TIME Books

How To Survive 13,000 Album Reviews

Harper Collins

Robert Christgau, the self-appointed Dean of American Rock Critics, has just published a memoir of his life in the downtown music scene, Going into the City. 'It's very unlikely that there'll ever be anybody like me again,' he says

The whole class of NYU sophomores had arrived on time, ready for discussion with notebooks and pens and perhaps a little less ready for the compulsory quiz on the week’s assigned readings. The professor, a white-haired man with a slight bend at the waist, read a dozen questions aloud, repeating each one to help the panicked. For extra-credit, to aid the beleaguered types, he asked this one:

“Complete the line—and, please, pardon my flow: ‘And all you other cats throwin’ shots at Jigga, you only get half a bar…’ What comes next?” He repeats the question, and his smile broadens. “You know, I’ve always thought that was one of his best couplets.”

If I had a nickel for every time a 72-year-old professor encouraged me to write “f-ck y’all n—-s” on my sheet and turn it in, I’d be dead broke. As anyone would be, for what it’s worth, if he or she set out today to become a rock critic. Survival, though, is a peculiar thing, and Robert Christgau, the self-appointed Dean of American Rock Critics, is a peculiar survivor if ever there were one.

While every American mass-culture critic of recent inauguration wanted to be like Roger Ebert (personal and powerful), most of them wanted to write like Robert Christgau. He’s ferocious, frustrating and funny, miraculously compact while deploying looooong sentences. He worked at the Village Voice, a generation’s hip tipsheet, from 1969 until 2006, primarily as music editor. Some readers would use the back pages of the Voice to get their rocks off; another, smaller group needed only his music section. He’s the critic’s critic.

More than that, he’s the only one of the bunch who originated his discipline who’s still scrapping at it. Lester Bangs and Ellen Willis have passed; Jon Landau became a Springsteen-abetted music-biz macher; Greil Marcus has ascended to a higher plane of professional practice. Which leaves a whole generation of critics in Christgau’s debt, even as they work alongside him. He cleared the way for the appreciation of pop on its sonic merits alone, and for the only-somewhat-tongue-in-cheek (but exceedingly practical) process of slapping a letter grade on Art.

If this were a Christgau review—and there is something to review here, Going into the City, Christgau’s memoir and debut full-length book, published Tuesday—it would have ended 200 words ago with an idiomatic yet scholarly rapture or kiss-off and a letter grade. Like he did for Prince’s Dirty Mind in 1980: “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home. A.” Or for Talking Heads’ 1980 Remain in Light the same year: “Second side celebrates a young terrorist and recalls John Cale in his spookiest pregeopolitical mode but also begins at the beginning: with ‘Once in a Lifetime,’ the greatest song Byrne will ever write. It’s about the secret of life, which even a woman’s hips can’t encompass. A.” Or for Guns N’ Roses’ G N’ R Lies in 1988: “‘Back when they hit the racks, these posers talked a lot of guff about suicide. I’m still betting they don’t have it in them to jump. E.”

Christgau calls this his Consumer Guide, so named “to razz a counterculture that considered consumption counterrevolutionary and didn’t like grades either.” By his count he’s undertaken nearly this exact mission for between thirteen and fourteen thousand records, with about three thousand others earning judgments that don’t quite meet the “review” threshold. His list of A+ albums covers everything from the Beach Boys to DeBarge; the most recognized artists are Sonny Rollins and the New York Dolls. His top five artists, Christgau once told Salon: Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Chuck Berry, the Beatles and the Dolls. Hard to knock his catholicness.

A little easier to knock the oeuvre, though, given the certitude and bite of each capsule review. Countless online spaces provide scornful analysis of why Christgau stinks; this is what happens if he doesn’t grok your fave act or genre. Or, as Sonic Youth’s “Kill Yr Idols” (later briefly renamed “I Killed Christgau With My Big F-cking D-ck”) put it: “I don’t know why//you wanna impress Christgau//let that sh-t die//and find out the new goal.” The critic responds, broadly, in the memoir’s introduction: “To the eternal ‘Opinions are like assholes—everybody’s got one,’ I just say, ‘Yeah, but not everybody’s got ten thousand of them.’ It distresses me that the wit of this riposte so often fails to impress the asshole I’m talking to.” Least he’s honest.

