Live Through This: A Pioneering Rock Critic Looks Back with Love and Sorrow on the 1960s
By Evelyn McDonnellJune 25, 2015
IN 1966, A 23-YEAR-OLD son of a Bronx postal worker began writing a column for The Village Voice about the music that was bursting out of downtown clubs and radio. With “Pop Eye,” Richard Goldstein essentially created the rock criticism beat. Before then, popular music was considered too déclassé for serious consideration — such was the ongoing influence of Adorno and the Frankfurt School. But Goldstein used the writings of Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse to embrace the explosion of culture and activism that was being driven by rock ’n’ roll. As he explains in his intimate and evocative new memoir, Another Little Piece of My Heart: My Life of Rock and Revolution in the ’60s, he covered not just the musicians who inspired him, but “everything from the counterculture to the revolution it spawned.”
Piece of My Heart hit bookstores hot on the heels of Going Into the City, a memoir by another pioneering rock critic, Goldstein’s friend Robert Christgau. Both books show how the genre was forged in the crucible of that age of intense tumult and passions. But Goldstein limits his account to that era, giving it a powerful narrative focus. For him, the stuff that surrounded rock overtook the music. The five-foot-four, rotund Jewish nerd went from being a confidant of rock stars to a frontline observer of social struggle, narrowly avoiding calamity at police riots at Columbia University and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
As he watched the culture and its beloved warriors — including his friend Janis Joplin — crash and burn, he gave up his beat, but not his convictions. He then went on to become one of the leading journalists of the gay liberation movement and the executive editor of The Voice. Richard was there in the early 1990s when I first began making my own inroads into the field he forged. We ran into each other again this spring at the Experience Music Project Pop Conference in Seattle, an annual gathering of music scholars, then caught up a month later by phone.
EVELYN MCDONNELL: Was that your first Pop Conference? What did you think?
RICHARD GOLDSTEIN: Yes, and I loved it. I was really impressed with the breadth of styles and ideologies — various schools and all of that. I had no idea before I went how diverse the profession of rock criticism had become. I feel like this entire universe has opened up since the years I was writing about music. It was astonishing to see. There are many more women, which is impressive and important. I always thought of rock criticism as a masculine venture, with all of its hierarchical implications of being male-centric — the competitiveness, the pissing contests, and all the rest. The obsession with detail, the over-reverential approach … all of these things I think of as masculine values, and there’s definitely a place for all that, but it shouldn’t be the whole. At this conference I was able to see — with the addition of many more women — that there’s a much broader sense of what pop music is.
You know you’re reiterating the argument that Ann Powers and I made with our 1995 anthology Rock She Wrote: Women Write about Rock, Pop, and Rap.
It’s not the reason I stopped, but when I started to write about gender and gender relations, and looked back on my years as a rock critic, it occurred to me that it was really part of masculine culture. It had to do with the claiming of turf. Somehow these things become like temples after a while — you’re guarding the gates — and I find that to be kind of repugnant, actually. It’s not like I don’t like male rock critics, it’s that they shouldn’t be claiming the whole territory; theirs is just one approach. The whole Hunter Thompson, Charles Bukowski style of rock criticism is really great, but it shouldn’t be the dominant voice. And it isn’t anymore. That’s what I noticed at that conference — how diverse the personae were. For me, the persona of the critic is as interesting as the expertise. So it was a genuinely wonderful, healing experience in that way — it reduced my level of alienation.
I had the exact same response. I felt comfortable at that conference in a way I had not before.
I don’t think that any woman rock critic — this is just my projection I suppose — but I don’t think that any woman rock critic can ever think of herself as the whole, whereas with male rock critics there’s always a temptation to assume that you speak for everyone. That’s the difference between, for example, Ellen Willis’s approach to first-person journalism, and Norman Mailer’s. Ellen was my editor at The Voice for a long time, and every time I would write the word “we” — “we” think this or “we” feel this — she always wrote on the page “who is ‘we’?” It was something I never thought about until she interrogated me. So I learned that there is no “we” when it comes to works of music; no such thing as an objective truth about the work. So much of it depends on perception — on when the music was written and how it feels in the present. I think that’s a major shift, and an important one: to open up the terrain of rock criticism to everyone, all sorts of different people, and thereby get a fuller sense of what rock really is. In terms of the music itself, it’s extremely diverse and immensely syncretic, whereas rock criticism hasn’t always been either one or the other — even though it has often been very good.
