A Movie Is Born: James Wolcott’s “Lucking Out” Is a Book of Cinematic Proportions
By Al Giordano
If James Wolcott’s Lucking Out: My Life of Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York (2011, Doubleday) becomes, deservedly, a movie, it will be an edgier East Coast cousin of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. This coming-of-age story brings to resurrected life the “semi-dirty” portals and characters through which a young writer evolved to become one of America’s foremost cultural critics, on the cusp of waves that his own prose helped to create.
Imagine if instead of cutting his teeth on redneck jam bands like the Allman Brothers for the pretentious Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres, a writer had come up as the fledgling critic who sat at the bar at CBGBs scribbling John-the-Baptist prophecies on napkins to herald the coming of Patti Smith and Talking Heads, navigating the story through the shark-infested newsroom of the Village Voice (my god, it was as cutthroat as I’d always imagined it: “nobody at the Voice told you anything for your own good unless he was up to no good,” recalls Wolcott: “like the gangster families in The Godfather, the Voice convulsed into feuds every few years to purge the bad blood and begin a fresh cycle of animosities”), so that 14- and 15-year-old New York boys and girls, your correspondent included, could gobble up his prose and race down the Bowery for a front-table and a sloe gin fizz (we were never, ever, carded) in the opening rounds of what came to be known, later, but not yet, as “Punk.”
The wunderkind Crowe had Lester Bangs as a mentor, true, but Wolcott, we learn from Lucking Out, was caught in a love triangle with that brilliant and bombastic music critic and a mutual girlfriend during the final months of Bangs’ life. In the same 1973 when a 16-year-old Crowe was roaming the longhair frat halls of the Hyatt in Hollywood, the proverbial “Riot House” of established seventies rock stars and groupies, a 21-year-old Wolcott was waiting endlessly, over and over again, for Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd of Television to get their guitars stringed to taste (“it always took them forever to tune up, bent over their guitars like car mechanics over a tricky transmission”). There, he would often step out the CBGB’s gate onto the sidewalk at the Bowery and Bleeker Street for some air. Let’s go take that walk with him, for Wolcott’s is a pen with superpowers – the kind that Stan Lee and Jack King Kirby assigned to the Marvel heroes that inspired our scribe as a boy – that transports the reader to places and times of legend:
“If nothing else, the seventies in New York taught me situational awareness, a vital attribute for every slow-moving mammal prone to daydreaming. Like so many who came to see Patti, I would sometimes glide backward to the street when the opening band began tormenting their guitars after tuning up on each other’s nerves for five or ten minutes. It wasn’t like cooling your heels out on the piazza. Bottles would be dropped from the Palace Hotel men’s shelter above CBGB’s, their green and clear glass smashing on the sidewalk, some of them exploding with pee, the contents recycled from the beer or Thunderbird that the bottles formerly contained. It wasn’t a nightly occurrence, but it happened often enough to keep you limber. Scraggly panhandlers who didn’t bother to work up an inventive line of patter to go with their outstretched palms would pester anyone stationary, even though the CBGB’s customers themselves were the very portrait of slim pickings and linty pockets. Abuse was shouted from passing cars, on general principle, not for anything in particular, and the occasional curiosity-seeker or casual-date couple would serenade by, open the front door for a peek, and get a face-ful of inchoate racket blasting from the stage – all the deterrence they needed to keep moving to find a different lovebird destination, assuming they weren’t eaten by cannibals before they got to Canal Street.”
That “situational awareness” would, in real life, prepare some of us to live and navigate in places like Mexico City, Sao Paulo or the Lacandon Jungle, but it readied Wolcott for an even scarier place: the offices of the New York media. Over the subsequent decades he has deliciously taken down the mighty knowns and risen up the worthy unknowns as a widely-read critic of – you name it – movies, music, television, politics, news media, bloggers, and classical ballet, among other contact sports for the Voice, Esquire, The New Yorker, New York mag, The New York Review of Books and his current longtime gig at Vanity Fair.
