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Lucking Out

Lucking out

Bloggers are the bridge and tunnel kids of the modern media club scene. Sure, we pay the cover charge and provide the much-needed amplification for the really big voices (you know, the ones getting paid to riff on the digital stage) but too often we find we've been allowed past the ropes just so Lou Reed can drunkenly insult us at the bar.

In the Max's Kansas City of the left-leaning web - the actual Park Avenue premises of sainted memory being the scene of an ugly episode that a kid from Yonkers who bore a much skinnier resemblance to me endured at the pointy end of Mr. Reed's claws in 1979 - there's a gentle unpretentious fellow always leaning against the bar to welcome the teeming, blogging, linking masses from the precincts of deep Outer Blogosphere. To the authors and other "content creators" (a term that Jack Donaghy surely must have invented in some far off Liz Lemon day-dream) who have felt the critical sting of his blade over these last few decades at the Village Voice or Esquire or Vanity Fair, the name of this approachable blogging Bing Crosby  might come as a surprise.

For it is James Wolcott.

And before this post progresses too much farther, I urge you to hasten in the direction of the nearest bookshop, virtual or the kind with comfy chairs and cappuccino bars, and purchase his forthcoming 1970s memoir, Lucking Out, which I have been reading with real pleasure since the advance copy hit my mailbox last week.

To bloggers like me, and Lance Mannion, and Blue Girl, and Al Giordano, and Roy Edroso, Maud Newton, and M.A. Peel, and the Siren, and a legion of other fine voices, Wolcott's seminal Vanity Fair blog has often been the spigot that provides the attention and conversation that is the real currency we strive for in a world that undervalues both the written word and the earnest discussion. Indeed, he's served as a genial giant of the literary set, the indulgent rich uncle with a checkbook of links and kind words of encouragement.

God help the evil-doers of course. Birthers, neocons, hate-bloggers, Tea Party patsies, war-mongers, and every flavor of fake right-wing "everyman" Bill O'Reilly type known to man has suffered at the point of his pen - as the likes of Richard Ford and Jay McInerney famously have, the latter once splattered with this bloody buzz-killer: "Beware of a novel built upon a catch-phrase. A flip curl eventually loses its hold."

"I sometimes wince at the nasty incisions I inflicted on writers when I cross the line between cutup and cutthroat," Wolcott admits near the book's conclusion - knowing of course that his readers (and his editors) like a bit of blood in their dueling scenes. There are no regrets about his late political work, which has gored all manner of conservative blog wannabes; indeed the Wolcott blog drew so many of us to his virtual side in those gauzy early pre-Dean Scream days when DailyKos was in beta and everything seemed possible.

But this is a book about the 1970s, and there too, I came across James Wolcott. Well, the latter part of the 70s anyway - the dawn of the decade found me in late single digits. Actually, I barely caught the cultural wave that powers Lucking Out, the salty tsunami of music and grime that washed the florid ponderous rot out of rock and roll. But catch it I did, and the back pages of the Village Voice were where we pored over the black and white listings for Max's, CBGB, Hurrah, the Peppermint Lounge, Trax, Mudd Club, and the Ritz. Plans laid, bridges and tunnels thoroughly mapped, there might be time to read the articles and Wolcott's acerbic reviews often provided out-loud teenaged readings,  "Hey Maude, listen to this!" moments in the shotgun seat of the old Buick on the FDR Drive or the Broadway IRT.

There's a malign force closing in on Wolcott's black and white 1970s - you feel it throughout the book - and its color is  green. The 80s of Donald Trump (whose name doesn't stain this epic - no accident) ushered in a New York obsessed with real estate and wealth, and turned houses and apartments into the "outward constructs of your identity that required Hamlet-style agonizing for fear that at the root of your being, you might not be an 'uptown person.'" Money plays little role in the sweaty corners of CBGB or the back row of the screening rooms; all that matters is commitment to the written word and to a form of honest criticism that values the creation of art (widely defined) so highly that finely-sliced prose meant for reading is the only respectful way to respond. "Hanging tough is what divides the long-range dedicated from the dilettantes," writes Wolcott, recalling a ballsy and unbowed Patti Smith and her reaction to a serious career setback.

Patti is one of the many heroines in the rare I-was-there rock memoir that actually values women as real people, which discounts the studded leather jackets, sexual abuse, and back alley urination of typical 70s punk tales. Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth is another: "My crush on Tina was instantaneous. It was the only correct way to respond." And the stars of early mainstream porn are given their tender due as elegant actors in the grimy (but addictive) world of pre-Giuliani Times Square.

There are girlfriends, actresses and glammy femme rockers galore in Lucking Out, but there's only one true love affair. Jim creates a portrait of New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael that is tender and deeply personal. Matt Haber asserts that "it's one of the dirtier tricks in Lucking Out that Wolcott uses Kael to voice some of the book's most dismissive asides," but I rather think Wolcott has another goal - a second, post-millennial public life for Kael's caustic wit and rock-solid view of what makes a good flick, and what doesn't. It's true that Kael has some of the book's best lines - "I didn't want him to think I was using his racist talk as an excuse to under-tip him" says Kael about an Archie Bunker cab driver - but she's more important as the guiding muse of criticism, as the person who constructed the right literary box for Wolcott to work his four-decade magic act. His long and, it must be said, vastly entertaining story about Kael and her crowd is more than an appreciation of one the decade's great critical voices. It's a public thank you note.

Lucking Out is not the story of the 1970s. There's a lot missing: Ed Koch, the Son of Sam, the Yankees (the Mets!), black people, the outer boroughs, disco and Nixon. But it captures the creative true grit of the small town that existed within a big city so beset and grimy that "entire neighborhoods were considered no-go areas where you never knew what the hell might fall from the fire escapes." There's a wistful quality that long-ago decade of my own adolescence, but Wolcott doesn't lay on the sentimentalism and it's unlikely that Lucking Out will add too much to popular 70s lore. Which is a good thing in my mind, because we live in a society where the thin veneer of the ever-widening "creative class" has created a manufactured version of alternative lifestyle and consumption that passes for critical thought; every hipster manque with 500 clams can grab an iPad and feel like a downtown denizen, both funky and chic. As Wolcott notes, "all that lore is what made CBGB's compelling long after it became a raucous shell, and what has kept the myth of the Algonquin Round Table alive, no matter how mid-range the achievements of Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, and Robert Benchley appear today."

There is much in Lucking Out of what made popular culture today, but it's not a guidebook. It's a story, Jim Wolcott's story. And it did take part of me back to where I once belonged.

Tags: Books

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