Former Village Voice Editors And Writers Remember Its Outsized Impact On Music
There are far fewer fingertips smudged and squeaky with newsprint ink today than there were even an armful of years ago. Now, there are soon to be tens of thousands a week less, as The Village Voice ends an epoch, removing newsstands that for 62 years contained the lean and mien of an unparalleled city. (It has to be said that oftentimes, in my experience, those stands were as likely to be filled with bottles of urine as they were papers, though I only got there after the door was free to open.)
The Voice had most — all, it can seem — of the world's best music writers pass through its pages. Below you'll find a lot of words by some of those writers, whose work collectively smudged millions, people who remember reflexively the importance of a sentence's contour, a well-placed swear and a well-executed takedown. It's easy to say nobody cares any more — about music, about writing, about anything... but reading the stories below, that seems pretty impossible to believe. — Andrew Flanagan
Robert Christgau — music editor from 1974-1985, senior editor from 1985-2006, forever the Dean of American Rock Critics
Walking to Veselka for coffee with the great Carola Dibbell midway through a hectic Thursday morning, I found time to b**** about how NPR thought I could polish off a single shining anecdote that summed up my experience of the music coverage at The Village Voice. I mean, really. That coverage wasn't the center of my life from 1974 until 2006 only because Carola was. I don't want to merely call it my professional life, however—emotion was always a crucial part of it, for me in my own writing and in the writers I sought out for the first 10 of those years, when I was the music editor. The Voice provided autonomy and a sense of fellowship like no other outlet while paying enough to keep me and Carola afloat in an East Village that's now very nearly as chimerical as the online-only Voice itself.
So I b*****d, to the above effect. Whereupon Carola proved her greatness yet again by coming up with two anecdotes worth repeating inside of 45 seconds, one for me and one for her. Sum up they don't — in 2015 I published a memoir called Going Into the City that makes a pass at that feat and doesn't sum up either. But at least they have the right flavor.
Mine concerns the 1981 Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll, fifty or so of which were piled beneath my desk late in February of 1982, where I opened the usual pile of press releases, promotional LPs, and fan mail. I don't want to brag or romanticize — even at Pazz & Jop time, fan mail was much rarer than press boompf. But this letter was especially striking. It was from a guy in Nashville who'd missed the Pazz & Jop issue at the local hipster store and hoped I could mail him a copy. A dollar bill was taped to his note. So I slid a Pazz & Jop issue into one of the big envelopes also piled under my task and taped the dollar onto a piece of Voice stationery on which I wrote: "Here ya go, Cam. Keep yer buck." (It might have been "you." It was definitely "yer.")
While never a big deal, that incident stuck in my memory. I know, because 30 years later I met Cam. In early 2011 he quickly proved the most articulate, knowledgeable and together of the amazing commenting community that gathered around the Expert Witness iteration of the Consumer Guide that Microsoft's publishing arm MSN forced on me in a money move (a community I doubt would ever have developed at the Voice, by the way). A heart surgeon who also headed up the University of North Carolina Medical School, he traveled a lot, so I believe it was in person that he told me that my little note had been a turning point when he was a Vanderbilt freshman, up from Mobile on a scholarship. Somehow, it convinced him that he was part of a community larger than any he'd known — that he belonged in a world he'd dreamed of. Cam is now COO at New York Presbyterian as well as one of the most wide-ranging music lovers I've ever met. When he retires, he could take up music journalism easy, especially since he probably wouldn't need to make much money at it. I had a part in that. But it was the Voice's music coverage as a whole that imparted a sense of possibility that changed his life.
Carola's story is shorter and maybe better. We were walking down to CBGB on a bitter night in 1978. She had something in Riffs that week‑-"Pere Ubu Live in This S***!," probably. The icy wind was blowing newspaper pages — newsprint, you remember — down the Bowery, and in those pages she glimpsed her own piece. It was such a thrill, she tells me, to know that something she had written was part of the East Village trash.
Doug Simmons — former editor-in-chief music editor and writer from 1985-2006, currently core product business developer for Bloomberg
Sting was steamed. His boiling letter appeared in The Village Voice in November 1987, the week after the music section's review of his solo album Nothing Like the Sun. Critic Howard Hampton hammered the Englishman's effort from the headline — "Bring Me the Head of Gordon Sumner" — to the last sentence — "Your head, my wall."
