Coming from Christgau, now 63, more than half his life spent at the paper, it was a defiance you had to respect. This was especially so, since of all the supposed Village Voice “dinosaurs,” those masthead survivors who never seem to go away, nobody comes in for as much sniping as Bob. Typical is the commentary of Russ Smith, the snarkish “Mugger” of the New York Press, the most recent bottom-feeder paper whose entire existence is bound up in the fact that it is not the Voice. Smith said the merger would certainly mean “sayonara to Robert Christgau, who could then be reached at either an upstate retirement community or the publicity department of a record company.”
No doubt much of the ire directed at Christgau stems from his long-running “Consumer Guide” feature, in which he hands out letter grades to discs each month, a practice that caused Lou Reed to once refer to Xgau as “an asshole” on a live record. The subtext: School of Rock might have been a hit, but “rock as school” will never be, and what’s a 63-year-old guy who has never burned a CD got to say about pop music in this day and age anyway?
The answer is quite a lot, if you care to listen. Present from the moment rock became “serious,” Christgau, like other all-inclusive Voice critics J. Hoberman and Michael Feingold, knows everything from the beginning to now and continues to put it to the page, albeit a tad densely. Indeed, writers like Christgau—and this probably goes for Nat Hentoff, too, still batting away on his Selectric 3 and too busy to have me come by because “with the Constitution so endangered, it needs my total attention all the time”—could have existed only at the Village Voice. This was the realm of the non-J-school, self-invented, pop-cultural autodidact, a place where the high tone met the vulgar and an Everyman could hawk his expertise. It is no coincidence that many of the older Voice writers come from working-class, outer-borough backgrounds (Christgau’s father was a fireman, Richard Goldstein’s worked at the post office), people who threw in their lot with the egalitarian vision of the paper where they could write what they wanted. What’s the term limit on that, even in a journo-world desperate to “get younger”? No doubt Christgau will go to his grave positive that the Voice, the true Voice, exists only as “a left-wing, intellectual, writer’s paper,” and believe me, he is not likely to go quietly.
“It might sound strange, but people my age are much more suited to working at the Voice the way the paper is these days,” says Jarrett Murphy, a 29-year-old front-of-the- book reporter. “We came into this business knowing it was a potentially dying industry. I would have loved to have worked at the Voice when it was great. You just have to look at the 50th, see all those covers, and it gives you a chill. But you have to be realistic, deal with what is.”
It made you wonder if it might have been better to have taken the paper out and shot it, like a used-up racehorse, before, say, the humiliation of going free.
“Don’t think I would have liked that,” said Richard Goldstein, who worked at the paper for 38 years in an unparalleled career that comprised more or less inventing rock-and-roll criticism and establishing an aboveground media outlet for the gay community. This is not to mention uncounted hours of engaging in all intra-paper turf squabbles (the front-of-the-book “white boy” news writers have always battled the art-culture people in the back). Now 61, Goldstein, raised in a Bronx housing project, is one more perfect Voice Person who started reading the paper early, sussing out that a trip on the Woodlawn-Jerome line to MacDougal Street could make even him a bissel cool. Present for every regime change in the history of the paper, Goldstein will not be around for the New Times era. He was fired in the summer of 2004, after an increasingly fractious relationship with Forst.
Goldstein contends that Forst has waged a long-running gay-baiting campaign against him. “He said things to me I hadn’t heard since the playground in the Bronx. He just kept doing it. It was sick.” In 1999, in accordance with Voice policy on verbal abuse, Goldstein wrote a letter of complaint. It was after that, he says, that Forst retaliated by “taking away my job.” Goldstein was cut out of meaningful decisions at the paper. “I hired and edited Mark Schoofs, who won a Pulitzer Prize; I wrote ‘Press Clips’ when they needed someone. It wasn’t like I was slipping. Then one day Forst comes in and tells me I won’t be writing for the paper and I should just think of myself as a ‘cobbler.’ I don’t want to be maudlin, but the Voice was such a big part of my life for so long, to have it disappear was incredible.” Eventually, Goldstein wrote a letter to David Schneiderman, telling his side of the story.