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Almost Famous: The B+ Adventures Of Robert Christgau

Bob Christgau, the semi-mockingly self-styled Dean of American Rock Critics, diets on Mondays and Tuesdays, so on this particular Monday in December, lunch is just a small to-go bowl of chicken noodle soup from the Polish Deli across the street from his East Village apartment. He eats at his cluttered kitchen table, and every once in a while, between spoonfuls, he'll pause and cock his head to the side. His eyes, behind the filmy lenses of his glasses, turn upward. An Aretha Franklin album is blaring from the speaker behind his head, and some fragment of sound has caught his attention. "I think sometimes Taylor Swift blows away young Aretha," he tells me. "But only on Red. Not on her new album." He turns his full attention back to the soup.

It's freezing outside, but the temperature in the apartment is sub-tropical. He and his wife, the writer Carola Dibbell, have lived here for 39 years; the walls are lined with sagging bookcases that threaten to topple if you take a corner too fast. There are strategically placed speakers throughout, so that no matter where he is, he can always be listening to music. His job is to listen to music, which probably sounds like a dream to a lot of people, except most people don't listen to music the way he does: with exhaustive, compulsive focus. He possesses a rare combination of immense curiosity, undisguised intellect, and a total disregard for most social niceties. So if he tells you that Taylor Swift sometimes blows away young Aretha, he not only means it, he'll give you the evidence to back it up.

Christgau, the legendary-in-certain-circles rock critic for the Village Voice from 1974 until 2006, is part of a much-mythologized movement of writers and editors that included ex-girlfriend Ellen Willis, Lester Bangs, Pauline Kael, Greil Marcus, and Dave Marsh. A loose collective shaped by the revolutionary ideals of the '60s, they attempted to expand the critical territory for writing about pop music and mass culture: They were thinkers who wanted to write about music, not hang out with musicians. Well educated and all with distinctive writing styles —in Bob's case, dense and winding, packed with allusions, often brilliant, and just as often maddeningly opaque—they somehow managed to do the opposite of what they intended, eventually embodying their own kind of niche celebrity.

At last count, Christgau has reviewed more than 14,000 albums. Many of those reviews are collected in his "Consumer Guides," encyclopedic collections of short, intricate, often hilarious and occasionally bitchy reviews punctuated with a letter grade, published more or less monthly since 1969. (Feel free to look up any album you can think of on his website.) He once so pissed off Lou Reed with a B+ rating that Lou snuck a rant about him onto the 1978 live album Take No Prisoners:

Critics. What does Robert Christgau do in bed? I mean, is he a toe-fucker? Man, anal retentive—"A Consumer's Guide to Rock," what a moron. "A Study," by, y'know, Robert Christgau. Nice little boxes: B-PLUS. Can you imagine working for a fucking year, and you get a B+ from some asshole in the Village Voice?

But Reed's anger only proved that Christgau's grades did matter: He's not a part of the industry, he's not currying anybody's favor, and he's disdainful of hype. When it comes down to it, who do you trust to tell you the truth about a new album? The label? The artist? Or the cranky dude who has made it his mission to be purely, aggressively honest about everything he's ever listened to for almost half a century?

"In our age of social media, we're very busy policing each other," says Ann Powers, a Christgau acolyte and music critic for NPR. "The music writers of Bob's generation came up in a different moment when really being out there with really strong opinions was revolutionary."


The Dean is a slow adopter to our age of social media— he only joined Twitter recently—but his strongest opinions and quirks still resonate there: His recent review of an album from the indie-rock group tUnE-yArDs set off a minor kerfuffle for, in the words of fellow critic Jessica Hopper, reviewing a female musician's body along with her music. For some, his writing, especially now, can be #problematic: An older white guy who arguably started many of the conversations about gender and race in music, he's got no interest in all the self-policing. He chooses, in his words, "not to feed the trolls."

For now, Christgau has another focus, and another method of provocation. With the soup bowl now pushed to the side, he's reading the final proof of his new memoir, Going Into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man, making last-minute edits. In the preface, he writes …

I'm a rock critic for Chrissake, only a teensy bit famous no matter how much of my small pond I hog, who decided early on that intimacy with the truly famous would mess up his response mechanisms and analytic equilibrium. Between my hitchhiking miles and my slum apartments, I've had my share of adventures, but nothing all that spine-chilling or at all epic. I've never overdone drugs or alcohol. Although I write more about fucking than some think appropriate, the nearest I come to a sexual kink is how healthy my appetite is.


