Discover more from Critical Conditions by Wayne Robins
ROBERT CHRISTGAU IS 80 TODAY
Learning from the Dean of American Rock Critics
My favorite sentence written by Robert Christgau is from his 2014 memoir, Going Into the City: Portrait of a Rock Critic as a Young Man.
In the chapter about rejoining the Village Voice in 1974 as editor of the Riffs section, Christgau devotes some paragraphs to putting together his dream team. "From the Creem side I enlisted Lester Bangs, R. Meltzer, and future Newsday rock critic Wayne Robins, from the Rolling Stone side Janet Maslin, Stephen Holden, and future New School dean Jim Miller." I reopen that page so often I don't need to bookmark it (page 293, Dey St. hard cover). The book just flaps open to that page.
When I first read it, I had no idea that Christgau had perceived me that way. It makes me feel like an unexpected NFL draft pick from a small college no one expected to be chosen in the first round.
The first piece I wrote for Christgau was a review of Stevie Wonder's Fulfillingness First Finale. I tried to do it remotely, as I was spending the summer of 1974 traveling to Los Angeles and then Boulder, Colo., on the layoff money I was being paid from CBS Records after the management eliminated my job by closing Playback magazine. I got a copy of the album from Motown's publicist in Los Angeles and gave it a lot of spins at the small Santa Monica cottage of a friend I was staying with. I took a lot of notes, but nothing clicked. I sent a few drafts to Christgau in the mail, but we both knew I didn't nail it. I was trying too hard, and nothing flowed. Ditto another draft sent from Colorado.
I thought Christgau might lose patience with me, but he knew I would land it, sooner or later. He wasn't like those editors who might replace his flustered rookie because the review might not otherwise be "timely." Christgau gave me both time, and the rope to with which I was trying to hang myself, allowing me to figure out how to untie the knots before I choked.
By August I was back home on West 22nd Street in Manhattan, still searching for a solution to the Stevie Wonder album, just a lede (as it is spelled in the news business) that would give the review the momentum with which it might write itself.
I was having breakfast at one of those Cuban-Chinese restaurants that used to be on Eighth Avenue south of 23rd Street. I was reading the Daily News, worrying about Stevie Wonder. The radio was on, blaring one of the once ubiquitous commercials for a retail electronics chain. The opening was, "What's the story, Jerry?" A bell rang in my head, I grabbed a pencil from the counterman. Perhaps there were more questions than answers about this album, so I jotted down, "What's the story, Stevie?" That was the lede. I went home, banged out the review in couple of hours, delivered it to Christgau, and he was ultimately pleased.
I say "ultimately" both as an exaggeration and a fact. This was the review Christgau wanted. Now we had to edit it.
Doing this for the first time with Bob was a bracing experience. I doubt that anyone did such a close reading of anything I ever wrote. Sitting next to him at his desk in the Voice newsroom, he took a colored pencil and began making checks or x's in the margin next to every line for which he might have a question, no matter how small. And there were marks at the end of almost every line. I did not know this was a demanding editor's exacting attention to precise detail. I thought it meant the article sucked, and that my assignments for the Riffs section would be few.
They were just quick questions, more a quiz than a final exam. They were along the lines of, "You like this word? Yeah, OK." Or, "comma here, or semi-colon"? Maybe an em-dash? Punctuation, grammar, syntax. Or, "you don't like that song that much? I love it, you're wrong, but it's your review." And the A-list concert review assignments kept coming: Al Green, Lou Reed, BTO (Bachman Turner Overdrive), a band you could really have fun writing about for Bob. If you look closely at the avatar for this Substack, there is a miniature of the headline of my Voice feature about Led Zeppelin. The article appeared on the back page, which was the "front" page of the arts section. The copy desk had given all of 10 characters, including spaces, for a headline box on the upper left corner. Sitting at Christgau's desk after we did all the x's and o's on the story, we brainstormed the hed, and came up with the killer app of all rock headlines:
LED ZEP/ZAPS KIDZ
Writing and editing with Bob was like handing in a thesis in Sumerian grammar to the Oxford dean who rediscovered the ancient language and wrote the textbook on the topic. Immediately, I grasped, that's why Christgau refers to himself as the Dean of American Rock Critics. He knows who he is, and what he is: an encouraging but strict mentor, who knew I could be better, and never suggested that the second-rate was acceptable because "it was only rock and roll."
It's never only rock and roll, and yet it's always rock and roll with Christgau, because that is his job, his career, his life, the path he has chosen. Greil Marcus wrote in the introduction to the posthumous Lester Bangs anthology Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung that "perhaps what this book demands from a reader is a willingness to accept that the best writer in America could write almost nothing but record reviews. "
I'll raise and say that Christgau is the greatest American public intellectual of the last 50 years whose iconic mode of expression is the capsule record review: the redoubtable Consumer Guide (CG). Each month, for 50 years more or less, Christgau has written a monthly roundup of recent album releases, some just a terse sentence, others a complicated and lengthy paragraph, concluding with a letter grade. Many readers overlook, or have forgotten, the slashing precision of Christgavian (my invention, I think) wit, with the occasional descent into irasicible if rarely fatal putdowns and dick jokes that one might have heard at a Don Rickles roast. (For the last number of years, RC no longer gives grades lower than B plus, but uses a series of asterisks and emojis for lesser works.)
