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-.
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Write to Jack Dickey at firstname.lastname@example.org