Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

Game Changer

I owe Clay Felker my career.

Although Harold Hayes ended up with the editor's job at Esquire and I have nothing but respect for my own first editor there, Byron Dobell, it's my suspicion that even more than those two titans, Clay defined the simultaneously irreverent and writerly '60s Esquire tone and hence made journalism seem like a viable way to write well. Felker's New York was the Sunday supplement at the Herald-Trib when I worked as copyboy there in 1964, and there I first read Tom Wolfe, another inspiration.

A year or so later I was doing suburban police checks at the Newark Star-Ledger when I ran across a Clifton story about a young woman who had starved to death on a macrobiotic diet--a term I recognized because Wolfe had written about it in New York, which enabled me to talk coherently with the bereaved family. Next afternoon I was in New York's Herald-Trib cubicle--was there even a full office? maybe Clay had one--seeking an assignment. Felker gave it to me on spec in about two minutes (no clips, just my spoken pitch) and together with Wolfe, who happened to be around, advised me on how to proceed. You could say he had nothing to lose, and maybe he never expected to see me again, but that wasn't how it felt--it felt like Felker was excited by the subject. Two weeks later I handed in 3000 words, which I'd somehow managed to research and write in my spare time. It was a hit, and Dobell and a few other editors called me up. But Felker kept giving me work as well, sticking with me even though I never did another purely narrative piece of comparable impact. He even invited me and my girlfriend to his famous 57th Street apartment. Once, after the Herald-Trib had morphed into the World Journal Tribune and moved downtown, I handed in some copy there and offered him a ride uptown in my 57 Chevy station wagon. We stopped in Chinatown and had dinner at the long departed Hong Fat. Afterward he took me to a Chinese bakery and suggested I try the melon cake. I still buy melon cakes in Chinatown.

So a year later I become the rock critic at Esquire and in 1969 Hayes cans me because he believes rock is dying and I start my first Voice column and then I'm hired to write rock criticism for Newsday and then Felker--that is, New York Magazine, supplement no longer--buys the Voice, changing it utterly. New editor Ross Wetzsteon suggests I'd make a good music editor and Felker agrees, and that's when my career really takes shape. So Felker first inspired me, then gave me my big chance, then offered me my defining job. But that's not quite all there is to the story.

Felker changed the Voice utterly, but boy, that was one ugly match. Without Felker's style of business ambition, it's quite possible the paper would never have turned into a place where a weirdo like me could make a decent living writing criticism for 32 years. But I don't think he ever knew what he thought he was doing there editorially. We never discussed it, but I suspect he was very surprised at what he got out of his three big initial editorial hires--me, inventor of rock criticism Richard Goldstein (who began at the Voice but had been a staple at New York for years), and Karen Durbin, who two decades later became the editor long after Clay and his 1977 buyer Rupert Murdoch were gone. Not only were all three of us fiercer lefties than anyone at New York, we were fiercer lefties than most of the writers Felker inherited at the Voice. Maybe he thought we'd be professionalizers, but we were more like propagandists, each convinced in his or her own way that good politics and popular journalism were compatible.

Felker soon instituted "Voice Choices" and had us all writing "picks"--great name, why didn't Dan Wolf think of that? Too crass, no doubt. Once he looked over my shoulder and was shocked to notice that I was recommending a show at the Apollo--"Our readers don't want to go to Harlem." Wrong--not just morally, but commercially. But did that mean Felker wouldn't cover black artists? Hardly, as an incident that turned into my star turn in Kevin McAuliffe's history of the Voice demonstrated. In one of the tirades that kept the staff on their toes, he complained that the music section wasn't doing features on performers who were "hot." He flipped through the paper (McAuliffe has it as Variety, but I think it was the Voice itself) and found an ad for Perry Henzell's cult reggae flick The Harder They Come, then finally hitting the commercial theaters though I'd covered the soundtrack for Newsday more than a year before. Jimmy Cliff--he was "hot." Why didn't we put this future star on the cover? Clay backed me around the office waving the ad in my face. Cliff wasn't going to be a star, I told him. Why? Why? "Because he's not talented enough." A great comeback, but believe me, that wasn't how it felt. It felt like throwing a piece of scrap wood in front of a runaway locomotive.

True, there never was a Jimmy Cliff feature. But frankly, I don't think it was my argument (which turned out to be true) that determined that--just distraction, attrition, too many fires. All things considered, Clay didn't care how talented Cliff was, or even whether or not he would become a star, although that would be a nice bonus. He wanted a plausible cover subject that could be forgotten, if necessary, a few months down the road. And that's where I depart radically from the Felker philosophy--based, as many of the warm tributes that have appeared since Clay died July 1 have made clear, on his fascination with Manhattan as a field of ambition, as a battleground of hot. Obviously this makes good journalistic sense. But it doesn't make such good critical sense. And since journalism is not only an incubator of quality narrative--the memoir boom that began in the '90s is the latest proof, one that owes as much or more to the pre-Felker Voice as to Esquire--but also a far healthier critical environment than academia, arts journalism should always make good critical sense. That's what I think, anyway. I get to make the argument in public because Clay Felker gave me the chance.

1 Comment

By Glenn Lovell on July 7, 2008 8:23 PM

Great piece, Robert -- narrative prose exemplar.

Articles, July 7, 2008

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