Going Into The City

Going Into The City
By Robert Christgau
[Dey Street Books]

“But enough about rock criticism. Let’s talk about me.”

Robert Christgau, the former Village Voice Music Editor, Consumer Guide columnist, and contributor to Creem, Esquire, Billboard and umpteen other music mags of note is second to only the late, lamented Lester Bangs as the most “famous” rock critic ever. Hell, Christgau is the self-appointed “Dean of American rock Criticism.” This mantle is certainly deserved.

Having penned over 15,000 well-thought and painstakingly wrought album reviews in a 50-year career is really no small feat. I’ve done the math. Christgau has averaged 0.82 reviews per day. That’s almost six reviews per week, around 300 per year for 50 goddamned years – not to mention the scores upon scores of insightful essays, profiles and overviews and decades of work as a notoriously meticulous editor.

Lester Bangs certainly built up a bigger cult of personality than Christgau. Bangs was a live fast, die young, leave a bloated, disheveled corpse kinda guy – and being a dead legend certainly builds one’s mythology. Bangs was funny and entertaining, a genius even, but his pieces were essentially about himself and his drug-fueled experience of music more so than about the albums he reviewed and the artists he profiled. But Bangs was such a contrarian, nutjob and passionate disciple of rock ’n’ roll that, well, it worked.

Christgau, in contrast, was and is The Dean. The Dartmouth educated Christgau was and is an erudite chronicler of culture, a musical populist (While his forte is definitely rock, Christgau has always striven to cover a wide spectrum of musics in his columns.) and a card-carrying member of the righteously left-leaning East Coast intelligentsia. And he puts these assets to good use in his writing, which for the most part stays focused on the music, its messages and cultural impacts.

The fatal flaw of Christgau’s memoir, Going Into The City, is that he breaks form by focusing almost entirely upon himself – and this self-focus is not limited to his experience/interpretation of music and/or his interaction with rock stars of various eras. I guess 50 years of being a revered critic/aesthete/opinion leader has yielded some hubris for Christgau. But Christgau’s long life story is nowhere near as interesting as Bangs’ high-speed trajectory toward the grave was.

OK, let’s step back for a minute here. All of y’all who are reading this mag are certainly highly cultured and cool as hell. And all of y’all have read a lot of rock criticism, right? So I challenge you: Name three rock critics other than Christgau and Bangs. (Well, there is Jeff Clark for one…)

The above exercise was to prove a point. When we read rock criticism, what we’re interested in is the music, the artists, the personalities and the analysis – not the writers themselves.

Granted, Coming Into The City is a memoir. But the insights I’d hoped to gain through reading the book were insights about the evolution of music and (counter)culture that have occurred in the last 50 years, with Christgau’s experience as a conduit and/or microcosm – a smaller, more personal story within the bigger story of rock ’n’ roll. Instead, Christgau sees fit to regale us with detail upon detail of his family history (Reader beware: You’ll trudge through almost 150 pages before the interesting rock criticism stuff kicks in.), gossip about the machinations of the underground press (Sorry, Bob, but few if any of us actually remember Ellen Willis’ groundbreaking article, “Dylan,” that ran in Cheetah in 1967.), assiduous descriptions of the processes of writing long-forgotten articles and/or reviews, and longwinded, icky details of his sex life.

Yes, the proverbial devil is in the details. Christgau claims (perhaps convincingly) that he is a feminist, and I have no doubt that he certainly loves women. But I’m not interested in reading the history of Christgau’s cocksmanship. I’m not that interested that one of Christgau’s early lovers had “an exceptionally moist and succulent cunt,” that the late Ellen Willis was “avid, open, and multi-orgasmic,” or that Christgau’s wife of 40 years, Carola Dibbell has “small hard breasts,” with hairs between them. Gross.

Still, there are a lot of insights to be gained from Coming Into The City, provided the reader has the tenacity to charge through the first 150 pages of digressions, unnecessary minutia and uninteresting coming of age stuff. Christgau finally achieves the necessary momentum around two thirds of the way through the book to the end. Here you’ll get Christgau’s musings on a theory of pop (which is actually damned smart); a brilliant, artfully rendered description of New York’s protopunk CBGB era; an astute dissection of 1979’s “death to disco” movement; and several discussions of “semipopular music” – which is basically the kind of music we cover here at Stomp and Stammer, BTW.

Again, tenacity is the key with this book. The hippy-dippy, scholarly bohemian schtick is irritating at first – but if you stick it out you’ll eventually be lulled into its cadence. Christgau’s myriad self-analyses, romantic accounts and descriptions of his own quirks, affectations and ideologies acquire a warmth and humor that’s comparable to the dialogue of Annie Hall – and that is likewise simultaneously grating and endearing.

In summary, reading Coming Into The City may seem like a chore at first – but the payoffs are well worth the initial trudge through vast expanses of self-absorption. I just wish the book was a little more Lipstick Traces and a lot less Portnoy’s Complaint. This Christgau still has a thing or twelve worth sharing.  So maybe his audacity and self-absorption is warranted – necessary, even. After all, he is the fucking Dean.