Cool in an Uncool World
Two years ago, standing on a pier jutting into Delaware Bay, I told Legs McNeil, the “Resident Punk” of Punk Magazoon, the most moral thing I’ve yet said in my journalism career.
Legs and I were in Wilmington, Delaware, for the “First Annual Sleaze Convention.” Legs was the “Con Special Guest Star.” This owed to his then-inflating reputation for doing nothing much but drinking, eating in McDonald’s, watching television, and reading comic books. Those days Legs’s professed only goal in life was to sing the theme song from Eva Gabor’s TV show Green Acres before a packed house at Madison Square Garden. He had also been known to take an elevator to the top of the Empire State Building, look out on a perfectly clear city night, and say, “Wow, you can see Nathan’s from here.”
This was very impressive to the organizers of “Sleaze Con,” a group of Delaware weirdos who edited a magazine called the Daily Plague. Legs was the embodiment of sleaze, a true citizen of the Modern World. They treated Legs and me to an annotated tour of an all-night supermarket. All nine brands of pork rinds were identified and labeled. A boys’ choir sang recipes for “mock apple pie” off a box of Ritz crackers. Later, Richard Nixon sugar packets were passed around. It was all “random American rot,” the Sleaze Con people said.
Now Legs and I were waiting for Godzilla. There was some hope the great beast would raise his head above the electric green waters. After all, the entire state of Delaware is the personal playground of the Du Pont family, and the city of Wilmington puts up signs on Interstate 95 saying, WELCOME TO WILMINGTON, THE CHEMICAL CAPITAL Of THE WORLD. These factors seemed to produce a unique environment. Not long before Sleaze Con, the Wilmington city fathers paved over the decaying downtown streets where blacks hung out. Shiny malls full of potted oak trees and contemporary supergraphics were put in. The idea was to get white people to shop downtown, and that worked, but there was a problem. The development was overrun by Mall Monsters, a mutant strain of huge cockroaches. Supposedly swollen to an incredible girth by the concentration of test-tube runoff in the area, the giant bugs were the scourge of Wilmington’s urban renewal plans. Baskin-Robbins employees reportedly got plenty of overtime sweeping the roaches away with push brooms.
Legs and I, both hypersensitive to the thickening rumble of the apocalypse, took the insects as a sign. Our sources had informed us that there was enough witch’s brew in the Delaware River to make a comfy home for any Oriental radiation monster that no longer got high off the atomic surf in the Sea of Japan. Legs and I felt that if we watched the water long enough, things would begin to cook. The air would get dank and expectant. The water would begin to crash against the hulls of supertankers. Soon the trumpeting ring of raging foam would begin to form. And then, there he’d be — Godzilla, sardonic and magnificent, the soul of the Modern World, the patron saint of the postatomic age. Just sitting there, staring at the smelly water, made Legs and me feel like Wise Men, searching the skies for the right bright object.
But Legs, with an attention span as long as a manic-depressive’s fingernail, · got bored. He bought a six pack of Rolling Rock and drank it all, just the way he always did. Soon he was raving, screaming his usual shit about teenagers taking over the world. Shut up, I told him, yelling was spoiling the vigil. Fuck that, Legs said, he wasn’t waiting for Godzilla, like some asshole in a play. He was taking matters into his own hands. Seconds later he jumped off the pier and disappeared into the murk. Next time l saw him was a minute later. He had his spindle arms wrapped around a piling. Bright algae was smeared across his face·so he looked like a messy kid eating .a blue ice. After I helped him onto the dock, he looked at me with a desperate horror that had my socks going up and down. “I saw things down there,” he said. “I saw things, but I didn’t see him. I didn’t see Him.” Then Legs collapsed. I had to carry the jerk back to the Lord Della-Warr Motel, the hooker-infested joint where we were staying. It was then, as I recall it, with Legs over my shoulder like a harpooned carp, his spittle dripping on the back of my knee, that I said my most moral thing. I said, “Legs, you asshole. I am not doing this story on you. I am not taking the responsibility for making you famous.”