Too many of the “New York media elite” occupy its overpaid cubicle spaces and column inches with formulaic, banal, effete and careerist drivel. But every rule has an exception and mine, as a reader, is Wolcott. Reading his prose is as flavorful a venture as chomping on a slice of Joe’s Pizza on Sixth Avenue, and, no, not because he may have once in a while tossed a few literary bouquets my way. There are plenty who have been generous with praise toward this bad boy but if they have a new book out I still cross the street when I see them coming, cowering in horrific fear that they’re going to ask me to review it, which, gasp, would mean I’d have to read the damn thing first. I don’t even like books anymore! I used to love them, but then books, much like New York, changed.
I spend too many hours already racing through the well-lit hallways of the Internet, so the last thing I want to do during leisure time is stress these eyes even more. And if you’ve walked into any of the chain bookstores that have supplanted the mom-and-pop ones, you may, too, have noticed that fiction died in the 1980s and that nonfiction didn’t last much longer. It had been more than two years since I read any book, prior to Lucking Out, and I confess that I’m proud of to be part of such illiterati. Books come out too slow to be timely, and the publishing houses churn them out according to formulaic focus-group research of what book buyers think will bring them status, make them seem smart, or get them laid if they leave the product lying around the coffee table. The thousands of books that once cluttered up this mind were either sold on Rivington Street or given away before my ugly divorce with them. Books are heavy and clunky. They don’t fit in a pen drive. And if adventure is your calling you eventually conclude that they must be cut like ballast from Phileas Fogg’s balloon.
Yet when a review copy of Lucking Out arrived last week, conveniently while I was in New York (we don’t give out the address of the Narco Newsroom to publishing houses, because then they consider it permission keep sending all kinds of crap), I ripped open the padded envelope like a kid on xmas day. I knew it would bring me back through the doors of CBGB’s (Wolcott calls it “the only place where my memories are three-dimensional,”) and felt that tingly sensation I had each time I stepped across the threshold, with my high school buddies Philip Shelley, Emily Wasserman, Jon Frankel, Kathy Lamantia, Billy Johnson – people who remain in, or have returned to, my off-screen life 35 years later, none of us ever having quite recovered from such formative experiences – and so many more, into its long, dark cavern as a teenager. A truly great writer just published a book about events in seventies New York that he and I were party to, although we sat in separate sections of the bar, and that was enough to keep me in bathrobe all day on Saturday to devour its 258 pages. I opened the book around 8 a.m. and only got around to having breakfast at three in the afternoon. My hardcover-devouring girlfriend - who slipped an egg-and-cheese sandwich in the slot under the door - says that Wolcott should get the Nobel in literature for his contribution to world literacy: he got Al to read a book. “I’ve never seen you smile like that,” she said, “while reading something,” which is more often than not, a duty or a chore.
It’s been fifteen years since I’ve liked a book (there have been many) about those over-hyped days at CBGB’s, a place and time where everybody claims to have been, but when you ask a question that begs details, it turns out they saw it in a YouTube video or in a magazine. You could have fit us all into a thimble, truth be told (as I was boasting with Wasserman and her Brooklyn pals the other day, “there are photos of Emily and I at CBGB’s in 1975.” And that still isn’t considered credible until one adds, authoritatively, “and they’re on Facebook.”)
Fifteen years ago I wrote an impassioned Boston Phoenix review for Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: An Oral History of Punk (1996). The previous winter I had enjoyed a bit of a re-run as a court scribe on the bus with the Patti Smith Group on her comeback tour with Bob Dylan, when Verlaine taught me the secret to better guitar playing – “drink a lot of coffee,” he said, pausing his phrases like Miles Davis’ silence-between-the-notes. (Then-media critic for the Voice, Cynthia Cotts, later commented, “that tour destroyed you as an employable commodity in this industry: you learned from Patti that you could become a kind of rock star yourself simply by acting like one.”)
