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Richard Hell: An Antidandy at the Peppermint Lounge

RIFFS

It was the only area appearance of rock bohemia’s legendary symbol, but on June 25 the spanking-new downtown Pep was crowded with refugees from 45th Street — ­rock and roll youth out to get laid, lighter on hitters than the Ritz, but nowhere near as effete as Danceteria or as schlumpy-­collegiate as Irving Plaza or CBGB. The one familiar face I spotted was that of Terry Ork, Richard Hell’s original im­presario. At two Hell came on with his latest band, who aren’t called the Voidoids even though they feature Ivan Julian and aren’t called the Outsets even though that’s their name, delivering a brief intro in his patented kindergartener-on-the-nod drawl: “Hello ladies and gents — we were children once.” Then they launched into “Love Comes in Spurts,” the song Hell chose to kick off his debut album almost five years ago. As the set rocked on I no­ticed a few ravaged old-timers observing from the sidelines. I also ran into Giorgio Gomelski, the Rolling Stones’ original im­presario, who dubbed Hell “a symbol of elegance,” spraying me with saliva as he did so.

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As we collegiate schlumps often forget, it’s not impossible to symbolize bohemia and elegance simultaneously (cf. Walter Benjamin on the Flaneur). But though Hell apparently values his red top, which he wears on the cover of his follow-up album, it proved less noteworthy than the black leather and ripped T-shirts out of which he constructed the avant-punk anti­dandy back when Malcolm McLaren was strictly a haberdasher. Hell put on a strong show, but he made no waves in a casually dressed-up audience to which he related only as the professional entertainer he’s never much wanted to be. Once he defined, and I quote, a blank generation; now he disparages, and I quote again, the lowest common denominator. Over a five-year haul, symbolizing bohemia can get to be depressing work.

At the time of Blank Generation, Hell really was the quintessential avant-punk. With no more irony than was mete, he presented his nihilistic narcissism not as youthful hijinx but as a full-fledged philos­ophy/aesthetic, and though he never quite put his heart into proselytizing, he was perfectly willing to go along with im­presarios who considered his stance com­mercial dynamite — and to con others when the money ran out. Nor was he merely purveying a stance. Though it was the musicianship of Bob Quine — a much denser, choppier, and more nerve-wrack­ing player than his romantic rival, former Hell associate Tom Verlaine — that made the Voidoids the most original and accomplished band of the CBGB era, Quine was and is a sideman, worth hearing in any context but lacking the visionary oomph to create one. The band was Hell’s, and that it embraced former Foundation Ivan Julian, whose slashing leads I’ve misiden­tified more than once as Quine in a warm mood, and future Ramone Marc Bell, a converted heavy metal kid of surpassingly simple needs, says a great deal for his ambition and his outreach. That it sold bubkes, of course, may say just as much for his laziness and his hubris. But the prob­lem didn’t begin, or end, with Hell. The impresarios were just plain wrong.

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So Blank Generation stands off in its own corner of the boho cosmos as the ultimate CBGB cult record. It had no ap­parent antecedents, and until Destiny Street was finally released by Marty Thau, the New York Dolls’ original impresario, its only descendant was Lester Bang’s Jook Savages on the Brazos. If the new album feels just a little tired despite its undeniable attractions, it’s not because Hell’s musical concepts have been lowest­-common-denominatored. With Material’s Fred Maher replacing Bell and postpunk engineer (Y Pants) and bandleader (China Shop) Naux on second guitar, it’s fuller and jazzier than Blank Generation with­out any loss of concision or toon appeal. Although producer Alan Betrock is a noto­rious pop addict, it was Nick Lowe who added ooh-ooh backups and cleanly articu­lated thematic solos to “The Kid with the Replacable Head,” back when Jake Riv­iera was doing time as Hell’s impresario; the version Betrock oversaw is chock full and coming apart, a real New York rocker. What’s changed is Hell’s head. He’s matured, as they say, and I’m not sure it suits him.

The problem begins with the two theme cuts — the title parable, a vamp-with-talk­over in which nostalgia and ambition are rejected in favor of the good old here-and-­now, and “Time,” in which an inescapable medium-tempo melody is attached to lines like “Only time can write a song that’s really really real.” Both are grabbers, and both soon let go, as music and poetry re­spectively. Elsewhere, the bohemian sym­bol’s destiny seems bitter indeed, as a glance back at Blank Generation makes clear. “Lowest Common Denominator” is the only all-out putdown, but where “Liars Beware” reviled power brokers, Hell is go­ing after scenemakers this time, no doubt the hitters and collegiate schlumps who’ve ruined his favorite hangout and orgiast’s dream. In “Down at the Rock and Roll Club,” “sexy love” was communitarian “fun,” but now he prefers to “get all de­-civilized” at a “dropout disco” that sounds more like some after-hours hideaway than the Peppermint Lounge. In fact, all the old escapes have lost their magic. “Ignore That Door,” a throwaway rave-up that’s the most sheerly fun thing on the record, op­poses scag as unambivalently (vaguely but unmistakably) as “New Pleasure” praised it, and twice Hell complains of feeling “alone.” So where “The Plan” and “Be­trayal Takes Two” equated private sex with Faustian sin, these days the poéte maudit manqué is looking for love that doesn’t come in spurts. In “Staring in Her Eyes” he explicitly surrenders his narcis­sistic nihilism (and his “looking around”) to achieve the bliss described in the title, which sure as shooting he takes to an un­healthy extreme: “Stare like a corpse in each’s eyes/Till you never want to come alive and rise.”

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Admittedly, the song is affecting even at that, its lyricism intensified, as so often with Hell, by the yearning inexactitude with which he pursues its melody. And I sympathize in principle with Hell’s new head, as you probably do. I just don’t feel he has his heart in it. “Betrayal Takes Two” is a genuinely evil song, a seducer’s alibi worthy of Kierkegaard before Christ, while “Staring in Her Eyes” is sweetly creepy at best — a little easier to sell, perhaps, and a real truth for the chastened Hell, but with less to express and hence less to tell us. And no matter what Marty Thau thinks, it won’t be very easy to sell. Hell might conceivably follow in the foot­steps of David Johansen, the New York Dolls original, who now makes a decent living as a legend, but there’s a big dif­ference between the two — Hell’s aversion to the lowest common denominator. He’s just not a professional entertainer, and though his regrets over the multiplication and fractionalization of rock bohemia may be justified, his potential audience is no blank generation. Yet it was with that anthem that Hell tried to climax his show. It went over all right, of course — it’s a good song. But the audience remained rock and roll youth out to get laid, and the Pep didn’t look any more like a dropout disco when he was through. ■

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What If They Gave a New Year and Nobody Came?

Lately every time you turn around somebody’s saying: “The eighties are coming!” Like at the stroke of midnite on New Year’s it’s all gonna be different! And when you tell ’em, “Come on, you know everything’s just gonna keep on slowly sinking,” they get downright mad! Spoilsports! No sense of social duty! It’s true that I am antisocial! But so is my whole crowd. When our fave bar the Bells of Hell closed down a few months back we all stayed in our apartments instead of seeking out a new watering hole. (Perhaps suggesting that, like the buffalo, we are soon to disappear.) I told my shrink this and he said: “You’re all pathetic.”

Another time when I complained I was getting weirded out around other people because I never saw ’em because all I did was lay in bed with the covers over my head because I truly believed as the mighty Ramones quoth that there was “nothin’ to do and nowhere to go” so I just wanted to be sedated, my shrink suggested I call up all my friends in all their separate little cells and see if we couldn’t figure out some way to repatriate ourselves in the human race and enjoy it. So I conducted this plebiscite, and when I came back he said: “So what’s the consensus?” I said, “The consensus is, ‘Whaddaya wanna be around people for? Most of ’em suck anyway!'”

I suppose you think I’m being negative. All right, if I’m negative you go tell Mother there’s something wrong with the womb! Ha, gotcha! Besides which, as the eighties loom I suspect that my antisocial minority will soon be a majority, and we’ll have an antisociety! Imagine that! Will Rogers the ultimate outlaw! And what better time to inaugurate this ghost town than New Year’s Eve! Ring out the old, ring in the old! And older and older. I ask you, have you ever had a New Year’s Eve you enjoyed? Of course not! Why? Because you’ve persisted in this insane delusion that somehow things are supposed to keep getting better, or that the cyclical nature of the ying-yang means that the earth is supposed to replenish itself or some such horseshit! Horseshit doesn’t even replenish itself. Do these sidewalks? This peeling paint, crumbling plaster, backed-up plumbing? A replenishable landlord? Fuck no!

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There are two directions in which extants can go: (a) stasis or (b) decay. And New Year’s Eve is the biggest bummer yet, because we all go out with these expectations and get totally soused just so we can stand to be around each other because we’ve spent the late fall and winter’s first blush sinking deeper into TV Guide, and now we’re expected to positively revel in proximity to these globs of hideous humanity. So OF COURSE horrible scenes ensue.

The first New Year’s I have a clear memory of was probably the first one I was old enough to get drunk for: I got stoned on nutmeg instead. All my friends did get drunk tho and exiting this teenclub full of depressed zit-lumpen reduced to flat colas we drove aimlessly around El Cajon, inevitably ending in the line at Jack in the Box where, as people vomited all over the inside of my car, I said “Welcome to 1967.” We shoulda known right away Hippie wouldn’t work.

