Interview: Music Journalist Robert Christgau

A sit-down with the self-proclaimed “Dean of American Rock Critics.”

Robert Christgau is the most formidably knowledgeable writer in America about popular music, and maybe in the world. Born in 1942, Christgau is a native New Yorker, born and raised in Queens, who was listening to Alan Freed on late-night radio before Elvis Presley emerged. As he writes in his newly published memoir Going Into the City: “The 1955-56 year is hail-hailed for rock and roll, with Elvis as its metonym. But in New York City, it was less Elvis’s year than it was Freed’s.”

By 1965, Christgau had graduated from Dartmouth and gone through a heavy jazz phase (the early ‘60s – not a bad time to be a jazz fan) when he wrote his first substantial piece of journalism: “Beth Ann and Macrobioticism,” which Tom Wolfe collected in the 1973 anthology The New Journalism. But straight reporting – even slightly bent reporting, as so much of the New Journalism was – was not to be Christgau’s path. Instead, in 1967 he took a gig writing Esquire’s “Secular Music” column, and became one of the first writers in the U.S. to treat rock and roll seriously – “too seriously,” an editor there decided after a year, and pulled Christgau off the column. So he went to the Village Voice and started doing it for them instead.

Aside from three years in the early ‘70s spent at Newsday, the Long Island daily, Christgau’s career was tied to the Village Voice from 1969 to 2006, when he was let go in the middle of new ownership’s purging of the paper’s defining talent. (They’d get rid of it all eventually.) In his time there, Christgau was able to expand his work with long essays – including “In Memory of the Dave Clark Five” (1969 – a road-trip diary, with soundtrack, of the days following his abrupt breakup, at her instigation, with fellow music writer and foundational second wave feminist thinker Ellen Willis), “Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster: The Music Biz on a Joyride” (1984 – a deep examination of the record business’s boom in the wake of MTV and Thriller), and “A Weekend in Paradise” (1994 – a long look at Woodstock ‘94, which Christgau adjudged better than the first, which he also attended).

Also at the Voice in 1969, Christgau introduced a new column he dubbed Consumer Guide. More than anything, these pieces – alphabetically arranged bite-sized reviews of some twenty albums a shot, capped with letter grades – are what made his name, particularly when he began collecting them into books covering the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. After he left the Voice, Christgau began writing a revised version of the column – now dubbed Expert Witness – first for MSN Music and now for Cuepoint. His style in these capsules – deeply learned and worked-over notes from a grounded fanatic – was epigrammatic, erudite, contentious, and often funny.

Th' Faith Healers - Spin ½

Many of the best have been quoted endlessly (from Prince’s Dirty Mind: “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home”), but examples abound. From Th’ Faith Healers’ Lido (1992): “Very abstract, very bound up in dynamics, but abstractly visceral, and neither incapable nor contemptuous of the gift hook in the mouth. A left hook, I hope. Ouch, that hurts – so good.” R&B singer Ray Parker Jr. was a “manly ass-man” who was “blessed with a one-track mind in a twenty-four track world”; the Hairspray soundtrack was “camp at its best – giving the ridiculous its due because the ridiculous makes life worth struggling for.” Kicking off his B minus review of Paul McCartney’s Pipes of Peace, Christgau announced: “I’ve finally figured out what people mean when they call Paulie pop – they mean he’s not rock.” (Aside from Going Into the City and a 1997 essay collection, Grown Up All Wrong, you can read nearly the whole corpus on Christgau’s website.)

Now working full time as a teacher at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University, Christgau spoke with Michaelangelo Matos on a recent Friday after classes.

You’ve written disdainfully about the practice of quoting oneself. Did you have to make peace with that when it came to writing this memoir?

A little bit. I think in a memoir it’s OK to quote yourself. It’s different to quote yourself sometimes in a review, and I’ve done that sometimes, too. There are no rules that can’t be broken. There are times when it’s appropriate to do that. I think I was especially disdainful during a fallow period in Andrew Sarris’s career when he really was being very self-referential. He actually became a better critic when he left the Voice and went to the [New York] Observer. He was actually a terrific critic in his very late years.

You re-accessed a lot of books, movies, and music that was important to you over the years to write the memoir. Was there anything you watched or listened to or read that you decided not to write about?

