Book Reports: A Music Critic on His First Love, Which Was Reading

Book Reports: A Music Critic on His First Love, Which Was Reading

by Robert Christgau
Book Reports: A Music Critic on His First Love, Which Was Reading

Book Reports: A Music Critic on His First Love, Which Was Reading

by Robert Christgau


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In this generous collection of book reviews and literary essays, legendary Village Voice rock critic Robert Christgau showcases the passion that made him a critic—his love for the written word. Many selections address music, from blackface minstrelsy to punk and hip-hop, artists from Lead Belly to Patti Smith, and fellow critics from Ellen Willis and Lester Bangs to Nelson George and Jessica Hopper. But Book Reports also teases out the popular in the Bible and 1984 as well as pornography and science fiction, and analyzes at length the cultural theory of Raymond Williams, the detective novels of Walter Mosley, the history of bohemia, and the 2008 financial crisis. It establishes Christgau as not just the Dean of American Rock Critics, but one of America's most insightful cultural critics as well.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478002123
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 04/04/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 416
File size: 964 KB

About the Author

Robert Christgau wrote for and edited at The Village Voice from 1969 to 2006 and currently contributes a weekly record column at Noisey. His books include Is It Still Good to Ya?: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, also published by Duke University Press, and Going into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man.

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The Informer

John Leonard's When the Kissing Had to Stop: Cult Studs, Khmer Newts, Langley Spooks, Techno-Geeks, Video Drones, Author Gods, Serial Killers, Vampire Media, Alien Sperm Suckers, Satanic Therapists, and Those of Us Who Hold a Left-Wing Grudge in the Post-Toasties New World Hip-Hop

Begin by rereading — or reading, because you couldn't be bothered the first time — that gaudy subtitle. Think about it a little. Do those adjective-noun combos interest you? Do they interest you more than the long, defensive final clause puts you off? I ask because, even if it was deceptive of this Serious Fiction maven to bury "Author Gods" in the middle, he's summed up his latest collection pretty well. "I read this stuff so you don't have to," he declares, and although he's referring to the novels of the "Poisoned Twinkies" (Bret Easton Ellis et al.), that could be his credo. In the same essay, Leonard, who is sixty, recalls "the monastic cell in which I read all night" as a teenager. When he's on, he writes like he's still that teenager — inhaling a raft of spy books, or several decades' speculation on Atlantis, or the whole vast oeuvre of Doris Lessing (obliged to review each new one because none of his colleagues had the heart to keep up), then coming downstairs with all-new info. In addition to outlandish noun-adjective combos fueling arcane series, his discourse bristles with weird theories bouncing off each other, with words and names you never heard of. Paranomasia, sacajou, fatidic, tiger op, parlamente, torii. Gaviotas, Yuratum, Akroteri, Rawalpindi, Hermapolis, Ascona. Matteo Ricci, Sabbatai Zevi, Aristarchus, Aby Warburg, Christa Winsloe, Johann Valentin Andreae.

Leonard worked for the New York Times from 1967 to 1982 — reviewing books, profiling culturati, even editing the Book Review during the brief period when radical connections had cachet on 43rd Street — and by age forty had published three novels and three essay collections. He's also written TV criticism for Life, Newsweek, and eventually New York, his money gig since 1983, and held down broadcast spots with NPR and CBS; from 1995 to 1998, he ran an excellent book section with his wife, Sue Leonard, at The Nation, where most of the gratifyingly full-bodied essays that dominate When the Kissing Had to Stop first appeared. This is a prodigious amount of writing for a guy who watches so much television on top of reading everything in creation. But without both inputs Leonard couldn't have turned himself into a twentieth-century generalist. It's clear from 1996's Smoke and Mirrors that TV is his main way of staying in touch with the world beyond books. Far from having no personal life, he's unusually forthcoming with autobiographical marginalia — about his marriages, his friendships, his career, his alcoholism — that put flesh and crotchet on his ideas. But the normal guy in him is hooked on the tube, which he believes has its mitts on some crude version of the American zeitgeist — plus it's good for more info.

