Talking to Robert Christgau is an experience unlike any other — unless you know of any other septuagenarians who are fully capable of discussing the subtle differences between Burial EPs, or comparing the debut albums of FKA twigs and Tinashe. Imagine if Lester Bangs lived long enough to have opinions on Azealia Banks and Iggy Azalea — though even those likely wouldn’t be as sharply honed as those from the guy who agrees that everybody has an opinion but “not everybody’s got ten thousand of them.”
Christgau has reviewed 15,000 records since 1967 and did much to establish the rock-review format itself, legitimizing the graded capsule review early on and conceiving the Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics Poll during his 37-year tenure as music editor of the influential alt-weekly. He’s part of the reason Exile on Main Street is the most-acclaimed Rolling Stones album (he gave it a rare A+ grade in 1972 when most outlets were lukewarm on its “murkiness”), and he was early on punk, rap, Afropop, the Mountain Goats, and Frank Ocean, too. He’s published three record guides, two essay collections (Any Old Way You Choose It, Grown Up All Wrong), and over 15,000 one-paragraph album reviews that you can peruse on his easily-searchable website. He currently publishes his “Expert Witness” column at Medium every week.
Today marks the release of his memoir and very first “narrative work,” Going Into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man, which describes his life growing up in New York as well as detailed accounts of his pre-marital lovelife (particularly his romance with the late pioneering music critic and vocal feminist Ellen Willis) and the works that influenced him most, including Ernest Thayer’s poem “Casey at the Bat” and Johnny Griffin’s sax solo on Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud” (his favorite “moment” in recorded music). You can read an excerpt from the book here, but SPIN also spoke to Christgau over the phone about writing Going Into the City, as well as the value of not letting schmoozing as a journalist or “getting there first” get the best of one’s critical skills.
Do you feel relieved now that the memoir is out of your head and onto the page?
I wasn’t sure initially that it was appropriate for me to write a memoir at all. But I will say this, I’m very proud of it. It’s what I wanted it to be. It’s what I imagined. I think the critical interpolations, which is one reason I had trouble selling it, were great, they were really good. They supported the narratives. I think the pace of the book is very good, it really moves. Essentially, in the book I wanted to write something from the imagination. The chance to write a narrative work — and narrative wise it’s very conventional: beginning, middle and end. There’s subtle changes to it. In any case, it did what I wanted it to. I did things people told me I couldn’t do, and I was very, very pleased with what I came up with. I did eight months of work, all told.
I don’t see myself as having had an exceptional life. Yeah sure, I’ve had an interesting life, but I’m more interested in what’s not exceptional about it. I thought, in particular, my view of that bohemia, which I’ve been writing about since my first book in ’73, I think that’s valuable stuff.
I think the variation of ideas and attitudes in ’60s bohemia that you document in here is really important, like when you mention being turned off when the hippies called the cops pigs.
When my editor wrote me back, she acted like I was corrective, like I conceived it that poetically. I didn’t, because I was part of that, and I was glad I was part of that. At least I hope that’s clear, but apparently people’s understanding of the details have gotten so romanticized I guess, and generalized. Maybe people will be saying, “Hey, a new view of the ’60s.” That wasn’t my intention. I knew I was different, but as I try to make clear, a lot of people were different, and in different ways, you know? That’s all I wanted to say.
I do feel that it reads correctively, but I feel that your writing has always read that way just because, I guess the way that it happens, if you write a review of, say, the Burial EP over a year after it comes out, it’s going to sound corrective because it came out a year later.
Well, yes I do that, but that’s… well I’m glad I wrote the Burial review when I did, because it took me a long time to figure out what was going on, and there was a long hiatus where, frankly, I forgot about it. I wasn’t writing reviews at that time, it had barely been released at all, I had gotten it, and that was the last month I was writing my book when that came out. I played it a few times when it came out, it kind of slipped my mind. Didn’t have a physical copy, so it wasn’t on the floor, then when I finally remembered it was there, I just wrote it.
Anyway, for sure I’ve always done that, I really don’t have any crusade, right? I don’t have anything to prove. I’m not trying to be some big shot revisionist, I’ve always been a revisionist in a small sort of way, and that’s really the way I feel about it. Maybe not contemporary… what do we make of the War on Drugs? What the fuck is going on? Why do people adore this? I’m asking you here.
