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Lou Reed Rising

Naked Lunch Becomes TV Dinner: The Rise of Punk Rock

No “legendary” rock band of the 1960s has proven more legendary than the Velvet Underground. The name alone (before it was abbreviated by fans into “the Velvets”) carried a special resonance, evoking Genet decadence, whip-and-leather s&m, Warhol chic, and European ennui. And even though other urban bands (the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Rascals) were more commercially successful at the time, the best songs of the Velvets (“Sweet Jane,” “Candy Says,” “Waiting for the Man,” “Beginning to See the Light”) have an emotional texture and a sharply defined drive which propel the songs beyond the time in which they were written.

Yet when one tries to think of the Velvet Underground photographically, one draws a grainy blur. The great rock stars of the ’60s live vividly in our memories through their photos; one thinks of the Beatles first in their suit-uniforms, then in their glossy Sgt. Pepper outfits, of Hendrix in his black-nimbus Afro and layers of scarves, of countless shots of Jagger pouting and preening and hip-thrusting. Yet the Velvets, except for the imperially lovely Nico, seemed not to occupy visual space at all. Even when one listens to their live albums now, it’s impossible to imagine what they looked like playing their instruments — they don’t come into focus. This shadowiness makes the power of their music all the more provocative since it means that not theatricality but its absence is what gives that music its current urgency. The Velvets didn’t have a strong stud-star at center stage (as did the Stones and the Doors) and didn’t provide a good-vibes community atmosphere (as did the Dead and the Airplane) and didn’t attempt to stagger the audience with histrionics (as did Alice Cooper and just about everybody else). What makes the Velvets vital now is not only what they had but what they lacked: stylishness, ornamentation, politics, and a hedonistic ethos.

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I first heard the Velvet Underground in the record library of Frostburg State College in western Maryland; the album, their first (with a jacket painting by Warhol), was the only rock album in the entire collection, and that distinction intrigued me. Yet, except for their chanteuse, Nico, and her ghostfloating vocals on “Sunday Morning” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” except for Reed’s quirky phrasing and John Cale’s merciless viola on “Black Angel’s Death Song,” the music was unenthralling. The liner-note quotes about “three-ring psychosis” and “Warhol’s brutal assemblage” described a realm of experience that was for me as faraway and nocturnally exotic as Apollinaire’s Paris, or Brecht’s Berlin. At a time when the most popular bands on campus were corporate entities like Grand Funk Railroad, Chicago, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, it was difficult to connect with a band that dedicated songs to Delmore Schwartz. What I didn’t know at the time was that the Velvet Underground had already disbanded, that they had left behind not one studio album but four; only when I came to New York and discovered a dingy copy of White Light/White Heat in a Canal Street 99¢ bin did the music of the Velvets hit me with its careening bloodrushing force.

Now, three years later, their music is even more compelling. And though the Velvets were either ignored or denounced in their prime — they go undiscussed in Charlie Gillett’s The Sound of the City and Carl Belz’s The Story of Rock, and even in Stephen Koch’s vertiginously brilliant book about Warhol their music is described as “the hideous ‘acid’ maundering … of insufferable navel-gazing guitars” — it’s clear now that they were the supreme American avant-garde band. With the Warhol affiliation no longer impinging upon their aesthetic, the music can be freshly heard and appreciated for its radical primitivism. “Sister Ray” is still throbbingly dissonant, a river of electronic fever, and the best of Loaded is as vibrantly alive as if it had been recorded last week at C.B.G.B. by white-shirted kids with virginal Stratocasters. This is true precisely because the music of the Velvet Underground was in no way formally innovative. The Beatles, the Mothers of Invention, the Grateful Dead — all were more experimental, eclectic, and orchestrally inventive, yet there’s something wanly dated about their music now … it’s as pale and faded as old Peter Max posters, or discarded copies of the EVO. Once the values and sentiments of the psychedelicized counterculture lost their sway, the audaciousness of the music seemed sheer pretentiousness — intricate toys being passed off as sacerdotal gifts. The desire for community was so fervent, and the reverence for pop stars so fanatically intense, that when John Lennon sang, “I don’t believe in Elvis … don’t believe in Beatles,” people reacted as if he had said something shattering, something revolutionary. If someone next week sang, “I don’t be-Aretha … don’t believe in Roxy,” he’d earn a tempest of derisive laughter. And rightly so.

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Well, the Velvets never fell for the platitudes of transcendence (via acid) and community (via rock) which distance us from so much of the Sgt. Pepper era rock. The dynamics of the Velvets’ music — its disorderliness, loneliness, melancholy, abrupt joyfulness, claustrophobia (contrasted with the wide blue vistas of much post-Woodstock rock), chiaroscuro shadings (contrasted with the Peppery psychedelicized rainbows), antihedonism, and druggy wistfulness — are consonant with the tensions of the Ford era. Though there’s a pull of litany in their songs, the Velvets were never purveyors of salvation — they were always too thoughtful, too tentative. Their modest expectations, their distrust of charisma (both political and cultural), and their disdain for grand gestures are attitudes congruent with the apolitical politics of Jerry Brown. (Is this why Alexander Cockburn plays “Sister Ray” at least five times a day?) It’s a leaderless time, and the Velvets never believed in leaders; their music always stressed survival over community. Even their most beautiful love songs (“Pale Blue Eyes,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror”) were about the distances between people — about the inability to penetrate the mystery of the other. The drug they sang about was not a vision-inducing agent like acid, or a partytime pass-it-around substance like pot, but the drug that most completely isolates one from others: heroin. The Velvets’ music was about nihilism, the nihilism of the street, and this barely bridled energy — what John Cale called “controlled distortion” — is expressed cinematically by Martin Scorsese and Sam Peckinpah novelistically by William Burroughs, musically by post-Velvet rockers like Patti Smith (who sings “Pale Blue Eyes” more passionately than Lou Reed ever did), Roxy Music, David Bowie, the Dolls, Talking Heads, and Television.

The Heads and Television may even be more commercially successful than the Velvets originally were because both are more melodic, more visible (unobscured by multimedia effects), and more photogenic. The Heads look like a still from a Godard movie (“La Chinoise,” maybe) and Tom Verlaine looks like Artaud from Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” But since they’re as yet unsigned, the underground-rock breakthrough which is most precipitous is embodied in a wonky little wacker named Jonathan Richman, the auteur-alumnus of a Velvet-influenced band called the Modern Lovers.

This Jonathan Richman, a feral child of Rocky and Bullwinkle, will soon be shuffling his way across the FM dial and into America’s bruised bosom. Richman has already received moderate airplay and modest notoriety with his soupy contributions to Beserkley Chartbusters, Vol. 1, particularly his witty celebration of highway life called “Roadrunner,” which offers a fine antidote to Springy’s overripe imagery. An album of keen documentary interest has just been released which may make Jonathan Richman a household name in every household in which Mary Hartman is the smiling madonna. It’s called Modern Lovers and it’s a demo tape produced by ex-Velvet John Cale for a Warner Bros. album which was never made. The Velvet influence is reflected not only in the music (the organ work, for example, is strongly reminiscent of “Sister Ray”) but in the expression of angst.

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Fascinating is the contrast between the New York of Loaded and the Boston of Modern Lovers. Where the cityscape of the Velvet Underground is cluttered yet lonely, Richman’s ironic rhapsodies about Boston conjure up a city which is somnolently empty, a city visually and aurally impoverished.

I’m in love with the modern world
Massachusetts when it’s late at night
And the neon when it’s cold outside
I got the radio on
Just like a roadrunner

(“Roadrunner”/Jonathan Richman/Jonathan’s Music)

And here is Richman faced with the mysteries of amour at his local bank:

There’s only three in the other lines
In my line, well, I count eleven
Well, that’s fine cause I’m in heaven
I got a crush on the new bank teller
She looks at me and she knows

(“The New Teller”/Jonathan Richman/Jonathan Music)

Small wonder Joni Mitchell is having sleepless nights …

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Yet when Susan Sontag wrote that new art is painful because it hurts having your sensorium stretched, she was anticipating Richman’s effect. For he has an unforgettable voice: off-key, off-pitch, so achingly widehorizonly flat that it makes a Rothko painting resemble a lunar landscape by comparison. When he performed last year at C.B.G.B., he lazily strummed his acoustic guitar and yammered mindlessly on about Love, wonderful Love, and how wonderful it is to have a girlfriend to share Love in the Modern World with, strum strum strum, and after the audience gave him exaggerated bravos, he performed his special version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” for the third or fourth time.

Wedded to such an instrument of torture, Richman’s Weltschmerz-pose could make him a sui generis rock star, though we’ll have to wait until his first solo album is completed for Beserkley Records before we’ll know if he can stretch himself, or if he’s just a dandy with a gift for punky pinched irony.

Punk humor, a healthy parody of rock machismo, can be found in the music of the Dictators (who sing: “The best part of growing up/Is when I’m sick and throwing up/It’s the dues you got to pay/For eating burgers every day … “) and the leather-jacketed Ramones, in the Daffy Duckery of Patti Smith, in magazines like Punk and Creem, and in television heroes like Fonzie and Eddie Haskell. It’s a style of humor which reverses banality, thrives upon it, and enjoys juxtaposing it with high culture references in order to create a comically surreal effect.

Of course, the rock-and-roll regent of punkish irony is ex-Velvet Lou Reed whose solo albums include Transformer (with Reed’s most popular song, “Walk on the Wild Side), two live collections, Sally Can’t Dance, Berlin (my favorite Reed work, a misery-drenched masterwork: sunless, spiteful, and cold-bloodedly cruel), and Metal Machine Music, a two-record set of such triumphant unlistenability that it crowned Reed’s reputation as a master of psychopathic insolence. What Reed learned from Warhol (though he could have learned it equally well from Mailer or Capote) is careermanship: making yourself such a commanding media figure that even when your latest work is a pathetic package of retread riffs and coffee-grind lyrics, people will still be intrigued by the strategy behind it.

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In the forging of an emblematic identity, Reed not only turned himself into a clown but into a cartoon. When he played with the Velvets, he looked like a bright brooding college kid in sweater and slacks; now, in the premiere issue of Punk magazine, a hilarious interview with him is interpolated with cartoons showing him grumbling, sneering, wrecking television sets — transformed from Joe College into a metamphetamine W. C. Fields. The diva of American rock critics, Lester Bangs, has described the decline of Reed’s artistry thusly: “Lou Reed is the guy who gave dignity and poetry and rock ‘n’ roll to smack, speed, homosexuality, sadomasochism, murder, misogyny, stumblebum passivity, and suicide, and then proceeded to belie all his achievements and return to the mire by turning the whole thing into a monumental bad joke … ” Bangs sees Reed’s post-Velvet career as one long graveyard stroll, noting that after the breakup of the Velvets, “People kept expecting him to die.”

Instead, he became a death-artist, a performer in pursuit of ultimate separateness (a pursuit very much like Warhol’s futile quest for perfect pristine stillness), and after absorbing chemical cannonades which left his brain as battered as Charles Bukowski’s face, Lou Reed survived and parodied Death on the Installment Plan. “Heroin,” for example, was a song which was dropped from the Velvets repertoire for a while because too many people embraced it as being pro-smack, when in fact Reed intended the song as a sort of exorcism. Yet only a few years later Reed would not only perform “Heroin” in his solo act but would take out a syringe, wrap the microphone cord around his arm, pretend to shoot up, and hand the syringe to someone in the audience. When Cher said that the music of the Velvet Underground would replace nothing except suicide, she was unknowingly anticipating the rue-morgue antics of Lou Reed and his progeny. Just last week I heard one of New York’s underground bands, the Miamis, do a song glamorizing the La Guardia bombing incident, and at one point the lead singer proclaimed, “There’s no such thing as an innocent bystander!” Maybe he and Reed should take a ride in De Niro’s taxi …

Where Lou Reed used to stare death down (particularly in the black-blooded Berlin), he now christens random violence. Small wonder, then, that his conversation ripples with offhanded brutality: though he probably couldn’t open a package of Twinkies without his hands trembling, he enjoys babbling threats of violence. One night, when a girl at C.B.G.B. clapped loudly (and out of beat) to a Television song, Reed threatened to knock “the cunt’s head off”; she blithely ignored him, and he finally got up and left. No one takes his bluster seriously; I even know women who find his steely bitterness sexy.

After dumping all this dirt, I have to confess that this walking crystallization of cankerous cynicism possesses such legendary anticharisma that there’s something princely about him, something perversely impressive. There’s a certain rectitude in Lou Reed’s total lack of rectitude: one can imagine him sharing a piss with Celine in some smoky subterranean chamber, the two of them chuckling over each other’s lies.

