The Village Voice (1955–2018)

From left: Nat Hentoff, Jules Feiffer, Alex Cockburn, Karen Durbin, and Joel Oppenheimer picket after Rupert Murdoch bought the paper in 1977. Photograph: © Sylvia Plachy.

THE DESTRUCTION OF THE VILLAGE VOICE—in the spirit of the paper itself, let’s not mince words about the nature of its ending—may not have been a surprise, but it was still a shock to the system. I myself was a latecomer to the publication, first hired as a pinch-hitter art critic in 2014, and then bumped up to art columnist in 2016. At that time, a new owner promised a new era, vowing to make the Voice great again, and we who worked there believed him. Few of us trusted the self-proclaimed savior, but we did somehow, perhaps a bit dumbly, have faith that the phoenix would inevitably rise from the ashes as it had before—this time, with great enough force and vitality that the city would have its beloved and reviled weekly back on the streets. And for a while, it did.

The Voice was a cultural necessity for decades, a breeding ground for generations of passionate and relentless journalists, critics, and writers, where they could hone their chops, flex their intellects, dig deep and deeper still into acts both heroic and criminal, whether civic or aesthetic. As its title promised, it produced a raucous and joyful chorus that remains a standard by which writerly courage is still measured. Here, some of the Voice’s most singular—Gary Indiana, Molly Haskell, J. Hoberman, Vivian Gornick, Melissa Anderson, Robert Christgau, Michael Miller, and Greg Tate—have shared their recollections about what it meant to work at that irreplaceable place.

Jennifer Krasinski

AT THIS SUPREMELY SQUALID and depressing bend in our country’s political life, it’s strange to recall what the Village Voice once was to a once great, liberal American city, a city that now competes with London as the world’s biggest money laundry. The late, great Wayne Barrett and other Voice political writers exposed the rich corruption of our town, state, and country, for a readership that actually understood what corruption is, and actually objected to it. In fact, they exposed the metastatic corruption of Donald Trump when he was but a smear of ordure in the real-estate landscape.

When I worked there, the Voice had many gorgeously idiosyncratic writers across the board, on film, theater, TV, books, fashion and nightlife, and editors who were true editors, not corporate ventriloquists. I may be wrong about this, but I think everyone at the Voice then had at least some Gramscian notion of cooperatively trying to improve the state of things, whatever else they had on their minds. It’s a different city now, and a different world. Thirty years ago, Alexander Kluge told me that in the twenty-first century, the computer would eliminate any space and time for reflection. I’m sure he’s no happier about the accuracy of his forecast than I am. But there it is.

Gary Indiana

We were given the almost unheard of freedom to go wherever the subject took us; discovery and self-discovery went hand in hand.

I WAS WORKING AT THE FRENCH FILM OFFICE, writing a bulletin and newsletter for American journalists about French films, when I first met Andrew Sarris, then the “mainstream” film critic (Jonas Mekas was avant-garde) at the Village Voice. I wrote a piece on the Living Theatre as a kind of audition and got a job as the fourth-string reviewer covering Broadway—the main Voice critics were hanging out in the churches and basements and out-of-the-way venues where off-Broadway flourished and which the paper had practically invented. When Andrew expanded the movie coverage I moved over and began what in effect was a kind of learning-on-the-job graduate school.

The Voice was radical, bohemian, leftist but not ideologically pure. Andrew and I as devotees of narrative cinema were the least hip or cutting-edge of Voice writers, but we were still wayward polemicists—he in advancing the still controversial auteur theory and I in taking a feminist slant.

But more than its politics, the Voice during this period (late ’60s, early ’70s) was characterized by two things: the personal, confessional tone of the writing, and the rather nasty habit of writers attacking each other. The Front of the Book (Politics) vs. the Back of the Book (Arts), or subfeuds within each category. Or in this hotbed of Oedipal skirmishing, writers scheming to get someone fired (and possibly replace him). When I first started writing from a feminist perspective, a deputy/embassy of women representing some official group came to Dan Wolf and claimed I shouldn’t be writing as a feminist since I hadn’t paid my dues.

