“There is nothing [in my book] that is going to produce sexual arousal in anyone, I don’t believe — unless you’re really turned on by good prose.”
Robert Christgau is over talking about sex. More specifically, he’s over talking about the scenes in his memoir, Going Into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man, that involve hard-ons, bodily fluids, masturbation, and the language that traces the curves of the women he has been with, if the conversation won’t progress past these intimacies.
You can’t blame him. Going Into the City is hardly a volume chock-full of mattress romps — and yet the sex seems to be getting the most attention. Spin mentions the book’s “explicit sexual detail” before the intro of its interview. Grantland‘s writeup is titled “Maximum Bob: The Dean of American Rock Critics’ Memoir Is Revealing, Rewarding, and Full of Copulating,” and cracked that he “likes to fuck and review records, and at some point in each chapter he runs out of record-reviewing anecdotes.” Newsweek: “Stop Being So Squeamish About Sex, and Other Wisdom From Robert Christgau.”
You’d think the guy was a hi-fi Lothario from 1969 to the present day, as opposed to one of the small cadre of writers who laid the bricks to the foundation of rock criticism (at this very paper, no less). While his memoir isn’t a pastiche of salacious details, it’s not a self-deconstruction of the author’s life’s work, either. Going Into the City is about living with art, living off it, and surviving both pursuits. Reducing it to sex trivializes that.
“Let’s move on to other things.”
On a late-winter Friday afternoon, Christgau is holed up in his office at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, where he teaches music history and lectures on the greats of rock ‘n’ roll. He’s prepping a lesson about Elvis Presley, and he’ll spend his weekend honing talking points for class. He’s sporting a Sleater-Kinney T-shirt (procured at the band’s show the night before) and blasting Common on his stereo (a track from “before he was the star of the Oscars!”). He mentions that he needs to pick up the new Lupe Fiasco album, which he hopes to find at his record store of choice, Disc-O-Rama on West 8th Street. The range of artists whirling in Christgau’s orbit at this moment demonstrates his immersive relationship with music, whether he’s listening to it, talking about it, writing about it, reading about it, or wearing it. He listens to music through earbuds while riding his bike to and from work (which makes you worry for his safety even as you salute his dedication).
But he’s quick to point out that the Sleater-Kinney show was a rare occurrence — he doesn’t go to as many concerts as he’d like these days — and, moreover, that the music he listens to and the reviews he writes are secondary to his off-the-clock life, namely, his marriage with novelist Carola Dibbell. The personal and the professional are as separate for Christgau as they are for anyone, but he’s as frank about how the former affects the latter as he is in his less favorable album reviews.
“I’m a critic whose reputation is based on his ability to sit in his office, living room, dining room, bedroom, and kitchen and listen to music and write about what he hears,” he says — and it sounds as though the words were edited on their way out for clarity without sacrificing sincerity.
“I’ve reviewed over 15,000 albums. I’ve done a lot of other things, but that’s my claim to fame: sitting at home. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of feeling going on in my writing — I think far from it. But the feeling has to do with my own emotional life. In the life of people I observe who are more actively ‘out there,’ your values and emotional equilibrium, or lack of it, which are things you must bring to your criticism, are very dependent on what your — I’ll say it — domestic arrangement is. Domestic arrangements vary, but in my experience most people are happier when they have someone who loves them and who they love than those who don’t. In my case, the way I arrived at my values and at the particular relationship that I so treasure was a growth process and a major thing that the book is about. As far as I’m concerned, I wouldn’t be writing about what kind of a critic I was unless I did that.”
From the beginning of Going Into the City, Christgau categorizes his memoir the way he would one he’s reviewing. In his introduction, he outlines four types of memoirs as he sees them — “I Am a Big Deal and This Happened to Me”; “Fame: An Inside View”; “My Adventure”; and “My Battle With (and Triumph Over!) Dysfunction” — before creating a fifth for his own: “I Am Not a Big Deal and This Happened to Me Anyway.” His tendency to keep it brief — a style honed through the digestible dimensions of the Consumer Guide record reviews that debuted at the Village Voice and now exist in a familiar iteration through Expert Witness, his column at Medium — comes in handy when he streams between personal anecdote and critical thought. Vivid scenes of his adolescence in Flushing, his first adult forays into the East Village, and his cannonball into rock criticism long before he knew he had a hand in inventing it trade off with examinations of the music he was listening to, from Television’s Marquee Moon to the South Pacific soundtrack to Al Green’s entire catalog. The length of Going Into the City (a comfortable 363 pages) affects neither Christgau’s pacing nor his delivery: Readers who know his work will recognize his economical use of language, and those who don’t will be left reeling from the impact of his stark phrasing.
“It’s pretty compact, this book,” he says. “That’s the way I’ve always written. I don’t think I wind on too long about anything. I was concerned if [the prose] would move, if it would cohere, and as far as I’m concerned it really does. I’d never done it before. I wasn’t sure I could. And as far as I’m concerned I did it.”
And in the process he rendered himself vulnerable to a degree we’ve never seen. On the page, Christgau is self-assured and unflinching when it comes to re-examining his behavior. Going Into the City has its share of painful or disturbing anecdotes. (Sometimes both.) He describes the time his then-partner and colleague Ellen Willis was raped steps away from the apartment they shared and shares his “regret” that they had sex afterward; he writes of Carola’s affair with a close friend of his, and of the couple’s fruitless struggle to conceive a child. He slices into the veins of his memory with surgical precision, and the honesty he extracts is blunt — borderline-masochistic, even, at times. But to leave the bad out of his memoir and focus solely on the good — the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it encounter with John and Yoko, the woodland romps with Ellen at Woodstock, the cross-country drives, the growing cavalcade of bylines, his spontaneous, romantic marriage proposal, the birth of his and Carola’s adopted daughter Nina — would be to deny his reader a glimpse into the consciousness of a man who can cut himself down and build himself up the same way he does to the artists whose output he dissects. It would deprive them of the truth — and, more importantly, his opinion.
“I certainly don’t think I hold back on the stupid things I did,” he says. “As a matter of fact, it seems to me I go out of my way to make clear what they were. I certainly try to. But then, do I feel guilty about having done stupid things? No. I don’t think I’m perfect. I don’t think I’m as arrogant as people seem to think I am — some of the people who don’t like me. No, these are not my confessions. I have nothing to confess.”