Wolcott: The Herald from CBGBs

By Al Giordano

Although our ships passed on many 1970s nights, I’ve never met James Wolcott, the writer’s writer at Vanity Fair whom New York Magazine has called “the most powerful pen in popular culture.” He once emailed me his phone number, but I don't recall that we’ve ever talked (an omission that this slacker very much intends to correct someday). Of course, I’ve read him since way back in his Village Voice salad days and his late 70s reflections on Vonnegut in The New York Review of Books.

Daily, I’m one of the tens of thousands who surf hungrily to his Vanity Fair blog hoping for a meal or even a morsel of Wolcott’s stand-alone prose. It’s always a good day when he does post. With a single hammer-of-Thor sentence, he’ll banish a modern-day Loki into the cartoon-clown Google hell of sticky definition. In the next paragraph he’ll raise a meek but worthy Valkyrie to the royal dinner table, or at least a fighting path to it.

Wolcott staffs the night shift at that lonely outpost of the nearly extinct literary nobility that formed some of us, and that is responsible for more of your culture than most will ever know. He is the coming legitimate heir to Gore Vidal, the ambassador for all of us authentic New Yorkers in exile, the watcher that holds the golden banner high amidst the rubble so that once the invasion by the mediocre finally crashes along with their pestilent market (with a shock wave that will chase out the usurpers, and with them the price of rent they’ve driven), Wolcott, in my dream, shall be the trumpet-blowing herald who signals, “it’s safe to come home now, your Eden is restored.” I’m not sure I’d believe it from anybody else. And we – all of us, that motley and scattered crew - will gallop down Broadway on horseback, machetes in one hand, saxophones in the other, and the proverbial arc of justice will bend once more.

Oh, lord, you roll your eyes, there goes Giordano with another foray into his windmill-tilting talk of passing a camel through the eye of a needle… or of loading a mulatto into a sling shot, bouncing him off Goliath’s eye and into… the White House.

In my utopia, the new crèche for December living rooms and windowsills throughout the civilized world would reenact a 1976 moment from the dark railroad flat of the late CBGBs. Miniature stick figures of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd will shoot Strat lightning at each other from across the cockroached stage. A tiny jukebox – the new xmas tree of light - will play the B-52s “Rock Lobster.” (Joe Camel will be there, too.) One of the 16-year-olds at the front table with a sloe gin fizz will look a lot like me, and over there on the barstool will be a 23-year-old James Wolcott, absorbing it all for preservation in future Gospels.

Each crèche will display a small plaque with this quotation from Mary Harron, from Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (1996, Grove Press, by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain):

"When I'd walk into CBGB's I'd get so excited. My heart would just be racing every time I did that block. The doors would open and I'd be there… Everything was new, and it was so exciting because I knew I was walking into the future."

That future is here. It took five or six more years for a 20-year-old Barack Obama to land on Manhattan island, into the milieu created by the sum of our bit parts. He would later confess on page 100 of Dreams from My Father:

"To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets. We smoked cigarettes and wore leather jackets. At night, in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism and patriarchy. When we ground out our cigarettes in the hallway carpet or set our stereos so loud that the walls began to shake, we were resisting bourgeois society's stifling constraints. We weren't indifferent or careless or insecure. We were alienated."

This week, in Wolcott’s determination of winners and losers of 2008 for Vanity Fair, the sea upon which all 2008 boats rose was that very same, once alienated, Columbia University student who wrote those words.

Wolcott (not for the first time) shined some of that Asgardian light on your battered correspondent:

The first to grasp the portent of what was taking shape was the prophet of the Obama paradigm shift, the journalist/activist/online editor/blogger Al Giordano, who, as a student of the teachings and tactics of community organizer Saul Alinsky (whose Rules for Radicals is the guerrilla guide for domestic insurgents), divined the advantage that Obama’s small-donor base gave him against old-school juggernauts. In a prescient article for The Boston Phoenix in September 2007, a full year before the Democratic convention, Giordano saw a distant dot heading down the railroad tracks and perceived that the Hillary Is Inevitable story line was Old Hollywood, about to be overthrown by an emerging social grid. He foresaw “a different narrative than has ever occurred before—especially because most of Obama’s record-breaking campaign war chest comes from small donors.… Obama is raising campaign money faster than even the Clinton machine is. So the real surprise of the 2008 Democratic nomination contest is that, for the first time since Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 campaign, the upstart rival will be able to outspend the anointed Democratic front-runner.” Outspend and outmaneuver. “It is Obama’s history as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago—and the application of that experience to organizing his campaign—that is making the 2008 cycle distinct from previous ones. Where [Howard] Dean failed to convert his donor-activist base into effective organization, Obama is apparently writing the book on how to do it.”

