If you are reading this review, you probably know or have a good idea who Robert Christgau is – the self-appointed “Dean of American Rock Critics.” Christgau has been writing about music since the late 1960s and has been primarily known for his “Consumer Guide” columns that contain relatively short reviews of current albums. He has an uncanny knack of being evocative, summarizing an artist or record in a meaningful way with concise language, and provocative, using complex language and ideas that frequently challenge the conventional wisdom. I’ve been reading Christgau for approximately thirty-five years and my life has been enriched by his writing and the countless albums I’ve bought based upon his recommendations. I highly recommend his current columns published every Friday on the Cuepoint/Medium website. Additionally, his primary website (www.robertchristgau.com) is a treasure trove – useful for research, critical insights, and, for music nerds like me, quality reading.
But, Jesus, this book sucks. Titled Going Into the City/A Memoir/Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man, the real title should be I Am Smart, I Am So Fucking Smart. Christgau bludgeons the reader with endless dives into various intellectual rabbit holes (his “theory of pop,” Dostoyevsky, Theodore Drieser, etc.) and recalls then discredits every slight he has ever received. If you are purchasing this book for his writing on music, forget it. The only valuable addition is a few pages on rock music of the late 1950s – an era he has never (and still hasn’t) written enough about.
The traits that come across foremost are egotism and, surprising for such a long-time self described feminist, sexism. Regarding the former, he happily relates his high IQ score, describes an unenthusiastic college advisor as hostile to “grand ideas,” relates that he was the best writer from the first generation of rock critics, and states that no other magazine or paper competed with the Village Voice during his time as editor in terms of depth and breadth of music writing. Greil Marcus and Ellen Willis receive acknowledgment as intellectual equals. Few others do.
The writing about his sex life isn’t predominant, but has a jarring creepiness factor. He describes a woman’s “exceptionally moist and succulent c*nt” and relates that he had sex with Ellen Willis hours after she was raped. Elsewhere, he described neatness as a “girlish virtue” and somehow believes he has the moral high ground by stating he only threw a piece of pie at a former lover, not an entire plate of food as she claimed. It’s hard to imagine a world where throwing any type of food at someone isn’t a classless insult, but that point seems to be lost.
Several years ago, Nick Tosches wrote a short coming of age piece about his 1960s experience in New York City titled “A Slab of Grease, A Bottle of Carbona, and Thou.” In a few pages, Tosches managed to convey a true sense of poetry, a feeling of the world opening to him in new and exciting ways that would provide a framework for his adult life. Perhaps the Tosches piece was tinged with romanticized nostalgia, but it was filled with heart and warmth. Comparatively, Christgau’s book of over 350 pages has no dramatic arc and is ultimately a vanity project with little to no utility.
But, he sure is a smart guy.
Grade – D
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