Saturday, February 28, 2015

Guts on the Page: Notes on the Absolute Unity of Robert Christgau

Robert Christgau. (Photo by Carola Dibbell)

The one time I broke bread with Robert Christgau, he told me a variant of the old joke equating opinions with assholes: “Everybody’s got one.” “Ah,” he grinned, “but not everybody has 10,000!” That joke turns up in the introduction to his new book, Going into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man (Dey Street; 367 pp.), but it’s followed by the real zinger: “It distresses me that the wit of this riposte so often fails to impress the asshole I’m talking to.” Wondering if I laughed hard enough at the time to have eluded that tag, I bored into this mass of unadulterated Bob-ness and felt on every single one the pull of warmth and acuity against the push of bluster and bullying—the alternating currents that for me have always characterized Christgau’s criticism.

This applies to Going into the City as much as to any other thing he’s written. A partial list of words describing his work might include self-aggrandizing, pompous, invidious, overwritten, showoffy, superficial, and hipsterish. Among the things his work could never be accused of being are uninformed, ungenerous, humorless, evasive, snobbish, sluggish, falsely modest, and truly modest. That he lacks the latter has always made Christgau one of the few pop critics worth following; that he brandishes the former has meant that reading him is a conflicted, jittery experience, pleasurable and despairing both, in which a helpless and melting love for one so wise and wonderful is certain to be summarily smacked by an ego so unmediated one can scarcely countenance it in an adult old enough to get drugstore discounts.

That portion of Christgau’s abrasiveness not due to his being a native New Yorker is probably attributable to his professional origins in daily journalism. As a crime reporter for a Newark news agency, he first drew attention for “Beth Ann and Macrobioticism,” about a New Jersey girl who died of self-starvation on a brown-rice diet (a piece later included by Tom Wolfe in his influential New Journalism anthology). For two years, Christgau covered pop music for Esquire while doing junk jobs for quick money other places. But his most influential stretches were at the Long Island paper Newsday (1972-74) and The Village Voice (1969-2006—variously as columnist, chief music critic, and music editor). Early on, he invented the Consumer Guide, a regular round-up of new releases, each assigned a nugget review and letter grade—an exercise in micro-analytics and consumption mania long reviled by grade-averse counterculturalists, disagreeniks without columns of their own, and bands that got D-pluses, but enjoyed by pretty much everyone else. The CG’s, collections of which number three so far, are like bite-size candies spiked with black pepper and speed, and I think they’ll be his testament, when day is done. (Some might say a little Christgau goes a long way, but I prefer to say that a lot of little Christgaus could go on forever.) The best of his early work in longer form was collected in Any Old Way You Choose It (1973), which has never quit being one of the great rock books. As the long 1960s gave way to the pastoral compromises, soulful surprises, and insurgent punkisms of the Seventies, no critic did better at not only comprehending shifts in taste and trend, but also assessing the emotional effect of the cultural changeover. Christgau’s pursuit and appreciation of musical pleasure was always enriched by the regret and resolve of one who knew that the past deserved rumination but the future deserved living.

He’s now almost 73 and ready to look back, if not exactly to “sum up.” In an introduction, he gives himself license to push a memoir on us while insisting he’s really not that big a deal: “I’m a rock critic for Chrissake.” Then, as if remembering something he’d forgotten: “Right, I’m the Dean of American Rock Critics.” (He doesn’t expect you to take that honorific seriously—but really he does.) This preamble may have left me feeling it was too much too soon of Christgau (as opposed to whom?), too much opinion and lip (as opposed to what?). But I preferred it, in retrospect, to the several chapters that followed, which focus on the author’s growing up in Flushing, Queens, in the 1940s and ‘50s. The introduction had me marking the margins, talking to the page; the chronicle of youth stopped that dialogue dead. These chapters, occupying about the first third of the book, will be interesting to people who grew up in that time and place, and like vacation slides to most others. Beyond a few sentences observing his young, sexy parents in a summer photograph, the prose lacks the eloquence the material asks for. The publisher invokes for comparison Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City (1951), a short, intense fusion of writing and remembering that reads like a single quiet, uninterrupted thought; Christgau’s remembering is more like dogged reconstruction, a scrapbook that yaps, full of specificity and care but empty of the poetry of pastness—everyone’s past. “Although I found my wisecracking bio teacher engaging enough, Mrs. Bickerton’s distracted chemistry class locked in an indifference to science I look back at with regret.” He’s just telling; you’re just reading.

