The Freaks Came out to Write: The Definitive History of the ‘Village Voice’, the Radical Paper That Changed American Culture 
by Tricia Romano.
Public Affairs, 571 pp., £27.50, February, 978 1 5417 3639 9
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In themid-1960s, the Village Vanguard jazz club in Greenwich Village held Monday night speak-outs. At one of them – an evening billed as ‘Art and Politics’ – the Black poet and playwright LeRoi Jones (soon to become Amiri Baraka) held forth, along with the Black saxophonist Archie Shepp and the white painter Larry Rivers. The audience was composed almost entirely of people like me and my friends: white middle-class liberals and radicals, many of whom were veteran civil rights activists. We had trooped into the Vanguard expecting to make common cause with the speakers, but Jones did not look kindly on us. In fact, he quickly told us we weren’t wanted in the civil rights movement, that we were just an interference, only there to make ourselves feel good. Then he pointed his finger and roared: ‘Blood is going to run in the seats of the theatre of revolution, and guess who’s sitting in those seats!’ The place erupted with people yelling and screaming, denying the charges laid against them. One man in particular seemed to lose his mind, crying out repeatedly: ‘I’ve paid my dues. LeRoi, you know I’ve paid my dues.’ Jones just shook his head, as though amazed at the depth of our shared self-deception, and then said: ‘You people have fucked the whole thing up. When we get there we’re going to do things differently.’ I remember sitting there thinking, ‘He’s confusing class and race. To get “there” he has to become us, and us is not so much white as middle-class.’ But I kept my mouth shut, then went home and sat up most of the night writing. I knew from the start that I wanted to put the reader in my place, to experience the evening as I had experienced it, so it felt right to use myself as the first-person narrator. In the morning I sealed my piece in an envelope, walked to the corner mailbox and sent it off to the Village Voice. It never occurred to me to send it anywhere else. After all, what I’d written was a piece of personal journalism, and as everyone in the world – that is, New York – knew, personal journalism and the Village Voice were as one.

In the repressive Cold War years, thousands of Americans felt themselves bereft of cultural outlets that would give them a sense of life as they were experiencing it. Among the thousands were three Second World War veterans – Dan Wolf, Ed Fancher and Norman Mailer – who proposed to start a weekly newspaper that would provide an alternative to the established papers and magazines whose euphemistic prose had begun to feel Orwellian. In the autumn of 1955, they did just that.

The Village Voice went to press with an invitation to its readers to become its contributors. Forget about being professional writers or journalists, the editors announced. Send us what you find interesting. Write it up persuasively and we’ll publish it. Soon, the Voice became the place where a steadily increasing readership could see its own concerns written about in the kind of language actually being used at work, on the street, on the subway. A number of these early contributors became the paper’s staff writers by doing exactly what I, a decade down the road, did with my evening at the Vanguard. By this time the counterculture was in full swing and the Voice its flagship publication. I was on staff for two years in the early 1970s and again for two years at the end of the decade.

The freedom (if that’s the word) given to staff writers and freelancers alike was extraordinary. Once a piece had been accepted, you were allowed to write whatever you wanted, at the length you wanted. There was no real editing. Writers taught themselves on the job. Some did it well, others badly. The result was a noisy mixture of pieces that nailed and pieces that flailed, sometimes informed and brilliant, sometimes garrulous and absurd, all of it either on the money or over the top but never less than alive to the touch. By the late 1960s the Voice was the bestselling weekly newspaper in the country, and would remain so for years to come.

Against all odds and despite the enormous social changes that long since shut down almost every other alternative paper in the country, the Voice still exists, albeit online. Tricia Romano, a former Voice writer, has put together The Freaks Came out to Write, a delicious oral history that uses extracts from more than two hundred interviews, conducted over a period of four years with Voice writers, editors and owners, to form a decade by decade account. At its best it sounds uncannily like the paper itself as it was experienced throughout its glory years and long after.

There was personal journalism and there was advocacy journalism; at the Village Voice the two were often indistinguishable. From the start, the paper conceived of its mission as twofold: to deliver high-end muckraking and smart-ass criticism. The muckraking was to be local and the criticism existential. Since ‘local’ meant New York City, this kind of reporting became gloriously addictive. Two of the paper’s greatest investigative reporters were Jack Newfield and Mary Nichols. My (no doubt screen) memory is of them sitting hunched over their desks, a telephone clipped to each ear, receiving dirt from some informant at the end of one wire, and checking it with a reliable source on the other. For Newfield and Nichols, political corruption was mother’s milk. Nichols, in particular, wanted to crucify all the bastards in city government – as one colleague put it, ‘Mary had the kind of anger that made abolitionists’ – but she reserved her special fire for Robert Moses. He wanted to put an expressway through Washington Square Park, which would have deformed Greenwich Village. For this she went to war. Her pieces in the Voice mobilised the neighbourhood, defeated the bill and dealt Moses a crippling blow.

Newfield was also a crusading investigator. For years he published a much dreaded column called ‘The Ten Worst Landlords’ or ‘The Ten Worst Judges’. His style was declarative in the extreme. Whereas other reporters might write a story that concluded with a charge of corruption, Newfield would begin with it – and then dig. For instance, one piece of his starts: ‘Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Dominic Rinaldi is a typical machine judge’ – ‘machine’ meaning he’d been bought. ‘He has been simultaneously repressive toward blacks, and permissive with heroin dealers and members of the Mafia.’ By story’s end the reader certainly thought the judge belonged in jail. For Newfield every story about New York political filth was a miniature Watergate.

