My friend Jim remarked recently that I read too many rock bios. Guilty as charged, your honor. Sensing that I was maybe dug too deep in that particular trench, and aware of my other predilections, Jim graciously offered me a copy of James Wolcott’s memoir from 2011, “Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York.” I was aware of Wolcott as a Vanity Fair contributor, but I had evidently slept on this book when it was first published. After reading the blurbs on the cover (including one by longtime Flaming Pablum hero Legs McNeil), I was hooked. I even bought myself a hardcover edition at The Strand, so I wouldn’t mess up Jim’s paperback copy.
Not unlike his former colleague Robert Christgau’s sprawling bio (which I basically dismissed on this post), Wolcott’s jaunt down memory lane is — thus far — a comparably tangled tale. And like the laboriously self-described “Dean of American Rock Critics,” Wolcott frequently delivers is prose wrapped in a thicket of arguably needless flourish. What might be handily encapsulated in one or two graphs frequently takes four or five. While I do enjoy — and frequently attempt to partake in, albeit with less celebrated results — the dextrous wielding of the well-honed vocabulary, sometimes one wishes the storyteller would just land the goddamn plane already.
Quibble aside, “Lucking Out” remains a tantalizing glimpse back into the soot-slathered `70’s. While I was still in my single-digits for most of the decade, I do have many memories of the era in New York City, although my encounters with its fabled grit and grime usually came divided by the window of a city bus bound for the staid Upper East Side.* Wolcott, meanwhile, was a young man out on his own during the veritable peak — depending on how you view these things -- of the city’s romanticized period of lawless bohemia. As such, he was able to get comparatively up close and personal with the beast, so to speak.
In any case, I do recommend it.
Here’s a quick taste, featuring Wolcott discussing the book from the atmospheric interior of the Algonquin Hotel, just off Sixth Avenue.
*STUPID FOOTNOTE: This will probably sound either insufferable, myopic or precious, depending on which harrowing part of New York City you might have grown up in: While the Upper East Side in the `70’s was a far cry from the bloodied badlands of the Westies’ Hell’s Kitchen or the fire-blackened rubble of the Lower East Side, it did not go entirely untouched by the perils of the era. The first time I was ever properly mugged (as in “Empty all your pockets and give me all your money or I’m going to fucking hurt you,” etc.) was on the spacious byway of Park Avenue. Even in Manhattan’s comparatively "secure" enclaves like Carnegie Hill and Yorkville, there were murders, theft and prostitution. The last time I was properly mugged was as a high schooler along the leafy, meandering paths of Carl Schurz Park, literally a stone’s throw from the mayor’s digs at Gracie Mansion. Yes, some neighborhoods were better than others, but there was no untouchable neighborhood. Come to think of it, every time I was accosted with intent or flat-out jumped, it was within five or so blocks from my home … in a neighborhood usually described as a safe haven.