City Paper is not for tourists
Pencil test. Brainpan noise. Pufferfish. Of all the cockeyed locutions of David Carr, my favorite was “the really big typewriter.” As in, what editors get to pound away on, each key a different writer. It was a classic Carr metaphor, wonky and outsized, its power fantasy—Carr would describe himself as a “Clydesdale typist”—undercut by ungainly comedy.
And it was both diagnostic and therapeutic. When Carr, then editor of Washington City Paper, asked how he could get me to write more, my answer was to the point: Give me a job. But City Paper didn’t hire full-time arts writers, so in October 1995, he handed me the section as editor. And now he was trying to get me to understand that perhaps every hole in the paper wasn’t best patched by yet another piece I’d written myself.
It’s some cruel kismet that Carr’s death on Feb. 12 fell less than two weeks before the publication of Going into the City, a fond, proud, and perceptive memoir by Robert Christgau, a foundational figure in alternative journalism during his decades at the Village Voice, the wryly (and tipsily, it turns out) self-anointed Dean of American Rock Critics.
When, in the days after Carr’s death, old friends and colleagues offered their reminiscences, the undertow was powerful. I felt as if I’d been wormholed back to the home planet and offered a map from which an entire hemisphere had been torn away.
During my time with Carr, I’d been young and anxious and bad at taking advice. Like many novice writers, I was too enamored of cutting capers on the page. I wouldn’t understand much of what Carr told me for years. But while I was struggling for my bearings, I was guided by Christgau’s example.
My City Paper had two father figures. One of them just happened to never have worked there. I’m pretty sure I didn’t meet Christgau until 2002, when he signed the title page of my copy of Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough, a collection of essays written in his honor. Being the Dean was both a joke and dead serious—what other rock critic got a festschrift for his 60th birthday?
On almost every count, Christgau was the yang to Carr’s yin, which he bears out in his memoir. Where Carr told his writers to get out from behind their desks, a young Christgau “lacked the journalist’s schmoozing gene as well as the cub reporter’s byline-grubbing hustle.” Where Carr prized his proximity to boldface names, Christgau “decided early on that intimacy with the truly famous would mess up his response mechanisms and analytic equilibrium.” Where Carr once confessed to me that he’d given up on arts writing after he “ran out of words,” for almost 50 years, Christgau’s criticism, much of it in the microbursts of his Consumer Guide columns, has been driven by his “zeal at pursuing the fundamental human task of incremental growth.” If Carr was a scoop-hungry partisan of the front of the book, Christgau “wasn’t big on that great distorting fallacy of journalistic criticism, Getting There First.”
It’s telling that Carr’s origin story is one of violent self-transformation, a hard-won redemption narrative. And Christgau’s book is about “a fairly normal guy” who discovered early on what he was good at and got up each morning and tried to do it better.
Both lives overflow with people. Carr’s ability to have hundreds of “Close Personal Friends” was T-shirt-worthy even before he came to City Paper, and it would make him a natural on social media. Christgau’s book, which wraps up in 1985, brims with red-diaper babies, movement feminists, writers and thinkers and pushers of copy. But every now and then, the human tide parts for an appreciation of Plastic Ono Band or “Looking for the Perfect Beat” or for his and hers parsings of Steely Dan with his wife of four decades, Carola Dibbell, and we are assured that he didn’t miss his calling.
Actually, Christgau’s callings were double: rockcrit and Carola. His memoir hits its stride once both his wordsmithing and his romance have matured—when he comes into what is uniquely and joyously his. Recollections of his childhood drag because everybody’s got a more or less equivalent set of tintypes, and his years with radical culture critic Ellen Willis wobble under the strain of a love out of balance. Although his reviews’ putdowns are many and varied—Guns N’ Roses’ “One in a Million” “is disgusting because it’s heartfelt and disgusting again because it’s a grandstand play;” Art Garfunkel is a “castrato manqué”—Going into the City satisfies because it finds a Christgau built for celebration. Only prudes and curmudgeons would begrudge him his many hymns to his wife, both literary and libidinous. And when he settles in at the Voice on the other side of the desk from Lester Bangs, Nelson George, Thulani Davis, Marshall Berman, etc., he’s exuberantly helming the really big typewriter he was destined for.
Regardless of any facility with the keyboard, ultimately the best an elder can do is to steer you toward your métier so that you choose the course best suited to your temperament and talents. Writing is about finding the right scale and rhythm to express the way time flows through you, then learning to carve that line. If Carr was downhill, Christgau is slalom. I love watching downhill—the mammoth curves, the coruscant speed, the ragdoll spills. And I still think I have something to gain from it. But slalom is where I abide. All that technique, all those choppy little turns, those thousands upon thousands of gates, all so similar, each so specific, executed time after time, the separate seconds resolving into minutes, the hours compounding into days, the years into a lifetime.