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For over forty years James Wolcott has surveyed and described the topography of an ever-changing American cultural landscape, equally at ease when discussing film, television, books, music or dance; were he a baseball player, he’d be what they call a ‘five tool player’. The fact that he has become a more-than-somewhat-popular blogger and political observer is just icing on the cake.
Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York is Wolcott’s own remembrance of things past, of dropping out of college and heading off to the big city to try his hand at the writing game:
How lucky I was, arriving in New York just as everything was about to go to hell. I had no idea how fortunate I was at the time, eaten up as I was by my own present-tense concerns and taking for granted the lively decay, the intense dissonance that seemed like normality. Only F. Scott Fitzgerald characters (those charmed particles) feel the warm gold of nostalgia even while something’s unfolding before their enraptured doll eyes. For the rest of us, it’s only later when the haze burns off, that you look back and see what you were handed, the opportunities hidden like Easter eggs that are no longer there for anybody, completely trampled. To start over as a writer then was to set out under a higher, wider, filthier, more window-lit sky. A writer could still dream of climbing to the top, or at least getting close enough to the top to see who was up there enjoying themselves.
Fondly nostalgic without ever descending into weepy misty water-colored memories, Lucking Out is populated with a who’s who of the 70′s culture explosion when a new breed of critics reinvented the rules, rock and roll collapsed inward upon itself and reemerged angry and raw, and porn stuck its head out from behind the peepshow curtains and found out that the time was right to come out and play with the non-raincoat crowd.
Beginning with the literary force of nature that was Norman Mailer whose letter of recommendation put Wolcott on the road to what should have been perdition, we also encounter Mailer’s bête noire Gore Vidal, Alfred Kazin, Groucho Marx (describing Marilyn Monroe as having “square tits”), Clay Felker, Robert Christgau (the “self-proclaimed, scepter-wielding Dean of American Rock Critics” working the kitchen like June Cleaver while wearing only a pair of red sheer bikini underwear), Ellen Willis, Paulene Kael (whose presence permeates almost every page and to whom an entire section is devoted), Lucian Truscott IV, Joan Didion (wickedly eviscerated and hung out to dry by Kael), William and Wallace Shawn, Al Goldstein, Ed Asner, James Toback, Harold Brodkey, Andrew Sarris (whose entourage played the Sharks to Kael’s Paulette-Jets in a critics dance of death), David Lynch, Suzanne Farrell, Alene Croce, George Balanchine, Gelsey (“A name that falls in the mind’s ear like a sprig of mint”) Kirkland, Ugly George (a paleolithic Joe Francis armed with a shoulder-mounted camera and a perpetual hard-on), Tom Verlaine, John Cale, David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, The Ramones, Lester Bangs, and of course, Patti Smith, with whom I will stop and share this moment in the spotlight:
…Patti already had her stage persona pencil-sharpened into a self -conscious, couldn’t-care-less wild child, playing with her zipper like a teenaged boy with a horny itch, pistoning her hips, hocking an amoeba blob of spit between songs, scratching her breast as if addressing a stray thought, and during the incantatory highs, spreading her fingers like a preacher woman summoning the spirits from the Père Lachaise graveyard where Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde were buried to rise and reclaim their former glory.
If you weren’t there, Lucking Out is as close as you will ever get…