1968: I went to a party where everybody drank too much vodka too fast and pawed each other or tried to while Donovan trilled of fat angels. Only saw one person vomit: my girlfriend, all over her brand-new white hiphuggers. (Earlier in the evening I had told her, re said fem-trousers: “You look like a Tijuana whore.” A downy lad I was and twee.) I was on Marezine and kept seeing little men with axes and hammers chopping naked gabbling pigmy demons to death in other people’s lapels. When I got home I hallucinated all kinds of people coming into my room and reached out to them screaming, “Don’t dissolve! Don’t dissolve!” But sure enough they did. Then I thought I saw a friend of mine silhouetted behind the windowshade whispering from the garden: “Lester! Lester!” I leaped out of bed and yanked up the shade, pathetically grateful for some human companionship. There was nothing there but the empty street with leaves blowing.

I went into the bathroom to take a piss and hallucinated that my mother was ogling my dick with one huge roc eyeball through a crack in the door. Then I went back to bed and dreamed that narcs in steelgrey suits were stationed at strategic points all over my school watching me through slowly swiveling Silva-Thin shades. For the first two months of 1968 I couldn’t look anybody in the eye.

1969: Me ‘n’ a buncha buddies went cruisin’ in some dude’s jalopy. We beered awhile to no avail. One pal who later joined the navy where he majored in underwater demolition (exhorting me to enlist by his bonded side: “It’s real fun blowin’ up stuff!”) said, “Let’s go out ‘n’ git us sum scrunt.” Nobody else said anything. Eventually we all went home too depressed even to feel drunk and fell asleep. The whole evening shoulda been written by (or inflicted on) Robbe-Grillet.

1970: New Year’s Eve I spent getting drunk on beer watching TV at my girlfriend’s parents’ house, periodically ducking out to drive by the motel bungalow of some needle-freak friends because I wanted to buy some heroin, which I had never tried. Finally they were home and sold me some. When I got back to my girlfriend’s house I ran in the bathroom and tried to snort it. Not yet hep to rolled-up bills, I dumped the stuff onto a mirror held at a precarious angle over the sink, balanced it an inch from my nose, and honked amighty. Nothing happened except later I drank some Country Club Malt Liquor, went home, and wrote a review for Rolling Stone (which never got printed) of a Bob Dylan bootleg. Next day I bragged to all my friends: “I wrote a record review on heroin last night!” Being too lame to ingest the shit was the only time I ever got lucky on a New Year’s Eve.

1971: I stayed home and read the Bible. No, that’s a lie. What I did was go to the drive-in with my girlfriend — all hopped up (me, that is) on vodka and her mother’s thyroid pills, totally unable to concentrate on the double feature of I Drink Your Blood (starring Ronda Fultz, Jadine Wong, and somebody merely billed “Bhaskar”) and I Eat Your Skin (William Joyce, Heather Hewitt) which would have been impossible under any circumstances anyway, thinking all night how next morning I was gonna do like Jack Kerouac and just jump in my car eating speed with one hand while flicking the starter with the other and drive drive drive till I plashed through Blakean breakers of light on the golden prows of the Rocky Mountain Shield. Of course I didn’t, woke up with a muzzy hangover instead, which is probably just as well: I coulda ended up being John Denver.

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1972: New Year’s I spent dead drunk and gutpit-depressed at my mother’s house in California. Called up my friend Nick in NYC and miserably groaned through several leagues of whiskey, “I think I’m becoming an alcoholic.” He didn’t wanna hear that because he was just about to spend New Year’s Day making his way down Broadway from 99th Street having one drink in every bar along the way until he ended at Broadway and Third, the very last bar, St. Adrian Co., also known as the Broadway Central Bar, being an adjunct of the Broadway Central Hotel, a flophouse. He called back the next day: “Sorry Les, I’m too depressed to talk.”

1973: Went to a party with my ex-puppylove­-girlfriend (she of the greened hiphuggers) and her sis and brother-in-law. Most everybody else there was a swinging single, or trying to be. I danced dirty with the hostess. It was right out of Doctors’ Wives. My ex-galf’d got mad at me for rubbing up agin said hussy and huffed a bit. I bet Gore Vidal never came out with anything as deft as, “Whattayou care? You won’t fuck me!” She cried. Later in the car in savage ugly liquored sexual frustration I dug one of my nails into her wrist until it bled. She told me I was a sissy. I was.

1974: Back in California again, staying at my old girlfriend’s deserted tho furnished apartment, as, unbeknownst to Mom, she’s off livin’ with some forty-five-year-old businessman who when he stands next to ya drink-in’ at the bar always keeps a fistful of dollars taut-gripped so he can shoot ’em out as he snoots it up. That kinda guy. So there I am enjoying her empty apartment, lying around listening to Raw Power and Berlin all the time, when I get this bright idea: I’ll take all these sleaze-rock LPs to this night’s singles/married/whatever-they-think­-they-are party, and blast ’em. Ey-pa-TAY, MUTHAFUCKA! So I scoop up all the discs ‘n’ off we go ‘n’ all nite long I keep slipping ’em on the record player bumming everybody out tho they was also kinda fascinated, like this room got kinda quiet at times, waxen even, p’raps understandable this being California suburbs everybody’s dressed to the fillings in all kinda chains and whatnot, taco tanktopping it with frappe de la Yardley on the side, big hoop earrings, all the guys got sideburns so sharp they smoke, when Lou wafts thru: “Caroline says … as she gets up off the floor … ‘Why is it that you beat me? … It isn’t any fun … ‘ ”

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Meanwhile all these folks is loungin’ around ’bout to broach a dolce vita thru the looking glass. Frozen moments, all of them bad. Icy lips and frigid sunglasses.

“It’s not me that’s frigid it’s my Foster Grants!”

“It’s not me that’s impotent it’s my English Leather!”

“Well let’s swap!”

“Wow! Okay!”

“Hey, this decadence stuff up my butt is fun!”

Sadly, it never happened that way. I can’t remember this New Year’s Eve and hadda make something up. But the stories you make up the next day are always better than what actually happened.

1975: Sensible for once. I dropped some speed and Valium, went to the office, which was deserted, and stayed up all night writing a story for the February issue of Creem. Devotion to duty? No. Retreat from Gehenna.

1976: I had been going out with this girl for a couple of months kinda scene-makin photog­-lolligagin around Detroit. She’d decided I was a fag since one nite in Oct/Nov thereabouts at a Barry White concert when we’z sittin behind Ohio Players, the world’s worst opening act, and she sez, re the bass player, “He’s got a nice ass” and I sat up a bit to look and she gave me a weird stare and that was that. So anyway me and this snope-lobe keep a-datin’, but no sex. I was clumsy and shy and she, well, I guess her cameras woulda got in the way. Anyhow here come New Year’s Eve, the biggun, and lord if fuckin Creem magazine don’t rent a whole suite in this postrundowntown hotel just to, ah, entertain all the important folk’t might just happen to tum up like, say, local disc jockeys or Martin Mull who’d done his shtick downstairs and did it upstairs too. For some dumb reason I kinda liked this girl. I dunno, well actually I do know: in front she looked like somebody I used to love named Judy, and in back she looked like somebody I did love but wouldn’t see me at the time named Nancy. So MEA CULPA MUHFUH, etc. Anyhoo, come to find out that the only reason she even went to dis bash wid me was that I jus’ happenda work at the same magazine as this guy name Charlie Auringer who ALL the broads thereabouts were hot for cause’n he jes set back so indifferent all the time, eyeball-to­-snowboot, that kinda thing. When I saw her blatantly USING me to get to Charlie I got pissed. And did what any other righteously upstandin Rasta woulda done: slunk downstairs ‘n’ drunk muhsef tuh nullhood. But I was not alone in this endeavor, and long about midnite her ‘n’ me miraculously ended up side by side, right there stageside table in the lounge downstairs, balloons enuff to snuff Steve Martin agozzlin thru the air, treacle paper everywhere, Flo and Eddie runnin’ around grabbin’ all the asses they could JUST EXACTLY like in that Fugs song “Dirty Old Man,” confetti falling, and me and Lee Anne (for that was her name) both of us in li’l tinsel tophats, socute, herecum midnite, whammo, out go the lites.

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I sling my drunken arm around her shoulders and go to kiss her. She turns away tautlipped.

“Hey! I take you out all the time! I like you! We do things together! Boy and Girl! And you won’t even kiss me on New Year’s Eve!!!!!!??!!!!! What is this shit?”

”You’ve got bad breath,” she said.

It could only get better. Having finally won the heart of the aforementioned Nancy, we moved to New York where we starved Barefoot in the Park and huddled together against this city watching Donny and Marie every single Friday nite. New Year’s Eve we watched Jimmy and Rosalynn instead. Their preinaugural ball. We teardropped together when Loretta Lynn sang “One’s on the Way.” We felt hope for society. We were young and idealistic and in love. We were walking sugar comas too stunned to find our way to a diabetic ward should all that glop we ate back up into our lymph ducts. Six months later she left me to listen to the Sex Pistols in peace.