As music editor, a gig I held from 1985-90 in a 22-year run at the paper, I had a rich stream of story pitches from dozens of fine writers — it was a no-brainer giving the go-ahead to Howard's. A freelancer who lived in Apple Valley, Ca., Howard proposed to compare and contrast new LPs from Sting and Hasil Adkins, a yawping rocker from West Virginia.
"As music, it is perfumed gunk," Hampton writes of the sounds from the bronzed white man with a toe-tapping colonial beat in "obedience to the social hierarchy rock finds itself absorbed by." Adkins' songs on The Wild Man arrived far from this civilization, Hampton wrote. Adkins sings "as if every pant and shudder could be his last will and testament. Tearing his cat clothes off before the great abyss, he will not be deterred from his endtime mating rites."
This could not stand unchallenged. Sting fiercely retaliated in a published letter — "Oh Howard, why do I see you so clearly? The curse of psychic powers wedded to the transparency of your writing reveals you as a eunuch at a Lester 'Gang Bangs' ... wallowing in the squalid enormities of History's charnel house."
That's a fair rejoinder to Howard's hatchet job, the disappearing critical mode then in the Voice's arsenal of arts coverage. Oh, how I loved the hatchet jobs. It's been so long since I've read one. Are negative reviews pitched by freelancers anymore? They're certainly not being published in prominent forums.
That the Sting took Howard's attack personally affirms the bite of the Voice's arts coverage. When necessary, we knew how to piss off the privileged. Maybe even Sting regrets the shutdown of the newspaper. Sting stands strong. The independent press, by contrast, has been taken down another notch.
Joe Levy — music editor, 1989 - 1994; interim editor-in-chief, 2016; contributing editor, 2017; currently contributing editor for Rolling Stone
In 1987 I was an intern for the Voice music editor, Doug Simmons. There was a strike benefit for the union that summer — Public Enemy and Sonic Youth played. It was at a small club, but Public Enemy's show was already pretty much arena-sized, with the S1Ws stepping as Chuck D, Flavor Flav and Terminator X upended all notions of musical possibility. When Sonic Youth took the stage, they announced they would play an instrumental set because "Public Enemy had used all the words."
Think for a second about these two groups, and how they defined the noise that New York City gave the world. And think about the next year, which would bring Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation. Then think about the two of them showing up at a newspaper's union strike benefit and playing back to back.
That was the Voice, and its music section, in action.
Ed Morales — staff writer and assistant editor from 1989-2000, currently adjunct professor for Columbia University's Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race
I'd come to the Voice as a fledgling music crit fiending on the memory of Lester Bangs, Pablo Guzmán's review of Prince's Dirty Mind, and Greg Tate's visionary Afro-Futurism. They had shaped me like the East Village '80s, where dead-end after hours bars had Ramones and Afrika Bambaata on the jukebox. My musical weltanschauung was a place where downtown skronk met salsa and post-disco, a dilemma that loomed large when I tried to pitch the legendary music section.
The Voice was as rock 'n' roll as you could get. Cartoonist Mark Alan Stamaty was famous for his Elvis imitations at the Christmas parties. Stanley Crouch rumbled with Harry Allen in defense of jazz over hip-hop. "Latin music" was a hard sell. Bob Christgau, whose Consumer Guide style I tried to imitate, preferred to praise African rumba rock like Papa Wemba and Tabu Ley Rochereau. To make matters worse, the early '90s were rife with salsa romántica, the "Despacito" of its time, where crooners like Lalo Rodríguez ruled with an untranslatable corniness that was sexy only in Spanish.
When David Byrne released Rei Momo, which featured contributions from salsa legends like Willie Colón, Celia Cruz, and Johnny Pacheco, there was hope. Here was the Talking Heads guy, chief downtown auteur, spitting the syncopated funk in (sort of) a convincing way. I figured since I'd gone to these shows, like De La Soul at the Ukranian Home, My Bloody Valentine at the Ritz and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan at BAM with various Voice staffers, maybe they were ready to swing to some salsa.