Dan, as I imagine it, smiled courteously, listened attentively and paid no attention. He would simply stand back and watch. This was his way, and while the broadsides and backbiting were sources of discomfort, Dan’s zenlike passivity, combined with the indulgent parenting of his Voice cofounder, Ed Fancher, a psychologist by day, were the source of all that was liberating in the Voice. We were given the almost unheard of freedom to go wherever the subject took us; discovery and self-discovery went hand in hand.

Owen Gleiberman, in his 2016 book Movie Freak, makes the suggestive point that Norman Mailer, founder and early Voice writer, was in effect a blogger, but you could say that pretty much all of the Voice writers were bloggers avant la lettre. Forget the conventional review and consumer services, the plot summary, the thumbs up or down, and the avoidance of spoilers: you could jump in anywhere and end up anywhere, becoming part of the story, thus acknowledging the deeply personal biases that went into the supposedly objective profession of criticism.

For me it was learning on the job, my graduate school. You could really fumble in print . . . and hopefully recover. I cringe to think of some of my pieces, harsh reviews of my betters, but I somehow felt protected. If we were in a goldfish bowl it was a small one, where even the internecine warfare was parochial, silly, a family squabble. And surely our permissive parents would step in if it got too violent.

Molly Haskell

THE VILLAGE VOICE WAS CRUCIAL to my formation as a reader, a writer, and a person.

As a reader: For an outer-borough kid coming of age in the mid ’60s and later attending an upstate college, the Voice was an education—or at least mine. I was not only deeply impressed by the film section, which then consisted of Jonas Mekas and Andrew Sarris, but Ellen Willis’s cultural criticism, Richard Goldstein’s counterculture reporting, and just the paper’s whole fucking attitude. It was everything I loved about New York.

As a writer: I published my first piece (on Jack Smith) in the Voice in 1973, freelanced a bit during the ’70s, became a regular in late 1977, went on staff in 1984, and was fired eighteen years later. During the thirty-three years I wrote weekly for the Voice, I was free to find and follow my interests (and also learn from some terrific editors, notably Karen Durbin). Making a living as a film critic was the best gig that I could ever conceive, and the context was fantastic. A newspaper staffed by an indescribable mix of brilliant, talented, impossible people was the most stimulating workplace imaginable. It was even a blessing during the nightmare years when the unspeakably crass and loathsome outfit that bought the paper in 2005 broke my heart every day.

As a person: To cope with that hostile occupation, replete with routine terror and metaphoric roundups, I became a union activist and served as the chief spokesperson during the 2011 contract negotiations. We held onto our health care and management took its revenge. But solidarity is its own reward. I will always be proud that I lost my job as a result.

J. Hoberman

Alexander Cockburn leads an editorial meeting in the Voice offices. Photograph: © Sylvia Plachy.

The VILLAGE VOICE MADE ME A WRITER. Here’s how it happened: The year was 1968 or 9, I forget which, and one night I attended a speak-out at the Village Vanguard billed as “Art and Politics.” On the stage was LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), the saxophonist Archie Shepp, and the painter Larry Rivers. In the audience every white middle-class liberal in the city. Jones quickly dominated the event by announcing that not only was the civil-rights movement tired of white intervention, very soon blood was going to run in the seats of the Theatre of Revolution and guess who was sitting in those seats. The place went up in flames, everyone yelling and screaming “Not fair!” at once. But Jones continued, claiming that “we” had fucked it all up but “they” would do it differently when they got there. I knew that he was wrong, that the only way to get “there” was to become “us”—and I wanted to call that out, like everyone else was doing, but I was scared (he was formidable). . . . So I went home and sat up half the night writing up the evening as I had experienced it. In the course of doing so I discovered my style—which of course was the personal journalism of the moment. In the morning I put the piece in an envelope, took it to the corner mailbox, and sent it to the Village Voice. A few days later my phone rang. I said “Hello,” and Dan Wolf said, “Who the hell are you?” I said, “I don’t know, you tell me.” He then invited me to write for the paper. I hung up and did what I always did in those days when offered a chance to write: stared into anxious, inert space. A year later I sent the Voice another piece. And I think most of another year passed before I sent in a third. In between I’d gotten married and left the city. But then very quickly I got unmarried, came home, and went to the Voice—how I had the nerve to do this I’ll never know—and asked Wolf for a job. He said, “You’re a neurotic Jewish girl, you write one piece a year, how can I give you a job?” I said, “No more, I’ll do anything you ask.” He said, “Spend a day at the Catholic Worker and write a piece about Dorothy Day.” I did. Then Jack Kerouac died and Wolf said, “Go to Lowell, Mass., and report on the funeral.” I did. One more assignment—and he gave me the job. And that is how I became a writer.

