I first discovered Robert Christgau in the hallowed pages of Creem Magazine. It was nearly 30 years ago, and I was a music-crazy high school kid trying to come to terms with not just the two decades of rock ‘n’ roll I’d already missed, but this punk rock thing I was reading about, but not hearing. You gotta remember that, back in the day, not only was there no internet, there were no radio stations in Fresno that were playing anything more adventurous than The Cars, and everybody I knew were on a steady diet of Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Kiss and AC/DC. So I bought album after album without hearing a note; based entirely on what people wrote about them. That’s just what you did.
Punk Rock changed my life, for sure, but Creem was the catalyst. (And The Clash was the agent, but that’s another story.)
Since I spent every penny of disposable income on records, I didn’t have the money for a subscription, so I went to Thrifty’s Drugs (Tower Records wasn’t selling magazines yet) every day during the middle of every month because that’s when I noticed it would show up.
There was no doubt that it was just about my favorite thing in the universe. I devoured each issue, over and over again, month after month. And my favorite thing of alll was Christgau’s Consumer Guide.
The weird thing about Christgau’s Consumer Guide was that it wasn’t in the back of the book, like reviews usually are, but in the front — just after the letters section, I (probably wrongly) recall. And unlike the other reviews, which were short essays written by several writers, the Consumer Guide was a single page with paragraph-length reviews of maybe 15-20 records, all written by one guy, Robert Christgau.
At the time, I thought that might be the coolest thing I’d ever seen. Man, did I want that job!
I guess that I still think that it’s pretty cool: in the nearly three decades hence, I don’t think I’ve missed a single edition of the Consumer Guide. Of course I had noticed early on that the Consumer Guide was a reprint from the Village Voice (which I originally assumed as a super, super cool rock magazine that I couldn’t find at Thrifty’s), and by the time that Creem folded, I was reading the Voice at in the Fresno State library every Friday prior to my airshift at KFSR. Now, of course, I just catch them on the Voice’s website.
Of course, it helps that he was a hell of a writer with an uniquely witty voice, and the had ability to encapsulate the essence of an album, what he thought about it and why he thought what he thought, all within a few sentences. And the grades. It doesn’t seem so weird now that grades (or stars) have become shorthand for an actual written judgement of a piece of art, but the actual grading of an album seemed like such a crazy thing to me.
Of course, nowadays, all record reviews are pretty much a paragraph and a grade, but I think that this is due more towards the explosion of releases, and the fact that rock mags believe that quantity is quality. They’re wrong of course: most of their “reviews” are little more than who the artist is and a comparison to another artist and the names of a couple of songs. And the three stars or B+, of course. But blaming Christgau for this is like blaming Led Zeppelin for Whitesnake: sure, they stole the formula, but they left out the part that made it great.
Of course, the Consumer Guides have been collected into books: both covers are gone from my copy of his 1970s book, and the 1980s book is pretty worn out, as well. Not so much the 1990s book, but that’s mostly because it’s all on his website. And not just the reviews, but also a plethora of other writing: the yearly Pazz & Jop essays; the monthly “Rock&Roll&” column; reviews for other magazines like Playboy, Spin and Blender, and loads of other things. It’s all there. For artists that he really likes and who have had long careers — Neil Young, Sonic Youth — it’s fun to read several decades worth of reviews all at once, and watch how his personal relationship to their music grows and changes over time.
Naturally, I don’t agree with everything that he writes. (I’m not even sure that I agree with everything that I write.) I never really got his love for Archers of Loaf, and think that his outright dismissal of Robyn Hitchcock was based upon a misinterpreted lyric, but at this point, I’m attuned to where my taste venn diagrams with his taste, and he still leads me to things that I might otherwise have missed.
If one of the precepts of the Long Tail is that we all need filters to help us find what we like in the huge morass of product out there, then for a very long time Robert Christgau has been one of my filters. And I have no doubt that he will continue to be one until he chooses not to be.
Of course, he has enemies. Nowadays, I’m sure that the temptation is to see him as an old man in an young man’s game. Not me. I see him as someone who has devoted his life to and made his living by writing about music, mostly rock ‘n’ roll. And I still think that’s just about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.
Books by Robert Christgau: