Showing posts with label Robert Christgau. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Robert Christgau. Show all posts

Monday, February 26, 2018

A memoir by Robert Christgau

Image result for into the city robert christgau
Going Into the City:
Portrait Of a Critic
as a Young M
By Robert Christgau 
I made it halfway through Robert Christgau's memoir Going Into the City: Portrait Of a Critic as a Young Man before I had to put it down. Memoirs are a literary excuse for interesting people to talk about themselves due to an inherent belief that merely being themselves, sans compelling intellection or objectively intriguing art--novels, movies, poems, paintings--is enough to fill a book. it's likely that my lapse was due to the format Christgau chose; too much him, not enough of the world that formed him as a thinker about Pop Music and related concerns.I'm tempted to pick it up again, but I hesitate, I stall, I make excuses to do something else, considering that Christgau's obsessiveness, perfect for a critic, can be hard to take for long in a book that is supremely autobiographical in nature. I have been wishing that someone would take his best essays from his website and collect them into a volume or two; on rock and pop and some other matters of culture is always an intriguing point of view and it would be great to have those views between covers. 

I'd been reading Christgau's insular, fannish, personal and idiomatically dense reviews for decades and rather liked the idea that I was part of the cognoscenti who could parse his sentences and follow his train of thought. "Any Old Way You Choose It", his collection of longer reviews and pieces gathered from the Sixties and Seventies, is one of my all-time favorite essay collections, a brainy, chatty, at times exasperatingly idiosyncratic journey through a couple of decades of extraordinary innovation; I love it for the same reason I still cherish Pauline Kael's "I Lost It At The Movies", for that rare combination of true fan enthusiasm and discovery. As with Kael at her best, you can sense the moment when Christgau comes to an insight, a discovery yet undiscovered by other writers; he has that element of "ah-HA! “Coming to his Consumer Guide column, where he would review anything and everything available, from the varied strands of rock, disco, reggae, folk, jazz, and pop was like meeting that clutch of friends you knew in college who considered rock and pop the emerging Grand Art. His was a column where I found someone who kept the conversation going, and strange and self-indulgent as it may have seen, it was fertile ground to debate and exchange ideas on the relative qualities of music. Anyone who's been through this bit before, the obsession with rock music is an art and establishing the critical terms with which one can assess, appraise and make note of what makes albums worth the purchase, appreciates the kind of critical thinking which becomes a habit of mind. In college I was Arts Editor of the thrice-weekly campus newspaper and was required, in addition to my studies, to write a crushing amount of column inches a week on matters of music, theatre, television, movies. Rough life, I know, but it was a lot of writing none the less, and the chief debt I might have toward Christgau, an admittedly sketchy model for a minor league reviewer, was the creation of a tone, a style. 

The Village Voice, founded in the fifties by Norman Mailer and Dan Wolfe, was formerly noted as a magazine where the pittance that writers were paid was somewhat compensated by the freedom they had to develop a writing style, ideas, and journalistic beats. It was a writer's publication, and that was the chief attraction for a reader who wanted more than cooker cutter reviews or cursory coverage of politics and culture. Christgau is a product of that freedom and developed an argot and style that was intended for those as obsessed and concerned with music as he was; he is a critic, not a reviewer distinction being that the critic assumes that his or her reader has the same background in the area under discussion as they do. Unlike reviews, which are final and absolute and brook no discussion beyond name calling, Christgau's essays are addressed to the concerned, the convinced, the true believer that pop music traditions matter as much as so-called High Culture expressions. This leaves him incomprehensible for many who think his writing is too dense with insular references and verbal shorthand to bother with, but that was a chief part of my attraction to his writing. There were many a time when I was in my twenties when I hadn't the slightest idea of what he was talking about-- who was Adorno? Marcuse? Sun Ra??-- but the subject matter at hand compelled me to investigate references further. It was an old-fashioned enterprise, his column in one hand, a dictionary and an encyclopedia at the ready to clarify the murkier waters of his prose. Any inspiring critic does that. Christgau and the late Lester Bangs gave me some ideas and methods in learning how to write fast, and well (or at least well enough that some light editing could be done without a major operation and my copy could be taken to the typesetter before the deadline). What is impressive about Christgau is his catholicity of taste, his constant curiosity about new sorts of noise and racket, and his ability to form connections and generate operate theories. 

His writing is unique, and the Village Voice's loss will be another editor's gain. Christgau certainly tried to be confessional, tell all essayist, a horrible habit from the sixties that still infests popular nonfiction these days, as when he reprinted a long piece in "Any Old Way" about a trip across country with his girlfriend Ellen Willis and, in what was ostensibly an essay dealing with ideas, chronicled the events precipitating their break up. It was a rather aimless accounting, neither interesting as personality gossip nor compelling as an intellectual argument. It was just...awkward, not unlike someone who feels they have to talk about something that is a change in their life but cannot find the words that make you empathize. I rather enjoyed his prejudices, snobbery and the like, and I liked the fact the reserved the right to change his mind about an artist, even if only for one album. He as a critic, a dilettante, someone's who's a propensity toward prolix was intriguing, attractive, worth the bother to pour over when he was engaging the popular culture he thrived on.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The dean

Robert Christgau 02.jpgRobertChristagu, rock and pop music critic for the Village Voice for  37 years before new owners fired him, is  my favorite critic next to Lester Bangs. Bangs was about an emotional connection to the music, and the appeal (and its occasional downfall) became was that how he wrote about it became confessional. This livened up his style but also made it drip with self-pity that was too much to plough through.Bangs in his best moments at the keyboard were the best writer that rock music's odd history of critical discussion has ever had; no one came closer to the giving a language to the emotions a good song can force to the surface, bursting through our hard defenses to keep the insecurities away from public observation. Good writers did that. Christgau is a good writer, but he is not one who moves me to weep so slightly when the subject is Madam George from Van Morrison's Astral Weeks album, something Bangs accomplished with his essay from the Greil Marcus edited anthology of essays Stranded.  Robert Christgau could write, but his interest, his passion was the brainstorm , the making of connections after realizing who influenced who in the long chain of musicians who took from one another and made adopted sounds their own. His was the excitement of trying to determine what was the hood of the music that made him think harder as a citizen and made him want to ease into something more sensuous than work. Christgau is the more traditional critic in that he was interested not in how pop music created from the sources it draws from, but how it creates something new and how that new thing contains new ways of talking about human vanities and virtues and outright vices.  He wasn't , I don't think, a critic interested in the Marxist critical notion that art needs to form a critique of a system and have us imagine a more perfect state, his main concern was in if the music , under its own rules, was relatable, memorable, honest in its fashion, if it gave a compelling account of a moment of experience, sensation, a mood. If there was a critique  mounted in a band's method, fine, the thought, so long as it worked as an element making up the sound that bands are trying to sell us. A political position did not get artists a passing grade. He didn't follow the conventional wisdom of the critical establishment, such as it was: he was too busy looking for an unaffected expression. What he makes him refreshing is that he wears his taste openly, has always refused to see artists as philosophers or priests, and he 's always had a healthy skepticism about those bands and artists who otherwise receive loud and automatic accolades.