At some point in the ’70s I believe, the writer/editor Robert Christgau gave himself the title, “Dean Of American Rock Critics.”
Whether he was serious or joking at the time, that title turned out to be an accurate one, for not only has Christgau been one of the smartest and street-saavy critics in the relatively brief history of rock criticism, but he mentored many of the best critics that came after him.
Now he’s written his memoir, “Going Into The City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man.”
Rolling Stone has run an excerpt, it’s real good, and I can’t wait to read the rest of the book.
Here’s some of the Rolling Stone excerpt, in which Christgau talks about Television. You can read all of it here.
It was also a vinyl album, forty-five minutes split right down the middle, and this sealed its status, because side one, which shifts materially song to unforgettable song without diluting a band sound that ignores every parallel no matter how complimentary (Byrds-Dead-Stones are all miles away), is as good as album sides get, rushing forward as one thing yet revealing new details every time you play it again. With addictive guitar riffs securing each track, there’s not a misplaced second, and much of it was recorded in one take. Side two can’t possibly keep up, and doesn’t — I find the devotional “Guiding Light” soupy myself, and only “Prove It” with its droll “Just the facts” stays with me like “See No Evil” or “Venus” or “Friction” or “Marquee Moon” itself. So make side two a high A minus. But side one is an A plus plus plus, and side one is why so many treasure Marquee Moon as a classic.
Going outside Manhattan and against type, I assigned the Riff to Virginia-born Boston Episcopalian Ken Emerson, who loved it, only not in the terms I did. For Emerson, Marquee Moon had it all over reductive Ramones and apocalyptic Patti because Television were “grown up.” Everywhere he listened, music or lyrics, he found a “doubleness,” “a golden mean,” an “insistence on seeing things whole.” But while the doubleness is certainly thematic, remembering how young I was when I latched onto “Vacillation” makes me wonder how grown up it is. What I love most about the lyrics of Marquee Moon is their evocation of that youthful moment when you’re this close to figuring everything out, voicing in very few words a multivalence worthy of that adventure’s complexity and confusion — beautifully, profoundly, naively, contradictorily, romantically, kinetically, jokily, cockily, fearfully, drunkenly, goofily, impudently — so nervous and excited you could fly, or is it faint? And with the single line “Broadway looked so medieval” added to what we know about its East Village provenance, it situates this philosophical action in the downtown night.
Like many great albums and more pretentious ones, Marquee Moon has gathered armies of exegetes set on getting to the bottom of every word, and bless ’em, really. But they’re misguided. Not only don’t I know what all the lyrics mean, Verlaine doesn’t know what all the lyrics mean, and it’s a dead end to speculate. When we ran into this problem with Coleridge (who Verlaine would have ditched for being a junkie like Hell and Lloyd), it was because he let the poem get away from him. Here it’s more like Verlaine wanted the poem to get away from him, because he knew the paradoxes it posed were unresolvable and because he knew the guitars would blast through and lift over. So say “See No Evil” is about the onrushing illimitability of desire and “Venus” is about the enveloping impossibility of love and “Friction” is about the bracing inevitability of conflict and I don’t know what the fuck “Marquee Moon” is about except that it’s ten minutes long and you feel it’ll be perfectly OK with you if it goes on forever, like, er — some amalgam of show business and heaven? C’mon. “Elevation” and “Guiding Light”? Getting high and losing either God or love. “Prove It”? So funny it don’t matter. “Torn Curtain”? Ten minutes again, only not much longer please because this case is closed you just said. Ba-da-boom.
In the long wake of punk’s speedy demise and multiple afterlives, UK extremists and their offspring got permanently exercised about a doubleness that pitted “rockism” against — what, exactly? Sometimes the prog tendencies of “post-punk,” sometimes just pop. This polarity is so stupid I generally refuse to discuss it, but in this case I’ll suspend my disbelief in the interest of provisional clarification. Forced at gunpoint to choose, I’d call myself some kind of poppist — Pop Art was formative for me, I have a history of respecting the charts, and what are perception-altering short-fast-hard anythings if not pop? Note too that the two least punk of the indelible albums named above are pop — Parallel Lines proudly, More Songs About Buildings and Food ironically. And then recall that Marquee Moon is a rock album. Why do I believe the rockism-versus-poppism polarity is stupid? Because while most popular musicians who take themselves too seriously are mooncalves, now and again one will home in on something deeper than the pop-identified would dare — in a form livelier and more liberating than the highbrow-identified would know was there if it bit them in the cranium. So I’ll say it and you scoff if you want. The fact that Marquee Moon is a rock album is basic to why it’s a masterpiece — a great work of art. Ba-da-boom.
-– A Days of the Crazy-Wild blog post: sounds, visuals and/or news –-
[I published my novel, True Love Scars, in August of 2014.” Rolling Stone has a great review of my book. Read it here. And Doom & Gloom From The Tomb ran this review which I dig. There’s info about True Love Scars here.]
1 thought on “Dean Of American Rock Critics Writes His Memoir – Tales Of New York’s Punk Scene & More”
I know he is writing in english but it has always scanned like a foreign language to me. If he did not give the albums a grade half the time I would not know whether he liked the album or not.
I do not know if that it a reflection on me or Christgau! I always have to go though his stuff like a crow, picking out whatever I can.
Anyway congrats on a great career, appreciate all the hard work.