The book contains some well-worn Christgau anecdotes: the time he threw a piece of pie at Willis during an industry function, or the time he drank too much champagne at a junket and dubbed himself the Dean of American Rock Critics in the first place, with no idea that the title would stick. But really, the book is about two love stories: one with Dibbell, and the other with popular music. For sure, there is plenty of sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll, but the drugs are usually being done by someone else, the rock 'n' roll is parsed through a strictly critical lens, and the sex is mostly with his wife, though it is often described in porno-level detail. But even that last part comes as no surprise to those who know him. "This is something about Bob," says critic and longtime friend Greil Marcus. "He has no sense of privacy."


This frankness extends, at times, to the private lives of others. In one section of the memoir, Christgau writes about Ellen Willis being raped by an intruder on the first-floor landing of the couple's shared apartment on East 8th Street. Willis had made that fact public through her work (she died of lung cancer in 2006), and her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz, spoke about her mother's rape in a recent interview with the Cut, but Christgau still felt it necessary to clear the passage with Ellen's husband, Stanley Aronowitz, who encouraged him to keep it in the book, as both men felt her reaction was a testament to her toughness and character. It's a difficult section to read for many reasons, not the least of which is Bob's initial reaction to the attack: "I responded clumsily at best, and have long regretted that later that night we had sex," he writes. It's one of many times he matter-of-factly recalls bad behavior in the blunt way sometimes used by the truly repentant—those who feel an almost compulsive need to confess their sins in the starkest, least-forgivable way.

But Going Into the City is mostly about the fever pitch of Christgau's own path. He's a kid in Queens, his brain on fire for literature and music and ideas. He's a student at Dartmouth, concerned less with his English degree than he is with losing his virginity. He's dancing up front at CBGB's or the Palladium or Irving Plaza with Carola, blissfully unaware of any debauchery that might be going on around him. And through it all, he's listening, he's thinking, he's living and breathing pop music as though, as Marcus puts it, "somebody reached out to him and said, 'You must devote your life to this, and if you ever slack off, you'll be betraying not only yourself and not only people out in the world, but something higher that we can't even name.'"


Carola was integral to the completion of the memoir, editing behind him as he wrote and recalling facts that he couldn't. She's signed off on the finished product, even the part where her husband describes another woman's "exceptionally moist and succulent cunt." It doesn't faze her: Her anatomy is its own minor character in Bob's writing, as are her critical ideas. She's as reserved as he is vociferous, but delivers her opinions just as decisively; the two celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary in 2014 and have a daughter, Nina. They finish each other's sentences, recall one another's memories, bicker, and radiate adoration. Dibbell's novel, The Only Ones, will be published in mid-March, just a few weeks after Going to the City.

The pair played an important role in Ann Powers' life, and she has great admiration for them still. "They were professional mentors," she tells me, "both of them really as writing mentors, but also just in the classic way that writers take other writers under their wing. One thing I love about Bob and Carola is, if you hang out with them, you can see their dialogue about culture, about music. It informs everything Bob does."


Marriage is such a part of Christgau's identity that it has come, in some ways, to define his worldview. "I'm an optimist," he says. "But a large part of that is a function of the time in which I grew up. There was a porcelain bubble of time in which journalists and recording artists could make a decent living. I don't know if it's replicable. But marriage is not a struggle, and I'm lucky, though part of it was my doing, in having found a woman to spend my life with."

For Dibbell though, having a happy marriage does not necessarily make it uncomplicated. Writing to Ann Powers and Evelyn McDonnell about contributing an essay to their anthology Rocks She Wrote, she explained, with signature pragmatic panache, some of her unique challenges as Christgau's spouse:

I knew my grasp of the music was far from authoritative, and—let's not be coy about about this—I would never have got into the business if I hadn't been Bob Christgau's wife, but I also figured I could write most of the other guys under the table, and I thought that ought to prove something. But what? I didn't like to kid myself that my little foray into the world of the musical penis would trickle down to other women, but I certainly felt more honor than my own depended on my acquitting myself with authenticity and flair.


Since 1974 (with a quick blip in 1971), the Village Voice has run a year-end critics' poll called Pazz and Jop that essentially functioned as the Grammys for true music nerds; Christgau's time at the helm came to an end after the Voice's new owners, New Times Media, fired him in 2006 after more than 30 years at the paper. (Disclosure: I've met Bob socially through my fiancé, a former Voice writer.) Many critics were outraged, including longtime New Yorker critic Sasha Frere Jones, who in 2007 told NPR, "He was one of three or four people who invented rock criticism. When you fire Bob Christgau, you know, it's a slap in the face to so many of us in so many ways."


"It wasn't about musical taste," says Chuck Eddy, the former Voice music editor let go shortly before Christgau. "It was the taste in what the music section should be. New Times didn't like thinking. They wanted it to be more shoe leather and manly. More 'get out the story' and less 'this is what I think.' They wanted album reviews pegged to release dates. Bob made it so we would sometimes write about albums that came out years ago."

That kind of cerebral, ambitious music writing exists less and less these days, particularly in the mainstream outlets. "I've started reading Consequence of Sound," Christgau says now. "And Pitchfork has gotten better."

Many of the writers he mentored over the years now work with Rolling Stone, and as he discusses founder/publisher Jann Wenner's unyielding control over the magazine and their 2014 year-end list, Christgau throws up his hands, coming dangerously close to sending a pile papers flying. "They made the two top albums of the year the completely drab Bruce Springsteen album and that U2 album … [Springsteen] didn't make a very good record … It just looks sycophantic. It looks as if he really wants to be friends with these people, and he will always do them a favor because he is awe of them."


As for the awe he inspires himself, Christgau's devotees are smaller in number these days than in his Voice years, but they're still extraordinarily dedicated, particularly among a small community who came together in the comments section of Expert Witness, the MSN blog he started after leaving the Voice. (He's since moved on to the Medium site Cuepoint.) "The Witnesses are the greatest experience of my professional life," Christgau says. "Most of them are very married kind of guys, but I'm so very married that it makes sense."

He credits the Witnesses with helping him to stay current. Nick Farruggia, at 25 years old, is one of the youngest members of the group; he first heard of Christgau when he was 15 and trying to branch out musically. During the hours and hours he spent researching music on the internet, he began to notice that the same critic's name kept appearing in nearly every Wikipedia entry. (At first, "I thought he was really pompous and pretentious," he admits now.)


Eventually though, Christgau became a kind of reference book for all the things Farruggia was curious about in music. He found the Expert Witness blog, and quickly mixed in with its surprisingly robust comment community: The Witnesses meet up in person occasionally, usually at shows by Wussy, an Ohio indie-rock band that has been Christgau's favorite for the last few years.

"It sounds so weird, to be honest," Farruggia says. "We have a hard time explaining it to our spouses that there is this group of people who all have respect for this one older guy, and who collectively constitute this amazing group of friends."


If Expert Witness is essential to the Christgau diehards, it's an even more necessary outlet for the author himself. "There's the sense that there is just not enough time for him to get everything out that he needs to get out," Farruggia says. On the day after Christmas, there were 12 new reviews posted to the site, including Azealia Banks (she got an A); Wu-Tang Clan, Nicki Minaj, and a surprising rave for Iggy Azalea (A- for each); and honorable mentions for Lecrae, Buck 65, Tricky, Big Sean, T.I., Freddie Gibbs and Madlib, Run the Jewels, Earl Sweatshirt, and Ghostface Killah.

All of this stuff is written in his apartment office, where a letter addressed to "Robert Dibbell" is tacked to the door. The floor is littered with unfilled prescriptions, magazine subscription cards, and typewritten letters on onion-skin paper, Christgau writes his reviews in Word Perfect 5.1: "It's a great program," he insists, a bit defensively. He writes and listens so much that he has a fairly constant backlog of reviews. He shrugs. "I've spent the last 40 years in this office. This is what I do."


Christgau is first and foremost a critic, but he's also a passionate editor, teacher, and mentor. Currently, he's a visiting arts professor at NYU; on a recent Thursday, he held court in the small classroom wearing a baggy, bright-yellow Sex Pistols T-shirt. Sylvester's "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" played from a boom box on his desk: The night's discussion topic was disco, a genre he feels most critics got wrong, because they didn't get that it was about the dancing as much as anything else. The class conversation was fairly lackluster until he mentioned EDM, which sent the undergrads into a tizzy: They argued that as a label, it's far too broad—what about deep house or trance?


In 20 years, it will all be under the same umbrella, Bob asserted. "I mean, the Civil Wars, God help us, are called a rock band, and so are the Foo Fighters. And I don't like them either, but for different reasons." But he allowed that perhaps his students know more about the topic than he does, then rattled off a number of seemingly obscure names that the class seized upon. In the moment, duking it out over what, exactly, dubstep means, he was less the Dean of American Rock Critics and more of an enthusiast, eager to hear what his students had to recommend so that later, at home, he could listen and think it over and then offer his thoughts, typed up in Word Perfect 5.1.

To the extent that Christgau is nonchalant about anything, he's nonchalant about his substantial legacy. "One thing that's become clear to me," he says, "is that for people who went to college in New York City in the '80s and '90s, I was a kind of rite of passage. Often people from outside the city would come to Columbia or whatever and start picking up the Voice and get to know my name. Obviously, some of them would hate me, but some of them would think I was really cool. Like I like to say, I bet you anything Barack Obama read me in 1981. I'll bet you anything. He was exactly the kind of person who would do that."


Leah Carroll posts stuff here and tweets here. Her first book will be published with Hachette/Grand Central in 2016. Lead photo by the author.


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