There are things to like in these chapters, things to pause over. Detailing the “alchemical combination of the Bible, South Pacific, and Willie Mays” that inculcated his opposition to racism, Christgau finds that most elusive of human moments—a moment when values were formed. I found this very cool. The pages grind a bit harder when rock and roll breaks through, with Cleveland DJ Alan Freed coming to claim New York, big hits like the Crew Cuts’ “Sh-Boom” and haunting misses like Joan Weber’s “Let Me Go Lover” colonizing the coils of a brain equally smitten with Mad magazine and female flesh. “A compulsively honest kid who never stopped thinking,” Christgau had the brass to write a school paper arguing the superiority of “Casey at the Bat” to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner—evidence of a good critic’s willingness to suggest the unsuggestible, and of an embryonic determination to take pop seriously. (Looking back, he admits that Coleridge beats “Casey”—barely. Whew.) But it takes him six chapters to leave Flushing, graduate from Dartmouth, and get his first job in Manhattan. He might have begun the book with Chapter 7, “The High ‘60s,” which starts, literally, with the rev of an engine: “Mid-January of 1965 I was headed for the Montclair police station my first night on the Essex County north beat and my second day on the job.” Now there’s your opening sentence!

Ellen Willis.

Christgau’s “high ‘60s” are 1965-73, and roughly the book’s second third. He does the crime beat, moves into music writing and scene-observing, goes to Monterey Pop and calls Jimi Hendrix an Uncle Tom in Esquire (a “Casey”-caliber judgment he rescinded long ago). He meets and falls for Ellen Willis—a fellow writer of gifts, an intellectual equal, and a woman working out her feminism against her yen for highly masculine rock and roll. They begin a relationship that ends convulsively, at her behest, after three years. In between, they share road trips, intellectual badinage, and emotional travail, and try to find the limits of committed love and sexual freedom in a time that, while it didn’t directly devalue the former, definitely evangelized the latter. “It was good,” Christgau writes of the happy days with Willis, “to be splitting hairs … about pop and politics as we made a lot of love.” Throughout the book, but most intensely in the high Sixties third, he offers lengthy disquisitions on artworks that affected him then, and stay with him now—Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, Tom Wesselman’s nudes, the Rolling Stones’ Aftermath, John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. His observations of downtown politics will intrigue students of Sixties radical sectarianism (e.g., the short-lived Free University of New York as indoctrination center for a Marxist brainwash engineered by the Progressive Labor Party). The Willis years end. The high Sixties evolve slowly, heavily, and unapocalyptically into the low Seventies. Christgau finds new gigs, new pleasures—a happening Village music scene, occasional teaching, Al Green’s sweet sexy voice—and the beginning, in 1974, of “a life partnership that means more to me than any words I’ve written or music I’ve heard.”

Probably many will read Going into the City in search of nitty-gritty—professional feuds, booze and blow at CBGB, long dark dangerous nights in the great canker sore that was Seventies New York. James Wolcott’s Lucking Out (2011) will probably be for some time the definitive memoir of that type, at least by an observer-participant who was also a good writer (Wolcott’s star rose at the Voice a few years after Christgau’s). Lucking Out was not profound, but it was fast, funny, grimy, snarky, and full of vivid vignettes; Wolcott dished the dirt and baked it in a pie. Christgau, for his part, is concerned that you not think his is a book of scandal, scoop, or debauchery: “As writers go,” he insists on page 2, “I’m a fairly normal guy.” (Though if ever the word “normal” called for a raised eyebrow ... ) Also, the absence of indexing means you can’t skip around to names you’re most curious about. But there is a certain amount of gossip and score-settling. Christgau has starred in more than his share of rock-critic apocrypha, and he sets us straight on, among other things, the origin of his moniker, “the Dean of American Rock Critics”; that time he threw food at Ellen Willis in public; and that other time when he supposedly opened his door to Lester Bangs wearing nothing but glasses. Among the well-known episodes not dealt with are Lou Reed’s verbal battery of Christgau and fellow critic John Rockwell from the stage of The Bottom Line, preserved on the 1978 LP Take No Prisoners; and his falling out with old friend Greil Marcus over their irreconcilable responses to Public Enemy’s anti-Semitism. (To be fair, the second of these occurred outside the book’s time-frame, which closes in 1985.)


