Like most people living in New York, I was aware of the city’s premier alt weekly The Village Voice while it was still being published. Its distinctive azure logo always stood out, especially in the fire engine red news boxes in which it could be found every week. And unlike almost every other print periodical, it was free. You’d see it on subways and park benches with some indy rock star or New York figure on the cover. It was like a little treasure the universe had left there just for you. 

Having said that, I can’t say that I was ever a close follower of the newspaper. I knew nothing of its storied history: how it was created in 1955 by author Norman Mailer, his roommate Dan Wolf, and Dan’s friend Ed Fancher with the intent of reporting on the intellectual and artistic culture of the Village, which was then largely ignored by the New York Times. Nor did I appreciate the giants of cultural criticism and political reporting that it produced over the years or the degree to which it brought important figures like Andy Warhol or Spike Lee to broader public attention.

After reading former Voice staffer Tricia Romano’s new oral history of the weekly, The Freaks Came Out to Write: The Definitive History of The Village Voice, the Radical Paper that Changed American Culture, I regret that I didn’t pay a lot more attention. To read Romano’s book is to discover so many inspiring, compelling, and distinctly New York characters, like beloved city editor Mary Perot Nichols, who helped Robert Caro get the goods on city planner Robert Moses and liked to go to the movies with a six-pack of beer and a salami; Jill Johnston, who started as a dance columnist and ended up writing wildly creative and provocative pieces about her life as a lesbian feminist; or Mark Schoofs, a philosophy major with no intention of becoming a journalist who ended up winning a Pulitzer Prize for his work reporting on AIDS in Africa for the Voice

Even as the periodical went through so many ups and downs in its sixty-two-year history, all of which Romano chronicles with nuance and drama, two things were constant: the staff’s outsized passion for New York—what it was, what it wasn’t, and what it could be—and their belief in the Village Voice itself as a place where they could tell those stories. 

To work at the Voice was to be swept away by a feeling of possibility. And to read Romano’s brilliant work is to be swept away, as well. 

I spoke to Tricia Romano by phone. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

In explaining the origins of Freaks, you describe going to the gathering of former staff the week the Voice closed in 2017, hearing people like Ed Fancher and Jonas Mekas [the Voice’s first film critic] and thinking, “We must capture these voices before they are gone forever.” You certainly did capture them: Freaks includes hundreds of subjects, and walks through over sixty years of publication and social history. It’s a massive undertaking. Did you have another job while you were doing it? 

Just freelancing. So I was really poor. I’m still really poor. *laughs* Everyone buy like ten hardcovers for all your friends. 

But it just needed to be in the world. It was so close to it just being a distant memory and then forgotten altogether. And that’s terrifying. 

How did you go about organizing such a massive undertaking?

For the proposal I had chapter outlines. They were very rough. I knew there were certain topics that had to be hit. Like I knew that Chuck D and Public Enemy and the Voice were really intertwined. I also knew that I had to cover Spike Lee. But I didn’t realize that Spike Lee’s first press was literally from the Voice, he cold-called [Voice writer] Carol Cooper. 

I knew I had to do the Stonewall story because that was a big story for them. [The Voice’s offices were four doors down from the Stonewall Bar, where the 1969 riot took place that began the gay liberation movement.] I had to do the Karen Finley story, which was epic. [C. Carr’s cover story of provocative performance artist Karen Finley, who sometimes used food smeared on or stuffed within her body as a way of exposing and challenging misogyny, led to both internal battles with the Voice and columns on its page about what constituted serious journalism.] Obviously Wayne Barrett and Trump. [Over the years Wayne Barrett did a series of pieces on then-real estate mogul Donald Trump which would prove to be enormously prescient.]

First night of the Stonewall Riots, New York, NY, June 28, 1969. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

As I was interviewing people there were certain things that became more obvious, things that everybody’s talking about or mentioning. So I saw where the build-up of material was.

I think a lot of those battles were bigger before me because they were still shaping [the Voice] in a lot of ways. There was still room to grow and become what it was, and they were all very protective of it. This is the Voice, it’s a precious thing, we need to make sure it’s protected from evil forces, whatever that evil force is. *laughs*

It was intense: There was a point where I was trying to get it down to a publishable length, and I had spent almost nine months every single day going through every single word. It’s really an insane task for one person to undertake. I don’t recommend it. Just write memoirs, honestly. *Laughs*

As I was reading the book a number of metaphors came to mind. Like, weirdly, The Iliad: There’s this massive set of characters, and they have these tremendous ideals that they’re fighting for, often against each other. 

Oh yeah, they’re always fighting. 