We were talking, though, about surviving. Christgau’s new memoir belongs to a class of recent good downtown-culture-scene-in-the-60s-and-70s books, written by survivors of the cull that followed. There’s Patti Smith’s Just Kids (won the National Book Award), Ed Sanders’ Fug You, James Wolcott’s Lucking Out, Richard Hell’s I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, and others still. I say survivors because Smith lives, and so does Hell, but Robert Mapplethorpe and Lou Reed and Hilly Kristal and Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee, and Tommy are all dead. It ain’t easy to miss how these books have piled up as the neighborhoods, characters and scenes they chronicle have vanished.

But Christgau’s still here. He’s an employed rock critic in an era structurally hostile to them (he writes now on Medium’s Cuepoint). “There was always a devil’s bargain in journalism. The advertisers paid your salary, and now the advertisers don’t want us. It’s very unlikely that there’ll ever be anybody like me again,” he says. “There’s no economic basis for it. I feel terrible about what has happened to rock criticism.” He sticks to a CD changer. (“iTunes freezes on me.”) Yet he doesn’t loathe the web; he finds Twitter a good source of links and says music review site Pitchfork, “which was publishing really a lot of bad writing,” has gotten better in recent years. And rapper Azealia Banks sent him into a reverie last year—hard to imagine her without the web.

Christgau bikes a couple times each week from his East Village apartment to his NYU gig, one he’s held since 2005. The class he teaches, at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, is Artists and Audiences, a required one for everyone in the program. It’s music history, with a writing-intensive grafted on. Takes a survivor to keep teaching essay composition to art-school students. As he told the class: “There’s always someone who says I’m imposing my subjective views on writing on their work. Sometimes that’s true. Most of the time it’s not. I was a professional editor for a long time, and a well-regarded one. I had long-running fights with professional writers, and lots of them came to agree with me.” He says, “I’m very proud—even egotistical—about how good I am at what it is I do.” (He also says: “Other teachers will tell you to avoid dashes. Not in this class. They’re great. Use them a lot.”)

The real survival story of his life, though—the one he’s proudest to tell—is the one about his four-decade marriage to author and fellow rock critic Carola Dibbell (pronounced like a Yinzer would “Carol of the Bells,” just with only one bell). “I thought, what do I have to write about? My religious background, my Queens background, my career—although I didn’t hang out with artists like a lot of journalists do. The great saga of my life,” Christgau says, “is romantic love.” He’s big on this, and peeved at the extent to which other memoirists have elided their wives’ influence. That might sound sappy to the hard-hearted rockists out there, but they never cared for Christgau anyway.

In the memoir Christgau’s childhood, college and early postcollege years, plus attendant discursions—there are lots—precede his union with Dibbell. Such is the life of the mind: You’ll learn more here about Crime and Punishment than King Crimson (a band whose first album Christgau called “ersatz sh-t”) and you’ll hear a good deal too about his worldview of contingency, which is original and nicely turned if a little murky. The dramatis personae include Greil Marcus, the pioneering critic and Christgau’s long-term friend; Ellen Willis, the pioneering critic and Christgau’s longish-term lover (she ranks as the smartest person he’s ever known, and then a whole lot else); and his own peccadilloes, dysfunctions and double standards, the confrontation of which leads him to intellectual and emotional development. The Willis sections read especially swell if you shudder but secretly half-smile at the varied indulgences of the ’60s left, as Christgau seems to. Particularly memorable is the moment when our narrator’s pal and mentor, the painter Bob Stanley, tells him the era’s ostensibly enlightened screwing-around actually always stings bad. This after Willis tells Christgau she’ll cheat only on Tuesdays. Writes Christgau, “I swore I’d never try to look cool like that myself, and I never have—not in my private life, and not, I hope, in my public life either.”

And then, enter Dibbell: “[A friend] was sitting beside a pretty, slender brunette with a generous mouth and the kind of hair you want to put your face in. She seemed to be glowing slightly, which you could say was because she was coming down off a sleepless night of mescaline and sex just after she split with her husband, but I say was because for me she just naturally glowed.” Christgau told his NYU class that the best writing is “vigorous, direct and comprehensible.” Oh, this is, and his vigor w/r/t Dibbell recurs—does it ever. They fall in love and wed. The ending, as far as the plot goes, is already spoiled: Dibbell and Christgau are still married, and the daughter, Nina, they adopted from Honduras, is now 29 years old.