Cultural journalists are paid to care mightily about how they write, which leaves a book man like Leonard in a state of ongoing post-partum anxiety — all his tiny babies, interred in microfiche. He's so productive you assume he doesn't sweat blood over every sentence, but he's such a showoff you know he loves his own prose. So he must have suffered in the fourteen-year stretch between his hot youth and his gray eminence, when he published no books. Having read one of his novels once, I'm entitled to hope there'll be no more; he has better uses for his creative juices, like transforming journalism into bound volumes with his name on them. This isn't as easy as is believed. His Times-dominated 1973 collection, This Pen for Hire, which opened with a longer essay (written for Cultural Affairs) dissecting the limitations of the book reviewer's "800-word mind," ended up exemplifying them — however entertaining and insightful, it also seemed arbitrary, undeveloped, a bit herky-jerk. Humbler now, he's edited hard and worked for flow with his three '90s titles — which include the 1993 anthology The Last Innocent White Man in America as well as Smoke and Mirrors, a full-length polemic that folds plot descriptions and analyses from his New York and CBS work into the thesis that TV is our most socially responsible popular medium.

When the Kissing Had to Stop is the best-realized of these, in part because it avoids the left-liberal point-scoring that was right on in the context of New York and New York Newsday but seems too predictable from the nonprofit New Press (although it's nice to imagine high school students happening upon his class warfare stats in the library, a possibility that would be enhanced were the books indexed). Freed of any obligation to preach to the heathens, Leonard reserves The Nation for more recondite projects. There's the Atlantis essay, which climaxes in two utopian communities, the fictional Botswanan one of the glorious Norman Rush novel Mating and the actually existing Colombian one of Gaviotas. There's a measured appreciation of Edward Said opening onto the surprising vista of the obscure Ahmadou Kourouma masterwork Monnew. There's a mordant overview of the moral lives of the philosophers — against the mean-spirited likes of Hypatia, Wittgenstein, Simone Weil, Foucault, and other more curtly dismissed notables, he'll take the "boozehound, pillhead, and womanizer" Jean-Paul Sartre and his twenty pages a day. There's an invidious Willie Morris-Paul Krassner comparison, a surreal history of the CIA, a defense of Luddism, a piece that calls complaints about public television's "Byzantine complexity" "unfair to Constantinople." There's more.

For any partisan of intellectual journalism, Leonard is a small treasure. Combined with his sheer fecundity, his double specialty in television and literature leaves such fellow progs as Barbara Ehrenreich and Ellen Willis (although not the Alexander Cockburn of the wild and woolly The Golden Age Is in Us) looking rather austere. But while his intimacy with Serious Fiction — the subject of nearly half the book — adds flair and texture to his arguments, which break into literally novelistic detail at the oddest moments, it's also his weakness. Like many left-wing aesthetes before him, Leonard wants to believe that his pet pleasure is the key to human progress. But if indeed "good writers are better citizens than most of the rest of us," constituting "a parliament of hungry dreamers," then they're trickle-down legislators at best. When television's feel-good humanity fails to dent America's real-life social brutality, how are mandarins writing for other mandarins supposed to make themselves felt?

Though Leonard is no snob, he's enough of a climber to forgive elitism in the unforgiving likes of William Gass and Joan Didion (about whom he at least has the perspective to cite Randall Jarrell on T. S. Eliot: "He'd have written The Waste Land about the Garden of Eden"). As a corollary, he's a brazen old fart. Novel lovers of every birthdate share his disdain for the Poisoned Twinkies. But when his essay on the cyberpunks, whom he's sci-fi enough to enjoy, ends by suggesting they read Toni Morrison, fight Viacom, and help the homeless, the burnt-rubber smell of '60s self-righteousness spinning its wheels leaves one to conclude that his sniping at sitcoms in general and Seinfeld in particular has nothing to do with art. And hey, he's not to be trusted on popular music either. But without him I would never have discovered Mating, gotten the dirt on James Jesus Angleton, or had the chance to opine that Monnew is twice the formal achievement Beloved is. Really, who has the time? Somehow John Leonard does. Then he comes downstairs and tells us about it.

Village Voice, 1999


Advertisements for Everybody Else

Jonathan Lethem's The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc.