I went through a couple of minor affairs after that whilst mostly staying drunk and practically taking up residence at CBGB’s where I played the role of Bukowskian bohemian/artiste in ze big sitcom. It got me some real great women — the kind that sit crosslegged on your floor after you’ve both been up all night on bad drugs and won’t fuck you but are perfectly amenable to describing in linoleum detail their various suicide attempts and highly complex postexistential Weltanschauung derived from Richard Hell and countless auditions of dear Sidney warbling “My Way,” a philosophical stance reducible to Life is not worth living and everything stinks but killing yourself is too much effort so what the fuck you got anything else to drink?

It sooner or later became apparent that any women who shared my tastes in music might be predicted miles ahead as burnt-out hunchbacked mutes, half-retarded drug repositories given to heavy facial tic action. It was not that I sought something out of Fascinating Womanhood. I can whip up a Stouffer’s Spinach Soufflé deft as Régine herself, but I did feel there might be some slight possibility that something existed somewhere in between these two outposts of you’re-right-gimme-the-gun-I-wanna-blow-my-­brains-out-first. In fact I was ripe as Li’l Abner in full flushblush, and fell in love Xmas ’77 with the first of what would turn out to be a succession of women who, like myself, were gainfully employed in various aspects of media and were not about to end up aborting a broken vodka bottle on the steps of CBGB’s. These were to be women of refinement and urbane cachet. Some of them took cabs everywhere they went! I also noticed a propensity toward the employment of what they laughingly referred to as “my faggot houseboy,” making little jokes about how handy his imagined infantile-fixated compulsions were when it came to scrubbing the bathroom. The first one I engaged even had a doorman, who thought I was a hoodlum and hated my guts because no thirty-year-old man walks around jobless in a black leather jacket alla time, and who knows but what he may have been right.

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As for my new love, hardly had we finished giggling fantasies about “honeymooning” in that heartshaped bathtub in the Poconos when that bastard Reality (who oughta be terminated with extreme prejudice) set in. It took exactly one week for it to become clear though thick with silence that we had absolutely nothing in common, were in fact the mindlessly magnetic attraction of plupolar opposites. I was still into nothing but platters of shrieking anomic noise while her favorite form of leisuretime wowzow was watching endless made-for-TV movies about occultists bending sinister in obscure New England hamlets. It was nobody’s fault and nothing we could do about it but spend the next months torturing each other. Our New Year’s Eve: We awoke to find ourselves sitting on her couch in the deepening silence watching Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians play “Auld Lang Syne” without even a nod to Jimi’s revolutionary interpolations. And then the big ball dropped on all those cheering idiots slow as a senile meteorite. It was the only time in my life I have ever observed this I am told quite popular ritual (though I am a definite Yule Log fan), and it certainly will be the last, inasmuch as it was one of the possibly four or five dreariest experiences I have known. We didn’t even have any drinks, though we had money. Guess we were so gone we forgot to drink, marijuana would needless to say have been much more deadly than usual. I felt like an E string adrift somewhere in the nether gulfs of the second Dire Straits album.

Next day I went to a dinner party with five of my oldest and dearest friends where absolutely nobody could think of a single word to say. Best line of the afternoon: “Does anybody know any good jokes?” (Delivered at dinner table, quantifying silence to brink of catatonia.)

1979: New Year’s things seemed to be looking up. I had plenty of money, got wired up on beer and bennies and showed up at a friend’s party at the exact instant I’d been informed the jumpin punkins’d be lifting off. Only trouble was nobody else was there yet but the host and his girlfriend/roommate and a cousin from Buffalo or somewhere and we all sat nursing tepid beers, our massed alpha-waves bouncing off Randy Mantooth’s forehead on “Emergency One!” An hour or so of such terror and the bennies itched me right outa my chair and down to the since-shut fave bar the Bells of Hell where I made a pretty good job of picking up this woman I’d never met before till the bartender Phil walked over and said to me, “Do you realize that for the last half hour every other thing you’ve said has had something to do with homosexuality? What’s your problem, Lester?” She much less I hadn’t seemed to notice if such were fact but I was just drunk enough for liberal guilt so I blurted out this real vitreous solution about how I’d had a deadly relationship the previous summer with another media maiden who was a self-declared faghag so gee whiz I didn’t mean to be prejudiced against anybody but maybe I really did harbor some previously unsussed resentment … Naturally this had a real salutary effect on the nascent whoknows mebbe truelove beside me. I took her number and split.

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Later I went to a party where I met a British socialist-type girl who gave me her number as well as wrote at the bottom of the scrap “I liked you.” Of course I called her and we saw each other for about three months, earnestly discussing the Clash vs. The Guardian over Japanese dinners. The full extent of our physicals was a peck g’nite on the cheek as she departed at her subway stop headed for Iceland or Brooklyn I forget which. I soon grew to hate her, and we parted in ash-curdling acrimony. But later on that same New Year’s Eve nite I really lucked out by going back to the Bells where this totally comatose thirty-year-old stranger who worked for UPI hung all over me to my manifest indifference and the embarrassment of everyone else at our table. I could have told her to go foist her slumbrous blandishments elsewhere, but I was too much of a wimp. Finally I got up to leave. I was just a ways past the door when I heard these steps following me down the sidewalk.

“Wait … ”

I waited, stood gallantly propping the creep up till I could hail her a cab. Meanwhile I lectured her in my best Bill Cosby voice. “Listen: you are truly foolish. You don’t know me. I could be David Berkowitz, the Boston Strangler, Richard Speck with a new set of contacts. You really oughta be more careful.” I swear, sometimes I wonder if I’m not Jewish, and a Jewish mother at that.

When I went to put her in the cab, she asked, “Aren’t you going to take me home?”

All right, that’s it, I said to myself like Richard Burton looking at his paycheck for The Medusa Touch, and got into the cab. All the ride to her Upper East Side Laura Mars swankpad she kept prattling about the black leather jacket I was wearing.

“Are you a member of a motorcycle club or something?” I laughed.

“Hell no — I’m a media hack, just like you!”

She didn’t get the joke. When we got out at her corner (where believe me I had no thought in ten purgatories of paying), she kept up this leather routine, persisted at this spume of dogs till finally in a rage I tore the jacket off and flung it at her.

Here, take the damn thing if that’s all you’re interested in!”

“NO, no … ”

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Up in her digs the footlights was boss. She had Grand Marnier night-capwise while I opted for the more proletarian Pinch-with-water. I commenced the usual routine and she pushed me away, blubbering incoherently about some guy she loved who’s stationed with Reuters in Bangkok She tried to call him. He wasn’t home. We hung out in her kitchen awhile and somehow, suddenly, from the way she was acting towards me and my clothes I got the creepy feeling for the first time in my life that just maybe this one wanted me to slap her around a little bit or maybe a lot or who knows what beyond that. This was some time after having been flashed back to the scene in City of Night where the customer throws the hustler out of his house in a rage because this supposed steerhunk truck driver committed the unpardonable gaffe of letting drop that he too had read D. H. Lawrence. I’d had the feeling that something was expected of me, but up till now hadn’t a clue what and doubted she did either. She kept baiting me verbally, weird little zingers from the twilight zone bouncing off the fact that I was about as butch as a college professor who has been sedentary for thirty years. This talk alternated with zonkout google slurs.

It got boring in spite of all freak appeal after a while so I went over and looked through her record collection. The only album she owned that I could remotely relate to was Surrealistic Pillow. I put it on. It sounded nice. We ended up on the couch again where she recommenced to drool aloud. I seem to remember at one point telling her that it really didn’t make any difference to me whether we had sex or not, especially considering the deadening effects of all the speed and booze inside me. Later I grabbed her head between my palms and forced her waxen eyes to look straight into mine sorta and I said in measured dramatic tones, “Do you know what I see when I look into your eyes? Stark, naked terror.” What an asshole I was. A bit later I snapped, “You got any drugs?” By now I was actually beginning to enjoy playing the role. She brought out this vial of pain pills left over from previous misadventure, asked me what use I could possibly have for them. I said that when I had a real bad combination hangover this stuff was the only thing that eased it. Then she decided maybe she’d better hold on to them after because this supposed steerhunk truck driver committed the unpardonable gaffe of letting drop that he too had read D. H. Lawrence. I’d had the feeling that something was expected of me, but up till now hadn’t a clue what and doubted she did either. She kept baiting me verbally, weird little zingers from the twilight zone bouncing off the fact that I was about as butch as a college professor who has been sedentary for thirty years. This talk alternated with zonkout google slurs.

It got boring in spite of all freak appeal after a while so I went over and looked through her record collection. The only album she owned that I could remotely relate to was Surrealistic Pillow. I put it on. It sounded nice. We ended up on the couch again where she recommenced to drool aloud. I seem to remember at one point telling her that it really didn’t make any difference to me whether we had sex or not, especially considering the deadening effects of all the speed and booze inside me. Later I grabbed her head between my palms and forced her waxen eyes to look straight into mine sorta and I said in measured dramatic tones, “Do you know what I see when I look into your eyes? Stark, naked terror.” What an asshole I was. A bit later I snapped, “You got any drugs?” By now I was actually beginning to enjoy playing the role. She brought out this vial of pain pills left over from previous misadventure, asked me what use I could possibly have for them. I said that when I had a real bad combination hangover this stuff was the only thing that eased it. Then she decided maybe she’d better hold on to them after all, giving me two and stuffing the vial down her purse, which was interesting. About five minutes after that she passed out curled sitting up in a foetal ball on the couch as the sun came up through the curtains. What the fuck, I said, I’ll give the bitch the B production she wants: I robbed her. I dug in the purse for the vial, actually found myself looking for a moment at her wallet, either couldn’t go that far or realized how silly this whole charade was, grabbed the fifth of Pinch on the way out the door, stomping down just a little meaner in my badass Frye boots. Still as tough and mature obviously as the ’73 night of the famous fingernail-dig. I wished I could call up Dotson Rader for a Merit Badge. Out in the street I hailed a cab; the driver was a middle-aged black guy. I said, “Jesus, man, I’m so glad to be around another human being at last! Can I tell you a story?”