This is exactly what Ann and I argued in our book. You were a big influence on us, of course, since we were all at The Voice.
The Voice was my homeland and always will be. With The Voice we were starting with the premises of Walter Benjamin, and trying to apply that kind of reasoning to music and other forms of pop culture. I think that’s why we were able to pick up on hip-hop so quickly, for instance. In my case, probably the writing I’m most proud of is on graffiti. I called it “visual doo-wop.” I related to it exactly as I related to doo-wop as a teenager, because the kids who were doing it were just like me — different ethnicities but the same class background. Working-class New Yorkers — most of them were from Washington Heights. I went to their homes, I visited their parents, I saw the trophies that lined the living room wall — they were definitely the center of their families. I went with them into the yards, and I saw this as a kind of genuinely New York art form. I wrote about that at a time when the entire armamentarium of the middle class was arrayed against it […] In a lot of New York working class culture you have a crew — and that makes the art. It’s all about the individual within the crew […] The group rises together. The group is there for survival purposes, it can be a family or a gang. In middle class life it’s much more atomized, much more about the isolated individual. You can see how forms like doo-wop and graffiti rise out of working-class culture. There’s really a materialistic basis for why these forms take shape as they do.
That’s the influence of Benjamin you’re talking about?
Well no, that’s just my vulgar Marxism, or what’s left of it anyway. With Walter Benjamin the idea was that mechanical reproduction — or mass reproduction — changes perception and creates its own aesthetic experience and values. That was his great insight. We were applying that principle and other principles of the Frankfurt School, but without the racism and conservatism of Adorno. Adorno is really bad on jazz and other popular forms. At The Voice, we embraced the popular in a kind of traditional, left-wing way. The popular has its own integrity. Then, we tried to discern what the unique aesthetic of the popular form was, and how it was changing the way we perceive reality. To borrow from Marcuse, art has the capacity to alter reality because it imagines another reality. Therefore, it’s a potentially revolutionary force.
Where were you studying Benjamin and Marcuse?
In my bedroom. These people were not taught in my college, I just was a voracious reader. As a result of my alienation from my neighborhood as a kid, I read everything I could get my hands on. I was a “philo” minor, as we said. I got this grounding in philosophy from college, but we read the classic philosophers. We didn’t delve into 20th century Marxist cultural criticism — not at city universities. But I did start out with Hegel, and Kant, and the existentialists — who I really loved — so it was a natural thing to move on from them to the other modern philosophers. And I did. To this day I really enjoy reading philosophy. I read it in French, if I can. I find that it opens me up intellectually — the level of abstraction and concreteness combined are very liberating for me. At this point, I read more philosophy than criticism.
My favorite living European philosopher is a guy named Alain Badiou. He’s 82 years old — a Marxist mystic just like Benjamin. You get the synthesis of Catholic tradition, Marxist tradition, and bourgeois humanism in the same writer. I recently read his Elegy to Love — it gives you this materialist reason to be romantic, which I love. That’s very much how I approached rock when I was a young man, and is still how I approach popular culture. I want to know the material reasons why it exists, and then to give myself a justification to be romantically in love with it. Why do I love Disney, for instance? What are the material reasons why Disney is the way it is? I feel like I’m free to love it, because there actually is a kind of complexity to it. This I get also from the Frankfurt school, but via Sontag — who is more indebted to the Frankfurt school than she ever really acknowledged.
In your criticism in the ’60s, you seem much more immersed in the culture than your peers; you were out there interviewing the artists, whereas Bob or Ellen or Greil Marcus were really more removed.
