On October 26, 1955, The Village Voice printed its first-ever issue, becoming the country’s first alternative newsweekly. Over six decades later, on Sept. 20, 2017, the publication printed its last issue. And on Aug. 31, 2018, the Voice shut down entirely.
Throughout its course, the Voice was home to many of today’s music authorities who have since lent their voices here at Billboard and elsewhere, authored and edited books and taught courses at universities across the country. But they all had to start somewhere. Here, music writers and editors recall their first story for the Voice.
Currently: Author of several books, most recently 2016’s Terminated for Reasons of Taste: Other Ways to Hear Essential and Inessential Music
My first Village Voice byline happened entirely by accident. I’d been voting in the paper’s annual Pazz & Jop music critics poll since 1981, my senior year in University of Missouri’s Journalism program. By the third year I voted, I was a 23-year-old second lieutenant serving the U.S. Army Signal Corps in Bad Kreuznach, West Germany, paying taxpayers back in boredom, toil, deployment plans and standard operating procedures for the ROTC scholarship that had funded my diploma. Along with my 1983 top tens, I submitted a ridiculously wordy screed tearing through the state of both rock and rock criticism — for no other reason than because I wanted to get a few things off my chest. Some weeks after sending in, I received a mysterious check from the Voice in my A.P.O. box — weird, but not the kind of thing one complains about.
Before long, I learned that Robert Christgau had appreciated my spiel enough to publish a hugely pessimistic, partly tongue-in-cheek, couple-hundred word chunk of it as a boxed sidebar, under the headline “Over And Out.” Here he is, in the lead paragraph of his own essay, which ran in the February 28, 1984 issue: “To quote Chuck Eddy, the West Bloomfield, Michigan, free-lancer whose 11-page ballot gave me the idea of sharing my essay with the voters this year: ‘There are only a couple of 1983 records that really matter to me (have become part of me, have changed me, have taught me important things about life or love or Woody Guthrie or food or baseball, have reminded me of stuff I already knew but forgot, you know what I mean).’”
After that, Christgau ran voters’ comments alongside his P&J essay every year — until 2006, by which time I’d been the paper’s music editor for seven years and the company laid us both off. My first actual assigned album review, of Bad Religion’s now long-disowned (because more prog than punk) Into the Unknown, ran in July 1984. I’ve aged a generation or two since. But unlike the Village Voice, at least I’m still alive.
Currently: The Expert Witness columnist at Noisey, author of upcoming collection Is It Still Good to Ya?: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967-2017
My first Rock & Roll & column for The Village Voice appeared March 3, 1969 and analyzed the growing generational differentiations within a “rock culture” inevitably becoming less uniform. The bulk of “Gap Again” is so good I considered including it in my forthcoming Is It Still Good to Ya? collection. But it ended much too sloppily, largely because I didn’t think a full-length essay I was getting paid 40 bucks for was worth more than an all-nighter’s effort. Soon enough I was publishing essays there that took me a week.
Currently: Associate professor and director of the journalism program at Loyola Marymount University, editor of upcoming book Women Who Rock
I moved to New York in late 1988. Soon after, I began copyediting at The Voice, and soon after that, I started writing. That was one of the great things about the Voice: they were open to new writers. My first piece was about Throwing Muses’s Hunkpapa album, ironically, since the first paid piece of music criticism I ever wrote was about the Muses for Providence’s NewPaper about four years earlier. I was happy to write about them for a larger audience, although I don’t think in retrospect I succeeded in capturing how intense that album is, its turbulent peek inside psychosis, as songwriter Kristin Hersh revealed decades later in her autobiography Rat Girl. That review led to many more, including a 1995 cover story on Patti Smith and my eventual hire as music editor. I got two book deals out of Voice stories: Rock She Wrote is based on my history of women music critics, “The Feminine Critique,” and the Rent book. I can’t say that about any other publication I’ve written for!
Currently: Features director, Billboard
Every intern got one pity assignment during his or her semester of transcribing and mail-opening, and mine — in 2000, during the second half of my junior year a NYU — was a review of a Dismemberment Plan concert at the Knitting Factory in Manhattan. (Long before the advent of personal media brands, I was the office emo boy.) Because I was a blandly ambitious journalism student I turned in a mannered imitation of what I thought professional rock criticism was supposed to be: the piece was pompous, dry and peppered with references to Fugazi and “big-label execs.” The music editor, Chuck Eddy — the guy whose mail I was opening — famously hated the snoozily pretentious kinds of pieces I was emulating and could probably barely tolerate reading it.