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Sure, he says, so I belched up the mess, capping it with the declaration that when I got home I was gonna call her and tell her that she was a sicko weirdo Goodbar so-‘n’ -so and yeh baby I stole your pills ‘n’ booze but you stole a li’l bit o’ my soul.

When I finished my story, the driver, who had laughed uproariously throughout, turned and said: “Aw, hell, man, why go to all that fuckin’ trouble? Look, here’s whatcha do. Wait till bout two o’clock in the afternoon when you know she’s up, then phone her and real calm and polite say, ‘I just called to see if you were all right.’ Then after she answers tell her to go fuck herself an’ hang up!”

I realized immediately that he was right and I was still halfway up a horse on some backlot in Hollywood. I thanked him profusely. When I got home I drank her Pinch, took more speed, listened to the Clash through headphones feeling the righteous wrath of all us boots-in-the-alley working class minorities. Then I dialed her number. She wasn’t home. When I told a friend of mine about it a couple days later he just laughed and said: “So you let some barfly take you home, so what?” So I got to be Rough Trade for a Night, something I can tell my apple-eyed grandchildren about around the hearth, so fuck you, you’re just jealous because you never got mistaken for Sonny Barger. I did learn one valuable lesson, though, which convinced me that what all those hippies called karma actually does exist. That very next New Year’s Night, twenty­four hours later, somebody stole my black leather jacket out of the cloakroom at the Bells.

So here I sit, contemplating a coming New Year’s Eve which is gonna usher in a whole new decade doubtless brimming with little surprises beyond the usual roster of economic/spiritual depression, romantic wrong-ways unto entropy, comforting lapses into autism, etc. I guess I could ring up one of those wayout punk philosopher girls and ask her if she wants to drop by with a couple razor blades, dutch treat. Or enlist in the New Army and ask to be stationed in upper Greenland. Or even move back to Detroit and ask Lee Anne to marry me while I returned to work at Creem, in the mailroom. The possibilities are endless. Don’t guess this piece is gonna help my standing with the ladies much New Year’s or any other night. But that’s cool too; I could marry my mother. If she would have me. Go ahead and feel distaste for my antics with the lush, call me misogynous, misanthrope, Mr. Rogers. Just don’t call me late for my Zoom ‘n’ Locker Room! Every single one of you has acted every bit as oafishly base some New Year’s or other or several or all of them. And you’re gonna do it again this year. The occasion just seems to bring out the worst in us: hatred of ourselves, probably deriving from repression of the clear knowledge that we’re another year older and deeper in debt but ain’t accomplished hackshit and in fact are likely backpedaling; hatred of the rest of the human race because they’ve got our number in this department, especially including women if you’re a man or vice-versa, ’cause that’s just like neighborhood gang war, “beating up the kids from Spain” every weekend like the Dictators said. Whoever’s on the other side of the wall gives you something to do in the form of mashing their skulls, don’t really matter a damn which special-interested group they belong to, all interchangeable when you get right down to it. There’s a lot of free-floating rage in the air these days and New Year’s Eve is just one better excuse to vent it. ‘Course that means you’re gonna wind up rendered a crawling slavering subhuman dog yourself, but that’s half the fun. The only alternatives re this “human dignity” stuff are that old saw about crossing the International Dateline, total isolation (always a good move anyway), or perhaps most sensibly JUST GIVING INTO THE THING AND ACTING LIKE TOTAL WRETCHED DISGUSTING BEASTS. And maybe if we all get drunk enough we’ll all have blackouts so trackless and remarkably sustained that we’ll never remember all the reprehensible things we said and did to each other, hence no guilt. Either that or we’ll all wind up killing each other at last. Though that may be the dream of a blind optimist. If so, an alternate experiment in participatory democracy might be arranged whereby we’d all agree to stockpile beforehand so when we wake up on New Year’s Day we’ve made sure there’s a thousand whiskey bottles around the bed, and then we can start over again immediately, quick as a Wheaties Olympian, before a single one o’ them ghastly memories sifts back in. And what’s more, don’t anybody get up, from sea to shining sea, don’t get up ever but just keep on like that under or over the covers, your option, en masse till New Year’s 1990. We’ve worked hard at wrecking after degrading everything we ever cared about, and deserve a good Puritan rest. Like Gore Vidal said when Tennessee Williams told him he’d slept through the sixties: “You didn’t miss a thing.”

Categories
From The Archives Living NYC ARCHIVES

Travel ’86: What’s Your Trip?

What’s Your Trip?
May 27, 1986
Survey by Lois Draegin

RICHARD HELL
Poet, actor, musician
The best I’ve ever had were when I took some money up to Grand Central Station, got a train going up the Hudson, and just got off in an arbitrary town and went and stayed at a motel. Alone. For a day. Then I just wan­der around the town a little bit, have a few bucks in my pocket so I can buy a nice book. All the sightseeing spots, like a big puddle in a vacant lot, are revelations to me ’cause I’ve never seen them before and I’m a total stranger and I’m alone. Whenever I’ve gone on a vacation with anyone else where the idea was to go and have fun, get out of the tension and rat race of New York, it’s been utter horror and tedium and viciousness. I hate taking vacations because I’m out of my element. I’m only really on vacation when I’m alone in my apartment.

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RUDOLF
New York nightlife czar
I haven’t gone out of Manhattan in years.
The Hamptons? Yeah, okay, but that’s for work, so you can mention that, sure.
I don’t know the last time I took a vacation. I don’t remember. My business is the kind that you just have to do night and day. I can’t travel. Can’t you hear the telephones ringing?

KEITH HARING
Artist
Bahia, Brazil, is my favorite place in my world. It has the cleanest, most beautiful water. The food is incredible, and the people are really beautiful. It’s far enough away from New York.
I go there every year for a month or two — as long as possible. My friend Kenny Scharf has a house there, so I usually stay there half the time, then go to other cities the rest of the time. Most of the time I just swim and lay in the sun; and eat; and paint.
Travel Tips: Learn to speak Portuguese, be­cause no one speaks En­glish. Stay away from sharks. Don’t drink the water. Never trust the taxi drivers.

CHARLES BUSCH
Actor and playwright, currently starring in his own Vampire Lesbians of Sodom
Ooo, I just had a fabulous vacation. I needed to find a place to go for five days. I told the travel agent I wanted a place that was tropical, where you could lie in the sun, but that had like a triplex movie theater or something you could do at night. He came up with Key West.
So we went there and had a fabulous time. We stayed in a guest house. It was great because you sat by the pool — actually, the beaches are where all the tacky hoi polloi hang out — but the pool is so lovely. And we met all sorts of people: we met a Spanish marquis and a hair dresser from Washington, D.C. At night we went to marvelous restaurants. We saw a horrible production of As Is, which was sort of amusing, and we went to see the singing group Gotham. We toured Hemingway’s house, then we visited the cemetery in Key West, which is real fascinating.
Travel Tip: I use sunscreen 15, so I spent five days in Key West and ended up lighter than when I left. It bleached me. So that’s my travel tip — it’s also a beauty tip.

LL COOl J
Rapper extraordinaire (his name says it all: Ladies Love Cool James)
In March I went to Hawaii. We went to Honolulu, then we went to Maui, then back to Honolulu, so it was very cool. I’ve never been to such a tropical place. It was my first vacation that I paid for and went on. I’ve been on vacations before, but only in the States, like down South, the usual. But that was the first time I had went over to a place like that and chilled.
I chose Hawaii because I knew the weather would be nice. I knew the bikinis would be nice, I knew the bikinis would be nice, I knew the bikinis would be nice. They were. It was an incredible experi­ence. Plus the view in Maui — you see the ocean and the mountains and the cliffs.
I was there a whole week, so it was cool. I took one of my friends with me, E Love — he’s in my group. We laid on the beach, got a little darker, and just cooled out. Didn’t touch the Maui Wowie, but I was coolin’. Runnin’ around, havin’ fun, wasting money. Just going to different places, like Pearl Harbor and all up in the mountains, things like that; buying clothes, buying people gifts.
The best thing about Hawaii  was not having to get up early in the morning and just hangin’. Just being able to do what I want.

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MEREDITH MONK
Transcategorical choreographer/composer/performer
If I ever go on vacation I try to go to New Mexico. Usually I’ve sung a concert as a way of getting there, then I’ll stay for a while. Just being there is like a vacation, even if I’m working.
I like the expansiveness of  the land­scape, and I like the dry heat very much. I like the kind of danger that sort of terrain has. It’s a very powerful kind of thing, and you do feel that you’re slightly in danger all the time: rattlesnakes, what­ever. You feel a certain power of the landscape, and it’s a very interesting per­spective to have, coming from New York. It does interesting things for my work, too.
One of the things that’s amazing is how the terrain changes very quickly: it goes from mountainous, pine-tree sort of ter­rain to desert within half an hour. So there’s a lot of different kinds of terrain in that space. There are canyons that are beautiful and pine trees, but my favorite is the desert, those dry hills of sagebrush, where you really get that expansive sky and the quiet.

