Robert Christgau’s new memoir “Going Into the City” upholds his reputation as the “Dean” of rock critics, writes Charles R. Cross in this book review. Christgau appears on a panel at the Pop Conference Friday, April 17.
‘Going Into The City’
Dey Street, $27.99
When the annual Pop Conference begins at EMP Museum Wednesday, you can count on hearing Robert Christgau’s voice.
Even during panels Christgau doesn’t officially appear on, his impassioned, intellectual arguments from the audience can control the discourse and dominate the topic. Christgau gave the keynote speech at the first Pop Conference in 2002, and he’s attended nearly every one since. On Friday he presents a paper on R&B great Huey Smith.
Christgau is often treated as a legend by younger critics — simply because he is. Many of them got their start writing for him during his long tenure at the Village Voice, or grew up reading his influential “Consumer Guide.” He has been writing record reviews for more than five decades, and boasts a body of work of 15,000 reviews.
Rock critic Robert Christgau appears on the panel, “Insider Outsiders” at 9 a.m. Friday, April 17, at the Pop Conference at EMP Museum, 325 Fifth Ave. N., Seattle; free (206-770-2700 or empsfm.org). The conference runs from 7 p.m. Thursday, April 16, through 12:45 p.m. Sunday, April 19.
That long history is the centerpiece of his new memoir, “Going Into the City,” which details both the evolution of Christgau, but also the evolution of rock criticism itself.
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He was among the first in America to write about rock ’n’ roll for a living, starting in 1967, a year after Paul Williams started Crawdaddy, the first rock publication. Christgau wrote for a number of places then, but soon settled on the Voice. He christened himself “the Dean” as a joke, and the nickname stuck.
Some of the other early rock critics — such as Lester Bangs, portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film “Almost Famous” — were colorful characters off the page, but Christgau was always more of a no-nonsense guy. Perhaps that’s why he wasn’t as drawn to the personality profile and preferred the short record review.
He has excelled in that form, but his longer features also have their merits. (Full disclosure: Christgau once wrote a long essay in The New Yorker about one of my books.) My favorite Christgau piece is a 1969 Village Voice travelogue titled “In Memory of the Dave Clark Five,” which has very little to do with the band, and is mostly about a breakup.
We hear the story of that breakup in this memoir, and more details of Christgau’s sex life than you might expect (or want to read, as some of this is perhaps too explicit). While some of those detours are salacious, the final chapter about his daughter is the most sentimental.
That last chapter is more moving than much of the rest of the book, which at times feels emotionally detached, perhaps because that life itself has been so long. He’s 72, and the book takes us up to his dismissal from the Village Voice (to cut costs) in 2006.
Where his memoir works best is when Christgau is reviewing albums, discussing their glories — or faults. He notes that some consider criticism “parasitic,” but he takes a different opinion. “Criticism,” he writes, “conjures order and beauty.”
Few critics have created so much beauty from the job of reviewing records. Yet no critic, not a one, has outwritten or outlasted Robert Christgau.