Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Full of Himself

Although I normally teach college because I enjoy intimacy with my youngers, my elders were there waiting when I took over a graduate course in "cultural reporting" this fall. I learned plenty while reencountering the masters who lured me into my trade--for instance, how much of the journalism I treasure, including early Pauline Kael and Dwight Macdonald and Susan Sontag's "Notes on Camp," was written for journals that paid even worse than this one. But the permanent revelation was A.J. Liebling.

New Yorker stalwart Liebling was not one for noble poverty. But neither did he have much use for the bourgeoisie, except insofar as it underwrote French cooking. Instead, he specialized in what his bourgeois colleagues would call low life, including a pre-rock and roll study of the Brill Building. Plus, oh yes, press criticism, such as "Death on the One Hand," in which he described the cavalcade of phony experts who took over Gotham's dailies during the news blackout that separated Stalin's fatal stroke from his actual demise. But however hilariously he preached (and practiced) just-the-facts orthodoxy, Liebling's best writing was always full of Liebling, all 300 pounds of his unmistakable first person. The touchstone is "Ahab and Nemesis," an account of the 1955 Archie Moore-Rocky Marciano fight in which the African-American represents art and reason and his white opponent takes the role of nature. It ends with Liebling fressing a "smoked-salmon sandwich on a soft onion roll" while two cops discuss Kafka's "Metamorphosis." How low can you go?

City Pages, 1996