By Christian Viveros-Fauné
By Miriam Felton-Dansky
By Tom Sellar
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By Jessica Dawson
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By R. C. Baker
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James Wolcott dropped out of college and left Maryland in 1972 with eyes full of literary dreams and a letter of recommendation from Norman Mailer in his pocket. He wanted to be a writer, so he did the only logical thing that all young, aspiring artists do. He moved to New York City.
He quickly realized that things might be a little more challenging than expected. After interviewing for a nonexistent position at The Village Voice, even with Mailer's stamp of approval, he failed to impress editors. But he didn't get discouraged. Rather than run back home, Wolcott physically just hung out around the Voice offices while looking for work, dropping in "randomly" to see if he could pick up an assignment. Eventually, he snagged one and talked his way onto the payroll by working in circulation. Soon, he'd be churning out pieces about late '70s culture in New York, writing about rock music, books, theater, and more, befriending Pauline Kael, Patti Smith, and many other members of the scene. His memoir, Lucking Out (Anchor), which gets its paperback release today, tells the story of that time in New York and how it shaped him. Wolcott spoke with the Voice over the phone while spending time by the Jersey Shore due to some apartment renovation. He chatted about being broke in New York, the current restructuring of The Village Voice, and how technology has shaped counterculture journalism.
Your book came out right around the same time as other books about '70s in New York, like Patti Smith's Just Kids and Will Hermes's Love Goes to Buildings on Fire. Was that just a coincidence?
I think part of it is that there's a sense that the city has really changed in ways that it's not going back to—in that it was hospitable to all kinds of ground-up movements and general funky experimentation that it just isn't anymore, because real estate is just too expensive. It just is gone. The sense of when people come to New York now, it's very much a Bloomberg city.
What do you mean by "Bloomberg city"?
Well, it's just so expensive, and the neighborhoods are kind of blending into each other. In the '70s and '80s, neighborhoods had very distinct identities. Soho was a very distinct thing, and now Soho has the same kind of high-end stores that other neighborhoods have. Tribeca is not that much different. There are pockets, but, you now the fact is—it's a cliche that everybody brings up, but it's true—every block has a Duane Reade and its two banks. I moved to Washington Heights a little while ago, and it's very, very local, but the big thing they're building right now is one of those TD Banks. It's this huge space in the middle of these little funky bodegas and restaurants. Now it's spreading north. Another thing it reflects is that everyone now feels like Brooklyn is the place where things are happening.
I live in Brooklyn, and there still is that feeling of "moving to New York to make it" among young people.
I was in Williamsburg [recently], and you could see it was a lot of hole-in-the-wall places, strange little antique places next to makeshift art galleries and little restaurants, and it reminded me a lot more of the East Village when I came to New York—although the East Village minus the menace and the heavy drugs.
What characteristics has the city lost with the "menace" you mention disappearing?
I think the ability to live cheaply and kind of figure things out as you went along. It was much easier to live without any kind of major income back then. In New York now, unless you have family money, if you don't have a good job or you're not making much money, you're not going to last very long. It's not like when people used to be able to crash at one person's place and then another and move around. There was a lot more cross-breeding of artistic forms and artistic sensibilities. In the East Village and the Village itself, there was a lot of crossover between the art people, the rock people. Patti Smith is a good example of that. Somebody who was working in a lot of different genres. Now it feels like when people come in, they've got their discipline, they've got their path, and that's what they're going to stick to.
What did being broke and young in New York in the late '70s teach you about yourself? What are you concerned is lost with the new generation?
There is so much more consciousness about money. It's much more on people's minds. People needed money to get by, but they didn't think about money all the time, like it was a subject or an atmospheric thing. I don't recall obsessing about money. Except for people needing to maybe borrow cab fare or something, I don't recall anybody ever really having intense money conversations.
It's funny, I feel like most of the conversations with my friends revolve around being broke.
People didn't have a lot of money, but because the rents were cheaper, the overhead of living in the city was less... you know, you just didn't have that anxiety all the time. Like, suppose I don't make this month's rent? I'm amazed that people can get by now. I don't know how they do it. And I guess a lot, just, don't.