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In the absence of Celine, it’s encouraging news that Reed and John Cale may soon team up again, for Cale could force Reed to exert himself, and Reed’s presence could help raise Cale’s visibility. Though Cale is currently touring with the Patti Smith Group, doing a rambunctious miniset along with the encore numbers, he’s still a tiny figure in the rock tapestry. The post-Velvet career of the classically trained Cale (he studied with Aaron Copland) has been stormy, flamboyant, and fueled by alcohol. But his output has been prolific: Vintage Violence, Church of Anthrax (with avant-garde composer Terry Riley), Fear, Slow Dazzle, and, most recently, Helen of Troy. Where Reed did his deathwalk by looking like an emaciated survivor out of The Night Porter, Cale went the rock-Dada route — performing cunnilingus on a mannequin during a concert, playing guitar in a goalie’s mask, lurching around with Frankensteinian menace. Like Reed, Cale has been treated as a joke yet, unlike Reed, his latest work is worthy of serious attention — Helen of Troy is a classic of drunken genius. The album lacks the stylishness of his earlier work and at first listen, everything seems askew — the mixing is odd (the bass dominates, the vocals seem distanced), the pacing seems muscle-pulled, the lyrics offhand then arrowy — and then the sloppiness shapes itself into force and beauty. Island Records has not yet decided whether or not to release Helen of Troy in America. Which is indecision bordering on criminal negligence. In the meantime, seek out the album through stores which deal in English imports and see if it doesn’t haunt your nights like a reeling somnambulist from the cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Indeed, the Velvets and their progeny are all children of Dr. Caligari — pale-skinned adventurers of shadowy city streets. Richard Robinson, author of The Video Primer, has a video tape which shows Lou Reed and John Cale rehearsing for a concert to be performed in Paris with Nico. After Reed runthroughs “Candy Says,” they perform “Heroin” together: Reed’s monochromatic voice, Cale’s mournful viola, the dirgeful lyrics (“heroin … be the death of me …”), the colorless bleakness of the video image … a casual rehearsal had become a drama of luminous melancholia. What was blurry before became indelibly vivid, and the Reed/Cale harlequinade melted away so that one could truly feel their power as prodigies of transfiguration. For them — as for Patti Smith, Eno, Talking Heads, and Television — electricity is the force which captures the fevers, heats, and dreamily violent rhythms of city life, expressing urban disconnectedness and transcending it. Electricity becomes the highest form of heroin … listening to the Velvets, you may have been alone, but you were never stranded.

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Truman Capote Sups on the Flesh of the Famous

Has any writer since Boswell possessed a shrewder sense of careermanship than Truman Capote? Gore Vidal expertly packages his arch, marcelled aphor­isms for television consumption, Norman Mailer at his most com­bative has an Elizabethan bravado (though Mailer of late seems sul­lenly muted), but at fashioning a persona and hustling one’s work, Capote is peerless. For almost 30 years, his image has been shaped vividly in the public conscious­ness: from the spookily precocious man-child on the jacket of Other Voices, Other Rooms to the lordly host of that celebrity-celestial party of 1966; from the video Capote, giggling grisly stories on the Tonight show to the movie Capote, swollen and tremulous in Murder by Death. Indeed, his signature mannerisms — the way he habitually wipes his eye, his flickering saurian tongue, the mewing, skinned-cat voice — have been appropriated by comedians to upholster shabby faggot jokes.

But commercial success can armor one against such whizzing arrows. In Cold Blood (of which the cover of my paperback copy shouts “Over 3,500,000 sold!”) was promoted with the tactical genius of Robert E. Lee — one critic hailed the book three years before it was published — and Capote has publicized Answered Prayers for a full decade, reportedly receiving offers of $1,500,000 for paperback rights, a toweringly handsome sum for a work not yet completed. Considering the scandal that Answered Prayers has kindled, perhaps now is an appropriate lull in which to consider it in its sections as a work of art, gossip, and autobiography. This, then, is a provisional report and as such objections can be raised against it. All objections overruled.

***

Answered Prayers, which Truman Capote has been prepar­ing since 1957, and which he once promised to complete by 1969, has thus far been published in Esquire in three installments: “Mojave” (June 1975), “La Cote Basque, 1965” (November 1975), and “Un­spoiled Monsters” (May 1976). Despite Esquire’s pompous black-limousine presentation of “Mojave” (the editors com­menced the story on the front cover), I thought it a modest but genuine accomplishment. Even with sententious dialogue — “We all, sometimes, leave each other out there under the skies. And we never understand why” — and a banal central metaphor (e.g., the Mojave Desert as the nadir of pitilessness), the story managed to suggest wisps of dread drifting through the sumptuous Beekman Place lair of the protagonists. As the husband tells the story of an old blind man abandoned by his cheat­ing wife in the desert, I heard echoes — 0f Gide, of Paul Bowles — ­and at the conclusion of this chron­icle of estrangement among the rich, one thought of John O’Hara at his terse best.

Since for my taste Capote has always written most memorably at a small scale — as in the exqui­site travel sketches of “Local Color,” the novellas “The Grass Harp” and “Breakfast at Tif­fany’s” — the lapidary delicacy of “Mojave” was pleasing. Pleasing also was the near absence of the John-Boyish nostalgia-clogged sentimentality which constitutes crowd-pleasers like “A Christmas Memory” and “A Thanksgiving Memory,” and muddies even the best passages of “Breakfast at Tif­fany’s.”

Yet one scene was troubling. Describing how the protagonist Sarah makes love to her roly-poly psychiatrist (if “Mojave” were a movie, the doctor would be played by Jack Weston), Capote writes: “To judge from appearances, orgasms were agonizing events in the life of Ezra Bentsen; he gri­maced, he ground his dentures, he whimpered like a frightened mutt… it meant soon his lathered carcass would roll off her…” Of course, compared to Updike and Roth and Mailer, Capote’s contribution to the literature of sex has been nugatory, and in journal­ism and fiction he has always been more comfortable with tomboyish heroines like Holly Golightly. Still, the gritty vividity here — grinding dentures, doggy whimpers — was a repulsive surprise. It struck one not as a Swiftian fury against the flesh, but as a wormy scorn of men and women together.

Mild it was compared to what was to come.

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***

Stanley Kauffmann noted the cinematic elements of In Cold Blood — close-ups of the Clutter family, panning shots of the Kansas landscape — and in “La Cote Basque, 1965,” the camera moves with Ophulsian fluidity from table to table, contrasting the opulence of glistening crystal glasses and extravagant dishes with the bitchy, pissy venality of the conversation. Certainly, Capote has an assassin’s gift for garroting his subjects with their own quotes: In “The Muses Are Heard,” he made easy sport of harmless philistines like Leonard Lyons and Mrs. Ira Gershwin, and in “The Duke in His Domain,” the victim was Marlon Brando. The Brando article, though smoothly, handsomely readable, is disingenuously done, not only be­cause Capote’s I-am-a-camera technique masks his own role in the action, but because under ex­amination it is his values which are twisted. As Pauline Kael noted, “Capote, in his supersophistication, kept using the most common­place, middlebrow evidence and arguments against [Brando]… [It] is he in this interview, not Brando, who equates money and success with real importance.” Years later, in a self-interview published in The Dogs Bark, Capote again ridicules Brando, but a few sentences later is this ex­change:

Q: What is the most hopeful word in any language?

A: Love.

Q: And the most dangerous?

A: Love.

This ping-ponging whimsey is dopier than any of Brando’s gas.

In “La Cote Basque, 1965,” Capote’s sense of superiority seems equally precarious. Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper and Mrs. Walter Matthau are the chattering ninnies here (the much-married GVC being so dim she doesn’t even recognize her first husband when introduced), Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and sister Lee make their obligatory entrance, the moist un­derbelly of the Beautiful-People realm is gleefully charted (there is bestiality, bloodied sheets, and murder), and what comes through is that the pulpiest mind in the room is Capote’s. It is Capote who turns La Cote Basque into an abat­toir of hatefulness; through his ventriloquial observers, Lady Ina Coolbirth and P.B. Jones, Capote scans the room with a mean white heat, leaving the air thick with the smell of roses and smegma and flesh on the fry.

There is, for example, the Jew­ish business mogul Polaroided for posterity “pumping a dark fat mouth-watering dick”; there is the governor’s wife of whom it is said, “Kissing her… was like playing post office with a dead and rotting whale: she really did need a dentist.” The faint whiff of death that rises from a cavity is present in these pages, but Capote cheats — ­just when the death smells give some intimation of the voluptuous cannibalism of the Beautiful-Peo­ple, of the rot beneath the surface of their overpampered lives, he goes cute and soft, dropping names and snotty apercus as if he were writing not a fiction but a high-so­ciety Baedeker for squares.

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I remember seeing Capote on a talk show once, regaling the audi­ence with an anecdote about a woman who never washed her hair, merely sprayed and sprayed it, then was discovered dead, stung to death… an autopsy revealed that in her bouffant nested a family of tarantulas. Though Capote writes with a nasty brilliance — his style has not withered with the years — finally that’s the effect of “La Cote Basque, 1965”: that the stories of Life-at-the-Top scummi­ness are not there to provide a glimpse into the fissures of a de­caying society (even though the last sentence strikes a twilight-of­-the-West note), or to locate the cancers which leave the BPs in a glossy Avedon-portrait desicca­tion, but exist quite simply to provide live-wire jolts of gossipy delight. In the folds of Truman Capote’s mind is where the taran­tulas are nesting.

After the firestorm controversy caused by “La Cote Basque, 1965,” a controversy splashed with gaso­line by the suicide of a woman who was portrayed in the story as a successful husband-killer, Es­quire, which has suffered dips in readership and advertising in re­cent years, went for broke with the next installment, putting Capote on the cover as a knife-caressing killer. Helpful of them. For it serves to remind us that so much of Capote’s popularity rests upon his salience as a public figure. His career began in 1948 with the publication of Other Voices, Other Rooms, a novel which linked his reputation to writers like Harper Lee (a close friend: he put her in OV, OR, she put him in To Kill a Mockingbird), Carson McCullers (another friend, until they had a falling-out), and Tennessee Williams. Compared to say, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Other Voices hasn’t held up very well — it’s a mossy, brackish Gothic soup — but Capote had the smarts to spruce up an image, saying, “it’s so important to build a career… Be seen in the right publications. Mademoiselle, Vogue.

It paid off. Even in In Cold Blood, which banishes the “I” and maintains a fake Flaubertian distance, our re­sponse is so hugely influenced by the knowledge that it is not William Bradford Huie or John Hersey doing dogged journalistic duties, but the plumed prince of Vogue. Capote gave so many in­terviews on the investigative intri­cacies of assembling In Cold Blood that it became not only a story of murder in the American heartland, but a trumpet-and-­drumroll personal achievement as well, and, indeed, an interview published in Life afterwards was called “How the ‘Smart Rascal’ Brought It Off.” Reading the book now, what Capote brought off isn’t so clear, for though it’s a work of extraordinary, even courageous diligence, it only skirts the edge of greatness. In Cold Blood is an absorbing narrative and is aston­ishingly attentive to the nuances of Kansas life, but it’s overcrammed with peripheral details, perfumed with pretty-pretty prose as alli­terative as what I’ve just written, and crippled by a moral schema which is cracked at the spine. The central tragedy of the book is not the slaughter of the Clutters but the blighted, battered life of Perry Smith; and it’s clear that the book’s title is meant to express a moral symmetry — that the execu­tion of Smith by the State is as In Cold Blood as the carnage at the Clutter farm. It’s a symmetry which I reject, but this is not the place to argue about capital punishment. What’s disturbing is not that Capote brought Perry Smith to vivid life (that’s his duty as an artist), or that he identified with Smith (who hasn’t identified with Raskolnikov?), but that the iden­tification was so passionate. Harper Lee said in an interview that “every time Truman looked at Perry he saw his own childhood,” and when Smith was executed, Capote sobbed uncontrollably for three days. In his will, Perry Smith left Capote all of his earthly pos­sessions.

Now of course the cruelties of Answered Prayers are not remotely comparable to the kill­ings of In Cold Blood, but Capote forces these associations by posing as a Galleria Jack the Ripper. After all, the most famous quote, the most famous moment, in In Cold Blood is when Smith in his confession says: “I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.” Like Hemingway, who played Papa the white-bearded Fisher-King for so long that our perception of his work is forever blurred, Capote’s black-cape role-playing compels us to see all his work in the shimmer of a poised stiletto.

“Unspoiled Monsters,” the story adorned by this cover photo, is a picaresque onward-and-upward-­with-the-arts adventure in which the autobiographical hero, P.B. Jones, moves through cultural status-sphere equipped with wit, cunning, a cock which he wields like a dildo (which is to say: with cold professional flair), a pair of nostrils sensitive to every aromat­ic hue of puke and perfume. De­spite the Smollettish skids — “I remember slipping in a mess of champagne vomit and dislocating my neck” — and the spiky digs at celebrities (Ned Rorem is “a queer Quaker,” Sartre is “Wall-eyed,” Arthur Koestler is a brute, Tennessee Williams appears as a dreamy derelict, adrift in an excremental sea), yes, despite all the flying shrapnel of Capote’s con­tempt, the narrative is sentimental at the core. P.B. Jones is, like Capote, a stray, a young man from the provinces, a changeling; Jones says of himself, “I am a whore and always have been.” Never is an artist more self-enhancingly self-deprecating than when fashioning himself as a whore, particularly since in the scheme of “Unspoiled Monsters,” all artists are whores, even Samuel Beckett, who has for his mistress a “rich and worldly Jewess.” In a meretricious world where everyone is on the make, Jones’s candor is intended to make him a whore of caliber.

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In this installment, we have a fuller introduction to the book’s cyclonic force, Kate McCloud, who appears to be a romping tomboy à la Holly Golightly, but the most important development is that the novelistic strategy of Answered Prayers is unveiled. The heroine of “Mojave” is revealed as based upon McCloud’s best friend; the masseur from that story turns up rooming at the Y in a room next to Jones’s; there is a further, if thinner, strand: the killers of In Cold Blood had not only driven through Mojave but also, in a different leg of the journey, picked up two hitchhikers, one of them an enfeebled old man. And incidents from Capote’s memoirs in The Dogs Bark — a tribute to Jane Bowles, a meeting with Colette — are interwoven with the fictional exploits of Jones, who himself is writing a book called Answered Prayers. So: in Answered Prayers, Truman Capote is writing a novel about a writer who is writing a novel called Answered Prayers.