So I invited a few to the Salsa Meets Jazz night — memory fails me but I think Julian Dibbell, who'd introduced me to Tropicália and Arto Lindsay, came. Celia Cruz was playing that night, and we were all sitting at a table, suitably impressed by the first act, something like Ray Barretto with Sonny Fortune sitting in. Then I got up to go to mingle, but on my way back I froze when a wave of people came toward me, with Celia Cruz leading the pack. Suddenly, her husband, Pedro Knight lunged at me and gave me a huge hug, and — with Celia's eyes glistening — for a moment the entire Village Gate seemed to think I was the coolest dude in the room.
Funny thing was I'd never met Pedro Knight. He had mistaken me for someone else, a great friend of his, perhaps. But with his one unbridled emotional display, I'd been anointed. When I got back to my table, everyone was stunned and impressed. Celia hit the stage, killed it, and I had been imbued with the power of 30 years of New York Latin music.
Soon after that, I started to get more music section gigs, and in my own way, became part of that Voice tradition. But it wasn't because of what some might have witnessed that night — it was some crazy Downtown mambo magic that happened inside me.
Greg Tate, staff writer from 1987-2005
My Village Voice origin story is simple: My good friend Thulani Davis had left teaching private school in D.C. to take up residence in Gotham, whereupon she quickly got a gig in the Voice copy department. As a young avant-garde hipster, the Voice was our cognoscenti Bible, so when her writing started appearing there it was like she had gone No. 20 with a bullet on the Billboard charts in our imaginations. Thulani told me to send Bob Christgau some writing and a year later I sent him an all-but-spit-out review of a Nona Hendryx show. Bob told me he couldn't use it, but that "the more writing like this I get in the paper, the more I'll like it." (Years later, somebody told me I answered his search for a Black Lester Bangs — I think the second piece I wrote for him appeared in the same music section as Lester's final dispatch.)
The Voice was the recorder, messenger and proclamatory dictator of what culturally mattered in the province, when pretty much everything that culturally mattered in the world was happening below 14th St — especially in the '80s and early '90s.
Being a 25-year-old music freelancer for the Voice meant your number-one goal in life — free passes to any show at any venue in the city — was answered. But it also gave you street cred you didn't even know you had among a wide swath of characters — club bouncers, burly Latino locksmiths from the Bronx who took your check and proclaimed themselves fans of your byline, label execs, musical icons, and rising rap stars.
Other people will likely tell you about the Voice being a writer's paper, which meant some of your more operatic star journalists were routinely and visibly seen — as in weekly, for years — having diva moments cursing out the publisher or editor-in-chief over things like story length and cover placement. I can only recall but once erupting into such a flare-up myself, but will confess to sweet-talking an editor into sending me to Brazil for a speculative series — that never got written — on life in four major urban centers of Afrocentricity.
You got support for lofty ambition once you'd proven yourself a money earner on the pages, more worthily so for the writers who truly led the nations journalistic pack like the prescient and dogged Mark Schoofs and his award-winning years reporting on AIDs and medicine for the paper, and Lenora Todaro's work on the G8 summit anti-globalization protests that dominated radical leftist activism in the late '90s, early 2000s.
Black folk, Latino folk, uptown, and in all five boroughs really, whether gay or straight, bought and read the Voice vociferously, we discovered. Stanley Crouch, in fact, snooped around and found out from the paper's sales people that anytime a story about African American subjects appeared on the cover, a few thousand more papers were sold all over the city, Harlem Bed-Stuy and the South Bronx included. (Word was that Crouch also negotiated, or bully-pulpited, that factoid into the best writers rate per page in the history of the paper.)
Because the paper was way ahead in its no-holds-barred queer reporting, you could provoke looks of shock and awe (though never overtly 'phobic ones towards you, oddly enough) from your Harlem neighbors when they had the 'a-ha' moment and get compelled to comment "Oh you write for that gay paper." These were never overtly phobic ones towards you oddly enough — or not so oddly in retrospect, once we learned years later how sexually fluent and fluid about gender identities the Harlem underground had been for decades.
Black writers couldn't not be aware of the irony; writing as radically black as you wanted for a press organ that was perceived as very white and gay in the hood. But you also knew that your own more ethnically diverse community was reading the rag, too.