Mainly, I’m pleased to be mentioned in the company of the other “winners of 2008” that the essay mentioned, some of the small cadre of players that it wouldn’t embarrass me to be seen with, first and foremost the colleague I labeled “genius of the year” back on xmas day:

No shiny arrow shot swifter and loftier from obscurity to quotable authority than Nate Silver, whose FiveThirtyEight.com site became the expert sensation of the election season. (Five hundred thirty-eight is the sum of electoral-college votes up for contention.) Crunching poll numbers until they sang with clarity, Silver, a managing partner and sabermetrician at Baseball Prospectus and a former Daily Kos diarist, made many of the old pros look as if they were stuck in the previous century, milking cows. Not only did his disciplined models and microfine data mining command respect, his prognostications hit the Zen mark on Election Day. “This uncanny accuracy is the equivalent of dropping a penny from the top of a 50 story building and landing it in a shot glass,” John Cole wrote at Balloon Juice. “This is sick accurate.” Silver also became an instant cable-news savant, his geek-genius glasses and owlish mien worthy of a Starfleet sub-adjutant whose quadratic equations coolly foil an attack from a Romulan vessel while the senior officers are frantically poking at their touch screens.

And…

Sarah Silverman, whose “Great Schlep” viral video campaign to noodge Jews to migrate to Florida to persuade their cranky grandparents to vote for Obama…

And…

Rachel Maddow’s captivating rise from minor-league hottie to prom-queen media darling. After regular guest appearances on Race for the White House with David Gregory and Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Maddow—a host on the liberal Air America talk-radio network, whose collegial humor and buoyant crusading defied the stereotype of the ranting lefty driven bonkers by Bush-Cheney—was awarded her own prime-time show on MSNBC, a time slot that had been a cemetery plot, claiming the souls of Deborah Norville, Dan Abrams, and others whose names are writ in mist. The ratings rocketed far beyond expectations.

Silver is 30, Maddow is 35, Silverman is 39, Obama is 47, I’m, well, a wee bit elder, and Wolcott is the virtual big brother some of us never had, but those that were there know that from that Bowery manger the Novus Ordo Seclorum has come full circle. (And, yes, I'm not bothered by the glaring "one of these things is not like the other" pay grades on that list: My leisure time here in low budget paradise is intact.)

While others may gnash their teeth and chew their nails worrying about becoming broken hearted once again, others of us begin 2009 in a state of aroused peace, on the edges of our seats, taking another sip of sloe gin and waiting for the Grand Stratocaster to slice time and space with its next glorious note.

Wondering, “who is this mischievous herald who is more generous to me than Norman Mailer was to him?” I consulted the oracle alongside Asgard's rainbow bridge known as YouTube. Here he is on Charlie Rose, talking about two topics dear to me, New York, ya know, and the daunting writer’s struggle to complete that next page without painting one's self into a corner:

Wolcott, our fellow college dropout, Bleeker-and-Bowery alumni, and autodidact extraordinaire, is said to be “working on a memoir of 1970s Manhattan,” when there truly was “a place for us, somewhere a place for us,” and a moment that will also be counted – hey, ho, let’s go! - in the codices of secret history, among the winners of the year that just was.

 

 

Comments

I love you even more, Al,

I love you even more, Al, thanks to this paean to one of my idols.

btw, is part of your tribute a sly parody of Wolcott's style?:

"With a single hammer-of-Thor sentence, he’ll banish a modern-day Loki into the cartoon-clown Google hell of sticky definition. In the next paragraph he’ll raise a meek but worthy Valkyrie to the royal dinner table, or at least a fighting path to it."

It reads like Wolcott himself!

love James Wolcott

Man, Al, how do we have so many writing idols in common? I did an internship with the Village Voice in 1998, and I literally used to get the shivers thinking that I was in the same building that used to house James Wolcott. That was such an influential summer for me - I had one of the greatest journalists I'll ever hope to meet as a mentor, Julie Lobbia. She had the housing beat, and she was a crusader. Her personal mantra was "If we do not conquer the slums, then surely the slums will conquer us." Had the pleasure of soaking up investigative journalism shock-tactics from Ms. Lobbia and from Wayne Barrett. To this day, I have an unseemly love for halls of records and the smell of microfiche.