They had different agendas as writers. What they do, they do extremely well — much better than I could have done it, tried to do it, and did do it. They’re better synthesists and better critics than I ever was, but I was interested in the flesh. I was interested in exploring the ecstatic emotions that the music brought out in me — to find out what really went on in the lives of the people who made it. I had a journalistic agenda that mixed with very personal issues. I genuinely idolized these people — I felt true awe in their presence and even just listening to them. Just getting close to the stage and seeing them up close — the modern usage of “awesome” really applies. When I met them I was often tongue-tied, for instance. There they were, actual human beings. I was sometimes disappointed, often moved and touched by the stories and reality of their lives, which was often very complex and fraught with similar ambivalence to what I felt. Similar insecurities, borderline personalities, and psychological distress, mixed with artistic ambition and a hunger for fame. When you put artistic ambition and hunger for fame together you get a very conflicted individual. Certainly in mass culture they don’t necessarily go together — you can’t pursue both with equal fervor unless you have an extremely strong ego (such as Bob Dylan’s). But they were people who really projected themselves on stage. We see these YouTube clips of them and we get chills just watching. Those people were close to the edge, emotionally.
Right, as you tragically found out.
Once you get to know them, and you’re actually aware of them, their doom has a much more personal quality.
Your writing — for all your awe-struckness — doesn’t seem like you were a sycophant, unlike today’s celebrity journalists.
It’s just so tropistic today. I see all of these tropes that originally came out of real emotion, feeling, and struggle to create a form — which is not so easy when you’re dealing with a human being, because human beings are not characters. Getting them to behave in ways that are formulaic enough, so you can have a beginning, middle, and end — and so that you could make a statement based on real quotes about their personalities — that’s very hard. I don’t think I always succeeded, especially at the beginning, before I really got to know the artists or thought about the ethics of how to convey someone’s reality. I had one night. I’d come into the office at maybe eight o’clock — the desks belonged to the ad-takers during the day and to the writers after hours — and we’d just stay there all night with a pile of pastries. At six in the morning the editor of the paper would come in, grab your copy, and proofread it on the tubes out to the printer — it would appear pretty much as you had written it. You had that one-night window to create a form, and sometimes that required tremendous energy and stylization.
This is The Village Voice you’re talking about, right?
Yes. No money was involved. About $20. I lived on collectively purchased tuna fish and various casseroles that we gave colorful names to (that were mostly noodles). That’s what we lived on. I didn’t care, of course. I would have paid the paper to meet The Rolling Stones — I would have given the editor money. It was also the era — it was a time when you just assumed that money would be there, that somehow you would eat. You didn’t have to worry about your future.
The economic conditions of the time enabled this culture.
Right, it was the time of the greatest economic expansion of the 20th century. The entire working class, especially the white working class, was elevated. Incomes rose by thousands of dollars — I think around 10 thousand dollars — over the decade. And college enrollment — because of the whole construction boom after the war, and the education boom — expanded enormously. So, this entire generation of working class kids was college-educated all of a sudden, thereby creating the matrix of rock, and what distinguished it from rock and roll: it’s class mobility that makes rock what it is.
Let me get back to the idea of rock criticism being a masculine culture. Since you were there pretty much at the beginning, was it always that way, or did it evolve to become that way?
There were women but they were subordinate. That was clear. They didn’t have a style that broke in any way from the conventional. I wasn’t aware until Ellen that there were certain stylistic elements that might have had something to do with gender. Before that it was just women “writing copy like a man.” The Village Voice had a female sports writer, but she wrote like a man. My teacher in journalism school — Judith Crist, a film critic — wrote like a male critic. There wasn’t any attempt to actually create a sensibility that was distinctive.
That was probably the only way they could get published.
Yes, of course. Unless they were going into the “Women’s Pages” of a newspaper, where they could be flowery — which was the other possibility. I’m not denying that there aren’t elements in Ellen Sander’s work that you can argue are gender-based, but I didn’t see Lillian [Roxon, writer of the Rock Encyclopedia] as having a distinctly female style. There are other Lillian Roxon stories that I took out of the book because she’s dead and they couldn’t be verified, but they involved her life as a groupie. She was a very unlikely groupie, if you’ve seen pictures of her — but she did have a life as a groupie, in addition to being a journalist. Therefore, she was involved in the music on a very visceral level. I use that term “groupie’ in a positive way, of course. It’s just sexual expressiveness to me. Groupies were never paid — it’s not prostitution, it’s fandom. I think Lillian was once abandoned on the road by a band who grew tired of her. They just threw her off the bus. There she was in the middle of the Midwest — an asthmatic, overweight, Australian-Jewish woman with very little money. She had to make her way back to New York, and she did.