I was definitely thinking of doing Advertisements for Myself during my college years – the [Norman] Mailer book. It was a very important book to me. I’m very glad I arrived at what I did as an alternative because I think it works great – the two poems by Yeats [“Vascillations”] and [William Carlos] Williams [“The Dance”], which certainly have had more lasting effect on my life than the Mailer book. As I plowed through it [again] I said, “Ehhh – I really can’t do this. There’s just too much silly shit in here.”

A lot of people have brought up the book’s sexual explicitness, but my favorite anecdote involving you with your pants down is the one where you chased a burglar for two blocks in the middle of the night.

[laughs] I did have my pants on by that time – I didn’t chase him bare-assed. I pulled the pants on and then I went downstairs. It was the middle of winter, for Christ’s sake. There was snow on the ground, and I was barefoot. And my feet were very cold when I got back. I had to rub them the way I did when I almost froze to death in Glacier National Park. I had a bad case of laryngitis for a week. I didn’t put that in there – it was just too much.

You wrote that you were robbed six times and mugged six times. What was the time period for all this?

Between ‘65 and ‘75. That was the count I made when I was much closer to the time. I really can’t remember them all anymore. Especially the break-in when Ellen [Willis] wrote me a letter of apology about having left the window open – I didn’t remember until I found her letter of apology.

The Grateful Dead - Fillmore West (Discs 1 and 2, February 27, 1969)

When did you first attend the Fillmore East?

I presume opening week, unless I was on the road or something. I was there every week. “Every week” is overstating a little bit – I was out of town eight or ten weeks a year – so say, thirty to forty weeks a year.

What was your most memorable show there?

It would have to be those Grateful Dead shows I saw after Ellen and I had broken up. But can I distinguish one from the other? No, I can’t.

They all run together?

Yes, they do. For me it was a ritual, and a very important ritual. I really had a good time at those shows.

Were you on anything at those shows?

Not really. I’ve never been a druggie. I’ve smoked some pot, sure. Ellen and I smoked pot whenever we went to the Fillmore. It was part of what we did. But I was just never really a head. When I got to Cal Arts, which was in 1970, early that year I said to myself: “I’m going to start smoking every day, just to see what it’s like.” About ten or twelve days in, I said, “This is fucking stupid.” [laughs] It was the only time I decided to try to see what it was like to be a head, and I didn’t like it that much – the lowering of the IQ that results from smoking marijuana.

In the book, you compare the ritual of the Grateful Dead concert to the time you visited the Loft in 1975. What do you remember about that night?

Vince [Aletti] and I were good friends. He was a habitué. Carola loved to dance and in fact had visited the Loft before I had, I just found out, with her therapist, who was gay. And it was as I described it – which is to say, as utopian a vibe as I ever encountered in any heterosexual hippie gathering. There was just such a generosity and mutual support in that place. And I think that specifically reflected [David] Mancuso’s ethics and sensibilities, which I do not think were especially typical of the disco scene in general. I think he was a much more idealistic guy than was common in that world – which isn’t to say there weren’t other idealists. Of course there were. But he was exceptional, and he managed to create a vibe that, as near as I can understand it from reading Love Saves the Day, was [also part of] his daily life. And good for him – he was a hero.

Do you remember any of the music you heard that night?

No. I’m sure I recognized some of it and didn’t recognize some of it. I know that we danced a great deal. Carola’s a wonderful dancer, and I will dance with her, any excuse. But no, I don’t remember. I do remember specific stuff of various sorts, but it’s not usually about what a concert was like.

In 1979, I kept a diary of every show I went to. As a matter of fact, in 1992, I started doing it again. I finally slackened off, but I have a diary of every show I went to from ‘92 till very recently which was time-consuming. This ‘79 diary – I assumed I was going to write about it, the way I did three-four pages based on my hitchhiking adventures from my notebooks. But I couldn’t find it. It’s somewhere in my files. I’ll find it somewhere, someday, I hope. And maybe I’ll write something about it at that time. But without notes? I don’t have that kind of memory – just don’t.

I kept my journals when I hitchhiked because, I told myself, that was really what a writer was supposed to do. I’m very glad I did. In addition to actually giving me stores, it brought back more general kinds of memories just by evocation.

You wrote about going to Jamaica in 1973 and interviewing a number of musicians there. Did you ever make it out to a sound-system dance?

We tried the entire week we were there to get taken to a sound system. And our guides, who were from Island Records and the Jamaica Tourist Board, kept telling us they were going to do that, and they failed to do so, I believe because they were afraid something bad would happen and they would be responsible. So no. I really tried. I really tried. And I failed. I knew about them, and I really wanted to go to one, and I did not manage it.