My punk encore did indeed, very quickly, lead my journalism career to go up in self-immolation that year. Those moments were the Tunisian street vendor to my own personal Egyptian revolution, which spit me out of Boston and New York and hurtled me south of the border. Yet, in October, November and December of 1995, in Patti’s entourage, I was merely sweeping up the hallowed ground that Wolcott had trail-blazed twenty-one years prior: He had reported, for the Voice, on the night that Dylan showed up at CBGB’s to bestow his Excalibur sword to Patti, back in 1974, a glistening passage of prose that is revived for three pages of Lucking Out.
It’s so much fun to read Wolcott give a bit of justice in column inches to David Byrne and the Franzes of Talking Heads, and to Verlaine, art-rockers of “punk,” who were inexplicably granted slight billing by Please Kill Me. Wolcott writes of his crush on the (married, therefore perfectly untouchable) Tina Franz and his excited visit to the apartment where the Talking Heads lived back in the day:
“Byrne’s ambition was harder to spot at first because his voice broke like a choirboy’s and his head was always bobbling or askew, not Fixed in Purpose or rapture-lost. He was as willful as Verlaine, but his willfulness woke outward, toward the honeycombed world, whereas Verlaine’s narrowed to a shrinking portion of what he sought and fought to control. Byrne’s very accessibility, his approachability, set him apart from Verlaine and (later) Patti, whose don’t-bother-me-I’m-an-artist signs on their faces deterred those who might idly come knocking. One night a CBGB’s regular named Valerie, a gorgeous speed freak whose chat accelerated into gibberish the longer she hung at the bar, said to me, spotting Byrne, ‘I’m going to pick him up and swing him around.’ ‘That I’d like to see,’ I said. As David headed toward the stage area, nodding his bashful hellos, Valerie grabbed him around the chest in a skilled grappling move and twirled him around, and as he spun, he said, ‘Whoa!’ like a teenager on an amusement park ride, and when he stopped, he pretended to act a little dizzy, as if bopped on the head by a fuzzy hammer. Had she tried that with Lou Reed, he might have burst into mummy dust.”
Don’t even try to tell me that this book wouldn’t make a wonderful movie, if only so somewhere from the back row of Heaven’s Cineplex, Pauline Kael might see it and review it.
Kael was Wolcott’s mentor, and his memories of being taken in by, and learning the craft of criticism from, Kael dominate pages 53 to 104 of Lucking Out. Despite that the book gifted me a worthy reunion to my own times (and who doesn’t love a good jaunt down Amnesia Lane?), the Kael section was my favorite part of Wolcott’s latest work. It was a worthy homage to a mentor by a student, but, more tellingly, it stands as an eternal paean to, and roadmap for, the very concept of a mentor-protégé relationship. Unlike so many opportunistic what-have-you-done-for-me-lately ingrates, Wolcott remains fiercely loyal to his most important teacher and guide, a decade after Kael (1919-2001) passed away.
Movies may have been produced in Hollywood, but in the seventies (a golden age when directors enjoyed a renaissance of artistic freedom to control their own flick, a concept that, alas, does not exist today) they had to get through the lofty trenches of a few choice New York movie critics, generally, to have any hope of box office success. Kael was among the most influential, writing from her country house in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in the Berkshire Mountains, and commuting to the offices of The New Yorker (staying at the Royalton Hotel at 44 W. 44th street, and only at the Algonquin when the Royalton was full) for her six-month-a-year shift at the cinema desk. If there is a magazine, today, that would let a critic work for six months a year, I’d like to know about it.
Kael was much like those great seventies film directors in that she ran her own show. Movie companies would hold private screenings for her, to which she would bring a posse of fellow and sister critics, and other friends, to watch (always a “movie,” she detested calling them film, which she said was just a kind of tape that one put in a camera). In 1974, the 22-year-old Wolcott received an unsolicited phone call from the 53-year-old Kael, who invited him along for the ride simply because she liked his writing in the Voice. In the following years, Wolcott would go through various, as he called them, “serial monogamous” relationships with girlfriends until later meeting his wife, but the section about Kael in Lucking Out is a romantic platonic love story between the author and a unique New York character; authentically Big Apple, because Kael really didn’t care who she offended when expressing her opinion on their work (“she was blaspheming everything the New York Times Arts and Leisure section held hallow,” Wolcott recalls). After reading Lucking Out, I’m in love with Kael, too.
