"How lucky I was, arriving in New York just as everything was about to go to hell.”
That would be in the autumn of 1972, when a very young and green James Wolcott arrived from Maryland, full of literary dreams, equipped with a letter of introduction from Norman Mailer, and having no idea what was about to hit him. Landing at a time of accelerating municipal squalor and, paradoxically, gathering cultural energy in all spheres as “Downtown” became a category of art and life unto itself, he embarked upon his sentimental education, seventies New York style.
This portrait of a critic as a young man is also a rollicking, acutely observant portrait of a legendary time and place. Wolcott was taken up by fabled film critic Pauline Kael as one of her “Paulettes” and witnessed the immensely vital film culture of the period. He became an early observer-participant in the nascent punk scene at CBGB, mixing with Patti Smith, Lester Bangs, and Tom Verlaine. As a Village Voice writer he got an eyeful of the literary scene when such giants as Mailer, Gore Vidal, and George Plimpton strode the earth, and writing really mattered.
A beguiling mixture of Kafka Was the Rage and Please Kill Me, this memoir is a sharp-eyed rendering, at once intimate and shrewdly distanced, of a fabled milieu captured just before it slips into myth. Mixing grit and glitter in just the right proportions, suffused with affection for the talented and sometimes half-crazed denizens of the scene, it will make readers long for a time when you really could get mugged around here.
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October 25, 2011
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Excerpt from Lucking Out by James Wolcott
It was like seeing my own ghost, the Spirit of Punk Past. I was home, dawdling across the cable- TV dial, when I was arrested by the sight of a host of once- familiar faces, a few of them sporting incongruous New Year's Eve hats and leis. Incongruous, not because it wasn't New Year's Eve, but because of the lean, lunar faces jutting under the hats. These were not faces normally associated with holiday mirth. Fervent intent was usually more like it, furry heads and furrowed brows. I identified the bleached- out footage as being shot along the bar at CBGB's, some of the faces belonging to Tom Verlaine (sitting on an actual bar stool, like a normal person), Richard Hell, Richard Lloyd, Billy Ficca, John Cale, Deborah Harry, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, the journalist Lisa Robinson, and Lenny Kaye. And then, a flash of light and gone, there I was: me--the me I once was, one of the milling crowd, part of the scene. Chatting with someone at the only place where my memories are three-dimensional, a hologram in my head that still feels like a crummy home movie.
The film-- run on the Independent Film Channel-- was Amos Poe and Ivan Kral's Blank Generation, a music documentary shot mostly in the loose bowels of the Bowery, its title taken from a song by the sun- glassed poet, mouth- grimacing virtuoso, and inadvertent style setter Richard Hell, whose torn T- shirt bearing the inviting plea "Please Kill Me" proved to be one of the period's most enduring fashion statements, along with laced- tight bondage gear tricked out as smart evening wear. Filmed in black and white with no live- synced sound (the songs draped over the images like a scratchy, patchy car-pet), Blank Generation jerked along like a home movie even back then and today looks like an archaeological find, a kinescope discovered in a salvage yard recording the last known sightings from that prelapsarian age when un- trust- funded artists still coyoted the streets and, be it ever so humble, every hovel felt like home. I had forgotten I was in Blank Generation, however fleetingly, and seeing myself again as if for the first time didn't make me mourn Lost Youth, that not being my preferred form of masochism; it made me smile. It was like a college yearbook come alive. Here were my fellow classmates, the old alma mater in its midnight glory.
Arabian swelter, and with the air- conditioning broken, CBGB resembled some abattoir of a kitchen in which a bucket of ice is placed in front of a fan to cool the room off. To no avail, of course, and the heat had perspiration glissading down the curve of one's back, yeah, and the cruel heat also burned away any sense of glamour. After all, CBGB's Bowery and Bleecker location is not the garden spot of lower Manhattan, and the bar itself is an uneasy oasis. On the left, where the couples are, tables; on the right, where the stragglers, drinkers, and love- seekers are, a long bar; between the two, a high doublebacked ladder which, when the room is really crowded, offers the best view. If your bladder sends a distress signal, write home to your mother, for you must make a perilous journey down the aisle between seating area and bar, not knocking over any mike stands as you slide by the tiny stage, squeeze through the pile of amplifiers, duck the elbow thrust of a pool player leaning over to make a shot . . . and then you end up in an illustrated bathroom that looks like a page that didn't make [Norman Mailer's] The Faith of Graffiti.
-- from my Village Voice piece "A Conservative Impulse in the
New Rock Underground" (August 18, 1975).