Thursday, April 18, 2002

Today is the 60th birthday of Robert Christgau, self-described "Dean of American Rock Critics." I know this because Bob called me this afternoon to ask if I had any special sushi recommendations from the elegant Japanese restaurant in Queens that I had suggested to him for his family's celebration of his birthday. I mentioned one roll, then he got another call on the incoming line. "I guess I'm still editing a piece," he said, and slammed down the phone. It was quintessential Christgau: Unashamedly rude. Yet Bob's coarse abruptness has always been balanced by unrelenting support, at least for me and my ambitions. Christgau was Newsday's first rock critic, in the late 1960s. I was in high school on Long Island, and my mother used to nag me, "Why don't you write this Christgau a letter?" Even then I knew Bob had a reputation for orneryness. But right after graduating from the University of Colorado in 1972, I got a job with CBS (now Sony) Records in New York City, and at one of the lavish press parties that enabled one to eat brilliantly on a $175 a week salary, I was introduced to Bob. Expecting a snub, I was stunned to be embraced. "I loved that piece you did for Creem," etc. etc. We had lunch a few days later, and eventually, at least partly thanks to his support, and that of Dave Marsh, his successor at Newsday, I came home from Birmingham, Michigan, where I had exiled myself to become editor of Creem from April to September, 1975, became the rock critic at Newsday, where I worked for the next 20 years.

I was one of Christgau's semi-regular contributors to the Village Voice music section during the early 1970's. He was the best line editor I ever had. He'd go down your typewritten copy (no computers then) scribbling "X's" in the margins of almost every line. Some questions were minor, some profound. In either case, after the editing session, the writing and thinking quality evolved, on the subsequent rewrite, from fair to good, and then good to great. Though impatient in person, he was most patient as an editor: I went through six or seven rewrites of a review of Stevie Wonder's "Fulfillingness' First Finale," a plum assignment, before I finally nailed it. He was as delighted by the results as he was frustrated by the earlier drafts.

Christgau loves music and criticism so passionately that, well, that impoliteness can emerge in most unusual situations. Shortly after I started at Newsday circa !976, we were both attending a concert at Madison Square Garden headlined by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (riding a revival) with the very hot KC and the Sunshine Band as opening act. After KC's set, Bob, who was sitting a few rows from me, ran over. "Weren't they great, weren't they great!," he shouted. "Well, actually Bob, I thought they were kind of boring," I replied. Bob looked as if he might explode. Then he did. "Oh, Wayne. YOU'RE boring!" he shouted, and stalked away. You've got to love a guy like that, and so I do, from a distance. Happy birthday, Dean Chirstgau.

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