It Takes a Village: A ‘Village Voice’ Reading List

(Drew Angerer / Getty)

Say goodbye to those red sidewalk boxes — and a slice of American literary greatness. Since 1955, the Village Voice has been a ubiquitous part of New York City culture. In a half century it was transformed from a counterculture rag to a longform powerhouse rooted in the character and the color of the city.

This week, the current owners of the Voice announced the end of the era: The free print edition of the paper is finished. Once available on every street corner, it will now be online only. In their write-up for The New York Times, John Leland and Sarah Maslin Nir mourn the paper’s once inescapable presence: “Without it, if you are a New Yorker of a certain age, chances are you would have never found your first apartment. Never discovered your favorite punk band, spouted your first post-Structuralist literary jargon, bought that unfortunate futon sofa, discovered Sam Shepard or charted the perfidies of New York’s elected officials.”

The Village Voice was the first paper you grabbed on the way to the subway, the last thing you grabbed at night for the long ride home. It redefined the alt-weekly and introduced readers to a new kind of journalist and critic. If the Voice was the first place you were published, then you were on the way to a brilliant career. Here are some of our favorite moments of brilliance.

1.“‘Tis a Pity She’s a Mother” by Molly Haskell (April, 1974)

Haskell cut her teeth at the testosterone-laden, Norman Mailer-founded Voice as a theater critic. Known for her influential work From Reverence to Rape, a 1974 book that critiqued Hollywood’s limited visions of women in film, Haskell went on to become one of America’s most respected film critics. Her 1974 review of Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore shows us why.

[The film] is a searing, painful, revealing, egotistical, irritating, often beautiful document that captures, in orgies of sexual gorging and verbal disgorging, the clash among people of a certain generation and milieu, between Left Bank liberinism and astonishingly deep conservatism—deep, because it is mystical rather than political, and based on matters of life and death rather than left and right.

2. “Like Father, Like Son,” by Wayne Barrett (January, 1979)

Barrett, who died earlier this year at the age of 71, was one of New York City’s most talented investigative reporters — especially when it came to Donald Trump. Barrett had been the Voice’s political columnist for a year when he ran this cover story, the first salvo in what would become a decades-long battle against New York’s richest, slimiest power brokers. Here’s what Barrett had to say about The Donald, thirty-eight years before he became president:

Trump’s problem is not so much what he’s done, but how he’s done it. I decided at the start that I wanted to profile him by describing his deals—not his lifestyle or personality. After getting to know him, I realized that his deals are his life. He once told me: “I won’t make a deal just to make a profit. It has to have flair.” Another Manhattan developer said it differently: “Trump won’t do a deal unless there’s something extra—a kind of moral larceny—in it. He’s not satisfied with a profit. He has to take something more. Otherwise, there’s no thrill.”

3. “NYU’s Snuff Film,” by Steven Thrasher (April, 2010)

These days, Steven Thrasher rips apart issues of race and sexuality for Buzzfeed and The Guardian. But earlier in his career, he covered New York for the Voice, including memorable pieces on gay marriage, inequality, and education. This is one of them: An investigation of a case in which an NYU student died during the making of a student film. The story, which made the Voice’s cover, is pure Thrasher in its immediacy.

After hours of setup, the camera was ready to roll. With Welin atop the condor, “Andrew White was directing us to move the 12K, so that we could begin shooting,” he says.

“After that, I am relying on Andrés to guide me. The 12K is behind my shoulder. The [control panel] for the condor is in front of me. [The lines] were behind,” Welin says. He would later admit to an insurance investigator that “once I got up there and I saw that [the lines] weren’t shielded, I wasn’t sure what they were.” But he thought “the initial positioning of the condor—gave us several feet,” and “the margin for safety was, you know, was there.”

Except it wasn’t.

“Andrew is saying, ‘Move it a little this way, move it a little that way,’ “ Welin says as he moved laterally. “Then I get word from Andrés, who said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, you’ve made contact with the wires. Bring it back.’ “

“At first I thought everything was OK. I tried backing off,” says Welin. But “then we made contact again.”

And with an explosive noise, all hell broke loose.

4.“Christgau’s Consumer Guide,” by Robert Christgau (July, 1978)

Pop music and Robert Christgau go together like macaroni and cheese, and during his 37-year-long career in pages the Village, he honed his own unmistakable voice. He’s written several full-length books and dallied in film, but his bite-sized Consumer Guide — a weekly, witty romp through new releases — elevated the art of the blurb. This 1978 example, written about a decade into his career as the Voice’s music critic, exemplifies his signature style. You’ll probably recognize plenty of the records he savors and savages.

Personally, I’ve always thought sucking was fun, but I know people intend an insult when they say disco sucks, and this is the kind of pre-programmed pap they’re thinking of. Most of it has as much emotional substance as the soundtrack to Integrated Beach Party—here the background music for the boisterous-barbecue sequence, there the accompaniment for the gentle-fuck scene. This does feature a nice post-dowoop vocal on “Happiness Togetherness” (what am I supposed to call it, fifth cut first side?), and the current hit hits bottom as fast as a Dr. Pepper jingle, but only on the title cut do the layered rhythms and harmonies get interesting, the way good disco should. Admittedly, I don’t find much use even for good disco. But I know it’s better than this.

5.“Cunningham in Connecticut,” by Jill Johnston (September 7, 1961)

Before Jill Johnston was the Jill Johnston we know, she was still a critic for the Village Voice. The married, straight housewife and mother worked as a dance critic for the paper starting in in 1959, and within a decade, she would divorce her husband, come out as a lesbian separatist, dive into the 1960s art scene, and develop a stream-of-consciousness writing style that shows just how far the Voice was willing to expand the definition of criticism. Johnston went on to publish the seminal Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution, and she changed the face of American feminism and queer culture. (For an exercise in contrast, compare this review to “Agnes Martin: Surrender & Solitude,” a piece she wrote in the same publication 12 years later. Jill’s still there, but she’s now well along her journey.)

It is not easy to see. Outside the theatre, living as we do, most of us see very little with our eyes wide open. In action the eye absorbs space forms to function; in repose the eye becomes a facial decoration as sight turns inward. And our training is such that when we do look for non-functional reasons, it is usually at something huge and spectacular, like cathedrals or sunsets. And even then it is rare to see more than a general outline. Or to see more and still enter. That is the crucial transition, from seeing to entering. Not only crucial but mysterious, so I won’t say any more except to note that I think most people who go to dance concerts don’t see very well, not even dancers, sometimes dancers especially, and most often the critics, who must attend special classes in becoming blind.