This hefty and remarkable miscellany is Jonathan Lethem's fifth book since his bestselling breakthrough of 2003, the hefty and remarkable bildungsroman Fortress of Solitude. It follows the fanciful story collection Men and Cartoons (2004), the memoiristic criticism collection The Disappointment Artist (2005), the rock novel You Don't Love Me Yet (2007), and the hefty, well, Manhattan novel Chronic City (2009). Plus They Live, about the John Carpenter film, and a pseudonymous one about the 2005 Mets. Plus the five '90s novels (and two story collections, one a collaboration, and a 2000 novella). The man writes a lot.

The Ecstasy of Influence reminds us that he also reads a lot. As those movie and baseball projects indicate (and by the way, a Talking Heads monograph is due shortly), Lethem is not strictly a literary man. Even when he sticks to literature he's not strictly a literary man. He helped spearhead the canonization of Philip K. Dick, and is given to mixing genre fiction, particularly science fiction, into putatively belletristic projects. His extra-literary enthusiasms are all over The Ecstasy of Influence, named after a notorious defense of open sourcing that he constructed from other people's work and published in Harper's. The new book includes sections headed "Film and Comics," "The Mad Brooklynite," "Wall Art" (his father's calling), and "Dylan, Brown, and Punk" (mine). Published just months before James Brown's death in 2006, his Rolling Stone profile stands as the best writing ever about the greatest musician of the post–World War II era.

These byways, all of which make room for eccentric flights as well as proper essays, augment the charm and impact of what Lethem prefers to call an "autobiographical collage," a phrase he lifts from Vonnegut. This influence seems only natural, for dominating all is Lethem's prime concern always: the novel. In the preface Lethem discloses that he'd proposed the subtitle "Advertisements for Norman Mailer," and an essay of that title describes how Mailer's brawling 1959 miscellany Advertisements for Myself enthralled Lethem as a teenager and impresses him as an adult. Mailer's definition of and claim to greatness as a novelist is a model here. But as a fellow fan of Mailer's disreputable manifesto, let me point out that Lethem knows more fiction than Mailer did, and pumps his own prowess less.

At forty-seven, Lethem is eleven years older than Mailer was in 1959, so he's had time to get more reading in. But that's hardly the biggest advantage of an omnivore who devoured a book a day on the subway in high school and has spent twelve years working in bookstores. While watching The Searchers twelve times and immersing in Dylan bootlegs, he's read thousands upon thousands of volumes with but one thing in common, which is that eventually they'll go out of print. Where Mailer aims to be, if not "President" or some Hemingwayesque "champion," then at least "a major writer," Lethem concludes: "I began writing in order to arrive into the company of those whose company meant more to me than any other: the world of the books I'd found on shelves and begun to assemble on my own, and the people who'd written them, and the readers who cared as much as I did, if those existed."

Lethem reports that The Ecstasy of Influence comprises a quarter of his uncollected work, with enough literary reviews and introductions left over to make another volume. A good hunk of it has never seen print, and not just the Mailer-style italicized interstitials — crucial stuff like "Advertisements for Norman Mailer" itself; "Zelig of Neutrality," about his Bennington classmates Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt; "My Disappointment Critic," his argument with James Wood; and best of all "Rushmore Versus Abundance," his argument with novelists who want to be president. This argument Lethem frames by extending rhetorical aid to noncanonical writers inside and outside the belletristic drawing room as well as to the likes of Ernie Kovacs, Stan Lee, Rick James, and Drew Barrymore.

He also frames it by conceiving rhetoric itself so permissively. A critical foray as accomplished as any of the straighter essays, for instance, is "The Drew Barrymore Stories," a two-page trifle knocked off for a glossy semiannual in what Lethem designates "a mode I'd call 'ecstatic'," where Barrymore's saucy mischief and fondness for chocolate deflect the ill spirits of Alfred Hitchcock, Miles Davis, Howard Hawks, Dustin Hoffman, and a hot tub full of bitchy novelists. Equally post-essayistic is the tandem of "Top-Five Depressed Superheroes" (Ragman, Deadman, and others I knew naught of) and a Playboy piece about Lethem's own imaginary comic-book protagonist, the Epiphany, whose archenemy is named Le Petit Mort and whose acolytes are Eureka!, Tour De Force, and Non Sequitur. Lethem believes that any deviser of nonfictions is ipso facto a fictional creation. In these two pieces, that creation reads like Robert Benchley's favorite grandson giving art snobs what for.

