In Lucking Out, one learns that its author is a man of humble origins. He was born, he reports, into a drab working-class family in Baltimore: “socially corner-pocketed,” as he puts it in one of the many phrases he avails himself of that have more flair than precision, “and Beauty deprived.” He began his professional life even humbler, as a rock critic for the Village Voice. In the hierarchy of arts criticism, that of rock ranks just a notch above the criticism of marbles.
Rock music, like sex, doesn’t really require being written about. Best to enjoy it if you can and shut up about it afterward. But this doesn’t stop its critics from taking up the old air guitar—once in the form of a typewriter, today in that of a laptop—and stompin’ away. An early critic of rock, my friend the late Albert Goldman, who wrote iconoclastic biographies of Elvis Presley and John Lennon, many years ago sent me an essay he wrote on The Doors—“Come on, baby, light my fire” and all that—which caused me to buy the group’s most recent album. When I told him I had done so, he asked me what I thought of The Doors. “Al,” I replied, “they should have sung your essay.”
Beginning as a rock critic explains a lot about James Wolcott’s overwrought prose—that old air guitar—which he slathers lavishly on all subjects. “Being facile is harder than it looks,” he writes. To which I would reply that finding a paragraph in his memoir free of heavy injections of false energy and sloppy phrasing isn’t any easier. Wolcott will strike off a straight arresting sentence, then follow it up with two or three clotted ones, usually larded with sexual metaphors, similes, and allusions: “I had too much altar boy in me to seize the bitch goddess of success by her ponytail and bugger the Zeitgeist with my throbbing baguette” is but one example among scores. In writing about punk rock, he alerts us that this was a time before “the gold medallions and furry testicles of disco descended” (get that metaphor to a urologist!). “A date movie for the damned, Looking for Mr. Goodbar looked as if it had been coated from floor to ceiling with contraceptive jelly.” “Niche journalism hadn’t yet whittled too many writers into specialty artists, dildos for rent.”
Such prose is beyond mere editing; it requires Drano.
“Our idols are our instructors,” writes Wolcott, and his own idols have been Norman Mailer, Seymour Krim, John Leonard, Marvin Mudrick, Alfred Chester, and above all, Pauline Kael. What these writers have in common is that—with the exception of Mudrick, a literary attack specialist—they all vaunted, and themselves went on, instinct, and had no great regard for intelligence. Pauline Kael once remarked in Wolcott’s presence of the movie reviewer David Denby: “All that boring intelligence.” If a porn movie, a rock performance, a book feels good, it must, ipso facto, be good. Feeling, which must never be betrayed, is all.
Lucking Out includes chapters on Wolcott’s days at the Village Voice, his friendship with Pauline Kael, his fascination with punk rock as he encountered it at the CBGB (Country, BlueGrass, Blues) bar in the Bowery, his interest in pornographic movies, and his discovery, the illegitimate child at this family reunion, of the burnished beauty of the New York City Ballet.
The book begins with Wolcott’s dropping out of Frostburg State in Maryland during his sophomore year and taking his chances on a career in New York. The goad for Wolcott’s leaving school and making a raid on Manhattan was a letter from Norman Mailer. Watching Mailer’s antics one night on television while he was under attack from Gore Vidal and Janet Flanner and Dick Cavett, Wolcott wrote an article for his college paper on the mêlée—a tempest, more precisely, in a demitasse—in defense of Mailer. When he sent the article to Mailer, the novelist responded by suggesting that Wolcott apply for a job at the Village Voice.
Wolcott was eventually given a menial job at the Voice—first in the circulation department answering phone complaints, then as a receptionist of sorts—from which he was able to jump himself up through writing brief entries, then longer pieces, on rock concerts and other popular culture oddments. Charm, one gathers, has never been even Wolcott’s short suit, and his failure to please his boss at the Voice, the city news editor, a woman named Mary Perot Nichols, resulted in his being fired.