An oral history of the Village Voice

An oral history of the Village Voice
The paper, which was the first to cover hip-hop, the avant-garde art scene, and the AIDS crisis with urgency and seriousness, is now immortalised in a new book by ex-staffer Tricia Romano.

Tricia Romano’s, The Freaks Came Out To Write tells the story of New York’s iconic Village Voice, using over 200 interviews with the people who were there. The paper was first publication to cover hip-hop, the avant-garde art scene, and the AIDS crisis with urgency and seriousness. Co-founded by Norman Mailer, the Voice revolutionised journalism and gave a platform to an incredible list of distinguished and influential writers. We spoke to Tricia about making of book, working as a staff writer there, and the legacy the Village Voice has left.

Why was the Village Voice such an important publication?

Oh, so many reasons. Primarily it introduced a different kind of writing with a different type of relationship with readers. With publications like the New York Times, there was a big divide between the subject, journalist, and reader; it’s much more formal. Whereas with the Voice, often the writers were a part of the world they were writing about and we were trying to reach readers who were also part of that world.

The Voice also pioneered different styles of writing which are commonplace today, like the personal journalism of the ’70s feminist movement where first person was used by Vivian Gornick to illuminate the greater subject. And the pair really leaned into advocacy journalism. It was clear from which angle we were writing from. We didn’t make any pretence about being impartial. This is much more common in the British press but it was not in America in the 1950s.

The Voice brought through so many Black writers who went on to become great, not least the likes of Colson Whitehead, Hilton Als, Greg Tate, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. The list is pretty long.

It has such towering alumni, from Norman Mailer co-founding it to the often mentioned R.Crumb and Matt Groening, Lorraine Hansberry, Allen Ginsberg, Ezra Pound, Lester Bangs of course… Did you feel the weight of history when you started there?

I did not feel the weight of history when I started there because I was an idiot child who thought I was doing everything first. I got interested in the Voice and the alt weekly press during the early ’90s when I moved to Seattle, and it was sold at the local newspaper stand. I would see articles by Ann Powers and read the music section. It seemed so cool. But I didn’t really understand the arc of its history until much later and even then I don’t think I fully appreciated everyone that was there and their influence on writing and journalism in general.

What was it like to work there – did you feel like you were always in the mix of something exciting?

I loved working there. It was a perfect job in a lot of ways almost like a grown-up college newspaper. Even though it was more corporate when I was there, it was still more chill than other places. Our work hours were from 11am to 7pm. Our executive editor Richard Goldstein came in at 1pm. And we had an hour’s lunch break because we were union. If we stayed past seven, we got dinner and a car service slip for a ride home. This is before the internet transformed media. It was a perfect job in a lot of ways, especially for people who are unconventional and who can’t fit in at more rigid workplaces.

But newsrooms aren’t that exciting. I mean, writers are mostly in their heads writing. It’s not like the bustling scene that you see in movies where everybody’s shouting at each other. Even most of the fights at the Voice happened in print. Except for the most famous one between Stanley Crouch and Harry Allen [Crouch famously socked Allen over an argument about hip -hop and lost his job].

“The paper was a beacon for counterculture nationally and internationally.”

Tricia Romano

How did the publication keep the counterculture vibe strong as new generations of staff came through?

The paper was a beacon for counterculture nationally and internationally. One of the through lines of my book is that many people read it from afar. People were in Seattle reading it, people were in Oklahoma reading it, people were in small towns reading it because they were looking for like-minded people who cared about the ideas and art and news and politics that they couldn’t find in their town. I think those people came to New York in their 20s with the hopes of recreating that vibe, sort of like how Patti Smith writes about her time in New York in Just Kids.

How many people came to New York because they read about the beatniks in the ’50s and then when they got there it was the hippies in the ’60s? And then those hippies of the ’60s influenced a whole bunch of bohemians in the ’70s to come and, you know, the Patti Smith rockers of the ’70s attracted people who wanted to be there in the ’80s, and then it became hip hop. That’s kind of the same thing that happened with the Voice. It’s always going to attract like-minded people.

How did the idea of an oral history of the Village Voice book come about? Did it germinate or did people keep saying it should be done?