Christgau has what our child psychologists back in the Seventies called “good self-esteem.” In junior high, he had “an IQ score of 139.” (Two years later, it was 151.) Among early rock critics, “I did feel like the best.” (He was—at least until 1971-72, when Marcus began to mold himself in the pages of Creem.) “The Beth Ann piece was as affecting and lucid as anything I ever wrote.” (He’s right.) A Barbra Streisand essay was “easily the kindest and sharpest thing any rock critic had yet published about pre-rock pop.” (I’ll take his word for it.) Christgau emphasizes the degree to which, as Voice music editor, he promoted and pushed for coverage of black artists at a time when “Disco sucks” reaction had driven much black pop off Top 40 radio and MTV was practicing apartheid. He’s proud of what he’s done first, done resolutely, and done on principle. He should be.

The book’s last third is centered on, though not solely about, Christgau’s 40-year marriage to writer Carola Dibbell. Earlier passages have made it clear that Christgau conceived this book partly in tribute to his wife—and to acknowledge the connubial debt that he chides other male memoirists for ignoring. I didn’t exactly dread the coming of this relational focus, but I didn’t expect to find it as entertaining as I did. Christgau turns on his version of the charm, and never once goes icky. He’s specific about how Dibbell’s intelligence and taste differ from his, and his physical descriptions are affectionately lustful: she was, at first sight, “a pretty, slender brunette with a generous mouth and the kind of hair you want to put your face in.” He is enchanted by her little things, her hidden bits: “Briefly cupping one of her small, hard breasts, I felt hairs between them. Next day I thought about those hairs a lot.” As Christgau might put it when he’s in this mood, they both love rock and roll, writing, dancing, cooking, fucking, and each other. They get married. Pain comes, as it will. But the pain is dealt with and worked through, and the sex and understanding never give out. This is all quite sweet, in the best way. Even Christgau’s account of marital faithlessness and foolishness bespeaks forgiveness, of his wife, of himself, of all of us: “We took too much for granted—that’s an organic process.”

The book ends, and you don’t know how to feel about Christgau—because you’re feeling too much at once. When he’s belching ego and babying himself, you want to punch his face, hard; when he’s loving up his wife in prose, you want to punch his shoulder, softly. The book has kept you bouncing between one impulse and the other, and when it’s over you sway with the residual motion, your ribs bruised but your mouth, in all probability, grinning.

                                                                          *.

Any critic—any artist—can be talked about in terms of style (how they sound) and sensibility (where they seem to be coming from). Toward the end of Going into the City, I began to see that the irresolution I’ve always felt reading Christgau is understandable in these terms. Most of what I like about him has to do with sensibility, while most of what I deplore has to do with style. But even those reductive categories won’t fully suffice; with Christgau, they spill into each other. Though the basic irresolution remains, this book affords perspective on it. The grin of the last page turns finally into a Buddha smile of acceptance.

Let me try to explain what I think I mean. More than many writers’ styles, Christgau’s is the issue of essential character and thought, and present in some nascent but recognizable form from the beginning of his printed career. He has worked at it, honed and sharpened it, practiced and perfected it over the span of several decades and millions of words. It’s a pioneering style, combining the compression of journalism with the overstuffed panels of Mad and the interrelational analysis of political and liberation movements. Far from improvisational despite its free swing, the typical Christgauvian construction is quite carefully wrought. This sentence, never mind the context, will do for parsing purposes: “My life paralleled a lot of American lives before the Janus-headed quants of the banking and computer industries worked their more-is-less wham-jam on the national weal.” A push-button phrase (“more is less”) doubles as idea and adjective; a scrap of onomatopoetic slang (“wham-jam”) becomes a noun. Add a classical metaphor recognizable to any undergraduate (“Janus-headed”), media-savvy tag (“quants”), and history-redolent archaicism (“weal”), fold into a flow of paragraphs and pages likewise mixing references, lexicons, and geographies (Columbia University to East Village, anyway)—and you have a fair example of the Christgauvian construction.

