Too Verbose, Too Meandering, Just Not Worth It

Too Verbose, Too Meandering, Just Not Worth It
Reviewer: 2bitmonkey
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Going into the City:
Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man
384 pages
February 24, 2015
ISBN 10:
ISBN 13:

The Dean of American Rock Critics, Robert Christgau takes us on a heady tour through his life and times.

I've said this again and again: Often one's rating of a book — in fact, one's entire experience with a book — can be tainted by expectations. I don't necessarily mean high or low expectations, though I mean that too. I mean expecting a book to be one thing and then having it be something totally different. In my mind I have a certain expectation for what a memoir by Robert Christgau, the "Dean of American Rock Critics," a man who spent his prime living in the '60s and '70s NYC, who was an integral part of the "scene", who worked at the Village Voice for decades, who apologizes in advance for his recounting of his many sexual experiences, should read like. I'm imagining a cross between Hunter S. Thompson and Iggy Pop. This book is not that. Christgau isn't gonzo and he isn't wild, even if everything around him was. Somehow, his story (and perhaps his real life) manages to miss all of the excitement and capture only the little bit of that era that was dull and without heart or soul.

My issues with the book probably begin with his choice of which portion of his life that Christgau decided to devote time to. He is most known for his "Consumer Guide" albums reviews, which he began in 1969, his annual Village Voice "Pazz & Jop" music polls, began in the early 1970's, and for being a senior editor and chief music critic at the Voice, a position he attained in 1974, and staying at the Voice through 2006. Yet the dense 365 page book doesn't even reach the decade of the 1960's until page 150. That's 3/7 of the book slogging through by far the most uninteresting period in Christgau's life. I don't mean to say that this section could have been cut in half; I mean to say that it could have been cut down by 80%. From that point it picks up marginally, in fits and starts, but still suffers from a failure to get to the point - the point being his time at the Voice and beyond. In Chapter 10 (of 11) - literally page 284 - Christgau finally gets to the Voice/CBGB era. Although even here he meanders a bit at first. And at second, and at third ... CBGB's gets its first mention at around page 300! When you consider that the final chapter is generally about his wife's marital infidelity, hopefully you can understand my frustration.

And that is before we get to the writing. Christgau discusses the passing of fellow critic Lester Bangs, offering that the two weren't close because "he thought I was flaunting my Ivy League diploma when I argued ideas with him, as I did with almost everyone." Mr. Bangs — I couldn't agree with you more. I consider myself an intelligent person who has read hundreds of books, countless memoirs, and many books far more highbrow than the memoir of a rock critic. So why is Going into the City one of the most challenging books I've read in a long time? Sometimes (say, when I read Kierkegaard) I know that a failure to understand the author's work is on me. I need to become smarter before I can properly understand what is on the page. Other times it's the author that's failed. If I can't follow your narrative, or keep track of the characters in your life, or know how things tie together or why they're relevant - maybe that's on you. This time it's on Christgau. For a linear memoir this story is damn hard to follow.

When all is said and done, it's not terrible. Two stars means "OK". There is some material here that entertained me briefly and a sentence or two that made me stop and think. But if I had to do it again ... I'd read the Consumer Guides instead.