Reading those 51 pages on Wolcott’s years of opening doors for the five-foot-tall dynamo, of carrying Kael’s briefcase, and of walking her home to the Randolph after so many nights of film screenings followed by Algonquin round tables with her posse, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a scene from one of the Jurassic Park movies (not being schooled in cinema, I couldn’t tell you which one), in which a baby T-Rex is taught to kill its prey by its mother and Junior proceeds to bite off the head of one of the bad guys.
Over the years, Wolcott’s own critiques have exasperated actors, directors, musicians, choreographers, dancers, journalists, bloggers, politicians, and the agents, handlers and moneymen behind them. At times I wince when he savages some of my favorite artists and their art (Bertolucci’s 1900? the CBGB’s-born Blondie? and it takes a lot of guts to have publicly yawned, as he did, at a sacred icon like Bruce Springsteen at the precise moment when he emerged to conquer rock and roll), but mostly I’ve taken great vicarious delight in watching Wolcott turn effete snobs that pose as leftist or rightist gatekeepers into piñatas: Ellen Willis (cough), Newt Gingrich (double cough), Susan Sontag (hack, wheeze)… Lou Reed! Look up the word “iconoclast,” kids: Wolcott’s photo is in the Pictionary.
A particularly entertaining takedown of Reed, the former Velvet Underground front man, already an icon by 32, in Lucking Out, informs as it pleases. The point of the writing, in fact, was not to knock down Reed (although it does, like a bowling pin in a Bronx lane on a Saturday morning) but to rise up Reed’s ex-partner in creating the Warhol Factory soundtrack, John Cale, who once drunkenly strangled Wolcott with his hands along the bar at CBGB’s, over a misunderstanding on the slurred pronunciation of “Molson”:
“I didn’t take it personally. There was no repeat performance. In fact he (Cale) was unfailingly genial and chatty whenever I ran into him, and his presence on the scene, despite the sporadic aggro-surges, cast a more generous corona than that of his former co-pilot, Lou Reed, whose cool-as-shit sarcasms seemed to come out of a private loop of Bob Dylan’s surlier moments from Don’t Look Back projected on the inside of his sunglasses…
“One night Lisa Robinson, rock journalist extraordinaire, came up to me with the winged-Mercury enthusiasm of someone with some really good gossip to share and asked: ‘So, did you hear what just happened? Verlaine confiscated Lou’s tape recorder. Went up to him and demanded that he fork it over.’ Which Lou did, like a shoplifter surrendering a pack of cigs.”
For a decade or more after those years, our scene and we were forgotten: old news, yawn. We used to say, you had to be there, and I often got the idea that we were received like shell-shocked ‘Nam vets by people who didn’t ask and didn’t want to hear what it was like over there. Kurt Cobain would eventually generate some interest from a later generation, but New York “punk” got all rolled up, in popular culture, with other things that were really nothing like it: the British version of “punk,” the West Coast one, a “new wave” market niche along with artless “hardcore” and corresponding fashion statements associated with spiked hair and such. Thanks to Lucking Out (like Please Kill Me, before it, for which Wolcott’s book serves as a long overdue addendum reviving important parts that somehow got left on Legs’ and Gillian’s cutting-room-floor), the kernel of the idea is now better preserved. The 1970s works of the author and a precious few colleagues fast-forwarded us and prepared us to have Wolcott’s “situational awareness” that is now a survival skill in this treacherous media-dictated future that we live in, when Verlaine’s pioneering act – one just didn’t even consider taking away an icon’s tape recorder back then; Tom did – gave us a clue and pointed us toward the present-day skills we need.
