Going into the City: Portrait of a
Critic as a Young Man
Dey Street Books
If a music critic ejaculates in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? That question—loosely based on an 18th century thought experiment—has been effectively rendered rhetorical by Robert Christgau's memoir Going Into the City. Epistemology and metaphysics aside, the self-appointed “dean of American rock critics” leaves few erections unchronicled in his autobiographical narrative Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man. The sexually explicit content in Going Into the City is certainly titillating, but the work's captivating aspects are largely anecdotal and definitively aural.
From 1974 to 2006, Christgau served as chief music critic at the Village Voice. His Consumer Guide column contributed about 15,000 graded, capsule reviews to the annals of popular music criticism. A shifting media landscape retired Consumer Guide, but Christgau still writes about new music and publishes reviews of albums that he rates a B-plus or higher. With his compulsive intellect and obsessive memory refocused on navel-gazing, he narrates his own life and times with the same authoritative voice and incisive contention that pervades his body of critical work. From his childhood in Queens to his studies at Dartmouth to his tenure at the Voice, Going Into the City recounts a life lived thoroughly ... with an elite soundtrack.
In the internet age, it's difficult to grok the power that Christgau wielded from his typewriter. Imagine one of your album reviews provoked Lou Reed to rant about you ... on a record. Visualize Christgau dropping the needle on his promo copy of Live: Take No Prisoners to find Reed calling him out and speculating on his sexual predilections: “Critics. What does Robert Christgau do in bed? You know, is he a toe-fucker? Man, anal-retentive—The Consumer’s Guide to Rock? What a moron! A Consumer’s Guide to Rock, man! I object to the fucking liner notes. Start studying rock ‘n’ roll? I can’t believe it.”
The Sonic Youth song “Kill Yr Idols” also name-checks Christgau: “I don't know why/ You wanna impress Christgau/ Ah let that shit die/ And find the new goal.” After Christgau published a negative live review of Sonic Youth—a band he lumped in the “pigfucker” genre alongside Big Black and Butthole Surfers—Thurston Moore briefly renamed the track “I Killed Christgau with My Big Fucking Dick.” The fact that Christgau's rock-crit take-downs provoked public professions of resentment from rock stars speaks volumes about his sphere of influence. So about the sex, Christgau's candid coital remembrances read more like erotic scripture than brassy pornography. If erotica and relentless reference to art, music and literature perturbs you, Going Into the City may not be for you. Equal parts bibliography, soundtrack, history and diary, Christgau's largely unflinching autobiography makes the grade. He prefaces his memoir with “I Am Not A Big Deal and This Happened to Me Anyway.” This expert witness thinks Christgau is a pretty big deal, but let's split the difference and call it a B-plus.