Christgau writes relatively frankly about his life considering some of the principals are still around. Dibbell, for one. He makes fewer concessions to discretion than you or I, if not she, might expect. Christgau writes, “I’ve told all with her cooperation or in one or two cases acquiescence. She’s glad this book takes love so seriously, and although she’s less bold than I am, she very much agrees that to shilly-shally about love is a species of lying.” This disclaimer precedes a thorough if not especially graphic account of a phase in their union (spoiler: an affair, hers) that would have severed many, if not most, marriages.

With the bit about his never trying to look cool in mind, I asked Christgau and Dibbell over dinner how it was to research—and by extension relive—those months. Christgau says it was extraordinarily painful; he had nightmares while writing it. But they both say the writing that came from it was good. I agree. Although reading it I felt the same way I did when I sat at their table, dredging up that past transgression: a little thrown.

The unpleasant moments in his writing process, he says, had their pleasant inverses; Christgau says he never wrote more quickly than he did describing a day of passion more than 40 years ago. “I was exalting. I’ve never written that quickly in my life. Did I make a pass at you that night?” Carola smiles but doesn’t answer. “I think I must have.” Some might find this icky. I found it adorable, which to another edgy set would have been icky in its own right. But they’re more in love now, he says, than they’ve ever been before, and they don’t care who knows it. Dibbell has her own upcoming book, The Only Ones, a dystopian debut novel she’s been working on for a decade. It’s out a month after Christgau’s. They edited each other’s work, paging through it in bed.

The three of us headed after dinner to a coffee-and-sweets shop a couple blocks away, where I wanted to continue to ask Christgau about his class and career while Carola wanted to go home, and to bed. He kissed his wife good night. She left, and he started drinking her leftover tea.

As far as love stories go, it’s a little more vanilla than Sid and Nancy—grump away, fatalist Village romantics—but it’s not Nick Sparks. Christgau’s polyhistoric, yeah, but honest, detailed, stirring and sweet. And isn’t that how all the best love songs should be? A-.

TIME

Scott Walker’s High-School Science Teacher: ‘Man Up’

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker participates in a panel discussion at the American Action Forum
Yuri Gripas—Reuters Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker participates in a panel discussion at the American Action Forum in Washington, Jan. 30, 2015.

The Republican presidential hopeful refused to answer a recent question about evolution. The governor's former science teacher tells TIME she isn't pleased

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker—a leader in the 2016 Republican presidential sweepstakes—prompted some stateside head-scratching this week when he dodged a British journalist’s question about evolution.

Walker said, “I’m going to punt on that one… That’s a question that a politician shouldn’t be involved in one way or another.” He was in London on a trade mission.

Among those who questioned Walker: the chair of his high school science department, Ann Serpe, 73. “Answer the question when they ask you!” Serpe said in an interview. “He could have manned up a bit. That’s what I would tell him.”

Serpe, who taught chemistry and chaired the math and science department at Delavan-Darien High School in Delavan, Wis., before her retirement in 1998, now lives in nearby Elkhorn. She recalls that Walker, her pupil and an advisee in student government, was a bright, committed participant in class. Walker graduated in 1986.

What would Walker have learned in high school? “We taught the theory of evolution, and human evolution, as a prerequisite to understanding biological classification. I went out and looked at my biology textbook just to make sure.”

Serpe says, “I don’t know the dogma of the Baptist church where Scott’s father was the minister, as it concerns evolution. But I do recall that Scott was very accepting of everything in science class. He had a good sense of it.”

Walker’s onetime teacher has seen him a few times since his high-school days. She even attended one of Walker’s fundraisers in Milwaukee. Darwin, though, hasn’t come up in their conversations.

She says she hopes he—”as an intelligent young man”—would understand the importance of scientific thought, that evolution and creation are not mutually exclusive. Walker, who may be two decades removed from Serpe’s classroom, said on Twitter that science still informs his worldview.

TIME deflategate

Patriots Coach Denies Wrongdoing After Internal Deflategate Investigation

New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick Press Conference
Maddie Meyer—Getty Images New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick talks to the media during a press conference to address the under inflation of footballs used in the AFC championship game at Gillette Stadium on Jan. 22, 2015 in Foxboro, Mass.

Atmospheric pressure, rubbing process blamed instead

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said Saturday that a vigorous preparation process and atmospheric changes—not any tampering by his team—were to blame for the deflated game balls used in the first half of the Patriots’ 45-7 win over the Indianapolis Colts in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game. According to Belichick, preparing the balls for use in a game artificially inflates their pressure, while taking them outdoors causes their pressure to drop.

