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Some make their own luck

Pauline Kael, James Wolcott writes in Lucking Out, his memoir of New York in the Seventies (Doubleday, 260 pages, $25.95), believed that “first responses were the true responses and that repeated viewings gave rise to rationalizations, a fussy curatorship—a consensus-building exercise in your own mind full of minor adjustments that took you further and further away from the original altercation.”

There is a good deal of this Lord-Nelson, never-mind-maneuvers-just-go-straight-at-them approach in Wolcott’s writing for Vanity Fair, and his memoir combines that with a long-string, run-out-the-recollections narrative. Lucking Out takes the Seventies in large-chunk chapters, each focusing on an aspect of that era, such as his start at the Village Voice, his association with Pauline Kael, the rock music scene. It’s an exhilarating ride.

Growing up in Harford County, Wolcott was a student at Frostburg State when encountering the work of Norman Mailer opened his eyes to the fair field of writing. He published in the campus paper an enthusiastic response to Mailer’s account of the march on the Pentagon and presumptuously sent a copy to Mailer. Impressed, Mailer gave him a letter of introduction, and Wolcott dropped out of college there and then and went to New York to make his fortune.*

He was, as his title suggests, lucky. He took his letter from Mailer to Dan Wolf at the Voice, and Wolf sighed and said, “Why don’t you come don, we’ll see if we can find something.”

“And really,” he writes, “everything that’s happened to me since swung from the hinge of that moment, the gate the opened because one editor shrugged and said, Ah, what the hell.”

After a while he moved from clerical duty to publishing pieces in the Voice, and in due time moved beyond it to his current eminence.

I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Pauline Kael and her coterie at screenings. Of Kael’s writing, he says, “She wanted the writing to read like one long exhalation that would seize the reader from the opening gunshot and drop him off at the curb after a dizzy ride.”

The ride with Kael was dizzying for a lad with no particular background. At one point Gore Vidal makes a dismissive remark that takes in Mailer and Wolcott at once: “Boy, did I feel swatted! And yet thrilled too., Here I was, low person on the totem pole, being put in my place as a Mailer fanboy by Gore Vidal in his inimitable epigrammatic manner, his irony at my expense proof that he had been reading me in the Voice and was aware of my existence as a writer, however irksome. That he found me egregious was secondary. I had, in some small, meaningless, minuscule way, arrived.”

Here you see the double perspective that can be so tricky in memoir. He is trying, after the Kael manner, to hurtle along on the events of his callow youth—drinking Coca-Cola at the Algonquin after screenings while the Paulinistas down their cocktails—but with the skill and irony of the developed writer.

I was less enthralled by his account of hearing the young Patti Smith and others at seedy CBCG’s in the Village, having determinedly given no conscious attention to rock music for the past forty years, but there is material there about being a critic that is worth noting. Such as: “It’s better to be thumpingly wrong than a muffled drum with a measured beat.” Or: “Readers and fellow writers get a mean rise out of demolition work of overblown popularities or grandiose follies, but it’s the trail-scout discoveries that a critic cracks into daylight that make the difference after all the balloons have popped.” Or more still: “A reviewer’s praise only means something to readers if it has a force of personality and conviction behind it that hasn’t been compromised by too much cream filling in everything else you’ve written.”

This is a memoir of aesthetic experiences, of the experience of writing, of developing a critical apparatus, of the cultural values and mores of the groups within which he moved. It’s about the development of a critic of writing and music and the arts and society. There is not a great deal of intimate personal detail, even in the chapter on sex in the Village in the Seventies. There is not a great deal of information about people beyond the half-dozen or so figures whom Wolcott has chosen to highlight—though I assume that people in the know will decode the initials identifying certain persons and perceive some score-settling going on in the background. (But if you can’t have a little revenge in your own memoir, then where?)

It is indeed a bouncy ride from Harford County to Frostburg State to the Village, and on through the Seventies, and it does end in a bump with the dawning of the grimmer Eighties. If you were around then, you will recognize the time. If you’re young, you can see what you missed. 

*Here is as good a point as any to make necessary disclosures. Though I, like Wolcott, rose from obscure origins, unlike Wolcott, I stayed in school and tried always to live up to my teachers’ expectations (and you see how that turned out). But this blog caught his eye, and he has described me as “the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing.” You may take it for granted that I was well disposed toward him before opening the pages of his book.

 

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:40 PM | | Comments (5)
        

Comments


Prof. McI.,

Quite the fine compliment from the distinguished, and erudite Mr. Wolcott, no less.

"The Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing", indeed.

Pretty heady company to be keeping, I'd say.

