As the self-proclaimed “Dean of American Rock Critics,” an early proponent of New Journalism and editor of countless writers, Robert Christgau has influenced journalism for decades.
You probably wouldn’t be reading this column if it weren’t for him.
Bob was one of my professors at New York University (two semesters of Writing Non-Fiction), briefly hired me to be his assistant (schlepper, sorter and occasional beneficiary of promo CDs) and edited my first piece for The Village Voice (about the Butthole Surfers). Even now, when I’m writing, one of Bob’s long-ago corrections springs to mind: a small warning that those last few lines might be too lazy or too loquacious.
Of course, all writers have inspirations and influences, including Christgau himself. He shares many of them in his new book, Going Into the City (Dey Street Books, $28). It’s an alternately sprawling and focused memoir of how he got from Queens to Manhattan—about 13 miles geographically, but 13,000 intellectually and spiritually. The book revisits the 72-year-old’s childhood in Flushing, playing stoopball, chuckling at Mad magazine and listening to the Yankees on the living-room radio. But “the city” lures those who grow up just beyond its glittering skyline and, after four years at Dartmouth and a few nondescript gigs, he winds up at the Herald Tribune, then Esquire, then a string of mass-media glossies and alternative weeklies before settling in at The Village Voice.
There are firsthand accounts of Woodstock—“We smoked a lot of dope. We swam naked and fucked in the woods.”—and the early days of CBGB’s—“its squalid bathrooms more functional than history will record, its matchless sound system its only concession to success.” Yet, despite spending so much time backstage during rock’s golden age, Christgau doesn’t wallow in what he calls “Fame: An Inside View,” although his anecdotes of hanging out with John Lennon circa 1971 illustrate a long-lost celebrity casualness—John and Yoko climbing two flights of an East Village tenement for a visit over Sara Lee coffeecake—before unfolding into a consideration of Lennon’s Imagine.
As befits a critic, Christgau pauses to contemplate creative works such as Theodore Dreiser’s classic novel Sister Carrie and Television’s 1977 album Marquee Moon. He uses the Rolling Stones’ Aftermath to illuminate an era (it dropped when “something was happening and we weren’t yet attuned to what it was”). And he turns French cinema into a dating guide of sorts. These discursions help place Going Into the City in a time when the counterculture was young, when buzz took years to build, when bohemia required real-world shoe-leather to find and when taking months to write an 8,000-word article on Bob Dylan was not only feasible but (somewhat) profitable. It’s not just Christgau’s words and experiences that drive Going Into the City, but his passion for reading and writing, which runs from the Bobbsey Twins to Dostoyevsky to Greil Marcus and finally into editing authors such as Lester Bangs and Nelson George.
And, well, me. Bob’s NYU class was intense, about 10 students turning in essays to be taken apart, either in conference-table rewrite (Pick mine! No, actually, don’t pick mine …) or through his thoughtful pencil notations.
It’s served me well as a writer, and during my years as an editor and teacher. It surfaced when I sat with a student and picked through every sentence on the page, trying to balance pointed corrections with the glow of encouragement. I still have some of the papers I wrote for Bob. The pencil notes in the margins of one include “Its, not it’s” and “What? Why?” but end with “This is very good” and “Let’s get to work on something ambitious.” Words Robert Christgau has undoubtedly said to many writers over the decades. I’m damned proud—and lucky—I was one of them.