Review by Roy Trakin.
Robert Christgau – Going into the City (Dey Street/HarperCollins)
Yes, boys and girls, there was such a job as rock critic in the latter part of the 20th century. People got paid – like now, not very much – to sit and review records and, in the case of the self-described Dean of American Rock Critics, grade them like the college professor he once was and continues to be.
I will admit it up front, it was reading the Village Voice with critics like Christgau and auteur theory guru Andrew Sarris (whom I eventually studied with at Columbia Film School), that made me want to write, a debt I continue to pay with each typed word.
Unlike, say, his west coast counterpart Robert Hilburn or even Patti Smith’s elegiac Just Kids, Christgau’s Proustian tome does not detail his encounters with assorted rock stars. The closest he gets are (undescribed) road trips with the likes of Al Green and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Ever the left-leaning centrist/bohemian/feminist/Marxist/non-conformist sympathizer, but above all, semi-popular art champion, the self-admitted slob, socially inept, hair-trigger-tempered, argumentative, sexually-driven foot fetishist, penny-pinching smart aleck would rather theorize than schmooze, proudly detailing an interview with legendary windbag Clive Davis in which he didn’t redact a single quote.
If you’re looking for anecdotes like what he felt about Lou Reed’s toesucker comments on Take No Prisoners or what it felt like to punch out James Chance, you won’t find them here. Instead, you get a look back at what it meant to grow up lower-middle-class in Queens, and eventually show the kind of smarts that gets you to be someone who’s probably the lowest-earning alumnus of Dartmouth’s class of ’62, or what it was like to live east of Avenue B in the East Village in the days before the $6 million and up price tags.
You’re more likely to find critical exegesis on Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, Television’s Marquee Moon, T.S. Monk’s “Bon Bon Vie,” Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, from 1900 and 1940, respectively, two dark tales of the American Dream gone sour that are just as idiosyncratic picks for a personal pantheon as Sarris’ fascination with Max Ophuls’ tragic costume soap opera Lola Montes.
Christgau doesn’t even get to his most famous tenure as Village Voice music editor until Chapter 10, page 284 of 367 (“Four Owners, Six Editors, One Paper”), and there are more TMI details about his life-changing love affairs with fellow critic Ellen Willis and wife of 40+ years, Carola Dibbell, as well as contemporary critical influences/colleagues such as Greil Marcus, Simon Frith, Lester Bangs, John Rockwell, Dave Marsh, Marshall Berman and more than there are behind-the-scenes celebrity-gazing.
With his finely tuned, densely packed prose that begs to be untangled, the ever-meticulous Christgau must be read carefully (his legendary pencil edits were too much for me after a single published Dictators review), but he rewards our patience with plenty of insights into the mundane ‘50s, turbulent ‘60s as well as the “aftermath” of the ‘70s and “80s hangover. The book stops at 1984, with the adoption of his daughter Nina from Honduras, ending the tale on a happy note. And even though Bob insists the next one won’t be a sequel, he’s set up nicely to deliver one.