I've been a huge admirer and fan of the legendary jazzman, Dave Brubeck, for going on many moons now. In fact, earlier this year PBS aired a superb documentary in their continuing stellar American Masters series lovingly chronicling Brubeck's close to eight decades of making musical magic, celebrating w/ priceless vintage film footage, and mostly B&W still photos his rarefied status as one of our authentic national cultural treasures.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet's bouncy, breezy "Take Five" (from his seminal, breakout album "Time Out") is still one of my all-time-favorite purely instrumental jazz compositions, period.

Interestingly the element of time in aspects of the metaphoric / metaphysical, and the real and pragmatic, i.e., his innovative compositional timing signatures, appear to be a major preoccupation of the extremely aesthetically attuned Brubeck, over the entire span of his illustrious career as a musician.

After the groundbreaking success of "Time Out", while on a definite positive roll, The Dave Brubeck Quartet followed up w/ hit albums that included "Time Further Out: Miro* Reflections" (1961), "Countdown: Time in Outer Space", and "Time Changes" the next year. There was definitely an intrinsic cosmic, expansive, metaphysical dimension in Brubeck's distinctive jazz style.

The fact that four of Brubeck's sons are accomplished, working jazz musicians in their own right, and often join their pop on stage to perform is a most beautiful thing, indeed.

Hmm........ (playing a bit of the devil's advocate here), respectfully, how Mr. Wolcott saw a parallel in what Brubeck is doing in his realm of music, and you, kind professor, performing within your domain of journalism, (specifically the copy editing trade), slightly baffles me? Not that you don't BOTH do great justice to your respective professions.

As I understand it, from my purely layperson, somewhat naive perspective, the basic jazz form intrinsically relies on a great deal of pure improvisation on the composer's part, and although there are surely certain sets of rules and guiding principles that obtain within the broader jazz idiom, I would venture to guess that musical prescriptive imperatives might take a back seat to pure invention, where bending, or even breaking the rules of convention, in striving to explore new, yet discovered musics-capes and novel modes of creative expression is more the norm. In other words, almost anything goes....... as long as it sounds cool, and fits the discerning musical ear.

John, in your chosen field of copy editing for print journalism, if you started going all 'jazzy' on us, straying too far from the prescribed conventions of the medium (AP style manuel, and such), either you'd be shuffled off to Buffalo, or advised to take an extended leave of absence. Neither a cheery prospect.(Nothing against the fine city of Buffalo, NY. )

Perhaps Wolcott sees a certain parallel between you and Brubeck in that you both display a clear passion in the pursuit of your chosen vocations, and continually strive to give your best , most honest 'performance' in your respective fields of endeavor, knowing your devotees, jazz buffs and readers of the printed page, alike, would expect no less from two seasoned professionals, masters of their individual crafts.

Or then again, maybe the cunning Wolcott just sent in a 'mole' to spy on you while pecking away at the paragraph factory. His secreted informant, having invaded The Sun's inner sanctum, could have caught you in your office throwing up campy Broadway jazz-hand gestures while cheerily 'writing' your blog pieces, or practicing your joke-of-the-week videos. That straw boater (hat) of yours may have been yet another big clue as to your sheer frustration in not pursuing a song-and-dance career.

Hmm......... say, what about, 'The Sachmo Armstrong of the art and craft of copy editing'?

"This is John E. Mac, Dolly....... you're lookin' swell, Dolly......... We're so glad to have you back where you belong........... That goes for you too, blogmeister, McIntyre.

Well, hopefully you get my 'riff'.......... I mean drift?

Peace, and love, brother McI,

*That's the late Joan Miro, the esteemed Spanish modernist/ surrealist painter/sculptor/ printmaker. His parents were thinking of a first name "Sue", but opted for Joan, when they learned that Johnny Cash had first dibs on the androgynous moniker. Remember, "A Boy Named Sue"? (Just checkin'.)

Nitpicky Alexo

No rock and roll? Harrumph!

Not since that Bob Dylan concert on the college green...

The first time I saw Dylan, it was at the Garden with Joan Baez. We spent a lot of the night on the sidewalk, waiting for tickets. They couldn't have cost more than a couple dollars. The last time I saw Dylan was at Post Pavillion. Lot of old farts there.


Eve,

Many of us grey-hairs-of-a-certain-age (the 'baby boomers' among us), seem to somehow long for reconnecting w/ our now relatively ancient musical heros of the '60s and '70s era; many of whom have managed to survive the major travails and pitfalls of the music industry, and as they say in the biz, are still gigging and selling records (well, CDs) to this very day.