RICHARD PRICE
Author (The Wanderers, The Breaks, Ladies Man)
I go to Italy, anywhere, from Sicily to the Italian border in the north. Italy’s main produce is style. It’s a very warm, stylish, artful country. They say France knows how to cook, Italy knows how to eat: it sounds like a cliché, but that’s the nut of it for me. When I’m in Italy, I don’t feel like I’m traveling, I feel like I’m liv­ing. But there is one place in France I would mention, the Périgord region, where all the foie gras comes from. If you go there in season, you pass all these farms where 400-pound geese waddle after your car with these desperate looks in their faces — like “Save me, save me.” Still, I’d go to the shittiest part of Italy before I’d go almost any­where else.

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VIVA
Writer
In the summer I almost always go to the Thousand Islands, which I hate to publicize because more people will come. I’ve been going there since I was 12. We. have a big family, 20 acres, and woods and boats and tennis courts, a big house, guest houses. We were big on water ski­ing, treacherous feats — 12 behind a boat going through a narrow pass type of thing. We also did a lot of exploring by boat, finding islands we didn’t know ex­isted. The river is now polluted. We still swim in it, but when I was 12 we used to dip in a glass and drink.
Now, in my old age, I sit in a former ice house at a typewriter and occasionally look out the window at the ducks and the great blue heron. I do play a little tennis, but I’ve now developed exercise-induced asthma. Five minutes on the court and I’m huffing and puffing. I’m deciding to take up golf — the geriatric delight.
In the winter I concentrate on South America and Mexico. I have family in Argentina; they live on a ranch across from La Perla, which was one of the big­gest concentration camps during the 1970s, so that’s a little, ahem, psychologi­cally tough when you realize you’re en­sconced in the nest of the oligarchy. It’s like being across the highway from Da­chau and having everybody telling you this isn’t happening.
My travels are now political. In Argen­tina I interviewed the mothers of the dis­appeared. Then I went to Uruguay and taped the Tupamaros as they exited from jails after 15 years. Then I went to Bue­nos Aires to a military trial and took notes. My basic aim in this trip was to gather details for a novel I’ve been writ­ing for five years. Then I went to Rio for that facelift I wrote about.
Travel Tips: I never follow it, but never bring any clothes. Never take a charter flight. This is the greatest travel tip I could give anybody: Stay away from plans altogether.

TAYLOR MEAD
Sui generis… poet/filmmaker
I go to Port Jervis, New York, about twice a month. I have a friend with a nice estate there. He has four dogs and six cats. I adore animals and I take all the dogs for walks three times a day. They sleep with me and everything.
I suppose Port Jervis was thriv­ing up till 1942, or something like that, when all the young men went away to war. Now the city is sort of suspended in time. It has an other­world quality, like a twilight zone. It’s kind of dairy country, with low gentle rolling hills, woods, a great pond, old stone walls. The Delaware River is not far away, and we go rafting on that, which is a terrific pastime. It’s amazingly beautiful and only 75 miles away. In fact, people are finding it out now, and my friend’s getting worried.
Of course, I could spend the rest of my life living six months in Greece and six months in Manhattan. I’m waiting for Brian McNally, who owns Indochine, to buy a restaurant in Greece. He’s promised I could have the apartment over the restaurant. Then I could come down and dance with the local Greeks.

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PATRICIA FIELD
Fashion designer
The last place I went on vacation was Italy. I took an Italian holiday for 10 days. Shopping. That’s what I did. It was for the act of it: go to Rome, go shopping.
Usually when you travel you’re sup­posed to bring the least amount neces­sary to drag. Well, this was the opposite. I went with the idea of getting dressed and turning it out on the streets of Rome. I had my whole wardrobe there, turned it out, brought hats, suits, coats. It was like theater. So I slept, got up, hung out, called room service, went out for lunch, went shopping. It was one of these mov­ies kind of trips. It was good, especially in Italy — the Italians like all that stuff. They’re very overdone, so they really re­sponded to it.

GRACE PALEY
Writer of short story collections Later the Same Day, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, and The Little Distur­bances of Man; political activist
I never think about vacations. That makes me sound like a workhorse, whereas I’m the exact opposite. I live in Vermont half the time, and New York. Either of those two places is wonderful. If I think of a vacation, I’d like to be in either one of those two places without any other work than my writing.
I haven’t been near an ocean enough in my life. Here I am in New York, right next to an ocean, and I don’t even know it, right? So I’d like to live near an ocean and know that I live there, with full knowledge of where I am. It wouldn’t be a vacation, but it would be living some­where else, which is my idea of a vacation.
And I like to go someplace I haven’t been — wherever that is. Most of the world, I guess. I like everywhere I’ve been — how could you not? But being on my own street is often nice, too. Today the ginkgo leaves are sticking out their pinkies.

DAVID MURRAY
Jazz musician-saxophonist and com­poser
I go to the Caribbean, St. Croix, once a year. I like it because it’s hot and the people down there look like me.
Travel Tip: Take some time off.

MARTHA ClARKE
Choreographer/director of the imagistic hit theater piece, Vienna Lusthaus
Whenever I think, where would I most like to be in this horrible mo­ment, the answer is usually someplace in Italy, gorging my face with pasta.
There’s a wonderful town called Ra­vello. It’s on the Amalfi coast in the mountains, and it’s where Wagner wrote Parsifal. One wants to whisper there, it’s so awesome, so beautiful; you know, lem­on groves, terraced hills, a beautiful little Romanesque town square with an old church. I also adore Venice. It’s like being in a fairy tale: the light, the smell, the gondolas, the whole business.
Travel Tip: I used to be very fearful of going to a major city without a hotel res­ervation, but now I always worm my way into someplace.

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

What Do Madonna, Ice-T, and the Ramones Have in Common?

You can read a lot of record executives’ memoirs and, between the boasting and humblebragging and score settling, the usual courses through which the genre hops, you’ll have a hard time finding much that feels like real passion for music. Making hits, achieving success, counting awards, sure — but music itself, less so. Of course: The music industry hardens people. Even the likes of the late Warner Bros. PR genius Stan Cornyn (2003’s Exploding: The Highs, Hits, Hype, Heroes, and Hustlers of the Warner Music Group) or Nirvana manager turned Atlantic Records president Danny Goldberg (2009’s Bumping Into Geniuses: My Life Inside the Rock and Roll Business), two of the biz’s sharpest observers and most eager fans, couldn’t quite overcome the format’s limitations — both clearly loved music itself, but by each book’s end the spark had dissipated, whether via disappearing into minutiae, à la Cornyn, or blanding out some, à la Goldberg.

This happens as well with Siren Song: My Life in Music, the new memoir of Sire Records founder Seymour Stein, who signed the Ramones, Talking Heads, and Madonna to his label, as well as being a founding member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee. But it’s equally clear that Stein cares more about music than anything else. That’s a reason the book’s finale retreats to earth — he’s accounting for the costs of that fanaticism: not only a failed marriage to Linda Stein, who became the Ramones’ co-manager with Danny Fields (and was brutally murdered in October 2007 by an assistant who’d been skimming money from her), but also guilt over his admittedly absent fatherhood and the grief he felt at the death of his elder daughter, Samantha. Not to mention Stein’s own frequent hospital visits (heart problems exacerbated by his prodigious cocaine use) and his own lack of foresight to the costs of doing business with Warner Bros. — a great office overlooking Rockefeller Center, but a diminished stake in his own company, which would be folded into Elektra during Warners’ Nineties merger mania before being unfolded back into a freestanding label.

Seymour Stein (4th from right) with The Ramones, Iggy Pop, and his wife Linda Stein

If the downfall of most music-biz books is keeping the suits straight, Stein sidesteps that neatly; his portraits of his colleagues, in and out of Warner Bros., are indelible. His co-writer likely contributed as well: the Irish music journalist Gareth Murphy, author of 2014’s Cowboys and Indies, a lively if occasionally shaky record-biz history, whose broad strokes match well with Stein’s sure-footed historical grasp and crisp phrasing.

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Seymour Steinbigle grew up in postwar Brooklyn, a melting pot where, he notes, “Going to university was not what people did or expected of their children.” Like many city kids of the time, he became an ardent fan of R&B — which, even before Elvis, was a “fast-growing craze among white teenagers.” A rabid follower of the charts, teenaged Seymour finagled his way into the Billboard office, copying out charts by hand and eventually finding himself interning for Syd Nathan, the imperious founder of King Records — one of the greatest postwar indies, with equally important rosters of country (Moon Mullican, the Delmore Brothers, Hank Penny) and R&B (Wynonie Harris, the “5” Royales, Little Willie John) before signing James Brown — who insisted the kid lop off half his surname.

Stein also gives it up for David Geffen, whom he calls “the smartest record boss of us all,” singling him out for praise for having paid for the funerals of so many AIDS victims: “For this alone, I will not tolerate a bad word about David Geffen.” He’s a lot meaner, and funnier, about Clive Davis, who joins the table of Stein and his boss, Mo Ostin, one morning for breakfast at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Davis claims with a straight face that his label, Arista, won’t release a Barry Manilow best-of because, since he had chosen the singles, “it should really be called Clive Davis’s Greatest Hits.” In response, Stein reports that “a muscular spasm in my left leg kicked Mo under the table”; showing the subsequent bruise, Ostin admonished him, “Look what you just did to me!” after Davis went to take a phone call.