This Chinese-box technique is, of course, not Capote’s invention. In recent novels, it has been employed by Philip Roth in My Life as a Man, Gore Vidal in Two Sisters, Norman Mailer (Charles Eitel of The Deer Park became Frankie Idell of “The Man Who Studied Yoga”) and by Nabokov in his masterpiece, Pale Fire. At issue here is not only the relationship of an artist to his work, and of the work to the artist’s reputation, but of the very elusive and allotropic nature of reality itself, which, according to Lionel Trilling is the essential quest of the novel.

Perhaps Capote can rise to greatness in such a quixotic quest — “quixotic” is here used in its ontological sense — but thus far he’s charted his course in a patronizing, connect-the-dots manner. After some musings about Proust, Jones asks, “That’s the question: is truth an illusion, or is illusion truth, or are they essentially the same?” Chirp, chirp. Yet Capote-Jones plays with a paradox, which is more illuminating: “The female impersonator is in fact a man (truth), until he recreates himself as a woman (illusion) — and of the two, the illusion is the truer.”

It’s illuminating not for its intellectual worth — which is pretty vaporous, actually — but because for me it explains what Answered Prayers is about; it’s not merely mischief and revenge, but an extended exercise in the travesties of Camp. In its celebration of the androgynous (of which, more later), its numerous breathy references to Vogue appurtenances (Verdura cuff links, Baccarat crystal paperweights), its ’70s dandyism (Sontag: “The connois­seur of Camp sniffs the stink and prides himself on his strong nerves”), Capote is creating a work of Camp at its most contrived and self-aware, a fiction so ferocious in its desire to be bitch-witty that it is pantingly overwrought.

And worse. The loathsome side of Camp’s homosexual sensibility is its ironic adoration of Woman, contemptuousness of women. In Answered Prayers so far, the only women treated chivalrously are lesbians. As for the others, well, one is described masturbating while “recalling… a pasta-bellied, whale-whanged wop picked up in Palermo and hog-fucked a hot Sicilian infinity ago?”; another is a “white-trash slut” photographed “being screwed front and back by a couple of Jockeys in Saratoga,” and of Kate McCloud it is said if she “had as many pricks sticking out of her as she’s had stuck in her, she’d look like a porcupine.” Nearly all the women are seen as spoiled, hungry gashes, and even if misogyny at its most maniacal has comic possibilities — as in the great French film Going Places — Capote’s language is so flamboyantly filthy, so baroque in its effects, that laughter is not allowed air to breathe. Something similar happened when Mailer attempted to create a scatological symphony in Why Are We in Vietnam?: as the obscenities came relentlessly crashing down on the page, it was like trying to listen Wagner with a hangover.

Musically, Capote is closer to Mendelssohn, but still. Though it is very dangerous to equate the values of a writer with his creations — too may have confused Portnoy with Roth, “Henry Miller” with Henry Miller — one can’t help but wonder why Capote is working off all this rancor. Is he telling the patronesses of the Vogue world what he really thinks of them, or does he think all human affections end in dung, or what? The strained campiness in the very marrow of the prose reduces the deaths and abandonments of Answered Prayers to ghoulish jokes — one character dies on the toilet, another is carved up by a Puerto Rican hustler, his eyeballs left dangling — and if the grotesquerie often rises (lowers?) to an amusing Terry Southern level, well, it’s not enough. The drilling message of Answered Prayers as it unfolds is that the very, very rich are different from the rest of us because they care more for the “chilled fire” of Roederer’s Cristal and the “golden rivers of egg yolk” in souffle Furstenberg than they do about the wrecked lives around them; that was the message of The Magic Christian, too, and the Camp bluster there had a more boisterous spirit. Kate McCloud is the key, for if Capote can create a heroine of dimension, an Emma (Austen’s, not Flaubert’s) who careens through society full of fire and narcissism and amphetamine, then Answered Prayers will be truly formidable, compelling phe­nomenon. But as it stands: gossip dines with Camp and sups on the flesh of the famous.

***

We could end the piece there but a word in the above sentence sticks in the writer’s throat (and craw). Guess which one. “I don’t know why Esquire asked me to write an article about gossip,” writes John Leonard in the August issue, a kittenishly naive remark for the author of This Pen for Hire. Leonard, now the Times’s cultural critic, is the perfect choice to ride to Capote’s rescue since during a four-year span he wrote over 500,000 words of review copy on sundry subjects, making him jour­nalism’s Renaissance clerk-typist. He does have a gift: he writes phrases as luminous as Cezanne apples except that, because his ideas are so shaky, they invariably go rolling off the table.

So when, to put the Capote brou­haha into perspective, Leonard proclaimed that “Novels are gos­sip,” I heard a bruising thud. And then a plunk as critical soul-mate Wilfred Sheed wrote in the Times Book Review that “From Homer to Bellow, gossip is simply what authors do, in books and out…” When one thinks of Joyce spending 17 years in the nocturnal eddies of Finnegan’s Wake, the agonies Virginia Woolf suffered in weaving the voices of The Waves, or Henry Miller joyously driving obscenity like a stake through the Puritan heart, the vulgar ridicu­lousness of the Artist as Gossip becomes transparent. Even if you elasticize the meaning of gossip as that it means all discourse on the affairs of others — a logical extrapolation of Leonard’s remark­ — then not only are novels gossip, but conversation, journalism, prayer, movies, history, philosophy (“Also Sprach Zarathustra,” anyway). Yes, “gossip is simply what writers do” coarsens the question of manners-and-morals in the novel, and violates reality, not to mention the spirit of the OED.

No writer better embodies the limitations of the gossip mentality than Henry James who, John Leonard laments, took novel-writ­ing “too seriously.” Within the pause between an offhanded remark and an uneasy gesture, James could construct (nuance upon nuance, implication upon im­plication) a shadowy cathedral of mood. Leonard, however, has his own sense of buttresses and spires. “Trust the hierarchies of gossip; like clichés, gossip connotes a vulgate wisdom, hard-won and more likely than not to consort with truth.” Surely he’s got it all wrong — more likely than not, gos­sip consorts not with truth but with truth’s leprous sister, La Factoid; and, like a cliché, is not hard-won but used lazily as a substitute for thought.

In themselves, John Leonard’s Liberace-at-the-keyboard musings are of little consequence, except as an indicator that people of intelli­gence are drawn to the notion that seriousness (even starched Jame­sian seriousness) is a virus in the culture. I think what is killing in the media is a goddam Camp frivolity that rips into people’s privacies, exploits their vulnerabi­lities with malicious gusto, and leaves them ribboned with ridi­cule. Numerous examples leap forth — Timothy Crouse’s crude snivellings about Moynihan in Rolling Stone, the cruel, leering jokes about Patty Hearst on NBC’s Saturday Night — and, in fact, in the same issue of Esquire in which “La Cote Basque, 1965” appeared there was a piece on Richard Goodwin–Doris Kearns Scandal which had the description: “Dick Goodwin is an ugly man. He has pockmarked skin, a slightly bul­bous nose, and scraggly dark hair which threatens to overrun his body.” Granted, malicious jour­nalistic caricatures of an individu­al’s physical features and manner­isms go back a long way — one wag left a hilarious description of Boswell sweatily drooling over the conversation of Dr. Johnson — but , in a celebrity-crazed time, when it is assumed that everyone who isn’t a celebrity is a future (or failed) celebrity, the attacks are wild, witless (usually), scattered and mean: thrashingly nihilistic.

Within the groans and gurgles of Answered Prayers, one can hear the tremors of this nihilism, and like Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange, Capote seems to be grooving with the circus debauchery. Just as Kubrick’s operatic salaciousness gave lie to the plati­tudes about the movie being about the triumph-of-the-human-spirit, Capote’s pornographic obsessive­ness gives lie to all the cant from Esquire about Answered Prayers being a “Proustian” work — the question is whether or not Capote will reveal the nature of that obsession, or if he’ll simply continue in this picaresque-porno manner, allowing his hero to screw and slash his way through society like some gay-blade Perry Smith.

Incalculable are the pressures on Capote now, considering the damage that he’s done, consider­ing the oceanic expectations held for future installments; he’s either in cold sweats or cackling with a satanic glee at the disarray he’s caused. With the ascendance of the gossip aesthetic, his dirty-boy debauchery may lift him to a lofty position in the culture: high he can perch, hissing, smirking, grinning like a gargoyle above the gothic ruins.

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Underground Rock: Walk on the Wild Side

Walk on the Wild Side (And Don’t Forget Your Mastercharge)
July 12, 1976

Of course the truly cool and satori-graced visitors who conven­tion-cavort in New York will stay in their hotel rooms and watch Joe Franklin — Franklin being the show-biz equivalent to a Zen master: his questions could make Robert Pirsig crash his cycle into a tree — rather than have their eyes, ears, and nostrils (particularly the nostrils) assaulted by the mongrel heat of the dog days. Yet, some demented souls will insist upon exploring the city in search of underground pleasures, pleasures which have been conjured up in their fevered imaginations by Grove Press novels they road in college. Some will even venture into the Anvil, a boys’ club for budding De Sades, with their Instamatics.…

Being a timorous, gentle soul (I don’t kill cockroaches, I lecture them), I don’t take Travis Bickle Culture Club tours through the intestinal tracts of the rotting metropolis, through the neon worminess of Times Square (where porn star Terri Hall is the patron saint) or the Ganges of garbage that is the Lower East Side or the leather-Nazi bulging crotch homo-Superman haven of Christopher Street… my own neighborhood looks like Wino Gulch… no, I’d rather stay home and make sculpture out of watermelon rinds. However, I can provide a dilettan­tish guide to underground theatrics and atmospherics for those who want to wade ankle-deep into the nocturnal currents.

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For underground rock music, there’s Max’s (17th Street and Park Avenue South, 777-7880), Club 82 (82 East 4th Street, 477-1046 or 477-0820), Zeppz (267 West 23rd Street), and CBGB (315 Bowery at Bleecker, 982-4052); they all present T-shirted musical prodigies who write songs like “l’d Rather Slash My Wrists and Cut My Throat Than Spend the Night With You,” “Tricks Are for Kids,” and “We Need a Better Navy,” and perform with an evangelical zeal which could make rockers out of the editors of Commonweal. In winter, dress at these places is rococo casual — Wayne County, a drag-queen performer who writes a funny column for Rock Scene, has said that to truly achieve the CBGB look, you let a blind man go berserk in a thrift shop. But during the summer, it’s functional casual that prevails. Cheap clothes, but chic, and not too chic… under­stated, that is. It isn’t inverse snobbery, or slumming: Most of the people here buy their clothes at army-navy stores or Canal Street shops because they can’t afford to buy clothes at Barney’s. Most of the band members are in debt and many (most?) of the customers are unemployed. So if you — and I mean you, nervous thrill-seeking Udall delegate — go strolling into these places in your clean Levis and rolled up copy of Cue in your back pocket, you won’t get a hostile glare (nobody cares that much) but you might feel a certain vague peripheral annoyance. To prevent this carry a copy of Punk as a Disdain Repellent.

As far as atmosphere is concerned, Zeppz and Max’s are rather vacant, or, more precisely, the atmosphere is made by the band that is playing there. A good band, good vibes; a lousy band, Yawnsville. Club 82 has atmosphere but it’s the result of interior decoration which could best be described as Glitzy Baroque: leafy ornamentations on the pillars, wall-sized mirrors, strobe lights, hanging mirrored balls which give off swirling atoms of light — a bespangled-funhouse. But nobody’s laughing. It’s actually more comfortable for the musicians, because they have a performing space which allows a lot of room for lurching and mike-twirling.

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The performing area at CBGB is about as wide as a tatami mat but the walls reverberate with History. If Hart Crane were alive today, he would still live at the Chelsea Hotel but he would spend his evenings at CBGB, he and his sailor friends swaying to the music of Television, Talking Heads, Ramones, Mink de Ville, and the Harry Von Well Blues Band. Be sure to visit the bathrooms because someday the panels will be removed and donated to the Louvre.

Sex, soft-core style, can be found by the rock-loathing thrill-seeker at a place called the Project, (127 Grand Street; 580-9119) where for $5 sexual fantasies are dramatized (the money goes for a good cause: to find a Korean fami­ly who will adopt WOR’s Barry Farber). The fantasies are really tacky, they’ll make oatmeal out of your hormones. They’re on this level: A man walks into his kitch­en, finds a woman in his freezer; he tries to thaw her out with popsicle licks and she melts into the linoleum. Lights out. Did that turn you on? (Boy, are you sick.) Afterward, people stick around and actually discuss the perform­ances and the pyschodynamics of the fantasies and it’s like a pseudocourse at the New School. Titillation and mastication all in one package. Still, as jive entertainment it beats “California Suite” (Walter Kerr really lost his mind over that one) and some of  the fantasies do have a Venus in Furs seediness which might send an erotic tingle into your neocortex. Those who are truly Apollinairely decadent will then head down to Night Court and watch irritable whores arraigned before a bleary-eyed judge… it’s the nadir of the underground nadir. It’s a page that Travis Bickle left out of his diary, it’s a.…

This Baedeker is making tapioca out of my mind; maybe I’ll just make an igloo out of those melon rinds and hide out until this whole thing blows over. And reflect upon true decadent protozoa, like Sarah Miles… John Davidson.…

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A Conservative Impulse in the New Rock Underground

A Conservative Impulse in the New Rock Underground
August 18, 1975

Arabian swelter, and with the air-conditioning broken, CBGB resembled some abattoir of a kitchen in which a bucket of ice is placed in front of a fan to cool the room off. To no avail of course, and the heat had perspiration glissading down the curve of one’s back, yeah, and the cruel heat also burned away any sense of glamour. After all, CBGB’s Bowery and Bleecker location is not the garden spot of lower Manhattan, and the bar itself is an uneasy oasis. On the left, where the couples are, tables; on the right, where the stragglers, drinkers, and the love-seekers are, a long bar; between the two, a high double-backed ladder, which, when the room is really crowded, offers the best view. If your bladder sends a distress signal, write home to mother, for you must make a perilous journey down the aisle between seating area and bar, not knock over any mike stands as you slide by the tiny stage, squeeze through the piles of amplifiers, duck the elbow thrust of a pool player leaning over to make a shot… and then you end up in an illustrated bathroom which looks like a page that didn’t make “The Faith of Graffiti.”

