Saturday, December 31, 2011

A New Year’s Reverie: When Memoirs Meet (Smith, Wolcott, Kael)

The streets are cold, it’s hard to get a cab, and your jacket isn’t warm enough--Metropolitan captures that chill discomfort and how the conversations that string between two people walking from one bleak stretch of the block to the corner are part of the invisible wiring of the city, the connective tissue through which memories, memoirs, novels, and, yes, movies are eventually made.

James Wolcott offered a Christmas Nocturne that pointed out why Metropolitan is a great Christmas movie.

For me, this part of his passage envisions the other holiday bookend, New Year’s Eve: wherever go you, you have to get back. However engaging the festivities are inside, they are so often connected by those cold, bleak, deserted streets in the middle of the night. And that connective tissue that spools out far beyond the chatter in the street is, as Wolcott says, the thing of memories and memoirs, which seems an appropriate subject for a December 31 post.

I read Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids in September of this year, and segued into Wolcott’s memoir, Lucking Out. The two together captured the art and soul of the 70s and pinged points in my own timeline. Reading the first-person tales of these cultural players I felt like a little ripple in the water from their radiating splashes, if I may be allowed such an aquatic metaphor.  My timeline would put me in college, in New Brunswick, NJ, in two of its vibrant scenes—indie/punk music, and poetry.

The Court and the Melody

Patti’s description of the beginning of her performing life and Jim’s description of the CBGB scene from its birth rippled into my later memories of the Court Tavern and the Melody Bar circa 1981, a nexus for new bands finding their voice in reaction to the revolution of Horses, Talking Heads 77, the Dead Kennedys, the B-52s, to name some of the standouts. When live bands weren't playing, the speakers thumped the new sounds, new rhythms (Ce que j'ai fait ce soir-là, Ce qu'elle a dit ce soir-là . . . . .Ay Ay Ay Ay Ay Ay Ay Ay). It was a good time to be young and dancing, dancing, dancing, with the thoughts of those papers that needed writing sliding away in waves of sweat.

Even some frats, Fiji in particular, had the vibe in the early eighties, at least for their parties. “Pulled me up” shook the house following Donna Summer, and jocks and denizens of the artistic dorm, Demarest, jumped “up, up, up” together, rubbing elbows and other body parts for the duration of the song, replacing the antipathy the clicks had when the same people passed each other on College Ave.

Wolcott from the epicenter:
“If I can pinpoint the moment the Heads burst through the attic and pointed north, it was the night when they introduced a new number, “Pulled Up,” where the joy whoop of “you pulled me up, up, up, up, up, up!” expressed a giddy, salvational energy that left Warholishm behind like a toy-model village as Astronaut Byrne shed gravity and saw angels knocking around. Not Blakean angels, like Patti’s, but Japanese toys.”

Patti in the epicenter:
In 2010 Patti played a benefit for the Court Tavern, along with The Smithereens and Slaves of New Brunswick, at the State Theater. She had never played there herself, but knew of its historical importance and current need for young bands.


“Smith had two raps for the night, one being about not just saving the Court, not just saving New Jersey, but saving “the whole fucking world!,” her arms often outstretched to hold, or pumped in fists over her head in triumph. The other was about simple perseverance being the key to almost any undertaking in life. Be it music, art, or owning a bar, she hammered home, passionately, that it was the people who kept going that matter, despite being thrown down and fucked over again and again, the people who get back up and keep going, despite the odds, despite what others may care or think, are the ones who triumph.” Mike Black, The Aquarian



William Blake & Allen Ginsberg

 I lived off campus for 2 years, for a short time in Kevin Hayes's apartment on Plum Street that was party central for the academic set. 

He had a tradition of an annual blow-out party for the vibrant poetry scene in NB. One party from 1981 or ‘82 stands out: Alicia Ostriker, a poet who taught at Douglas, edited an edition of complete Blake poems for Penguin, which Allen Ginsberg liked and used for his own work. I think Kevin had arranged for Ginsberg to come for a reading, and then there they were in my old living room, along with the editors of the newly launched lit journal Long Shot, Eliot Katz and Danny Shot, and 100 others on couches, under couches, virtually hanging from the chandeliers. It was the scene from the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, minus the suits (but with several B-52's inspired bouffants).