I’m thinking now that I have the time [to replay it], we’ll see how that goes, maybe it’ll go well, it might really be tough. But I was thinking of doing a week where I just do the War on Drugs and then, what’s her name, FKA twigs. I’m not actually convinced that those records are as…
Bad as they seem?
Skimpy as I think they are. I mean, I haven’t gone to that level yet. War on Drugs sounds like, I mean, has anybody else said it’s blanded out U2? That’s what it is. Has it been compared to U2?
It’s been compared to Springsteen and Tom Petty a lot.
That’s ridiculous! That’s fucking ridiculous! I mean, Tom Petty writes real lyrics. And so does Bono, don’t get me wrong, but not the way that Springsteen and Petty do. This guy, whatever his name is, can’t write lyrics at all. He can’t write fuckin’ lyrics! You know that’s a very important part of a musical gestalt. It’s like if Springsteen or Petty buries his lyrics… boy, that’s nutty. Anyway, I know you like Tinashe, I think Tinashe was better than FKA twigs.
Sort of on this subject, in the book, you refer to one thing that’s never been your thing: “getting there first” as a distorting fallacy.
Well, you know, Dan, I’m really trying not to generalize about the criticism of right now, because I don’t really have the body to absorb it. What I do find is that when I look, I find good stuff. I don’t know if you happened to notice that Pitchfork review of the Nicki Minaj album by someone I’ve never heard of.
Yes, Meaghan Garvey.
Great. It was great. And it’s there. It’s out there. Not as much as there should be, but it’s not zero, and really, what counts is not the bad stuff, it’s whether the system makes room for good stuff. And I’m not convinced that that doesn’t happen. I think plenty of the SPIN reviews are good, I think some of them are terrible, but at least you’re provided a little space. I’m not in the mood for dissing Rolling Stone right now, just doesn’t seem right to my friends there. And the fact of the matter is that Jon Dolan in particular is as good as it gets at that right now.
Sort of sideways from this topic, you mention in the book, regretfully, that Ellen Willis wouldn’t play guitar for you after you said not to early on. And there’s also a mention for your distaste of the schmoozing side of journalism. I wanted to know if you think you ever worried too hard about losing objectivity because of these things happening around you: the schmoozing, people who were also musicians themselves.
But I don’t do that. That was not the issue for me. You know, I’ve never hung out. I used to hang out more than I do now. What does that have to do with Ellen playing guitar? I don’t understand that connection.
I assumed it was because you wouldn’t be able to hide your opinion if she was bad or something. Why did you ask her to not play?
Because I hated folk music and I was trying to show her I was tough, you know? Stupid, stupid. Absolutely a college boy’s attitude. Anyway, you know, when Richard Meltzer said rock and roll died in ’68, what he means is Jefferson Airplane were no longer his buddies, that’s what he really means. He means it in a political way: that was when the artists and the audience found themselves on different levels. I could tell you that when I first read about John Lennon being an art student, I said hey, an art student who likes rock’n’roll, boy! We could have great conversations!
I came to understand that very early, what journalists are supposed to do is go talk to artists. After Monterey I spent time with the Grateful Dead and I met Led Zeppelin, and I didn’t mention it in my piece. What a certain kind of journalist does is you get the access, you fucking exploit, you remember the best things that they said and you make a piece out of that. I understand that you can’t have an equal relationship with people who are substantially great. Although, the one thing I would say is that interacting with John Lennon or Randy Newman, which I have a little bit, or Jonathan Lethem – nice person. Those are geniuses and they do have something to offer you that people want, it’s just they don’t offer as much. And that’s a reason for wanting to get close to them, I can see that, but in the end it’s just not what you need.
These days the playing field has been somewhat leveled with the gap between star and audience with bands who hold day jobs.
Oh no, no, that’s another level. The gap between star and journalist is greater than ever, which is to say there are a lot of people who are good artists but aren’t stars.
But there are also fewer stars these days, too, economically.