The audience could turn on you, too. I actually got death threats from the paper's equally passionate letter writers — one in the form of a Yoruba curse — after I wrote piece about Michael Jackson's Bad in 1987 called "I'm White!"
It hardly seems a novel, or much incendiary, observation now to point out MJ's visibly plummeting melanin count with each successive '80s album cover and video— but back in the day, only the Voice would have published and highlighted something that rude and provocative about the most titanic and totemic pop star on the planet — who happened to be an African American. Even in the tabloids of the time, entertainment journalism wasn't that racially brazen and TMZ-flagrant about publicly shaming star-powered POCs.
Ann Powers — former writer and music editor, currently author and pop music critic for NPR Music
I first encountered the Voice as a dream, and an embodiment of New York City itself. I'd come up writing for alternative newspapers up and down the West Coast, and was happy with bylines in the L.A. Weekly, itself then being edited by Voice expat Kit Rachlis. In 1989, Gotham seemed too distant and scary to even consider; I was happy as a small fish in a California pond. Then I met a guy from Queens who said, "you know, anyone who's a published music critic can write comments for Pazz & Jop." Reader, I married him — Eric Weisbard, eventually a Voice music editor too — but before that, I took his advice and submitted a few paragraphs on that year in music. I think it was 1990. Robert Christgau, Dean of American Rock Critics and Poobah of that annual music poll, published my comments in full.
Who knew? From that moment on, my heart belonged to the Voice and the Voice alone. Suddenly, New York didn't seem so bad, because that's where the greatest music writers all lived – or at least, their bylines lived together in a music section that never ran a dud piece. Joe Levy, then the music editor, assigned me my first review, on the rising tide of female singer-songwriters that would soon birth Lilith Fair. Here's the first sentence of my first published Voice riff: "Unicorn keepers have an embarrassing job." Here was this Kate Bush-loving San Francisco hippie punk holding forth on gender, art rock, and unicorns, referencing Norse myths and Thelma & Louise. Not your usual music writer, maybe, but I had my own perspective, and it had potential. Joe, Bob and the Voice got that.
The Voice editing style, at the time, was a mix of boot camp, talk therapy and barstool philosophizing that took hours – hours! (with breaks for mozzarella-and-tomato sandwiches) — and made every piece so much better than the writer thought it could be. Joe was the master, able to kill your most stubborn ego-driven preconceptions with kindness and extra-dry jokes. When, after uprooting my life and moving to Brooklyn, I succeeded him in 1993, I tried my best to follow in his footsteps.
All I did, really, was welcome the amazing people who walked up to my cubicle. This community was New York; multifarious, competitive, compassionate, and constantly engaging in brainstorms and trash talk. Inches from my computer monitor, Greg Tate and Nelson George were inventing hip hop criticism; Carol Cooper was deftly illuminating the R&B scene; Daisann McLane brought the Latinx boroughs to life. Gary Giddins was in his own office, defining jazz writing, and Kyle Gann was doing the same for new classical music. The Voice was where dream hampton wrote about introducing her newborn daughter to hip-hop; where Sasha Frere-Jones figured out how Derek Bailey related to Timbaland; where Paul Miller developed his DJ Spooky persona, in prose; where Evelyn McDonnell started a conversation about women's place in criticism that burns on to this day. This name game is dangerous, because there are just so many, all as great as the next. I mean: Vince Aletti. Joan Morgan. Julian Dibbell. Richard Goldstein. Lisa Jones. Frank Owen. Donna Gaines. James Hannaham. I'm going to stop. Just one more: there were many days when I walked around just wishing I could be Erik Davis for one afternoon, so I could write about the freaky intersections of music, religion and the counterculture the way he did.
The point is, the Voice as a physical thing was a manifestation of us – our bodies, our chatter, our whispering confidences, riding the subway to Cooper Square or grabbing some microwaved food in the break room. The Voice was us talking through our differences, turning each other on to weird scenes at night, listening in ways that just don't happen when you aren't physically together in a room. The Voice in print was the New York that made sense to me — not the one too rich and thin for me to inhabit, but the one made of porkpie hats and Doc Martens, of strike benefits and pizzas devoured on deadline. It was far from perfect. But it was the only New York I wanted to know, the only America I could and can believe in. The America of freaks who believed in each other and wouldn't shut up.
