Can't Stop the Music
The 'Voice' invents rock criticism
I wanted to shout how crucial Voice music writing was from the git, but evidence was lacking. Voice columnist Jean Shepherd promoted the term "nonconformist" as Voice columnist Gilbert Seldes promoted the term "lively arts"; Voice theater critic Jerry Tallmer sent readers to The Connection and Jackie McLean as Voice film critics Jonas Mekas and Andrew Sarris mapped polar cinemas. But though Martin Williams and Nat Hentoff were fixtures in the early '60s--Williams had an acerbic, enthusiastic TV column--lesser writers reviewed jazz. J.R. Goddard covered a folk beat that included the hot issue of banning bardistry in Washington Square Park. And already on the opera and concert circuit was Leighton Kerner, who still has the virtue, rare in his field, of writing like a fan--always warm, never magisterial.
And then in 1966 a word-crazy young hotshot named Richard Goldstein announced his philosophical commitment with the column title Pop Eye. Although Dan Wolf and (at New York) Clay Felker pushed him to report, Goldstein was the first rock critic; his Goldstein's Greatest Hits collection evokes the high '60s with a tender, cheeky verve both of and above its moment. Me and my old junior high school classmate Ellen Willis sought him out well before we'd carved similar niches at Esquire and The New Yorker. But by 1969, Goldstein was weary of music as a subject, and I'd irritated the Esquire jazzbos by denying that rock was in its death throes. So I approached Wolf, who knew me primarily as a letter writer. He gave me a monthly column just like that, and master copy editor James Stoller thought of a title. Unlike Richard, I did no star profiles--just longish critical essays in a paper where column inches exploded as bohemia thrived and dailies died. When my compulsive listening necessitated the Consumer Guide, Rock&Roll& was upped to fortnightly with barely a murmur from arts editor Diane Fisher. And one more thing--I was paid $40 for 1,500 or 2,500 or 3,500 words. At Esquire, it was $500.
In other words, after a stint in the slicks I wanted to be a rock critic even if I couldn't earn a living at it. From September '70 till March '72 I brought in most of my small income teaching college on the strength of my B.A. and my countercultural bona fides. At first I dashed off Voice essays in a few fell swoops and the CG piecemeal, but soon I was laboring over my prose the way I had at Esquire. The quality of that prose got me hired (by current Voice editor Don Forst) as the first rock critic at greater Gotham's most writerly daily, Newsday. But when Felker, who had published me pre-Esquire, bought the Voice, I was more than ready to come back.
Can't be polite, so I'll be brief--Voice music coverage back then was a waste. Although by 1974 opinionated young rockcrits were piling on fresh facts, nascent ideas, colorful styles, engaging personas, and funny shit from wild-ass Creem to auteurist Rolling Stone, most of the stuff Fisher published was slack, corny, and anonymous. By concentrating on records, the section I edited could offer writers nationwide--gonzo or straight, wacko or academic, pro or am--a chance to write ambitiously at decent rates (which had risen some). Also, they'd be carefully and knowledgeably line edited--unprecedented in the back of our book, and not a priority at Creem or Stone. Nor would we ignore soul and c&w in favor of boho nonentities. Vince Aletti on the Jackson 5 and Richard Meltzer on Waylon Jennings were my first two leads. Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs, Janet Maslin and Stephen G. Holden, Jim Miller and Simon Frith were in the mix.
Of course, close reading of Riffs (Fisher's terrific section hed, eventually ixnayed by some design director) revealed writers worth cultivating: Patrick Carr, Geoffrey Stokes, young fourth-floor receptionists David Tipmore and James Wolcott, and above all the finest jazz critic ever, Gary Giddins, with whom I enjoyed an educational and exciting if initially contentious editing relationship that lasted till Gary jumped ship in 2003 and three guys replaced him. Then there was sui generis "downtown" critic Tom Johnson, a minimalist every which way who turned in prophetic ethnic music columns before emigrating to Paris. And soon I was swamped by wonderful writers I'd never heard of. To list only the renowned and involved--Ken Tucker, Tom Carson, Stanley Crouch, Greg Sandow, Dave Hickey, Jon Pareles, Greg Tate, Nelson George, Chuck Eddy, then Kyle Gann, Joe Levy, Rob Sheffield, dream hampton, Ann Powers, Simon Reynolds, Neil Strauss, Sasha Frere-Jones--is to ignore hundreds of adepts whose commitment to music criticism was more local or temporary. Let me name just three: my dear friend John Piccarella, future Newhouse James Truman, and novelist Blanche McCrary Boyd, who submitted Wings and Diana Ross pieces of memorable grace.
The job was broadening for me. I re-entered jazz, gave folk a chance, even explored Johnson's world a little. And despite my firm pop bias, avant-gardism came with the franchise. Punk was so much to my taste that I would have hit CBGB early in any case, but at the Voice it happened quicker. And though other papers (including the Times) were on the case, punk revved our section, where the writers' collective talent and shared passion for fresh ideas rendered our coverage definitive. Punk also sparked a collegiate mindset that generated not just the rock-critical career path but the Amerindie subculture, our bread and butter to this diminished day. Hip-hop, which we were on almost as fast, proved a useful counterweight.
In 1985 I became a parent and relinquished the editorship to a talented series of successors who know why I'm not name-checking them--they experienced firsthand the space cutbacks that have continued for 20 years (and hey, now pay rates are dipping too!). Many claim our section lost authority around the time I left, and they're right. This had nothing to do with editing. It was structural. The professionalization and expansion of music coverage, together with the DIY-ization and expansion of music production, topped off by the online DIY-ization of music coverage, have rendered authority, which in any aesthetic matter is provisional at best, an utter chimera, no matter how many 100 best this-es and 50 top thats music media sell ads with. Our own contribution to the form, the Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll (which, speaking of expansion, has mushroomed from 24 voters to 793 in 30 years), retains more cred than most--assuming you don't care that it undervalues black music even when OutKast have something out. I do, but that doesn't mean we've rectified the problem.
This is not a great time in alternative rock or alternativejournalism--mainstream pop or mainstream journalism either. I never assume my job is secure and certainly don't now, which is one reason I work so hard at it. But the main reason is that I love music, and never forget how fortunate I am to have earned my living as a rock critic. Most of my fellow Voice music writers earn less than I do unless they have other employment, which many do--no other critical field supports so many inspired moonlighters. They too love music, and treasure the rare freedom this paper affords them even at 200 measly words. I thank every one of them for caring.
This piece was accompanied by a photo of Christgau and Geoffrey Stokes here. Photo by Fred W. McDarrah.
Village Voice, Oct. 18, 2005