So it's very understandable that today's concert audiences gathered for such popular musical relics as Dylan & co., The Stones, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, and their ilk, would be rife w/ "old farts", grizzled codgers, and latter-day hippie types.

Case in point, last November I jumped at the opportunity to see my fellow Canuck, legendary balladeer, Gordon Lightfoot, at the Thousand Oaks Performing Arts Center just outside L.A. It was no great surprise to me that the SRO audience of Lightfoot devotees seated in wide-eyed anticipation of Gordo's arrival on stage were largely senior citizens. In fact, my first thought as I settled in, was this was actually an AARP gathering, or a public forum on the legalization of 'weed', and I must have screwed up as to which venue the concert was at. There wasn't a soul in that mass of humanity under 40. I heard they were giving a door prize to the oldest concert goer------ a jumbo carton of Mallox. (So I lied. Sue me.)

Bottom-line though, a well-seasoned Lightfoot did not disappoint, as he transported us back decades to our misspent, less complicated youth, performing most of his signature self-penned hits, including Canadian Railroad Trilogy, Early Morning Rain, Cotton Jenny, Bitter Green, and the haunting,The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald. His voice was a bit weak on the higher register, but for the most part it was a most satisfying show.

Lightfoot had almost miraculously survived a near-death medical crisis about six years back, w/ the discovery of an undiagnosed near-ruptured aorta, (an aneurism), followed a few months later while recuperating from the heart surgery, by a major bout of pneumonia. Thankfully, he managed to pull thru both life-threatening traumas.

Just a month-and-a bit-ago I took in an evening concert at L.A.'s outdoor Greek Theater, headlined by one of my all-time country favs, Merle Haggard, w/ his special guest artist co-performer, the legendary Kris Kristofferson.

Wow! Talk about a double musical treat.

Needless to say, it was a superb night of country/ folk music nostalgia, w/ these two iconic performers giving it their all, sounding as good as ever, despite their advancing years. Two very talented old farts, good buddies, making beautiful music together. Priceless!

Here again, the audience was , shall we say, on the decidedly mature side---- a motley mix of aging cowpoke-wannabes w/ their Pendelton blankets, Stetsons and turquoise Indian jewelry, former hippies, and aged bohemian, arty types----- kinda Haight Ashbury meets Bakersfield, CA., if you will.

Let's get real, most of today's young people naturally groove and gravitate to music groups like Radiohead, Datarock, Stone Roses, Depeche Mode,The Black-eyed Peas, or contemporary individual marque artists such as Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Beyonce, Adele, Justin Beiber, Kelly Clarkson, or Mary J. Blige, and wouldn't be caught dead at a Lightfoot, or Haggard concert. (Even if the tickets were free.)

Of course, there are a few oldies stars who came to the fore in the late-'50s, '60s, and early-'70s popular music era who appear to have defied the passage of time, and evolving musical genres, and are relevant today. The 85-years-young Tony Bennett comes immediately to mind.

The man who famously 'left his heart in San Francisco' got sound advice from his music manager/ son, who a number of years back suggested his dad duet-and-record w/ some of the current hippest contemporary artists of the 'now' generation. Thankfully, Bennett wisely took his son's council to heart, acted upon it, and the upshot has been the release of two hugely successful "Duets" albums, the 2nd one debuting just a few months ago. The silky smooth-voiced Bennett got to duet w/ a bevy of current headliner on his latest disc, including Lady Gaga, and the late Amy Winehouse.

He's publicly expressed his great sadness at Winehouse's tragic recent passing, and claimed she was a true rising super-star talent in the tradition of some of the great blues and jazz chanteuses of the past. And he had most kind words for Gaga, as well, saying he was pleasantly surprised at how accomplished she was in their studio recording sessions as a seemingly natural jazz stylist, and music interpreter. Who knew?

Interestingly, I read a recent piece in the L.A. Times entertainment section that Sir Paul McCartney is going to cut a record basically paying homage to many of the formative seminal American Rock & Roll, and R&B artists (many of them, African-American) who had the greatest influence on he and his Fab Four mates as they honed their early Liverpool sound.

The famed Brit rocker, Rod Stewart, had some unexpected success, and a bit of a career boost, when he decided to take a calculated risk and record several albums covering the voluminous American classic song book, reprising old Cole Porter, Gershwin (et al) tunes.

In my view, music, not unlike fashion, seems to evolve cyclicly. In other words. what goes around, tends to come back around, admitted modified, yet w/ echoes of something that came before.

Great music never seems to really die, it just keeps getting rediscovered, reinterpreted, and hopefully recorded for future generations of music lovers to savor.

I'm done. (Whew!)

(Eve, are you still awake. HA!)

ALEX

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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