Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Remembering Marshall Berman

Before I exchanged a word with Marshall I was aware of him via a Dissent piece passed me by Village Voice theater editor Erika Munk--she thought we were on a wavelength, and she was right. Then I was invited to a Partisan Review forum at NYU in I think early '78--not by Partisan Review, of course (I was a rock critic) but my Voice colleague Stanley Crouch was among the elect, so maybe race was on the agenda. For sure Roots came up, and soon the condescension got so thick I just had to get up and defend the thing. Because I was so mad, I argued less eloquently than I might have that popular outreach changed perception--that it constituted a formal quality of its own. After not very long at all, William Phillips cut me off and advised me to familiarize myself with Clement Greenberg's "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," a work I already detested quite enough. A few hours later, the phone rang in my living room--with exemplary journalistic tradecraft, Marshall had found my number in the white pages. Immediately he informed me on behalf of his entire intellectual cohort that Phillips was a known boor.

We talked for an hour, mostly about me and music. This was Marshall's way--many times I saw him pump people he'd never met for their unique takes on modernity, all different as snowflakes. Several times after that, he phoned when I'd written something he wanted to draw me out about. But there'd been a gap before the call that followed my March 1982 review of All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. Rereading it, I'm not surprised to find that its best ideas sum up Marshall's somewhat less felicitously. Say: "Berman has always known the difference between the peace you long for and the escape you settle for, because he's always known that the turmoil of the moment was more or less permanent." Or: "Like many leftist aesthetes before him, Berman is convinced that the art he loves (a category that includes all the writing he loves) is consistent with the rest of what he knows and feels. 'Modernity' is his rubric, but what drives him is a refusal to abandon either pessimistic intellect or optimistic will." Or: "If once in a while he must risk truism or gush to make his proposal clearer, he's willing to lose face."

This last brings us to Marshall's prose style, which I began my review by praising. Marshall cared as much about writing per se as any academic I've known, and he understood it, too--once, vetting a long essay of mine, he pinpointed the ending I was looking for in the middle of the fourth-to-last graf. Nevertheless, his style sometimes embarrasses or confuses his admirers. Among academics it isn't just post-Foucauldian jargonistas who mistrust his straightforwardness, while journalists sometimes find him academic, which is to say too damn intellectual, or florid, because few writers who value vernacularity the way Marshall did are so fond of vernacular on the order of "beautiful," which comes up 25 times in All That Is Solid, occasionally in quotations but seldom with the slightest show of irony. Marshall wasn't one for rhetorical delicacy--he liked his concepts big and gooey. Skimming just a few pages of the St. Petersburg section of All That Is Solid, I spied "mysterious," "joyous," "dazzling," "richness," "creativity," "deep," "profoundly," "complex." Yet he was so into the profoundly complex that he wrote sentences of imposing complexity himself, and so into democracy that any medium-attentive common reader knew what he meant. To quote my review one last time: "The irresistible polemical flow he's worked so hard and so self-effacingly to achieve does more than suggest the contradictory rush of modernity as he conceives it. His readability has a political meaning of its own--it embodies Berman's charity, the root of his faith and his hope."

The phone call in the wake of that review was a long one, during which Marshall explained his son Marc's murder, a catastrophe I was too far outside his world to have gotten straight. By the end we decided it was time we met, and soon my wife Carola and I were getting together several times a month with Marshall and Meredith Tax, shortly to become his second wife. We talked politics and fiction and writing and music, went to the movies and visited museums, usually Marshall's choice because he was the man. I always brought music with me, and made Marshall many cassettes--for a 41-year-old professor, he got hip-hop no problem. After their son Eli and our daughter Nina arrived, the two families shared many play dates. Turned on to Harvey Pekar by Carola's 1979 Voice piece, Marshall wrote a 1983 Voice piece that played a major role in lifting Pekar up from underground, and started writing there a lot. He had many fans at the Voice. Music editor Joe Levy, who'd read All That Is Solid at Yale after a friend accidentally shoplifted it, had Marshall review Public Enemy's Apocalypse '91. Now the editor of Billboard, Joe told the commenters on my blog: "He was one of the warmest, most relentlessly curious and fascinating people I've ever met. A lovely man. A great mind. They don't always go together."

When Marshall was well past fifty came Danny, fruit of the great love he'd finally achieved with Shellie Sclan as well as his ticket to an intimacy with youth culture that would last until he died too young. As our kids got older we saw each other less and discussed parenting more, often on the phone, which was also how Carola and I accessed what we called the West End Avenue Encyclopedia. Forty acres and a mule--what was that about exactly? Nina needs to know how Portugal ended up with Brazil. Even--this actually happened--what kind of guy was Clement Greenberg, anyway? A 1995 Voice piece I edited, a history of Times Square to keynote a package on its redevelopment, seeded Marshall's third book-length work, published 24 long years after the second. On the Town isn't All That Is Solid, but neither is anything else. I'm so proud that this great disciple of Jane Jacobs refused to be outraged by what's called Disneyfication--refused to look at tourists and suburbanites who are having fun and explain why that isn't actually fun at all, it's brainwashing, or hegemony. And as a rock critic, I suspect one reason this insouciantly impressionistic, literary, and personal social history is less famous than it should be is that it finds so much meaning in what Marshall proudly calls "entertainment," abandoning classic Western Civ to dig into close readings of The Jazz Singer, Jerome Robbins, Stanley Donen, and--almost as déclassé--Sister Carrie. It's a loving, optimistic book where Marshall establishes himself as, to quote his late friend John Leonard, "the man with kaleidoscope eyes."

Anybody who knows much about what Marshall overcame in his life is obliged to acknowledge what a spiritual achievement those eyes were. The loss of his father at fourteen. The horrific loss of his son at forty. The near death from a brain abscess ultimately attributable to CUNY's crappy dental insurance. The seizures. The tortuous battle with sleep apnea. The misshapen knees this walker in the city should have replaced so much sooner than he did. The two failed marriages that didn't stop him from forging a passionate union with the great Shellie Sclan. How did he do it? Could you have? More than how much he knew and how brilliantly he connected it up, this seems the profoundly complex triumph to me.

Many of you were probably there May 2 when Marshall delivered the 2013 Lewis Mumford Lecture on Urbanism at City College, and a few of you probably commented afterward. If it's the latter, I apologize for saying that I dug the lecture but got miffed during the question period. I heard too many people say, "Marshall, all this hope is fine in its way, but how could overlook this bad thing, or dismiss that one?" Which to me altogether missed the point. Because for Marshall, the bad things are always there. The contradictions are always there. The nub of his genius is how he breaks on through to the synthesis at the end of the tunnel.

Dissent, September 17, 2013

Postscript Notes:

Follow the link above for additional remembrances from Michael Walzer, Mark Levinson, Andy Merrifield, David Marcus, and Todd Gitlin.