Rob Harvilla — music editor from 2006-2011, currently staff writer for The Ringer
I came to the Voice in 2006, a tumultuous and contentious time even for a famously tumultuous and contentious paper. I was terrified. Riding up alone in the elevator on my first day, I heard these weird, disembodied voices, and I thought Jesus this place is intimidating, and it took me several long moments to realize I'd hit play on the cassette recorder in my pocket, and I was listening to whatever my last interview had been.
I spent five years there, and it was almost a relief to never lose that sense of intimidation. Confronted with the paper's half-century of bulletproof work — from some of the best writers, editors, and critics to ever do it, anytime, anywhere, many of whom I got to work with directly — I saw my role less as an attempt to join that pantheon, and more to just not f*** it up for everybody, to help create a future that didn't ruin the past.
All I can say on that score is that I had nothing to do with it, but this is the best headline in Village Voice history.
I was doing a phone interview with Janelle Monáe when somebody walked into my office to tell me Michael Jackson had died. It didn't feel like my place to tell her. The mad scramble in the days that followed was the purest distillation of that attempt to synthesize the future and the past. Interns dug out hardbound copies of decades-old issues and physically retyped legendary MJ-related Voice reviews and features, while great writers wrote great pieces on the usual, absurdly short notice. Somebody plowed through the fearsome photo archive and found this for the cover; it was my editor's idea to run it with no headline, no added embellishment. Let the legacy speak for itself. At that moment, at least, it did.
Sean Fennessey — freelancer, currently editor-in-chief for The Ringer
The Village Voice created space for style, creative expression, and daring in the rock critical hothouse. It wasn't the glossiest outlet, but it always looked like the freest from afar.
Like many aspirant music writers, I admired and sometimes idolized the voices, adored the section, and longed to be published there. The small batch of pieces I ultimately wrote were bad, as is nearly all youthful music writing, but the Voice made room for all kinds of adventure. I wrote an essay for the 2009 edition of Pazz & Jop pairing the sad-boy histrionics of Kanye West and Bon Iver — two months later they were in Hawaii making music together. For the paper a year later, Jay-Z told me that Kings of Leon's "Use Somebody" was his song of the year. The opportunities were vast and micro. I was lucky to be asked to do anything there at all.
I owe a debt of gratitude to my editors and a pound of flesh to the many great writers I've ripped off for years.
Maura Johnston — music editor from April 2011 - September 2012, currently journalism instructor for Boston College and freelance writer
I arrived at the Voice at a weird time — in the spring of 2011, shortly after the music-blog hordes had carved out a place for themselves in "New York music media" and right before platforms had arrived to decimate any publication that wasn't massive. (It was also right after "Friday," if you need a song to better situate it.) For me, the Voice had a legacy that was important—it was a paper that made me discover and think about things, even if some of the issues it brought up made me uncomfortable. (I was raised Catholic and very averse to getting "in trouble," whatever that meant.)
When I arrived I was really excited to cover New York and all its subcultures (and, if I'm honest, maybe lighten up on the indie rock stuff, because... well, that's another topic for another time). I felt like covering interesting music, with well-edited copy, by the best writers, was the ultimate goal of my job, even when I was zinged by the higher-ups in increasingly stressful meetings for getting lousy traffic and going over budget. They wanted to be cheap and gross in ways that I still marvel at; I wanted to dig in and allow great brains from around the world to strut their stuff, to use the theoretically unlimited space we had online to run in-depth and lengthy interviews with interesting people, first-person accounts of being in the parents' tent at Warped Tour, or the favorite cheap-eats haunts of New York's many musicians. It would be a place for good writers to publish pieces centered on opinions and artists and subcultures that didn't get a lot of shine elsewhere, sometimes because they weren't necessarily marketable or easily boxed-in, sometimes because there was a lot to say. That was what the Voice was to me when I read it on the train going back and forth — a place to stumble upon the unknown and maybe find a different point of view from someone with passion, or maybe just be intrigued by a band name in a CBGB listing. (Although a lot of those names were terrible. Not as bad as Wetlands, but still pretty bad.)
