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Robert Christgau: In The City


In 1981, Robert Christgau gave me the biggest break he could:  the former music editor printed me, and for years, in the Village Voice. To say I was unknown would be overstating the case, a friend told me the rumor was I was a famous writer working under a pseudonym, nobody knew me at all. I owe him, because, among other things, I was completely broke and needed the money, and I am a loyal guy. How loyal? I’ve worked at the same advertising company for 27 years.

But not so loyal that I didn’t publish Steve Crawford’s pan of Christgau’s “Going To The City” memoir back in early March (here), while I slowly worked my way through the book. Still, loyal enough where I not only disagreed with Steve, I disagreed with the entire Facebook wormhole of rock critic battering on Robert.   Not that I am surprised that some of the greatest writers I’ve ever read being dismissed as lesser Lester Bangs, while pedantic pals like the unbearable Greil Marcus (read his “Best Of” in “Stranded” and the Presley book, then wrap up your dictionary and go home), uber-groupie Dave Marsh (not to mention the unreadable Greg Tate) are lauded. Why? Because they’d babysat XGau through his romantic turmoil, or because they fulfilled some pan-ethnic  culture cluster, that’s why.  A reason for my peers to be pissed off, maybe, but dismissive? You don’t love writers because they love you, that’s called logrolling.

Crawford’s review boiled down to this:

1 –  Steve wanted the Consumer Guide 1942 – 2015, and he didn’t get it. I wish we’d gotten that as well.

2 – He found Robert’s writing on sex distasteful. It doesn’t bother me at all and there isn’t that much of it. The big controversy is Xgau writing about having sex with his long term girlfriend, the late Ellen Willis (a pretty darn good rock critic, though “Out Of The Vinyl Deeps” finds too much of it hasn’t aged well) hours after she was raped;  Robert asked Ellen’s husband’s permission,  and both Ellen and her daughter have discussed it in print, what do you want from the man?

3 – He is a braggard. Well, yes, but you really can’t write about music if you don’t believe you know better than everybody else.

4 – Not enough music. There’s enough, plus he goes easy on the African stuff and his review of Astral Weeks is tremendous.

5 – It isn’t well constructed –I dunno about that, the ending is very satisfying.“Going Into the City/A Memoir/Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man’ ends in June 1985 with Robert’s wife, another great writer, Carola Dibble,  taking a nap while Robert wanders the streets of Pedro Sula (in Honduras),  his newly adopted two week old daughter Nina in his arms, he tells the baby “You are a cutie-pie. You are a troublemaker. And you are my favorite” before concluding “… on the whole, right again.”

How you respond to that image will tell you whether “Going To The City” is for you or not, I respond to it very strongly, I’m very touched, as I should be since not only did Christgau teach me how to write about music, he is also my favorite rock critic and I am such a huge fan, I am interested in his story as such and I love happy endings (21 years before he left the Voice but whatever). I don’t find his youth in Queens (solid lower middle class, German heritage, his father a fireman) a bore,

It is the story of Robert and very clear and very able to digress without losing the story. A tall, nerdy yet sporty Robert discovering reading, writing, pop music, and girls, taking trips to the Village to buy vinyl, hitchhiking round the US, settling in the Village, writing for Esquire and Newsday, palling with some of the great names of the 20th century (John Lennon and Tom Wolfe? How is that for name dropping?), suffering through a brutal break up and then finding the love of his life. Becoming the music editor (and Senior Editor) at the Voice in its glory years, line proofing copy, writing the greatest rock book of them all, his 70s Consumer Guide, and getting fired and entering the post internet wilderness (more or less –though the book closes way before that), I wanna hear about it all. Well, nearly all. Doestokysky is a terrible writer and semipopular music, if it had a cachet as a real concept, lost it once everything became semipopular.

But the memoir isn’t aimless, it is a search for home, though Christgau might not see it as such, in psychology 101 term. Especially the story of the couples attempts to have a child. Carola detailed it better than Robert does (if the subject interests you, Viv Albertine’s memoir is a must read: my girlfriend has told me what she went through to have her daughter and it was harrowing) , and blamed, if blamed is the word, herself in the Village Voice article “Thinking About the Inconceivable” –a great pun by the way, still Christgau doesn’t hide for it, though some of it is very painful;  it is placed late but central and dealt with in detail.

Which leads me to Christgau the rock critic, who once wrote of Costello “all wordplay as swordplay” –a phrase I still use. As is this one, which only I own since he said it in reference to a pan of Visage (more or less –I think I was a little ambivalent) I’d written for the Voice: “They aren’t invading Poland”…. A phrase I’ve used ever since whenever somebody is over reacting. And… MICK JAGGER SHOULD WRAP UP HIS PENIS AND GO HOME.  A variant of which I used at the start of this review : “ then wrap up your dictionary and go home” and a simple little phrase that didn’t need Jagger’s penis to be endlessly elegant.

On a personal level, I found Robert a cold man, but then he sure didn’t owe me anything and I would vastly prefer a cold demeanor that could edit then a sweet guy who can’t. Also, people have claimed Robert raised a whole lotta Xgau Juniors but he never influenced my opinion at all (in that sense).

As a music lover, Christgau’s love of pop is the same as mine, once I got out of the punk years I found myself often enough in agreement with him (I was raised on 1960s UK radio, maybe that’s the connection), Cat Stevens no, but Wussy, a band he introduced me to, absolutely. And Old 97’s, Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley and many more… Ashford And Simpson… really a huge list,and he did it by writing that simply flew, that insisted you take his side.  Finally, I don’t think his consumer guide was the entire story, there is no reason to believe for a moment that his “rock and roll and” articles aren’t the equal or at least close enough as damn it, as his stately 150 word mini stories. Having said that, his review of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is my fave writing anywhere.

As a rock critic, Christgau is my fave but as a memoirist his ego bumps up against his story and it feels like it is all about ego but it takes a different sort of ego to write about being dumped, hard, by one woman, and being cuckolded by another.  It takes a sense of yourself where you just know you’ll be the hero of your own story, that one day you will be walking down a street in Honduras carrying your daughter and telling her how much you love her. A different city and going for a different reason, but the same man.

Grade: A-

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