'Another Little Piece of My Heart' is the 'unauthoritative' memoir of one of America's first rock critics
Richard Goldstein offers a first-hand report of '60s counter-culture and rock.
Jethro Tull needed me. I was a soon-to-be high school graduate, a prize-winning shot-putter. I was a strong man – albeit cool, at least as cool as a shot-putter can be. I was the man Jethro Tull needed.
Jethro Tull needed me one night in the spring of 1969, though some clarification is required. The Boston Tea Party, a rock-and-roll venue on Berkeley Street in Boston, was presenting Jethro Tull, and they needed me to help move equipment. Not the guitars, the drum kit, or Ian Anderson’s flute case. Not a chance. They needed me to move the boxes the instruments were shipped in. But in the informality of those days, I got to mix. No shoulder rubbing – things were in too great a state of nerves for that – but to imbibe the atmosphere. And, boy oh boy, was there atmosphere, an elemental charge, a capturing of higher ground.
Richard Goldstein felt the wonder workings of the backstage necklace more times than seems fair. Another Little Piece of My Heart recounts that strange and electrical landscape, and there Goldstein was – grinning from ear to ear (if only inside – only rubes admit to being impressed, as any New Yorker will tell you) – even if there would be a price to pay for a fraught soul like Goldstein. Goldstein was a rock critic, before Lester Bangs, before Greil Marcus, before Robert Christau, before there was such a thing (though "Crawdaddy,'" Ellen Willis, "The Phoenix," and "Boston After Dark" were showing signs of life).
"Another Little Piece" is a memoir on its own terms. It is unauthoritative (this from its author), highly subjective (comes with the terrain), and genuinely existential. There are awakenings, transcendences, shake-ups, and ecstasies to match every bummer, cringe, bout of shamefulness and utter confusion, and none of it feels contrived.
Goldstein is no stranger to contradiction. “In the Summer of Love it seemed possible to create a culture built on tangibility, a hands-on, person-to-person sensibility that would displace the system that organized human beings into consumer groups,” he writes. And yet, “The sixties were an age of faux candor, nuggets of wisdom meant to be therapeutic but actually just manipulative.” The 1960s were a lot of things, and Goldstein trolled through many of them, from the high end to the down low – much like the New Journalism he admired.
Goldstein came out of the Bronx, a young man on a mission, bound for Greenwich Village, with countercultural-radio WBAI and its company of oddfellows rattling around in his young head. "Rubber Soul" had been rereleased and Bob Dylan had discovered electricity. CORE was picketing White Castle. Goldstein, who managed his warring sexuality with surprising insouciance, was hungry for it all, especially music.
He appeared at the "Village Voice" and told the editor he wanted to be a rock-and-roll critic. Editor Dan Wolfe asked, “What’s that?” Rarely on his toes when face-to-face, Goldstein replied, “I don’t know.” He got the job.
No shrinking violet, our Goldstein: “Within a few years, at the unready age of twenty-two, I would be the first widely read rock critic and a media sensation, a designated arbiter of hip.” Joan Scott and Lillian Roxon were also busy laying the foundation of rock criticism, but Goldstein isn’t far off his mark. Not so much a critic – who’s always sweating getting it right – he was a reporter. “I was in it for the openness – there were no rules of standards to meet.... My job was to write what I saw, heard, and felt about something I loved.”
He had a terrible case of celebrity fright, which for Mr. Backstage was an absurd liability. “I wasn’t really aware of the people I wrote about. They were figments of fame, and I saw them as I saw Dylan – through a glass, dorkly.” Streetwise ennui was not his forte. Interviews were a torture because most celebrities cut him little slack and he was tight as a knockwurst.
Still, he came away with the goods. He recognized Robert Crumb as "the most important visual artist of the counterculture” and “as serious an explorer of the crannies of consciousness as Dylan," where others might have seen only Peter Max or the Joshua Light Show.
“Dylan’s lyrics posed a major challenge to my competence as a rock critic," he admits. "Their meaning kept slipping from my grasp.... The song flees from whatever it represents; it eludes definition." Yet, rock stars were the high priests of wacko perplexity, which for many “reinforced their most self-destructive impulses.” Welcome to the Twenty-Seven Club.
Goldstein was an effective critic because of “my passion about the music and what it meant to me. I might pretend that virtuosity was what counted in rock – that was the manly thing to do – but actually it was about longing and craving, the need to possess and adore; desire in all its permutations, unbounded and uncanny.”
Culture as vitality, and sexuality as well. Goldstein’s powerful gay impulse was underscored by a preternatural equanimity, letting it free here and there – he had an open marriage for years and years – and he investigates his omnisexuality with the same honesty he routinely displays: befuddled, unbridled, accessible, closed, still rooting around after all these years.
By the turn of the decade, Goldstein was souring on the music scene. Commodification, mass production, marketing strategies: “Consciousness was the buzzword, and the narrative about using the system in order to subvert it. But it seemed to me that the artist was always the one who ended up subverted. And publicity was what made the transition from authenticity to plastic.”
Well then – from consciousness to the streets. The empathy for the underdog, the society of the spectacle, the theatrical disruptions ("levitate the Pentagon"), Abbie Hoffman as guerrilla clown, these were among Goldstein’s inspirations. He found revolution fed his need for ecstasy and escape (“I began to transfer my awe from rock stars to radicals”). The violence of the state, the concreteness of racism, “unleashed the soldier within me.” “Peacefulness was a tactic, not an inviolate principle.”
He also found a lot of bad company: William Burroughs’s practiced rap about men not needing love; gonzo journalism reading “like a night in a bar with a maudlin drunk”; “celebrated writers who advocated terrible things”; performers changing their presentation, “which is not the same thing as transformational.” He found a lot of disillusionment, and he moved on.
Goldstein witnessed and participated in many incandescent moments of that time, and reported back. He was – is – a reporter, a trusty guide even if you don’t agree with him – rock critic, pop interpreter, soldier of the night, an old hand – a poster boy for Herbert Marcuse’s erotic labor: work as an act of love and “that when work is love it can be liberating.” Goldstein loved what he did, it showed. We were lucky to share it with him.