It wasn’t until later that night, only after he had rolled out of bed, located a Sleaze-Con groupie, taken her back to the motel, and was interrupted fucking by members of the Blondie band who broke into his room and threw ice cubes on his kitty back, did Legs get the gist of my meaning. Those days I was working in the Felkerian salt mines for New York magazine. The Felk, frothing to finger still another trend, sent me to “identify” punk, the crest of which was then beginning to media crash. Legs liked the idea of New York magazine, he thought it was toney.
Back then Legs was devoting most of his ferret energy to becoming “famous.” He used to crawl around the beer-dripped floor of CBGB, biting people on the calf. When they looked down, Legs would be there with a shit-eating grin on his face. “Hi, I’m famous,” he’d say, and scurry away. After the Godzilla incident, however, Legs and I weren’t so tight. He’d see me on the Bowery and shout, “There goes the guy who didn’t want to take the responsibility for making me famous.”
Legs will never believe it, but I held off for love, because there’s something about Legs McNeil I really love. I used to think that someday I’d write a novel with Legs as the leading character, and the book would contain everything I know about living in the Modern World. Legs’s character would be similar to the one Ray Milland plays in the Roger Corman film X — The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. In that movie Milland is a doctor who discovers a special serum that enables him to see “what others cannot see.” In the beginning Milland has fun. He cheats at cards and looks through blouses. But eventually he sees too much. He sees the center of the universe, the driving force of the galaxy. “No one,” he says, “should see so much.” The last scene in the film takes place at a revival meeting. The harrowed and half-crazed Milland tells his problem to the brimstone preacher, who says, “If thy eye offends you, pluck it out.” Milland does.
Talking to Legs has always given me the ghostly feeling of being with someone who knows too much for his own good. In Legs’s case, it is knowing too much about the true horror of his generation. That, as it turns out, is a road to madness.
Legs could have avoided this if he didn’t have such a crazy desire to be cool. Legs has got to be cool, or Legs isn’t anything at all. Once Punk ran a contest asking readers to write in why they were punks. The best reply came from somewheres in Queens. It said, “I’m a punk because I’m cool and I ain’t got nothing to show for it.”
That was Legs. He grew up in Cheshire, Connecticut, a suburban town that has DENTIST written all over it. The streets in Cheshire are neat and Waspy. The kids go to college and have fathers like Jim Anderson. Legs’s life, however, did not follow that pattern. He lived across the railroad from the manicured lawns, in the hollow of swamp bog. His father died of cancer when he was two months old. Before that, his grandfather blew his head off in the family chicken house, and his grandmother committed herself to a mental institution. Throughout his childhood Legs always asked his mother where his father was and why his grandmother’s house had bars. His mother worked as a secretary to make sure the McNeils would always have a home in Cheshire. But they never really belonged there. Legs’s face tells you that. It is a shanty-Irish face, the kind that rides a forklift in Fall River, Massachusetts. But Legs wasn’t born for the treadmill. He felt a tiny artist’s pitter-pat in his cholesterol-influxing heart and wanted desperately to have something to show for being cool.
To Legs, teenagers were the coolest. All the Archie comics he read and TV he watched in Cheshire told him that. He saw how the big kids drove cars and took chicks to the Fillmore blasted out of their gourd. He figured that must be what cool is. But by the time Legs got to be a teenager, in the early 1970s, everyone was telling him he was too late. All the cool stuff was over. The Summer of Love, acid, battling the government, splitting for the Coast, none of that was left.
Legs couldn’t believe it. Waiting all this time to be cool and getting gotz. There had to be something to break him out of Cheshire, something cool to call his own. The radio and everything else were still jammed up with the flotsam and jetsam of another generation. Crosby, Stills, and Nash, my asshole — Legs knew a burnt-out case when he heard one. He tried glitter rock, but he couldn’t make his butt fit the French cut. And everywhere they were talking about how this new batch of youth had the “new seriousness”; how kids today only wanted to get good grades and be corporation lawyers. No doubt, Legs thought, these have got to be the uncoolest times ever to come down the pike.