Later on, the paper boasted the work of James Ridgeway and Wayne Barrett, whose reporting gained them national attention but, in truth, these men could have worked nowhere else. Ridgeway told Romano the story of an interview he’d once had with a New York Times editor, who asked him how he, Ridgeway, thought Times writers could improve themselves. Ridgeway replied: ‘You could take a position and start attacking people.’ The Times man thought for a moment, then said: ‘I don’t think you’d be happy here.’ Barrett told Romero about his relationship with Ed Koch, one of New York’s most prominent mayors: ‘Koch and I were inaugurated on the same day in 1978. He became mayor and I became his weekly tormentor.’

But it was in the vast and exploding world of arts criticism that the Voice, between the 1960s and the 1980s, proved most influential. With Bob Christgau on rock music, Andrew Sarris on the auteur theory of film, Cindy Carr on performance art and Jules Feiffer’s cartoons satirising the bourgeois consumption of it all, Voice writers were major chroniclers of everything in the arts that felt new at a moment when everything was new. Someone said in reference to Christgau that ‘the best rock writers wrote about the music on the same level as the music itself.’ This could have been said of countless critics at the Voice, many of whom felt themselves possessed of Christgau’s ardour, and were on a mission to bring to the world the life-giving value of the arts. One of the paper’s permanent contributions to journalism was to elevate the value of such writing in everyday newspapers at a time when these publications equated arts criticism with ‘soft news’.

And then along came the two major liberationist movements of the 1970s and 1980s: women’s rights and gay liberation. The Voice dived right in, with Richard Goldstein leading the way for gays and Susan Brownmiller for feminists. Many on staff found both causes consuming and were grateful for the paper’s support. I, for one, instantly on the barricades for radical feminism, began to see sexism everywhere and to write nonstop about it. If I read a book, went to a dinner party, rode the subway, walked into a grocery store, there it was: sexism raw, palpable, compelling. And the Voice let me run with it. Piece after piece after piece, every one of them as long as I wanted, as polemical as I wanted, as pugnacious as I wanted. I can feel the urgency on my skin even now.

There were two major areas of concern for most feminists at the Voice: work and sexual pleasure. For me, it was the former. I wanted to see every woman in the world take work more seriously than love. Other writers at the Voice – Ellen Willis, for instance – were campaigning for a liberated erotic life: equally urgent, equally relentless. Talk about deadly serious. Newfield called us ‘Stalinist feminists’, and of course we were. I remember I was sitting at a desk in the Voice office sometime in the 1970s when Jill Johnston, whom I’d never met, walked in. Jill was a beloved outlier at the Voice; she wrote her dance diary column without capital letters, punctuation or paragraphing; no one ever knew what she was talking about. That day, she came straight over to me and without a word of introduction said: ‘I want you to know I have vaginal as well as clitoral orgasms.’ I neither missed a beat nor cracked a smile: ‘Orgasm isn’t my bag,’ I replied. ‘Go tell this to Ellen.’ The paper’s attention to feminist and queer politics extended equally to civil rights and Black cultural politics, as the Voice became the launch pad for some of America’s most talented Black writers, among them Stanley Crouch, Greg Tate and Colson Whitehead.

In 1970, Wolf and Fancher (Mailer was long gone) sold the controlling interest in the Voice to a company owned by Carter Burden, a New York socialite and City Council member, with the proviso that they would remain in editorial control. Burden, of course, said he had bought the paper because he loved it, wouldn’t dream of changing anything or anyone on it, yet less than five years later decided he had to sell; not because the paper was losing money (it wasn’t), but because he, Burden, needed the cash to take care of his other financial obligations. In short, the Voice had become wedded to corporate interests; it was the beginning of its slow but steady evisceration. Burden sold the paper to Clay Felker of New York magazine, who almost immediately fired Wolf and Fancher and within a few years lost financial as well as editorial control himself. Felker sold the paper to Rupert Murdoch who did more of the same. I think something like eight owners followed, one on the heels of another, all contributing materially to the paper’s decline. Each new owner thought he ‘loved the Voice just as it was’ before he bought it, but no sooner did he own it than he began firing editors and writers, replacing them with new editors and writers who would also soon be fired. In short, owning the Village Voice was an unsatisfying fantasy for a great many rich people, none of whom understood either the original character of the paper or its relation to the changing times.

The influence of the counterculture on American society at large has been incalculable; by the time it ran its course much that it opposed no longer existed. The Village Voice was nothing if not a child of the counterculture: by the mid-1990s its mission was over. It had lost its reason for existing. Yet the testimonials that fill The Freaks Came out to Write are as vivid in recounting the paper’s second thirty years as they are in recounting its first, so great is the shared desire to believe that the Voice meant as much in the 2000s as it had in the 1960s. It’s a tribute to the universal longing for a working life in service to something larger than one’s own small, separate self.

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Vol. 46 No. 12 · 20 June 2024

One of those present at the birth of the Village Voice, which Vivian Gornick writes about, was the Sheffield-born journalist John Wilcock (LRB, 6 June). Wilcock was active in setting up the paper, served as its first news editor and wrote a weekly column before falling out with everybody and departing for the more counter-cultural East Village Other in 1965, and thereafter, or so he complained in Manhattan Memories (2009), getting written out of the Voice’s history. Norman Mailer’s account of the Voice’s birth in Advertisements for Myself (1959) also failed to mention Wilcock. In 1983, somewhat belatedly getting wind of Wilcock’s displeasure at his omission, Mailer wrote him a mollifying letter, acknowledging Wilcock’s role in curbing his egotism and hailing Wilcock as a ‘stand-up guy … and generally speaking an asset to that curious community of the counter-culture’.

John Baxendale

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