Robert Christgau and Geoffrey Stokes. (Photo by Fred W. McDarrah)

Like other pioneering styles—Ernest Hemingway’s, say, or Pauline Kael’s—Christgau’s is deceptively easy for others to imitate, and impossible for them to inhabit. And it is often a self-laid trap for the progenitor. Christgau doesn’t have a repertoire of voices, or even of tones. If Greil Marcus’s tonal limitation is that he is reluctant to go high and wild in his language, despite being drawn to art expressive of those very extremes, Christgau’s is that he starts off with voice raised and balls out—and stays that way. He never pulls back, never zips up, never takes, or permits, a real breather. (The affectionate passages on Dibbell contradict this somewhat, but only somewhat: the sentences remain Christgau Classic.) A defender would call his style an inspired approximation of musical sensation, with the speed and intensity of a great 45: that’s POP, baby, and Christgau catches it. That defender would be right. But even Christgau, as we know, listens to albums too.

Injections of vernacular and “straight talk” are essential to his sound, but often his demos is jarringly uncouth—and not in a rawk-and-roll way, in a stupid way: when he judges that a music historian he doesn’t respect “can go fuck a duck,” he’s reveling in numbskullism. Christgau has deep and salutary love for pop slang, but he overuses (even if by only using them once) such baleful hipsterisms as “mojo,” “cred,” and “nabe.” The verbal shorthand he favors (“I took just three social science courses after comping out of my history prereq”) always reads to me like a smug assertion of insiderhood, even if it’s only the inside of a public school. But then a too-knowing tone—read: hipsterism—is part of his Fifties-kid, Mad magazine makeup. When he overwrites, it’s toward the pointlessly brainy: “a reflexively hierarchical cultural environment” is no better than simply “a hierarchical culture”; “under the terminological circumstances” doesn’t need the third word. Repetition is unavoidable from one who has written so much for so long, but I wish Christgau would relax some muscles and develop others, for example by abjuring the too-ready word: unaccountably reliant on “exegesis” and its variants, he also uses “putatively” so often you suspect him of taking payola on it. And I will pardon any crime against syntax if it means never again having to see him use the word “conceptual.”

But despite these and other sandpaper attributes, I can’t shake loose of the guy. For every self-aggrandizing throwaway (his dominion as a ping pong player; the time he made Patti Smith cackle at some folkie loser’s expense), Christgau supplies a redemptively goofy self-caricature (“I fell naturally into a Groucho Marx gait, always ahead of the crowd with my head forward like a turkey”). His humor is always in wait, like a mugger who jumps out holding a joke instead of a knife. These are aspects, largely, not of style but of sensibility—the angle one takes, the set of attitudes and values that are brought to the task of creating and expressing oneself, of announcing oneself to the world.

Late in the book, a close friend and soulmate is described as “an omnivorously democratic socialist who recognized that he was a citizen of capitalism.” Christgau is also describing himself, and telling us plenty about his sensibility. That sensibility is valuable in a critical landscape where his catholicity and impiety, and will to practice both to the extremes of good writing, have been amazingly rare, even among the generation of writers he has mentored. As a listener-responder-thinker-feeler, Christgau is good-hearted, open-eared, unquenchably curious, and almost never—to employ a term critics use often, normal people not at all—wrongheaded. Which is to say, even when I don’t agree with him, I never doubt the fundamental soundness of his perspective, or the integrity of his judgment. And I almost always adore his judgment. Sensibility-wise, there’s never been a more perfect critic of popular culture. For one thing, he feels no guilt about feeling pleasure. (He might question his pleasure, but only to understand it—so he can feel more of it!) And his apprehension of pop is completely free, so far as I’ve detected, of ideological cant and effete notions of purity—the importance of which cannot be overstated. In a culture still steeped in a mindless worship of “authenticity” inherited from Communist folkies and held over from the Sixties, I cherish Christgau’s oft-stated conviction that art that is in one way or another phony, glitzy, mercenary, crude, or whorish can be, and often is, infinitely richer than art that is sincere, rootsy, idealistic, laden with suffering, or otherwise good for you. (This mostly goes back to Kael, and it may be her finest bequest to the modern critical tradition.)

