I was born in Washington, D.C., spent two years in Berlin right after the war and was raised in San Francisco. I listened avocationally to a lot of pop music pre and post the advent of rock & roll in the 1950's but then...
...became obsessed with classical music through records, despite my vestigial piano skills. By the age of 15 I wanted to be a music critic, but had no idea how to do it. After Andover, I went on to Harvard College (B.A.), the University of Munich, and the University of California at Berkeley.
I spent the 60's in Berkeley, with all that meant, though I did manage to get my M.A. and Ph.D. in German cultural history. What I remember more vividly is my exposure to the wonderfully diverse Bay Area new-music scene (including rock) and my dancing with Anna Halprin. I also did a lot of radio and as much freelance writing as I could, always with an eye to becoming a music critic. It was my San Francisco Opera program notes, I think, that caught the eyes of Paul Hertelendy at the Oakland Tribune and Martin Bernheimer at the Los Angeles Times. I worked in Oakland in 1969 and in Los Angeles from 1970 to 1972, jobs that also entailed reviewing dance - which I took to eagerly, given my Halprin background.
Harold Schonberg lured me to New York (it didn't take much luring) in 1972 as a classical music stringer for the New York Times. Unlike the LA Times, the NY Times had an established dance department. Unlike the LA Times, NY's coverage of popular music was still vestigial. I volunteered to do that, too, and by 1974 I was chief rock critic (continuing to cover classical) and came on staff. From then until 1991 I remained a classical critic (music editor, 1980-1991), but in 1980 I retired myself as rock critic, since there was increasing pressure to devote all my time to rock.
Between 1992 and 1994, frustrated at not being named chief classical critic, I based myself (and my wife Linda and our then-little daughter Sasha) in Paris as the Times's European cultural correspondent, covering all the arts, as well as serving as the paper's principal reviewer of classical recordings.
Just back from Paris, I was unexpectedly offered the chance to become the first director of the Lincoln Center Festival, an annual international performing arts festival that began in July 1996. I left the Time forthwith, enjoyed myself enormously, and did some good things, I think; the festival is still going strong on the same format and with mostly the same staff as when I was there. I came back to the Times in 1998 when Joseph Lelyveld offered me the chance to edit its Sunday Arts & Leisure section the way I wanted - to function more or less independently, to make it more sophisticated, to trust the reader; in short, to apply some of the ideas I hope to perpetuate in this blog.
That worked fine until 2002, after Howell Raines, with his vigorous, not to say bullying, populism, had taken over from Lelyveld. I quit as editor forthwith, unwilling to make the compromises Raines demanded (he surely would have fired me soon enough, anyhow). Instead, I became the ill-defined senior cultural correspondent, a wide-ranging post involving reporting, analysis and criticism in all the arts, as well as the author of a weekly column called "Reverberations."
When Anna Kisselgoff announced her intention to retire as chief dance critic in early 2005, I took over her job, and enjoyed it muchly. But I had always intended to retire in my mid-60's, to explore other ways of self-expression, so at the end of 2006, after my compilation "Outsider" was published, I did just that.
So far, I have published four books: "All American Music: Composition in the Late Twentieth Century," a study of American music from classical to jazz and rock that was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award (1983); "Sinatra: An American Classic" (1984); "The Idiots," a monograph on Lars von Trier's film for the British Film Institute (2003); and "Outsider: John Rockwell on the Arts, 1967-2006," the compilation (2006).
I continue to contribute to magazines, anthologies and encyclopedias, among them "The New Grove Dictionary of American Music," "The New Grove Dictionary of Opera," "The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll" and "The Virgil Thomson Reader," which I edited with Thomson. I give speeches, hang out in exotic residencies, appear on panels and contemplate more books.
I am a Chevalier of the French Order of Arts and Letters (doesn't mean much, I suppose, but I like being a Chevalier), a former member of the Executive Board of the College of Letters and Science of the University of California at Berkeley and a former member of the Board of Overseers of Harvard University. I am also board chairman of the National Arts Journalism Program, of which my old friend Bob Christgau is vice chairman and my newer friend Doug McLennan is another board member and acting director.
For an ongoing conversation and news reports about arts journalism, go to the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, here.