The City in Its Grip: On Tricia Romano’s “The Freaks Came Out to Write”

By T. M. BrownMarch 15, 2024

The City in Its Grip: On Tricia Romano’s “The Freaks Came Out to Write”

The Freaks Came Out to Write: The Definitive History of the Village Voice, the Radical Paper That Changed American Culture by Tricia Romano

TRICIA ROMANO MUST be exhausted. The Freaks Came Out to Write: The Definitive History of the Village Voice, the Radical Paper That Changed American Culture, her wonderful new oral history of the titular ur–alt weekly, reads like a dishy box score with every grievance, plaudit, and lament there in black and white. She keeps track of every back-and-forth rally, every brushback and brawl. Romano’s book is a vital, comprehensive piece of media scholarship about one of the most influential outlets of the last century. It’s also fun as hell to read.

The Voice was founded in 1955, when Dan Wolf, Ed Fancher, John Wilcock, and Norman Mailer decided that their downtown counterculture needed a dedicated newspaper. For the next seven decades, it would stand as one of the most influential news outlets in the United States, launching the careers of writers such as Colson Whitehead, Greg Tate, Lynn Yaeger, Hilton Als, and Vivian Gornick, all of whom Romano spoke with for Freaks. (Also interviewed: Bob Costas! Rupert Murdoch! Debbie Harry!)

Across 88 chapters spread over five sections, each covering roughly a decade of the paper’s life, Freaks feels less like a straightforward lecture on the journal’s history and more like being dropped into an especially good cocktail party where editors and writers are swapping stories and talking shit. In the book, there are as many paeans to the Voice’s bravery and nerve in leading the national discourse on topics like AIDS as there are grievances about those who chose the wrong side of history. These quotes are from adjacent pages:

KIT RACHLIS [executive editor, 1984–88]: […] The AIDS coverage was where people were truly trying to work out how do you respond emotionally, politically, medically to this horrific and mysterious health crisis?

MARK SCHOOFS [writer, 1993–2000]: It was right after [Voice editor] Robert Massa died I began to write. New York was getting money for HIV prevention, federal dollars, millions of dollars, and they were not spending it. We reported that, and the person who was in charge of that department lost her job.

Followed by:

KAREN DURBIN [editor, 1974–96]: Nat Hentoff’s first reaction to AIDS was not good.

RICHARD GOLDSTEIN [editor, 1966–2004]: Nat Hentoff had deep emotional problems […] I remember him saying that gay people were “too powerful.”

NAT HENTOFF [writer, 1958–2009]: I almost got socked by a very large homosexual at the Voice for that.

That tension is what makes the book especially gripping. The collection of writers and editors cultivated at the Voice weren’t interested in objectivity—that was for schmucks and people at the Times. Voice writers wanted to tell the truth, whatever that meant.

For a newsroom that pursued subjective hunches, it’s pretty astounding how many times they turned out to be inarguably right. They fought against slumlords and corrupt judges by putting their names and sins in front of people who could actually do something about it. (They took the whole “speak truth to power” thing very seriously.) They railed against Reagan when he was dizzyingly popular, and served as a counterweight to media consolidation even as their conveyor belt of corporate overlords sought to capitalize on the Voice’s reputation. One thing that Freaks does very well is remind readers that today’s fights are not new—it’s just that the weapons have evolved and the fronts have changed.

Romano does not give readers the sense that working at the Voice was a particularly harmonious job, and it wasn’t. But that was sort of the point. Writers who disagreed with one another would often duke it out in the paper’s letters section, airing out grievances while simultaneously claiming some column inches. (One notable exception is longtime music critic Stanley Crouch, who allegedly elected to solve his intra-office objections with actual violence before getting fired for one fight too many.) The disputes often led to better journalism: tighter sourcing, deeper investigations, grimier muckraking. For many of the staffers and contributors Romano interviewed for the book, the Voice was formative.


I want to caveat my “fun as hell” line from earlier. Oral histories naturally tend to be written for audiences already familiar with the topic at hand. There’s no point in reading Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (1996) if you don’t know who Iggy Pop is or Lizzy Goodman’s Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001–2011 (2017) if you’re not familiar with the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Freaks faces the same sort of challenge, and unless you have a vested interest in, say, the feud between Nat Hentoff and Laurie Stone over reproductive rights, you may face some trouble getting pulled into the storylines, though it’s hard not to enjoy someone like Stone sniping at a rival she outlasted: “People like Mailer and Hentoff, they were just ordinary, old-school, male fuckheads. The kind of people who never should have existed, but since they have existed, we can only celebrate their disappearance.” Damn.

For those of us to whom the Voice was so vital, Freaks is completely engrossing. Many of the writers introduce themselves by sharing how they first encountered the paper, as if it contained some sort of sleeper-cell activation code. Lucian K. Truscott IV, descended from American military royalty, bought his first copy when he was at West Point in 1964 and ended up as a staffer from 1970 to 1975, during which time he covered the Stonewall riots from inside the bar itself. Lynn Yaeger’s father used to bring home copies for her; she started working in the customer service department of the Voice’s classified section because she ran out of money while studying at the New School down the block.