Desperate, Legs dommied up in his room overlooking the swamp and proceeded to go into one of the longest wigstretches on record. II ow could a cool person be cool in an uncool time? It was a skull buster and Legs schemed far and wide. He went out into the stratosphere, the zoneospbere, the goneosphere, and the way-goneosphere. When he came back and dug what he had brought back with him, it knocked him under the bed covers for another two weeks. Cool, Legs psyched out, is an arbitrary thing. Anything could be cool if you say it is. Hitler said hating Jews was cool, so the German teenagers said, hey, lets stop painting our toenails and go hate some Jews, it’s cool. That nugget buzzshotted Legs’s gray curls. So he stayed home another week and spun out another mess. He furthermored, it wasn’t so much the things you thought were cool that made you cool, it was the feeling of being cool — when you know you’re cool — that really made you cool.
This month-long head session gave the teenage McNeil a blueprint for action. Instead of apologizing for being born too late, Legs railed against his smug ’60s-loving elders. “What do you love?” he demanded. “Pot, long guitar solos, battling the government, wearing bright colors, being mellow? … Well, I hate all that. All that sucks and is uncool.”
“And what do you hate?” Legs went on. “Television, burgers, drinking, violent behavior? … Well, I love all of that. I declare these things to be mine. I appoint liking Hogan’s Heroes and McDonald’s to be cool. I love America, too. I love everything about Modern America, the long freeways, the whole bit. Any country that produced Eddie Haskell has to be cool.”
Legs’s coolness cosmology was, of course, total reaction. But anyone without his brains buried on the Upper West Side has to realize the necessity and logic of it. I mean, the kids have to dance. But who would have figured Legs’s coolness would turn out to be brave? By deciding the Modern World was his Godhead, Legs decreed that, in order to be cool one had to be hip to how to live in such a contemporary landscape. It was a task an entire generation had called impossible, choosing instead to label the Modern World “plastic” and cuddle themselves in the fantasies of “going back to the land.” Legs had picked a rough road to ride. But at least it was convenient. To be cool, Legs wouldn’t have to go to Mexico and get the runs under a volcano. Nor would he have to give pennies to belly-swelled babies in Calcutta. Legs grew up in Cheshire, Connecticut. His muse was all around him, inside and out.
It didn’t take Legs long to realize there were other disgruntled, would be cool teenagers who shared his search for the hip. There was John Holmstrom and Ged Dunn, his buddies from Cheshire. They wanted to be cool, too, albeit without Legs’s manic desperation. Better adjusted to the middle class, they dug Legs because he did reckless things like talk the local high school into giving him money to make a class film and then get expelled for spending all the bread drinking. One night, when the three friends were driving down the Wilbur Cross Parkway with nothing to do, Legs grabbed the wheel, swerved the car across three lanes of traffic, and drove it into a ditch. Then he jumped into the back seat, stuck his nose into the crease, and started whimpering about how he was having a “coolness freakout.” He needed an outlet for his coolness or he’d commit suicide.
To save Legs’s life, Holmstrom and Dunn decided to move to New York and start a magazine. At first Holmstrom wanted to call the mag Teenage News because they were only interested in teenage issues. But it was eventually changed to Punk because Legs was a big fan of a Dictators song, “Weekend.” It goes: “Eddie [Legs’s real name, sort of — his actual name is Roderick Edwin McNeil. He took Legs because he loves Ray Danton] is the local punk / throwing up and getting drunk/ eating in McDonald’s for lunch.” Dunn, a budding capitalist who compared Punk‘s mimeograph machine to a Carl Sandburg steel mill, became the publisher. Holmstrom, a genius cartoonist, and Harvey Kurtzman disciple, made himself editor. Legs, however, couldn’t figure out what to call himself. He couldn’t draw and had no head for business. Finally he decided on “Resident Punk,” a combination “secret agent”/ Alfred E. Newman title calculated to make him a legend by age 19.