Now consider the assembly-line presentation of bands with resonant names like Movies, Tuff Darts, Blondie, Stagger Lee, the Heartbreakers, Mike de Ville, Dancer, the Shirts, Bananas, Talking Heads, Johnny’s Dance Band, and Television; consider that some nights as many as six bands perform, and it isn’t hard to comprehend someone declining to sit through a long evening. When the air gets thick with noise and smoke, even the most committed of us long to slake our thirst in front of a Johnny Carson monologue, the quintessential experience of bourgeois cool.

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So those who stayed away are not to be chastised, except for a lack of adventurousness. And yet they missed perhaps the most important event in New York rock since the Velvet Underground played the Balloon Farm: CBGB’s three-week festival of the best underground (i.e., unrecorded) bands. The very unpretentiousness of the bands’ style of musical attack represented a counterthrust to the prevailing baroque theatricality of rock. In opposition to that theatricality, this was a music which suggested a resurgence of communal faith.

So this was an event of importance but not of flash. Hardly any groupies or bopperettes showed up, nor did platoons of rock writers with their sensibilities tuned into Radio Free Zeitgeist brave the near satanic humidity. When the room was packed, as it often was, it was packed with musicians and their girlfriends, couples on dates, friends and relatives of band members, and CBGB regulars, all dressed in denims and loose-fitting shirts — sartorial-style courtesy of Canal Jeans. The scenemakers and chic-obsessed were elsewhere. Where? “At Ashley’s,” sneered one band member.

Understandable. Rock simple isn’t the brightest light in the pleasure dome any longer (my guess is that dance is), and Don Kirschner’s “Rock Awards” only verifies the obvious: rock is getting as arthritic, or at least as phlegmatic, as a rich old whore. It isn’t only that the enthusiasm over the Stones tour seems strained and synthetic, or that the Beach Boys can’t seem able to release new material until Brian Wilson conquers his weight problem, or that the album of the year is a collection of basement tapes made in 1967. “The real truth as I see it,” said the Who’s Peter Townshend recently, “is that rock music as it was is not really contemporary to these times. It’s really the music of yesteryear.”

He’s right and yet wrong. What’s changed is the nature of the impulse to create rock. No longer is the impulse revolutionary — i.e., the transformation of oneself and society — but conservative: to carry on the rock tradition. To borrow from Eliot, a rocker now needs a historical sense; he performs “not merely with his own generation in his bones” but with the knowledge that all of pop culture forms a “simultaneous order.” The landscape is no longer virginal — markers and tracks have been left by, among others, Elvis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and the Beatles — and it exists not to be transformed but cultivated.

No, I’m not saying that everyone down at CBGB’s is a farmer. Must you take me so literally? But there is original vision there, and what the place itself is doing is quite extraordinary: putting on bands as if the stage were a cable television station. Public access rock. Of course, not every band which auditions gets to play, but the proprietor, Hilly, must have a wide latitude of taste since the variety and quality of talent ranges from the great to the God-condemned. As with cable TV, what you get is not high-gloss professionalism but talent still working at the basics; the excitement (which borders on comedy) is watching a band with a unique approach try to articulate its vision and still remember the chords.

Television was once such a band: the first time I saw them everything was wrong — the vocals were too raw, the guitar work was relentlessly bad, the drummer wouldn’t leave his cymbals alone. They were lousy all right but their lousiness had a forceful dissonance reminiscent of the Stones’ “Exile on Main Street,” and clearly Tom Verlaine was a presence to be reckoned with.

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He has frequently been compared to Lou Reed in the Velvet days, but he most reminds me of Keith Richard. The blood-drained bone-weary Keith on stage at Madison Square Garden is the perfect symbol of Rock ’75, not playing at his best, sometimes not even playing competently, but rocking swaying back and forth as if the night might be his last and it’s better to stand than fall. Though Jagger is dangerously close to becoming Maria Callas, Keith, with his lanky grace and obsidian-eyed menace, is the perpetual outsider. I don’t know any rock lover who doesn’t love Keith; he’s the star who’s always at the edge and yet occupies the center.

Tom Verlaine occupies the same dreamy realm, like Keith, he’s pale and aloof. He seems lost in a forest of silence and he says about performing that “if I’m thinking up there, I’m not having a good night.” Only recently has the band’s technique been up to Verlaine’s reveries and their set at the CBGB festival was the best I’ve ever seen: dramatic, tense, tender (“Hard on Love”), athletic (“Kingdom Come”), with Verlaine in solid voice and the band playing as a band and not as four individuals with instruments. Verlaine once told me that one of the best things about the Beatles was the way they could shout out harmonies and make them sound intimate, and that’s what Television had that night: loud intimacy.

When Tom graduated from high school back in Delaware he was voted “most unknown” by his senior class. As if in revenge, he chose the name Verlaine, much as Patti Smith often invokes the name Rimbaud. He came to New York, spent seven years writing fiction, formed a group called Neon Boys, then Television. The name suggests an aesthetic of accessibility and choice. It also suggests Tom’s adapted initials: T.V.

“I left Delaware because no one wanted to form a band there,” he says. “Then I came to New York and no one wanted to form a band here either.” Verlaine came to New York for the same reason every street-smart artist comes to New York — because it’s the big league — even though he realizes “New York is not a great rock and roll town.”

Still, they continue to arrive: Martina Weymouth, bassist, born in California; Chris Frantz, drummer, in Kentucky; David Byrne, singer and guitarist, Scotland. All attended the Rhode Island School of Design, and according to their bio, “now launching career in New York” — a sonorous announcement, yes?

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These people call themselves Talking Heads. Seeing them for the first time is transfixing: Frantz is so far back on drums that it sounds as if he’s playing in the next room; Weymouth, who could pass as Suzy Quatro’s sorority sister, stands rooted to the floor, her head doing an oscillating-fan swivel; the object of her swivel is David Byrne, who has a little-boy-lost-at-the-zoo voice and the demeanor of someone who’s spent the last half hour whirling around in a spin dryer. When his eyes start Ping-Ponging in his head, he looks like a cartoon of a chipmunk from Mars. The song titles aren’t tethered to conventionality either: “Psycho Killer” (which goes “Psycho Killer, qu’est-ce c’est? Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa”), “The Girls Want to Be With the Girls,” “Love is Like a Building on Fire,” plus a cover version of that schlock classic by ? and the Mysterians, “96 Tears.”

Love at first sight it isn’t.

But repeated viewing (precise word) reveal Talking Heads to be one of the most intriguingly off-the-wall bands in New York. Musically, they’re minimalists: Byrne’s guitar playing is like a charcoal pencil scratching a scene on a note pad. The songs are spined by Weymouth’s bass playing which, in contrast to the glottal buzz of most rock bass work, is hard and articulate — the bass lines provide hook as well as bottom. Visually, the band is perfect for the table-TV format at CBGB; they present a clean, flat image, devoid of fine shading and color. They are consciously antimythic in stance. A line from their bio: “The image we present along with our songs is what we are really like.”

Talking to them, it becomes apparent that though they deny antecedents — “We would rather achieve a ‘new’ sound rather than be compared to bands of the past” — they are children of the communal rock ethic. They live together, melting the distinction between art and life, and went into rock because as art it is more “accessible.” They have an astute sense of aesthetic consumerism, yet they’re not entirely under the Warholian sway for as one of them told me, “We don’t want to be famous for the sake of being famous.” Of all the groups I’ve seen at CBGB, Talking Heads is the closest to a neo-Velvet band, and they represent a dis­tillation of that sensibility, what John Cale once called “controlled distortion.” When the Velvets made their reputation at the Balloon Farm they were navigating through a storm of multimedia effects: mirrors, blinking lights, strobes, projected film images. Talking Heads works without paraphernalia in a cavernous room projecting light like a television located at the end of a long dark hall. The difference between the Velvets and Talking Heads is the difference between phosphorescence and cold gray TV light. These people understand that an entire generation has grown up on the nourishment of television’s accessible banality. What they’re doing is presenting a banal facade under which run ripples of violence and squalls of frustration — the id of the vid.

David Byrne sings tonelessly but its effect is all the more ominous. This uneasy alliance between composure and breakdown — be­tween outward acceptance and inward com­ing-apart — is what makes Talking Heads such a central ’70s band. A quote from ex-Velvet John Cale: “What we try to get here (at the Balloon Farm) is a sense of total involvement.” Nineteen sixty-six. But what bands like Television and Talking Heads are doing is ameliorating the post-’60s hangover by giving us a sense of detachment. We’ve passed through the Dionysian storm and now it’s time to nurse private wounds. Says Tina Weymouth, quite simply: “Rock isn’t a noble cause.”

***

More than 30 bands played at the CBGB festival. There seemed to be a lot of women in these groups, and none of them were backup singers. I asked Tina (who once introduced herself as a “bassperson”) whether it was difficult to work with men in a band, and she gave me a look which said, “Don’t you have any better questions to ask?” Albeit, here are some additional notes on the musicianpersons I saw performing during the three weeks:

The Shirts. Annie Golden, lead singer of this Park Slope septet, is a self-proclaimed “street punk.” Her hard-skiing voice is the chief attraction in this technically proficient and equipment-abundant group (on stage they refer to themselves as the Average Cramped Band). They share an artistic commune in Brooklyn and the salient virtue of the band is that the sense of compan­ionship comes through in the texture of the music. The very chords seem bonds of friendship.

The Heartbreakers. Totally different problem here. This band has rockers who have made names for themselves — Jerry Nolan and Johnny Thunders formerly of the New York Dolls, Richard Hell formerly of Television — and the place was crowded with other band members curious about how they would/wouldn’t resemble the Dolls. By the third song, when it was clear they weren’t the Dolls redux, people began streaming out. Actually, they weren’t that bad, certainly better than the advance reports. They’ve managed to give their don’t-give-a-fuck crumminess a certain coherence, and they know how to draw the groupies (no small consideration for a beginning outfit). In rock, talent is only half of it. Sometimes not even that much.

Ruby and the Rednecks. Ruby threw out an oversized teddy bear, shrieked, stomped on the bear, kicked it, clawed at the audi­ence, while her claque (from Interview Magazine I was told) roared back their delight. Meanwhile, Michael Goldstein, of the Soho Weekly News, was telling Tina Weymouth, Trixie A. Balm, and myself that Ruby was going to make it big because she has what it takes. To quote Chico Marx, she can keep it.

Bananas. They’re very melodic, I said. That’s because they’re British, said a corre­spondent from Melody Maker. Actually, they’re Irish. Which doesn’t make them any less good.

Blondie. Someone ought to tell the gui­tarist that the way to sing harmony is to sing into the microphone.

The Ramones. The Ramones recently opened at a Johnny Winter concert and had to dodge flying bottles. During one of their CBGB sets, they had equipment screw-ups and Dee Dee Ramone stopped singing and gripped his head as if he were going to explode and Tommy Ramone smashed the cymbal shouting, “What the FUCK’s wrong? ” They went offstage steaming, then came back and ripped into “Judy Is a Punk.” A killer band.

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***

“Playing with a band is the greatest way of feeling alive,” says Tom Verlaine. But the pressures in New York against such an effort — few places to play, media indif­ference, the compulsively upward pace of city life — are awesome. Moreover, the tra­vails of a rock band are rooted in a deeper problem: the difficulty of collaborative art. Rock bands flourished in the ’60s when there was a genuine faith in the efficacious beauty of communal activity, when the belief was that togetherness meant strength. It was more than a matter of “belonging”: it meant that one could create art with friends. Play­ing with a band meant art with sacrifice, but without suffering; Romantic intensity with­out Romantic solitude.

What CBGB is trying to do is nothing less than to restore that spirit as a force in rock and roll. One is left speculating about success: Will any of the bands who play there ever amount to anything more than a cheap evening of rock and roll? Is public access merely an attitude to be discarded once stardom seems possible, or will it sustain itself beyond the first recording contract? I don’t know, and in the deepest sense, don’t care. These bands don’t have to be the vanguard in order to satisfy. In a cheering Velvets song, Lou Reed sings: “A little wine in the morning, and some breakfast at night/Well, I’m beginning to see the light.” And that’s what rock gives: small unconven­tional pleasures which lead to moments of perception.

Flashes like: the way Johnny Ramone slouches behind his guitar, Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye singing “Don’t Fuck With Love,” on the sidewalk in front of CBGB’s, the Shirts shouting in unison in their finale number, Tina Weymouth’s tough sliding bass on “Tentative Decisions,” the way Tom Verlaine says “just the facts” in “Prove It.” One’s affection goes out to Lou Reed, for such moments are like wine in the morning. Shared wine.

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When Bob Dylan Called on Patti Smith

Tarantula Meets Mustang

A copy of “Witt” was slid across the table to Patti Smith. “Would you sign this for me, please?” “Sure,” said Patti, “what’s your first name?” He told her. “Like in New Jersey?” Patti asked, and he said no: with a z. “Well, I’ll draw you a map of Jersey,” and so on the inside page Patti scratched its intestinal boundaries, in the middle labeled it Neo Jersey, signed her name, and passed the copy of “Witt” back to Jerzy Kosinski.