In a soporific yet surreal press conference Saturday afternoon, Belichick offered what he said will be his final response to the unlikely “deflategate” uproar that has consumed much of the week. Like every press conference conference to result from this scandal, it offered a bonanza for the puerile-humor types out there. But it also had the equivalent of a high-school thermodynamics lesson.

Belichick said that a Patriots investigation this week found that a ball’s pressure might fall by a pound-per-square-inch or more when it leaves the controlled climate of the officials’ locker room and reaches its equilibrium on the field. He declined to comment on the particulars of Sunday’s atmospheric conditions and ball-handling protocol, referring those questions to the NFL.

Belichick said, “I’m embarrassed to talk about all the time I’ve put into this…I’m not a scientist.” He added, “I’m not the Mona Lisa Vito of the football world,” referencing Marisa Tomei’s Oscar-winning turn as an accidental tire forensics expert in 1992’s My Cousin Vinny. So who is? These questions need answers.

TIME discoveries

Bizarre Creatures Found Living Under Half a Mile of Ice

85401982
Getty Images The Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica

A National Science Foundation-funded expedition to the Antarctic has unearthed a surprising result: There are fish who live without sunlight under almost half a mile of ice in 28-degree water.

Scientists had never before sampled the Whillans Ice Stream, a river of ice between the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the Ross Ice Shelf. The drilling mission, which began on Jan. 8, aimed to better understand climate change by recovering sediment and seawater samples for examination. A small, remotely operated vehicle would peruse the ocean floor and photograph rocks and whatever microbial life might be there. They expected little, because of the water’s extreme distance from sunlight (a major nutrient for underwater environments) and its clarity, which suggests an absence of food sources.

But the vehicle wound up attracting 20 to 30 fish, with other crustaceans as well. Researchers don’t yet know how the ecosystem functions, but they’re hopeful that the fish’s survival under such harsh conditions holds broader clues.

[Scientific American]

TIME NBA

Watch: The Warriors’ Klay Thompson Had the Best Quarter of All Time

Video tells the tale

Until Friday night, the NBA record for most points scored in a period belonged to George “Iceman” Gervin, who dropped 33 for the San Antonio Spurs one night in April ’78 (he had a scoring title to clinch), and to Carmelo Anthony, who scored 33 for the Nuggets against Minnesota in December 2008. Gervin could shoot, and so could—can?—Anthony.

But neither has anything on the league’s reigning assassin, the Golden State Warriors’ Klay Thompson, who managed 37 points in a fiery third quarter against the sad-sack Sacramento Kings. (The Warriors, overall, had 41 points in the quarter.) Thompson went 13-for-13 from the field, including nine-of-nine from three-point range. He tied the record for most field goals in a quarter, and set a new record for most three-pointers. And he added in two free throws for good measure. SB Nation’s Seth Rosenthal has all the oohing and aching you’ll need, and Ray Ratto has the local color but for now behold this: With the win, the Warriors advanced to 35-6, five and a half games better than any comer the stellar West has to offer. They’re 9-1 in their last 10 and 20-1 at home. Good luck trying to catch them.

TIME deflategate

Deflategate Is Yet Another Bogus Scandal

AFC Championship - Indianapolis Colts v New England Patriots
Jim Rogash—Getty Images Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots throws a touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski #87 (not pictured) in the third quarter against the Indianapolis Colts of the 2015 AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 18, 2015 in Foxboro, Mass.

Under-inflated pigskins are not, at least in terms of competitive balance, a big deal

Last year, as noted by Slate but also by most everyone with antennae for such things, was a year characterized by outrage. Some of it registered to these eyes as earnest, some of it not so much—but 2014 may as well have been characterized by the absence of reliable, responsible arbitrators. Whether out of academia-drilled rigid lefty deference, or out of mere laziness, the b.s.-spotters took a holiday. This is why the year felt like one extended apology tour for Lena Dunham, this is why a software company with a market cap of $36 billion went on Twitter to announce that it stood against bullying. Crazy times, October.

To judge by the first month of 2015, and especially by our most treasured cultural institution—the NFL playoffs—this year is shaping up to be similarly brutal. The story, for those lucky enough to have missed it: The New England Patriots used under-inflated footballs for the first half of their 45-7 semifinal triumph over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. “Deflategate” or “Ballghazi.” The NFL has firm standards for how inflated each ball should be, but the balls are returned to each team after a referee’s pre-game inspection. Each offense has its own balls, yes, due to the league’s foolish but by now unsurprising insistence on putting confounding vagaries in its rulebook. ESPN talked up proper PSI so much in the ensuing days you’d think the network had a deal with Pep Boys. The Patriots’ principals, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, told assembled media members in amusing Thursday press conferences that they had no idea how such a thing happened. (Brady has, naturally, previously expressed a fondness for under-inflated balls—so it happened, probably, with a ball boy’s needle.) “Balls” was uttered so often that any 13-year-old would have broken down giggling. The serious middle-aged NFL media members, though, needed no help containing themselves.

