The first rock critic
Before there was Lester Bangs, before there was Robert Christgau, before there was Dave Marsh, before there was even Greil Marcus, there was Richard Goldstein, a man with some claim to having invented the job of rock critic. I began reading Goldstein’s pieces in the Village Voice in 1966, at about the time he started his weekly column, which was titled “Pop Eye”. He was aged 22 and had actually witnessed the Exploding Plastic Inevitable; he wrote about the Velvet Underground in terms that made them sound like the most exciting thing happening that year. Which they turned out to be.
It would be more accurate to use Goldstein’s own scrupulous self-definition: “The first critic to write regularly about rock music in a major publication.” And the Voice was indeed then a major publication, a beatnik broadsheet ready-made for the incoming counterculture.
In Another Little Piece of My Heart, his new memoir of his life in the ’60s, he mentions that there is some dispute about whether he was actually the first. “A small magazine called Crawdaddy, which featured serious essays on rock, appeared a few months before my column began,” he writes. “If any of its writers want to claim that they got there first, I say, Go for it, dude! (And I’m sure you’re a dude.)”
I didn’t agree with everything he wrote. (In particular, he seemed rather too keen on the early work of the Bee Gees.) But I found myself in agreement with his provocative review of Sgt Pepper, in which he attracted scorn by claiming that the album represented a fall from the pinnacle represented by Rubber Soul and Revolver. Now he says that he has recanted. I haven’t.
His book is an entertaining account of growing up in a time of discovery. An unprepossessing (by his own account) kid from the Bronx, a seemingly unexceptional student at Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism, he found his way into the Voice, into Clay Felker’s trend-setting New York magazine, into the New York Times (whose editors censored his mention of Diana Ross farting during their encounter), and into many other publications.
It is a very ’60s story. He has extremely interesting things to say about Mailer, McLuhan, Marcuse and the Maharishi, about Janis and Jim, about Sontag and Spector (he attended the “River Deep — Mountain High” sessions), about William Burroughs and Brian Wilson. Jimi Hendrix’s flaming guitar narrowly missed his head at the Monterey pop festival (it was caught, he says, by Robert Christgau, his eventual successor at the Voice). The Velvets played at his wedding, MC’d by Murray the K at the Cheetah discotheque (a week later there was a proper Jewish ceremony, for his parents’ benefit).
He went to San Francisco to cover the Summer of Love with high hopes of witnessing the emergence of a new society, and has vivid memories of the disillusionment: “…the love-in lasted until it became apparent that the kids wandering around stoned and senseless were so many sitting ducks. Dope dealers and bruisers looking for sex descended on them, resulting in rapes and an influx of heroin. It was presented by the media as proof that the land of commodification was the only safe place; beyond lay dragons. It took less than a year for the festival to turn ugly.”
Those who chronicled the scene at the time will recognise his description of the business world’s swift adaptation to the new reality: “By 1967 the music industry had mastered the art of appealing to writers like me. Record executives wore their own version of the hippie look: a requisite Nehru jacket with a discreet string of beads. Publicists would flash a peace sign at the end of a pitch. At the major labels, there were rooms set aside for previews of albums not yet released. I remember being invited to one of those special private concerts. The president of the company, which specialised in rock with vaguely folkie credentials, greeted me personally. He ushered me into a sound-baffled chamber with huge speakers and plush chairs. He pointed to a butterfly-shaped box on the table, and then he left the room. Inside the box was a small pipe and a block of hashish. The music started. I sank into a chair and lit up. It was much harder than payola to resist.”
I haven’t read many first-person accounts of the era that make more responsible and convincing use of hindsight. Goldstein’s revolutionary politics — which extended to his own sexual identity — made him an uneasy observer quite early on. “Try as I might to be faithful to the spirit of the music,” he says, zooming in on the Who’s famous performance at Monterey from a vantage point among the hippie royalty in the VIP enclosure, “there was always something to remind me of the gap between authenticity and artifice that was such a central issue for me during the sixties. Rock, for all its power to stir and subvert, to shake and rattle the establishment, was also show business.”
Attracted to the world of Sontag, who encouraged but also patronised him, he writes: “I watched uneasily as intellectuals descended on radical culture and politics like tourists from the developed world. They were enchanted by what should have made them sceptical, and since they generally lived safe lives they were quite susceptible to the thrill of chaos.” The best thing about the ’60s, he says, was “the willingness to try nearly anything that hadn’t been tried before. It was a truly stimulating strategy, because it allowed young people to imagine the future in practically limitless terms. But it placed all our impulses on an equal footing, suppressing our ability to think and behave strategically.”
Goldstein was a believer in the revolutionary potential of art, and rock music turned out not to be quite the agent of revolution that he wanted it to be. His internal struggle reached the point at which “there was no way to justify remaining outside the battle.” The turning-point came when he went to Chicago in August 1968 to cover the protests at the Democratic Party convention and finally gave up the pretence of journalistic objectivity. In the face-off between the protesters and the police in Lincoln Park, he experienced his epiphany: “The moment when I removed my press pass was the instant when I crossed over from the regretful life of the protected to the thrilling zone of risk. Everyone here had seen, if not shed, blood. They were the hardcore, and I was finally among them.”
If his ultimate commitment to the music was not as deep, or his desire to turn it into a career as single-minded, as some of those who followed him, that makes his account, with its cherishable vignettes and constant self-questioning, all the more readable and thought-provoking.
* Richard Goldstein’s Another Little Piece of My Heart: My Life of Rock and Revolution in the ’60s is published by Bloomsbury Circus. The photograph of the author is by Danny Bright.