Going into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man, A Memoir
by Robert Christgau
Reviewed by Byron Spooner
Back in the days right after the extinction of the dinosaurs, when I was still new to New York City, it was a pretty frequent thing to spot Robert Christgau riding his crappy-looking bike around the East Village, his shoulder-length hair flapping in the breeze, or to espy him hanging around CBGBs, Hurrah’s and the Bottom Line, where he exuded a mad, if unabashedly boyish, exuberance; like some kid who just couldn’t sit still. My music friends and I read him and the merry band of critics he edited in the Village Voice where weekly he affirmed that writing (and reading) about popular music didn’t have to be an exercise reserved exclusively for teenyboppers debating which band member they’d most like to help them with their homework. Christgau’s guys were light years beyond the sycophants at Rolling Stone (although not as funny as the smartasses in charge at Creem and Punk). I even submitted some of my own badly-typed reviews over-the-transom-style only to get one of Christgau’s encouraging, personal, helpful, well-thought-out rejections in return. His Consumer Guides were for years the second-most-important fixture in my bathroom.
From “Livin’ for the City” to Midnight Cowboy, Paul Simon to “Piss Factory,” Bruce Springsteen to The Great Gatsby, to Lush Life and I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp popular culture is rampant with stories that can be roughly categorized as “A Stranger Comes to Town.” Robert Christgau’s memoir, Going into the City (Dey Street Books, 2015), tells “A Stranger Comes to Town” story that takes place in the lower Manhattan of the sixties and seventies; young writer arrives in the city with little clue and carves out a place in the bohemian underground, fame follows. In this and other aspects it is directly comparable to Patti Smith’s Just Kids; Christgau and Smith were contemporaries, habitués of the same scene, and probably crossed paths over the years, though you’d never know it from either’s book. Just Kids is the better book, and the deeper one, because Smith develops Robert Mapplethorpe as a character, giving her someone to bounce off of, grow with, making the book as much about him as it is about Smith and New York City. By contrast Going in to the City doesn’t develop Christgau’s lovers and girlfriends—or his fellow writers for that matter—in any depth; they exist to move the story along and to contextualize and explain his reactions and emotions. Smith also keeps her eye squarely on the ball; writing plainly and well about the various characters inhabiting the Village and discovering her creative process in a fashion that keeps the reader wishing they’d been there with her—or making them believe they were. Smith’s Chelsea Hotel is alive where Christgau’s East Village, a very lively place indeed in those years, is flat, just a place where he lives. Instead of actual characters Christgau writes discursively about his studies of Coleridge and other ancient poets, and the evolution of his thinking on a variety of subjects, most of them obscure, seemingly for the sake of obscurity. It’s surprising that he dwells on this given that he seems to have arrived late at some of the great movements of his age—feminism, the peace movement etc. He name checks other writers and thinkers, semi-obscure to semi-famous, most of whom people outside New York intellectual circles will never have heard of nor particularly care about. He even tells us his IQ (twice!) making one want to holler “Awright awreddy!”
But it is when Going into the City attempts to go personal that it really looses its way going into detail (meaning ‘on and on’) about his social/love/sex life. Especially egregious is the detailed confessional of his beloved wife’s dalliance with a colleague, whom he names, while Christgau was distracted working 90 hour weeks pulling together the ‘70s edition of his Consumer Guide compilation. This lack of focus is weird coming from someone who can cram more ideas and information into a twenty-five-word capsule description of a record as anyone in print.
One wonders at such choices. Throughout the book there is precious little insight into the music world, which is what I presume everyone buying the book is looking for. Back in those prehistoric times when I’d see Christgau pedaling gawkily up St. Marks Place, I probably wondered what was going through his head—maybe what he thought of the new Ramones album or the latest Al Green, what it might be like to have a conversation with him—but I don’t think I, or anybody, ever thought, “What’s his sex life like?” though that’s one of the main questions his memoir seeks to answer.