At last, Legs was cool. It was mid-1975, the beginning of the CBGB punk emergence that Punk would help turn into a national media phenomenon. Legs was key on the scene. Any night you could see him standing in front of CBGB, a loose cigarette hanging from his lower lip, two punkette groupies on either arm of his leather jacket — the one with the rips under both armpits — cutting a wicked figure.
Those days Legs’s brain cooked like a burning idea factory. On the Bowery he met other suburban kids who had suffered the uncertainty of cool through their early teenage years. Kids who had also racked their brains for an answer to the question: How to be cool in an uncool time. Many of them, like the Ramones, the members of Blondie, and the Dictators, had come to the same conclusions as Legs and thrown themselves headlong into study of the Modern World. Legs spent those early CBGB nights discoursing on Bullwinkle Moose and TV commercials with Joey Ramon. To Legs, these conversations had the momentous freshness of Mao and Chou revealing their similar passions for ideas by the light of one candle in a cave.
One night Legs found out that he, Joey, and two members of Blondie had all had the same dream. They dreamed of Monty Hall saying, “Well, would you trade your life for what’s behind that curtain?” After that, Legs knew that his generation, the first ever to grow up completely within the Modern Age, had acquired a huge collective subconscious. The power and vastness of this concept made Legs burst with creativity. Often he would sit in the back of CBGB, listening to the Talking Heads sing “Don’t Worry about the Government” and make up his “Famous Persons” interviews for Punk. Legs did straight Q-and-As with “personalities” like Boris and Natasha and the cast of Gilligan’s Island. He treated people like Carl Betz as if they were real. Which they were, to Legs. Once he said “I am exploring an alternative environment. It’s love a world like ours, but not quite. It’d the kind of place you could wake tomorrow and think you’re home but actually you’d be just part of the boot heel of some asshole in another galaxy.”
I remember the day Milton Glaser came by my desk and picked up an issue of Punk. He thumbed through it, looking at the hand-printed features (it was Holmstrom’s master stroke that made Punk the best magazine of neo-literate times — he made the whole thing look like a comic book; that way he could print the theory of relativity and kids would read it), the illustrated interviews with Lou Reed, Legs’s craziness. Glaser sat down, visibly shaken. “These guys could put me out of business,” he said. If Punk worried Milton Glaser, I knew here was something big.
This was the beginning of my appreciation of punk as a spectacularly American way of cool. How fabulous to have something new to dig after years of mealy-mouthed postmortems in Berkeley. All that baloney by drones like Norman Plodmorris about the essence of the 1970s and here it really was. I loved that the Ramones’ first record was made in 18 hours and cost only $6000. Figures like that cut away the flab of indecision. So did the music. The Ramones song “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around with You,” which has the lyrics, “I don’t wanna walk around with you/ I don’t wanna walk around with you/ so why you wanna walk around with me?” boiled away any other, superfluous ideas I had about high school cool. It was all I needed to know about adolescence in general. It was as if the Ramones, none of whom were named Ramone, were saying to the dull sixties establishment: “See, we can express ourselves fast, cheap, and good. We’ll tell you about our own experience as teenagers, and it will be real.”
The hipness of this idea pulled my coat no end. Like Legs said, “We don’t care what no one says. Sure, things are supposed to be shit now. But, fuck it. We’re here and we’re gonna have our fun. We’re gonna be cool.” The audaciousness was super; Legs and his buddies were reinventing cool before my eyes. They were accepting the crap of the Modern World, all that mind rot, and they were celebrating it, not protesting against it. What a brilliantly existential decision! How modernistic a concept!
I thought back to all the philosophizing I’d once read about what was hip and what was not. And dredged up an old quote from Norman Mailer. Big Norm said, “For Hip is sophistication of the wise primitive in a giant jungle … ” Who else was Legs? This described him and his fellow punks to a T.
