I had a choice between reading the new Richard Hell memoir, about his days as a punk and a hedonistic poet in late 70s New York, and James Wolcott's very similar memoir, which is itself similar in many regards to Patti Smith's essential memoir "JUST KIDS". In fact, there are at least two other semi-recent memoirs of that wild NYC era of bankruptcy, innovative rock music, serial murderers who learn to kill from their dogs, and freewheeling, drug-fueled culture. There's even a fun book I read several years ago called "LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE BRONX IS BURNING", which juxtaposes the world-beating New York Yankees baseball teams of the late 70s with the swirl of craziness happening in their city. It's certainly a fertile time to mine, and those writers still standing and with a story to tell are responding. Anyway, I decided to pass on Hell's book – I'm afraid from the blurbs and reviews I've read that it's going to be awful – and concentrated on James Wolcott's "LUCKING OUT" instead.
Now I couldn't have told you who Wolcott was before reading the book, only that I knew his name, but it's clear now that I've read his rock music and film reviews for many years in The Village Voice and elsewhere. He's a journalist who happened to surreptitiously fall into the beats he wanted to cover, even before he knew he wanted to cover them, and "Lucking Out" is essentially that story, as well as the story of certain strata and subcultures in 70s New York. Wolcott has a lot going for him, and I'll cut to the quick and say I enthusiastically recommend the book if you're interested in the subject matter, which I'll get to. He's excellent at turning a phrase, finding the right adjective, and making his prose jump off the page in ways that can be funny, cutting and frequently self-deprecating. I truly admire the guy's ability to stay sober in 1970s New York; in fact, if this had been a down-and-out junkie or alcoholic tale, I don't think I would have read it – but Wolcott kept his hands pretty clean; or as the title puts it, "semi-dirty".
Arriving in NYC in 1972 at Age 19, with no money and little more than the potential of working at The Village Voice based on a reference from Norman Mailer (!!), Wolcott actually started living his dream through a series of fortune accidents and his own pluck. Even when the newspaper was bought by a tony Manhattanite crowd who owned NEW YORK magazine – and totally alienated the hippie-era socialist gate crashers who toiled at The Voice – it ended up being the best thing that even happened to Wolcott, and he got to cover aspects of city life right when things started to get both messy and extremely interesting. He went to a Patti Smith show, was blown away, wrote about it, befriended her, and actually helped her star ascend rather quickly. She in turn introduced him to Television, and once he cottoned to them, he was a CBGBs regular. There's an entire chapter on the punk era, with short sections on The Ramones, Talking Heads, Patti, Television, Lester Bangs and others. Wolcott was a level-headed, unalcoholic presence within their scene, and he documented it well both in the Voice and in this book.
There's a slightly less compelling chapter on Wolcott's personal friendship with Pauline Kael; I guess it's annoying because he's nothing but rapturously worshipful of her, and he documents his part in her entourage during some of her peak years reviewing film at The New Yorker. They frequently went to seminal pictures together and drank afterward, with Wolcott always ordered a Coke. He acknowledges some of her foibles and quirks, but it's clear that Kael was/is almost a mythical mother figure for him, and perhaps the most important relationship he's ever had before or since, family and several spouses included. Let's be clear – I too love Pauline Kael, her writing at least, and I totally get it, but the chapter on her is a little clumsy and lacks clarity; I guess I'd just prefer that he summed up in simple English why he even chose to make tales of their friendship one of the most significant chapters – there are only 5 – in the book, rather than just rattling off anecdotes about Pauline and all the great things she said.
One chapter that is revealing, though, is Wolcott's admission of his addiction to 1970s-era, 42nd-street peep show porn. He first "infiltrated" the dirty theaters on assignment, and ended up liking the sleaze and the thrills he got from it that he just kept on showing up. He also went on assignment and covered the hardcore, pre-AIDS gay S&M subculture, though without the same level of participation and fascination. There are some great characters, too – Uncle Floyd, Robin Byrd and Al Goldstein – but before he gets too confessional, Wolcott shifts gears and tells the story of how he became a ballet aesthete right around the same time. He became quickly transfixed by NYC Ballet and the world surrounding it, and the porn chapter also turns into the highbrow dance chapter, and it captures two sides of New York's unique culture very well. That, and lots of journalistic shop talk and name-dropping, most of which isn't too dreadful. In many ways, it's a journalism insider book, but with enough grit and true tales of a lost era that it's something to definitely spend a couple of days with if you get the chance.