Book Excerpt: Robert Christgau Remembers the Deaths of Lennon, Marley, and Lester Bangs

In the late 1960s, Robert Christgau helped invent rock criticism. Ever since, he’s been among the country’s best and most influential arts journalists. In his memoir, Going Into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man, Christgau, a native New Yorker, traces both his own (and pop’s) intellectual and emotional development and paints a loving portrait of the city he loves. It’s a deeply smart, charmingly gregarious read. This excerpt finds Christgau reflecting on some pivotal moments for himself and the music he loves: the deaths of John Lennon, Bob Marley, and Lester Bangs. 

[By the end of the ‘70s] the notion of the rock and roll lifer was taking on a life of its own. For artists but also for scriveners like me and mine, it kept getting clearer that this music for kids could evolve into not just a career but a lifework. Many fools couldn’t see past the surface contradiction, and many careerists were content to remain nothing more. But quite a few others seized the opportunity to, among other things, reconceive youthfulness itself, a boomer project if ever there was one. And for some that proved a losing battle. Major rock and rollers didn’t stop dying after Brian, Jimi, Janis, and Jim founded their stupid club: Ronnie Van Zant went down flying, Keith Moon obliterated himself, Ian Curtis succeeded at suicide. But the three major rock deaths of the early ’80s — including, I insist, the rock critic’s — all left especially painful memories of promise laid waste.

It was after ten p.m. when the news of John Lennon’s murder broke on Monday, December 8, 1980, and I was at the paper heatedly protecting Carola’s feminist Blondie Riff from an unflattering image chosen by photo editor Fred McDarrah. Instantly, McDarrah conceded and I went home to write my obit, where Carola raised a question of logic: “Why is it always Bobby Kennedy or John Lennon? Why isn’t it Richard Nixon or Paul McCartney?” The front-page thousand-worder I completed at six thirty in the morning quoted her question and concluded that famous people who gave ordinary mortals hope often got blamed when hopes were dashed, and by Thursday we both had been widely accused of advocating the  assassination of gifted Wings bassist McCartney. Even Carola was more bemused than discomfited by the misreading. But we were gratified when Cockburn came riding to our defense: “I can’t see what the commotion is about. People do think, and say such things, in such times, and Christgau cashed the sentiment correctly.” Lennon had just released the John-and-Yoko comeback album Double Fantasy, and although I admit I heard more in its antipunk polish after he died than I had before, I’m certain I was right the second time. Within a year I’d write two major Lennon pieces — one on his music, a collaboration with John Piccarella, and one on his marriage.

The news of Lester Bangs’s accidental death from not much Darvon came by phone over Saturday breakfast on May 1, 1982, as his best friend, the quiet country music specialist John Morthland, worked his way down a long list of people who cared. My sister had bonded with Lester at the Creem house, and we were friendly — for all his invective in print, Lester was an exceptionally congenial man. But except as editor and writer, a big except, we weren’t close, in part because, as a few of his millions of unpublished words indicate, he thought I was flaunting my Ivy League diploma when I argued ideas with him, as I did with almost everyone. But by all accounts he liked working with me, and in fact had phoned me from a pay phone the day he died to extend a deadline — not a suicide’s move. At the Voice, Lester had upped his game a little while I tightened his game a little and occasionally nixed some errant outpouring. The result was an unstaunchable stream of well-turned reviews that were insanely funny and full of heart, the spontaneous rock yawp of a wordslinger who listened to music harder than you because he needed it more. He had lots of fans on the Voice staff, and I admired his writing so much that his death hit me almost as hard as Lennon’s — this was someone with what his man Iggy called a lust for life, not someone who couldn’t wait to get out of his skin. So I phoned Schneiderman to secure a two-page spread that ended up comprising my obit and tributes from Greil, Georgia, and Billy Altman — Morthland was too broken up to contribute. A few days later there was a small memorial service where we met Robert Quine, Joey Ramone, and Joey Ramone’s mother, and shortly after that I helped organize a wake at CBGB. When Rolling Stone failed to mention Lester’s passing in its year-end issue, Morthland, Altman, Georgia, and myself wrote to inquire as to how this oversight could possibly have occurred.

The third death came in between, on May 11, 1981. It was less a shock because the cancer rumors had been circulating for months, and got less play in the paper because it was announced so close to closing on a Monday that Thulani Davis’s five hundred words had to be squeezed in well behind Riffs and didn’t make the table of contents at all. But it’s not as if we’d been letting Bob Marley slide. Just nine months before, Carol Cooper had published an impassioned Voice report that came down with righteous scorn on how foolishly Marley’s hippie-manque claque dismissed his desire to reach the African-American audience — an audience that would within a decade align itself with Marley’s third-world deifiers worldwide. In May of 1982 Trinidadian journalist Isaac Fergusson added a more balanced and substantial appreciation. And what Davis squeezed out on that death deadline was so right: “I have no empty space. I have not been saved but I have heard what it sounds like to be free and not fear to exult ‘in this life, in this life / in this oh sweet life.’ ‘We’ve got to fulfill the book’ is how it is. Bob Marley trusted and let us.” Thulani was a poet before she got to the Voice and never stopped being one. Awestruck yet unsentimental, her tribute demonstrated why Afro-diasporic musics should on occasion be covered by people who aren’t strangers to those communities.

Excerpted from Going Into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man by Robert Christgau, published by Dey Street Books, an imprint of Harper Collins, February 2015. Copyright © 2015 by Robert Christgau. Reprinted with permission of the Author; all rights reserved.

Robert Christgau on the Deaths of Lennon, Marley