"I'm a Good Writer" - Robert Christgau on the Life and Legacy of Robert Christgau
With the release of his new memoir, the Dean of American Rock Critics speaks his mind.
Robert Christgau is ten years past retirement age and busy as hell. Still, not so busy that he can’t speak with a young reporter—though he isn’t above being a tad persnickety about it. “Just let me finish this phrase, okay?” he balks as I dial in, living up to his reputation as a prickly figure. Finally, he exhales, “Let’s see what you have to say.”
On a Sunday afternoon two days before the release of his debut memoir, the 72-year-old rock critic is finalizing his annual "Dean's List" year-in-review for Barnes & Noble, editing a lecture on Chuck Berry for his class at NYU's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, and preparing for a pair of public Q&A's surrounding his upcoming book Going into the City. The book has been in the works since his 2006 firing from the Village Voice, where he served as a longtime music editor.
The first time I spoke with the self-anointed Dean of American Rock Critics, for Noisey's oral history of D'Angelo, Christgau reflected on dubbing the singer "R&B Jesus," a turn of phrase that both raised the ego of and haunted the infamously sensitive D'Angelo, who struggled for over a decade to release a follow-up to his Voodoo LP. The title stuck not only because it was true, but also because of the weight of Christgau's opinions. It's an unspoken in the music industry that you haven't quite made it until you've been the subject of one of Christgau's trademark capsule reviews, close to 14,000 of which have appeared in the Voice, Playboy, Blender, Esquire, Rolling Stone, and currently the Medium-hosted Cuepoint.
No matter the publication, Christgau's voice is consistent and undeniable; his prose filled with verbose descriptors, far-flung references and the hyperbolic musings of a man who writes to understand himself and the art he consumes. A contemporary of rock critics Greil Marcus, Jon Landau, Dave Marsh, and Lester Bangs, Christgau is the best and most relevant music writer still writing, largely because he stays so in step with what's happening in modern music without waxing nostalgic about decades gone. Earlier this year, for example, he devoted an entire column to the Bandcamp releases of former Das Racist member Kool A.D.
Though Christgau’s voice is so distinct that a bit of his personality bleeds into everything he types, Going into the City is Christgau's first work that deliberately puts his own trajectory in the spotlight. He previously published column compilations and record guides for the 70s, 80s and 90s, but where his prior tomes were hand-crafted by Christgau the critic, Going into the City examines Christgau the man. In close to 400 pages, he discusses his early life and first forays into journalism, his horrid and successful romantic relationships (sprinkled with oddly worded tales of sexual encounters, like, "After some expense-account Chateaubriand she took me home and made me come with skillful rapidity"), and his indelible commitment to documenting the music of his times, which through perseverance and a little luck have managed to stretch from the subversive rock of the late 60s to the pop-rap of the present.
Flaws, delusions, and hangups are abound, but aside from one celeb story of a night spent with John and Yoko, The City is a highly personal peek into the origin story and working life of a living legend who’s still an adept enough writer to explain why he's a legend. The result is a portrait of a highly opinionated, sometimes-mean, oftentimes-horny, and always-thoughtful critic of our culture.
Noisey: Let’s start with your life as a music fan, and how it informed your career as a rock critic.
Robert Chrisgau: I'm not a musician, I can't read music, but I came from a family of music fans. Not mad music fans, but people who like music. Both of my parents can play the piano. They were very good dancers, which I am not. And my grandfather loved music a lot and he had a big influence on me. One of the most fun-loving people I met in my life. I was just drawn to music. I was drawn to records, early… The first single I ever bought was "Secret Love" by Doris Day and the second was "Sh-boom" by The Crew Cuts. I still love "Secret Love" by Doris Day, "Sh-boom" a little less.
You mention some work in sports and news writing in your first few years out of college. News writing can be very direct and concise. Is that something that later informed your style as a music writer?
