Talking Back to The Dean

By Robert Christgau (Dey Street Books)

After a considerable dry spell, my reading life has significantly picked up (possibly due to a sorely unsolicited amount of "free time"). I’ve hungrily paged through some great books in the past few weeks like NYHC: New York Hardcore 1980-1990 by Tony Rettman, A Drinking Life by Pete Hammill, Wake Me When It’s Over, the memoir of former Luna Lounge owner Rob Sacher, Diaries 86-89 by Miles Hunt (he of The Wonder Stuff) and, of course, Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth. Given my particular predilections, I’m obviously still a sucker for oral histories, tomes about NYC lore and good ol’ rock bios. What can I say? That’s just the type of crap I like.

So you can imagine, then, my enthusiasm upon learning about Going Into The City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man by Robert Christgau, the so-called “Dean of American Rock Critics.” As it’s a memoir purportedly detailing the fabled journalist’s days in the rock trenches as a nascent music scribe in the still-endearingly-gritty New York City of the 1970s, one might be hard pressed to imagine a book better suited to my tastes. Hell, it even boasts a fetching, vintage shot of the Bowery on the cover. Clearly, I was going to devour this book whole.

In exceptionally short order, though, I had something of an epiphany, and it’s one that I’m probably going to catch -- nay, earn -- a bit of shit for. I really don’t like Robert Christgau's writing. Like, at all.

I’ve never met the man, but I’m reasonably certain that he’s an exceptionally nice, funny guy. I don’t wish him ill in the slightest. By all accounts, he single-handedly blazed a trail for myriad other rock critics to follow. Kudos are undeniably due.

That said, I barely made it 24 pages into this book before wanting to throw it across the room. After I resisted that urge, I started skimming through it…often skipping entire chapters.

For a start, there are precious few things I’m less interested in than detailed accounts of the man’s romantic endeavors, but…he goes there. Fair enough -- it’s his memoir, after all -- but I doubt I’m alone in harboring this opinion.

Beyond that, under further consideration, I’m really not a fan of his grading system (and don’t even get me started on his self-proclaimed title). To my mind, I think it set something of a bad precedent for other, invariably less considerate writers to follow in his wake.

You could never make a credible argument against Christgau’s chops, though. I mean, after attentively listening, digesting, and reviewing thousands upon thousands of albums over the years (to say nothing of the amazing live performances he's witnessed), the man clearly knows his stuff, even if it’s still filtered through his own tastes. In that regard, I usually respect what he has to say, even if I don’t always agree with him.

But I really just don’t like the way the man actually writes. He’s obviously light years more accomplished than me, and I'm hardly one to be criticizing someone for the crime of being verbose, so who am I to be chucking stones? But I genuinely find his style to be needlessly thick and often laborious, seemingly straining at once to be both hip and conversational, but still unable to resist employing a ridiculous amount of impenetrable vocabulary.

Listen, I absolutely LOVE language. Personally speaking, I like to fully avail myself of a wide array of flowery and arguably pretentious, SAT-friendly words in my writing because, simply put, why the Hell not? Words were meant to be used and shared. One should take full advantage of whatever’s in their arsenal to best express themselves and credibly flesh-out their concepts. The masterful (but measured) use of a few choice descriptors is what makes reading exciting. But, again -- and this is strictly my own opinion -- in Christgau's hands, his use of the esoteric (granted, a relative term) is positively masturbatory.

To illustrate this point, I picked fifteen pages at random and jotted down the terms I was unfamiliar with. Here ya go…..










Now, granted, these are all perfectly valid terms (and I dutifully looked them all up). I suppose I must admit that I am now more enlightened for having read them. But when Christgau so liberally peppers words like these throughout his already meandering prose, it just feels so affected, especially when -- a sentence later -- he incongruously employs a bit of dumb hip-hop lingo a la "When the first Ramones album dropped….”

Now that I’ve given the sacred cow a swift kick in the udders, I should point out that I'm not yet giving up on the book. Who knows…maybe I'll have a mea culpa post to write when I finally finish it. - Alex Smith

This article first appeared on Alex's blog Flaming Pablum.

alexMr. Smith is a native New Yorker who lives in downtown Manhattan with his wife and kids, use to work for The Man, blogs for Flaming Bablum and writes for other periodicals.