Remembering Robert Goldstein, NPR's Music Librarian And Our Friend
For 20 years, Robert Goldstein was NPR's music librarian. He went on to become a manager in our research and archives division, and shared his love of music with our audience in stories he wrote for broadcast and online. He was also an accomplished guitarist, whose work made an impression on a young Bob Boilen decades ago, sparking a friendship that continued when they began working together.
We lost Robert on Friday night after a prolonged battle with cancer. He was just 66 years old. This is how Bob and NPR Arts Editor Tom Cole would like to remember him.
If there was ever anyone who could be said to have the soul of a musician, it was Robert. He lived and breathed it and talked about it all of the time. He was always emailing links preceded by the phrase, "Check this out!" He envisioned a new music database for NPR based on his deep knowledge of how music was used here — and, without a roadmap, from scratch, was instrumental in getting it built.
His enthusiasm for music could not be confined to the librarian's chair. He knew that 2011 marked the 60th anniversary of the Fender Telecaster and wanted to share that knowledge with the world — so he decided to report on it for All Things Considered. (He would follow that act four years later, when the Stratocaster hit the same milestone.) And he knew so much about music that he was ready to celebrate when Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards' 65th birthday rolled around.
"In today's music business," he said in a piece on Weekend Edition Sunday, "a field of endeavor where creativity can be measured in fruit-fly life spans and where a lengthy career compares unfavorably to that of the average NFL player, Keith Richards is a titan: the surprisingly still-living embodiment of everything we think of, everything it has come to mean to be a rock musician."
Robert loved Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix, but he was no imitator. He had his own sound, which you can hear for yourself in the songs of Urban Verbs, the D.C. new-wave band in which he was the guitarist and de facto manager. Just like at NPR, he was the unassuming, behind-the-scenes guy who got things done. If it wasn't for Robert's efforts to organize the first rock show at a downtown restaurant, there would never have been what that space became: the famed 9:30 Club.
Urban Verbs was a dream for Robert, and he was determined to take it as far as it would go. He shopped its demo — produced by Brian Eno, who'd seen the band at CBGB and been impressed — to record labels. The band landed at Warner Bros., who released the its 1980 self-titled LP and the follow-up album Early Damage. But in a tale all too familiar in rock, a combination of bad luck and one bad review led to the band's demise. He spoke about that on NPR in 2008, on the occasion of a reunion show he organized.
"For me, in my interest to be an interesting guitar player, this was my apogee," he said. "I just felt like I had something to say on guitar, and it was sort of stilled, somehow. And I felt, just at the point I was becoming the guitar player I wanted to be, the thing was all over."
Robert never gave up on his dream: He composed and recorded more than 30 scores for films, TV and theater after the Verbs broke up. His work was heard on ABC, PBS, Discovery Channel, in the Kennedy Center and in the Phillips Collection, where he was asked to compose a soundscape to accompany the museum's collection of early 20th century art. This was 1985, before he started working here — but NPR interviewed him about composing a work on which he played some 20 guitars.
"One of the things that I enjoy doing, being primarily a guitarist, is trying to use the guitar in such a way that it doesn't really sound like a guitar," he said. "This piece in particular, a lot of the sounds I've gotten from the guitar are more reminiscent of bowed strings of violas or violins — and some other things are perhaps more flute-like."
But perhaps Robert's finest moment on radio was his essay about being at Woodstock. In a story he dryly referred to as "The Parable of the Hot Dogs," Robert was tasked with finding food for his starving circle of friends right in front of center stage. It took him three hours of trudging through the mud, standing in line and trudging back, without taking a single bite for himself — only to see all of the dogs disappear into a mass of grabbing hands.
"So my oft-recounted, amusing if cautionary Woodstock fable imparts this lesson, that familiar message we all know from air travel: Always put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting others," he said. "The official Woodstock message, the festival slogan, was Three Days of Peace and Music. That still sounds pretty cool, though to this day I try to avoid huge crowds and hot dogs."
Rest in peace, Robert. Save us a hamburger.
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