By Michael Goldberg.
Dean Of Rock Criticism Robert Christgau Looks Back While Novelist Carola Dibbell Imagines The Future
While it was likely coincidental that New York-based editor/rock critic Robert Christgau, who has been working on his memoir since 2007, and Carola Dibbell, a journalist who has been writing mostly unpublished fiction for decades and who is married to Christgau, had their books – his memoir, Going Into The City; her debut novel, The Only Ones – published almost simultaneously early last year, it was an interesting concurrence and I had to read both to see what this couple who have been part of New York’s counterculture since the ’60s had to say.
I have been reading Robert Christgau’s music writing since I was in high school. First I came across his Consumer Guide – capsule reviews of a dozen or so albums, each of which would get a letter grade, you know, like a school paper – in Creem. I devoured his collection of music articles, “Any Old Way You Choose It,” when it was published in 1973. A few years later, in the mid-‘70s, I subscribed to the Village Voice specifically to read the music section – Riffs – which Christgau edited.
Rock criticism began in the mid-‘60s, and while Ralph J. Gleason, the jazz critic for the San Francisco Chronicle who began writing criticism about Bob Dylan and The Beatles and others, was there first, Christgau was one of the early rock critics, and once he became music editor at the Voice in 1974, he had a profound influence, not only on the dozens of music writers he discovered, but also on writers like myself who learned how to write about music mostly from what we read in Creem, the Voice and Rolling Stone.
At one point when I was editing a San Francisco magazine called Boulevards, I wrote a monthly roundup of albums I called “Goldberg’s Consumer Guide” in tribute to Christgau’s column.
Although Greil Marcus has likely influenced my approach to writing music criticism more profoundly than anyone else, I learned plenty from Christgau and his crew of Village Voice writers, as well as the gang at Creem. One of the many things I learned from the many writers in the pages of those publications, were ways of digging beneath the surface and finding the depth of emotion and ideas that were in so much of the music I loved. I felt it, and I heard it, but when I was younger I couldn’t articulate what I was hearing. Those rock critics brought an intellectual approach to music criticism. Albums as weighty as Exile On Main Street and Blonde On Blonde were windows into the mysteries of life, as much so as the novels, films and paintings that meant (and mean) so much to me.
As a kid I intuitively knew that pop culture – comic books, pulp fiction, the movies – was meaningful, in fact more meaningful to me than the elitist art and music that my mother worshipped. But it took an anthology on pop culture I read in the early ‘70s, and the writings of Marcus, Christgau and others, to help me understand why that was the case.
So a memoir by Robert Christgau? Essential reading.
But what about Carola Dibbell’s novel, The Only Ones? Why did I care about that book?
Over the years I read Dibbell’s criticism in the Voice and I remember it always being spot on. So I was interested based on what I’d previously read by her. But beyond that, Dibbell is a critic who made the difficult transition to writing fiction. Fiction, at it’s best, is often the antithesis of non-fiction. While the New Journalism of the ‘60s and ‘70s blurred the lines some, the two are very different, and the ability to master one is no guarantee that a writer will excel at the other. In fact, some believe that writing for a newspaper can kill a writer’s ability to write great fiction.
So I was curious to see if Dibbell had pulled it off.
A Challenging, Fascinating Memoir
Christgau has written a memoir unlike anything else I’ve read. It is indisputably Christgau. Personal. Argumentative. Theoretical. Opinionated. Confrontational. Maddening. Audacious. And, of course, written in that unmistakable voice that I’ve been reading since my high school days.
“Most memoirs fall roughly into four categories,” Christgau begins. “First is a subset of the full-fledged autobiography: I Am a Big Deal and This Happened to Me. Second is a specialty of hangers-on, who home in on a single personage, and journalists, who spread themselves around: Fame: An Inside View…”
And then he goes on to tell us, typical of Christgau, that he has done none of these. Perfect.
This is in some ways a challenging book. If you’re interested in Christgau’s life as a rock critic and editor, and are looking for the inside dope about how the New York-centered rock critic mafia worked and what life was like at the Village Voice and perhaps rock stars Christgau came to know, you will be somewhat disappointed. The first 100+ pages are about his family and his childhood, which does help explain how he came to be the iconoclast that he is today.
