Today is the publication day for James Wolcott’s Lucking Out: My Life Getting Semi-Dirty In Seventies New York. From Tom Watson’s wonderful review :
But this is a book about the 1970s, and there too, I came across James Wolcott. Well, the latter part of the 70s anyway – the dawn of the decade found me in late single digits. Actually, I barely caught the cultural wave that powers Lucking Out, the salty tsunami of music and grime that washed the florid ponderous rot out of rock and roll. But catch it I did, and the back pages of the Village Voice were where we pored over the black and white listings for Max’s, CBGB, Hurrah, the Peppermint Lounge, Trax, Mudd Club, and the Ritz. Plans laid, bridges and tunnels thoroughly mapped, there might be time to read the articles and Wolcott’s acerbic reviews often provided out-loud teenaged readings, “Hey Maude, listen to this!” moments in the shotgun seat of the old Buick on the FDR Drive or the Broadway IRT.
There’s a malign force closing in on Wolcott’s black and white 1970s – you feel it throughout the book – and its color is green. The 80s of Donald Trump (whose name doesn’t stain this epic – no accident) ushered in a New York obsessed with real estate and wealth, and turned houses and apartments into the “outward constructs of your identity that required Hamlet-style agonizing for fear that at the root of your being, you might not be an ‘uptown person.'” Money plays little role in the sweaty corners of CBGB or the back row of the screening rooms; all that matters is commitment to the written word and to a form of honest criticism that values the creation of art (widely defined) so highly that finely-sliced prose meant for reading is the only respectful way to respond. “Hanging tough is what divides the long-range dedicated from the dilettantes,” writes Wolcott, recalling a ballsy and unbowed Patti Smith and her reaction to a serious career setback.
From John Adamian:
Lucking Out avoids the gummy, preening candy center of most memoirs because Wolcott, in true journo fashion, doesn’t ever really reveal that much about himself. (He is a cat person.) He offers a glimpse of his buttoned-up nature when he opts out of a likely reunion with old friends at a visit to the closing night of legendary punk club CBGBs and describes himself as “a coward when it came to unembarrassed joy and affection.” Elsewhere he writes “I prided myself on my lack of pride.” If it’s not exactly about Wolcott, Lucking Out is about all the cool people he knew, worked with, hung out with and wrote about. It’s about Norman Mailer, who in a journalistic Cinderella story, wrote back when a young Wolcott sent the novelist a clipping of Wolcott’s early writing about one of Mailer’s talk-show appearances. Wolcott landed a gig at the Village Voice when Mailer put in a good word for him.
A chapter on Kael conveys Wolcott’s deep feeling for her and his admiration for her blockbuster-making and often contrarian criticism. He describes her best work as “a liberating force that lit up the top floor of your brain.” If a good critic makes a reader want to go out and hear the music, see the art and watch the movies under consideration so they to can feel what the writer felt, Wolcott does the same for the critics whose work offered lightning strikes of clarity and perception. You’ll want to go read Kael and New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce (even if you don’t care for movie reviews and couldn’t tell a pirouette from Kentucky Fried Chicken). Voice rock critic Robert Christgau (who “commanded the pulse center”) makes a brief appearance, as does his one-time partner New Yorker pop critic Ellen Willis. If Wolcott energetically beats the drum for some writers, he puts the boot in for others. Wolcott calls out Willis, Joan Didion and Susan Sontag for being lightweight, icy, pretentious or all three.
If you’re a fan of film, books, music, porn, writing, the seventies as well as the the artfully-constructed critical bon mot inserted like a shiv between the ribs (and who doesn’t like that?), you will want to join me on Sunday, December 4 as I host Mr. James Wolcott for what promises to be a quite entertaining FDL Book Salon.
Be there or miss out on the seventies. Again….