The night before, after the second set at the Other End, the greenroom door opened and the remark hanging in the air was Bob Dylan asking a member of Patti’s band, “You’ve never been to New Jersey?” So, all hail Jersey. And in honor of Dylan’s own flair for geographical salutation (“So long New York, hello East Orange”), all hail the Rock and Roll Republic of New York. With the Rolling Stones holding out at Madison Square Garden, Patti Smith and her band at the Other End, and Bob Dylan making visitations to both events, New York was once again the world’s Rock and Roll Republic.

Patti Smith had a special Rimbaud-emblematized statement printed up in honor of Stones week, and when her band went into its version of “Time Is on My Side” (yes it is), she unbuttoned her blouse to reveal a Keith Richard T-shirt beneath. On the opening night she was tearing into each song and even those somewhat used to her galloping id were puzzled by lines like “You gotta a lotta nerve sayin’ you won’t be my parking meter.” Unknown to many in the audience, parked in the back of the room, his meter running a little quick, was the legendary Bobby D. himself. Dylan, despite his wary, quintessential cool, was giving the already highly charged room an extra layer of electricity and Patti, intoxicated by the atmosphere, rocked with stallion abandon. She was positively playing to Dylan, like Keith Carradine played to Lily Tomlin in the club scene from Nashville. But Dylan is an expert in gamesman­ship, and he sat there, crossing and uncrossing his legs, playing back.

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Afterwards, Dylan went backstage to introduce himself to Patti. He looked healthy, modestly relaxed (though his eyes never stopped burning with cool-blue fire), of un­imposing physicality, yet the corporeal Dylan can never be separated from the mythic Dylan, and it’s that other Dylan — the brooding, volatile, poet-star of “Don’t Look Back” — who heightens or destroys the mood of a room with the tiniest of gestures. So despite Dylan’s casual gracious­ness, everyone was excitedly unsettled.

And there was a sexual excitation in the room as well. Bob Dylan, the verdict was unanimous, is an intensely sexu­ally provocateur — “he really got me below the belt,” one of the women in the room said later. Understand, Dylan wasn’t egregiously coming on — he didn’t have to. For the sharp-pencil, slightly petulant vocals on “Blood on the Tracks” hardly prepared one for the warm, soft-bed tone of his speaking voice: the message driven home with that Dylan offhand is still Dylan compelling. So with just small talk he had us all subdued, even Patti, though when the photographers’ popping flashbulbs began, she laughing­ly pushed him aside, saying, “Fuck you, then take my picture, boys.” Dylan smiled and swayed away.

The party soon broke up — Dylan had given his encouragement to Patti, the rest of us had a glimpse from some future version of “Don’t Look Back” (but with a different star) — and the speculation about Dylan’s visit commenced. What did his casual benediction signify?

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Probably nothing, was the reasonable answer. But such sensible explanations are unsatisfying, not only because it’s a waste of Dylan’s mystique to interpret his movies on the most prosaic level, but because the four-day engagement at the Other End convincingly demonstrated that Patti and the band are no small-time cult phenomenon. Not only was Patti in good voice, but the band is extending itself confidently. Jay Doherty, the newly acquired drummer (he played with Lance Loud’s group and lived to tell the tale), provides rhythmic heat, and Lenny Kaye has improved markedly on guitar — his solo on “Time Is on My Side” for example moves Keith Richard riffing to Verlaine slashing. The band’s technical improvement has helped revivify the repertoire: “Break It Up” is now more sharply focused, “Piss Factory” is dramatically jazzy, and their anthem, “Gloria,” ends the evening crashingly. Missing were “Free Money,” and “Land” — the Peckinpahesque cinematic ver­sion of “Land of 1000 Dances” — which is being saved for the forthcoming album.

Something is definitely going on here and I think I know what it is. During one of her sets Patti made the seemingly disconnected remark, “Don’t give up on Arnie Palmer.” But when the laughter subsided, she added, “The greats are still the greatest.” Yes, of course! All her life Patti Smith has had rock and roll in her blood — she has been, like the rest of us, a fan; this is part of her connection with her audience — and now she’s returning what rock has given her with the full force of her love. Perhaps Dylan perceives that this passion is a planet wave of no small sweep. Yet what I cherished most about Patti’s engagement was not the pounding rock-and-roll intensity but a throwaway gesture of camaraderie. When Lenny Kaye was having difficulty setting up his guitar between numbers, Patti paced around, joked around, scratched her stomach, scratched her hair­ — still Kaye was not quite ready. “I don’t really mind,” she told the audience. “I mean, Mick would wait all night for Keith.”

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Q&A: James Wolcott on Lucking Out’s New York City, “Bloomberg’s City,” and TV and Internet Culture

James Wolcott dropped out of college and left Maryland in 1972 with eyes full of literary dreams and a letter of recommendation from Norman Mailer in his pocket. He wanted to be a writer, so he did the only logical thing that all young, aspiring artists do. He moved to New York City.

He quickly realized that things might be a little more challenging than expected. After interviewing for a nonexistent position at The Village Voice, even with Mailer’s stamp of approval, he failed to impress editors. But he didn’t get discouraged. Rather than run back home, Wolcott physically just hung out around the Voice offices while looking for work, dropping in “randomly” to see if he could pick up an assignment. Eventually, he snagged one and talked his way onto the payroll by working in circulation. Soon, he’d be churning out pieces about late ’70s culture in New York, writing about rock music, books, theater, and more, befriending Pauline Kael, Patti Smith, and many other members of the scene. His memoir, Lucking Out (Anchor), which gets its paperback release today, tells the story of that time in New York and how it shaped him. Wolcott spoke with the Voice over the phone while spending time by the Jersey Shore due to some apartment renovation. He chatted about being broke in New York, the current restructuring of The Village Voice, and how technology has shaped counterculture journalism.

Your book came out right around the same time as other books about ’70s in New York, like Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Will Hermes’s Love Goes to Buildings on Fire. Was that just a coincidence?
I think part of it is that there’s a sense that the city has really changed in ways that it’s not going back to—in that it was hospitable to all kinds of ground-up movements and general funky experimentation that it just isn’t anymore, because real estate is just too expensive. It just is gone. The sense of when people come to New York now, it’s very much a Bloomberg city.

What do you mean by “Bloomberg city”?
Well, it’s just so expensive, and the neighborhoods are kind of blending into each other. In the ’70s and ’80s, neighborhoods had very distinct identities. Soho was a very distinct thing, and now Soho has the same kind of high-end stores that other neighborhoods have. Tribeca is not that much different. There are pockets, but, you now the fact is—it’s a cliche that everybody brings up, but it’s true—every block has a Duane Reade and its two banks. I moved to Washington Heights a little while ago, and it’s very, very local, but the big thing they’re building right now is one of those TD Banks. It’s this huge space in the middle of these little funky bodegas and restaurants. Now it’s spreading north. Another thing it reflects is that everyone now feels like Brooklyn is the place where things are happening.

I live in Brooklyn, and there still is that feeling of “moving to New York to make it” among young people.
I was in Williamsburg [recently], and you could see it was a lot of hole-in-the-wall places, strange little antique places next to makeshift art galleries and little restaurants, and it reminded me a lot more of the East Village when I came to New York—although the East Village minus the menace and the heavy drugs.

What characteristics has the city lost with the “menace” you mention disappearing?
I think the ability to live cheaply and kind of figure things out as you went along. It was much easier to live without any kind of major income back then. In New York now, unless you have family money, if you don’t have a good job or you’re not making much money, you’re not going to last very long. It’s not like when people used to be able to crash at one person’s place and then another and move around. There was a lot more cross-breeding of artistic forms and artistic sensibilities. In the East Village and the Village itself, there was a lot of crossover between the art people, the rock people. Patti Smith is a good example of that. Somebody who was working in a lot of different genres. Now it feels like when people come in, they’ve got their discipline, they’ve got their path, and that’s what they’re going to stick to.

What did being broke and young in New York in the late ’70s teach you about yourself? What are you concerned is lost with the new generation?
There is so much more consciousness about money. It’s much more on people’s minds. People needed money to get by, but they didn’t think about money all the time, like it was a subject or an atmospheric thing. I don’t recall obsessing about money. Except for people needing to maybe borrow cab fare or something, I don’t recall anybody ever really having intense money conversations.

It’s funny, I feel like most of the conversations with my friends revolve around being broke.
People didn’t have a lot of money, but because the rents were cheaper, the overhead of living in the city was less… you know, you just didn’t have that anxiety all the time. Like, suppose I don’t make this month’s rent? I’m amazed that people can get by now. I don’t know how they do it. And I guess a lot, just, don’t.

What were some of the expectations you had about New York before you arrived, and how did that mesh with reality?
I never really had a romanticized view of it, because at that point New York was in such terrible condition. A lot of my sense of New York came out of Johnny Carson monologues. It was always about muggers, about Central Park. I remember a piece in The Village Voice when I was early on there about spending the night in Central Park. And I think it was a cover story. That’s how dangerous it was. When I came to the city, you were told, “Do not go to most of Riverside Park at night. Do not cross this part of Union Square Park.” So I didn’t have a terribly romanticized idea of the city at all, but what I did romanticize was I thought that, based on movies I saw, the literary world was going to be this glittering, witty, sharp place. Instead, you realize, no, it was just jockeying for power and possession. It wasn’t people holding drinks in their hands saying witty things. Sometimes when you met people you looked up to, it was [disappointing.] Like, this is it? All they are doing is complaining about the food.

There are phrases tucked throughout the book that seem to be social commentaries on, not only the direction of young writers, but the direction of young culture in New York. “Nothing makes writers happy very long,” or “That’s why we’re all so lonely,” in a reference to editing on computers all the time.
There really is no mentoring. I don’t even know if I’d call what I got mentoring, but I certainly got really, really good editing. There were certainly people who were mentored. There is a whole group of writers who, in a sense, were mentored by Bob Christgau. Mind you, that’s a positive and a negative aspect. I’m sure they were slapped down like bear cubs every once and awhile. But there was that sense. There’s a much greater sense now that you’re totally on your own. You’re totally a freelancer.

What impact does that have?
It means you don’t really have a grasp as to where the next thing is coming from. If you’re starting out as a freelancer, you can hope that you do enough freelance work and, back then at least, some magazine would pick you up. There was almost a ladder, a progression, where if you got a lot of attention in the Voice, this other magazine might pick up on you. That’s what happened with me. I wrote for the Voice, but then Esquire hired me, and Harpers. Now, no one is hiring basically. No matter how well you do, it’s very iffy whether or not you’ll get any type of regular gig. I think it makes people feel like they’re constantly starting over and at square one. Also, the other thing is that when I started out, we didn’t have Twitter or Facebook or any social media. There was no way you could dissolve yourself into that. Every writer has their procrastination habits, but now these make it even more insidious because you’re procrastinating, but you can also tell yourself that you’re writing. It makes people feel, kind of, “Where does it go?” I think what happens now is people are hoping that they do freelance, get enough attention, and then maybe they get a book contract. But of course, those aren’t the money they used to be. I’ve been very fortunate because I’ve always been based in some magazine. But a lot of people I know who used to be based in a magazine, they got let go and now they’re freelancing in their forties, fifties, and sixties, and they’re not going to pick up that much work.

How have you seen social media affect readers of counterculture journalism?
I think it’s pretty much killed investigative reporting, because now no one has the resources to do it, so you get a lot more opinion stuff. On the most basic level, I find that because I read so quickly online, I have to be really careful because, now, I tend to drop words out of sentences. It’s like my brain is doing shorthand and jumping ahead. If you do a lot of texting and emailing, it’s very easy to start writing in code. That can be a real problem.

What kind of code?
You’re assuming that everybody knows certain shorthand phrases. Twitter is full of loaded phrases and catchphrases, and so it’s very easy to fall into that, and not write more formal writing. It’s also a real temptation to have a very splintered approach. You’re attacking something from this angle, but you’re not building a whole, like a writer like John McPhee or others who really assemble a piece. You don’t really see the structure, but it’s there. Writing on the Internet can really dissolve structure and turn everything into assertion. Plus, a lot of people get sucked into battles on Facebook and Twitter that are going to do them no good. It’s not like you’re arguing something out in The New York Times, where a lot of people are going to see it. It basically becomes a series of running feuds. I’ve seen so many people get sidetracked, and you can tell they’re spending their whole afternoon in a state of indignation on Twitter, firing back at people. It’s not going to do you any good, and on the most basic level, you have to say, “Am I going to make any money? If I need to write for money, how is arguing with a guy with a semi-obscene nickname on Twitter with 48 followers going to help me? What is the point?”

In the old days of the Voice, there were battles and they were sorted out in the pages of the paper, which was more entertaining, the letters section. Now, especially with the way that Twitter is structured, if you haven’t been following the whole thread, you don’t even know quite what the argument is about because you have to go all the way back to the origin, and even then you might not understand. I think there has been a great splintering of attention, and splintering of time, and I’m guilty of it too.

How did starting your career at The Village Voice shape the way you think?
It taught me what works with readers and what doesn’t. There was a lot of great immediate feedback from Voice readers. You could tell right away whether or not you were connecting. I mention in the book how it taught me how you gotta really start a piece off with a bang. Not a gimmicky opening, but you’ve got to make the reader care at the very outset for what you’re doing. And another thing, because there were such different types [of people] at the Voice, you just saw that there were so many different ways of working and sensibilities. Everyone had talent, and the talents were so varied that one writer may not be able to do what you did, but you couldn’t do what they did.