It was early 1976, the Five Spot, where so much bop was played, had just closed for the last time. It was replaced by a clothing store called the Late Show, which catered mostly to the CBGB crowd and played Ramones records constantly over its booming speaker set. I made this a sign. And envisioned a whole generation of hipsters lurking along the Bowery in black leather jackets. A collection of wise primitives making incisive comments about a culture nobody even wanted to admit existed. To me, it was very moving.
Legs McNeil and the Obsolescence of the White Negro Theory
Legs became the spokesman, such as it was, for this new generation of hipsters, partially by default, since most of the band members were into catatonia, and partially due to his zeal for self-promotion. Legs would sit under the Fonz poster in the “Punk dump,” the storefront “office” he, Holmstrom, and Dunn kept underneath the approach ramp to the Lincoin Tunnel, and pontificate for the pop-culture reporters. About hippies he said, “A bunch of yin wimps. Woodstock was a hip capital pajama party.” About glitter rock, he said, “Homosexuality shouldn’t be pushed on 15-old kids.” About the future of visual expression, he said, “I think movies should only be thirty minutes long and be in black and white. Kids don’t have the concentration for more.” About himself, he said, “Every time I look in the mirror it’s like watching a home movie.”
One of the classic Legs McNeil interviews appeared as part of an August 1976 Voice article by Frank Rose. Rose was trying to decipher punk’s effect on the supposedly large issue of “butch,” a term Frank described as “self-conscious masculinity.”
At the time, Legs was on a search-and-destroy mission against disco, which Punk had described in an editorial as the source of “everything wrong with Western civilization.” Legs said disco was the creation of synthesizers, a fact he claimed left the limp shit devoid of human energy and turned listeners into “zombies.” Disco, Legs asserted, was an uncool Communistic plot invented by jaded grown-ups to rob teenagers of their naivete. But more interesting and inflammatory was Legs’s conjecture that disco was the product of an unholy alliance between blacks and gays. Neither of these groups was currently in favor with Legs, and he routinely called them niggers and faggots. If Legs was the next big thing, as Lester Bangs and others suggested, then Rose was worried about this.
Rose’s story had Legs saying all kinds of apparently reactionary and reckless things like, “Punks are normal people, that’s what we are, normal. We’re not a bunch of perverts” … “Punks are like — the guys know they’re guys and the chicks know they’re chicks” … “David Bowie is really sick. He’s such a faggot” … Also, about blacks, he said, “We’re not really racist …. We’re just into our own thing. It’s like saying to Italians [why don’t you like] Polacks?”
Rose concluded, not incorrectly, or surprisingly, considering the evidence he was given, that Legs was a blue-collar poseur who saw life as “giant high school.” Legs’s racism and gay-baiting, portrayed as borrowed from Irish bars in Ridgewood, were simply attitudes to fill in the image of a man’s man. This seemed true enough on the surface, but I couldn’t help feeling that in Rose’s rush to tenderly put Legs and his punk crew down as still another potentially brutish terror a gay man in New York has to contend with, Frank had taken McNeil’s quotes far too seriously.
I thought back to a night at the 82 Club. The Dictators were playing. Punk had run a “Punk of the month” contest. Readers were asked to send in pictures of themselves proving they were more punky than anyone else. One Ronald Binder won three months in a row. He sent in low-angle pictures of himself eating chains. Sent telegrams threatening to blow up the Punk camp if he didn’t win. Holmstrom said, “Wow, we got to give it to this guy. He’ll kill us if we don’t.” Still, no one had ever seen Ronald Binder in the flesh. Until that night at the 82. Binder came over to Holmstrom and said, “Hi, I’m the punk of the month.” One look was enough. Binder was maybe five feet tall, he weighed plenty. He looked completely harmless. Holmstrom was beside himself. “My God,” he said. “I thought you ate dead babies for breakfast … This is terrible. Don’t tell anyone who you are, you’ll make us look bad.”