I guess that’s probably true, I can’t say, I don’t know if I’m certain about it, but sounds like it might be right. I guess what’s true is that kind of mid-level, what is it called in publishing? Mid-list, a mid-list star, those people are definitely less separated from us.
After reading your Barnes & Noble column on the lack of sex in the memoirs you were reading while writing your own, I noticed a few weeks ago that Jessica Hopper tweeted, “Wow, so much of Christgau’s book is about his history with his own ejaculate.”
Really, she said that? So she’s disappointed, huh? It seems to me I acted like sex is a physical act, I think that kind of prudishness really bothers me. I don’t know, also, because maybe she thinks I shouldn’t be talking about my sexual dysfunction but I gotta say it’s an important part of my life and if I’m going to describe my love life, I have to describe how it works.
Personally, I didn’t think the amount of sex in the book was shocking or disproportionate to the other details of those relationships.
I think it’s possible a lot of people felt that, and it worries me because I want the book to be well-regarded, but that’s what I needed to do. What I tried to do was to make the moments quite explicit, specific, to not downplay them, but as far as I’m concerned I found very good language and imagery to do that and I was very brief, but I was not discreet. When I talk about sex, I talk about body parts. It seems to me I’m more sexually explicit in my criticism than almost anybody, but once again I dwell on the fact I’m concise about everything and I’m concise about that. I hope it goes over and I do know that some will not like it. I’m certain of that, I went in knowing that. What you told me about Jessica Hopper really made my heart sink. I’m a big fan, I’m sorry she’s disappointed.
Did you consult Ellen Willis’ family at all in regards to discussing your sexual relationship with her in the book? [Ed. note: Christgau originally asked for this answer to remain off the record, then recanted after receiving permission from Ellen Willis’ widower Stanley Aronowitz.]
I’d rather not talk about that so publicly, because I think it’s not right to out them, but I will say privately to you that the one thing I had a real reservation about was the rape paragraph with Ellen, and I was going to take it out. I sent a copy to Stanley, who was very kind to me throughout this process. Although we’re not especially friendly, we have the same view of the world. I said ‘Look, this is up to you, I’m assuming you’ll tell me to take it out, and I will, but here it is.’ And he told me not to take it out. He told me very much not to take it out, he told me he thought I got how Ellen was exactly and that it was alright to publish it and so I did. That is between him and me and I don’t want it to be public unless I ask about it which I might because that keeps coming up.
In the book, you talked about your own proposed novel American Beauty centered around a “bottle blonde” as a springboard for your travel around the country. Did you have a laugh when the film American Beauty was also built around another blonde 30-odd years later?
It never occurred to me. I thought the movie was okay. Not as great as people were saying, not as bad as other people were saying.
This goes back to what I asked earlier about “getting there first” but you recently put the word critic in scare quotes in your Dismemberment Plan review dismissing it as, at this point, it’s “anyone who is permitted to post music reviews on a site someone else runs.”
I think that’s right. When you Google reviews, it’s anybody with the chutzpah and leisure usually, people with a certain amount of time. Clearly there’s a really important piece to be researched and thought about those questions.
Does the book double as canonizing this specific era when “music critic” may no longer be a full-time profession anymore?
I’m not canonizing anything, I’m just providing a confessional. One of the things I’m proudest of in the whole book is the little pieces, the little 2000 words about Cheetah [Magazine]. There’s something, unless Larry [Dietz, editor] writes something, that’s it, that’s gone. People know the magazine existed and that’s all that anybody knows.
Do you feel that the book, in addition to your own story, is sort of a last chance to get to things like Cheetah and remind the public consciousness of them in hopes that it will inspire someone to dig it up?
No, I wrote the book to tell my story. I had no other ulterior motive or historical importance than that. One reason I told the Cheetah story at the length I did was I knew no one else had ever told it, and moreover, that it was unique to my book. Anyone could write about what it was like to walk up Avenue B on the Lower East Side, there’s thousands of people who could do that if they had a mind, and a few have. The Cheetah story, me and Larry, basically that is history and so I did.
Are there things from after the ’80s that you would have liked to include?
I left a lot of things out, I keep thinking of them, but you mean what happens when the book ends, post ’85. Well, that’s another book and it’s not a book I’m going to write, I have other stuff to write.