And then just the incubator atmosphere of the Voice. It really prepared me for the blog world in a way that a lot of people weren’t prepared. Voice people got in each other’s faces a lot. There was a lot of arguments. Yelling fits. There were feuds that went on and people didn’t talk to each other. It kept things bustling. I took that like that’s the way it worked everywhere, but then when I eventually went to other magazines, I was like, “Wow, everyone is being so cordial and polite.” It wasn’t that people were rude at the Voice, they were just much more direct and much more likely to say what’s off the top of their head. When I went to magazines, everyone was a lot more cautious about what they said. It prepared me for the blog world because a lot of it made me feel like, “Oh, I’ve been through this before.” I knew writers who hadn’t been through the Voice experience, and when they went online and went through a [onslaught] of hostility.

The Voice also prepared me for just taking things as they come. One of the great things about the Voice was that they didn’t box you in and say, “You’re this type of writer,” or, “You’re this type of critic.” I was able to write about theater, books, TV, and rock music. Now it’s like, if you’re a rock critic, or a theater critic, that’s what you do.

Why is that specific focus harmful?
Because the arts really do bleed into each other. One of the things that really hurt certain rock writers is that rock is all they knew. They didn’t know theater. They didn’t know what else fed into it. There are a lot of movie critics, and movies is all they know, and spend their free time watching more movies. Pauline Kael could compare images to certain paintings, or talk about the soundtrack. But critics now, every movie relates to another movie, and that’s the extent of the context.

You used the phrase “Voice Person.” There has been a lot of public discussion over the past few months as to what that term means.
To me, it was having a very individual, literal voice. The writers didn’t all sound like each other. There wasn’t an institutional voice. People used to talk about how, even if a writer had a very distinct voice, once they got through the New Yorker editing process, it had been so muted and shaped and molded. Voice writers were much more independent minded, feisty, not as careerist. I don’t know as many Voice writers now, just the few who have held on, but there is still great reporting pieces in the Voice. It’s not the Voice‘s fault that the advertising model just completely changed. It hurt everybody.

What are your thoughts on the corporate restructuring of The Village Voice?
I don’t really know about it. I’ve been doing this whole thing with the renovation and moving out. I’ve been getting a sense of it on Twitter. My knowledge of it comes with whatever somebody was let go, there was always great mourning, like when Hoberman was let go. But then I look at it, and it’s like, well, Hoberman is all over the place now. He’s writing everywhere. He’s not marooned. I’ve noticed a lot of hostility on Twitter, people who say things like, “How could these other film critics write for the Voice given what’s happened?” And it’s like, well, they have to write somewhere! I never try to deny anybody an outlet or opportunity to write. All I know is that [Tricia Romano] started a Twitter thing about it, but I couldn’t keep up with it. And also, I don’t want to hear people bemoaning and beating the people who are there and are still trying to make it work.

If it were up to you, how would you direct the Voice?
Well, it’s going to take a real visionary, which I’m not, unfortunately. But somebody who can really just figure it out and say, okay, we still want the paper to be a free weekly because that’s the easiest way to distribute it. Now, what advertising market isn’t being reached, and what can we do to make people absolutely have to have it? I don’t know who could figure it out. There might be ways to do it. But it’s very, very tough. I don’t know. But the very fact that you do have the distribution system means that you’re going to reach some type of audience. That’s already in place. I don’t know how you outwit the fact that there are fewer and fewer newsstands. I think people still want to hold something in their hands. It’s kind of a drag reading things online. I mean, I do it, but it’s not pleasurable.

You’ve been a TV columnist for years, and the medium has seemingly entered a golden age the past 10 years or so. What do you think it is about the current culture that’s allowed TV to become such a force?
There are clearly some really smart people working in TV. I think probably smarter people than who are working in movies. The paid cable allowed people to do all sorts of things they couldn’t do before. Even if they had originally pitched it, you couldn’t have done The Sopranos on a network. You couldn’t have done the level of violence. So the pay cable opened it up. There’s a lot of really good, almost auteurism in television now. In movies, it’s very much like the big directors are protecting their reputations. It costs so much to get it all together that everything has to be the perfect big package. I just marvel at the way a show can begin and then three years later, it’s in a totally different place than you’d expect. There’s just a lot of talent there.

When I sit in a movie now, it’s very rare that I’m surprised by what happens. Usually it’s like, well, okay, there’s a closeup. They’re starting to feel remorseful. They talk about beats, like there are two beats in this scene or this scene. But it’s to the point now where we all kind of know the beats that are going to be in a movie, whereas with television, all of the sudden, you go, whoa, I did not see that happening. I did not expect to see a kid get shot on a motorcycle. There’s much more an element of surprise.

The shows that lose me are the ones that have incredibly complicated storylines, but then you realize that the show doesn’t really know how to resolve them either. Like, I was never really into Lost. Everyone doing their interpretative dancing as to what it meant. And a lot of these shows I can’t get into because I just can’t follow the intricacies. When I read the synopsis of a True Blood episode, I’m like, c’mon.

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Lana Del Rey Hides in Plain Sight

In James Wolcott’s rip-roaring 1970s memoir Lucking Out (Doubleday), the Vanity Fair columnist and former Voice music writer notes, a bit acidly, how “the horniness of men [drove] news acreage” 30 years back. (He was referring specifically to the high percentage of eager male rock critics at CBGB for a show by the Runaways, the Kim Fowley–spawned jail-bait act that launched the careers of Joan Jett and Lita Ford.) He appended “at least then” to his observation, although the present day surely has the same affliction—and this time it’s led as much by the people doing the reading as well as the writing.

Witness the furor inspired by any mention of the self-proclaimed “gangster Nancy Sinatra” Lana Del Rey, who has lit up comment sections since her first single, “Video Games,” debuted online. “Video Games” is a somber, furtively overproduced lament directed toward a lover who seems just interested enough to keep the narrator’s infatuation levels high; her voice for most of the song is low, though when she curls her notes upward while inquiring “I heard that you like the bad girls/ Honey, is that true?” she reveals a raspy higher register, one that sounds like an already-scratched slab of vinyl.

Depending on the tastes and relative attention spans of the listener, “Video Games” was either the single of the year or a bit long and soporific (and in need of a bridge; why are so many of this year’s buzz bands averse to spicing up their songs with bridges?). What was curious was that so little of the arguments seemed to be about the quality of her music, and instead focused on Del Rey’s melted-cover-girl looks (false eyelashes, extremely pouty lips, a sartorial aesthetic that brings to mind both Twin Peaks and breathless trend pieces on the miniskirt) or her “authenticity.” (The rumors that she was signed to the Universal Music Group subsidiary Interscope Records swirled from day one and turned out to be true.) The blog Hipster Runoff, a scare-quote-filled satirical look at “indie” culture that often mirrors anarchic anonymous comment sections a bit too eerily, perhaps sums up the conflicts surrounding her in its Del Rey biography, which reads in its entirety: “Lana Del Rey is a hot female indie singer.”

Last week, Del Rey released a new single, the title track from her forthcoming album Born To Die (Interscope). It, too, is lengthy and loping, with lyrics that straddle the line between love songs and wanting-to-be-loved songs. (This time out, she tells the man the song is directed at, “You like your girls insane.”) It was also accompanied by a video in which Del Rey, seemingly topless and staring into the camera, embraces a tattooed man. The clip was actually constructed from a 10-second loop of footage repeated and rewound; the overall effect resembled that of an endlessly looping animated gif. Not a lot, to be sure, but it was, of course, more than enough to get the comment sections a-rolling (“She’s like the Avril Lavigne of indie, so phony. Why are people making her relevant?” asked one commenter on the indie-leaning blog Stereogum) and the ire toward her flaring up just in time for a show at the Bowery Ballroom on Monday night. (The show took place after this issue of the Voice went to press.)

Farther uptown on Friday night, Tori Amos, the flame-haired singer who burst into the Buzz Bin 19 years ago with the piano-heavy album of confessionals Little Earthquakes (Atlantic), performed a string-quartet-aided show at the Beacon Theatre. Draped in seafoam green and straddling a bench so she could do double duty on a grand piano and a synthesizer, she cut quite the profile, tearing through her back catalog as the audience beamed adulation toward the stage.

Amos’s show was pretty spellbinding, and the strings backing her—the Apollon Musagète Quartet, from Poland—added snap and verve to her music in a way that only intensified the atmosphere. The stunning “Cruel” was accompanied by the quartet attacking their instruments in breathtakingly dissonant fashion, with Amos singing “Celebrate your top 10 in the charts of pain” while her legs were splayed and her arms raised.

After the banter-light, ovation-heavy show ended, I wondered where Lana Del Rey might be in 19 years, or even 19 months. Like Del Rey, Amos’s debut-album persona was overlaid onto the popular perception of her personality, with people analyzing lyrics like they were tea leaves. Blame the fact that both artists can be reduced to the term “singer-songwriter”—that close link between the production and performance of a song implies confession, whether the artist at work is bent over a piano or a MacBook.

And like Amos, Del Rey also had an abortive stint under a different pop persona before becoming a priority artist for her big-time record label. Amos fronted the synth-metal act Y Kant Tori Read during the ’80s, while Del Rey gigged around New York (and put out a couple of recordings) under her given name, Lizzy Grant, before her makeover. During Del Rey’s earliest days under the blogosphere’s microscope, her past was scrutinized, with new details emerging daily.

But where Earthquakes, with its simple lead single “Silent All These Years” and cover image of the overall-clad Amos attempting to bust out of a box, was about reclaiming an image in favor of “reality,” Del Rey’s output seems to be sublimating any and all aspects of her self that might be seen as confessional, in favor of putting forth even more artifice. Dig deeper, and it’s hard not to wonder if both directions are similar reactions against both the singers’ earliest days and the dominant trends of culture. What makes Del Rey’s evolution a bit trickier is the increasing encroachment of the always-on online world, which requires at least some level of candor if only because artifice can be an exhausting prospect when always present. What would the blogosphere have made of Tori Amos if the Y Kant-to-Little Earthquakes trajectory had happened now? Perhaps the reaction to Del Rey is a hint, and it’s enough to make one wonder if any artist wishing to shed their past can actually do so.

mjohnston@villagevoice.com

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Kitty Lit

Like a hard-eyed cop securing a midtown crosswalk for an adorable gaggle of ducklings, James Wolcott’s killer reputation precedes his first novel, The Catsitters. The warnings continue: No less a terrorist than Camille Paglia is featured on the jacket, hailing Wolcott as “the supreme American culture critic.” But writing against expectation, Vanity Fair‘s longtime ornament and professional curmudgeon (as well as the funniest writer ever to get his start at The Village Voice) has chosen to reveal his inner cuddle-bunny with a fluffy comedy about heterosexual dating and feline mortality in blandest Manhattan.

Fans may be nonplussed. An offhandedly mean joke about Rex Reed aside, The Catsitters is less pungent than Sex in the City, sweeter than Bridget Jones’s Diary, and not even as acerbic as the average Seinfeld rerun. It’s a sort of Boy Scout manual, albeit written with the painstaking care that Flaubert lavished on Madame Bovary. Johnny Downs, the novel’s genial thirtysomething hero, is an underemployed actor with a jukebox in his living room and a cat named Slinky to whom he is meant to be touchingly devoted. One of the most self-effacing thespians to strut the stage, Johnny is a generally chivalrous gent who enjoys his nightly bubble bath but finds himself plunged into a more turbulent maelstrom with the discovery that his dishy girlfriend—an advertising executive no less—has been cheating on him, as well as negligent in her duties toward Slinky.

Bruised, bewildered, and back in circulation, Mr. Downs—why not call him Comrade Ludes or Señor Prozac?—is coached in all subsequent affairs of the heart by his long-distance phone-friend Darlene. A theatrical world wherein everyone appears to be a card-carrying heterosexual aside, this sassy, scheming Southern belle is Wolcott’s most improbable creation—an inexhaustible fount of pop psychology and related forms of feminine wiles who, evidently working on a doctorate in Mojo Studies, makes it a personal project not simply to recharge Johnny’s babe-magnetism but to burnish his marriageability. Aware of his proclivities, she warns him that he’s “picked up so many bad bachelor habits over the years that they’ve formed a bathtub ring around you that women can see.”

Appearances are all. Following Darlene’s instructions as dutifully as he cleans the Slinkster’s litter box, Johnny does everything from redecorate his pad with new shower curtains to order personal name cards (“cream or ivory, with blue letters”) to volunteer his services at a neighborhood church complete with crusty old padre. As La Paglia might put it, Johnny is New York’s supreme Mr. Niceguy. He’s also something of a bore. All of his antisocial impulses and most of the author’s nasty observations are assigned to the fellow actor who plays his best friend.

Sound like fun? The Catsitters is neither a fiasco nor a triumph—or rather, like Johnny’s Darlene-guru’d dates, it might be construed as a cautious victory for human decency. Discounting an excursion home to Johnny’s Maryland family that gives him a chance to be even nicer but crashes into the book like a chunk of exposition that escaped the gravity of another, more confessional novel, the narrative is perfectly self-contained. The structure, too, is mildly self-reflexive: Darlene’s direction goes entertainingly awry but the actor turns creator. Johnny himself writes a play for which he might well be grateful that Wolcott wasn’t the reviewer.

Ditto The Catsitters. This is a book of fastidiously written sentences, B-material descriptions (some of them as mind-numbingly detailed as anything in Alain Robbe-Grillet), and unshowy metaphors: A woman appears in “a canary-yellow dress that positively sang,” Johnny shops in a household emporium filled with “couples pushing shopping carts like covered wagons across the West.” The cultural references are no less circumspect—Vertigo, Warhol, Petticoat Junction—and you know that Johnny has found the One when he refers to her as a Jane Austen heroine.