Vivian Gornick

I said, “Hello,” and Dan Wolf said, “Who the hell are you?” I said, “I don’t know, you tell me.”

FOR MY FIRST ASSIGNMENT for the Village Voice in 2000 (as a freelancer), I covered a retrospective at the Whitney devoted to women avant-garde filmmakers in America. For my final piece in 2017 (as a staff critic), I wrote about a program at Metrograph of recently restored movies that included the documentary The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971) and The Lost Moment (1947), a fruity Henry James adaptation starring Susan Hayward and Agnes Moorehead. Repertory film wasn’t my sole beat at the Voice, but I did write about it frequently and for one reason: because my editors there, starting with the great Dennis Lim, unfailingly encouraged me to pursue the cinema exotica in New York (where it has always teemed) that interested me. My main goal when I wrote about movies from the past was to avoid merely perpetuating received wisdom. Now that the Village Voice officially belongs to history, I likewise want to resist sentimentalizing it. But I know that contributing to the Voice film section for so many years meant that I was lucky enough to reshape and refine not only my words and my thoughts but myself.

Melissa Anderson

THE VILLAGE VOICE WOULD HAVE CHANGED MY LIFE if I’d never worked there, as it changed so many others. I read it as a backsliding Christian fourteen-year-old from Queens who’d never set foot in the Village, as an Ivy League existentialist who hit Eighth Street every chance he got, as a would-be novelist on West Seventieth Street and an up-and-coming new journalist on East Ninth. But the June 1966 launch of Richard Goldstein’s Pop Eye column hit me where I lived. One reason I consider Goldstein the first rock critic is his column hed—not only did he bring exegesis and reportage to the music ex-teenagers were calling “rock,” he labeled it “pop” in the process. As a Mickey Mantle/Chuck Berry/Andy Warhol fan then writing for New York and Esquire in the belief that slick magazines opened a path to literary excellence, I said yeah.

But by 1968, when Esquire tired of my Secular Music column just as Goldstein had tired of Pop Eye, I was sussing that maybe the slicks weren’t for this East Villager after all. Enter three years of a poorly remunerated Voice column dubbed Rock & Roll & that spawned the Consumer Guide briefs that proved my brand and essays I couldn’t have published anywhere else, two years as Newsday’s rock critic, and then my lifework, a decade as music editor and thirty-two years as chief music critic at a Voice then owned by New York’s Clay Felker, who less than three years later would lose control to Rupert Murdoch, who’d toss us aside in 1985 himself. I was fired in 2006, but more than half of my forthcoming collection
Is It Still Good to Ya? was first published there, mostly in this century.

The honor roll is spectacular. Gary Giddins, Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Tom Johnson, James Wolcott, Vince Aletti, Stephen Holden, Ken Tucker, Kit Rachlis, Stanley Crouch, Tom Carson, John Piccarella, Jon Pareles, Carol Cooper, Nelson George, Greg Tate, Greg Sandow, Chuck Eddy, Kyle Gann, Barry Walters, RJ Smith, Joe Levy, Ann Powers, Joan Morgan, Neil Strauss, Touré, Rob Sheffield, Rob Tannenbaum, Eric Weisbard, and Christian Hoard didn’t all begin at the Voice or end up music critics. But all played their role in the paper’s music coverage as overseen for a decade by me and three more by seven others, including five of the above-named. So did hundreds more pros, temps, and casuals, all enriching an ongoing conversation that had no end.