Finally, however, the deviser of these nonfictions is a novelist. Although novelists do carp about each other, Lethem's inclusiveness extends to his own clan — he even defends American Psycho. Its parameters are established in a rich new essay called "Postmodernism as Liberty Valance," where Lethem sides with the postmodernists he links metaphorically to John Ford's chaos-sowing gunman without belittling designated upholders of the old order like Alice Munro, Cormac McCarthy, and Jonathan Franzen. Lethem believes that like all novelists, such traditionalists are just following their druthers, "whether consciously or in merry obliviousness to the range of options available." How well they succeed can only be decided on a case-by-case basis. Tie goes to the runner.

The fiction section begins with Lethem's evangelistic (and convincing) review of Roberto Bolano's 2666 before moving on to advocacy proper, reprinting introductions to novels by Paula Fox, Thomas Berger, Shirley Jackson, G. K. Chesterton, and Nathanael West. As is Lethem's generous habit, all six pieces honor writers who, except for the then-ascendant Bolaño and of course West ("the great precursor to Heller, Pynchon, Philip K. Dick, Colson Whitehead, and so much else"), have been underpraised. As "Rushmore Versus Abundance" puts it, "How on earth can abundance damage anything for anyone, unless what's damaged is some critic's pining to control what shouldn't be controlled, or to circumscribe boundlessness?"

But poking around among his fiction choices, three of whom I'd never read a whole book by, I was struck by how fabulistic all save Fox tended to be — even Chesterton in The Man Who Was Thursday, which is subtitled A Nightmare. Although Lethem is always discreet and perhaps even genuinely humble about pumping his own prowess, he thus manages to valorize his fictional practices by comparison. He's pro-genre, absolutely. But he clearly prefers J. G. Ballard to Walter Mosley, say, and within science fiction is drawn to the fanciful and quasi-surrealist as opposed to covertly realist cyberpunks like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. This penchant pertains in his own novels right through Chronic City. Probably that's why I — as a detective guy and a full-time critic as well as a Queens-born East Villager for whom Lethem's Brooklyn-bohemian biography resonates — find both The Disappointment Artist and The Ecstasy of Influence more exciting than any of his interesting-to-terrific fiction except his most realistic novel, Fortress of Solitude. But it could just be that he's such a hell of a critic himself.

New York Times Book Review, 2011


Democratic Vistas

Dave Hickey's Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy

It is a humbling thing to come upon writing by a contemporary you distantly respect and realize that, pretty much hidden from sight, he's been doing work that leaves your own flopping around on the deck. But it is also a thrilling thing. Two decades ago, I edited a dozen of Dave Hickey's record reviews — I particularly recall one in which a fictional skateboarder named Martin extolled Aerosmith's Rocks. Although these somehow failed to attract much attention over at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, adepts of the form quickly recognized their audacious smarts. Yet good as they were, they didn't come near to preparing me for the "essays on art & democracy" — most of them written for the Los Angeles–based Art issues — that constitute the "memoir without tears" Hickey calls Air Guitar.

What's more, neither does Hickey's prize-winning 1993 minicollection, The Invisible Dragon, which to my taste turns a mite obsessive after driving home the welcome, essential, and mysteriously less-than-obvious point that Robert Mapplethorpe's X Portfolio achieves its power by advocating the unusual sexual acts it depicts. Having sought asylum as an art professor at the University of Nevada after a garishly checkered freelance career in trades that included Nashville songsmith, gallery owner, and worse, Hickey has a tendency to hector when addressing the museum system and its attendant "therapeutic institutions" — institutions that, after all, pay his health insurance (such as it is). Over a mere sixty-four well-argued pages, you start thinking, Enough already. Indeed, something similar happens two-thirds into this book, only at a much higher level — here you find yourself thinking, Hey, he is mortal after all. Finally obliged to theorize his impolite tastes, judgments, and ideas, Hickey lays his prejudices a little barer than altogether becomes them.