Binder seemed hurt by Holmstrom’s abuse. He went off in a corner and hung his head by the 82’s Ukrainian wallpaper. He stayed there until Legs, who had seen the whole confrontation, came over and said, “Don’t let it get you down. I’m a fake, too.”
This was no surprise. Self-mockery has always been Legs’s meat. He wore his leather jacket as a cocoon of fakery. He was to a real street punk as Goldberg’s is to a pizza pie: a witty but not particularly faithful parody. Legs has never been tough at all. He weighs about 110 pounds. He couldn’t break his own nose. As a macho aggressive, he’s never been confused with a tiger fighting for his mate. That, of course, was the whole joke, the ironic core of the coolness.
But this didn’t make Legs a clown. To me, his self-mockery recalled the way Thelonious Monk plays the piano or Earl Monroe dribbles the basketball. With those two there has always been a tension between the dead seriousness of technique and the ironical understanding that in the scope of the universe all those hours developing a style like no one else might mean nothing. They could drop a bomb on you. You could get hit by a truck. The only sane way to deal with this looming spectre of random destruction was to have a sense of humor about yourself.
This, I figured, was the key to Legs. No matter how ardently he argued his perceptions about the world, he didn’t want to be held to them. For him, proselytizing was technique, but none of it was hard and fast. It was Legs’s hipster nature, I thought.
But it also caused problems. If Legs was a hipster, and CBGB a hipster scene, where were the blacks? I can’t remember seeing more than three or four black in any CBGB crowd. Not one punk-rock band has been dominated by black musicians. No CBGB band even seems to borrow firsthand from traditional R&B or blues sources. The only noticeable influence down at CBG are the fall-down guys who drift over from the Men’s Shelter. This, coupled with Legs’s remarks about how “blacks have their culture and we have ours,” seemed to contradict everything I know about white hipsters.
Everything I know about white hipsters, theoretical-wise, comes from Big Norman’s famous essay, The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster. And I knew I’d have to go to the woodshed with Mailer if I wanted some enlightenment on this Legs puzzlement. Written in 1957, Norm’s essay says the hipster was a man who realized “our collective condition is to live with instant death by atomic war.” This fact was particularly distressing to white men ticketed for two cars in the garage and a neat hedge around the lawn. With the threat of death haunting every moment, middle-class striving seemed a waste of time. According to Mailer, the only sane thing to do was “to encourage the psychopath in one’s self, to explore that domain of experience where security is boredom and therefore sickness, and one exists in the present, in that enormous present which is without past or future, memory of planned intention, the life where a man must go until he is beat … ”
This road, especially for the passel of Brooklyn-Queens Jews and Texas gays who felt compelled to take it, was totally uncharted. A guide was needed, and in the Negro these searching whites found one. Spades had been living with the knowledge that they could be wiped out at any given moment for 350 years. Mailer called this “living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy.” He also said the blacks had produced an entire culture based upon living on the edge. They traveled light, spoke a secret and flexible language, gambled, and wore orange pants with green shirts. It was living on the brink, but their constant state of “psychopathy” had also produced the wondrous jazz, the perfect “orgasm” of brinksmanship.
Hipsters, or whites who recognized the descending sword for what it was, understood and dug the brilliance of the blacks’ achievement. “So,” says Big Norman, “there was a new breed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out at night, looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts. The hipster had absorbed the existential synapses of the Negro and, for all practical purposes, could be considered a White Negro.
I was a White Negro for the better part of my consciously hip life. Probably still am. I worked as a porter at the Port Authority Bus Terminal so I could do a black man’s job. I began smoking Pall Malls because the blacks did. Along with my other White Negro friends, I lived at the Brittany Hotel on 10th Street. When Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf brought their blues band to stay at the Albert, we supplied them with smoke.