I did a good job while not having a lot of resources, and I will forever appreciate the incredible writers I published, who were to a person, whether staff or freelance or interns, chronically underpaid for their sterling efforts. But that word — effort — doesn't really mean much online, where every individual piece on a commercial site had to (and still has to) justify its ROI via real-time analytics. And music is a notoriously tough vertical for consistently bringing in the type of rubberneck traffic "virality" requires.
Which is why the dumping of the print version distresses me a lot. I realize that I sound old saying this, but the print model just allows for more wiggle room on the editorial side — higher ad rates, no retinal scans to figure out what people are and aren't reading (yet). I also know from personal and observed experience that the serendipity offered by online browsing is vastly diminished from what you find when you're reading a periodical on paper. There aren't as many opportunities to have your eye fall on something and think "hm, what's this" and make the split-second decision to click when you're bombarded with chumboxes from ZergNet touting pieces about actresses who, heaven forbid, actually got older as time passed. I realize that you could put a stack of unread, week-old newspapers next to the term "sunk cost" in the dictionary, but capitalism in its current form doesn't really dole out rewards based on merit.
I've been online for nearly three decades and I initially saw the world offered by modems and Ethernet cables as an open plain where one could run around and make herself dizzy with potential. But now it seems like a maze designed to lull readers into behavior that increases probably meaningless "attention metrics," never mind whether they're taking in the information they allegedly wanted to find in the first place. It's awful for culture writing, cultivating blasé semi-engagement and bad-faith readings designed to spark knee-jerk outrage, which were both antithetical to what I saw as the Voice ethos. And it's not really doing much for the world beyond the arts, either, as the past eight months have made all too plain.
Andrew W.K. — columnist from 2013-2014, currently partier-in-chief for the U.S.A.
I moved from my hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan, to New York City in the late '90s in hopes of becoming a professional musician. I took a job working as a clerk at Kim's Video, and I'd snatch up a copy of the Voice every week as soon as it was delivered. It was my Bible, a road map that helped me navigate my new, sometimes-intimidating city. I found some of my first jobs in the back of the paper, and even auditioned early band members by placing my own classified ad.
I realize now that a lot of my world revolved around the Voice. I read about all the local and national acts, and dreamed of one day making music that would be written about or recognized in this paper I'd come to place so much importance in. I eventually got there. And through the years I've made a habit of picking it up.
In 2013, then-music editor Brian McManus asked me to write an advice column every week, which would run online and in print, and I jumped at the opportunity. It was a dream come true, and I told him then I wouldn't be interested in the idea if it were for any outlet besides The Village Voice, which I still believed had so much value. I'm sad to see the print version go.
Can't imagine not being able to pick one up.
Brian McManus, music editor from mid-2012-2014, currently special projects editor for Vice
When I became music editor at the Voice I wanted to find a musician who embodied the city to write for us. Andrew W.K. came almost immediately to mind. I had only a very meager budget, and thought there'd be no way I could afford him. But he didn't care about pay, and was very eager to do it. He wanted to be in the pages of the Voice, and told me it had been a lifelong dream of his. We had a dedicated email address for people to write in with questions, and sifting through it each week became harder and harder as the popularity of the column skyrocketed.
One of his columns, Ask Andrew W.K.: My Dad Is a Right Wing Asshole, caught the attention of Glenn Beck, who was so moved by it he had Andrew on his show a couple times and eventually gave him his own on the Blaze Radio network. It was incredible to see the influence spread — many of the columns still appear in my social media feeds today as people discover them anew.
I think the Voice was a key reason it worked. It was a weird idea that needed a weird place to support it. A Party Rocker giving advice about how to properly grieve the passing of a beloved family dog or whether or not a couple should have a baby? Sure! I felt complete freedom to pursue any idea — even possibly bad ones. This extended beyond what landed in the "Ask Andrew" inbox. I knew nothing was too out of bounds for the Voice, which found comfort in living on the fringe.
There was a sense at the paper — perhaps because we were desperate for wins by the time I came on board — that you could experiment wildly. We wanted music to serve as the lens through which we looked at the city and the culture thriving in it. We got there quite a bit, and often it was because the people we were writing about, like Andrew, had such an affinity or connection to the deep history of the paper that they would return phone calls or say yes to something they otherwise wouldn't have. I'll always cherish that.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.