That conversation encompassed a wealth of themes, with race up top because pop music is more African than any other facet of American culture. But always in the mix was the pop perplex. Always our alt-weekly’s rock criticism honored the hits while extolling the alternatives that rejected and aimed to displace them—disco, punk, and hip-hop during my tenure alone. Always we explored how it was possible for musicians and critics to do ambitious, provocative work under the nose of money men who’d pay us something for it. As the online economy erodes the cash value of both recorded music and the written word, that question gets fraughter and fraughter. The rapid demise of a union-busting online-only Voice launched less than a year ago is no surprise. But it’s a grim omen.

Robert Christgau

The old Village Voice offices at 22 Greenwich Avenue.

ONE OF MY EARLIEST MEMORIES OF THE VOICE is that shortly after I got there in 1993, someone hacked into my boss's computer and printed out all of his messages and showed them around. I realized very early that it was a place where people sometimes stabbed each other in the back. I also found there a deep office camaraderie that I have never experienced anywhere else. It was an exciting place, full of smart and strange people and a lot of young writers trying to get their foot in the door (Colson Whitehead among them). How can I sum it up? I remember drugs being delivered to the office. I remember people stopping in the hallway and erupting into yelling fights (there was a file on the computer system called “feuds,” which was full of lore about screaming matches and even the occasional headlock). I remember an editor chased me down the hall and spanked me on my birthday. I remember when the reporter who broke the Michael Alig murder story (after Michael Musto unearthed it) cut his head open at the office—he seemed mostly worried about getting blood on his white jean jacket. I think Doug Simmons helped him lie down. I remember when Kurt Cobain died, Ann Powers flew to Seattle to cover the funeral (would any paper do that now?). I remember Donna Minkowitz breaking the Brandon Teena story. I remember J. A. Lobbia, the amazing housing reporter, who now has a block named after her near Herald Square. I remember seeing Taylor Mead on the elevator; someone asked him how he was doing, and he closed his eyes and said: “Wonderful.” People weren’t afraid to criticize their peers. I remember a writer saying during editorial meeting that he wasn't close to anyone who had died of AIDS. Guy Trebay started his next column with that anecdote, wondering: “Has he been living on Mars?” I remember multiple pages being devoted to a single topic: Larry Clark’s Kids, or postrock, or Liz Phair. I remember walking by the conference room and seeing Peter Noel talking with Al Sharpton.

I remember how much other papers seemed to hate the Voice (the New York Press actually infiltrated the Voice picnic one year, in order to satirize it). I remember the walkouts during contract negotiations: VVers gathered on the steps of Cooper Union, yelling into a megaphone about management and David Schneiderman (the publisher). Most people were being very serious, but one writer standing in the back was cackling and screaming: “Kill David Schneiderman. MURDER David Schneiderman!” Once, Bill Bastone (I think) wrote something about the mafia, and an Italian-American group protested by driving, in front of the Voice offices, a cement roller over a bag of kitty litter (at the time the VV was owned by Leonard Stern, who also owned Hertz pets products). I remember being a copy editor and just sitting around and reading a lot with Ed Park, waiting for stories to come in. I remember when Jeff Klein and Jeff Weinstein were laid off, and most people at the magazine changed their byline that week to Jeff (James Hannaham became “Jeff Hannaham” and so on). I remember at least two letters running in the paper in response to those layoffs—no one could agree on a single letter so there had to be two. I remember that we had a letters editor: Ron Plotkin, who never came in to the office before 4. He would come in and eat cereal right out of the box. He seemed gentle, although when he was angry he could be very volatile too. I think he was Nat Hentoff’s editor for a while, but he yelled at Nat, and then he couldn't be Nat’s editor anymore, because Nat was already old. I remember Wayne Barrett, who wrote biographies of Trump and Giuliani, shouting at people on the phone. I remember the designer Jesus Diaz working late singing Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” in a really funny voice. I remember Karen Durbin editing Ellen Willis’s column. I remember September 11, exactly seventeen years ago today. The paper was already at the printer, but Don Forst decided to reprint the issue’s first two pages, and Alisa Solomon, who had been downtown, wrote a firsthand account. It was a memorable place, and if I sat down to write this again tomorrow I would come up with an entirely different set of memories.