Robert Palmer - Addicted To Love

One term you’ve used occasionally that I wanted to ask about is “stupid-rock.”

Oh really? I don’t remember that term. What did I use it about? There’s one I’d forgotten.

It’s in a review for a 1998 compilation called Hard Rock Cafe: Party Rock. I’ll read you some of it: “Lead track: ‘Addicted to Love.’ Best track: ‘Addicted to Love.’ . . . Oldest track: ‘Joy to the World.’ Second-worst track (after ‘Do You Feel Like We Do’): ‘Joy to the World.’ Author of notes: singer of ‘Joy to the World.’”

[laughs] That’s a good one. I gave it a full A, right? It’s like the Dazed & Confused soundtrack, which is also terrific. It’s a perfect example of how having absolute prejudices about kinds of music is simply a mistake, because it’s the rare genre where there isn’t pleasure to be found. And I’m sure even in the genres I really don’t like – like metal – the same could be done, were the right compiler to put together the right record. This is the reason I love compilations.

Basically, the Internet has put the compilation out of business. And I think that’s too bad, because as much as I detest the term “curate” – it’s so snobbish – it’s certainly true that over the years, [there have been] certain really brilliant compilation conceivers, for instance Ken Braun at Stern’s Music with the Rochereau and Franco work he did. That stuff is magnificent; Trevor Herman’s early Afro-comps [on Earthworks, such as The Indestructible Beat of Soweto] being another good example.

Another extremely important compilation is James Brown’s box set, Star Time.

That’s right – that’s a great work of curation. Is that Harry Weinger and Alan Leeds?

It’s Weinger and Cliff White.

Cliff White, another James Brown sainthood award winner.

You write about realizing the breadth and scope of James Brown’s work after Pablo Guzman insisted you dig deeper. Had you already seen him perform live by that point?

Oh yes – Carola and I saw him at Roosevelt Raceway the second week we were together. And that wasn’t the only time. I had seen him at the Apollo. I knew James Brown was good, but the problem with James Brown was that from ‘69 to ‘74 he was making music that was over white people’s heads. I put it exactly that way more than once. And I believe absolutely that it’s true. It just took a while to acclimate myself to that new way of doing things, which turns out to be, formally, the most important thing that happened in rock in the post-Elvis Presley era – formally, more important than the Beatles. Well, maybe not: I was just teaching Greil Marcus’s unbelievably great Beatles essay from The Rolling Stone [Illustrated] History [of Rock & Roll], in which he points out they were rock before there was rock. [laughs] It’s the fabulous paragraph about how they contained everything from before them and put them into one package. That was a formal feat as well.

You say “rock,” as opposed to “rock & roll.” What do you mean by that?

Well, the meaning of these terms keeps shifting. The simplest way to put it is “rock” is rock & roll made conscious of itself as an art form. That’s a very, very important development that occurs simultaneously with the Beatles, with Dylan and the Stones in the picture but not as important as the Beatles in that conceptual task. And then after that comes the whole ’60s, and what is still romanticized in the Rolling Stone world as the great era of the music. But I would say that when Creem then starts calling itself “The World’s Only Rock & Roll Magazine,” as I think it did by ‘71, that signals that by the end of the decade, many of us are already getting really tired of the pretensions of “rock,” and we started using the term “rock & roll” to bring us back to that.

I continue to use the term “rock & roll” to this day, though in the past five or ten years I’ve been using it less because hip hop and so many other things have diluted it in ways that make it a somewhat more imperialistic term than it had been for a long time. So I don’t want to use it as much as I used to. Also, the other problem is that I don’t think anybody understands what I mean. [laughs] That’s important. But I still use it.

Rock & roll has the idea of fun built into it; rock does not. To me, fun is a very important value in the music I like. Not an essential value – there are no essential values. Can I think of rock & roll that isn’t fun? I was going to name Leonard Cohen, but the fact of the matter is that Leonard Cohen is full of fun in his dry way. He’s actually an extremely funny man. “Tower of Song” – what a funny song that is.

Leonard Cohen - Tower of Song

History tells us that the Ramones were a definitive break from everything else going on at the time. When you saw them the first time, is that how they struck you?

