventing brand-new ways to write and think about pop culture, the distinction really meant something (like being dean of Grinnell, maybe, though probably not Dartmouth, from which Christgau graduated in 1962). Now, after nearly 50 years of writing with more insight about more kinds of music than anyone else in the game, the 72-year-old Dean is publishing an excellent memoir, Going Into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man, about his early years in New York – from growing up in Queens during the Fifties to starting out on the Lower East Side in the Sixties to his golden-age run as music editor at the Village Voice in the Seventies and early Eighties. It's a fascinating account of his intellectual coming of age and search for love that doubles as a great history of rock criticism's origins. As Christgau puts it in the book's introduction, "I was present at the creation of an influential strain of cultural discourse that some believe presaged 'postmodernism,' if that's a selling point." I visited Christgau (who I'm friends with) at his East Village apartment, where he talked about his career, the at times difficult process of writing Going Into the City and how to school Randy Newman in hoops. 

People you're sort of connected to – Patti Smith, Richard Hell, James Wolcott – have recently written memoirs about New York in the Sixties and Seventies. Were those books on your mind while you worked on Going Into the City?
That's right. When I first thought about doing this, my standing reason was that I was on the Lower East Side, east of Avenue B in the Sixties and nobody had ever written about it. Since then, as you say, both Richard Hell and Patti Smith, and also Ed Sanders (very well), have written about precisely that locale. And Wolcott has written about the East Village and when he goes to our apartment east of Avenue B is terrified by the squalor [laughs]. And as far as I'm concerned, his depiction of our apartment is very impressionistic.

As a kid growing up in Queens, what did the city itself represent to you and your family?
I knew Manhattan was there, and I got taken every once in a while and one of my first memories of Manhattan is once when we are coming home from our vacation in Upstate New York and we came through the Lincoln Tunnel and somehow we found ourselves driving through Hell's Kitchen in the summer time. And Hell's Kitchen in the summer time in the Fifties was a hot, garbagy slum, and it had not been gentrified at all. And did I think "oh yuck"? No, it wasn't like that. But foreign? Yes. And very very. . .the term exotic didn't mean anything to me at the time, but I definitely responded to it as something that was exotic and really a memorable and unique place, in my experience.

But a big moment in my musical life is when my parents came home from South Pacific. They had been to Broadway and seen a show and I've always cared about shows. My grandfather, who was a very, very important figure in my life, loved the theater, loved musicals. My parents were big music fans and so the idea of the Broadway musical, that was a big idea. I got taken to South Pacific myself, I think by my grandfather. I was maybe 11. It was a mythical thing for me. I loved it. I use that title Going Into the City because I discovered the very same phrase in Alfred Kazin's A Walker in the City, a book about growing up in Brooklyn written in the Thirties, and I've spoken to people in their twenties who use this same term today — from Connecticut or from Nassau County. "What are you doing tonight?" "I'm going into the city." That started for me when I was in high school because my more adventurous friends had discovered that you could buy cheap records at 42nd Street.

Some people might be surprised to read that you grew up in a pretty strict Presbyterian family. How did that shape you?
It's a major theme of the book because as far as I'm concerned, the First Presbyterian Church of Flushing was intellectually formative for me in the way elementary school certainly was not. I was introduced to big ideas in Sunday school and not in elementary school. I was a naturally thoughtful kid and I was thinking about big ideas. In Dubliners, you can see James Joyce hearing sermons about hell and it does exactly the same thing to him. These are big ideas. You think about death. I've been thinking about death, really since I was a very young child. I've never stopped. It's something that really matters to me. And you know, it matters to everyone. But the American way of death is to brush it under the table and ignore it. I see the Rhapsody review of the Sun Kil Moon album. For the Rhapsody guy, who is probably in his twenties it's, "Oh yuck, this is too much!" Well, you know, no, not as far as I'm concerned. My background instilled in me a moral seriousness that has never left me. Now, as I got older, I understood that there was another kind of background more common in Queens than mine that also instilled in you a moral seriousness and that was the Left. The Jewish kids I knew in high school were for the most part, they were not CP, although there were a couple, but they were, you know, serious liberals. 

Of all the early rock critics, you've stayed with it the longest. Why do you think that happened?
There is a part of me that is a radical democrat. Not a true socialist or communist, although I certainly believe in most of those things, but a radical democrat. I think that's what it was that made me want to have Lester Bangs and Stephen Holden write for the Voice and to find writers of color, which I didn't do as fast as I should have, but certainly worked at harder than anybody else.