Throughout the book there is a lot of focus on Christgau’s sexuality and his sexual and romantic relationships. For some, this might be over-the-top. Do we really need know about the great sex he had with his girlfriend/fellow rock critic Ellen Willis? Maybe yes, maybe no.
Christgau argues that his personal life and his role as a critic are related and he makes a good case for that. Additionally, the ‘60s, ‘70s and early ‘80s are the main focus and his openness regarding his personal relationships, sexual and otherwise, are important to understanding those times, particularly the ‘60s and ‘70s – the free love years and the rise of feminism’s second wave.
But for me, the heart of this book is Christgau the critic and editor. He writes brilliantly about New York punk, and his favorite band from that scene, Television We also get insight into life at the Village Voice, and a bit about other rock critics that Christgau discovered and/or became friends with, such as Greil Marcus. I definitely felt a bit of rivalry on Christgau’s part towards Marcus, especially when Christgau writes that Marcus’ book Mystery Train, published in 1975, “set a standard few including Greil have matched since,” and then goes on to write, “Yet although Greil’s dream book was inspired, both perfect and slightly out of control, it ended up meaning less to me than a 1971 novel he alerted me to,” which turns out to be Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo. Certainly, Christgau has a right to those opinions, but I think he does a disservice to Marcus, who wrote many brilliant books since Mystery Train, and became more sophisticated in his thinking, and an even better writer than he was in 1975.
Still, Christgau’s highly opinionated perspective is what I read him for, and this is a fascinating book, one that anyone interested in Christgau, rock criticism and/or the life of a rock critic during rock criticism’s heyday should read.
Best Novel Of The Year?
Dibbell’s novel is a heartbreaking page-turner with a first person narrative voice that hooked me right away and wouldn’t let go.
You know the rush when you’re reading a book and you’re so into it you’re practically speed-reading to get to the next page. And the next. And the next. One night I settled down with The Only Ones and read it for two, could have been three hours. And as soon as I finished the book, I started over and read it through again. Yeah that good.
This is how Dibbell’s book begins:
“Before I start, let me say really fast, don’t worry. You’re not in trouble. I will not track you down or hurt you—nothing like that. I just got a few things to tell you that you really need to hear, and you need to hear them from me, not someone else. Ok. That’s it for now. Here we go.”
What hooked me was the “got” in the fourth sentence. It let me know that the narrator was going to tell her story using a unique voice, and that voice, the particular voice telling this story, is super important to Dibbell.
The Only Ones could be categorized as dystopian fiction, as it’s set in a near future in which pandemics are as common as a cloudy day in Portland, taking out huge populations throughout the world, including Brooklyn and Queens, where the narrator, I, lives in abandoned apartments.
But I don’t want to scare you away by calling the book dystopian fiction, or science-fiction. Some people dismiss science-fiction. If you’re one of them, you would be remiss in avoiding this book. It may be set in the future, but it deals with what it is to be human, and all the emotions we feel – love, fear, guilt, regret, passion, anger, frustration… And the love of a woman, known as “I,” for a child she has taken on the responsibility to raise in a world in which death seems imminent.
I is uneducated, and has hardly traveled beyond Queens. As the novel begins, she has no self-respect. But she’s smart, and she learns fast, and as the book progresses, we get to see her slowly grow, slowly become conscious of who she is, of her own self-worth, and that of the child she is raising.
The writing is sparse. Minimal. It’s as if I is simply telling her story, and I isn’t a writer, I is a curious young woman who manages to overcome every obstacle life puts in front of her. Part of Dibbell’s brilliance is in inventing this barebones semi-inarticulate voice that is so compelling.
This is literature first, sci-fi second. Think Orwell’s 1984. Or maybe Huxley’s Brave New World.
Despite the bleak cityscape in which I manages to survive, she has a will to live, and a growing inner emotional life that is inspiring. And there are others who she meets who also exhibit a spirit for life, and who grapple with ethical questions, coming to their own conclusions, conclusions that don’t jibe with the laws of the land, but rather, with something higher.
Both books, Going Into The City and The Only Ones are well worth your time, and both will give you much to think about. Read them!