I don’t remember what Chuck told me during the edit, which like all edits there at the time was done in-person, line by line. But soon after I decided to study a bunch of reviews by Don Allred, whose epically long drafts, typically filed on-spec, Chuck would often make space to run in print, as I recall, almost completely unaltered. (Or maybe that’s more like what he did with Frank Kogan. Chuck was infatuated with the both of them, their raw copy in particular.) Allred wrote, if this is possible, in a kind of mock stream of consciousness that owed a lot to early gonzo music writers like Richard Meltzer — here’s a representative sample from when I was interning.
I was really into Modest Mouse (emo boy), and a few months later I convinced Chuck to give me a second pity assignment writing about The Moon & Antarctica and Building Nothing Out of Something. This time, rather than attempt a piece of serious criticism, I aimed to out-Allred Allred. Even then I think I knew I was histrionically pandering to the Voice tradition of critical insularity. Satirizing it, even. If this sounds like a white dude flexing the privilege of writing for other white dudes, that’s because, in part, it was. But Chuck and all of the Voice‘s editors were so wonderfully invested in letting their writers take risks and cultivate their lower-case voices that they gave me more assignments, more in-person line edits, and eventually I began to figure out that writing wasn’t (only) about impressing (or baffling) other writers. A lesson I still need to remember every time I sit down to write.
Currently: Staff writer at The Ringer
I will do you, the reader, a favor and not link out to my first-ever piece for the Voice, and furthermore do myself a favor and not Google it at all. It was 2006, and I was formally introducing myself as the paper’s new music editor, replacing a beloved figure (my predecessor, Chuck Eddy) and functionally serving as the public face of the very unpopular alt-weekly chain that had just bought the paper and hastened the undeserved exits of Chuck and, over the course of my subsequent five years at the Voice, something like 10,000 other equally beloved writers and editors.
It felt like 10,000, anyway. My first piece was the first installment of my new column, which I almost called The Charm Offensive as a nod to these circumstances, but instead called Down in Front because I am tall, and thus always concerned during rock concerts that someone’s going to throw something at the back of my head. This gives you some idea of my confidence level. My first column was some sort of ill-advised “Diary of a Newly Minted New Yorker” situation, little half-cute vignettes thoroughly coated in flop sweat. I wouldn’t say that circumstances improved, exactly, but I improved, a little, eventually. Maybe I will Google some of that stuff someday. But I doubt it.
Currently: Author, filmmaker and producer for shows like The Chris Rock Show and The Get Down
It was a short piece on a 12 inch single by Harlem rapper Lovebug Starski on Harlem World Records, a label run by the folks who owned the Harlem World Disco on 116th Street and Lenox. It was at Harlem World that Starski would have his famous battle with Kool Moe Dee. My second piece was on “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” which was the first record to capture hip-hop DJ techniques on vinyl. So it was hip-hop that was my gateway into the Village Voice.
Currently: Adjunct instructor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts
If I remember correctly, my first story for the Voice was a book review in 1979. I was working then as a proofreader for the VV, but had previously been reviewing music for three or four other local publications– including the presumptive Voice rival The Soho Weekly News — so Xgau was wary of my music pitches at first. He made me wait awhile to crack his section, which was a typical hazing ritual most people who pitched stories to Xgau went through. But once he took me on as a regular music critic, we had a very interesting and productive editorial relationship. My favorite assignments were the small concert and club reviews we used to call “Licks.” I was free to pitch Bob anything, but my “beat” soon became r&b, reggae, salsa, alt black funk, Gospel, dance, and especially “world beat”; largely because I had already traveled to Brazil, Nigeria and Jamaica to research much of the music I was writing about. Best thing about writing for the Village Voice? They always encouraged me to write about books, music, film, art, dance, and pop culture from a political (and historical) perspective. They also never asked me to dumb-down my work, a professional courtesy for which I will always be grateful.
Currently: Senior editor at Stereogum
In the summer of 2005, I moved to New York with no job prospects and no idea where I’d end up. I’d never written for the Voice before, but for whatever reason, Chuck Eddy still hired me as a music blogger. I wrote the Status Ain’t Hood blog for the Voice‘s website for three years — one long piece everyday, about whatever I wanted, with no editing and no guidance. It was the best.
The first piece I wrote was about a weekend of grime shows at the Knitting Factory and the East River Park bandshell. Kano and Wiley played these rough, anarchic sets for American hipster kids who were geeked up on the idea of grime but who’d never really gotten to enjoy it before. A-Trak and (I think) Diplo played DJ sets. Juelz Santana did a quick set at the East River Park show, and then he spent more time signing autographs for kids from the adjacent housing projects than he did rapping.
The whole thing played out like some hazy, sunny dream. I couldn’t believe what I was getting to see, couldn’t believe I was being paid to write about it, and, more than anything else, couldn’t believe that I was getting to do it for the Village Voice.