By Chuck Eddy
Special to the American-Statesman
The first issue of The Village Voice I ever saw was the one dated January 22, 1979. The cover headlines were “The Case Against Jimmy Liar” (by Jack Newfield, with President Carter headshot), “Donald Trump Cuts the Cards” (by Wayne Barrett), and, most relevant for the next going-on-40 years of my life, “Triumph of the New Wave: Results of the Fifth (or Sixth) Annual Pazz and Jop Critics’ Poll” (by Robert Christgau, duh). I was in my freshman year at the University of Detroit, in the tower office of the Varsity News. Back in my safe suburban home, I’d never seen an alternative weekly, much less this all-time archetypal one, which basically invented the genre but last week announced after more than half a century that it’s about to stop publishing paper editions. I’d just started buying a handful of new wave records, especially ones by Elvis Costello, whom the cover pictured in his anxious early nerd-glasses mode. The 1978 album poll inside, which Costello won, fascinated me — not only because I’d never heard of Wire, Pere Ubu or Ian Dury, but because I’d never heard of rock criticism.
I know about the cover because I still have it, on actual tattered newsprint. For years, it’s been stored in a dilapidated 15×13-inch red plastic binder, along with every subsequent Pazz & Jop section through Nirvana’s 1991, plus a few mid-’70s ones printed out from an ancient college microfilm machine. Before long, I was reviewing albums myself, and becoming increasingly obsessed with the Voice music section and Pazz & Jop in particular. By early 1982, I was voting in the poll. Two years later, by which time I was a Signal Corps lieutenant in West Germany, Robert Christgau printed a big chunk of an 11-page letter I’d affixed to my 1983 top-tens ballot, quoted me in his essay, and asked me to start writing for him. By the end of the 1980s, I was racking up bylines almost every other week.
The music section that Christgau meticulously, perspiration-inducingly line-edited opened up a whole new world of hip-hop, house music, freestyle, soundtracks, Southern soul and beyond, by the smartest critics anywhere. I have piles of clips stuffed in folders somewhere. In another red plastic binder, I have a ridiculously thick pile of monthly Consumer Guides from the early ’80s through mid-’90s — mostly by Christgau, but also including lots of jazz and a few new music, classical and country ones by occasional pinch-hitters.
Which is to say: Even though I admittedly haven’t held a copy in my hands for at least a couple of years (who in Austin even carries the thing?), the now-endangered tactile as opposed to evaporating digital version of the Voice has meant a whole lot to me, for most of my life. In the late ’80s in Michigan and early-mid-’90s in Philadelphia, the day the Pazz & Jop issue came out, I would drive clear across town to scarf up a copy the minute it finally hit a local train station or wherever, just to breathlessly find out whether they’d published my comments or best-of lists, As often as not, they did, saving me from being crestfallen, partly because I’d been neurotically obsessing on both for months. And this all happened despite the fact that my whole persona and/or shtick as a writer revolved around my provincial skepticism about New York pretension in the general — all those bogus multisyllabic words about deconstruction and structuralism that I made a point of being unable to decipher.
Through the ’90s, the Voice and I had a notably volatile on-off relationship. I fared better with some editors than others, and those others had a point. I published two books and wrote for competing magazines. But before the millennium turned, the music editor’s job opened up. I’d only been to New York a couple of times in my life, and the outgoing editor warned me he doubted I had the disposition for the job — being, I don’t know, a royal crank or whatever. (Or, as one letter to the editor dubbed me, The Mayor of Asshole City.) But I applied anyway, and for whatever reason, they hired me. Maybe the traditionally lefty paper was looking to diversify by recruiting a white male hetero Army veteran from the Midwest who’d grown up on Ted Nugent records, a demographic that’s only grown more deplorable ever since. After the interview, I was told that if I wanted the gig, I best head back to Philly and start packing bags.
I hung on to the position for seven years — longer than any Village Voice music editor ever, save Dean of Critics Christgau himself. (By my count, 11 people officially held the position while it lasted.) For a few years I was able to see pretty much any show in town, from Madison Square Garden on down to the most humble Lower East Side dive, for free, then expense the taxi ride home. Even crazier, I got to work with world-historic writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates (who I must have been one of the first editors ever to professionally publish), Luc Sante (who helped me move into my first New York apartment!) and Mary Gaitskill — not to mention a gaggle of interns who went on to be editors and/or authors themselves, and by now probably report more 1040 income than I do.
I was there to shape commentary after Columbine, to put together a benefit CD after 9-11, to crank out a cover story about Eminem’s fatherhood skills. I oversaw the Voice’s Best of New York issue (about a city I’d always resented!) for four years, and ran that venerable Pazz & Jop poll for seven. And I was aboard, even to the extent of recording a monthly radio show, when the Voice started the website that would ultimately supersede everything else. In other words, the beginning of the end: It’s when bosses really started reining in my section, which smartly or stupidly I tended to conceive at as a creative project in its own right. That, along with a 2005 merger with an alternative weekly chain out of Phoenix, were ultimately my undoing.
And here’s the thing: As proud as I am of being there when it mattered, I’ve never been an ambitious person. The Voice was not meant to be my stepping stone to somewhere else; it was my dream job, period, and I was naive enough to imagine I’d be its music editor forever. That changed in 2006. In 2009, I moved to Austin. I’m fine, but it’s not the same. And never will be.
Chuck Eddy, a former editor at The Village Voice and Billboard, is the author of the books Stairway To Hell, The Accidental Evolution of Rock ’n’ Roll, Rock and Roll Always Forgets and Terminated for Reasons of Taste. The decades-long contributor to Rolling Stone, Spin, Creem and other publications lives in Deep South Almost-Not-Austin.