Pop Culture

[Cultural Attachment]

Finding my voice: An iconic New York City publication stops the presses

On the sidewalk in New York, 2013.
Photo: Mark Lennihan / AP Photo
Smith Galtney

Last week, The Village Voice announced that, after nearly 62 years as New York City’s iconic downtown weekly newspaper, it will suspend its print edition. Another funeral, yet another end to yet another era. But big deal, right? Magazines have been shrinking and local papers have been folding for how long now? What’s so shocking about the material death of a tired, old publication some say died decades ago? But for those of us who still value the free press, left-of-field arts criticism and countercultural spirit, the Voice ceasing to exist as a physical object struck a deeply melancholic note.

When Norman Mailer co-founded the Voice in the fall of 1955, it became America’s first “alternative weekly.” Many papers would emulate it: San Francisco’s Bay Guardian, Boston’s The Phoenix, the Chicago Reader, Seattle’s The Stranger, LA Weekly, City Pages in Minneapolis and so on. Wherever you travel and see a stack of homegrown tabloids—the ones that challenge state politics, cover the local arts scene, tell the stories of noteworthy locals—you’re looking at that town’s version of The Village Voice.

I was lucky enough to work at the Voice from 1993 to 1997. At NYU, I took a writing class with Robert Christgau, the self-proclaimed Dean of American Rock Critics, who hooked me up with an internship after graduation. I was not a good writer then, and I might have been a good intern if I’d spent more time organizing the music editor’s mail and less time reading back issues in the library. In those pre-Internet days, that archive was the secret history of America—the counter-counterculture of the ’60s, the gay nightlife of the ’70s, the birth of house music in the ’80s. Even cooler, that editor over there with the gray moustache? That’s Vince Aletti, the first person to write about disco. And that elderly man who works in the paper-choked fire hazard of an office? That’s Nat Hentoff, friend of Malcolm X and author of the liner notes for Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain.

Interns weren’t paid, of course. We got something way better: our first published piece! Mine was a review of a roots-rock band called the Bis-Quits (if they’re on Spotify, I can’t find ’em). Then came a review of Green Day’s Dookie (long before that debut went platinum, ahem). Then I started working in the research department as a freelance fact-checker, and suddenly I had a bit of a career. Working alongside editors like Christgau, Joe Levy and Ann Powers, who pored through every word of every line of every piece, made me the writer I am today. For better and worse, they’re the reason I can’t even post something on Facebook without worrying if I truly nailed it, that I probably could have done better.

As always happens, while I was romanticizing the mythic figures who roamed the Voice halls, some of my peers were cutting their own paths. Novelist Colson Whitehead, who worked in the literary supplement, won the Pulitzer Prize earlier this year. Neil Strauss was just “that nerdy fact-checker” before he turned himself into a pickup artist named Style and published The Game. The night I stepped up to a newsstand in Times Square and saw my name on the cover of the Voice for the first time marks one of the great moments of my life. Walking through New York City, seeing people read your work on the subway, the feedback you’d stumble upon in real time, in the real world—no amount of online commentary will ever compare.

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