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'The Dean of Rock Critics,' Robert Christgau, on a lifetime of listening

Music critic Robert Christgau (in glasses) at the 1978 Zu Festival in New York City.
Music critic Robert Christgau (in glasses) at the 1978 Zu Festival in New York City.
Ebet Roberts/Getty Images

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Robert Christgau is considered the "Dean of American Rock Critics." Since 1969 he has reviewed almost 16,000 albums for many prominent publications — most famously at the Village Voice for more than three decades.

His recently published memoir, “Going Into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man,” explores Christgau's history as a music critic and his love for New York.

Christgau spoke with The Frame's Oscar Garza about the first time he knew he wanted to write about music, why pop music is still important, and why he doesn't like listening to music on vinyl: 

Interview Highlights:

Your earliest journalistic writing was not about music. When did you first hear a song and think you had something to say about it?

I wanted to write a piece about Chuck Berry long before the Esquire column opened up, which is where I began in 1967. And, in fact, got the assignment but didn't nail it. It happened to me quite often with celebrity profiles in the '60s. I got the Aretha Franklin assignment and I didn't nail that either. In both cases I happened to have chosen artists who are hard to pin down. 

When you say you didn't nail those, is it because... 

I never wrote either. I did my preliminary interviewing and was halfway to where I was ready to write and then both artists disappeared on me. 

Not the first writer they'd done that to. 

Oh no, in neither case is this an unusual instance with these particular artists. 

What was the first story that ever got done? 

I've never written an artist profile for a major magazine. I did some for the [Village] Voice when I became music editor in '74. Bonnie Raitt and Lynyrd Skynyrd were two people I went on the road with. Going on the road with people has never been something I've been terribly interested in because, as I make clear in a lot of ways in this book, a lot of me is a homebody. I like spending time with my wife and family. If you really want to be a serious reporter, you have to put that on the back burner a little bit. 

So when was the first piece of music writing that you did that made you fall in love with the medium? 

It was about a whole bunch of things. Twenty-five hundred words, I went back to Chuck Berry, The Coasters and Little Richard. I wrote about Jefferson Airplane. I wrote about Big Maybelle for a sentence or two. I can't remember the other people, but it was about eight or nine of them. I think The Doors were in there and Love. I covered a lot of things quick, which was the way that things were done then. 

In the book, you bring up the word "pop" and the theory of pop which you defend... 

I don't, actually.

You don't? 

I use it as a term, but I do not have ever claimed to have ever formulated it appropriately. Speaking generally, it was a notion that popular culture was equally deserving of serious aesthetic consideration — that it had real political potential because it reached a much larger audience and did so with what are now being called subversive or transgressive undercurrents that we've really loved. 

There was some resistance in cultural circles to that notion that pop culture should be considered that way. Why is that still the case? 

Because people are snobs? [laughs] Because people really have no empathy for listeners who are unlike them in cultural or intellectual orientation? This battle has not been won, as far as I'm concerned. We've made some progress, for sure, but it hasn't been won. I could go on and on and on about this, but I probably shouldn't.

What's been your most recent pleasant discovery, somebody you didn't know about and played without knowing what you'd hear?

I haven't written about it yet, but this guy named Mark Kozelek — I've always thought he was a sad sack bore, [but] he made a record called "Sun Kill Moon" that's mostly about death. These death songs are really terrific. One of the things that's happened in the music I love over the past five, 10 years is that some people have gotten very old and continued to make music.

Leonard Cohen and Willie Nelson have recently made really great music about the aging process, and they're not the only ones. I find it very interesting because I'm closer to death than birth myself.

We're going through a vinyl renaissance. Do you listen to vinyl?

I never listen to vinyl, because it's so inconvenient. As a power listener who listens to music between 10 and 14 hours a day and who always has his earphones and MP3 player with him, convenience really means a lot to me. CDs are great for reviewers — you can program your changer so you listen to three songs on five consecutive records, and that's the best way to be testing things out. The way I do it is that I don't so much listen to it as play it — I hear it, rather than listen to it. One way I judge music is whether it compels me to listen to it.

Last night I played the forthcoming album by Heems. He was half of a hip-hop duo and he's from Flushing, my hometown. I listened to that album and that made me listen to it on track one. It's a wonderful thing when that happens, but it probably only happens half a dozen times a year.

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