Virgil Thomson was 44 years old when he started writing for the New York Herald Tribune. Tom Johnson was 33 when he became a critic for the Village Voice; Greg Sandow was about 36 when he started pinch-hitting for Tom, 39 when he took over. I got a weekly column at the Voice at age 30. Now I’m 50. Thirty-year-olds seem awfully young to me. And as I re-read yet again through my new book Music Downtown: Writings from the Village Voice, which has just been issued by the University of California Press, I find myself pursing my lips periodically and thinking, “Mmmm, I really said that, did I?”
But I also marvel sometimes at the energy of my writing back then, for energy I had plenty of. I was writing for the most demanding audience of my life: my editor Doug Simmons (currently managing the entire paper), who filed down my style with the meticulousness of a good dentist, and forced more clarity and color from me than I’d known I was capable of. In those days when there was still time enough to make journalism an art form, we used to spend 60 to 90 minutes a week, in person or by phone, going over every word I’d written. The first few weeks on the job I would argue with Doug about a comment or joke I’d made, and he always let me have my way – but when the paper came out I’d notice that, in print, the comment seemed trivial or the joke fell flat, and I learned to trust and internalize his judgment. The day I wrote an article that he didn’t change a word of felt like a major victory. I can’t imagine I’ll ever have the incentive to write that well again. Nor will most people, perhaps, since that kind of intense editing is a luxury that more and more publications can no longer afford. Working with Doug for seven exciting years was an education in itself, and the book is dedicated to him.
I’ve noticed before in other anthologies, and now I see it in my own: it’s odd to take work that was geared toward weekly consumption and squeeze it into a book back-to-back. I might have made a point in March, alluded to it again in September, refined it with new insights the following February – then those three articles appear consecutively, and the reader gets the feeling that I was working out some kind of private obsession. I made my own index, which I love doing because you learn so much about a book, but one thing I learned was that Pierre Boulez had become something of a boogie-man for me, referred to in far more articles than was justified by anything I had to say about him. In retrospect, my choice of articles even looks different than it did when I was making it. The selection is heavy on thinkpieces, light on reviews, and a lot of musicians I reviewed frequently over the years will be surprised not to find themselves mentioned. For long stretches, the book seems to be less about the Downtown Manhattan scene than about the formation of my own aesthetics. I don’t think it seemed that way over the 19 years I’ve been writing for the Voice, but when I came to choose 96 articles out of the 523 I’ve written, many of the ones I was proudest of chronicled my own creative thought process. As has been noted, I’m quite an introvert.
Anyway, the book is out, the University of CA Press did a fine job with it, and I’m very pleased. There’s a lengthy introduction by myself, describing the historical context of the Downtown scene, that reflects my thinking today perhaps more than the articles do. But even that was written when I was only 48 and terribly naive.