Lou Reed's retort to Consumer Guide can be heard in an unhinged, ranting 17-minute version of "Take a Walk on the Wild Side," in which Reed's multiple personalities ("me and my several selves discuss it at night") melt down. It can be heard on the Live: Take No Prisoners, (1978) recorded at the Bottom Line, then a Village landmark as New York's 550-seat primary music showcase club.
Christgau is mentioned, or attacked, if you will, in at least three different sections of the performance. The most memorable:
"Christgau is like an anal-retentive. Nice little boxes. 'B-plus.' Can you imagine working for a fucking year and you got a B-plus from an asshole in The Village Voice?"
Once I went to Newsday, I had to take a break from writing to please Christgau, a totally honorable way to learn how to be a better writer, by the way. I never got the hang of Bob's Dionysian/Apollonian model for thinking/talking/writing about rock. I knew it had something to do with the division between mind and body. I had to find my own voice, and Newsday became both my own voice, and my own Voice, and I stayed there for almost 20 years.
I would still run into Bob. There was a party for Lynyrd Skynyrd's album titled, Street Survivors: released October 17, 1977. Three days, a plane crash that would kill lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and singer Cassie Gaines, and seriously injure or cripple many of the others on the way to a gig. We both liked Lynyrd Skynyrd, though we wrestled with their problematical politics: Confederate iconography including the flag, and of course, "Sweet Home Alabama." As I remember it, we spent time at that party revisiting an old conversation about what the lyrics and background singing meant. "In Birmingham they love the governor," the line goes in that 1974 tune. We kept trying to resolve the background singing at the end of that line: Were they singing, "boo boo boo"? Or "hoo, hoo, hoo?"
Twenty years later, one September morning, Christgau and I entered what was then the journalism building at NYU, then on Washington Place. In the elevator, he asked, "Wayne, are you teaching here too?" And I said, "No, Bob. Actually, I'm your student." I had left Newsday in 1995 with the closing of New York Newsday, was not getting enough full time work, so I accepted Ellen Willis' offer of a fellowship for grad school in the 1997-1998 academic year in her newly created Cultural Reporting and Criticism program. Bob, in fact, was filling in for his long-ago paramour Ellen teaching the core criticism course.
For one assignment, we went to the Gugggenheim Museum to see the much-anticipated Robert Rauschenberg exhibit. I wrote a fine paper, one that I was quite proud of, and probably publishable if I could place it. But every publication had their top-line art critics covering this event. Christgau gave me an A, but he wrote a few sentences on the back, with some suggestions that could make it better. He thought I might want to run it through the typewriter one more time, to see if it made the difference he thought it would make. And he was right. I have since used that idea as a professor myself at St. John's University since 2013. It's not only to make weak papers better, though of course, writing is rewriting. But I do it with my best students sometimes, the message being: This is very good. But if you want to be great, try this.
As I said, Christgau earned his self-annointed moniker as Dean of American Rock Critics honestly. And again, you've got to think of it like an Oxford Dean, which at least in pop culture is often portrayed as condescending, rude, self-obsessed, and nothing if not critical. There's that side of Christgau too, and I don't understand the need for "if you don't like it, then fuck you" attitude that still surfaces in his writing on his Substack, And It Don't Stop, to which I pay to subscribe so I can still read Consumer Guide, although the choices often baffle me with their obtuseness. Today Christgau has posted a 41-song playlist celebrating his 80th birthday.
It's not like I never incurred the spontaneity of his wrath, though. Shortly after I started at Newsday, there was a Four Seasons concert at Madison Square Garden, with Miami's T.K. Records studio band turned-hitmakers K.C. & the Sunshine Band as the opening act.
Christgau was a big K.C. fan at the moment. He gave their best album, K.C. & the Sunshine Band (1975), an A minus: "No matter what you label them, these otherwise meaningless dance tunes are as bright and distinct as the run of disco mush is dull--when it comes to formula, always opt for top forty, which compels innovation, over Muzak, which forbids it."
I was with a former Creem colleague at this show, so during the break after the opening set, the house lights went on and we went to say hi to Christgau. "Weren't they great, weren't they great?!" he said.
"Well, actually Bob, I thought they were kind of boring."
"Oh Wayne, you're boring," Christgau said.
It wasn't a nice thing, but it was a very Christgau thing, to say. For that reason, that encounter has always made me very happy.
Critical Conditions by Wayne Robins is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a paid subscriber.