Maximum Bob: The Dean of American Rock Critics’ Memoir Is Revealing, Rewarding, and Full of Copulating

Joe Mabel

For a guy who’s inarguably one of the three or four most important rock critics ever to pull the tear-strip on a record-company promo mailer, Robert Christgau is rarely a likable supporting character in books by and about his peers. In Let It Blurt, Jim DeRogatis’s biography of self-immolating rock writer Lester Bangs, Christgau is accused of gender-normatively hurling a plate of food at his ex-girlfriend, the writer Ellen Willis, during a Jefferson Airplane party. (Christgau insists that it was only a piece of pie.) In his New York–in-the-’70s memoir Lucking Out, Christgau’s old Village Voice colleague James Wolcott recalls visiting Bob’s “Dickensian cove” of an apartment in the East Village and being confronted by “the spectacle of Bob, wearing nothing but red sheer bikini underwear, attending to something at the kitchen stove and pensively scratching his ass.” Wolcott also repeats a Bangs story about Bob (who denies this, too) editing a piece of Lester’s while totally nude, “lying on the carpet with his butt-crack smiling northward as in a baby picture.”

Christgau has now written his own memoir. If you were one of the founding fathers and most prolific practitioners of an entire pop-journalistic discipline and this food-flinging seminudist were the version of yourself you saw taking shape in the official historical record, you would, too. The book is called Going Into the City: Portrait of a Critic As a Young Man. It’s an intellectual autobiography that beautifully captures what it feels like when a cultural experience trapdoors you into a new life; Christgau’s list includes his first encounter with the original cast album of South Pacific, watching Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane cross the streams at the Village Gate, and hearing Connie Francis’s “Vacation” playing on AM radio while strolling through pop artist Tom Wesselmann’s “Great American Nudes” show. It’s an I-was-there account of the ’60s that laudably resists starfuckery, recounting a career’s worth of celebrity hangs (Randy Newman, Pete Townshend, Jerry Garcia, and Phil Lesh) in one long paragraph and spending only four pages on a brief early-’70s acquaintanceship with John and Yoko from which another writer would have milked a trilogy of tell-alls. (Christgau gets way more starry-eyed when he talks about Greil Marcus.) And it’s a love story — about Willis, another first-generation rock critic who was Christgau’s “lover, companion and intellectual goad” in the era he calls “the High ’60s,” and then about Carola Dibbell, also a writer and now his wife of over 40 years. And it’s an eyewitness history of rock criticism itself, a medium Christgau helped birth and shepherd for decades, as a reviewer for Newsday and Esquire, then as “Consumer Guide” columnist and editor of the Village Voice’s music section, and finally as that section’s symbolic paterfamilias1 and administrator of the Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop critics’ poll.

Back in the ’70s — while tipsy on champagne at a record-company function honoring the 5th Dimension, this book reveals — Christgau proclaimed himself “the Dean of American Rock Critics,” an Emperor of Ice Cream–ish title that he’s somehow managed to live up to in the ensuing years by maintaining a day-to-day engagement with new music that few rock writers his age can or care to match. The Phoenix-based New Times chain bought the Village Voice in 2005 and fired Christgau the following year, as part of the same ongoing purge that would eventually put iconic Voice figures like J. Hoberman and Nat Hentoff against the wall. Christgau resurrected the Consumer Guide at MSN as a blog called “Expert Witness.” Now producing a version of the Consumer Guide for the Medium-backed music site Cuepoint after a similar gig at MSN evaporated, he’s continued to rankle proprietary fan bases in a manner worthy of the guy who once wrote that “specialists are to formal wrinkles what princesses are to peas.” In December, he waded into one of 2014’s longest-simmering pop-crit controversies by reviewing Azealia Banks and her “melanin-deprived rival” Iggy Azalea back-to-back in the same column, giving Banks’s Broke With Expensive Taste a measured A and Iggy’s The New Classic a rave-ish A-minus (” … as a pop album this tops Ariana’s, Sia’s, dare I say it Taylor’s, even Nicki’s”) that praised in particular the “striving Australian-Atlantan cadence” of Iggy’s rapping — i.e., the single aspect of Azalea’s whole Barbie Trap House gestalt that drives her haters up the wall the most. An absurd argument — but you could tell he really believed it, and that he’d logged real time with both albums before making the distinction, something that, again, you don’t see a lot of 72-year-old rock writers bothering to do. Christgau would never deem Banks or Azalea unworthy of serious consideration by dint of their not being white men with guitars, but he’d also never deny an artist like Iggy the time of day on the general principles Rap Twitter invokes to dismiss her. As hip-hop has gotten bigger and broader and harder to keep up with — and crucially, as it has largely abandoned Christgau’s bread and butter, the album-as-statement, in favor of the mixtape-as-whatever — Terminator Xgau’s read on the genre has grown more eccentric and bird’s-eye-ish. But it’s still his read, which is admirable. I find it bizarre that he can’t hear what I hear in Freddie Gibbs & Madlib, Run the Jewels, or Earl Sweatshirt — three Internet fave-raves dismissively honorable-mentioned in that Azalea-Azealia column — but I respect him for not pretending to. Like most great critics, he’s the sum of his biases; as with all great critics, he’s a worthy mental adversary whose ideas and tastes work best as a stone on which to sharpen yours.