Wolcott didn’t write only about these young pre-cyber culture jammers. And this is the most interesting twist in a book that begins with a 20-year-old cub reporter dropping out of college and coming to New York from the Maryland-Delaware border with nothing but a recommendation letter from Norman Mailer (given, it was not exactly “nothing,” but it still carried no guarantees). In Lucking Out, we read not only what he learned in his New York salad days, but more importantly, how he learned it, from his magnum-teacher Pauline Kael. In the pages of this book, we then watch Wolcott apply that knowledge in his first lasting journalistic venture: the promotion of Patti Smith and the CBGB’s scene around her, before it was clear that any of it was going anywhere.
Lucking Out teaches us all to be critics, with the proviso that the greatest thing a critic does is not to tear down, but to build up. All the tantalizing takedowns that authentic critics make merely establish the ground upon which, when they find something or someone really worthwhile to raise up, they can open the space for something truly new and interesting to happen. See that guy or gal in the back row of the theater, the one who hates everything that sucks and even some things that we don’t want to suck? Well he or she suddenly really likes something now! Let’s go see what the fuss is about!
Back to what the student, Wolcott, sponged-in from the mentor, Kael:
“One thing I learned from Pauline was that when something hits you that high and hard, you have to be able to travel wherever the point of impact takes you and be willing to go to the wall with your enthusiasm and over it if need be, even if you look foolish or ‘carried away,’ because your first shot at writing about it may be the only chance to make people care. It’s better to be thumpingly wrong than a muffled drum with a measured beat.”
And, thus, as Wolcott puts it, “leaning on the throttle to hurry up the future,” we read in this book an excerpt from his 1974 Voice piece that proclaims boldly that unsigned and largely unknown Patti Smith is the next big thing, a “knockout performer: funny, spooky, a true off-the-wall original. Like the character in Dickens, she do the police in different voices,” and the young writer went out on a very long limb to proclaim: “skinny schizzy Patti is on her way to becoming the wild mustang of American rock.”
There is no yardstick available on this mortal plane to measure whether Patti’s triumphs then happened because young Wolcott, the critic, wrote it. But nor is there any way at all to prove that it would have happened had the critic not done so. These things are in the realm of reasonable doubt from both sides of the pessimist-optimist divide. Such is the life of a critic. The crowd is always eager to blame you for killing something, but averse to credit you with the midwifery of anything demonstrably inspiring.
Beyond the secret histories from Kael to Cale, Lucking Out adds Wolcott’s memoirs of corners of seventies New York that had never captured my imagination: Classical ballet and porn among them. (His odes to the NYC pornography industry quickly segue into a theme of more personal interest: sex in Manhattan, even if I’m grateful that while all those guys were whacking away their afternoons in XXX theaters in Ye Olde Times Square, not a single one was, at that precise moment, competing for a real-life gal’s attention). But Wolcott does pull the dirty trick of making me think that maybe one day I’ll load up on nicotine gum and actually enter Lincoln Center – if they’d have me, I don’t know – to see what all his dancy-prancy fuss is about. That’s another sign of a great writer: one that can make you curious about matters that previously held zero interest.
I will assign Lucking Out to my own students and protégés, and not only to wave his pages on Kael in the air shouting, “this is how a mentor should be treated!”
And speaking of “lucking out,” a couple of weeks ago, while ushering some participants of a workshop on journalism and civil resistance through the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park (as we entered, Narco News TV director Greg Berger wondered who we’d run into and I confessed that in previous visits I had seen more than a few annoying activists from previous misadventures that I had the “situational awareness” to skillfully avoid), the first person I ran into was Jim Wolcott, chatting with one of the occupy media committee organizers. “I knew you’d be here,” he said, which was a good use of dry humor since he knows I live South of the Border. We talked about the challenges of finding the different-drummer stories in an event that has had been under a pack-media magnifying glass (who have written too much about drummers there, anyway), and he graciously gave his sage time to some of the scholars from our workshop. I have no idea what his coming Vanity Fair story on “occupy” will say, but I find myself clicking refresh waiting for it to happen.
