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 Books)—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 these 365 pages 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. The latter qualities, in unique combination, have always made Christgau one of the few pop critics worth following. The former have 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.