Book review: Going Into the City, by 'dean of American rock critics'
Going Into the City
by Robert Christgau
Dey Street Books
Born and raised in Flushing, Queens, Robert Christgau went "into the city", as outer-borough types used to put it, at a young age. He found his place in downtown Manhattan in the early 1960s, inching up from the seedy Lower East Side to what is now called the East Village.
There he's stayed, soaking up and chronicling city culture everywhere from Playboy to NPR. New York is one of three great passions that this book celebrates. The others are love and art - especially but not exclusively pop music, which for Christgau encompasses rock, folk, and all the denigrated "commercial" music that he's spent his career arguing for and about as one of America's top rock critics.
But the man who pretty well invented rock criticism (laurels he's not shy about claiming) wasn't obviously destined for a creative life. As he describes them in the warm opening chapters of his memoir, Christgau's Catholic mother and Protestant father pushed their children towards academic success as a way to scramble up the class and economic ladder.
As his parents became more religious in the era when the evangelical movement was gaining ground, their eldest son was beginning to doubt his faith. It was finally doomed by adolescent curiosity and a stand-in worship of literature, plus an unwillingness to consign his Jewish high-school girlfriend to hell.
In place of God there was art, and after several fitful literary efforts, the emergence of a critical voice. That passionate voice has been imitated so often it's sometimes hard to remember it was Christgau's first. Its argumentative quality was a natural outgrowth of searching debates with friends and lovers - especially, in his formative years, with Ellen Willis.
The two future critics went to the same junior high, and bumped into one another at a meeting of the leftist Free University of New York at the end of 1965, falling quickly into a three-year relationship. Christgau writes about Willis - who died in 2006 - with awed respect, clear on the importance they had on each other's thinking and writing, forthright about their differences, explicit about their sex life and his discomfort with her desire for an open relationship. He's equally frank about the pain of their break-up, and the important lesson it has taught him - that happiness is more instructive than loss or pain. Or in blunter terms: "Nuts to the educational value of suffering."
The appearance of Carola Dibbell, his wife of 40 years, marks the beginning of the end of the book, which closes with the adoption from Honduras of their baby daughter, Nina. Christgau's relationship with Carola is an intellectual and emotional partnership that he's proud to proclaim, noting that he feels "deprived" when other male critics write memoirs that "fail to indicate how their wives changed their lives and I bet their work". In marriage, as in writing and life, Christgau is unfailingly enthusiastic about the idea that there's always more to learn.
Although he says he's been sick of 1960s nostalgia since 1974, the year he joined the Village Voice as its music editor, Christgau's book is threaded with memories of the high hopes and hopeful highs of that decade. He's careful to emphasise that the unacknowledged force behind the so-called counterculture was a healthy economy, and that its demise was a matter of money, not merely mood. In this lesson we get a hint of the professorial Christgau, who swears he dubbed himself "dean of American rock critics" as a tipsy joke during a 5th Dimension show. He loves to teach: one of his Consumer Guides, capsule album reviews now numbering more than 15,000, gets panned for saying "too little too generally".
Saying something new and distinctive, even about art that's derivative and undistinguished, is a critic's perennial challenge. Christgau embraces it with energy, his sentences unspooling and spilling references; it's a pleasure to let him talk your ear off.