From Punk to Porn: James Wolcott reminds us why the 70s were so loud, weird, smelly and perverse
James Wolcott
WSHU Presents “Join the Conversation” with the writer, blogger and cultural critic. Tuesday, Nov. 1, 7 p.m., University Commons, Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, sacredheart.edu



It takes talent to pivot, the way James Wolcott does in his new book, from writing about punk to writing about ballet and then on to writing about porn.

There aren’t that many critics who merit getting biographies written about them. Most people just don’t care about them that much. (“Being a critic isn’t anyone’s childhood dream of a career,” writes Wolcott.) But a few pencil-wielding giants do come to mind: Pyrotechnic rock scribe Lester Bangs and master movie reviewer for the New Yorker Pauline Kael both have been written about at length. (Bangs was even depicted in the film Almost Famous.) Wolcott, a Vanity Fair columnist and one-time Village Voice writer — a wide-ranging critic himself — knew them both, and loads more fascinating and talented people. His new memoir Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York tells an electric story about making it as a young writer in the big city, before the worlds of piss-stinking rock clubs, revolutionary boho artists and scrappy weeklies got wiped away by commerce, self-immolating drug use and time. “How lucky I was,” he writes, “arriving in New York just as everything was about to go to hell.” Wolcott will read from his book on Nov. 1 at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield as a part of a fundraiser for WSHU public radio.

Wolcott’s regular Vanity Fair column, tackling everything from politics and media to pop culture with his spring-loaded prose, is reason enough to risk an allergic reaction to the magazine’s perfumed pages each month. Wolcott writes with a kinetic charge, like he’s using a chemistry kit or a combustion engine instead of a word processor. Wolcott looks at people, listens to a band, reads a book or sees a movie and he feels “force fields,” “electric insights,” “energy cones,” “pulse centers” and the “radio hum of energy.” His battery-powered bag of verbal tricks makes for carbonated reading, but it’s Wolcott’s own electric insights — and the fact that he was a watchful observer at a time of tectonic shifts in America’s cultural foundation — that give Lucking Out its jet-pack drive. Taking a detour in a chapter on ’70s porn into the world of New York ballet is a twist that rewards the stretching. And Wolcott links the extreme attitudes toward the body shared by both the punk ethos and sex films. “The ’70s had a lot more going on at groin level,” he writes. He compares masturbation to heroin use in their shared goal of briefly snuffing out the self.

Lucking Out avoids the gummy, preening candy center of most memoirs because Wolcott, in true journo fashion, doesn’t ever really reveal that much about himself. (He is a cat person.) He offers a glimpse of his buttoned-up nature when he opts out of a likely reunion with old friends at a visit to the closing night of legendary punk club CBGBs and describes himself as “a coward when it came to unembarrassed joy and affection.” Elsewhere he writes “I prided myself on my lack of pride.” If it’s not exactly about Wolcott, Lucking Out is about all the cool people he knew, worked with, hung out with and wrote about. It’s about Norman Mailer, who in a journalistic Cinderella story, wrote back when a young Wolcott sent the novelist a clipping of Wolcott’s early writing about one of Mailer’s talk-show appearances. Wolcott landed a gig at the Village Voice when Mailer put in a good word for him.

A chapter on Kael conveys Wolcott’s deep feeling for her and his admiration for her blockbuster-making and often contrarian criticism. He describes her best work as “a liberating force that lit up the top floor of your brain.” If a good critic makes a reader want to go out and hear the music, see the art and watch the movies under consideration so they to can feel what the writer felt, Wolcott does the same for the critics whose work offered lightning strikes of clarity and perception. You’ll want to go read Kael and New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce (even if you don’t care for movie reviews and couldn’t tell a pirouette from Kentucky Fried Chicken). Voice rock critic Robert Christgau (who “commanded the pulse center”) makes a brief appearance, as does his one-time partner New Yorker pop critic Ellen Willis. If Wolcott energetically beats the drum for some writers, he puts the boot in for others. Wolcott calls out Willis, Joan Didion and Susan Sontag for being lightweight, icy, pretentious or all three.

Wolcott is a little less compelling when not writing about writing, though not any less entertaining. His chapter on CBGBs, the NY punk and post-punk scene, Patti Smith, the band Television and the whole swirl of late-’70s counter-cultural musical microtrends didn’t necessarily make me want to go crank my up old Cramps records. Still, one can’t help but be impressed by the bands that Wolcott caught as emerging acts trying to carve out an arty minimalist reaction to all the rock pomp — the Ramones, Talking Heads, the B-52s and lots more.

A chapter on ’70s porn and the pornification of American culture is hilarious, in part because Wolcott is always a little demure in his details and metaphors — even when writing about the ramming and jamming, clinical orifice shots and the steady build-up to the spurting finish; hence the “semi-dirty” in the subtitle. (“I was a serial monogamist, not a compulsive pollinator.”)

There are a lot of names to drop — New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, CBGB’s owner Hilly Kristal, New York Magazine founder Clay Felker, porn star Jamie Gillis, dozens and dozens more — and the book might benefit from an index. But thankfully Wolcott knows just how to eye-dropper in the tangy details without resorting to a soggy data dump. Tidbits about creepy but fascinating characters like Ugly George — a DIY video voyeur/provocateur who tried to get strangers on the street to let him film them flashing or undressing for his cable access show — end just before the bad taste in your mouth becomes overwhelming.

The book closes out with a short chapter on the art of the hatchet job, the pleasures of delivering a slashing review to a writer or artist who needs deflating. Wolcott has been known for being “a smart-ass in print.” With age, one senses that Wolcott’s come to regret, just a little, how brutal he sometimes was. “I made enemies with my reviews,” he writes. And “I sometimes wince at the nasty incisions I inflicted on writers when I crossed the line between cutup and cutthroat.”

It’s ancient history now, but an extended accounting of a fire-breathing critical feud between Kael and novelist/critic Renata Adler is interesting in part because it reveals how much criticism once mattered, but also because it captures the sneering schadenfreude and bone-deep petulance that many writers seem to have baked into their characters.

We may have entered a new era of ’70s memoirs — Patti Smith won the National Book Award last year for her book about her artistic coming of age with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and pioneering disco/dance guitarist/producer Nile Rodgers has a new memoir about making music — and Wolcott’s is a worthy companion. Any young writer who wants to get jazzed by the work of a pro should soak up Wolcott’s style.