My time at the Voice was followed a year later with an internship at the Boston Phoenix - another very good place for me, if for no other reason than Dan Kennedy telling me, offhand one day, that I really ought to have a look at this site, NarcoNews...

Hey, ho, let's go!

Boy, does THAT bring back memories.

The one thing that stood out to me in Wolcott's piece was his mention of Very Serious Person Michael Barone's hitting the self-destruct sequence in front of a room full of his fellow journos, people who would normally be eating out of his hand.   Wolcott rightly pointed out that Barone's swan dive is emblematic of how the Republican mainstreamers -- the alleged party elite -- have been infected by the sort of vile bilge that used to be confined to the far-right fringe.

 

John Cole has also made similar remarks, to the effect that right-wing bloggers now run the GOP.   (Hey, when John Bolton can -- while the US' ambassador to the UN -- do not one but TWO interviews with Word Salad Pam Oshry, his eyes never venturing above her neck during either of them, you know that John and James are right.)

Applying your message to Gaza

Beautiful New Years message, Al.  In your wrap up of James Wolcott's essay on winners and losers of 2008, you yourself set a pitch perfect tone for politically thriving in 2009 with this sentence:

While others may gnash their teeth and chew their nails worrying about becoming broken hearted once again, others of us begin 2009 in a state of aroused peace, on the edges of our seats, taking another sip of sloe gin and waiting for the Grand Stratocaster to slice time and space with its next glorious note.

This was the perfect sentence for allaying my extreme angst and anger at Israel's latest assault on the rest of the world. I also found your linking to James Wolcott's blog http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/blogs/wolcott helpful as I had missed his essay on Gaza aptly titled "Ghetto Blasters". I couldn't tell if James was serious or tongue-in-cheek when he ascribed the assault as Israeli retaliation for Madoff's house arrest. James linked to Antiwar.com's Justin Raimondo's analysis that the real target of the assault was the incoming Obama administration & an attempt to pre-emtively derail any possibility of a pro Palestinian or more even handed U.S. policy in the mideast.

Raimondo's analysis makes sense to me, combined with the fact that Israel broke the cease fire November 5th, the day after Obama's election. But surely Obama and his team are equally aware of the timing and purpose so I shall take your advice and stop "worrying about becoming broken hearted once again".

It truly is a new year and time. Happy New Year to all.

Heir to Vidal?

Maybe. Hopefully. But Gore himself once said the same (well, nearly the same, substituting "dauphin" for "heir") of Christopher Hitchens, and we all know how that turned out. Not that I think Wolcott liable to pull a Hitchens.

 

Just sayin'.

well that's prett y cool

...and congrats for your prescience, of which I was unaware.

only slightly semi-snarky here (mostly sincerely curious): what is Wolcott's position on Caroline Kennedy for Senator?

Al, besides being politically prescient, you are of course a

great writer.  I thought of you immediately the other day when I was listening to an interesting Radio Open Source show where the host and his novelist guest expressed a wish for more quality writing in the blogosphere. 

http://www.radioopensource.org/in-the-obama-moment-rick-moody-2/

Kos and Nate have their talents and a great role to play, but it's always a pleasure to read smart opinions that are also beautifully phrased.

Glad to see you getting some recognition and I hope it continues.  I have no doubt you could write for one of the famous liberal leaning magazines with great success, if that is ever something that interests you. 

 

A shout out to Mr. Wolcott

 

Mr. Wolcott,

Since you dont allow comments on your blog, I trust you have enough ego to check back here regularly to see what the commenters are adding to Al’s exuberant and justified paean to you. You write good.

About your Ghetto Blasters blog post referenced above: You wrote “the Deafening Silence being heard thus far from our grand high exalted mystic rulers” about the disproportionate Israeli bombing of the Gaza Strip; in my view the incomprehensibly cruel and sadistic treatment of the “other” that has marred Zionism since inception and used as justification for any horrible treatment of a non-Jew anywhere as long as its in the service of an Israeli narrative. 

Ditto the mainstream US press, Mr. Wolcott. Even the US blogopshere is reluctant to report the horror responsibly. Or show the photographs -- HuffPo laid one on us for 10 minutes early in the AM three days ago then reverted to the standard virile IDF soldier jumping off a tank. There are a few notable exceptions like David Bromwich, Adam Horowitz, Daniel Levy, and MJ Rosenberg, but you wont see the latter two on Meet The Press any time soon (and they should be). Or a Palestinian for that matter now that David Gregory has found religion.