Stein was born April 18, 1942, and grew up “on Dahill Road, just off King’s Highway near a predominantly Syrian corner of Bensonhurst that was otherwise Brooklyn’s Little Italy,” he writes.  His parents had him at comparatively late ages for the era, she 36, he 41; the family was in the grocery business, with one great-uncle a successful olive oil importer. His father was Orthodox, but lenient; they left Seymour to his obsessions: “collecting stamps, bottle caps, and trading cards, anything interesting and flashy.”

Seymour Stein

Growing up, Stein knew he was gay but wasn’t entirely sure what to do about it; he knew, like so many of the people he’d come to know, that “the coolest thing about me was my record collection.” Though Stein is quite comfortable with his sexuality, he retains an unfashionable discreetness about it, with no qualms about having never come out to his parents: “Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think we become more enlightened by kissing on subways or by talking the life out of our quirks and kinks.” In one of the book’s clear money stories, he’s not merely discomfited by the sexual advances of Dee Dee Ramone — who waltzed into Stein’s apartment after Linda had left and displayed himself, ready to go — but caustic about it: “For a prostitute, Dee Dee obviously hadn’t progressed very far up from public toilets.”

Stein founded Sire in 1966 with producer-writer (and occasional performer, as with the Strangeloves of “I Want Candy” fame) Richard Gottehrer, initially the company’s in-house producer and A&R man. Sire’s early releases were primarily imported British blues-rock; Stein scored his first major hit with Dutch prog-rockers Focus’s “Hocus Pocus,” which went top ten in 1973. Another early British signing, Climax Blues Band, went to number three (thanks in part to some grease, as Stein notes) with “Couldn’t Get It Right” in 1977. That success helped to finance Sire’s signing up many of the mid-Seventies bands playing downtown.

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It’s refreshing to read such a clear-eyed account of the CBGB’s era, even one written from a Midtown office. In the fall of 1977, Sire released debuts from Talking Heads, the Dead Boys, and Richard Hell and the Voidoids along with the third Ramones album, Rocket to Russia, through a new deal Stein had made with Warner Bros. Initially, Sire was looking for distribution; Mo Ostin instead suggested a partnership. For Warner Bros., Stein surmised, getting on the New York punk train was “a way to get hip and to do it pretty damn quickly.” Warned of Ostin’s Machiavellian ways, Stein nevertheless entered into what he’d later term as “about as joint a venture as a whale swallowing a fish” with Warner Bros., reveling for a few years in near-unlimited power to sign whatever he wanted.

Stein’s attitude was simple: Get there first or don’t bother. “I thought bidding wars were pointless,” he writes. “Why waste a pile of money on one act when half as much money could get three up and running?” That philosophy put Sire near the top of independent rock at the turn of the Eighties, as Seymour found gold in artists like Echo and the Bunnymen, the Smiths, and the Cult. It helped that Stein was nearly alone in going after these prime post-punk and alternative acts: “The weird thing about the early-to-mid-Eighties was how unadventurous nearly all the American majors had remained,” he writes. But Stein certainly noticed when Ostin stole the B-52’s right out from under him, the band’s manager mollifying Stein by insisting the Sire label go on the LP anyway.

Stein with David Byrne and Madonna at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1996

As any A&R person would, Stein spends an entire chapter detailing his biggest catch ever — “the record man’s equivalent of Florence Nightingale,” as he describes Madonna, walking into his hospital room shortly after his open-heart surgery. Stein’s initial interest was in her producer, Mark Kamins, a Danceteria DJ he admired: “He already had a sound.” Kamins brought Madonna the evening Stein heard the cassette: “I told her you were sick, but she really wants this,” he explains to Stein, who asks the nurse to “send me in a hairdresser as quickly as you can. … Of course, Madonna took one look at the tube stuck into my skin and squirmed.” Though he was impressed with her forthrightness, Stein writes, “there was no reason to believe I was looking at a female Elvis.” Indeed, Ostin refused to sign off on Madonna, figuring her music, Stein writes, as “a downtown dance experiment … pointless twelve-inch bullshit.” Stein quickly learned better: “Madonna was always the smartest person in the room, even when she wasn’t physically there.”

In Stein’s life, the highest moments invoke the true fellowship music can bring. He doesn’t puff up his signees’ talent, instead highlighting great moments like a fan: Writing about the Pretenders’ “Back on the Chain Gang,” he pinpoints its opening line, “I found a picture of you,” as its center: “Isn’t that how bereavement feels?” Stein takes pride in his place on the committee for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; with honorable candor, he dubs the latter “some kind of mausoleum for our own community.”

One of Siren Song‘s most indelible moments comes when Stein is trying to sign Ice-T to his label. Accompanied by his manager, the L.A. gangsta rap pioneer and actor sits in Stein’s office and asks the old record man straight out why Seymour wants him. Stein’s inspired answer is to play him the Mighty Sparrow’s calypso classic “Jean and Dinah,” about Trinidadian prostitutes left without work in the wake of the island’s U.S. military bases closing. A bawdy social satire, this song sounded absolutely nothing like the records Ice-T had already made or would make for Sire, but was totally on target as an assessment of the kind of public truth-telling role Stein saw in his gangsta rap. “I want to sign with you!” Ice-T exclaimed. Who wouldn’t?

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Picabia, Nihilism, and Searching for Meaning in Art in 2017

This is going to be a little bit dark and weird, but I can’t help it: it’s 2017. The universe doesn’t care about us! Maybe 2018 will be better. (Those numbers look weird. I don’t want to count from Christ.) But I was asked about what book or movie or art exhibit affected me most this past year, and what came to mind was the Picabia show at MoMA. I was amazed by the show. I loved it and learned from it and I’m still thinking about it.

Inevitably, in 2017 the thought of the Picabia show also brings Trump to mind. The two men have things in common. Both have been plausibly called nihilists (as have I, in fact, in connection with my “punk” history). Both inherited enough money to live comfortably their whole lives. (Picabia was born and raised in Paris; his father was a Spanish-Cuban aristocrat with a sugar plantation and his mother came from wealthy and intellectually distinguished French merchants.) Both lied and misrepresented themselves a lot and were sexually self-indulgent and untrustworthy. They also lived to insult and provoke. How could what is repulsive and ridiculous and scary in Trump be fascinating and intriguing in Picabia?  I suppose art absorbs everything without damage; societies don’t. Societies are about living in harmony and prosperity; art is about how things are.

Francis Picabia, “Très rare tableau sur la terre” (1915)

I mentioned I have a “punk” background. A lot of what punk was about was “authenticity” or “honesty.” Of course, a quality carried to its extreme becomes its opposite (the universe appears to be curved) (or, as Picabia put it, and MoMA adopted for his show’s title: “Our heads are round so our thoughts can change directions.”) Picabia was so fraudulent he was completely real. He probably found that “heads are round” line in a newspaper somewhere. It doesn’t sound like Nietzsche, who was the writer Picabia usually stole from, and by all accounts the painter didn’t read much.

Picabia, of course, is primarily associated with Dada, that and with Duchamp, who was his lifelong close friend, and from whom he also seems to have taken a lot of ideas. Duchamp was an originator of conceptual art more than he was a Dadaist. Picabia is largely a mixture of those two tendencies, Dada (“anti-art” art) and the conceptual. Also “of course” Dada and punk have things in common: mockery of the idea of skill or virtuosity in art, a general inclination to subvert… Irreverence, brattiness, aggression. Dada was also thought of as nihilist, though it was a kind of idealistic nihilism, in that it was largely a reaction of anger and despair regarding the values and social structures and political leaders responsible for the unprecedentedly horrific and pointless carnage of the First World War.

Francis Picabia, “Parade amoureuse,” (1917)

The 20th century was full of massacres. People are always trying to put the killing in perspective, find ways to say it’s not so bad. I often wonder myself. I wonder how lucky I am not to have been in a fully hot war zone, or an imposed famine, or some other murderous situation in my lifetime (yet). I wonder how large a proportion of general human life is about murder. I wonder how much time throughout history the average person has spent with his life immediately threatened by other human beings, as in a war zone or an extremely violent neighborhood or household. I tried to figure it out recently. The best I could do was find statistics on violence. A World Health Organization report online read that “In 2000, an estimated 1.6 million people worldwide lost their lives to violence—a rate of nearly 28.8 per 100,000. Around half of these deaths were suicides, nearly one-third were homicides, and about one-fifth were casualties of armed conflict.” Somehow the numbers didn’t really enlighten me as to how miserable exactly it is to live in our world. The most surprising thing was what a large proportion—half—of violent deaths are deliberately self-inflicted. That suggests that perhaps things are even worse than they seem.

Francis Picabia, “Espagnole a la cigarette,” (1921)

Figuring out Picabia is almost as hard as figuring out how mean human life is. I’ve always appreciated Dada but have not been particularly fixed on it, partly because, whatever “metaphysical” position I may have (nihilist?), I love art (and being “honest,” I don’t want to deny that, however uncool it may sound). I depend on art. Art is the only answer I have. I hardly believe in anything else, and, supposedly, Dada was about subverting art, demystifying it, mocking it, destroying it. The thing is, even more than capitalism, art absorbs all its opposition. Once you acknowledge it, it owns you. And that’s what’s so revealing about the Picabia show. It demonstrated the power of art despite all arguments to the contrary, seeing as how some of the most beautiful and interesting art of the century was created by someone, Picabia, with nothing but contempt for art, if an apparently irresistible compulsion to create it. Art is the field for those who want to know what’s going on, whether they like it or not.