It should be stated plainly: This is not, at least in terms of competitive balance, a big deal. It’s like getting caught with your hand in the cookie jar. But the popular uproar has been louder. At the heart of the sentiment against the Patriots—significant enough, by the way, that the league has retained the same investigative horsepower it deployed on the genuinely odious Miami Dolphins bullying scandal—is the notion that deflating the balls constituted some sort of more grievous sin against fair play.

Who could possibly believe this? Everyone lets a little air out of the pigskin, as former quarterback Matt Leinart has said. Deflated balls are easier to grip and catch; they give the offense an advantage, just like rub routes or hasty substitution patterns. No one could claim these evasions (equally deliberate, equally practiced) merit suspension. It’s gamesmanship, nothing more, and there ought to be an in-game penalty for it, if the referee susses out a slightly shriveled one.

Yet grievances full of chirping and false equivalencies have owned the week. Richard Sherman wants to know why the league won’t suspend Brady or Belichick. Former quarterback Mark Brunell nearly broke down on ESPN. A reporter even suggested Brady had done wrong by Uggs, his sponsor.

It’s thrilling and fun to watch the tarring of an evil empire—Belichick and Brady have been so good and so ruthless for so long—but it’s toxic when it happens like this. What do the chattering classes want? Should the NFL conduct yet another dawdling investigation to exonerate and venerate itself, when its own bad governance is to blame? Sounds like that’s the plan. All the while, we’re stripped slowly of our sense of proportion. I’ve seen the needle and the damage done, a little part of it in everyone.

TIME measles

Anti-Vaxxers Fingered in Disney Measles Outbreak

Doctors group urges measles shots as Disneyland outbreak spreads

A spokesman for the California state health department has told Reuters that he believes “unvaccinated individuals have been the principal factor” in a mid-December measles outbreak at Disneyland that has infected more than 70 people in six western states and Mexico, including five Disney employees.

The outbreak of the respiratory disease, which is caused by a highly communicable virus, has increased the focus on parents who choose not to vaccinate their children. Measles was thought to have been eliminated in the United States in 2000, meaning the disease is not native to the U.S. (Nonetheless, 644 measles cases were reported in America in 2014.) But it is not uncommon in the rest of the world, and healthcare officials presume an infected foreigner brought the virus to Disneyland or the accompanying Disneyland Adventure Theme Park in Anaheim, Calif., between Dec. 15 and 20.

Of the 34 California measles victims whose vaccination history could be ascertained, 28 had not received the measles shot. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control recommend that children first receive the MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) vaccine at the age of 12-15 months and then again between their fourth and sixth birthdays.

[Reuters]

TIME Utah

Porcupine Hunting With a Republican Watchdog

See nature snaps from the Congressional chairman zooming in on the White House

It’s like they always say: You’ve never been porcupine-hunting until you’ve been porcupine-hunting in the snowy hills of Park City, Utah, with the Republican incoming chairman of a congressional committee and his 14-year-old daughter.

I tagged along one December day with Rep. Jason Chaffetz—who was then on the cusp of his fourth term representing Utah’s Third District but his first as chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (Subscribers can the full story here in the Feb. 2 issue of TIME.) Chaffetz’s new perch means he’ll have the White House in his sights as Congress’s top watchdog. He’ll try to surface scandals that make the administration look bad.

Our expedition mercifully involved a Canon Rebel TI1 camera rather than a rifle; Chaffetz says he prefers the challenge of a bloodless hunt. Wildlife photography happens to be Chaffetz’s favorite recreational activity at home (this has something to do with a 2005 leg injury that keeps him off Utah’s renowned ski slopes). And the particular challenge on this day was to find a porcupine before sunset. Chaffetz had photographed elk, moose, wild horses and even a bald eagle before, but he had never captured the spiny rodent.

To see the fruit of Chaffetz’s labor, take a look at 12 photographs the Republican has taken over the years. As you will see, in this gallery of Chaffetz’s photos, the man got his prize.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com