Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

Sheffield Meets Schjeldahl

Two of my most recent posts have been about rock critic Rob Sheffield and art critic Peter Schjeldahl. The Schjeldahl came about because the book group Rob and I are in decided to read his collection Let's See, and I couldn't resist quoting it before I'd even finished (which I now have, and it is VERY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED). Schjeldahl read the post and wrote to thank me, observing that he'd done some Googling and realized that although we were born a month apart, lived five blocks from each other, and had both worked as police reporters in New Jersey in the '60s (he didn't mention that we were both baseball fanatics and veterans of The Village Voice), we had never met and should. My response mentioned the book group, and he wrote me back volunteering to attend if we were interested. Which needless to say we were.

Come the day Schjeldahl showed up at nine sharp, learned that member Jon Dolan had grown up about 15 miles from his own Minnesota hometown, but failed to meet member Melissa Maerz, who got hit with a late deadline and was much missed, in part because she'd been so enthralled by Let's See that she'd spent the weekend boning up on artists she'd read about there. So after the meeting Melissa asked us what happened and Sheffield reminded me of why he makes the big bucks with this off-the-cuff response, which I certainly can attest to accuracy-wise, give or take a little telescoping, but wouldn't have remembered half of myself. I've edited it lightly with Rob's permission and Schjeldahl has made some accuracy changes.

So here's Sheffield:

Schjeldahl told us some amazing stories about poets in NYC in the early 60s (his first teacher was Kenneth Koch!). He said most poets in NYC back then wrote art criticism, for the small glory and the smaller money, until the NYC poetry scene was left in the dust by the booming art world and "destroyed by rock & roll." He told a funny story about an excursion of Factory scenester Taylor Mead ("saturated with hipness") to see "some curly-haired kid from Minnesota with a guitar." Halfway through the set, Dylan took a break, and Mead announced to everybody at the table, "The poets have HAD it!" He also said he wrote the Village Voice obit for Frank O'Hara when he was killed in 1966. (I'd love to read that.) Surprisingly, he said O'Hara was already in decline as a poet. "He hadn't written anything first-ratre in four years. He was a pretty far gone drunk, and it was gonna catch up with him sooner or later."

A few of his bon mots:

On why he bombed out of journalism in the 60s: "It was a matter of priorities. Take the drugs, or meet the deadlines? It was an easy choice."

On his Avenue B apt in the mid 60s: "Four rooms, forty dollars a month, four burglaries a year."

On the death of the NYC poetry scene: "It all ended in 1969, 1970. Every plane or bus out of New York was carrying at least one poet."

On learning about art: "I'm an autodidact. I could learn about art on scene because I was a nobody, so nobody bothered to lie to me. Then I got prominent, and nobody's told me the truth since."

On the superiority of collectors to critics: "Writing a check is more sincere than writing a review. It hurts more."

On Burnesville, Minnesota: "That's one fucked up place."


By Jordan on November 2, 2010 8:35 AM

Schjeldahl's poems still have their fans, by the way. And his poems were pretty fannish too--see his poem "Great Poet."

Also, I seem to remember a piece by Peter Schjeldahl circa 198?, at any rate way past 1969, on the work of a young New York poet, Jerome Sala.

But then I'm writing this from Appalachia. I concede the general point.

By john on November 3, 2010 8:56 PM

Schjeldahl's earlier art-crit collection "Hydrogen Jukebox" (title is a Ginsberg phrase) is great. Has a couple nifty poems in there too.

By M.J. Andersen on November 10, 2010 11:44 AM

Schjeldahl's from Burnsville, Minnesota?

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