Michael Miller

The Voice of the ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s was your critical, investigative creative anarchist Bible.

I WAS A VOICE READER BEFORE I WAS A VOICE WRITER. The avant-garde jazz fan in me made it so. Living in ’70s DC you could hear your fair share of the hippest, most outré jazz of that moment but you were still ravenously hungry to know how the “out-cats” like Cecil Taylor, Oliver Lake, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, our cultural heroes of the time, were wrecking shop in the Big Apple—especially in that lofty and loft-ensconced era, when jazz still had a vital street presence in the city, as much so as rap and rock.

At Howard University, my fellow avant-avid comrades Calvin Reid, Morris Campbell, and I eagerly waited for Wednesday’s paper to come out so we could see the latest that Stanley Crouch and Gary Giddins had written about Who Got Next on that high-concept improv scene, who was freakin the boundaries between jazz, punk, funk and neoclassical with gusto and panache. The first article on hip-hop music and dance we ever read was in the Voice, and for futureshockwave riders of Black Music like myself the Voice had the effect of making NYC feel like the place where revolutions of all kinds were being set off with a bang somewhere every night. The ways that punk, hip-hop, free jazz were vitally coexisting on the downtown scene would have been impossible to register without the Voice scribes—on-the-ground war reporting about those actions as they were booming and fulminating, not to mention the paper’s weekly updated take on how the explosive futuristic musical energy was spawning innovative revolt in the worlds of visual art, dance, literature, and sexuality. If you were living on the frontline or the fault lines of those intersections, the Voice of the ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s was your critical, investigative creative anarchist Bible. One that further made the link between the artists creating new cultural forms out the city’s danger, decay, and adrenaline rush, and the official political rot that put the city’s working-class folk in the fight for their lives against the criminality of real-estate developers, slumlords, killer cops.

If you were a young ambitious essayist with a passion for writing about All of It, the Voice was the only place in journalism where you weren’t expected to specialize, and where you could go off in your own cherry-picked vernacular about whatever form of aesthetic glory or political fuckery got your typing trigger finger ready to rumble on fish wrap.

Way before Black Lives Matter founders were even glints in their parents’ eyes, the Voice’s own firebrand Peter Noel, who made radical Black politics his beat, dramatically responded to the climate of fear and terror wrought by the NYPD—he got the paper to run a police-brutality cover story whose headline read “If a Cop Kills My Son, I Will Kill the Cop.” We will likely never see those kind of cojones on the cover of a venerable American news publication, and this shows just how far Out There the Voice would go to cosign its best writers’ confrontational assaults on the powers that be.

Years later, when the paper had been declawed by the Bush-Cheneyite sympathies of its New Media owners in the early 2000s, this reporter got stopped by two subway cops, one white, one Asian—ostensibly for walking between train cars. The white one, who couldn’t believe I didn’t have an arrest record, wanted to take me in for booking and questioning. But when I showed them my eternally valid Village Voice press card (issued in the mid-’80s and, until now, good for club and concert-entry on two continents), the Asian one said, “Aw man, the Village Voice—love that paper—you guys keep writing those great articles about us.” Everything you’d want to know about the Voice’s decline in the twenty-first century as a paper of confrontational, muckraking record is summed up in that anecdote. Everything about an independent news organization that was not bullshitting is said in that lick about the Noel cover as well. Rest In Afro-Gonzo Fucketh The Police Power, VV.

Greg Tate