When recounting the turf wars, rivalries and catty dialogue among the New York media newsrooms and hangouts, Wolcott extends a generous appreciation to just how vicious so many of the divas there had been to him and to each other:
“I resented being bullyragged for making a fool of myself because making a fool of yourself was one of the hard-earned liberties Norman Mailer had fought for in his boxing trunks. But I have to say, I don’t regret my days in gladiator school. Having your ego slapped around a bit helped the blood circulate and would prove a superb conditioning program for a future sub-career in blogging, where a tough hide would come in handy every time the Hellmouth opened. Every time I’m abused online with a battery of scurrilous remarks of a personal nature, I’m able to let them bounce off like rubber erasers, having been called an asshole by professionals, experts in the field.”
That counsel is pure gold for new and future generations of writers and critics. If I had a 35-cent New York City seventies subway token for every time a present-day blogger or aspiring journalist threw a whining tantrum when, for a change, he or she were at the receiving end of a critique or a putdown, I’d be able to buy the Huffington Post and the New York Times just to be able to padlock the doors and put them all out of their wussy pack-journalism misery.
So, you want to be a writer? A critic, you say? Then you can’t give a fuck about what people say about you after you’ve fired your keypad and crestfallen their fragile egos (or those of their sacred cows). In the few times we’ve spoken, Wolcott has struck me as gentle and sensitive, much more of an officer and a gentleman than Pauline Kael (“tough” she used to say when someone objected to her words, Wolcott remembers, often followed by “shit”). Really, he comes off more as the sort of mensch that rescues stray kittens from alleyways in his spare time, later to appear in his prose as the house ocicats of a tea-totaling domestic bliss. And yet I suspect in that uptown apartment he sometimes lets us peek into that one can still regularly hear the Jay Dee Daugherty backbeat to Patti Smith’s annunciation of “the sea of possibility… seize the possibility!”, a credo for authentic writers and critics anywhere.
Kael, the subject of his greatest homage to date, was able to summon and forge a healthy sense of detachment out of her young charge. One gets the sense that the brickbats and cruelties fired back at New York’s greatest surviving critic might sometimes hurt Wolcott’s feelings, but that his big liberal East Coast heart is gym-toned and plated with enough Bowery grit to save him from the trap of pulling punches or turning the volume down the next time he sits down at the keypad in his lifetime duel against the bores.
And for once, when, someday, some cinematic genius in Hollywood makes an irresistible motion picture out of Lucking Out, bringing its ageless, history-making characters to life on the screen, I’ll be able to murmur across some hissy uptown cocktail party salon, “but the movie wasn’t as good as the book,” and then let drop that I reviewed the original on its route to the left coast, with the immeasurable ever-so-New-Yorker suggestion, unspoken but hinted nonetheless as subtly as a sock in the nose, that perhaps this very review planted that idea in the director’s head. I’d never be able to prove it. And you’d never be able to disprove it.
That’s the magic to being a critic. Wolcott is the Merlin who has rescued and tended to those hexes and spells during decades in which the art of criticism has been battered and obscured by mercenaries who, try as they might, are no longer worthy to lift the sword from the stone. When we could distinguish between “uptown” and “downtown” and Fourteenth Street was still a kind of national border, he was able to traverse both sides and cross-pollinate between them. Now that all Manhattan has been annexed by uptown, and everything and almost everyone truly downtown was extinguished, pushed to the sides, or ran like hell, he’s still crossing the Bitfrost between Asgard and Midgard, mythical representations popularized by the Marvel comics that he soaked up as a kid. Today, this working class autodidact from Maryland patrols the streets of New York much like his childhood heroes, avenging the never-ending crime waves of banality that make the Son-of-Sam years look like a holiday. On second thought, he’s not Merlin. Wolcott isn’t old enough – he’s not even gray – for such a stuffy Arthurian role. In a media industry of mere mortals, look over there: he’s the dude with the hammer of Thor in his hands. I can’t wait to see where he hurls it next.