I think the secret of my longevity with the music is that I'm open to lots of different kinds of music. I think that if all you like is guitar-driven rock & roll, you're in deep shit now. But in the Nineties that wasn't true. In the Nineties you could say, "Well, fuck this hip-hop stuff, I wanna listen to. . .Buffalo Tom. What about Buffalo Tom?" That's a name I can remember, I'd have to look a lot of these names up. But there were loads of guitar bands making artistically ambitious music, most of which was dull as dishwater as far as I'm concerned. But I didn't need that stuff! Because I loved hip-hop from the moment I heard it, I never stopped listening to black pop. When my contemporaries said "oh that's commercial," I said, "duh, it's pop music!" and continued to listen to it and write about it, although it took me a while to learn how to do it right. I hear the first decent Afro-pop compilation ever, made by a guy who happens to be a writer of mine because I think we should have salsa coverage even though I don't like salsa. That guy puts out a record in 1973 called Africa Dances and I'm completely entranced. This whole world opens up to me! So then now there are dozens, hundreds of Afro-pop albums that I listen to as much as I can! 

And then more stuff! I mean, Tom Johnson, the brilliant minimalist composer, says "you gotta go hear this downtown stuff." I don't like most of it, most of it's too austere — but I like Philip Glass, and I like Gavin Bryars, and I like Robert Ashley, I can hear stuff there that I like. It's being a radical democrat. And the other thing is whatever it is that's permitted me to be ecstatically married [to writer Carola Dibbell] for 42 years. You know, conventional wisdom is that people get bored with each other. Well, I found an extremely un-boring person. I can't be certain that with anyone else I would have achieved as much as I did. I give more credit to Carola in my marriage than I do to myself. However, there it is: I've been romantically in love with the same person for 42 years. It's just like rock & roll.

Along with your marriage, you also write about your relationship in the late Sixties with rock critic Ellen Willis. Some parts of the book are extremely personal and emotionally grueling.
First of all, I gotta go back a little bit, if you don't mind. I began writing this book because I have something to say about the Lower East Side. Well that's taken away from me. . .right? [Laughs] I'm not gonna write a book as good as Just Kids. I think this is a good book, but it's not as good as Just Kids. C'mon. The others? Let's not talk about them. And so I said, "what is it about me?" I realized that the religious thing is very important and I realized that the other thing that's really happened in my life and what's really important in my life, the important struggle, even more important than art criticism, is my search for love.

And the thing is that I read these other books. Christopher Hitchens' memoir, it's about all these famous people he knew. He was in this sort of famously supportive marriage and he went through cancer and this wife helped him through it. There is nothing about that at all. So are we really finding out about this guy's life? No, we're not. And I figured if I was gonna write a memoir, you would find out about my life, and if that seems self indulgent, and believe me I worried about that, and I still worry about it. I am still worried people will say, "what the fuck is this about? Why doesn't he tell us about more shows?" But that's the most important thing in my life, and if I was gonna write about my life I was gonna write about what was important in it!

Was the process painful?
I wanted to tell the truth. That's the reason I did all that stuff. How painful was it? Sometimes very painful. But writing about the good stuff, it was. . .ecstatic, renewing. The 1,500-2,000 words about when Carola and I finally get together, I wrote that in three hours. It just went whoosh, although we had terrible, terrible times, several times. The one I'll mention is the most obvious one, which is the story of Carola's affair, which is in the last chapter. At first I didn't think I was going to write about it at all, but she convinced me I had to if I was gonna be doing this. Oh it was awful. I relived it, I realized stuff that I hadn't realized at the time that scared me shitless and made me really angry and I had nightmares about it but we got through it. Carola had a lot of input into that section [laughs], as she should have. And meanwhile, writing about the other things and talking about them as I did endlessly with her, it was enthralling. It was a great experience. And we both feel that our marriage has never been stronger. 

When you were dating Ellen Willis you were going to collaborate on a book about popular culture. Why didn't you keep going on the book yourself after you broke up?
That's a simple answer. Ellen was the book. That's why. I mean I contributed a lot of ideas and I had plenty of ideas since she and I broke up too, plenty. And they are really good ideas, goddamnit, and sometimes they're better ideas than hers. In fact, you know I think my political ideas are smarter than hers or at least more sensible than hers. But in terms of simply spinning ideas, she was just a phenomenon, like nothing I have ever experienced in my life with anyone else, even Marshall Berman. She had an ability to theorize. It was gonna be what made the book work. That's the real reason. The other reason is that I was completely bummed out and couldn't do anything.

