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Jeff Simon: RIP, Village Voice: America's alternative newspaper

Jeff Simon

Jay Rosen has been renowned as a journalism professor at NYU and one of the toughest and most esteemed press critics in America for many years. His blog is called PressThink.

You could, of course, subscribe to the Voice, too, which I did with great enthusiasm and delight for a couple of decades.

The 21st century zombie incarnation of the Village Voice finally gave up the ghost last week. Half of its staff was laid off. The remainder will be there to archive what's left.

That, I submit, is a hugely important enterprise for a simple reason: The Village Voice was probably the greatest alternative newspaper America ever had. Its influence was well-nigh universal for about half a century.

If the New York Times was – and remains – the world's idea of an American newspaper of record, the Village Voice was the greatest newspaper of intellectual and cultural pleasure America ever had. It was a perfect exemplar of R. Buckminster Fuller's axiom, "Think globally, act locally."

It isn't that alternative papers haven't been important and splendid elsewhere during the time the Voice has been the leader of the pack. (It was founded in 1956; one of its founders was Norman Mailer.) Just to name two, the late, lamented Boston Phoenix and the L.A. Weekly were, at their best, truly great alternative weeklies.

But the Voice was a national inspiration, a national pleasure and a national treasure. During its heyday, local Artvoice – quite obviously – took inspiration from the Village Voice.

The Village Voice ownership change of 2005 was the death knell, along with consumers' changing media consumption habits. When such characteristic Voice sensibilities as Nat Hentoff (whose gig began in 1958) and Robert Christgau were cashiered out of the paper, the handwriting was on the wall – in big red  letters. The paper has been digital only since September 2017. (Its fine movie critic Bilge Ebiri was among those there until the bitter end.)

Gusto began at this newspaper in 1977. Some of us in the arts department back then (who put out Gusto under Terry Doran's editorship) thought of the Voice as our distant, scruffy but metropolitan cousins. Because of Buffalo's virulent avant-garde culture of the '70s and part of the '80s, we were covering a lot of the same things in a different way and the whole situation was delightful.

News Classical Music Critic John Dwyer, especially, was writing about UB's Creative Associates and friends at UB and elsewhere in a way that would mutate and migrate to the pages of the Voice and the Times. (Terry Riley's epochal "In C" for instance, premiered by the Creative Associates in New York.) The artists who founded Hallwalls, Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman, and were being covered by Anthony Bannon here, were soon mainstays of American art in Manhattan and elsewhere.

Voice jazz critics Gary Giddins and Stanley Crouch were crucial to all of jazz thinking for decades. When Buffalo State professor Chuck Mancuso brought them to Buff State for a festival, they were both flabbergasted in Mancuso's car to hear the quality of jazz pouring forth from Buffalo radio at the time (WEBR and WBFO). It was in total contrast to what was hopelessly compromised on radio in New York.

The News' Dale Anderson was a regular respondent to Robert Christgau's "Pazz and Jop" Poll in the Voice.

The Voice's Andrew Sarris, largely through his book "The American Cinema," was one of the three film critics I learned the most from – the others being Pauline Kael and my primal influence as a writer, Dwight Macdonald.

That was the joy of the Voice for those of us who were inventing Gusto as we went along. The example of the Voice was to show us that just about everything is possible.

TV criticism, for instance, turned into undeniable literature with Michael Arlen in the New Yorker. But John Leonard of the Times, Life Magazine and New York Magazine blew it wide open, as did James Wolcott and Tom Carson at the Voice.

The immense national presence and pleasure of the Voice was, among other things, downplayed feloniously in the stories about its 21st century zombie life and its final demise. A lot of that, no doubt, had to do with the sort of journalistic consultants on the rise in our time whose laudable localist philosophy is all-too-often – and not laudably -–turned into provincialism.

It wasn't uncommon to read one writer who blamed the Voice's troubles on the changing nature of Greenwich Village.

I have no doubt that particular change is real and important to the Voice's troubles. But I also have no doubt a solid understanding of exactly what kind of national alternative newspaper it was in its heyday might have kept it alive.

Now what? It's the obvious question, now that the Voice is a goner.

Crucial, I think, to American culture is that some of America's great book publishers get together to dive into the Voice's archives for a truly great anthology of the Voice's best and most distinctive work.

The only Voice anthology, other than those published by its individual writers, that I'm aware of goes back to 1982. It's "The Village Voice Anthology 1956-1980: Thirty Five Years of Writing from the Village Voice." Its editor was one-time Voice Editor Geoffrey Stokes, who collaborated with Eliot Fremont-Smith on the investigation that all but snuffed the reputation of writer Jerzy Kosinski.

The book's roster of contributors was: Jules Feiffer, Ellen Willis, Alexander Cockburn, James Ridgeway, Richard Goldstein, Donald Barthelme, Edward Hoagland, Ed Sorel, Fremont-Smith, Greil Marcus, Richard Meltzer, Ross Westzsteon, Pete Hamill, Joel Oppenheimer, Frances Fitzgerald and Michael Harrington, among others.

To a huge extent, the greatest ignominy of the Voice's tragic demise was the shrunken purview of so many of its obituarists.

New York as a language – which Rosen learned to speak from the Voice available in Buffalo stores – is where conflicts can become loud and sudden. Brash, brazen contumely is its basic street talk. Take David Remnick's unfortunate invitation to Steve Bannon to participate in the annual celebrity fest put on by Remnick's venerable magazine, the New Yorker.

Remnick's plan, in essence – was simple and inarguable: a very tough, open public interview with one of the most powerful and embattled thinkers in Trumpville. Unfortunately, when word got out among other celebrities about whom they'd be sharing a festival with, people hit the ceiling. Such guests as Jim Carrey and Jimmy Fallon responded, in so many words, "Are you kidding? In that event, count me out."

So to preserve his traditional event, Remnick sensibly announced his public grilling of Bannon would occur under totally different auspices and in another time and place.

Every time I read about the whole affair, my most constant thought was, how I wish I were reading about all this from the heroically scruffy and witty staff of the Village Voice.

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