For Richard Goldstein, one of the earliest practitioners in the burgeoning field that would come to be known as rock criticism, writing about music was a lifeline. Fresh out of Columbia University’s journalism school in 1966, the utopian energies of rock provided a window through which he could glimpse a very different kind of future being born. And he recognized instinctively that this new music required a new kind of writing to comprehend it. So he invented it.
Goldstein wrote his first piece on pop music in the Village Voice in 1966 and left rock writing for political and cultural journalism in 1969; those dates bookend his new memoir, “Another Little Piece of My Heart: My Life of Rock and Revolution in the ‘60s” (Bloomsbury: 240 pp., $26). Much of the most riveting material in the book centers on the connections he made with some of the most brilliant and vulnerable of the era’s artists: Brian Wilson, Jim Morrison, John Lennon, Janis Joplin. If we casually refer to rock as an industry now, Goldstein reminds us of a time when the relationship between a musician and her fans was personal, even intimate.
Goldstein’s writing was characterized by unembarrassed enthusiasm for the music that he’d loved and undisguised disdain for that insidious, contaminating influence: the profit motive. He was as protective as a jealous lover when the scene began to change, and the values of openness and honesty that had first attracted him to the music seemed to be yet another casualty of the changin’ times. He spoke by phone from Paris about the early years of rock writing, his growth as a writer and his increasing disenchantment with the scene that had become an industry.
At the age of 22, you were, as we’d say now, “present at the creation” of rock writing. Did it feel like that then?
I didn’t set out to start a profession…. but I’d say that I set a certain precedent for rock critics. There has to be an experiential connection to the music that’s manifest in a strong style. It’s a very personal kind of writing, even when it involves expertise. That was the basic element in my work, and I think it still distinguishes the genre. Rock writing is a holdout against the idea that the author is dead.
Fellow Village Voice rock critic Robert Christgau’s memoir was just published, and his title, “Going into the City,” is meant to invoke the experience of a young man from the outer boroughs — in his case, Queens. You were an outer-borough kid too, a “bridge-and-tunnel” person from the Bronx. How did that affect your relationship to the scene you were to document?
We both grew up working class, and we were well educated as a result of the postwar college boom. [The late critic] Ellen Willis had this bridge-and-tunnel background too. Looking back at it, I think we needed to create an area of discourse that adults couldn’t fathom, and we wanted to make the stuff we loved, including rock ‘n’ roll, as valuable as the fine arts might be to someone with a diploma from Harvard. So you can say that rock criticism was a product of upward mobility. And I guess we were all nerds. That seems pretty important. I don’t think many kids become writers because they fit into the world as it is.
You note at one point (with perhaps excessive modesty) that “I knew hardly anything about music”: “All I knew was what it felt like to be in awe.”
You could ignore the musical part of the music, and just write about feelings — yours and the fans’. Rock was a music of feelings to me. It went directly from the groin to the heart. Later, when I became a sort of media star, I felt compelled to make judgments, rank artists, defend the faith, and I think I could be right and wrong in the same piece. I was one of the first critics to write about the Doors, and I praised their debut album, except for one weak cut: “Light My Fire.” So, there you are. I wasn’t any kind of prophet. But I was good at describing what I heard and saw.
Some critics choose to have as little as possible to do with musicians, for fear that those relationships would color their critical judgment. How did you decide that it was all right to get closer to artists?
I didn’t give a flying whatever about neutrality. I didn’t even think it was possible. My main ambition was to meet rockers. I was in it for the adventure and for the chance to write about reality using the techniques of fiction. And I was awestruck by musicians — for sexual as well as aesthetic reasons. I don’t think that stopped me from slamming them if I thought they deserved it.
By 1968, you say, you’d lost the ability “to celebrate something that no longer thrilled me.” What emotions accompanied your loss of faith in rock?
Enormous stress. I was on antacids at a very young age. Desperate attempts to escape from my role as an arbiter of hip. This was one reason why I embraced revolutionary politics — it seemed more authentic than the music. At some point I had to deal with the horrifying prospect that the nation could actually fall apart... But I kept on writing, until finally a series of premature deaths got to me. A young colleague named Don McNeill drowned, possibly on acid, and he was very dear to me. And, of course, all the overdoses, culminating in the death of Janis Joplin.
Your friendship with Joplin is the emotional center of the memoir and gives you your title, ‘Another Little Piece of My Heart.’ And the book pretty well stops with her death.
I identified with Janis. We were both intimately familiar with self-doubt. She was incredibly self-conscious about her body, especially her hair, and she talked about the problems she had connecting with men. Beyond all that, I think she stood for letting your insides show.... So I think Janis stands for the promise of that era, and to me she stands for the tragedy as well. After she died, I couldn’t put a sentence together. It was a kind of aphasia, an inability to use language, and it lasted for several years. This was the most terrifying thing that ever happened to me, because writing had been a refuge all my life, and suddenly it was gone.
The book closes with these sentences: “I was born famished — for food, for sex, for fame, and finally for love. And I will die hungry.” But it’s precisely that hunger, or those hungers, that propel the story you tell here. So hungry is … good? Or just human?
To quote the immortal Shangri-Las, it’s “good-bad, but not evil.” Hunger drives you to devour all sorts of experience. You’ll eat pretty much whatever’s on the table. It’s a potent metaphor for me, very visceral, literally. Food meant gratification at a time when I felt unlovable. In college I lost a lot of weight, and I’ve kept most of it off, but the image of hunger as this implacable thing is still with me.... Fortunately I was able to write, and fortunately what I wrote connected. But I am still a hungry guy.
Dettmar is a professor at Pomona College and co-editor of Library of America’s forthcoming anthology of rock writing.