You played pickup basketball with Randy Newman and Pete Townshend gave you a ride to Woodstock. But those experiences only get passing mentions. Why is that?
The ride with Pete Townshend took place in 1969 and I had probably smoked some pot. I don't fuckin' remember much about it and I think the main reason that I didn't remember fuckin' much about it is that basically we were getting to the site and whatever was said wasn't memorable. You know, if I had really good stories to tell, I suppose I would tell them. A lot of memoirs recount the details of long ago incidents and the reason I don't do that is that I don't remember the details of long-ago incidents. Do these other writers remember those details? I am not, to be honest with you, convinced that they usually do.

The famous person you write about most is John Lennon. You say, "this guy was intense." Is he the most intense person that you think you've been around?
Oh yeah. I have met enough famous people. I can't think of anybody who I'd even put in the rank with him. In terms of personal intensity, not Janis Joplin, not Miles Davis, not Roy Lichtenstein (God knows one of the most laid back people I have ever met). No, [Lennon] was incandescent in that respect. All the times we spent with him he was incandescent. I thought it was great to know him. But on the other hand, did I pursue that relationship? I did not because you're always the supplicant. They always have more people who need them than they have time for. That is just the nature of fame. If you're interested in a collegial friendly relationship, you are not going to get it.

What about the basketball game with Randy Newman. Who won?
You know, Randy Newman is somebody who I reencountered in the past year. He wrote me an e-mail out of the fuckin' blue telling me he really liked my work. It was very flattering and we eventually met for lunch in September with his manager and Carola and I thought he'd be kind of a curmudgeon. He wasn't. Not at all. Really a sweetheart and he told me I won [laughs]. I didn't remember I had won. Basically what he said was, he had the shot and the size but I just kept digging and I beat him. That's what he told me and he said that he's never forgotten it.

In the early Seventies, you taught a rock criticism class in which one of your students was a young Gene Simmons. The highest grade you ever gave Kiss was a B. What grade did Gene get?
I assume it was below a B. [Laughs] He was the kind of guy who sat there and got a C, you know what I mean?

The Village Voice in the Seventies and Eighties was a legendarily contentious place. What was the biggest dustup you ever got in during that period?
Well, first of all I'd like to say that I've stayed out of a lot of that stuff but certainly I can remember them. I had a fight with Stanley Crouch once, when he said to a wonderful guy in the design department — as he was prone to do — "You're just a clerk!" The designer did something he didn't like and he really insulted this designer, whose name I will not give you. And I just fucking blew up. We were at it like nose-to-nose, and Stanley is an imposing guy. He's got a big, thick neck.  Eventually, he got canned there for hitting somebody. But I was right up there with him, and, at one point, Stanley steps back. Stanley is a really interesting person. He said, "Hey, you're really scared, aren't you?" [Laughs] and I said, "Fucking right, I'm scared! Do you see yourself?" and he sort of just pulled away. So that's a good one.

You describe a staff walk out at the Voice in 1978 and say "I never had a better Sixties moment." What's your greatest Seventies moment?
It pops right into my mind, so I might as well say it. The police benefit that the Ramones did at CBGBs in '78. It was to raise money for bulletproof vests for the police, and no doubt it was Johnny's idea. Fucking place was literally packed to the rafters. I can say that because I saw that show standing on one of the dividers, hanging on to a pillar in the very back of CBGBs.  It was completely mobbed. I'm sure the police stayed away because it was a police benefit. Oh, I bet there were over 200 people there, and something about how full the place was, and that they put on a really good set — but they always put on a really good set — so that's nothing different. But the vibe was fucking amazing. 

You've always been an advocate for pop culture — its democratic and aesthetic possibility. How do you feel about pop culture now? How has it turned out?
Well, I will say that pop obviously didn't turn out the way we had hoped it would. I underrated capitalism, as socialists always do. [Laughs] And I certainly find today's celebrity culture — which I really do believe is greatly intensified by something so great nobody could have anticipated, the Internet — I do think that makes an enormous amount of difference in itself. No, I'm not happy with it. On the other hand, I would say from what I can tell, television has become a locus of an enormous amount of creativity at every level. I'm a big fan of The Big Bang Theory. I'm a big fan of this British spinoff called Getting On. That's my favorite of the recent shows. It's only 12 half-hour shows. Boy, does it get a lot done in six hours — a lot — and the tone is so dark and funny. Unbelievable. Anyway, I think that my impression is that there's really a lot of stuff on TV. I can retire and just watch stuff on Netflix for the rest of my life. That'd be nice. On the other hand, in some kind of general way, was I right? Yeah, I was fucking right. Absolutely, and everybody agrees. Everybody knows that. People don't deny that The Honeymooners was really important. People don't deny that Roseanne was really important. People know that. Sure, there's dissent. Of course there is, but I won that one. Basically, I feel fine about it.