If we peg the birth of rock writing to Richard Goldstein establishing his "Pop Eye" column in the Village Voice, the form turns 50 next summer. If instead we tie it to Jane Scott's Cleveland Plain Dealer report on the Beatles in September 1964, we should have been celebrating last fall.
Either way, Robert Christgau ("Xgau" to insiders) was on the beat early. When Goldstein "lost the rockcrit calling," Christgau stepped into his shoes at the Voice with a new column in summer 1969, Rock & Roll &. At age 72, he's still going strong, though not for the Voice, which laid him off in 2006.
In what he swears was a champagne-fueled joke, Christgau once dubbed himself "the Dean of American Rock Critics" — and the name stuck. Not only that, it's true: With the possible exception of his friend Greil Marcus, no American music writer has exerted more influence over the tastes of rock music "consumers" (as he'd insist on calling them) and on the craft of other rock critics. By his own estimation, he's published 14,000 record reviews alone. Christgau's criticism is distinguished in part by his devotion to popular music. The arguments over purity and authenticity that animate much rock criticism find no purchase with him; for Christgau, the project of rock criticism is to create "a critical vernacular that mash[es] up supposedly incompatible discourses" to create a critical language that's "imaginative" and "avant-garde" rather than "snobbish and exclusionary."
So his memoir, "Going Into the City," in part chronicles the birth of a branch of American writing — furnishing "an informed assessment," Christgau writes, "of the critical genre I helped invent and the journalistic culture that made it possible." It emerged, seemingly, from a Sargasso Sea of other midcentury popular writing; Pauline Kael's film criticism is lodged deep in its DNA, and more broadly the ethos of the New Journalism suggested a way to "create nonfiction with the impact of fiction."
"Going Into the City" is a treat for those who care about that particular history, or more broadly about postwar Left cultural politics, or Greenwich Village before the loosening of rent control. Can one feel homesick for a place one's never lived? "From Queens," he explains, "going into the city meant escape, sophistication, adulthood; from Hanover [where Christgau had been a student at Dartmouth] it meant both paradise and the real world, with my Village Voice subscription a lifeline." Like a master storyteller Christgau artfully blends "showing" and "telling," never condescending to explain what might be better presented as narrative.
One delightful surprise of this memoir is the discovery that Christgau's Dartmouth English degree has stood him in good stead (as we English types say). When he discloses that he and wife-to-be Carola Dibbell share the same favorite novels — Christina Stead's "The Man Who Loved Children" and Theodore Dreiser's "Sister Carrie" — we know they'll end up together.
Throughout Christgau emphasizes the people that together helped to hatch rock criticism and make him the critic he is: Relationships both personal and professional — many intimate, some romantic — are central to the story he has to tell. He's defiant about the candor with which his domestic relationships in particular are rendered: "No banal bow to discretion or cool could tempt me to minimize the place of these relationships in my life, or to mince words about them either."
Surely this is admirable to a point, and he reassures us that everything he's written about his wife of more than 40 years is included "with her cooperation or in one or two cases acquiescence."
But the Christgau who comes alive in these pages is also a mass of contradictions, by turns generous and strangely insecure. The generosity is winning; the insecurity can be excruciating.
Take the treatment of his romantic partner from 1966 to 1969, the music and cultural critic Ellen Willis. Christgau calls her "the smartest person I've ever known," and her landmark 1967 piece for the short-lived Cheetah magazine, "Dylan," is for him "rock criticism's founding text." Nevertheless, he can write that "she was functionally my sidekick as we got the hang of a journalistic beat just taking shape"; during the party at which they become reacquainted (they'd attended junior high together), Christgau propounded his theory of pop while Willis "got the idea and started adding fillips of her own — finding analogies, adumbrating subtleties, generating subtheories, and of course formulating objections." Her embroidery but his whole cloth. From the man who claims to have published the first feminist analysis of rock 'n' roll, this is disappointing behavior.
And unlike Dibbell, Willis, who died of lung cancer in 2006, isn't around to present her side or give her consent. At one point Christgau describes her as "avid, open, and multi-orgasmic," proclaiming "I've never met a woman who so enjoyed the physical sensation of sex." For his part Richard Goldstein, never her lover, once described Willis as a "radical of desire": I think many of us would have found that suggestive phrase perfectly satisfactory.
With Goldstein's memoir to be published in April, and with much of Willis' writing back in print, we're in a position now to appreciate just what a mirror of late-20th century American life rock writing presents — how it constitutes, as Christgau writes, "a New Journalism of everyday life."
Dettmar is a professor at Pomona College and co-editor of Library of America's forthcoming anthology of rock writing.
Going Into the City
Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man
Dey Street: 367 pp., $27.99