At one point I was in the kitchen talking to someone about my Milton class with the delectable William Keach when Gregory Corso walked in looking for a bottle opener for his beer, and saying, “Milton. So here’s where all the intelligent people are.” What a great opening line. I’m sorry to report I was too unsure of myself to engage him in conversation. The graduate students, however, pounced.

Somewhere long after midnight I was standing on the 4 or 5 step down from the top of the stairs to the apartment, having a conversation with someone sitting on the landing. The door opened and Allen Ginsberg and some of his entourage were leaving. As he walked down the stairs behind me, he turned and kissed the back of my head. A literary benediction of the highest order. A little of just what an English major hopes to find at college.

Patti from the epicenter:

“...I went through our belongings and found exactly fifty-five cents, slipped on my grey trench-coat and Mayakovsky cap, and headed to the Automat. I got my tray and slipped in my coins but the window wouldn’t open. I tried again without luck and then I noticed that the price had gone up to sixty-five cents. I was disappointed, to say the least, when I heard a voice say, “Can I help?”I turned around and it was Allen Ginsberg.

We had never met but there was no mistaking the face of one of our great poets and activists. I looked into those intense dark eyes punctuated by his dark curly beard and just nodded. Allen added the extra dime and also stood me to a cup of coffee. I wordlessly followed him to his table, and then plowed into the sandwich. Allen introduced himself. He was talking about Walt Whitman and I mentioned that I was raised near Camden, where Whitman was buried, when he leaned forward and looked at me intently.

“Are you a girl?” he asked
“Yeah, I said, Is that a problem?”.
He just laughed. “I’m sorry. I took you for a very pretty boy.”
I got the picture immediately.
"Well, does this mean I return the sandwich?"
"No, enjoy it. It was my mistake."

He told me he was writing a long elegy for Jack Kerouac, who had recently passed away. “Three days after Rimbaud’s birthday”, I said. I shook his hand and we parted company.
Sometime later Allen became my good friend and teacher. We often reminisced about our first encounter and he once asked how I would describe how we met. “I would say you fed me when I was hungry”, I told him. And he did.”


Circles and Squares
 I took one film theory class in college, where we worked our way through the big Gerald Mast/Marshall Cohen compendium, which put Pauline Kael’s "Circles and Squares" right after Andrew Sarris’s "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962" so you can easily read the two together.

That’s a treat everyone should enjoy once in their lives.

Kael eviscerates Sarris with the simplest of tools: a close reading of the text, with her passion for what she sees as the idiocy of the approach—-and particularly his use of “internal meaning” and “élan” which she hammers on repeatedly-—making the pages almost too hot to turn.

One example, but there are so many:

"Sarris believes that what makes an auteur is 'an élan of the soul.'(This critical language is barbarous. Where else should élan come from? It’s like saying “a digestion of the stomach.” A film critic need not be a theoretician, but it is necessary that he know how to use words. This might, indeed, be a first premise for a theory.)"

Later she cries, “I am angry, but am I unjust?”

Wolcott from the epicenter:

"She couldn’t stand 'stiffs,' whose tastes were fully formed, rigidified, and stuck in the petrified forest of the past, and those of us sitting in the Algonquin were on the upswing of our careers, just starting our scouting missions. These were the years of encouragement. Some would stray off target, disappear into the reeds, defect from criticism under the pressure of unfulfilled expectations and career frustrations, or simply find something more frolicking to do, Pauline being more ambitious for them than they were for themselves. In a sense we would all fail Pauline because none of us would surpass her defiant nerve, her resounding impact.”

I happened to be walking through a nighttime Times Square on September 3, 2001, with The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cadfael, when I looked up to see Pauline Kael dead at 83 making its way along the zipper. Crossroads of the world, a crossroad of my life (although I didn’t know it then) and now the end of era, which was just a week away from the end of life as we knew it. Not what Kael had in mind when she opposed Sarris's Circles with Squares, but a cinematic moment I hope she would appreciate.

Happy New Years everyone! All the best in 2012, the Mayans notwithstanding.

Patti Smith at State Theater Court Tavern Benefit, cover of Jim Carroll's "People Who Died"

2 comments:

scribbler50 said...

Wonderful post, M.A., nice how you tied that all together.

Also... a belated happy new year, my friend, let's hope those scarey Mayans got their signals crossed!

M.A.Peel said...

Thanks Scribe. Here's hoping it's a full, good year for you over at your place.