We hung around with as many jazzmen as would have us. Major Holley, who played bass with Roland Kirk occasionally back then, was our buddy. He knew we were just another bunch of hopeless Queens Mezz Mezzrows looking for a taste of the millennium, but he was sweet and let us play our game. In return we would sit ringside at the Five Spot and, when Holley soloed, we’d shout, “Major, you so fucking good, they ought to make you a general.” Once, the Major must have been bugged because he put down his bass during a Jazz Interactions concert, went to the microphone, and said, “Damn, I am all tuckered out. So let’s meet and greet Jake the Snake, who will provide us with some meal ticket in the meantime.”
I didn’t want to go onstage, I had never even held a bass before. But my buddies pushed me to it. I picked up the big momma and plucked it a couple of times. Then Roland Kirk turned to me. With the cigarette smoke around his beret like gauze, three fat horns stuck in his mouth, and wraparound sunglasses across his blind eyes, Kirk was a vision of boogie hell. But it was okay. He said, “Shit, sounds black to me.”
This, I have always felt, was one of the crowning moments of my life. But Legs would not buy it. Explaining why spades were cool and worth imitating was a pointless conversation to have with Legs. As pointless as trying to explain why Dylan going electric was important, as pointless as explaining why getting arrested at People’s Park was both useless and consummate at the same time. Legs simply refused to comprehend why my generation of hipsters dug blacks. He would not even accept such seemjngly irrefutable black-coolness raps as George Carlin’s schoolyard scene. Carlin said put a bunch of white kids and a bunch of black kids together and after a week the whites will be talking like the blacks. But none of the blacks would be saying, “Golly, gee, we won the big game.”
To Legs, blacks were mostly on the radio, making the rotten disco music he hated, or in the first three pages of the Daily News sticking 9mm guns into people’s chests. He said he had “no guilt.” The only other thing he’d say about blacks involved a bizarre theory about why listening to their music was so repugnant to him. He said that because of “racism, or whatever,” most blacks didn’t get on the radio until they were 30 or 40, so they always sang about 30- and 40-year-old concerns. He said this was alien to him. If all blacks were teenagers, like the Jackson Five, singing “like A B-C, One-Two-Three,” that would be all right with him. Otherwise, blacks didn’t interest him in the least.
This troubled me. Racism, or whatever, is understandable, even poetic, in the mouth of a blue-collar worker or a southern sheriff — it’s an integral part of their worldview. But this attitude of racial indifference coming from a hipster hit a discord. If Legs McNeil were a hipster and he didn’t think blacks were cool, my universe was about to go into a tilt.
Actually, I had been busting my brain with certain notions about the apparent de-emphasis of blacks in the Hip and Square cultures respectively for some time.
Mailer’s essay was better than a nice sum-up of ’50s attitudes. He predicted the ’60s, too. Norm drones on in The White Negro about hipsters relentlessly seeking their “orgasm,” which I have always taken to mean the sexual-emotional act or state that would give meaning to their “psychopathic” position on the edge between oblivion and the security of the middle class. For me — and I assume this is true for most White Negroes of my generation — the entire ’60s experience was an “orgasm.” After all, what were hippies if not white kids acting like spades? It horrified me when sign-wavers chanted about “student as nigger” and the rest of that. But there was a basic truth to it. We were smoking dope, being casual about sex, pretending poverty so we might be niggers.
Blacks, not surprisingly, were aghast at this national insanity. They might hang around Hippie Hill for some white pussy, but they had to be wondering why people with money were trying to act like niggers. Once, when I thought I was a dope dealer, I got ripped off in a Stanyan Street apartment by a black guy. I was supposed to pick up 10 keys of Michoacan from the guy. But as soon as I got into the room, he stuck a gun in my ear and took the $750 my friends gave me. He tied me up so I wouldn’t “even think” about following him and put a Jimi Hendrix record on the box. Then he looked at me, like this is just too easy, shook his head in sympathy, and said, “You know, I just don’t understand you people. Don’t you know this is dangerous?” Then he split. A few minutes later a paste-white chick with drugged eyes and matted hair came out from behind an Indian-print curtain. She squinted into the red light bulb, said it was cold, and lit the stove. After she untied me, she said, “Doug is really a dynamite guy, he just gets wild sometimes.”