Under Christgau and his successors, the Voice music section became a forum in which rock critics showed off for other rock critics; this was the best and worst thing about it. It was music writing that presumed you’d either done your homework on the subjects at hand or were smart enough to figure it out from context. That’s how Christgau’s own writing reads, too — while even his early stuff eschews the gonzoid fireworks of contemporaries like Bangs or Richard Meltzer, the average Christgau review still drops you right in the deep end of a hard listener’s one-of-a-kind brain. His specialty is the letter-graded capsule review. He’s written more than 13,000 of these since the late ’60s, usually compressing more canonical insight and gimlet-eyed career-arc assessment and slang and theory and allusion and anecdote and biz-speak and zingers and jive-talk into 100 words than most writers can deliver in 2,000. But since #longform is where the glory’s at, allow me to introduce my favorite non-capsule Christgau piece, “In Memory of the Dave Clark Five,” first published in the Voice in December 1969.

It’s a travelogue incorporating stray notes on new albums and car-radio hits, which is why it’s named for the band that recorded “Bits and Pieces” in 1964; Christgau explains this up top, and then honors the memory of the Dave Clark Five by never bringing them up again. The tone of the piece is bloggy, conversational, and — for Christgau — uncharacteristically personal. He’s writing in bits and pieces, he says, because “my life is also in bits and pieces at the moment, and even music can’t pull it back together.” Leaving New York for the open road, he processes his organic reactions to Abbey Road and Music From Big Pink, which at the time were new albums and not unimpeachable monoliths, and to the hits on the radio — “Wedding Bell Blues” and “Take a Letter Maria” in particular. In late September he makes it to Colorado. Willis — ID’d only as “Ellen,” his “political ally and consort of over three years” — has been living there for a few weeks; his plan is to join her and be a political organizer. Instead, they break up, but first they take LSD for the first time. “We spend the early hours in the mountains, but as we are beginning to come down, we get into the car and put on the radio. ‘Suspicious Minds’ comes on; I exult. ‘AM radio is good,’ I say. ‘That’s Bob’s message to the world,’ Ellen comments, but when the driver laughs, she insists, ‘Don’t laugh; some people don’t have anything near that important to say.’”

As a Christgau fan and Christgau apologist — the Venn diagram on those two categories is more of an eclipse — I’ve always liked “In Memory of the Dave Clark Five” because Christgau seems like a person in it, rather than the intimidating listening-machine who tends to narrate in most of his criticism. He seems blinkered and lost and emotionally clueless in a way that I find deeply relatable. Attempting to salve and process a breakup by listening closely to pop radio is like trying to quench your thirst with salt water, but it’s also a deeply human mistake. By the time Going Into the City gets around to retelling the Colorado-trip story, the breakup feels more poignant and more inevitable, because Christgau has contextualized it in the narrative of their relationship, in which his and Willis’s views on fidelity continually shifted but never quite lined up. Their debates over pop and politics, Christgau writes, always boiled down to “a fundamental difference mutually acknowledged and accepted: Ellen was a utopian and I was a pragmatist … The way I see it, this was because I had rejected a religious background and she hadn’t. I’d struggled so hard to embrace contingency that for me it became a credo: as a critic, I always scoffed at notions of purity and got over the related mirage of authenticity quicker than most,” while Willis was, by temperament, more vulnerable to the “vision of a perfectible future” in an ideology like communism.

By the time Christgau got to Colorado, she’d begun envisioning a future that involved a handsome 24-year-old draft dodger she’d just met. “Her monogamy-smashing plan,” Christgau writes, “was that I’d share her with Steve in proportions to be determined on an ad hoc basis that didn’t favor me.” But when she says she wants to try LSD, he goes along with it, hoping to show her he’s not square, hoping to reconnect. Off go Bob and Ellen (and Steve) into the mountains with “a likable if somewhat fatuous young activist named Becca,” who, as the trip is cresting, tells everyone else to go out and bring her back something beautiful. “Steve couldn’t find anything he thought suitable,” Christgau writes. “I eyeballed the stream until I spied a man-made object — a piece of cellophane, perfect. Ellen tried to cup the rushing water in her hands and carry it to our guide, but each time the crystal-clear, life-giving elixir slipped between her fingers. I found this image tremendously endearing. But I also found it devastating.” This metaphorically pregnant moment, undiscussed in “Dave Clark,” is the turning point of the book, a remembrance of the High ’60s and their aftermath in which the aesthetic, the political, and the personal are hopelessly and fascinatingly entangled.

