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Editor’s choice: Christgau’s ‘Going Into the City – Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man’

Going Into The City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man – A Memoir by Robert Christgau; 367 pages, $34.99. Legendry, as if we didn’t know, is seldom to be trusted. So no, writes Robert Christgau here, it’s not true that when he was the music editor of the Village Voice that he’d entertain some of his writers at home naked. Yes, he edited a lot at home, he explains on page 289. And “since Carola and I didn’t even own a fan for a while, I often received writers shirtless in the summertime, but not, as I recall in my underwear and certainly not naked – the source of that tale, the great Lester Bangs, never let facts ruin a colorful story.”

Once upon a time, it was one of the delicious paradoxes of American journalism that its movie and pop music – and occasionally television – critics were so good that they were wildly readable for their shirtless and even naked prose even by people who didn’t give a flying fig for their subjects. Christgau – who has, rather regrettably, actually been called “the dean of American rock critics” with a straight face – was also, as music editor of the Village Voice in some of its very best years, the man responsible for incredible pages of music in review, from the likes of great jazz critic Gary Giddins and Greil Marcus, among others.

A great deal of that literary magnetism came from Christgau’s time, as well as his writing and judgment. When, for instance, a musical performer like Patti Smith – who was just in Buffalo as part of Babel – presents herself, it is a golden gift to just about everyone in her proximity, not to mention those in the critic’s trade.

When James Wolcott wrote his memoir of some of the same years and people and media, he quite properly called it “Lucking Out.” One might well say that here is the other shoe dropping on the floor from that great story about some of the most vigorous and readable prose in the past 50 years.

For those often put off by Christgau’s obsessive epistemological self-examinations, you’ll find this altogether breezier, more compelling and fascinating from beginning to end. One of the better books about its time and subject. – Jeff Simon