Robert Christgau, Rock & Roll Radical
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.