going-into-the-cityHarper Collins

The difference is that Going Into the City has way more fucking in it. On his 1978 album Live: Take No Prisoners, Lou Reed — irate over some dismissive Village Voice mention — wondered aloud, “What does Robert Christgau do in bed? Is he a toe fucker?” I can now report more or less definitively that he isn’t, because if he were, I’m pretty sure he’d have mentioned it in this book. Christgau likes to fuck and review records, and at some point in each chapter he runs out of record-reviewing anecdotes. This will not come as a total surprise to loyal Christgau readers. You’re not a true Bob fan unless you can quote from both his curious record-review-as–Kama Sutra blurb for Björk’s Vespertine and his 1995 Voice encomium to connubial boning, “The Road Taken,” which contains the phrase “our nightwear from that period, tattered by frottage, protruding body parts, and general hard use, is in the archives.” Plus there’s a Here Be Intercourse warning right on page one: “Although I write more about fucking than some think appropriate, the nearest I come to a sexual kink is how healthy my appetite is.” (Behind these black-rimmed glasses lurks the coiled sexuality of a jungle cat.) And yet nothing quite prepares you to stub your toe on a phrase like “She had an exceptionally moist and succulent cunt” near the bottom of an otherwise PG-rated page about how much Christgau enjoyed his first car, a used 1950 Plymouth. As in the nightwear piece quoted above, what makes these passages such a deeply weird reading experience isn’t so much that it’s Old Man Christgau writing about sex; it’s that he writes about sex in the same zingily erudite prose style he uses when assessing tUnE-yArDs or Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Longtime fans will find it hard to read that “moist and succulent” line without mentally appending an “A” grade at the end. At least the lady in question is referred to by first initial; she’s lucky.

We can assume that Carola Dibbell signed off on being depicted here as a partner with whom sex was “a polymorphous game of button-button with sweetmeats at the end”; a speculative-fiction writer who digs Steely Dan, she seems super-cool, perhaps even super-cool enough to not take offense at all the attention Christgau pays in this book to Ellen’s “zaftig, creamy body and all the rest of what passed between us — the kissing, the sucking, the licking, the caressing, the moaning, the endearments, the embracing, the simple pressing of flesh on flesh.” As a feminist who (Christgau points out) shared Christgau’s appreciation for porn, Willis may well have been equally super-cool with or at least tolerant of the way her zaftig, creamy body is recalled here. But Willis died in 2006 — of lung cancer, at 64, after a career as a writer and feminist activist long and accomplished enough that her rock writing was all but forgotten before her daughter Nona Willis Aronowitz anthologized it in 2011 — and presumably didn’t get to vet the manuscript before Christgau turned it in. It gets worse: Willis was raped at knifepoint in the stairwell of Christgau’s apartment building in 1968, and never reported it, but Christgau does, in order to illustrate what a bad neighborhood it was. Then he doubles down on the creepiness by making it a story about him: “I responded clumsily at best, and have long regretted that later that night we had sex.” This is the literary equivalent of greeting company in red see-through briefs; there are times when reading Going Into the City is like looking out the window and wishing the neighbors would invest in drapes.

To reiterate: The parts of this book that are not totally gross are pretty important. We’ve needed a solid history of rock crit written by someone who’s not an academic or a Bangs-besotted dweeboid, and now we have one. (There’s a hilarious-on-the-edge-of-self-parodic passage here where the Dean observes that he and his contemporaries took too long “to generate the kind of adjectival arsenal critics are obliged to perfect, vary and elaborate for every undocumented genre,” and therefore overrelied on words like “beautiful” and “groovy” and “successful” and “even ‘good’ and ‘excellent,’ although someone at Crawdaddy! came up with ‘kinetic,’ still a useful concept now and then.”) And the Dibbell sections of the book, jumbled in the way life tends to be — “Well before Ramones dropped, Carola was on the starter fertility drug Clomid” — are an endorsement of committed pair-bonding as gutsy and sweet and convincing as anything in the Al Green catalogue. What mileage you get out of the book as a whole will vary depending on whether you find all the kissing and the sucking and the licking and the wayward-ejaculate-detailing to be deal-breakingly misjudged or just distractingly so. In a capsule: “A fine spokesman for himself, his trade and his era, except when he can’t see the forest for his dick. B-minus.”

Filed Under: Music, Robert Christgau, The Village Voice, Rock Criticism, Going into the City, Books, Ellen Willis, Lester Bangs, Lou reed, The Dave Clark Five, Bjork, James Wolcott, Greil Marcus

Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.