The oral history idea came about because I was at a reunion for the paper in 2017. That was the year that Nat Hentoff and Wayne Barrett both died and Michael Tomasky decided to try and get a reunion going. We all went to this venue and there were around 600 of us – it was the same week the paper stopped printing. This is when billionaire Peter Barbey owned it and he announced that it was going to be web only. So the feeling at that party changed quite a bit because now it felt like maybe it really was the end of an era.

Watching all of the elders get up on stage to talk, like Susan Brownmiller and Ed Fancher, the original owner, I realised that we were going to lose them to time if we didn’t get their voices recorded. I was encouraged by my friend Michaelangelo Matos to do this and I do not recommend doing an oral history of this magnitude alone. I like to joke with him that this is all his fault.

“Probably one of the most significant contributions of the Voice is the ushering in of this new generation of Black intellectuals in their pages every single week.”

Tricia Romano

We’re celebrating 50 years of hip-hop and the Village Voice is renowned for covering the genre way before other publications – whose idea was it to devote time to cover it? Who did you speak to about that time for the book?

The Voice was probably the first major publication to cover hip hop seriously and often, and with rigour. Initially that was entirely due to Bob Christgau seeking and finding writers who loved this genre and helping to develop them, which led to this portal being opened for new Black voices. That was probably one of the most significant contributions of the Voice, the ushering in of this new generation of Black intellectuals in their pages every single week.

Rudy Langlais was the first Black editor and he was instrumental in bringing in other writers, and helping to develop Stanley Crouch. Thulani Davis is another early Black editor who brought in new voices.

Bringing in people like Greg Tate and Barry Michael Cooper and Carol Cooper and Nelson George, led to the paper being in a great position during the fraught racial moments of the ’80s, like the Central Park case. I spoke to Greg Tate before he died, Colson Whitehead, Barry Michael Cooper, Carol Cooper, Nelson George, a lot of people. Lisa Jones, Lisa Kennedy, Hilton Al, this goes on.

When you were going back through the time of the HIV/AIDS coverage, how hard did it hit you that nobody else was even entertaining covering this properly, let alone with any compassion?

Well, the HIV/AIDS coverage is both good and bad, I think. They were certainly earlier on it than, say, the New York Times, and more compassionate about it than any of the other papers around. But within the staff and within the media, I think there’s still some criticism that more could have been done. It helped that you had somebody like Richard Goldstein there really pushing for that coverage and that the paper in general was very open to gay rights as an issue by the mid-80s.

Although you’ve been part of the Voice Family, working there for nearly a decade – what new things did you find out when doing your interviews and research?

There are too many to list. I learned so much. I learned about [editor-in-chief, 1993] Karen Durbin, who I didn’t really understand or know about. I learned about the early people that I didn’t really know that much about – especially someone like Mary Nichols who worked as writer and assistant editor in the first half of the ’60s and doesn't get her due. I learned so much about how Mary and the Voice helped shape New York, especially the Village, not least by successfully campaigning against a road being built through Washington Square Park.

And I learned about how the paper wasn’t perfect. Even though it was pushing for progressive values in its pages, it wasn’t always actually walking the walk itself. That’s something that someone like Rudy Langlais pointed out and tried to rectify. But at least the Voice was more aware of its shortcomings than other places were.

What’s your favourite story about the Voice in your book?

One of my favourite stories in the book is about how, when David Schneiderman got hired from the New York Times to become the editor in the late ’70s, the staff protested by coming into his office at the Times and demanding that he not take the job. It was a ridiculous protest, sort of emblematic of how they feared change no matter what. And how outspoken and demanding they were, and so sure that they were right.

Most of the stories I love are more about the people, because it’s the collection of the people and their quirks that make the Voice special. On their own they’re all interesting, but together it’s a legendary group.

What did the Village Voice cover that you’re most proud of and why?

Jack Newfield helped get lead poisoning laws passed, Mary Nichols helped save the Village, hip-hop coverage was front and centre before anywhere else, the feminist movement got prominent coverage in its pages. The gay rights coverage was a big part of its lineage. Then there’s the theatre and Off-Broadway coverage, the film writing of Andrew Sarris and J. Hoberman. There’s really so much and there’s no one thing that outshines the other, and that’s why it was so great.

The Freaks Came Out to Write is available to pre-order.

This piece appeared in Huck #80. Get your copy here.

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