Ideas inform everything Christgau writes—ideas drawn from history, literature, philosophy, sociology—but he is neither the historicist unable to separate creativity from a deterministic context nor the theorist who insists on quarantining art from the people and times that produced it. (“The raw enjoyment of works of art shouldn’t require research,” he says, establishing a sensible baseline that allows for all sorts of qualification.) He will not fold to trends toward or against irony, still a bugaboo of our age thanks to those who don’t know the meaning of moderation. “I still believe that irony has not only its uses but its moral and aesthetic strengths, remaining fundamental to the fundamental [sic] human business of holding two or more clashing ideas in your head at the same time.” Yep. Also vital to the Christgau sensibility is his objectivity, an attribute that actually augments, rather than cancels out, his necessary critic’s ego. Staying engaged with post-baby boom pop where others his age and younger fell away long ago, he’s been an enthusiast and early proponent of not only western game-changers from punk and hip hop through house and rap and beyond, but of international styles (reggae back in the day, Afro-pop more recently). That objectivity—perhaps better described as curiosity about others’ likes, not merely his own—has sustained and fueled his desire to listen, his ability to love.

(And let me finally add, between you, me, and the parentheses, that as a chauvinistic Beatles fan I love Christgau’s love of the Fabs. He has always been, of the founding rock critics, the one most passionately, persistently enamored of them; he crafted, in 1971, the best single paragraph ever written about them—see his 1998 collection Grown Up All Wrong, page 125; and his scattered praises over the years for The Beatles’ Second Album hold more feeling and enthusiasm than the whole of Dave Marsh’s grisly little book about it.)

So: style and sensibility. I doubt it has ever occurred to Christgau to seek a seemly separation between the two, as most writers do without trying—simply because, by hedging their bets or adopting a persona, they build a wall between themselves and the page they write on. Having long ago fought for and won a large measure of creative freedom in the narrow columns of newsprint, Christgau has not cared about limiting himself to what I, you, or the King of Siam think is a normative distance between style and sensibility, or between writing and the human who produces it. He observes plenty of limits (his sentences, as demonstrated, are tightly assembled), but they are his own limits, and virtually invisible within the forward-thrusting, free-swinging Christgauvian construction that is his clear and irreducible invention. That’s why he gets so close to you—so close you want him to back off, so close you find he’s gotten into your head and heart. It’s not just his voice on the page, but his guts, too; not just his soul, but his body. That’s simply not something you can say of many writers—even many good ones. That our strengths and weaknesses tend to come from the same psychic-emotional wellspring is a thudding truism of maturity, but it’s actually rather unusual to find that particular truism exemplified in a body of creative work. Our work is a clean version of our messy selves, streamlined and distilled, rehearsed and revised, and thus far easier to break into parts. So it’s frustrating, even mystifying, not being able to quite tell where a writer’s good and bad begin or end. Christgau is, in this sense as well as others, a rarity, and perhaps the defining virtue of Going into the City is that it triggers the great realization—painfully obvious, like most great realizations—that one must take all of him, or none of him.

This came to me by way of a fleeting anecdote. “One night,” he writes, “I sucked on a joint backstage at the Fillmore East and went blind. This didn’t alarm the girl behind my right shoulder in the slightest. ‘There’s nothing to be afraid of,’ she assured me invisibly in a wavery voice. ‘It’s just that your soul has left your body.’” Christgau has already told us he was never an enthusiastic drug user—not because he’s a control freak, we sense, or dangerous on substances, but because drugs blur his perception and compromise his focus. His soul cannot be allowed to leave his body. For the person who looks on the world with the eye and mind of a born critic, for whom criticism is as much as anything the daily act of planting his feet in the world, body and soul must remain as one.

Thus the realization, great or not: Christgau’s deficits are not detachable from his graces. No part of his style—intellect and humor, brag and bray, arrogance and openness—is separable from any other part. No aspect of his sensibility—love of pop and ideas, flesh and brain, Beatles and Al Green, sex and writing—may be displaced without collapsing the whole. And neither his style nor his sensibility can be extricated from the other. You may feel conflicted reading him; may like one aspect better than another; may wish the proportions were different. You may prefer to do nothing but grin as you read, and skip the bruised ribs. But there is no such conflict in the writer—nor are there really any proportions to speak of, for all of Robert Christgau’s molecules are mashed up together. He is body and soul in one, an absolute unity, love him or hate him. Or both.

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is devinmckinney.com.

3 comments:

  1. The best review the book is likely to get, and a definitive assessment of the man's work. Much appreciated.

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  2. A nice summing-up. I had been using the adjective "Christgaudian" with a 'd', but I like Devin's better: Christgauvian with a ' v '.

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  3. This is an excellent write-up, and a wonderful read.

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