By his count, Robert Christgau has reviewed around 14,000 records since 1967. “To the eternal ‘Opinions are like assholes — everybody’s got one,’ ” he writes in his upcoming memoir, Going Into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man, “I just say, ‘Yeah, but not everybody’s got ten thousand of them.’ ” Writing mostly for the Village Voice, where he was known for his Consumer Guide column (a regular roundup of letter-graded album reviews) and the annual Pazz & Jop poll of rock critics, Christgau has championed everyone from Al Green to Sleater-Kinney to Taylor Swift. (Christgau also wrote for Rolling Stone and mentored some of the magazine’s writers and editors.) His opinions are pithy, funny, sometimes infuriating and always incisive. (Last line of his 1980 rave for Prince’s Dirty Mind: “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home.”)
Going Into the City runs from Christgau’s childhood in Queens through his days as a pioneering rock critic in the late Sixties, concluding around the time he left his post as music editor of the Village Voice in the mid-Eighties. There’s frank discussion of his personal life (including his relationship with the writer Ellen Willis), and there are great passages on Pop Art, Jerry Garcia and Dostoevsky, among other topics. At the Voice, Christgau was one of punk’s biggest proponents and a regular at CBGB, often accompanied by his wife, the writer Carola Dibbell. This excerpt finds Christgau in the thick of the late-Seventies New York scene, bearing witness to the Ramones, Patti Smith and Television, whose Marquee Moon was one of CBGB’s great gifts to the world.
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The same night Richard Meltzer presented me with the copy of Kant’s Critique of Judgement I never finished, he urged us to go see Television, who were connected to his Blue Öyster Cult buddies via Patti Smith, inamorata of both BÖC’s Allen Lanier and TV’s Tom Verlaine. So we caught them at Max’s and thought they sucked, as by all accounts they often did back then, which doesn’t mean I was right to leave it at that. But when the same Patti Smith embarked on a seven-week March-April stand at a refurbished version of the dive where Carola and I had connected post-Cockettes, we checked in early and came back often bringing friends. Barely aware that Smith’s rock writin’ had appeared in Creem but a collegial fan of critic-guitarist Lenny Kaye, I’d enjoyed her before — at St. Mark’s Church and a West Village spot where some folk victim put his hands together to keep time, I cracked, “What is the sound of one asshole clapping?,” and she laid out for a beat or two to reward me with one of her delighted cackles. But at CBGB, for that was the new name of the beer-bar, she’d added second guitarist Ivan Kral and, crucially, Jay Dee Daugherty on occasional drums. She had a band and I had a rooting interest. Wolcott’s Patti Riff ran in early April.
The Tuesday after that review appeared, Tom Johnson invited me to get my avant on at the Kitchen. When the highly enjoyable performance ended, I remembered a flyer I’d gotten from four geeks in leather jackets: “The Ramones are not an oldies group, they are not a glitter group, they don’t play boogie music and they don’t play the blues. The Ramones are an original Rock and Roll group of 1975, and their songs are brief, to the point and every one a potential hit single.” I was struck by the pop principles informing this manifesto, and Tom was as game to cross over as I’d just been. So he climbed into the Toyota with me and Carola. CBGB was almost empty. Danny Fields said hello at the bar.
My best estimate is thirteen songs in twenty-three minutes with no intraband sniping — I saw the Ramones dozens of times without witnessing that piece of the legend. I was stunned by how much I liked them. Their uniforms-in-disguise disguising the class split between Forest Hills Joey and Middle Village Johnny, these stylized Queens boys traded the expressionist doomshows that mucked up their semi-popular antecedents the Stooges for deadpan comedy and killer hooks that didn’t understate their alienation an iota. Ever the pop guy, I was an instant fan, albeit one concerned about that blitzkrieg song, while avant-minimalist Johnson recognized music whose limited means were simultaneously primitive and apt and dug it on formal grounds. Wolcott’s mythological Ramones Riff, “Chord Killers,” was in the July 21 Voice, two weeks after Stephen O’Laughlin’s musicological TV-at- CBGB Riff. A month later came Wolcott’s Goldstein-assigned feature on the CBGB Rock Festival, four or five bands a night between July 16 and August 1. There he posited the thesis that the “unpretentiousness” of the CBGB stalwarts — topped at that moment, according to hippieish impresario Hilly Kristal, by Television, the Ramones, Talking Heads, the Heartbreakers, his managerial clients the Shirts, and, he swore, Johnny’s Dance Band from Philadelphia — represented a “resurgence of communal faith” Wolcott traced to the ’60s. This thesis was odd for Wolcott, no hippie himself, and odd for the punks, who hated hippies. But it was also prophetic, because just like hippies both the fledgling punks and the pre-Vanity Fair Wolcott were bohemians. From CBGB would evolve an alt-rock bohemia that would put its distrust of corporate capitalism into DIY practice. And while in recent years band culture has been pushed aside as social media transform the subcultural yet again, the indie business model has become standard, and its mystique remains an essential component of a hipsterdom that will eventually be called something else but isn’t as I write. Half a century later, we’re still washing “The White Negro” out of our hair.
