In her memoir And So It Goes, Linda Ellerbee described her first exalted view of New York City, alighting at Kennedy Airport and cabbing it across the Triborough Bridge at sunset, ready to get out and high-kick her way across the East River while belting out “New York, New York.”
As for me, my first solo journey in the Big Apple started in the spring of 1978 with a long bus ride out of East Brunswick, after which I emerged from the Port Authority building, shaking off mild nausea and a headache from exhaust fumes, to see a barefoot derelict sipping delicately from a tall can of Budweiser and, just as delicately, puking each sip at his feet. The sidewalk behind him brought to mind the work of an incontinent Jackson Pollock, and I skipped past the splashes of color as fast as my suburban-bred white guy feet would carry me. When I think of a perfect New York song, it isn’t by Kander and Ebb — it’s by Tom Waits on Franks Wild Years, cawing “I’m gonna take you, New York!” over a skating-rink organ like one of the waterlogged specters in Carnival of Souls.
There were plenty more trips, of course. For one thing, my first Rutgers University art teacher, distressed that his students only seemed to know only the names of the dead, had decreed that we would make regular trips to the city and prowl galleries in search of works by living, breathing practitioners. New York is New York, but no matter how many times I came through (and I even came to appreciate the grindhouses of Times Square) I never thought of New York as a place I’d want to live. It was an attitude forged in the late Seventies, when the whole city seemed about to collapse into itself, and I’ve never quite shaken it.
Of course, I never arrived in the city with a note of introduction from Norman Mailer, which was the happy fate of James Wolcott, a writer whose work I’ve followed eagerly since those college days, when each new copy of the Village Voice was like a field report from a mystical land where books, music, and movies mattered more than anything else. Every week meant another trip through Riffs in search of new bands, every month another scan of Christgau’s Consumer Guide, to be followed by a visit to Cheap Thrills on George Street, with its immense import-album bin and clerks who’d been reading the exact same articles and had already anticipated the demand. Ramones! Pere Ubu! The Clash! The punks and New Wavers were all hitting the stands with their first and second albums, and fresh vinyl was more important than food.
Wolcott had a full-page perch from which to write about television, and while that may not have seemed like much of a beat back then — the networks ruled, cable TV was barely getting started, and HBO was just toddling into original programming with a National Lampoon special called Disco Beaver from Outer Space — Wolcott made it work with parodic descriptions and fizzy turns of phrase, and because his frame of reference was unbounded by the tube he was happy to comment on other matters as well. When the elephantine adaptation of Brideshead Revisited hit PBS, Wolcott closed each column with a “Brideshead Update” that red like Wodehouse on acid. Need I say that those two column inches were far more readable than Brideshead was watchable?
Wolcott was meant for bigger things, and his climb to reach them is recounted in his new book Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York, which shows that even with a note from Mailer and a spot at the table with Pauline Kael, some things about the city couldn’t be avoided:
The IRT stop closest to my Ninety-second Street apartment was a convenient four blocks north, but those four blocks often required nimble footwork and ninja awareness of impending action. So much of New York did. Most of the parks were safer walking around than through. (I was warned about venturing into Riverside Park, where, I got the impression, dead bodies were always being discovered after having rolled downhill the night before.) Entire neighborhoods were considered no-go areas where you never knew what the hell might fall from the fire escapes, and even sections of town that didn’t resemble standing rubble had stretches that you avoided, had you been properly briefed. Otherwise, you’d be walking down some leafy block, moderately carefree, turn the wrong corner, and find yourself staring down the barrel of a hostile street, forced to either retrace your steps or run for your freaky life like Cornel Wilde in The Naked Prey. It wasn’t just the criminality that kept you radar-alert, the muggings and subway-car shakedowns, it was the crazy paroxysms that punctuated the city, the sense that much of the social contract had suffered a psychotic break. That strip of upper Broadway was the open-air stage for acting-out episodes from unstable patients dumped from mental health facilities, as I discovered when I had to dodge a fully loaded garbage can flung in my direction by a middle-aged man who still had a hospital bracelet on one of his throwing arms. Then, as now, the Ninety-sixth Street crosstown nexus was an irredeemable eyesore that served as a magnet for unmanned shopping carts abandoned on their sides or commandeered as a homeless moving van. It was at the newsstand at the southwest corner of Ninety-sixth that I picked up the copy of the Daily News with the arresting headline FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD, and it was the perfect spot to receive notice of impending collapse.
Or, as the Rolling Stones said back then, sha-doo-bay, shattered.
Though Wolcott’s descriptions of the punk rock scene encrusted around CBGB make the book for me, I find that a far better soundtrack for Lucking Out is the newly reissued Rolling Stones album Some Girls, which still carries the invigorating stench of urban decay from its 1978 incarnation. As with the recent super-deluxe-wowie-zowie-bop-bam-boom edition of Exile on Main Street, there’s a whole disc’s worth of songs that didn’t make the final cut; unlike the Exile extras, which added nothing to the canon, the Some Girls discards are all keepers, and a couple of them — “Don’t Be a Stranger,” “When You’re Gone” — would have improved the original release. In fact, the entire bonus disc serves as an exemplary late-Seventies Stones album in its own right. Had it been released as the followup instead of the vapid Emotional Rescue, we all could have gone on a bit longer pretending that Some Girls was a second wind rather than the last gasp.
Anyway, back to Wolcott. His abrupt disappearance from the Voice was not entirely a surprise: he was one of those Voice writers who (like Stanley Crouch and Adolph Reed) were a little too elbows-out and independent-minded in their politics. (Imagine a Weekly Standard writer who says, openly, that Baby Bush lied us into the war and you’ll get an idea of the uncomfortable fit.) And the television column had run its course. When Wolcott devoted several weeks to diagnosing the reasons Saturday Night Live had done a nosedive, it was clear the man needed bigger pastures to frisk in. Which turned out to be The New Republic, Harper’s, The New Yorker (briefly), and Vanity Fair, where he can still be found between the celeb spreads and the perfume ads. Not the worst place to be, these days.