Tricia Romano’s History of the Village Voice

Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, and John Turturro on the set of Do the Right Thing (1989)

Two weeks before it hit the shelves last Tuesday, Dwight Garner suggested in the New York Times that Tricia Romano’s The Freaks Came Out to Write: The Definitive History of the Village Voice, the Radical Paper That Changed American Culture “may be the best history of a journalistic enterprise I’ve ever read, in that its garrulous tone so mirrors the institution’s own.” Romano, who covered nightlife for the Voice for eight years starting in 1997, has conducted more than two hundred interviews with past and current contributors, editors, designers, and photographers, and then culled the archives for more to piece together a book that is, as Jennifer Krasinski puts it at 4Columns, “simultaneously an oral history, a bestiary, a case study, and a cautionary tale told across eighty-eight chapters totaling nearly six hundred pages.”

For some, that word “current” will leap out as a surprise. The Voice is still around. After shuttering in 2018, it returned as a print quarterly in 2021, but for the most part, it hovers online as a thin shade of its former self, the most vital and influential alternative weekly of the latter half of the twentieth century. Michael Atkinson is still regularly writing movie reviews along with a band of younger critics. Gossip columnist Michael Musto, famed and feared back in the day, is predicting a big night for Oppenheimer at the Oscars on Sunday.

And Elizabeth Zimmer, who describes herself as “a Voice contributor since the early ’80s, a senior editor from 1992 until 2006, and a contributor, again, from 2015 until, well, now,” reviews Romano’s book, calling it “a triumph of contemporary journalism, a fusion of aesthetic and political positions, a chorus of sound bites from both union and management, unfurling a tale of wild success followed by a slow disintegration.” Excerpts strewn across the ether celebrate the heyday: Mary Perot Nichols saves the Village by putting a stop to Robert Moses’s plan to slice it in half (Curbed); investigative reporter Wayne Barrett goes after Donald J. Trump, starting in the late ’70s (Vanity Fair); and the music section champions hip-hop in the early ’80s (Rolling Stone).

The excerpt of keenest interest to Daily readers will be the one at the Ringer, a slice from the chapter on the film pages, which—as I outlined in 2018—had a more than significant impact on American film criticism for decades. “I really did have the best writers in America,” says Lisa Kennedy, a senior film editor in the early ’90s. J. Hoberman remembers “always promoting Chantal Akerman whenever her movies were showing.” Manohla Dargis laughs off the effort of around forty filmmakers to get her fired after she filed her first column.

Jonas Mekas asked Amy Taubin to take over his column. “What I learned from Jonas,” says Taubin, “was that the things you care about, you are writing about them for history, and probably most of them will only exist in history because you’ve written about them.” Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994) “got into Sundance because of my story.” Says Smith: “I will remember that piece on my deathbed.”

At Air Mail, former Voice regular James Wolcott finds that, overall, “Romano does an impressive job of keeping this Tower of Babel from wobbling too much, preserving the testimonies of a huge host of writers, editors, photographers, staffers, and bystanders sassing and contradicting each other, sharing fond memories while others gnaw on old grudges with beaver gusto.”

David Swanson spent a few years in the late 2010s sprucing up the Voice’s archives and making many of the shiniest gems presentable to online readers. This weekend, he posted something of a bonus feature to his appreciation of Romano’s book in the form of an annotated list of links, “an emblematic—if far from comprehensive—selection of some of the paper's best arts journalism from its pre-internet era.” Included here are Andrew Sarris’s 1971 attack on Pauline Kael’s attack on Citizen Kane; Molly Haskell’s 1973 “Essay in Nine Parts” on Marlon Brando; J. Hoberman’s 1983 report from the set of Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy; and a deep dive into the Voice’s coverage of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989).

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