Carola and I had too much of a life to be scenesters. But we followed all the major bands, and would drop in regularly at CBGB on the way home from Crosby Street or Jones Street or the Bottom Line not to connect to the rockcrit network, which was usually represented, but to check out the music. Hilly never said no to a journalist, but he knew I in particular, along with John Rockwell, “went beyond what was expedient” and made CBGB the only club in my power-brokering career where there was never a delay at the door. Its long space bright in back, aglow near the stage, and dim in the middle, its floors cruddy and its walls impastoed, its squalid bathrooms more functional than history will record, its matchless sound system its only concession to success, CBGB was a fine place to hear music or ignore it as the talent onstage warranted — unless you cared about the headliner. In that case we’d often jostle for position along the bar and stand stewing in our own juices, especially if we arrived too late to have a choice. But other times we’d occupy a table up front and nurse beers through the crap opener Hilly wasn’t paying a thin dime, leaving me with nothing to do but follow the beat and figure out how the drumming worked — or more often, didn’t. I would have had trouble putting what I heard in words. But I permanently sharpened my sense of band dynamics that way.
Carola loved the music, and loved the CBGB version of bohemia more. Having smiled or squirmed through too much backbiting and hypocrisy while taking hippie communalism literally, she dug the provisional mistrust that was the club’s standard affect because there was so much room for camaraderie just underneath. And she was psyched that three of the major bands featured women. In addition to very different leads Patti and Debbie, one role player was at least as ground-breaking: Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth, whose unassuming competence and chop-cut chic projected a normality and necessity that had their own kind of feminist charisma. Women were sparse around CBGB at first, often favoring a hooker finery that reclaimed sexual candor when it wasn’t just work clothes, and Debbie Harry’s prophetic glamour poses mined the same vein. But Patti and Tina’s distinct styles of unisex empowered dozens of women who’d infiltrate the next few waves of CBGB bands as hundreds of women gravitated to the scene, including many key photographers and Punk magazine Oxonian Mary Harron. Having taken fashion cues from youths of color in the wake of the mugging, Carola’s clothes sense assumed a boyish cast that remained with her, although she can do girlish and womanly and if necessary classy when in the mood. What she won’t ever do is grow her hair to the lustrous length it was when we married. This saddens me once in a while. But punk was worth the price.
“Punk was a musical movement that reacted against the pastoral sentimentality, expressionistic excess, and superstar bloat of ’60s rock with short, fast, hard, acerbic songs,” I explained to The New York Times Book Review twenty years after the fact. By design, this formula applied equally to the New York bohemians who devised the punk aesthetic and the London extremists who made a mass movement of it. Yet although Television were protopunks from jump street and played CBGB before anyone, they were barely punk at all once Tom Verlaine replaced style-setting, scene-ruling bassist Richard Hell with Blondie’s capable, obliging Fred Smith. And by the time Karin Berg corralled the touchy Verlaine for Elektra and got Marquee Moon out of him — which didn’t take long because Television had been playing those eight songs live for years — his band had been beaten to the rack jobbers by Patti Smith, the Ramones, and Blondie, with Hell’s Voidoids not far behind. Here and in Britain, many indelible albums came out of punk — Ramones; The Clash; Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols; Smith’s Horses; Hell’s Blank Generation; Blondie’s Parallel Lines; Wire’s Pink Flag; X-Ray Spex’s Germ-Free Adolescents; Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food, on and on. But Marquee Moon was the one I never tired of. And that was in part because it wasn’t punk. Its intensity wasn’t manic; it didn’t come in spurts. Nothing wrong with manic — punk made me crave that style of intensity all my life. But there’s nothing wrong with endurance either.
One way the original Television were protopunks was their visual style, in which Hell was the safety-pinned fashionista and Verlaine’s down-at-heel preppy maudit fit right in. Another was a cartoonlike, meta-ironic dissociation right out of the New York School poets they loved. But beyond their early ineptitude, what was most punk about them musically was crude garage-rock covers like the Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” and the 13th Floor Elevators’ “Fire Engine” — a frame of reference formally congruent to but culturally and sonically distinct from the Dolls’ r&b novelties and the pre-Beatles macho mimicked by UK pub-rock. This is a post-Beatles vein nailed right off by the twelve-second intro to “See No Evil” and exploited by all six shorter songs on Marquee Moon — formally, not sonically, because they weren’t raw enough. Verlaine’s mellow, ululating drawl, so wimpy some hardasses in their own minds will never get over it, guarantees that. And on a militantly learn-while-doing scene, every guy in the band had more chops than garage rockers are supposed to: guitarist-forever Verlaine, his pop-leaning counterpart Richard Lloyd, jazz-hip drummer Billy Ficca, and knowledgeable middleman Smith. Marquee Moon — co-produced with Verlaine by Stones/Led Zep engineer Andy Johns — wasn’t a punk album. It was a rock album.