Francis Picabia, “Portrait d’un Docteur” (1938)

Everything about Picabia is suspect, except for maybe two things: the quality of his work and the respect and affection he won from his friends, extraordinary brilliants like Apollinaire and Duchamp and Gertrude Stein. Not only was Picabia independently wealthy (he spent a lot of money on fast cars and yachts), apolitical, and intensely egotistic, it seems that he was a narcotics addict. He was a rampant plagiarist, most egregiously in his many writings, half of which were aphorisms, most of which he copied from Nietzsche. He didn’t draw very well. He mostly liked living the high life on the Riviera with his witty friends and many and simultaneous lovers and wives. It all seems completely frivolous, when not positively evil. Yet not only are his works tremendous, but a lot of their aura positively comes from their dubious origins and aspects—unlike say T.S. Eliot whose conservatism and anti-Semitism can incline one to rethink one’s opinion of his art, Picabia’s plagiarism and appropriation actually confer glamor. He’s proving that plagiarism does no harm in the hands of a good artist. People don’t own ideas. He’s enlarging your mind. Can a self-absorbed immoralist make great art? Of course.

Picabia was essentially a Dadaist before Dada. Dada was founded in Zurich by Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, et al., in 1916. Tzara wrote Picabia, inviting him to join them, in 1918. Picabia had been painting his “mechanomorphic” canvases, which were basically diagrams of industrial/electrical machinery copied directly from a popular science magazine, since 1915. (There is actually a case to be made, too, that Picabia painted the first ever purely non-representational—abstract—painting with his Caoutchouc of 1909.) Unsurprisingly, Picabia’s friend Duchamp was meticulously depicting machinery and machine diagrams before Picabia.

Francis Picabia, “Tetes superposees,” (1938)

I’ve always been something of a snob about Dada, I should mention, too, because, as seductive and invigorating as it was, by the time I was born Dada was passé, inevitably. Every artily precocious high school kid ate it up, and who wants to be an artily precocious high school kid? So we made up “punk” instead. Now, at age 68, I’m both less threatened by Dada and less pridefully snobbish. The thing about it, that I now see Picabia most fully demonstrating, is that, despite everything, Dada still presented sensibility. Despite being “anti-art,” practitioners of Dada made art of great beauty. I first learned this from the exquisite collages of Kurt Schwitters. Dada had a lot of inner contradictions. How was it possible to oppose art, mock art and all its pretensions, while making art (from garbage) as beautiful as Schwitters’s is. Somehow it wasn’t inconsistent. I could hold the opposing ideas in my head at once and still function. I’m smart (as Donald Trump likes to say)! My generation grew up with the idea of authenticity and passion as the ground for art-making. Cezanne through Pollock. But something else was going on too, and as much as I loved it—Duchamp and Warhol and Kippenberger—there was still a thread of skepticism in me about art that is apparently frivolously or coldly calculated, or even derisive about art-making altogether. But, in fact, as I’m sure you know already, you can be fake and not give a damn and still make great art, especially if there’s some wit involved too. That’s exciting.

Francis Picabia, “Femmes au bull-dog” (1941)

Another interesting thing is that I don’t know how to explain how good Picabia’s paintings are. Like a lot of painters in the past couple of centuries he had many periods and styles. The one thing you could say about him, the way in which he was consistent, is that all the paintings seem to have followed from fairly simple formulae. Copy mechanical diagrams from technical magazines. Superimpose elements and outlines of images across each other. Arrange figures copied from soft porn magazines. Attach series of objects or prominent arrangements of heavy marks to the surface of images. There’s a lot we still don’t know about him. I remember when it became generally known that that whole period of his mildly-porny/cheerful-communist poster imagery was actually copied from European soft porn and other mass market magazines. It took a while for scholars to figure that out—same for his appropriation of Nietzsche in his writings. I learned a new thing from the MoMA exhibit: I didn’t know that Picabia as a young man, circa 1905 (he was born in 1879), had been an apparently serious, successful post-Impressionist, making paintings that looked to me like Robert Crumb doing Albert Sisley, and that, despite Picabia’s sincere-seeming Impressionist conservatism (by 1905, to be Impressionist was to be conservative), many of those paintings were apparently copied from post cards, rather than painted in true Impressionist style, en plein air. In other words, at that point he was behaving as a conceptualist/Dadaist without there being any indication that he wasn’t in fact a striving, conventional young academic painter. What was up with him???

Basically, I think he wanted to get ahead as an artist and he was very smart and he didn’t care what means he used. The ends justified the means, he felt, probably without giving it much thought at all. It’s like love and war. Who knows? But the lesson I took away is: trust your sensibility. It’s all you have, there are no other rules in art. Van Gogh and Picabia are pretty much opposites in any way you can think of, but they are both genuinely great (to the extent that humans get to use the word “genuine”).

Francis Picabia, “Lachete de la barbarie subtile” (1949)

There’s so much that’s clumsy and/or kitschy about Picabia’s canvases, but it doesn’t matter. Their richness makes up for it, where it’s an issue at all (clumsiness and kitsch have their own charms too). His paintings are like what the human world is saying at that time and place, which is all that art can be. Like the world itself at one point, around 150 million years ago, said “turtle,” the human world speaks in art, and during Picabia’s lifetime his art was eloquent. It still is. Perhaps it was as conceptual as it was “retinal” (to use Duchamp’s term for art as simply a visual experience), and often it is sourced from vulgar or commonplace imagery, but on the wall it tells you what is happening in the 20th century, and it is fascinating, poignant, funny, gorgeous, and sad.

There is no meaning, there is only sensibility. Trump is an ugly monster because he’s an amoral, egomaniacal nihilist who’s put himself in a position to control people’s lives for his own benefit. Picabia is a beautiful monster, however disturbing his nihilism may seem, because he’s an artist with an advanced sensibility who gave that sensibility free play in his work. The nihilism increased the freedom.

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Punk Icon Richard Hell Looks Back at “Blank Generation” Forty Years Later

In the photograph, Richard Hell stretches open his jacket to show the words “YOU MAKE ME ____” written across his upper chest in thick black marker. The punk-rock pioneer liked the way the image simultaneously blamed the world (“you”) and engaged his audience to fill in the blank, much like his song “Blank Generation.” “YOU MAKE ME . . . Crazy,” “YOU MAKE ME . . . Complete,” “YOU MAKE ME . . . Want to tear this jacket off, and throw you down on the bed.” It could mean almost anything. Shot by Roberta Bayley at Chris Stein and Debbie Harry’s loft on the Bowery, there was little doubt that the image would be the cover for the seminal album Hell was working on.

“He was always very aware what his image was going to be in the picture,” says Bayley, chief photographer at Punk magazine at the time. The two worked well together — perhaps because they were once romantically involved — and while the idea was all Hell’s, it was Bayley who wielded the marker. “I think he must’ve just felt relaxed around me because we knew each other. Also, some photographers probably would’ve been less open to letting him dictate what he wanted the picture to be like,” she says.

Despite Hell’s heavy-lidded grimace, the image was strangely inviting, defiant and sexy and slightly ridiculous. As the cover to Blank Generation, the debut album from Richard Hell and the Voidoids, it would become a totem of punk-rock iconography.

Not everyone loved it, of course. In a list of the top ten worst album covers in history for The Rolling Stone Book of Rock Lists, Lester Bangs gave Blank Generation the number one ranking. The legendary rock critic was kinder to the music, conceding that the album “turned out to be one of the wildest rock ‘n’ roll onslaughts of the year” and that Hell was “one of the greatest rock ‘n’ rollers I’ve ever heard.”

Hell first gained notoriety on New York’s fledgling punk scene playing with his high school friend Tom Verlaine in Television. Hell would later compare creating these early “electrically amplified songs” to being born: “It moved you and shook you and woke you up.” A fixture at Max’s Kansas City and and CBGB’s, Hell went on to form the Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunders before taking center stage with the Voidoids. Composed of Robert Quine, Ivan Julian, and Marc Bell (later to rename himself Marky Ramone), the band made their debut at CBGB’s in the fall of 1976. “The record was made three months after,” Hell explains. “So it was when we were at our freshest.”

This week, for Record Store Day, Blank Generation is getting a reissue in honor of its 40th anniversary. Hell, for his part, wasn’t so sure about the idea. At least not at first: He’d already mined his memories and exorcised his demons from the period in his colorful autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, and he wasn’t exactly eager to resurface those emotions. On top of that, as Hell admits, he’s scrupulous and a control freak. “I knew it was going to be really demanding, because whether or not I thought that it was meaningful or justifiable — as opposed to being a marketing idea — it was going to take a lot of attention from me,” he says. “And it did. I oversaw every aspect of it, but as it went along, I got more engaged and now I’m feeling really satisfied and fulfilled.”

https://youtu.be/Uo_88u0JGSo

The deluxe edition was remastered by Greg Calbi of Sterling Sound, who mastered the original LP. The accompanying booklet includes an essay by Hell that outlines the album song by song (“The kind of thing that you can only get from the person who was writing and recording the music,” he says), a new interview with guitarist Ivan Julian, snapshots from Hell’s personal journals, and previously unpublished photos of the band, taken by Bayley.