Unfortunately, careful writing and a measure of wry wit notwithstanding, The Catsitters is closer to Jane than Austen. The novel is bizarrely filled with helpful hints—on personal grooming, home decorating, and relationship maintenance—seemingly culled from a decade’s worth of women’s magazines. Presented as a kind of Olympic tryout, the big sex scene is also didactic, albeit a bit stressful; you can sense the author’s relief at finally having gotten that out of the way. The party tips are best: “Take an empty quart carton of milk, cut off the top, and fill with water. Then insert the bottle into the water and stick in the freezer, and voilà, a bottle of vodka in a block of ice.”

Wolcott eschews the exclamation point that would have naturally capped this recipe in its original form, but, nice as he is, he can’t help adding, “Plant two of these babies on the bar, and you have yourself the beginnings of a certified blast.” Good Golly Miss Molly. If you’re looking for more illicit hilarity, it might not be a bad idea to have at least one of those babies on hand when you crack this book.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

American Civilization: Dead, or Playing Possum?

“Knowledge Is Good? Intellectuals Bomb Out of Town”
May 5, 1980

Saratoga Springs, April 10. Lining the streets of North Broadway are the sort of threatening-looking trees that pelted Dorothy and Toto with apples on their way to Oz. After hanging a left, the visitor finds himself in the bosom of Skidmore College, where squirrels carelessly frolic and “Knowledge Is Good.” Before long, however, the true cheery horror of campus life comes flooding back: Frisbees! beer busts! student elections! (Pinned to a bulletin board in the student lounge was a sign that read “Simon Sez: Vote for Garfunkle.”) What could possibly lure an unsuspecting soul into this godforsaken wilderness? 

The back cover of the literary quarterly Salmagundi’s winter issue announces the following: 

SALMAGUNDI 

15th Anniversary Conference

AMERICAN CIVILIZATION: FAILURE IN THE NEW WORLD? 

Participants: 

George Steiner
Christopher Lasch
Stanley Kauffmann
John Lukacs
Bharati Mukherjee
Roben Garis
Dwight Macdonald
Susan Sontag
Leslie Fiedler
Ronald Paulson
Gerald Graff
John Gagnon
Ben Belur
Robert Boyers
& others 

This intellectual Killer Elite would participate in nine sessions concerning the current state of American culture — “the civilizational perspective/the novel/poetry/the idea of history in america/dance/theater/film/character types in american social science/painting”… When I read the announcement chapel bells pealed in the distance and a host of doves fluttered against the windowpane: omens beckoning me to Saratoga Springs. So off to Skidmore I scooted, keen on seeing whether or not American civilization would be given a send-in-the-lions thumbs-down. 

***

Inside Filene Hall, murmurs, gossip. At stage right, a man fiddled with knobs behind a portable console, taping the weekend’s proceed­ings for National Public Radio; near him stood a lectern, and left of the lectern a fold-up table with microphones taped to its top. Except for clusters of Skidmore coeds (strawberry-haired pretties in jeans and sneaks), the audience was infested with the sort of young academics who haunt the classified pages of The New York Review of Books: A Witty, Erudite Sybarite snuggled up to a Warm, Appealing Scorpio; behind them, a Woody Allen Admirer in a patched-elbow corduroy jacket scanned the room for Sensitive Wasps (no fatties please)…

Suddenly a door flipped open and out trooped the Salmagundi all-stars: and a grimmer group of gangsters I’ve seldom seen. LESLIE A. FIEDLER went to his seat with the defiant waddle perfected by Norman Mailer in Maidstone; STANLEY KAUFFMANN looked as if he had just emerged from a Marguerite Duras double feature; and on the panelists’ table converged CYNTHIA OZICK, CHARLES MOLESWORTH, JOHN LUKACS, and HENRY PACHTER. Hold­ing forth at the lectern was host and moderator ROBERT BOYERS. And who, squeaks a voice from the back of the room, is ROBERT BOYERS? 

ROBERT BOYERS is a bearded young academic with a peculiar fondness for salmon-pink ties. Sleeplessly industrious, BOYERS as­sembles lit-crit anthologies, teaches English at Skidmore, contributes to London’s Times Literary Supplement, and edits not only Salmagundi (a deep-think quarterly modeled on Partisan Review) but The Bennington Review (a large, handsome, graphics-oriented slick). He has also composed book-length appreciations of critical mentors R.P. Black­mur, F.R. Leavis, and Lionel Trilling. The Trilling study is a jawbreakingly titled Lionel Trilling: Negative Capability and the Wisdom of Avoidance, and there are those of us who feel Trilling might have been wiser had he accepted more and avoided less. Shabbier mortals might smoke in the balcony or root in the bleachers; Trilling apparently spent every evening brooding on the cliffs of Dover Beach. (Mused Harold Rosenberg, “When I first encountered the gravity of Lionel Trilling, I did not get the joke; it took some time to realize there wasn’t any.”) In March 1974, BOYERS convened a two-day sym­posium at Skidmore to discuss Trilling’s Sincerity and Authenticity, a gray occasion lightened only by Trilling’s brief rumination on the nude­-running craze — “We won’t go into the sincerity or authenticity of streaking, which is a very ambiguous thing,” he observed. Lionel Trilling could find ambiguity in the damndest places. 

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Even with Trilling hovering like the Holy Ghost above its pages, Salmagundi manages issue after issue to be one of the few quarterlies worth a serious skim. It isn’t as lively as the Hudson Review — which has a bullpen full of hard-throwing critics (Marvin Mudrick, William Pritchard, Roger Sale) — but it has far more juice and rigor than the now-moribund Partisan Review. Ironically, Salmagundi represents a chaste retreat from the flirtation with pop culture indulged in by Partisan Review contributors in the late ’60s, a flirtation which provoked culturally conservative power-brokers like Philip Rahv to make grousing remarks about nihilistic “swingers.” Instead of medita­tions on camp, the Beatles, and the significance of Muhammed Ali, Salmagundi entices its academic audience with articles like “The Extraterritoriality of Siegfried Kracauer,” “Johan Huizinga— The His­torian as Magister Ludi,” “ ‘Shipwreck, Autochthony, and Nostos’: An Approach to the Poetry of John Peck,” and (a real pearl, this) “Performance as Transformation: Richard Schechner’s Theory of the Play/Social Process Knot.” 

After welcoming us to Skidmore, BOYERS announced that the keynote speaker — GEORGE STEINER — was too ill to attend (he has a frail ticker), and that he would read STEINER’s paper on the parched emptiness of American culture — “Archives of Eden.” A thankless task, though BOYERS made things easier on himself by slicing STEINER’s speech from two hours to one. “Failure in the New World.” STEINER sent word through BOYERS that the “awkward” and “vulnerable” paper we would hear was his presence — a lightly sounded note of mock-humility. In Clive James’s comic epic about the London literary world, “Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage,” GEORGE STEINER appears as “Doc Stein,” a pompous polymathic whiz whose vocabulary consists of “words a cockroach uses to its mother/And Barthes and Levi-Strauss use to each other.” Early on, STEINER lived up to his reputation as “Doc Stein” by sprinkling his paper with phrases like “relevant antinomies” and “quotidian awareness” and “Puritan theodicy.” He also indulged in his notorious flair for name-dropping, unbuckling the velvet rope that separates the gum-chewing rabble from the great to usher in Nietzsche, Kafka, Heidegger, Sartre, Goethe, Mann. “…I take it that American culture has no extraterritoriality to time… densities of obtuseness… howl with the wolves of the so- called counter-culture… from Thoreau to Trilling… make excel­lence fully accessible to the vulgate.…” Imagine a village in which, one by one, the lights are going out — that’s what happened to the audience as “Archives of Eden” snuffed the flame from their minds. Coughs began to echo like yodels across Alpine crags. 

The paper was, in short, a Pseud Masterpiece. STEINER’S argu­ment: America has not created a rich, loamy culture, but serves as the custodian of European art and thought. Our museums display the sculpture and paintings of Euro-masters, our libraries house their manuscripts; America itself, however, has created little of lasting value in art or literature or mathematics or metaphysics. According to STEINER, this country was founded by immigrants with pinched minds who “opted out” of history to create a New Eden. Instead, they created a gluttonous empire teeming with goopy, provincial Babbitts­ — “In the New Eden,” he intoned, “God’s creatures move in herds.” As damning proof of America’s philistinism, he sourly observed that the country has a Hall of Fame for baseball players but no classic editions of American writers. In Europe, he told us, a good student carries Gramsci in one pocket, another carries Bonhoeffer; and the best will carry both. He concluded: “It is the book in the pocket that matters.” Which made me a touch sheepish, since the book in my pocket was a P.G. Wodehouse entertainment in which Bertie Wooster fretted about spending a weekend with Sir Roderick Glossop, a loony-bin doctor who sits on his patients’ heads. Sir Roderick might have cocked an inquisitive eyebrow had he heard STEINER’s speech, which was filled with references to schizophrenia, sclerosis, contagion, infection, can­cer, and leprosy. Perhaps (thinks Glossop, stroking his chin thoughtfully) it’s not Western Civilization but STEINER’s fragile health which makes him think everything has turned to rot and ennui. 

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After this soul-sick lamentation came a panel discussion, and it was something of a shock to hear panelist CYNTHIA OZICK proclaim S.’s speech a “thrillingly stupendous” voyage that carried her along on waves edged with “a snowy plenitude of flakes.” Gifted as she is, OZICK is something of a flake herself. In D.A. Pennebaker’s film Town Bloody Hall, she draws a big laugh when she confronts Norman Mailer with a quote he made about writing with his balls — Norman, she wanted to know, exactly what color ink do you dip your precious testicles into? When not being mischievously cute, OZICK enjoys playing the pixie-victim; she told the Skidmore audience that she suspects her apartment is the target of vandalism because she’s the only one in her working-class neighborhood who frequents the library and has a kid who doesn’t use double negatives. Though OZICK coyly poor-mouthed herself as a “philistine scribbler,” she launched an analysis of STEINER that was as tortuously academic as an article in, well, Salmagundi. Quarreling with Steiner’s concept of the artist as a Romantic Sufferer, OZICK climbed a spiral staircase in her mind, step by creaky step, arriving at the top only to flick on a small dim switch marked “Irony.” Had the Skidmore audience been in a rebellious mood, OZICK might have been bonked on the beezer with a well­-aimed avocado, but she read from her notes for a half-hour without a single missile whistling through the air. After she concluded her incomprehensible rebuttal, several couples grabbed their coats and bolted for freedom. 

CHARLES MOLESWORTH, a professor of English at Queens College who has a too-high regard for the later poetry of Robert Lowell, wisely kept his comments brief, noting only that STEINER’s attack ignored the contributions of Duke Ellington and IBM. Just as the goggle-eyed audience began to resemble a netful of contaminated fish, JOHN LUKACS slapped some life into the evening. LUKACS, a Hungarian emigre whose books include Historical Consciousness and the Last European War, didn’t needle STEINER with irony, as OZICK had done; he demolished him with a scorn that can only be called Nabokovian. After a funny discourse on the Puritan heritage and that “medieval Levittown” known as Massachusetts, LUKACS ridiculed the notion that the mass of European immigrants “opted out” of history, or that the emigre intellectuals so admired by STEINER nourished America with their greatness. Einstein, with his baggy trousers and “astral hair,” played the role of genius long after his genius had been tapped; George Lukacs (my namesake, LUKACS ruefully noted) was “a Weimar Age fossil” dug up by fatuous lefties; and Paul Tillich — well, Tillich devoted his sacred days to pornography and other unsavory pursuits (Hannah Tillich, in From Time to Time: “One of the nudes came to our table, where we placed a silver coin. She turned around and took it with her sphincter muscle”). LUKACS unsettled some people with a contemptuous aside about “the vomitorium of Brecht,” but his attack on universities that have turned the Holocaust into a “cultural industry” had heads nodding with vigorous approval. After praising American pop composers like Johnny Mercer and George Gershwin, LUKACS cited a passage in STEINER’s speech in which he lamented that a Washington museum houses a roomful of Stradivariuses. To STEINER, this roomful of unplayed violins is damning proof that America is a custodian and not a creator of fine culture; to LUKACS, it proves that the country isn’t bound to a desiccated classicism. “The violins may be mute,” he concluded, “but the fiddler is still on the roof.” 

When LUKACS was finished, STEINER’s thesis lay in a smoking, bone-hacked heap, a burnt offering to the Homeric gods. Unfor­tunately, the evening was not yet done. HENRY PACHTER, an author and historian who reminds one less of Nabokov than of one of his bewildered academics (Pnin, perhaps), dawdled for 10, 15, 20 minutes, dropping pellets of scorn on STEINER’s loftier conceits. Fingers began to twitch with fear and boredom, for PACHTER is one of those speakers who never reaches a full stop but keeps connecting clause to clause to clause, his sentences forming a string of boxcars stretching endlessly into the night. Finally, mercifully, the caboose whistled off, and the audience began to volley forth comments. Two seats away from me, a Passionate, Caring Young Intellectual complained about the absence of a Marxist perspective on the panel, saying that the dialogue lacked a “dialectical dimension.” When PACHTER said that “dialectical” was one of those intellectual buzzwords that ought to be retired, the Passionate, Caring Young Marxist Pseud snapped, “Excuse me, sir, but I didn’t interrupt you while you were speaking, so please don’t interrupt me.” Before I could reach over and smack the twerp over the head with my clipboard, BOYERS diplomatically cooled things down by saying that the PCMP’s comments were “well taken” (whatever that means). Before the session adjourned, there was an odd exchange between OZICK and FIEDLER. FIEDLER, sitting in the front row, cheerfully re­marked that GEORGE STEINER “aspires to snobbery” but lacks the confidence to be a true snob. (He’s wrong, I think: STEINER has a snootful of confidence.) “Are you a snob?” asked OZICK. “Yeah,” answered FIEDLER with a Mailerish growl, adding, “I live in a working-class neighborhood and feel at home.” 