That belief in the Voice as something precious seems to be universal among those you talk to in the book. Did you feel like that was something taught to you when you started there, or did people bring that with them? 

It’s weird, every single person that worked there had that feeling. Even if [they were there] for a couple of months or a year. It spans generations and it spans editors. It spans the building. We all just had this unbelievable love for it. 

It’s such a strange thing, it’s really hard to explain to anybody. I don’t know, maybe we were in a cult. A leaderless cult. *laughs*

We just had a completely different attitude towards the rest of media. I hung around with the Spin and Rolling Stone people because they were amazing people and a lot of them wrote for the Voice. But I didn’t know anybody from New York Magazine, I didn’t know anybody at the New Yorker, I didn’t know anybody at the New York Times. We didn’t schmooze with the other big publications. 

I’m telling you, I think we were in a cult. 

Were there big surprises for you, figures you discovered in doing the interviews and research?  

Tricia Romano

I loved Lucian K. Truscott IV, he was such a crack-up and such a unique individual, such a Voice character in a way that he would never have fit in at the New York Times. I loved him. [Truscott was a West Point grad from a family of generals who walked around with a cane that could turn into a sword; he first started out writing letters to the Voice about hippie fascism, and became a staff writer.] 

Also Amy Taubin: I didn’t know her very well, I had no idea of her whole background. I mean she was in Warhol’s screen tests.  She has two Warhol screen tests. What? And she was married to Richard Foreman, the theater director, and was running The Kitchen for a while. What an amazing, fascinating artistic creative life she had before she started writing criticism for the Voice

Reading C. Carr’s column, I realized she basically was doing everything that I ended up doing later. I was arrogant enough to think I was one of the first to do that. [C.Carr worked at the Voice from 1987-2003, and wrote regularly about arts and performance downtown. Romano first worked at the Voice as an intern in 1997, then joined the staff as a fact-checker and writer in 1999. In the 2000s she wrote a column on the club scene.]   

For me there were some people that don’t even factor in that largely in the book, like Don McNeill, who died so young. You read about them and you want to know so much more.  

He has beautiful, beautiful prose. It’s sad.  

It’s so ephemeral, history. Unless you record it, it didn’t happen. Amy quotes something that Jonas told her: “We’re writing about these things for history.” And that really struck me. Because a lot of the stuff we covered, nobody else was covering. Certainly some of the stuff I wrote about was probably not getting much airplay anyplace else. 

In a sense the book feels of a piece with that mission. It’s like a time capsule of New York filled with amazing stuff. Some of it you might not have the context to fully understand, but it’s all fascinating and beautiful.  And collecting it feels like a stand against the erosion of memory. 

I just felt like there’s a whole contingent of people in their 20s and 30s who have no idea what the Village Voice is, or even what an alt weekly newspaper is. And that’s crazy. So I felt like this is important. 

Also, the story of the Voice really follows the whole arc of journalism.

How do you mean? 

At the peak it becomes such a money-making enterprise that it’s being bought and sold by media moguls instead of people who care about the community that they’re covering. Then it’s so powerful, so big that it gets sold to bankers and venture capitalists, which is what’s happening to everything now, Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, etc. And then there’s the end of it, which was the internet and craigslist and the dissipation of ads. You keep seeing that same cycle in all of the other publications every year. The Voice was the canary in the coal mine. 

In its heyday it seems like the Voice was both a part of a community that no one else paid attention to, and created its own community of readers and writers. Where do we find that kind of community now? 

That’s the thing. The Voice, it was a guide to your whole life. It was edited and curated in a way that you just can’t get on the internet. A website may do that, but the way the web is, you come to an article via a social media stream or something. Very few people are sitting there reading everything [on a homepage] the way you would pick up a paper and flip through it. 

And when you’re looking online, the algorithm is deciding what you should see, or homepage editors are deciding what you should see. Go to the New York Times; you’re going to see the headlines. But if you’re at home with the Times, flipping through it, you’re going to see stories that don’t get put on its front page of its website. You’re going to glance at stuff, even if you just skim it, that you may not have clicked on, because you didn’t even see the ink. It’s a different experience in print, even if you’re looking at the same set of stories. 

Are there places in the media today where you find voices that remind you of the Voice

Not really. The amount of media I consume is so fast and furious that it’s usually hard to get surprised any more. And I think the Voice was full of surprises. 

If you were telling someone who knew nothing about the Voice, about what the experience of working there was like, how would you describe it? 

Magic. Pure freedom. And wildness. 

Yeah. I loved it. I’d still be there if it was a thing.

Jim McDermott is a freelance writer based in New York City.