Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough Cover

The Talk

By RJ Smith

Me and a car full of wingnuts drove in from Detroit one late-í70s winter break. "Blitzkrieg Bop" was playing on WPIX as we came through the Holland Tunnel. Lester Bangsí band was on the bill at Maxís. Joey, Lester, downtown, a lot of stuff from then seems a million miles away right now, but not the guy I dropped in on out of the blue. I just walked in the door, told the receptionist I always wanted to meet him, and Bob Christgau gave me his time. He showed me a manuscript that had come in over the transom from another young writer--Barry Michael Cooper, as it happens--and whatever else we talked about, mostly what I remember is that this guy who had never met me before was sitting there talking about craft and the Stones and how he liked to work with new writers. He wouldnít stop talking, and I was glad. Just one more life he was changing.

A few years later I wrote Bob, inquiring about work. I was moving from Buffalo, and he said to give him a call when I arrived. An appointment was set up. Here is how the interview went: I drove down in a snowstorm, and the car was totaled when a bus skidded sideways on ice and plowed into it. I called from around Rochester, saying I needed to reschedule. I started to explain why but Bob said it was just as well because he and Carola were trying to procreate, and the fertility doctors had told him that the moment of our interview would be the optimal time for sex, but the problem was that they were having difficulty getting along at that moment, and the sex was getting complicated so the dilemma wasÖ. This was a guy I had met once, and I was being pulled into some kind of verbal-psychological construct I donít recall existing in my corner of the Midwest. I was way over my head, and I couldnít believe my good fortune.

Here is how our first edit went: "Youíre full of shit, RJ," Bob boomed. I think I saw Richard Goldsteinís dome swivel and gape in my direction. "I want you to know youíre full of shit. Iím going to print this, but I want you to know . . . ." It was the first review I wrote for him. I freaked. The truth was, I had written something I hoped would piss him off/get his attention. Heíd just minutes before introduced me to The Walk--where he would take your just-handed-in manuscript and without saying a word, V-2 out of his chair, tear off pacing around the Voice office as he read. Was I supposed to follow him somewhere?

This, I guess, was The Talk. And for as long as I knew and worked with Bob, it was amazing talk. Bob Christgau doesnít think the way other people do; he doesnít filter his thoughts like most folks. Since he was one of the very first people I knew in New York, and definitely the most vivid, Christgauís voice--written, sure, but first spoken--became the New York voice in my head. Blisteringly honest, unafraid to be wrong, impolitic, kind at unexpected moments, hungry to talk about stuff you just wish he wouldnít talk about. And most of all just incredibly, dissolvingly, world-openingly candid.

I learned a lot--a lot--about what the next few years of my life would be like at once. I got a full blast of how Bob opened up about six sides of his thinking to you--how if he respected you, you got drawn into the bramble of his interior monologue and were expected to hold up your end of the honesty, candor-for-candor. You better or youíd be roadkill.

Here was the Dean talking of sex tips and spelling pointers and Voice gossip and political opinions and where to get the best pierogi in the East Village all in the course of some damned Birdsongs of the Mesozoic edit. He made a gift--under my nose and I didnít even notice it in the time--of his passion for editing, his respect for the written word. I draw on it every time I sit down to edit someone today. Every young writer who had him as one of their first editors took for granted his appetite for communication. Every young writer who went on to write for places other than the Voice has experienced the vertigo of post-Bob Syndrome: You mean all editors canít X-ray a story? You mean they all donít believe in talking to the writers as they edit, believe in explaining what they are doing, believe in encouraging you to argue with them? It becomes something far closer to work, life after Bob.

That voice--I thought it was New York itself--is still in my head. So, too, are any of the hundreds of glints of being around Bob that anyone who knows him well carry around. Certain rules are suspended; someone hit the anti-gravity button.

RJ makes his deadline: "Just drop your story off at the apartment," Bob says one Saturday morning. I ring the bell, and a seemingly naked Bob opens the door, Yankee cap on, wastebasket held carefully before him. "Just drop your story in there," Bob explains. "Iíve got a hole in my underwear or else Iíd invite you in."

The only editors Iíve met who come close to what Bob does are those others who once sat beside him and looked confused the first time he jumped up, their copy in his hands, and started pacing down the Voice corridors. Iím grateful there are so many, what would you call them, exGauvians? (And grateful that they keep their pants on.) Iím glad I can add my voice to those celebrating his voice, the voice I heard when I walked in off the street and met the prisoner of rock and roll, that zero-g astronaut of impolitic thought and action. It wasnít easy, it was just good.

Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough, 2002


  Simon Frith