Legendary Rock Scribe's Memoir Light on Music

L-R: Well-known music journalists Chuck Eddy, Joe Levy and Robert Christgau at the 2010 Pop Conference in Seattle
L-R: Well-known music journalists Chuck Eddy, Joe Levy and Robert Christgau at the 2010 Pop Conference in Seattle
Joe Mabel via Flickr

Going Into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man - A Memoir By Robert Christgau Dey Street Books, 384 pp., $27.99

Though the "Dean of American Rock Critics" gave himself that title in 1970 as part of a joke (but has held onto it ever since), Robert Christgau could justifiably have been bestowed that title by an independent committee as well.

For four and a half decades -- and chiefly for his 30-plus-year stint at The Village Voice -- Christgau has penned wide-ranging opinions on everyone from John Coltrane, Muddy Waters, and Otis Redding to the Grateful Dead, the Clash and Grandmaster Flash. And largely on record and concert reviews and opinion pieces (the musician interview, he admits, was never his forte).

But if it's Christgau on his life in music you want to read about, this is not the book for you; try instead his Any Old Way You Choose It. That's because the vast majority of this memoir is indeed a memoir about the author's life...of which music is just a portion.

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That means the book is almost half over before he goes to work for the Voice, and then the narrative ends about the same time the '70s do. Christgau instead rapid-fires a seemingly endless litany of names both unknown (relatives, schoolmates, teachers) and known (artists, poets, authors, filmmakers) and his impressions of them, their place in his life, and their work (Dreiser! "Rime of the Ancient Mariner"! Crime and Punishment! "Casey at the Bat"! Jules and Jim!).

And after a while, frankly, it gets pretty tedious. We find out more about Christgau's intense fucking with a series of girlfriends/wives/playthings than intense listening. And just when he does begin to wax interestingly on music -- largely punk -- it quickly turns into another direction.

And almost his entire recollection of any musician encounter is a page-and-a-half story about an afternoon with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Though, he at least tells you that's all you get.

Going into the City is indeed a memoir. And it's no fault at all of his that Christgau writes about his life the way he sees fit. But it seems to be far more about a generation and a city and a man's women than it is music or the rock-crit author's self-immersing into it.

And that, ultimately, makes it something of a disappointment.

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