“The snappiest stuff on the record is a set of four tracks that were outtakes from the original record, and they’ve never been heard by anybody for forty years,” says Hell. “There’s a couple different performances of ‘Blank Generation’ and ‘Love Comes in Spurts,’ then different mixes and electronic manhandling of another couple of cuts that we decided against using in 1977.” These tracks are joined by four or five live performances from that first Voidoids appearance at CBGB’s in 1976. The reissue advances the record and fills out the band’s story, making it accessible not only to fans, but also to those coming at it for the first time.

As much as for his musical output — or his membership in three classic New York bands — Hell is most often remembered today for inventing the quintessential punk aesthetic that would inspire the Sex Pistols and countless other bands. It started in his early Television days: pegged black jeans, torn t-shirts, and frayed clothes held together with safety pins, hair cut short and ragged “in a style that poked up in shreds and thatches.” It was an attitude that reflected an idea of metamorphosis and self-invention — particularly through image and style — that interested Hell in the first place, when he arrived in late-’60s New York as a bookish prep-school dropout with a passion for Rimbaud. Hell, after all, was a “tragic poet” who reinvented himself in rock ‘n’ roll.

https://youtu.be/TP3x-VdOb44

It all feels distant now. Despite his affection for bygone eras — Hell is nowhere happier than surrounded by old books — he isn’t especially nostalgic for his own past. Having quit music in 1984, partly in an effort to kick a debilitating drug habit, Hell has spent the last few decades devoting himself to writing. Working on the reissue of Blank Generation certainly evoked the time and place, mainly the essence of the Lower East Side in 1976, but it was as if he was observing moments rather than reliving them. For Hell, it’s another world entirely.

“It’s really like you’re looking at another person, but you know at the same time that it’s actually you,” Hell says. “You can feel a kind of affection or horror at this person that you once were, but it’s only personal in a very uncanny, eerie way. It’s not like a direct nostalgia because you were somebody else at that time. There is this sense of fondness — it’s almost paternal — for some previous self.”

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THE COOL CROWD

The sonic skronk and squall that informs the downbeat post-pop expressionism of artist Christopher Wool, currently the subject of a career retrospective at the Guggenheim, is reflected in Nation Time, an evening of music and performance 
co-curated by the artist himself. His selections reflect a happy symmetry: They include punk godfather Richard Hell, who reads here, and Arto Lindsay, whose trio DNA virtually defined the No Age sound with brief blasts of head- or room-clearing noise. Even better, the free-jazz spirit embodied by Wool’s snarliest graffiti-inspired paintings is represented by legendary 
improviser Joe McPhee and the Scandinavian trio known as The Thing, whose new Boot! opens with a scalding reinterpretation of Coltrane’s sanctified “India.”

Wed., Nov. 20, 7 p.m., 2013

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STYLE RIOT

When Richard Hell started spiking his hair and holding his shredded T-shirts together with safety pins, later influencing the Sex Pistols, he certainly could never have guessed that one day his rebellious fashion statement would be on display in the stuffy Metropolitan Museum of Art. But it’s at PUNK: Chaos to Couture, the latest Costume Institute exhibition, where you’ll find him along with other famous punk rockers, as the show aims to pair up their DIY styles with the luxury clothing they inspired from designers including Hedi Slimane, Ann Demeulemeester, and Karl Lagerfeld. There will be seven galleries in all. Hell can be found in the CBGB gallery, naturally; Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood will have their own gallery, devoted to their famous Seditionaries boutique; and another, called “DIY hardware,” will explore the creative uses of spikes, studs, zippers, and chains.

Tuesdays-Sundays, 9:30 a.m. Starts: May 9. Continues through Aug. 14, 2013

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Rebellious Reads: 5 Book Events You Don’t Want To Miss

“Katharine Hepburn: Rebel Chic”
The National Arts Club
Mar. 13, 6:30, Free
If you actually expend thought on something like the excessive (still developing) ado over Anne Hathaway’s Oscar dress, it’s true that Katherine Hepburn begins to appear very rebellious indeed. Today the film legend might embody the concept of “classic” style, but during the height of her career she maintained a relaxed control of her personal appearance that has been described as “insouciant,” or as it amounted to, pretty darn badass. Hepburn helped change the image of the modern woman, using tailored, masculine suits to define her athleticism and independence, not to mention wearing trousers (!) in public (!) before that kind of thing was even allowed, socially speaking. Tonight The Fashion Committee celebrates the release of Jean Druesdow’s book of essays Katharine Hepburn: Rebel Chic (Rizzoli) with an author appearance and screening of Adam’s Rib–the 1949 comedy in which Hepburn plays an attorney opposite her 26-year-long secret love affair Spencer Tracy. Hepburnesque fashions are highly encouraged, so break out those pantsuits and Ferragamo flats.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong and Heather Wood Rudúlph
Bluestockings Bookstore
Mar. 13, 7pm, Free
With regular postings like “The Cosby Show: One of the Most Feminist Shows of All Time?” and “Leave Beyonce, Lena, and Rihanna Alone Already,” sexyfeminist.com is a go-to blog for third wavers who love shoe shopping and housewife-centric reality shows but hate the gnawing, gender-betraying guilt associated with such. In Sexy Feminism (Mariner Books), founders Armstrong and Rudúlph take on the tough questions. How does one justify the ideological/very actual pain of a bikini wax? Should Lady Gaga just put on some pants for chrissakes? Through some, if choice-y, historical background, they offer tips on how to progressively reclaim and re-appropriate lipstick, cooking, stay-at-home momism…um…knitting on the subway, you know, that sort of thing. Tonight they will discuss and debate the finer points, as well as why feminists are “allowed” or “not allowed” to like some things in the first place.

Richard Hell
Barnes & Noble Union Square
Mar. 14, 7pm, Free
In terms of the enormously popular genre of punk-era autobiographies (over which Patti Smith currently reigns high mother), we’re frankly surprised this one didn’t happen sooner. As the ultimate scenester on the Bowery, Richard Hell née Meyers was the essential grimy link that connected a smattering of young icons drifting through the doors of CBGB. In I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp (Ecco), he talks candidly about his painfully average American childhood and compulsion to run away to New York. Once there it became clear that he had knack for starting up bands–Television, The Heartbreakers, and The Voidoids were all notches in his belt–if not sticking with them.While constantly hovering on the fringe of fame, Hell nonetheless provided “Blank Generation,” maybe the definitive anthem of the downtown movement, not to mention an extensive collection of journals purchased and cloistered for a cool $50,000 by the NYU Fales archive. Tonight he’ll read and reminisce about a grittier New York past.

Marc Spitz and Chuck Klosterman
Housing Works Bookstore Cafe
Mar. 18, 7pm, Free
Speaking of reminiscing, we’re doing that about the ’90s now too–along with Marc Spitz. The rock journalist’s memoir about New York in that other era of artistic renaissance is suggestively titled Poseur (Da Capo), even though Spitz was legitimately in tight with the likes of Courtney Love, Pavement, Rivers Cuomo, and The Strokes. His story is filled with candid dialogue, making it pleasingly novelistic–bildungsromanish–if you will. Spitz has a knack for capturing the scene in cinematic detail: the first time he heard Nirvana, his raging heroin addiction, an eventual foray into playwriting and a nod to the (still in tact) awesomeness of our very own Alexis Soloski. Fellow cultural critic and author Chuck Klosterman will join him to discuss the last time downtown New York still felt dangerous.

Rebecca Miller and Jonathan Galassi
McNally Jackson
Mar. 18, 7pm, Free
Kafka did this same kind of absurdist stuff in The Metamorphosis, but we’re pretty sure his editor gave him a hard time about it too. The title character of Rebecca Miller’s new novel Jacob’s Folly (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is a down and out Jewish peddler in eighteenth century Paris, struggling to rebuild his life after an arranged marriage gone awry. But wait: there’s more. After Jacob reaches an untimely demise at age 31, he awakes, present day, reincarnated as a fly in a Long Island suburb. He also has the power to read and like, incept, thoughts–which he uses to help a volunteer firefighter whose life is fraught with tragedy and a young actress with a heart condition. Miller’s background in film adaptation probably accounts for the grand cinematic scope, spanning from (a literal) fly-on-the-wall account to a sweeping family narrative spanning centuries. She’ll sit down with her editor Jonathan Galassi and discuss how they pulled off a coming-of-age tale in which the protagonist is more often than not an insect.

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BLANK GENERATION

“Being a rock and roll musician was like being a pimp,” Richard Hell writes in his new 
autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp. “It was about making young girls want to pay money to be near you.” Yes, move over, Patti Smith—it’s time for Hell to share his version of what it was like to come up in the New York City punk scene of the ’70s. The book follows his transformation from Richard Meyers of the bland suburbs of Lexington, Kentucky, to Richard Hell, the spiky-haired founding member of Television, the Heartbreakers, and Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Tonight, expect the 63-year-old rocker to regale you with tales of touring with the Clash, how he and Tom Verlaine helped turn CBGBs into a legendary destination, and what it was like to run around the city during the heyday of the Ramones, Debbie Harry, and, of course, Ms. Smith, whom he describes as “a natural-born sex waif.”

Thu., March 14, 7 p.m., 2013