I actually think I learned to write concisely working for an encyclopedia company in Chicago. I had to write about [Russian author] Isaac Babel in 11 lines. That's like 90 words. So I learned how to squeeze a lot into a small space. I don't remember how long those high school sports features I turned out for the newspaper were. They were about 400 words, I don't know. But in any case, it didn't feel like I had to leave a whole lot out to write about these high school guards who I knew for about 15 minutes over the phone. But I learned. I learned how to make [the stories] hookier. It was a skill I had to master. It was because I read journalists who I really loved, like A.J. Liebling and the sportswriter Red Smith, who were great stylists inside the journalistic medium. So I always tried to be a little classy, a little funny… But both of my daily newspaper gigs, at the Star-Ledger for a little over a year and Newsday for two years, they both taught me to be productive and practical about getting stuff done.
I think that's what comes from a newspaper background—that feeling that a story needs to get done regardless of outside factors or circumstances.
That's right, but I would like to think my standards are higher than most newspaper writers, even the really good ones. Or not necessarily higher, but different. I make different kinds of demands of myself than they do. One of them is: avoid cliches at any cost. And: if somebody else said this, don't say it again. Say it a little different.
One of the things you're best known for is your capsule record reviews.
It's my legacy. I used to think I'd written 14,000, but I did some figuring it out. I'm at around 13,400. 14,000 including duds and stuff, but I don't think that counts. I've gone through over 16,000 records and I've written capsule reviews of at least Honorable Mention length of 13,400.
Tell me about the process of how you approach a record you're reviewing. How do you listen to it? How many times? Do you take notes as you sit with it?
I completely immerse and I play things over and over again. Things happen to you somatically when music goes through your head, and then one day you say, "Oh, I know that!" If I play something three, four, or five times, even if I like its looks, and I don't have that moment where I say, "Oh, I know that!", then I figure there's something wrong with it. Unless a lot of people tell me I'm wrong, and then I try some more. Then there are things that sound so drab and no one else writes about that I can't even get through it once. That happens a fair amount. But I don't write a full capsule review of anything I haven't heard five times. It's usually closer to ten.
Now that you're writing on Medium and have free reign as far as what you cover, how do you decide to dedicate an entire column to something like Kool A.D.'s Bandcamp catalogue?
Well, every once in a while, I just latch onto something and say, "I'm gonna find out about it."
What about your side-by-side reviews of Azealia Banks and Iggy Azalea's debuts? Any significance there?
Well, I love [Azealia Banks'] "212." I love it. And I think a lot of the stuff she says on social media is stupid and I actually don't approve of the Iggy Azalea beef at all, but I also like Iggy Azalea. It's an unpopular opinion among critics, I know, but I also know I do like it. That record has never not worked for me. I think it has limitations, but it's really good. Especially if you take to that striving you hear in her voice, which a lot of people think is ugly, but I think it's appealing. I like effort. You can really hear her wanting it. That's great as far as I'm concerned. But Azealia Banks has gifts that Iggy doesn't have. Azealia Banks—talk about flow. Holy shit. Flow? She defines it.
Do you typically buy every record you review?
I almost always own a physical copy of what I write about. Especially if it's a full review.
You’ve had some artists call you out over the years about negative reviews, so let’s talk about the relationship between artist and critic. Do you think the review an artist or band will eventually get should be something they think about when creating the art?
No. Of course not. I wouldn't think such a thing. They should decide what it is they want to do. And they ought to do whatever it is they determine and however you do that—which is actually a very subtle and complex psychological process—that they're doing whatever they want to do. Or maybe in some cases, what their A&R guy tells them that the audience wants, and that's their decision. I wouldn't be surprised if Iggy made those decisions sometimes, and I don't think it hurts the record.
Your Village Voice cover story about the assassination of John Lennon felt like an important moment in your own history and pop culture coverage in the City. You were criticized for incorporating your wife's quote, essentially saying that it should've been Paul McCartney and not John. What do you remember about that night?
It took me eight hours to write that obit, to write an obit of certainly one of the three or four most important musical artists in my life. Somebody I identified with for many, many years. Like everybody else, I was completely shocked, but I had to turn it out.