Were you friends with her?
She and I and Linda Eastman-McCartney were part of this very tight-knit group. We were all smart kids who liked rock. We hung out in New York the first year I did my column. I met these people very quickly, very early on. There weren’t many of us, and we weren’t embedded in the genre. Nobody knew what to make of us. We weren’t traditional fan writers, and we also weren’t traditional intellectuals. So what were we? We had only each other […] Lillian was tenacious, genuinely committed to the music, deeply embedded in the milieu — she loved these musicians corporeally and intellectually. She was an immensely energetic and dedicated person. But with a lot of self-esteem issues, like a lot a people who are into rock. Your early rock critics are nerds with misguided principles. They are in some ways hypermasculine, but under that, nerds. Why else would you write about music instead of make it?
Obviously you’re putting yourself in there.
God, I was like a hyper-nerd. A hyperreal nerd. I was definitely a nerd. All I lacked was the pimples, but I had every other facet of nerdiness.
You have so many amazing stories in the book. Why did you decide to write this book now, and how did you choose what to include?
The short answer is … I read Patti Smith’s book [Just Kids] and was impressed. I found its combination of the tragic and the humane to be very compelling. I was a part of the same scene as she was, but on the periphery. Instead of actually moving among the artists, I was on the outskirts looking in. So it made me think, wow, you can actually do a memoir that has this complexity of tone. I love the idea that she had a genuine love affair with Robert Mapplethorpe, because he’s such a reflexively gay icon but … below the level of category we see this enormous amount of complexity. I think the book, in a way, exemplified that — by just being real. And I thought I had a complex identity in the ’60s too — you can actually get this on paper in a way that adds up to a real human being. I thought I could do that.
I teach a course on the ’60s at Hunter College. Year after year I teach this material and watch how my students react. I always tell them: some things are not appropriate for classroom discussion. But they are for a memoir, so I decided to go for it. I started writing in Paris — I go there several months a year. The city has this strange effect on me, simultaneously stimulating and calming. New York is just stimulating, and other places are just calming, but Paris stimulates you intellectually all the time, and also calms you because the pace of the city is really rather slow. That’s a very, very good environment for creativity, for me. There’s no other city in the world that has as many streets named for writers. I discovered magic cafés; I go inside and can immediately be creative. They never throw you out because they can see that you’re working. They ask if you’re a writer, and I say yes. I say that I’m writing a memoir, and they go “oh!” and they bring you little cakes. Makes you feel very pampered. There are all these plaques everywhere that tell you about other writers: “Here is where Rimbaud launched The Drunken Boat!” Suddenly you see the bar where he first read it. To me it’s galvanic. It’s not rational, but to be in the presence of those plaques and that treatment from café owners, and the ambiance of the city … It all adds up to a very creative environment for me. I wrote a lot of the book in cafés in Paris. It sounds like such a cliché, but you fall in love.
What about your relationship to California? You write about it a fair amount in your book.
It represented an escape from New York, to quote the movie title. The Hollywood fantasy of getting away from a deranged New York … New York was this media world I couldn’t cope with — the level of artifice was beyond me. I just couldn’t handle it at all. I withdrew behind yellow granny glasses and professions of “oh wow” that I copied from Andy Warhol. That was New York — the whole Warhol milieu, which I moved into in a state of horror and fascination, only because Warhol himself was a very welcoming figure to me. He, too, was working class. He reacted very differently to working class people than he did to rich people or people in the media. He had none of the attitude that you saw in interviews. He was very casual and approachable. I could approach him very easily to talk about what he was working on and how much he loved working, period. I think he just loved making things — especially as a way of escaping from the world he had created socially. I understood these things very well. That’s what New York represented to me; the back room at Max’s Kansas City, and the ordeal of the back room, trying to feel like you belong there somehow, even as you feel like you’re a snob for even showing up.