Excerpted from "Book Reports"
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Copyright © 2019 Robert Christgau.
Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  xiii
Introduction  1
I. Collectibles
The Informer: John Leonard's When the Kissing Had to Stop  11
Advertisements for Everybody Else: Jonathan Lethem's The Ecstasy of Influence  14
Democratic Vistas: Dave Hickey's Air Guitar  17
II. From Blackface Minstrelsy to Track-and-Hook
In Search of Jim Crow: Why Postmodern Minstrelsy Studies Matter  23
The Old Ethiopians at Home: Ken Emerson's Doo-Dah!  40
Before the Blues: David Wondrich's Stomp and Swerve  43
Rhythms of the Universe: Ned Sublette's Cuba and Its Music  46
Black Melting Pot: David B. Coplan's In Township Tonight!  49
Bwana-Acolyte in the Favor Bank: Banning Eyre's In Griot Time  56
In the Crucible of the Party: Charles and Angelilki Keil's Bright Balkan Morning  59
Defining the Folk: Benjamin Filene's Romancing the Folk  64
Folking Around: David Hajdu's Positively 4th Street  67
Punk Lives: Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's Please Kill Me  70
Biography of a Corporation: Nelson George's Where Did Our Love Go?  72
Hip-Hop Faces the World: Steven Hager's Hip Hop; David Toop's The Rap Attack; and Nelson George, Sally Banes, Susan Flinker, and Patty Romanowski's Fresh  75
Making Out Like Gangsters: Preston Lauterbach's The Chitlin' Circuit, Dan Charnas's The Big Payback, Ice-T's Ice, and Tommy James's Me, the Mob, and Music  80
Money Isn't Everything: Fred Goodman's The Mansion on the Hill  86
Mapping the Earworm's Genome: John Seabrook's The Song Machine  89
III. Critical Practice
Beyond the Symphonic Quest: Susan McClary's Feminine Endings  97
All the Tune Family: Peter van der Merwe's Origins of the Popular Style  100
Bel Cantos: Henry Pleasant's The Great American Popular Singers  102
The Country and the City: Charlie Gillett's The Sound of the City  109
Reflections of an Aging Rock Critic: Jon Landau's It's Too Late to Stop Now  115
Pioneer Days: Kevin Avery's Everything Is an Afterthought and Nona Willis Aronowitz's (ed.) Out of the Vinyl Deeps  117
Impolite Discourse: Jim Derogatis's Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer's A Whore Jus Like the Rest, and Nick Tosches's The Nick Torches Reader  123
Journalism and/or Criticism and/or Musicology and/or Sociology (and/or Writing): Simon Firth  129
Serious Music: Robert Walser's Running With the Devil  137
Fifteen Minutes of . . . : William York's Who's Who in Rock Music  139
The Fanzine Worldview, Alphabetized: Ira A. Robbins's (ed.) Trouser Press Guide to New Wave Records  140
Awesome: Simon Reynolds's Blissed Out  143
Ingenuousness Lost: James Miller's Flowers in the Dustbin  147
Rock Criticism Lives: Jessica Hopper's The Fist Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic  151
Emo Meets Trayvon Martin: Hanif Abdurraquib's They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us  156
IV. Lives in Music Inside and Out
Great Book of Fire: Nick Tosches's Hellfire and Robert Palmer's Jerry Lee Lewis Rocks!  163
That Bad Man, Tough Old Huddie Ledbetter: Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell's The Life and Legend of Leadbelly  169
The Impenetrable Heroism of Sam Cooke: Peter Guralnick's Dream Boogie  171
Bobby and Dave: Bob Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One and Dave Van Ronk's The Mayor of MacDougal Street  178
Tell All: Ed Sanders's Fug You and Samuel R. Delany's The Motion of Light in Water  180
King of the Thrillseekers: Richard Hell's I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp  185
Lives Saved, Lives Lost: Carrie Brownstein's Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl and Patti Smith's M Train  189
The Cynic and the Bloke: Rod Stewart's Rod: The Autobiography and Donald Fagen's Eminent Hipsters  194
His Own Shaman: RJ Smith's The One  199
Spotlight on the Queen: David Ritz's Respect  201