How do you find the words in those eight hours, to talk about John Lennon's life, significance, and achievements in a couple-hundred-word essay?
I use the term "death deadline" about Thulani Davis' even faster-produced Bob Marley obit. And that term comes from Alexander Colburn when he descended my piece. The sentence, I'm almost sure, is, "People write strange things on these death deadlines." You do what comes into your head… It's a very special process, when you're writing something very important on a serious deadline. I haven't done it much. But I'm not unhappy with what I did. Not at all.
I originally interviewed you for Noisey's oral history of D'Angelo, and you famously called him “R&B Jesus” in a review of one of his shows. That title stuck around for decades. Does it have any significance that your word can be so defining of an artist and their image?
I think I've had a certain amount of success at making phrases. I'm a good writer. But obviously, I'm incredibly flattered and pleased when people remember things that I say. How could I not be flattered? That's what you write for.
Alan Leeds told me that when you wrote that glowing review of the D’Angelo show, the band knew it was doing something right. Do you see one of your reviews as a rite of passage for certain artists?
Look: artists don't like critics. And a lot of artists aren't going to like me. I accepted that a long time ago. It's OK. I understand. But I have had many signals over the years that a lot of artists—and I assume there's many more than I know about, because it keeps happening—who understand that I really listen and that I really say what I think in a serious, albeit sometimes witty or wisecracking, way. They respect my endurance, and they can tell that I listen to the records.
When you started out as a rock critic you seemed to have an optimistic outlook and cited Richard Goldstein's "Pop Eye" column as an example of what journalism could be—experimental, thoughtful, personal and cheeky. You lived through a lot of transitions in the media landscape, so I wanted to ask you how journalism has changed since that era.
It's hard to talk about this… Look: this I've said many times, and I stand by it. The internet has both decreased the cash value of the written word and decreased the cash value of the recording industry. Those two things are incontrovertible. So there's less money two different ways for rock critics. And I believe that people work better when they get paid. I do. I was writing some record capsules before the thing with Medium came to me. But I realized once I knew that there was a real venue there and that I was getting paid for what I was doing, my productivity went [rocket launch sound]. It's doubled, almost instantly. I think paying people for their work is a way to get good work out of them. It doesn't mean that nothing good will happen again—it happens every day—but it's harder. No question about it.
Between you, Lester Bangs, and Greil Marcus, there was a group of rock critics from the 70s and 80s that became popular figures in their own right. Despite there being so many more outlets and writers now, there are somehow fewer notable ones who stand out above the rest. Why do you think that is?
When I make these generalizations, I always think of exceptions later. So let me say that Ann Powers at NPR has been one of my favorite people and favorite critics for a very long time. Sasha Frere-Jones was great at The New Yorker while he was there. Carl Wilson, bouncing around as he does, always does good work. And now there are three other people I'm not thinking of. I'm just saying that with all this "they were giants in those days" stuff, you weren't there. Maybe we weren't actually giants. Maybe we're now legendary.
You've published a few compilations of your Consumer Guide reviews before but you've largely kept your personal history out of your writing. Did you decide to put out this memoir now as a way to take final control of your public image?
It had nothing to do with taking final control of my public image. It had to do with… It's a book I've been pondering ever since I got fired at the Voice and people started asking me to write one. [It had to do with] having the time to write a proposal, which the way my agent does it, took two months. And having mulled it over the years and knowing what to do, I felt I had a book to write. So no, it wasn't about my public image. It was about my chance to write a full-length narrative. The only one I could write because I don't have the imagination to write fiction. And I wanted that challenge.
When do you think you’ll stop writing about music?
Probably never. But I may not write at the same pitch. And I may not necessarily do these Consumer Guide-style reviews forever. But on the other hand, I don't intend to stop writing, while I can still write. But I may not write as much. I wouldn't mind working less. [Laughs] I really wouldn't.
Robert Christgau's Going into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man is out now.
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