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Lucking Out

My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York

by James Wolcott

Hardcover, 258 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $25.95 |


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Lucking Out
My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York
James Wolcott

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Book Summary

The"Vanity Fair" cultural critic traces his early career against a backdrop of New York in the 1970s, discussing his professional relationship with film critic Pauline Kael, his observations of the nascent punk scene, and his interactions with literary giants.

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James Wolcott: 'Lucking Out' In 1970s New York

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Lucking Out

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)