But California has this egalitarian vibe where none of this mattered. There was no equivalent of Nico or Viva in Ashbury. The idea of an Andy Warhol superstar walking down 8th Street trying to seem distinctive would never work in L.A. I loved that. It was totally liberating: going to the park, meeting people, eating food, sleeping on couches, hooking up with someone, having nice sex and it’s over … this was all a revelation to me. I did drugs there, too, and always with musicians, only psychedelics. I melted even more, relaxed even more, really felt like I had basically loosened the belt on my pants and let my belly be what it is.
This is a very important experience for me. People I met, I have very tender feelings for them. The hippies, they were truly ridiculous. I felt immensely protective toward them, which is why it was so painful to watch them collapse so quickly — overwhelmed by commerce, brutality, and the anxieties of straight people, who found them to be such a threat that they felt a need to prove their insanity. Straight people tried to show that you couldn’t really live that way — you’d get hurt if you did. The system conspired not knowingly, but essentially, to prove that the consumer society — the competitive society — was the only safe place.
This is the orthodoxy that my students inherited. They have a lot of trouble seeing alternatives to their way of being. This to me, possibly in my own subjective arrogance, is the tragedy of their generation. They cannot really grasp an alternative to fitting into the present, but that’s what the ’60s was all about. What is the alternative, how can we construct it, how can we make it happen, how can we change reality? Young people set out to do that with all the confidence of people who were raised on an expansive economy. Of course there was madness, and failure, and absurdity, but in the process, an enormous amount of what exists in the present was created — except that there were all these unintended consequences, as there always are.
As much as this book is an ode to the ’60s, it’s also a critique.
Yes, that was essential. I couldn’t really pretend that it was this glorious Arcadian time because there was too much pain involved. I had to really delve into that pain — the conflict between my rational side and my romantic side, which was so close to the surface as the ’60s dissolved. It isn’t that things fell apart, it’s that we were defeated. We were defeated by all the temptations of commerce, by the brutality of the government, and by aging — by processes beyond our control.
You had been making yourself vulnerable, and then were defeated.
Somebody who tries to wage a revolution — violent or not — is always making him or herself vulnerable, because you don’t know what the result will be or what will happen to you. There was a whole culture of vulnerability, that's a lot of what the ’60s was — it’s obvious in the music. It partly failed because of its excess and madness, but mostly because of external forces. Where it failed, specifically, is in the items on the agenda, which were very central, that involved equality: racial justice, economic equality, building a class-free society. Those were the things that failed, and very badly.
The things that succeeded were all things that someone made a profit on: the lifestyle stuff, and even feminism, which is probably the most important movement in all of human history, because it’s so fundamental. On the other hand it creates a cheap labor force — somebody profits from it. Obviously I’m not saying it’s a good thing that women earn less than men — of course it’s horrible — but it is profitable. So you can see why the corporate embrace of feminism abetted profit. The same with gay rights — it creates a whole new category, a whole new identity, a whole new set of industries. And now we’re seeing the same with transgenderism. If it succeeds, it’s going to be a major industry of surgeries and products. If you’re going to be a minority, and you can’t figure out how someone can make money off of you, you’re going to have a very rough time in this country.
The thing about racial oppression is that, in order to alleviate it, you have to give people money, in the form of programs. You have to actually tax the wealthy to redress economic inequality. But the things that involve redistribution of money as opposed to making money are much harder to achieve in this country. That’s why that part of the ’60s agenda failed so decisively, whereas vegetarianism, choices of personal style … all that stuff, all of those signifiers of individuality that are around us, are very profitable. Multiculturalism, to the extent that it’s a middle-class phenomenon, is very profitable. The proliferation of TV networks really emanates from tribes —the concept of tribalism became very profitable, because it became niche marketing. So all these things all succeeded dramatically in changing the country. But other issues involving equality failed. And this is a contradiction that is very painful for me. The equality agenda was extremely important in the ’60s. People say “the decade that changed America,” but they’re not coming to terms with what didn’t change. This is another struggle for another generation.
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