Richard Goldstein can pinpoint the very minute his rock ‘n’ roll writing career lost its pulse.
It was back in 1970, six years after he’d started contributing to the Village Voice as its first rock critic. Having amassed a small library of conversations, ruminations, and eyewitness accounts regarding some of the Sixties’ most pivotal moments in popular music under his byline, Goldstein was hardly in a position to be turning away from his work, but an event rocked him so deeply that he found it difficult — no, impossible — to pick up the pen and do the job he basically created. Janis Joplin, whom Goldstein had come to know and befriend following her and her soaring — albeit brief — run with Big Brother and the Holding Company, was found dead of an apparent heroin overdose in her Los Angeles hotel room at the age of 27. For him, that’s when the music — or, specifically, writing about music — died.
“When you see your political heroes have their heads shot off, and you see all these cities in flames around you, people looking just like you getting clubbed by police — it adds up,” he says of the political and cultural climate he found himself in at the time of Joplin’s passing. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated two years before that; the civil rights movement had forever shifted racial politics in the United States, ushering in a hard-won progress; protests calling for the end of the Vietnam War were starting to ramp up; and music was decidedly involved in all of it, with lyrics taking up various calls to action in pop and rock and all of their stylistic tributaries. But for Goldstein, Joplin remained the lethal lightning bolt, the straw that broke the camel’s back in his pursuit of rock criticism.
“Her death really crystallized all those feelings,” he continues. “I just kept imagining her alone in her hotel room with a needle sticking out of her arm and nobody there. I had an intense guilt about that, more than intense pain…Hendrix had died by then. Morrison was soon to go. This was very, very confusing, very difficult to cut through. The only way I could deal with it was to leave, to stop. I couldn’t even put words together into a sentence or a paragraph. They just didn’t make any sense.”
Joplin’s death wasn’t the only touchstone to fuse Goldstein’s personal and professional lives, and he revisits this and other painful and profound moments in his memoir, Another Little Piece of My Heart: My Life of Rock and Revolution in the ’60s.
Though he left rock in the Seventies, Goldstein would eventually return to journalism as the arts editor at the Voice, where he would stay on the masthead until 2004. Since then, he has released collected writings (including 1970’s Goldstein’s Greatest Hits: A Book Mostly About Rock ‘n’ Roll) and taught courses on the Sixties and popular music at Hunter College, but he never felt the urge to tackle a memoir until he read one written by an artist who moved in circles concentric to his own back in the day. Upon finishing Just Kids, Patti Smith’s memoir detailing her life as a young artist in the time period Goldstein would then explore in his own volume, he was ready to get the early days of his career down on paper.
On the next page: “I realized that in order to write a memoir, you have to be willing to embarrass yourself”
[“I was sort of in the same scene, but more on the periphery than she was,” he says of Just Kids‘ influence. “The book was so beautifully written and had this combination of tragedy and humaneness, and I was interested in her relationship with [Robert] Mapplethorpe, who of course was known as a gay photographer but had a love affair with Patti Smith, too. All of these complexities really interested me. I didn’t think it was possible to have that kind of tone, but when I read that book, I realized she did. And that’s when I decided to write this. I mean, along these streets — that’s where they roamed 50 years ago. I thought, ‘I was on the same streets.’ I was in a different position, more like an outsider from the bridge-and-tunnel crowd, but I was still in the scene. I wanted to get into my version of it.”
In a lean 206 pages, Goldstein manages to condense his formative writing years — and one of the most tumultuous decades in rock ‘n’ roll history — into relatable, poignant prose that, like Smith’s, offers his own experience as a lens for further understanding politics, sexuality, these now-icons, and the music they made. He’s self-aware, unabashedly enthusiastic (at times even nerdy), sparing no shame in admitting to his own awkwardness while encountering the artists he admired. He does not apologize for being a fan but revels in it, establishing an emotional connection with the reader akin to the eye contact you accidentally make with the people you’re sitting next to at your favorite band’s concert.
“I realized that in order to write a memoir, you have to be willing to embarrass yourself, because for most people youth is embarrassing,” he says, cracking a smile. “You’re experimenting and exploring! There are tragedies, and people die, and they’re not supposed to. Another generation had AIDS; we had drugs. All of that stuff is true to life. Inevitably, if you’re writing about your youth, it will be painful and embarrassing, so that stuff had to be in there.”
He recalls vivid details and first impressions, sharing choice selections from his taped interviews and unblinking notes: the vomit-caked jacket Hendrix wore during their interview shortly after the opening of Electric Lady Studios; the Arabian Nights affectation of Brian Wilson’s living room tent; meeting Lou Reed “before he had ‘tude”; what it felt like to take in the Exploding Plastic Inevitable alongside Andy Warhol, etc.
By doing this — presenting the notepad minutiae with well-known facts, quotes, and dates — Goldstein is able to present his Sixties as opposed to the Sixties. For him, Piece of My Heart has little or nothing to do with arguing the melodic prowess and technical skills of the era’s sonic champions. Instead, he seeks to provide a personal testimony as to why we hold onto these voices for decades — or at least why he does.
“Do they want yet another analysis of ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ or do they want a memory of what the artist was like, and what it was like to encounter them?” he says. “I privileged the material that involved the encounters, because I don’t really regard myself as a rock expert. I’m not a rock critic in the contemporary sense, but I have very good senses. I wanted to put the observations in and leave the analysis to other people who are probably better at doing that. [At the Voice], we had people that lived the scene they wrote about. I picked up that attitude as well. I wanted to be a witness, not an authority. I respect the idea that you shouldn’t get close to the artists you write about, but that’s not my agenda as a writer. Mine was to meet them, explore my awe of them, which was my main emotion towards them, and to really understand the connection between the issues in their lives and the music they made.”
Now half a century behind him, the Sixties don’t feel close to Goldstein, even though he spent plenty of time with his clips and his memories while working on the five drafts that would eventually lead us to Piece of My Heart. But it did bring him closer to rock than he has been in years, in that he was able to dive into music — and why it’s so painful for him to do so — with the candor and vulnerability of a man who can look back on his youth, contextualize it, and “put it together” in his present reflection.
“Music — especially popular music — is your personal memories and your social memories put together in a song,” he says. “Things you heard when you were a little kid get recycled and changed, but they’re still there underneath. Then, the social memories — the memories of your culture, certain tonal patterns, beats, rhythms and structures — they come from your society. You put them together with your personal memories, and you get pop. That’s all you need. How you put it together, that’s bullshit. Just put it together.”
Richard Goldstein will celebrate the release of Another Little Piece of My Heart at the Strand Book Store on May 20 in a conversation with Anthony DeCurtis.