Yes, they struck me immediately as totally different. At that moment, the term “minimalism” was really in my mind, not least because I was there with Tom Johnson, the great critic of minimalist music, whom I inherited at the Voice and became very good friends with, and am still friends with to this day. He’s in Paris, so I don’t see much of him, but we’re still very close. So it certainly helped that I was there with him. I’m pretty sure I walked out of CBGB with that word in my head.

Did you walk out with your ears ringing?

I don’t know about my ears ringing. They weren’t that loud – not at CB’s. I think it was ‘75, still.

Did you think immediately that the Ramones portended something?

Yes, I thought it portended something, because Patti Smith had already established herself at that venue. And I certainly thought the two things were related. I wasn’t yet into Television. I don’t believe that Talking Heads surfaced until a few months later. I think it was early ‘75, and that big festival [at CBGB was] in the middle of the summer, but yes, I knew something was happening. We reviewed both Patti Smith and the Ramones long before they recorded. I came in as a pop guy who was covering records, so that was a big conceptual shift for me. And it was because I just thought this music was too good to ignore.

Did you see P-Funk live before you got into their records?

No, as a matter of fact I got into P-Funk on record, and then went to see them. My P-Funk problem was that the record I decided to come to terms with them on was America Eats Its Young, which to this day I consider the worst record they ever made. It was also made in the explicit shadow of the Process Church of the Final Judgment, which I knew about because I’d reviewed the version of Ed Sanders’ The Family for the New York Times in which they played a major role – which was later deleted from that book, due to a lawsuit. You will not find them in The Family now. But the version on my shelves, the original, they’re there. And I knew that they were bad hombres.

That connected with the fact that the music is really bad P-Funk. I mean, maybe not quite as bad as I thought it was at the time, but the last time I played it, I still didn’t think it was any good. It was a little too – if I can use this term without immediately implicating Kurt Cobain – grungy. There was a grim dirtiness and a depressed quality that gets into their music at certain times, which in the proper proportions is great. But if I recall – and I have not listened to that record in a long time, so I do not stand by this – that record was very long on that strain of the George Clinton sensibility. And it did not improve the record one little bit.

Funky 4+1 / That's The Joint (original mix)

Did you have to purchase the early rap 12-inches yourself? I’m presuming Sugar Hill wasn’t sending you promos.

No, Sugar Hill didn’t send me anything. J.D. Considine proposed a review of “Rapper’s Delight.” I’d heard that on the radio and it seemed like a fine idea. But then I was off on my first Consumer Guide book in early 1980, and as I say in the book, the person who turned me onto Grandmaster Flash’s “The Birthday Party” was the very same man who was betraying his friendship with me by seducing my wife, and he shall remain nameless. But that was, in point of historical fact, I think the second hip-hop record I bought. I liked it, although I didn’t love it. In fact, that’s not a great Grandmaster Flash record, “The Birthday Party” – it does not stand high in their canon. But it was certainly correct to point it out as a good record, and it certainly interested me.

It was not until I got back into editing the section – around November 1, 1980 – that Barry Michael Cooper began promoting it to me, and I began buying things and had my Bill Doggett “Honky Tonk” moment with the B-side of “That’s the Joint,” which was my conversion experience. And that was probably in December of 1980.

Did you see Grandmaster Flash & the Furious 5 open for the Clash at Bond’s in 1981?

Yes – I went to at least one, possibly two. We saw them [when] Cowboy caught something thrown at them and threw it back in time [with the music]. [laughs] I think Melle Mel said, “Some of you – not all of you, but some of you – are stupid.” [laughs] People remember that as something of a disgrace, but I remember it as a triumph. Good for the Clash for having them on, and good for Grandmaster Flash for how they deported themselves. God, the Clash gave me what I wanted. I think I was the first person to write about them in the States.

I understand that you visited Minneapolis and saw the Replacements at First Avenue there.

I was there to give a lecture – maybe it was early ‘82; I still have promotional postcards for that lecture. I was there with a guy named Randy Anderson, who was then, I think, the editor of City Pages. He took me to First Avenue and the Replacements were playing. In the middle of the set, Paul Westerberg says, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a very sad announcement to make: Chuck Berry has died.” Anderson had put him up to it. [laughs] Just to see how I’d respond, which was with great dismay. As I recall, Anderson said, “No, it was just a joke. We just wanted to see what would happen.” And what happened is what they thought would happen – they wanted to see if I’d fall apart right there. It’s probably a slight overstatement to say I fell apart right there, but yes, I was really bummed. It was a great, great practical joke. I’m very flattered they thought I was important enough to do that to, frankly. [laughs]

Speaking of Minneapolis, you once called seeing Hüsker Dü at a club called Great Gildersleeves one of the five best concerts of your life.

