Sunday, March 12, 2017

Going Into the City (2015)

From the reviews, long-time Village Voice rock critic Robert Christgau's memoir sounded like it might be some sort of sexual tell-all, but it's actually more sedate than that. Though a vague tone of lasciviousness hangs like a miasma over certain paragraphs and sentences, and now and then it is explicitly about sex, that aspect of it was way overstated. Christgau himself has claimed more than once, inside and outside of the book, that much of the project is about reclaiming the validity, nay the very utility, of monogamy, even as it explores what a memoir is at all. Those aspects—monogamy, and the memoir as artifact—are more the reasons for this book's existence than anything about a) the Village Voice, b) celebrity gossip, c) rock criticism theory, or d) specific rock critics (with a few exceptions, notably Ellen Willis). It is packed full of opinions, which is only natural, but those opinions range far afield of the rock scene as such. Indeed, the great pleasure I got out of this—beyond Christgau's typically etched language, as he remains as always a pleasure to read—was in his ruminations on literature and film. Crime and Punishment, Jules and Jim, Sister Carrie, and Marquee Moon, among a good many others, get equally thoughtful treatment here. Many of the usual problems of memoirs occur, however, such as obvious gaps and elisions. If I'm going to second-guess Christgau, like all the other reviewers, I wish he would have stayed closer to the Joycean spirit of the subtitle ("Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man") and ended the story in his mid-20s, say with the publication of "Beth Ann and Macrobioticism" in 1965. There could have been more about his college career and intellectual awakening, which is where it started to get a little more sketchy and I thought I was missing things. But maybe Christgau needed to go beyond that for the sake of a book proposal or because he thought it made a better book. It's his book, so it's his choice. But in this story, once Christgau is established as a writer, the gaps only become more and more obvious. He deliberately lands on isolated points in his life and leaves out others. It's not as if the anecdotes he offers aren't compulsively readable—how he got his calling card as the "Dean" of American rock critics, along with scenes from his work at the Voice, his life in New York, his ridiculously happy marriage to Carola Dibbell, his parenting and his daughter. No doubt they are main attraction for many who wanted to read a Christgau memoir. So fair enough. I also appreciate that he consciously studied the literary form of the memoir so closely as part of undertaking this. For fans mainly.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. With more distance now (and all that entails, including my faulty memory) the weakest parts of the book were the way he seemed bent on deflating the drama out of scenes (the pie in Willis's face, etc) that screamed for embellishment. Turns out he's another guy (big club, including moi) who goes a little stiff and awkward talking ab the emotional stuff. And, even more in general, the overly fawning deference towards Willis and Marcus seems like it comes from this genuinely humble place but also seems, again, a little evasive and a missed opportunity. I'd have found interesting a fuller account of his tenure at the Voice. More of his own pop music history shop talk, etc. Still, as an account of an intellectual-journalist-- rock critic-- way of life in '60s-'70s NYC, as period quaint as that can seem now, I liked it quite a bit. He has more devout followers but I'm a fan. He catalyzed something for me as a young reader, a nerdy enthusiasm for critical opinionizing ab the pleasures of pop music. And he's my all-time favorite music writer in the simple and very practical sense that he has led me to more music I love, by far, than any other music writer. All hail his Grand Poobahness.