The next afternoon, the two of them would again lock antlers. 

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***

As Friday spread its colors with the glory of a Ronald Firbank epiphany (“The turquoise tenderness of the sky drew from her heart a happy coo”), American civilization seemed secure: The opening address had been trampled beneath a stampede of ridicule, and the Holiday Inn stood undisturbed, a symbol of everything STEINER and the steinettes despise in our materialistic wasteland. Legging it out of the Inn, I arrived at Skidmore shortly before LESLIE FIEDLER’s well-rehearsed attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of the American novel. 

When the spotlight is on, FIEDLER doesn’t waddle or slomp. Riding his stomach like a chariot, he rolls past mere worldlings like a Jewish Sun God. His untidy locks and bulging brow may remind one of the bust on Linus’s piano, but the manner is Steps of the Pentagon 1967, jovial, combative, ironically grandiloquent. Like Mailer, FIEDLER enjoys teasing the audience by suggesting that the air is alive with existential possibilities — that his talk may swerve around unanticipated corners. The title of his address: “The Death and Rebirth of the Novel.” He began by saying that he wasn’t sure what he was going to say until a few minutes before he arrived. Which seemed a trifle disingenuous, since he contributed a paper to John Halperin’s 1976 anthology, The Theory of the Novel: New Essays titled “The Death and Rebirth of the Novel,” and has been fanning the flame of the phoenix since Cross the Border — Close the Gap. “The novel,” FIEDLER announced, “is dead as a final form; as an end itself.” And from that RIP he wandered down familiar paths, tracing the novel from its humble beginnings as Bourgeois Entertainment to its ascendance into its various subgenres (Jewish-Feminist, Neocolonial, Sci-Fi, etc.). Echoing Gore Vidal, FIEDLER noted the proliferation of University Novels: novels which exist only to be taught, explicated, embalmed. And, again echoing Vidal (V.’s essay on the best-seller list in Matter of Fact and Fiction), FIEDLER observed that most novels these days have their roots not in Parnassus or Grub Street but in Hollywood, as future movie projects. Stale as most of this news was, FIEDLER was never less than engaging: He embroidered his talk with comic anec­dotes and odd bits of fact about Saul Bellow, Samuel Clemens, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Resistance, however, began to percolate on the panel. 

OZICK declared, “The sociology of the novel is of no interest to me,” explaining that what did interest her were paragraphs, punc­tuation. “The colon is dead,” she lamented, to much applause. (OZICK’s concern for colons later became the subject of indecent mirth.) GERALD GRAFF, a humorless scold whose new book, Literature Against Itself, tries to fend off the semiotic police, tugged on his mustache and did some earnest huffing about “values” and “content.” When he reminded the audience that Shakespeare’s work has “a humanistic dimension,” a hundred pair of eyes rolled heavenward in exasperation. Watching his rivals commit harakiri, FIEDLER buoyantly lit up a long thick cigar, a foul-smelling number that had the panelists turning darker shades of green. 

It took SUSAN SONTAG (who was sitting in the front row wearing baby-blue cowboy boots) to say what sorely needed saying, that Fiedler’s categories have not only lost their usefulness but now clutter his (and our) vision. At one time, his heady love of myth and genre and archetype allowed him to detect patterns in American literature that had eluded less foolhardy critics. FIEDLER’s unashamed love of pop — sci-fi, comic books, Russ Meyer flicks — was also liberating at a time when academic critics tended to be ponderously Olympian (Lionel Trilling), hyper-aesthetically gnomic (I.A. Richards, R.P. Blackmur), or sneeringly severe (F.R. Leavis and the Scrutiny spear carriers). In recent years, however, FIEDLER’s love of pop has turned into a love of a love of pop. He extravagantly admires his appetite for trash; it’s his way of proving that he isn’t a prissy academic prig — that he’s one of the kids. Similarly, FIEDLER’s schlock-Freudian methodology is now used onanistically — his allegiance is not to the artist but to his own technique. An artist who doesn’t fit FIEDLER’s archetypes has his limbs lopped off. 

In FIEDLER’s new book, The Inadvertent Epic, a study of race melodramas from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Roots, he unleashes a squadron of archetypes — Good Good Nigger, Good Bad Nigger, Black Rapist, Wicked Slavedriver, Old Testament Mother. When a black artist like Ishmael Reed criticizes such stereotypes or tries to subvert them in his own fiction, FIEDLER dismisses him as the darling of “elitist critics,” adding that Reed’s reservations “are clearly cued by the fact that [Roots] not merely outsold but obliterated his own book [Flight to Canada]. For FIEDLER, success is the only thing that matters — the roar of the masses imbues even the shoddiest work with mythopoeic power, leaving losers, like Ishmael Reed, to chew up their spite. The Inadvertent Epic concludes with FIEDLER’s by-now familiar celebration of the privileged insanity and “dionysiac, demonic” ecstasies released by such books. “But it doesn’t occur to him” [writes Marvin Mudrick of another would-be Dionysian] “that nothing in life or literature is more exciting than goodness: that Troilus, Criseyde, and Pandarus are all both good and wonderfully interesting; so too Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Elliot, Sophocles’ Antigone, Pushkin’s Ta­tyana, Trollope’s Plantagenet Palliser, Lawrence’s Tom Brangwen… when someone takes me to the zoo, I want to see the swans.”

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SONTAG didn’t toss crumbs to the swans or snip roses from the hedges of Mansfield Park, but she did come to the defense of OZICK, who became teary-eyed after FIEDLER made sport of her endangered colons. She said OZICK was one of the few good writers in America; an unclassifiably good writer. (Had SONTAG known I was in the audience, she would of course have lobbed my name into the conver­sation.) With the smell of FIEDLER’s stogie polluting the room, the session broke up, Skidmore students dashing to the exits for gulps of fresh air. 

After a brief breather, a panel on film and theater convened, hosted by Salmagundi‘s film critic, ALAN SPIEGEL, an eager young blister who dresses in a manner FIEDLER would doubtless describe as Academic Funky (earth-colored corduroys, rolled-up shirt sleeves, scuffed Hush Puppies). At his side were STANLEY KAUFFMANN of the New Republic, dance critic ROBERT GARIS, and that legendary dreadnought, DWIGHT MACDONALD. Speaking first was KAUFF­MANN, a movie critic who has an unhealthy respect for alienation, whether it’s packaged as American lower-depths naturalism (Wanda) or European art-house asceticism (The Left-Handed Woman). A connoisseur of anomie and artful fatigue, KAUFFMANN isn’t a writer who surfs on the crest of giddy passion; his sentences drip and dribble, forming stagnant pools of commonplace opinion. Like Trilling’s grav­ity, KAUFFMANN’s “gentlemanly” tact is taken as the refusal of a fine mind to lose its moorings. In other words, Inertia equals Integrity. Happily, the energy missing in his writing is spurtingly present in his public appearances. Here, he talked about how America gave film to the world and, during a discussion of the impact of movies on private lives, fondly reminisced about receiving his first kiss from a lass named Rosie Schultz — “As she kissed me, she turned into Joan Crawford.” 

After KAUFFMANN came MACDONALD, once described by Norman Mailer as conceivably the world’s worst public speaker: “It was true. Macdonald’s authority left him at the entrance to the aura of the podium. In that light he gesticulated awkwardly, squinted at his text, laughed at his own jokes, looked like a giant stork, whinnied, shrilled, and was often inaudible. When he spoke extempore, he was sometimes better, often worse.” Friday was one of MACDONALD’s better days. After saying that he wasn’t used to being at events where words like “antinomian” were bandied about so freely, he declared that STEINER’s speech and OZICK’s da capo recapitulation “turned me off culture — and I don’t know when I’ll get back to it.” Admitting that only a few films had pleased him in recent years — Amarcord, Tree of the Wooden Clogs, Coppola’s two Godfathers — MACDONALD wondered if he had really missed anything by hanging up his spikes as Esquire‘s movie critic in 1966. Suddenly the session (weirdly, com­ically) turned into a discussion of what MACDONALD should have done with his career, the panelists serving as guidance counselors. Well, Dwight, maybe you should have hung in there until Fassbinder squeezed into his first leather jacket…

As the afternoon waned, KAUFFMANN played the Soul of Liberal Reason, MACDONALD the Curmudgeonly Crank. After KAUFFMANN said that he didn’t wish to speak slightingly of “the popcorn crowd,” MACDONALD backed, “Aw, go ahead.” KAUFFMANN: “No, no; Ingmar Bergman has remarked that those who go to see a Doris Day film — forgive me, is she still alive? — may go to see one of his films the following week. Often in the same theater.” MACDONALD: “They shouldn’t be allowed to.” 

The afternoon’s climax came when a woman in the audience complained that in this session on American film and theater, the-ah-­tur had gone totally undiscussed. (“Fine with me,” someone muttered, and several heads nodded in agreement.) “Well,” said KAUFFMANN, “American playwriting is in a sorry state; there are, however, interesting productions around.” And he launched into an aria over Elizabeth Swados’s “Passover Cantata,” The Haggadah. As KAUFF­MANN explained that the show’s Moses is played by a half-black, half-­Chinese nine-year-old named Craig Chang, MACDONALD began shaking his storky head in disbelief. Then, spreading his arms wide, KAUFFMANN said that the work possessed “a beautiful efflores­cence” — which was too much for MACDONALD. “Stop! Stop,” he sputteringly pleaded, teasing KAUFFMANN with the word (“efflores­cence… efflorescence?”) as K. tried vainly to defend Swados. 

KAUFFMANN explained to the audience that MACDONALD comes from the H.L. Mencken generation, which believes that a resounding No is always more convincing than a Yes. “Deliquescence, maybe,” chuckled MACDONALD amiably, “but efflorescence…” 

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***

Saturday, April 12. I sauntered in near the end of the session on social sciences starring CHRISTOPHER “Anything-for-a-laugh” LASCH. From the microphone, a voice tonelessly droned, and slumped in their chairs were people trying to pass themselves off as corpses. Clearly the Freudian heritage wasn’t something that made the corpuscles dance. After a short break, the symposium’s grand finale commenced: an audience participation session featuring FIEDLER, KAUFFMANN, GRAFF, MACDONALD, SONTAG, and CHRIS­TOPHER “Stop-me-if-you’ve-heard-this-one” LASCH. In this press-­conference setup, the audience could sharply probe the panelists’ minds and feelings on the current drift of American culture. 

It was a Luis Buñuel nightmare, invisible hands gripping us to the chairs as swallows chirped in Esperanto — a subcommittee meeting at the United Nations couldn’t have been more soul-stifling. It wasn’t all boredom: SONTAG, after needlessly fluffing her feathers to inform us that she had slaved “five years on the six essays” in On Photography, spoke at some length about the Americanness of American photography; FIEDLER, ebullient as Falstaff in an alehouse, claimed that a male sexist conspiracy was responsible for Harriet Beecher Stowe being denied her great due (sighs, groans); and GRAFF stirred the audience to hisses when he told them they didn’t ask good questions. As if to prove his point, a Vietnam veteran who had asked a question the previous day complained that his query hadn’t been satisfyingly answered. KAUFFMANN said, “Excuse me, I thought I had answered your question”; “No,” said SONTAG, “I don’t believe you did, Stanley.” “Well, why don’t you ask your question again?” said KAUFFMANN, the Soul of Liberal Reason. And, dropping a needle into a groove, the man said, “I’m a Vietnam veteran…” and re-asked his question word for tiresome word. Later, a man in the last row who assured us all that he was a friend of Michael Herr said that a lot of young Americans had the time of their lives in Vietnam. “I don’t think the Vietnamese had as much fun as the Americans,” SONTAG dryly remarked. And from a conversation about the political emptiness of Vietnam films (“Wasn’t there a film called The Deer Hunter?” wondered MACDONALD), the discussion detoured into the cultural impact of feminism. By this time, the panelists were leaning on the table with such bad posture that they all looked like a truss advertise­ment, their spines bending under all the weight and wisdom and guilt of Western Culture. And then SONTAG said something startling: Re­sponding to a comment from one of the feminists in the peanut gallery about her being the only woman on the panel, she half-ruefully confessed, “I’ve spent all my life being the only woman on the panel.” 

My God, I thought, this woman shouldn’t be allowed out without a note from Sir Roderick Glossop! What compels an intelligent soul to drag one’s pride from powwow to powwow, leaning into squawky microphones as whiffleball questions flutter feebly from the back row? Money, sure; lecturing is easier and more lucrative than bending over the typewriter. And, writing being the lonesome vocation that it is, symposia offer one the opportunity to mingle and gossip and toss off casually brilliant pensees. Still, to trod through this vale of tears as the Only Woman on the Panel… it’s almost Brechtian. Mother Courage pulling a wagonload of Salmagundis from campus to campus. 

As a question from the audience tediously unraveled, the Only Woman on the Panel slipped her arms into her coat sleeves, signaling that the glorious occasion was about to end. After FIEDLER suggested that from now on serious drinking should be done before the symposium, panelists and acolytes trudged like a defeated army over to the Surrey Inn, a dark, cozy cove across the street from the Skidmore campus. Conviviality reigned: ALAN SPIEGEL made “cheese” smiles for James Hamilton’s camera; CHRISTOPHER LASCH curled his fingers to form shadow-graphs on the wall (“…this is a duck, and this is a bunny”). Somewhere across the Atlantic, however, an embittered GEORGE STEINER was lining antinomies up like toy soldiers, contemplating a fresh assault upon the New World. 

Evil never sleeps.