I wrote about that show in my review of Bob Mould’s autobiography in the New York Times. That’s where my favorite account of that is. My recollection is that it was after 2 [AM] that they went on. There were about ten people there. It built to, like, 18. [laughs] People did keep drifting in – and nobody left. Nobody left. They were on fire – just on fire.

Gildersleeves was two blocks north of CB’s, about. It was just a lumpenpunk bar that lasted two-three years. I don’t think I was there more than one other time – and possibly I wasn’t ever there at any other time. But it was Hüsker Dü, we wanted to see them, that’s where they were, and we went. We knew how good they were – despite the fact that [SST Records’ in-house producer] Spot recorded them so shittily.

If I was the kind of guy who hung out at shows until 4 o’clock in the morning a lot more I would have lots more of these experiences, but I would also be tired all the time. But once Carola and I were at the Bitter End seeing Joe Ely. Once again, fewer than fifteen people in the place. And he was just so fucking great – we’ve just never forgotten it.

The Feelies - Crazy Rhythms

If you were to put together a collection of stuff you edited at the Voice, what would five of the pieces be?

I can’t possibly think of the five best off the top of my head. I want to think of some that I really want to stand by. Tom Johnson’s Plastic People piece pops into my mind. Lester Bangs’ racism in punk piece – a detested piece by many people: I “forced him to do it”; it was “really all my ideas” – just a load of shit. The John Piccarella piece on the Feelies, that came to me as a pitch letter that I printed verbatim. Whatever the first thing Greg Tate wrote for me. I really don’t remember what his first piece was, but I remember saying, “Oh yes. We want him.” [laughs] That was a very good idea. And I’ll have another thing like that – printing Chuck Eddy’s comments in the ’84 Pazz & Jop poll. Those are five I’m really proud of.

You teach popular music at NYU’s music-business school, is that right?

I teach at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. It’s not a business school – there’s Steinhardt, a music school at NYU, [which] has its own business program. I believe Lady Gaga went to that one. But she went to one that wasn’t ours; it was also before ours existed, so we have an excuse. The Clive Davis Institute is connected to Tisch – that’s the arts school. And it has a history and criticism program conceived and still overseen by the great Jason King, who hired me – which is to say that unlike most such programs at schools around the country, it has an explicit academic element even though Jason is, to my knowledge, the only PhD., and quite possibly master’s too, teaching there.

I taught in the English department at NYU in the early ‘90s, and taught writing there, and had a lot of success as far as I’m concerned. I much prefer teaching at Clive Davis for two reasons. One is that all of my students love music. That gives me a bond with them that makes it easier to teach. Not that I wasn’t a pretty good teacher with people who were just interested in writing. But it’s just an extra emotional connection. The other is that, having worked in and out of academia quite a bit, I love working with bizzers, not academics. The people in my department are smart and care about their students. They care about music. And I may not agree with them about everything, but I feel a real fellowship with these people. Because they are at this school for one reason or another – and no doubt one of those reasons is that it’s hard to make money in the music business these days. [laughs] It’s a great place to teach. I love the fellowship there, even though that’s a corny word that makes me itch a little bit.

I teach music history and writing. And the reason they want me there is not the history but for the writing.

Obviously the Internet has given a lot of younger listeners a different, more grab-bag sense of musical history. What kind of grasp on it do your students have?

I find that except for what they’ve learned at Clive Davis, a remarkable majority of these kids have a very partial knowledge of music history. I don’t believe that the Internet has done a damn bit of good. It certainly is true that you have the capability of going and streaming whatever you feel like, whenever you feel like it, and that gives you a certain kind of firsthand access, but it’s completely disorganized. And I don’t believe that you understand history without having some sense of continuity, causation, chronology. I don’t find that even after a year studying those very things – because Jason’s program begins right at the beginning – that their grasp is very good. And I do everything I can to improve it.

You say the program starts right at the beginning. What is the beginning?

Ancient Egypt. I teach a chapter from Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, which is his retelling of the Osiris myth. I also read an inscription that one of the oldest pieces of prose known to exist – 4,500-odd years old. It is the instruction of the boy-king named King Pepi to “bring a pygmy dancer to the court.”

By Michaelangelo Matos on March 24, 2015

On a different note