Last Tuesday evening I had the pleasure of sitting down with Robert Christgau, the self-appointed Dean of American Rock Critics, in his East Village apartment. This was indeed a big thing for the kid here, considering that I’ve read Christgau’s work, well, ever since I was a kid. His Consumer Guide to music has appeared in The Village Voice since 1969 and has since been collected in three volumes of books that have long shared a space on my reference shelf alongside the first — and best — edition (the one edited by Jim Miller) of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, Greil Marcus’s books, and all of Pauline Kael’s collections. As a teenager in Utah, so that I might stay on top of what Christgau (and Sarris) had to say, I subscribed to The Voice.
Through the years, Christgau became part of the very pop culture he writes about. On 1972’s live Take No Prisoners album, Lou Reed wondered aloud from the stage: “What does Robert Christgau do in bed?” I’ll forgo quoting where this line of thinking took him; suffice it to say that it culminated with Reed rhetorically asking, “Can you imagine working for a fucking year and you got a B+ from an asshole in The Village Voice?” In his review of the album, Christgau responded with his usual humor and aplomb by thanking Lou for pronouncing his name right. And he only gave the album a C+.
“I always admired Christgau’s writing and wit and courage,” singer/songwriter Elliott Murphy wrote yesterday (before we even knew about Friday’s goings-on at The Voice), “and when he gave Aquashow [Murphy’s debut album] an A- it was the only grade I ever got that I was proud of.”
All of which brings us back to Tuesday evening in the East Village. Christgau had kindly consented to an interview for a book I’m putting together about the critic Paul Nelson. I didn’t agree with everything that the Dean had to say, but what he said was never uninteresting. Such had been the tacit terms of our writer-reader relationship for over three decades (we should be so fortunate in all of our relationships). Earlier that day, he had even more kindly arranged for me to get into The Voice‘s library, where I was able to glean invaluable material from 30- and 40-year-old bound volumes of the newspaper. I owe him big-time.
So it was with considerable shock last night to discover an article in The New York Times that told, in part:
In a move that decimated the senior ranks of its arts staff, The Village Voice, the New York alternative weekly, yesterday dismissed eight people, including Robert Christgau, a senior editor and longtime pop music critic who had been at the paper on and off since 1969.
In a statement released yesterday, Village Voice Media described the layoffs as an effort â€œto reconfigure the editorial department to place an emphasis on writers as opposed to editors.â€ The company added, â€œPainful though they may be in the short term, these moves are consistent with long-range efforts to position The Voice as an integral journalistic force in New York City.â€
The article went on to say:
Mr. Christgau, 64, who noted that he had forged the paperâ€™s style of music criticism, with its â€œserious consideration of popular music at a critical level,â€ said in a phone interview that before he learned he had lost his job, he had begun organizing the paperâ€™s Christmas consumer review. â€œI was really thinking about what I was going to do. I wasnâ€™t planning on going anywhere,â€ he said. â€œI was doing my job.â€
What befell Robert Christgau on Friday is not uncommon in everyday corporate America. I watched the same thing happen to people I’d worked with for years, as they fell victim to the ever advancing bottom line. Unlike Christgau, as it got closer I was able to make the decision, to paraphrase Keith Richards, to walk before they made me run.
I have no doubt Christgau will do just fine, that this, like many seemingly life-crushing changes, will turn out to be an opportunity in disguise, an unexpected detour taking him down a path he wouldn’t otherwise have taken to a better destination than he could have imagined.
In the meantime, Christgau’s website remains available online and, in an act of sheer generosity and (deserved) egoism, reflects virtually everything that man’s put into print. With his recent review of the New York Dolls’ latest album, his writing demonstrated the same thing that the resurrected Dolls did with their music: that rock & roll done right is ageless.