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

Walter Cummins

In my long-ago youth I was one of the thousands of young poseurs, the wannabes from the outlying regions like New Jersey, who descended on Greenwich Village weekends in hopes of being cool, unaware we were being mocked in Dave Frishberg and Bob Dorough’s “I’m Hip”—”I’m too much I’m a gas / I am anything but middle class.” Of course, reading The Village Voice was essential to the illusion, even having weekly issues mailed to corn country when I was in grad school, many miles from the scene.

At its peak The Voice enjoyed a circulation of 250,000. I certainly wasn’t alone in wanting to be au courant on what was happening in tiny Off-Off-Broadway holes in the wall, in the latest raucous musical performances, in the transgressive visual arts, in experimental films, in corrupt New York politics, in sexual identity. Who was in, who was out. We were eager for the flamboyant opinions of the occasionally hard-to-follow writers, including their aesthetic and political quarrels on the same pages. The Voice made the world around them exciting and urgent, as if it had had unique insights into the big happenings about to explode in the near future and the secret doings of the present. And then there were the classifieds—page after page of events, apartments, personal needs and offers, and more—that could be as captivating as the news and reviews.

Gay activist Jim Fouratt is quoted: “At its very peak—the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s—the Village Voice was the go-to place to find out what was happening in music, film, local politics, national politics, books, what was happening in the art world. The Voice had the cultural elite.”

When I bought Romano’s book, I wondered who would care about this history beyond members of a nearly extinct generation like mine and those who followed for the next couple of decades. For me, it was nostalgia. I even knew a couple of the people quoted and was familiar with the writings of many others. Who else would be interested in what seemed an obscure phenomenon of a forgotten past?

I soon realized I was wrong. Romano’s subtitle makes the point. A unique tabloid weekly centered on a few blocks of below 14th Street Manhattan did become a force that changed American culture by first changing American journalism.

From the first, for the founders of The Voice The New York Times was, if not the enemy, the model of everything The Voice did not want to be. Even if The Times’ politics took a liberal slant, its attitude toward the news was conservative and safe. As an example, a member of The Times’ owners family is cited as saying the paper, at that time, would not use the world “gay.” The Voice, in contrast, had a number of gay and lesbian writers who covered gay events and politics, although it did not immediately realize the significance of the Stonewall riot.

The Voice, even if some staff tensions were involved, also published material at the forefront of feminism through writers like Susan Brownmiller and Vivian Gornick. It made an effort to address African American issues and later on Latino. By giving attention to subjects the rest of the press was overlooking—consciously or inadvertently—it essentially forced others to pay attention.

The Voice also made efforts to go after abusers of the public trust—graft taking politicians, the Mafia, Donald Trump, Rudolph Giuliani, Rupert Murdoch—a one-time Voice owner—and more. Perhaps its most significant success was preventing Robert Moses’ decimation of Washington Square Park with an expressway though the heart of Greenwich Village. That was the beginning of the end for Moses’ power and a step in the rise of Ed Koch’s political power, though The Voice often criticized him when he was mayor. In short, The Voice became a model of investigative journalism.

At the heart of Voice reporting were the voices of its writers. Unlike The Times and most of the established press, Voice writers did not feign objectivity. Many had been hired because they were passionate about a subject or an issue. They learned to write about public matters yet still make their pieces personal statements.

An example is Jonas Mekas reviewing Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, a work he considers a great movie: “Flaming Creatures will not be shown theatrically because our social-moral-etc. guides are sick. That’s why Lenny Bruce cried at Idlewild Airport. This movie will be called pornographic, degenerate, homosexual, trite, disgusting, etc., home movie. It is all that, and it is so much more than that.”

American journalism today is filled with a Voice-like inseparability of writer and subject, as are the contributions of innumerable internet blog writers. The personality of the teller takes on equal importance to what is being said.

That’s one central reason for the eventual failure of The Voice. Ironically, it had won the journalistic war and set a new standard, but in doing so became unnecessary. Who needed a print tabloid from a corner of Manhattan when the essence of The Voice had infiltrated throughout American culture in what was being written about and how it was being written?

In addition. as with hundreds of other newspapers, the fact of the internet and ownership of personal computers made The Voice obsolete. A perhaps more crucial reason, also related to the net, was the sudden explosion of Craigslist and the death of printed classified ads that cut The Voice’s income in half. Basically, there was no reason for The Voice to exist any longer. It was revived recently, publishing both online and in a quarterly print format, but with what impact? 

Beyond the abundance of information Tricia Romano provides in the book, her unique presentation should be noted. Although she is a journalist with a stint at The Voice, little of the writing here is hers. What she has done is interview and find statements from dozens of people associated with The Voice over its decades and then select those directly important to the subjects of the 88 chapters so that each one is an interplay of first-person narrators. It probably would have been easier to write the chapters herself but at the cost of losing the diverse presences that made The Voice so distinct. As Lucian Truscott IV says, “There was a real intimacy between Village Voice writers and Village Voice readers.”

For a poseur like the me of long ago, such intimacy served the delusion that I was hip.