The Realist Thing You've Ever Seen: Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run  205
V. Fictions
Writing for the People: George Orwell's 1984  213
A Classic Illustrated: R. Crumb's The Book of Genesis  217
The Hippie Grows Older: Richard Brautigan's Sombrero Fallout  222
Comic Gurdjieffianism You Can Masturbate To: Marco Vassis' Mind Blower  224
Porn Yesterday: Walter Kendrick's The Secret Museum  225
What Pretentious White Men Are Good For: Robert Coover's Gerald's Party  230
Impoverished How, Exactly? Roddy Doyle's The Woman Who Walked into Doors  236
Sustainable Romance: Norman Rush's Mortals  237
Derrnig-Do Scrapping By: Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue  240
Futures by the Dozen: Bruce Sterling's Holy Fire  245
YA Poet of the Massa Woods: Sandra Newman's The Country of Ice Cream Star  248
A Darker Shade of Noir: The Indefatigable Walter Mosley  252
VI. Bohemia Meets Hegemony
Épatant le Bourgeoisie: Jerrold Seigel's Bohemian Paris and T. J. Clark's The Painting of Modern Life  263
The Village People: Christine Stansell's American Moderns  278
A Slender Hope for Salvation: Charles Reich's The Greening of America  280
The Lumpenhippie Guru: Ed Sanders's The Family  285
Strait Are the Gates: Morris Dickstein's Gates of Eden  289
The Little Counterculture That Could: Carol Brightman's Sweet Chaos  293
The Pop-Boho Connection, Narrativized: Bernard F. Gendron's Between Montmarte and the Mudd Club  297
Cursed and Sainted Seekers of the Sexual Century: John Heidenry's What Wild Ecstasy  301
Bohemias Lost and Found: Ross Wetzsteon's Republic of Dreams, Richard Kostelanetz's SoHo, and Richard Lloyd's Neo-Bohemia  304
Autobiography of a Pain in the Neck: Meredith Maran's What It's Like to Live Now  309
VII. Culture Meets Capital
Twentieth Century Limited: Marshall Berman's All That Is Solid Melts into Air  315
Dialectical Cricket: C. L. R. James's Beyond a Boundary  320
Radical Pluralist: Andrew Ross's No Respect  323
Inside the Prosex Wars: Nadine Strossen's Defending Pornography, Joanna Frueh's Eroctic Faculties, and Lara Kipnis's Bound and Gagged  327
Growing Up Kept Down: William Finnegan's Cold New World  331
Jesus Plus the Capitalist Order: Jeff Sharlet's The Family  334
Dark Night of the Quants: Ten Books About the Financial Crisis  338
They Bet Your Life: Four Books About Hedge Funds  345
Living in a Material World: Raymond Williams's Long Revolution  350
With a God on His Side: Terry Eagleton's Culture and the Death of God, Culture, and Materialism  369
My Friend Marshall: Marshall Berman's Modernism in the Streets  374
Index  381

What People are Saying About This

Greil Marcus

“Robert Christgau writes with an infectious energy and applies his unflagging intellectual curiosity to an unpredictable array of subjects. His critical sensibility is so developed that the book generates its own interest, as the reader will want to know how this sensibility plays itself out over the course of this unfailingly interesting book.”

Jonathan Lethem

“Robert Christgau, writing on books, is enthralling and energetic, and as persuasive and argument-sparking as he is on records. He sees them both as entrances into a thousand subject matters, but also as formal objects—that's to say, books. His stock is his comprehensive confidence, no matter the arena; so often, as declaring The Country and the City to be Raymond Williams's essential book—he's stunningly right. Book Reports made me glance at my shelf longingly where a run of compilations of his 'Consumer Guides: Books of the '70s, '80s, '90s' (and beyond) might sit, but alas. If we're not that lucky, we're lucky enough to have this generous compendium of his longer-form stuff.”

Nelson George

"You hope any book you read would be insightful, funny, rude, deeply researched, and filled with humanity. Well most books don't have those qualities, but all of Robert Christgau's book reviews do."

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