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