I went to an Obama rally in early April or late March 2007 before Obama had a security detail, when he traveled solo, and a big crowd was filled bleachers in a school gymnasium. The black guy sitting behind me asked what I thought about Obama. I said I hoped Obama was going to be the next president; but I knew that if he won the nomination he would be president. He asked me why; what about white people. I said race has nothing to do with it, the other politicians haven’t read the mood in this country. They can’t hear it. Unless there’s a demonstration, they dont know. Unless it has a news cycle, the mood is not on their radar. Obama picked up that mood before he picked up the intricacies of internet financing.

That’s what’s happened to Israel this time around. It can’t hear the mood in this country about what it’s doing in Gaza. Israel ran a Twitter conversation on Tueday for two hours and thinks its overseas hasbara plants jolly-jumping the same old tripe -- ‘HamaHamaHamaHamas’ -- helped to make it a raving PR success; even bragged about it. [What the hey...embrace new social media and that’s all you have to do to cover up complaints of ‘massacre’ and ‘slaughter’. Slap lipstick on that piggy-wiggy. That and copious use of the ‘anti-semitism cudgel.]

But I’m hearing rage like Nancy expressed above. Real rage, the quiet type. In the back of my grocery store around the tasting center, and late at night at the bar. In line at the UPS store. I’m hearing things like “I’m a born-again Christian and I really support Israel but I can’t support this. This is wrong. Killing children, and bombing apartments.” I notice the reluctance to say too much lest the tedious anti-semitism silencer shows its metal. Which, frankly, only makes the rage more focused within.

If, as you and Raimondo suggest, this is an effort to hijack my President and pigeon-hole him into foreign policy positions that are not in our national interest but for which we still have to fork over $10 billion in one payment at the beginning of the year, then I hope Obama has the cajones to start with the dough. We just promised Gaza $85 million in foreign aid to fix that ravaged country. I say give no more than that to Israel: hit ‘em where it hurts.

Writing for the blogs has its benefits

1) He can say what he wants, when he wants, how he wants about any subject of his choice.There is no longer a need to please certain others such as editors or advertisers. And about advertisers? Most of them are glad to just get hits and business and will only object if the material is downright evil or illegal.

2) Freedom of the press now includes the money. The money he raises is his unless it goes through intermediaries-that he himself hires.

3) Freedom of location. Writing for a publication pre-net meant moving to the city of its publication and dealing with the office politics. Writing for the web can be done anywhere-on the beach, in his beloved America`. in a bar. No more office politics unless the site is an extension of a greater entity.

So I bet he would turn down more conventional press employment unless it has an expiration date on it now.

More on Gaza

Alexa.  Glenn Greenwald writing in Salon http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/ has penned a couple of recent posts on the current assault.  Today's post points out a Rasmussen Poll specific to the Gaza assault and finds Americans as a whole evenly divided as to whether it is just or not.  However there is a mirror image difference between Republicans and Democrats on the issue with Democrats overwhelmingly opposed.  Greenwald points out that the gap between congressional Democrats and rank and file is a huge gulf.  

This Rasmussen Reports poll -- the first to survey American public opinion specifically regarding the Israeli attack on Gaza -- strongly bolsters the severe disconnect I documented the other day between (a) American public opinion on U.S. policy towards Israel and (b) the consensus views expressed by America's political leadership.  Not only does Rasmussen find that Americans generally "are closely divided over whether the Jewish state should be taking military action against militants in the Gaza Strip" (44-41%, with 15% undecided), but Democratic voters overwhelmingly oppose the Israeli offensive -- by a 24-point margin (31-55%). 

In a blog entry 12-30-08 Glenwald sites an earlier poll on the conflict.  University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes -- July 1, 2008:

A new WorldPublicOpinion.org poll of 18 countries finds that in 14 of them people mostly say their government should not take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Just three countries favor taking the Palestinian side (Egypt, Iran, and Turkey) and one is divided (India). No country favors taking Israel's side, including the United States, where 71 percent favor taking neither side.

I love reading Wolcott's

I love reading Wolcott's articles. He's one of the guys I'd love to invite for a coffee and talk everything under the sun. And then, we'd phone Oprah to join us. Now, three's literally a crowd eh?

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About Al Giordano

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Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.

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