The news that on the eve of its fiftieth anniversary the Village Voice has been acquired by New Times media group, thus becoming one of 17 free newspapers around the country with a combined circulation of 1.8 million, leaves this former New Yorker dry-eyed.
I suspect that outside of a small circle of friends, so are most New Yorkers. To me it's the end of a very boring and tedious soap opera on-going for many years, weaving its histrionics in and out of the history of New York journalism for a half century. If this be an obit, it's long overdue.
When founded as a community newspaper reflecting the diverse political and artistic passions of its inhabitants-when it had some sense of its roots in the early 20th century avant-garde Bohemian culture-the Voice had a certain plummy authority in the balkanized world of New York journalism. This was a world where known cultural life stopped below 14th St. and above 96th St. It was a godsend for alienated adolescents from the Greater New York area: apprentice beatniks, folk-niks, Student Peace Union activists and Jean Shepherd fans who fell asleep listening to him weekdays on WOR just before Long John Nebel went on. All of us were yearning for the "real" life we knew was somewhere out there.
I had a high school French teacher who wore a beret. He was a recent college grad who drove a Vespa, and hung out with his beatnik wife who wore black at the Fat Black Pussy Cat on Thompson St. and read poetry and told us all about it on Monday mornings. A decade later, he became a writer for the Voice, and after that wound up writing speeches for Ed Koch.
But by the time I got to New York after college, the center of cultural confluence had shifted to the East Village, where a group of disaffected artists, activists, and poets founded the East Village Other, the anti-Voice. (Some of the group also founded Fuck You, a journal of the arts). It was as committed to whatever the struggle happened to be as the Voice, but took itself far less seriously. I should know, I worked as one of its music and cultural critics from 1968 until its demise in 1972.
I had good friends at the Voice whom I'd see at press parties and concerts. Music was a common language, politics less so. In the years I was with the EVO the general consensus was that the world was going to hell in a hand basket.
It was the age of lifestyle and political extremism, and though covering the same issues we did, the Voice always seemed to spend more ink on their own internal struggles, which they mistakenly thought the world outside their bellybutton window over Sheridan Square cared about. Ideologically speaking EVO and the Voice were universes apart, though geographically they were but a brisk ten minute walk away.
EVO, though an exciting experiment in alternative journalism, was a commercial failure that folded and was replaced by the New York Ace with a rump staff from the old paper. When the Ace went down, the Soho Weekly News emerged to carry the torch and continue the tradition.
By then I'd moved to L.A.-every writer should do a tour there to get it out of their system-where I plied my trade for the LA Free Press as an art and book critic. I returned home in the late '70s, set up shop on the Upper West Side and started free-lancing for High Times and ghost-writing when I could find the work.
There was still the Voice, though its writing had become ossified, devitalized. Christgau had already become the Baal Shem Tov of rock 'n' roll, the gray eminence. The paper had changed management a few times, it had grown fat and bloated by real estate ads, not that it wasn't a good business move, because everyone knew it was the only place to find anything.
The Voice endured, less a newspaper than the journalistic equivalent of comfort food for its readers-and a cash cow for its publishers. Anyway, it made more sense to turn it into a semi-hip cultural supermarket shopper. That way you could cut out the distributors and screw the writers even more who'd write almost anything for less than nothing because the ads were the attraction. Am I wrong?
So just because the Voice-the Ras al Ghul of alt-weeklies-has been sold doesn't mean that alternative journalism is dead. It's not, it just looks a little different-it's blogs as well as newspapers, public, pirate, student and satellite radio and the Food Network and the Playboy Channel, though there's still not that much on the tube. Hopefully the list includes New York Press, which strikes me as equal parts EVO and Screw.
Thinking is a subversive activity but not all subversion is destructive. I hope you agree, and I invite all of you to just to sit back and relax. Here comes the drill, but don't worry, I use the gas, and how many columnists do these days?