It was also a vinyl album, forty-five minutes split right down the middle, and this sealed its status, because side one, which shifts materially song to unforgettable song without diluting a band sound that ignores every parallel no matter how complimentary (Byrds-Dead-Stones are all miles away), is as good as album sides get, rushing forward as one thing yet revealing new details every time you play it again. With addictive guitar riffs securing each track, there’s not a misplaced second, and much of it was recorded in one take. Side two can’t possibly keep up, and doesn’t — I find the devotional “Guiding Light” soupy myself, and only “Prove It” with its droll “Just the facts” stays with me like “See No Evil” or “Venus” or “Friction” or “Marquee Moon” itself. So make side two a high A minus. But side one is an A plus plus plus, and side one is why so many treasure Marquee Moon as a classic.
Going outside Manhattan and against type, I assigned the Riff to Virginia-born Boston Episcopalian Ken Emerson, who loved it, only not in the terms I did. For Emerson, Marquee Moon had it all over reductive Ramones and apocalyptic Patti because Television were “grown up.” Everywhere he listened, music or lyrics, he found a “doubleness,” “a golden mean,” an “insistence on seeing things whole.” But while the doubleness is certainly thematic, remembering how young I was when I latched onto “Vacillation” makes me wonder how grown up it is. What I love most about the lyrics of Marquee Moon is their evocation of that youthful moment when you’re this close to figuring everything out, voicing in very few words a multivalence worthy of that adventure’s complexity and confusion — beautifully, profoundly, naively, contradictorily, romantically, kinetically, jokily, cockily, fearfully, drunkenly, goofily, impudently — so nervous and excited you could fly, or is it faint? And with the single line “Broadway looked so medieval” added to what we know about its East Village provenance, it situates this philosophical action in the downtown night.
Like many great albums and more pretentious ones, Marquee Moon has gathered armies of exegetes set on getting to the bottom of every word, and bless ’em, really. But they’re misguided. Not only don’t I know what all the lyrics mean, Verlaine doesn’t know what all the lyrics mean, and it’s a dead end to speculate. When we ran into this problem with Coleridge (who Verlaine would have ditched for being a junkie like Hell and Lloyd), it was because he let the poem get away from him. Here it’s more like Verlaine wanted the poem to get away from him, because he knew the paradoxes it posed were unresolvable and because he knew the guitars would blast through and lift over. So say “See No Evil” is about the onrushing illimitability of desire and “Venus” is about the enveloping impossibility of love and “Friction” is about the bracing inevitability of conflict and I don’t know what the fuck “Marquee Moon” is about except that it’s ten minutes long and you feel it’ll be perfectly OK with you if it goes on forever, like, er — some amalgam of show business and heaven? C’mon. “Elevation” and “Guiding Light”? Getting high and losing either God or love. “Prove It”? So funny it don’t matter. “Torn Curtain”? Ten minutes again, only not much longer please because this case is closed you just said. Ba-da-boom.
In the long wake of punk’s speedy demise and multiple afterlives, UK extremists and their offspring got permanently exercised about a doubleness that pitted “rockism” against — what, exactly? Sometimes the prog tendencies of “post-punk,” sometimes just pop. This polarity is so stupid I generally refuse to discuss it, but in this case I’ll suspend my disbelief in the interest of provisional clarification. Forced at gunpoint to choose, I’d call myself some kind of poppist — Pop Art was formative for me, I have a history of respecting the charts, and what are perception-altering short-fast-hard anythings if not pop? Note too that the two least punk of the indelible albums named above are pop — Parallel Lines proudly, More Songs About Buildings and Food ironically. And then recall that Marquee Moon is a rock album. Why do I believe the rockism-versus-poppism polarity is stupid? Because while most popular musicians who take themselves too seriously are mooncalves, now and again one will home in on something deeper than the pop-identified would dare — in a form livelier and more liberating than the highbrow-identified would know was there if it bit them in the cranium. So I’ll say it and you scoff if you want. The fact that Marquee Moon is a rock album is basic to why it’s a masterpiece — a great work of art. Ba-da-boom.
Excerpted from Going Into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man by Robert Christgau, published by Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, February 2015. Copyright © 2015 by Robert Christgau. Reprinted with permission of Author; all rights reserved.