Saying goodbye when someone you love dies is heartbreaking. Bidding farewell to a beloved cultural institution is almost as wrenching. Recently, like many of its aficionados, I was gobsmacked to learn that the Village Voice, the Pulitzer Prize-winning alternative weekly founded in Greenwich Village in 1955, had closed.
I shouldn’t have been so shocked that the Voice, a pioneer in its coverage of LGBTQ issues and its pop culture criticism, folded on Aug. 31. A year ago, the Voice became digital only after it stopped publishing in print. Like so many news outlets, it’s had financial problems and staff layoffs. Still, it’s sad.
Why am I sad? Because, as it was for many of its readers, I felt a personal connection to the Voice. When I was a kid in Southern N.J., a family friend, when he visited from New York, would bring my parents that week’s Voice. I didn’t understand much of what was in the Voice then. But I could tell from the adults’ animated talk of “films” and “art” that the paper was manna from heaven for my folks in the cultural desert of our small town.
When I was in graduate school, I turned to the Voice as I was coming out. Later when I worked in New York, everyone I knew felt an affinity for the Voice. The paper championed the work of my friend Al Carmines, the Obie-winning composer. My friend Martha turned to the Voice to learn what was happening on the music scene. We laughed in neurotic recognition at Jules Feiffer’s cartoons and scarfed up its investigative journalism – from Wayne Barrett’s reporting on Donald J. Trump to its Pulitzer Prize-winning series on AIDS in Africa.
The Village Voice was founded by Dan Wolf, Edwin Fancher and Norman Mailer. Richard Goldstein was the arts editor and then the executive editor of the Village Voice until 2004. “It was 1966. I was 22 with hair down to my navel, fresh out of journalism school,” Goldstein, who is gay, told the Blade in a phone interview. “I walked into Dan Wolf’s office and said I want to be a rock critic. They said ‘what is that?’ They said, ‘Try it.’ No one else would consider it. I tried it. It became my column ‘Pop Eye.’’”
The Voice Village was a left-leaning paper. Pop culture from the media to jazz to indie films fell under the Voice’s critical eye. “We were the first to cover off-Broadway. The Voice was the first do advertising criticism – the first to do media criticism,” Goldstein said.”
Its pop culture criticism grew out of its left-leaning political convictions, he added. “It came from the left wing idea that art is the art of the people. Record companies didn’t know who we were,” he said.
The Voice hired openly gay writers as far back as the McCarthy era, Goldstein said. “It was unheard of then for a publication to hire an out gay writer, you could be fired if you were gay!”
“Lesbian Nation” author Jill Johnston wrote for the Voice as a dance critic. “But, she evolved. She came out and became the first openly lesbian writer to cover lesbian issues,” he said.
That’s the way it was at the Voice. Writers could evolve and develop their own style. “Jill didn’t use punctuation,” Goldstein said. “She thought it was too masculine. She stared down editors who insisted otherwise.”
The Voice was on the scene during Stonewall. “The Voice office was above the [Stonewall Inn] bar,” he said. “When the riots started, two reporters ran down to the bar. Two stories about Stonewall ran on the front page.”
The Voice led the way in covering not only queer culture, but LGBT rights politics. In 1979, the paper began publishing an annual issue on queer life. In 1984, the Voice ran one of the very few interviews that James Baldwin gave about being gay.
Things weren’t perfect at the Voice. It wasn’t always sweetness and light. “Not every writer was pro-gay,” Goldstein said, “there were fights. You could sometimes hate the people you work with.”
Thank you, Village Voice for kick-starting our lives! Though you’ve closed, your muckraking, bad-ass spirit will live forever!
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.