And yes, you’re going to hear my story as well. I’m not the most likely of alt-weekly devotees. Someone told me about the Voice in middle school, after my family had moved from Singapore to Greenwich, Connecticut. I would skip school and ride the Metro-North to go hang out on St. Mark’s Place, pretending for a minute that I wasn’t living in a suburb that was shorthand for wealth. Grabbing a copy from those red plastic bins before catching the train home was like laying a piece of filament between present and future states, little transmissions between versions of myself. When I left for boarding school in Southern California, I became a long-distance subscriber, and every week my mailbox would contain a jammed and torn copy of the Voice. I let the copies pile up in my dorm room, always fearful that throwing them away would kill a part of me that I left behind back east.

But yes, sure, I am well aware that “rich boarding school kid” is not the expected shape of a Village Voice enthusiast. One thing that Freaks does so well, though, is dispel the notion that the paper recruited or sought out any specific kind of person to contribute or be part of the wider community. It was a big tent, plenty of room for whatever misfits wanted to join the circus. I wasn’t an outcast, but reading the Voice was the first time I felt like I had a home.

The paper as we know it shuttered in 2018, when billionaire heir Peter Barbey got bored of spending his genetic lottery winnings on a paper that lost money every year. The Voice suffered from the same body blows that nearly every independent media company endured over the last two decades: the shift to digital ads, the all-devouring maw of Google and Facebook. Classified ads for rent-controlled apartments, bands in need of members, and sex work were famously the Voice’s longtime moneymakers. Craigslist siphoned off that income stream almost completely in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

I wrote for the Voice very briefly. In what I can only assume is a grim coincidence, my writing career there coincided with, first, the paper going all-digital, and then ceasing to exist at all. Like a lot of those featured in Freaks, I successfully harangued an editor (then–culture editor David Swanson) into letting me write about music on spec, for which I will be forever grateful. Until reading Romano’s book, I didn’t realize how many others had done the exact same thing, which made me feel both part of a proud tradition and deeply unoriginal. It was good to be part of something I cared so deeply about, if only for a while.


Freaks is hitting shelves at a particularly fraught moment in journalism. In just the last month, Vice and Sports Illustrated were effectively hollowed out and turned into what writer Alex Kirshner called “ghost ships,” where the platforms still make money from programmatic ads without publishing anything new or, obviously, employing any journalists. It’s bad out there: Pitchfork was “folded” into GQ; Complex was sold for parts; the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post fired hundreds of staffers; investigative outlet The Intercept let go of 15 people, including editor-in-chief Roger Hodge. The Messenger apparently existed and then didn’t. Even The New Yorker, which is famously like Teflon when it comes to media layoffs, let go of a handful of people. It seems like The Village Voice was ahead of the curve even in its demise.

We often only see the business end of these layoffs, the numbers in the headline. But Freaks contains the small and the large, both the history of a scrappy alt-weekly and the story of how journalism ended up in this foundational crisis. There are the multiple sales—some only years apart—that would send discomfiting shock waves through the masthead. There are baffling business decisions that will be familiar to anyone who has had to live through a layoff that, puzzlingly, doesn’t impact anyone on the business side of the organization. Being able to thread both those needles simultaneously is a triumph of organization and narrative by Romano, who somehow turned 200 interviews with a bunch of ornery kooks into a meditation on community, media, and advocacy.

In the book’s afterword, Romano snaps readers into the grim present of the Voice. The paper was brought out of mothballs by Brian Calle when he bought the Voice from Barbey in 2020. Calle, who is perhaps best known for buying and then gutting another beloved alternative paper, the LA Weekly, quickly revived the publication, promising to expand its digital coverage and bring back regular print editions. Calle delivered on both fronts in a monkey’s paw kind of way. There are plenty of new pieces on the Voice’s site, though many of them seem to be chum copied and pasted from old LA Weekly contributors. There were special runs of print editions, but the last one was published in 2022, as far as I can tell. The good news is that the adult classifieds are back, including a comprehensive listing of top OnlyFans accounts. What’s old is new again.

The afterword to Freaks made me wish there was more of Romano herself in this book. She delivers a withering assessment of what The Village Voice has turned into, the kind of aching lament that only someone who loved the paper like she did could write:

[I]f you don’t look at it too closely, it somewhat resembles its old self, the one that had the city in its grip. […]

But it’s missing the revolutionary feeling that everything is being done for the first time, or that it’s the only place where one can write in the first person, take sides, be experimental.

Places like the Voice that incubated and cultivated talent are almost all gone now, hollowed out by people who never read them in the first place. The rest of us are just squinting at rubble.

LARB Contributor

T. M. Brown is a writer based in Brooklyn. He has written for The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and Pitchfork, among other places.  


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