I don’t know what I was expecting: to sit down with the ghetto guys, talk about the impending shadow of night, and have them say, “Hey, we’re all in the same boat, welcome aboard”? It was never going to happen. Knowing handshakes and slick words didn’t make you cool. Besides, the “psychopathy” in the blacks that we admired was not calculated to produce white-man-lovers or even very nice guys. You could dig their orgasm, feeling passionately about the plight that made them crazy men, but you had to be wise. Wise that getting next to them was like cutting your own throat.
Also, sometime in the early ’70s, blacks began doing things that might be considered uncool. Their horrendous affectations of the worst parts of the hippie movement were embarrassing, no lie. Talk of astrology and wearing medallions didn’t fit the image of the existential hero. What were the Temptations doing singing about “Psychedelic Shacks”? I felt like grabbing black kids with Robert Indiana LOVE pins stuck to their double knits and saying, “Don’t do it. Don’t go down that road. It’s shit. I know.” This was distressing. Blacks acting crazy, like psychopaths, made sense: being black drove you crazy. But blacks acting dumb was another thing; these were the people who were supposed to understand the secret of the 20th century.
It didn’t take long to figure out what was happening. When you have Diana Ross playing Billie Holiday in a movie made by blacks, when a WBLS destroys WWRL in the ratings, when macho singers get pushed out of the foreground by violin strings, it’s pretty clear. The Nat King Cole element of black culture is overrunning the James Brown segment. Black culture is redefining itself in a middle-class mode. This, of course, is the blacks’ right as Americans. In this country all immigrants — even ones who were brought here in chains — are allowed to become consumers.
But this produced a serious dilemma for White Negroes. If ghetto blacks were simply too dangerous to deal with, the middle-class ones, with their “crossover” concerns, were no longer compelling. George Jefferson wants the same things as my parents; his cleaning lady steals, too. This is not acceptable. It brings to mind the old hipster saw about blacks with seemingly white values: “What an Oreo. He’s not a spade at all.”
Doing a little cultural cross-referencing, I dug that so-called “Squares” had also made a shift on black people. During the civil rights time in the ’60s, when the closet Commies and liberal types still had pull in showbiz, media blacks pretty much got the Eleanor Roosevelt treatment. Between them, Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones produced more guilt through dignity than a million Jewish mothers could through nagging. But now, it’s almost as if the guilt-exorcising Squares are saying, “Well, we gave these guys their chance. We highlighted their struggle. What did they do? Gave us Rap Brown, the ungrateful loudmouth, and mugged our grandmothers.”
Therein, I think, is the basis for the elevation of the Italian-American in the mass media. With a self-propelled reputation for toughness and the supposed ability to call their Uncle Vinnie at the drop of a confrontation, Italians are perceived by black-fearing Squares (as well as black-fearing hipsters) as the only group of whites capable of fending off the onrush of “them.” How many times have you heard the joke, “Well, I guess this is a safe neighborhood” while walking by Bella Ferrara? If you’re dumb, that means Italians don’t like “yoms” much and are willing to fight them on their own physical terms. Blacks know this, and they also know Italians are some cold-blooded motherfuckers (what they didn’t know they saw in the Godfather movies, which were big in the black ghettos), so they stay away. This set of pseudo-facts is so ingrained in the public consciousness, it is no surprise that many of the TV cops — Baretta, Petrocelli, Delvecchio, and Columbo — are some have-been Italians. Who else can be depended on to keep the blacks in their place?
To facilitate this myth-making, the media moguls have imbued Italians with much of the “soul” that used to be the exclusive property of blacks. This is quite clear in the seminal work of revisionist racial theory, Rocky. You’ve got to figure Stallone knew what he was doing, I make him that cynical. He portrays Rocky as a guileless but lovable blue-collar plodder who has an indomitable spirit. The major black characters, the champ and the female TV reporter who interviews Rocky, are both seen as slick, hollow hustlers. Stallone’s attitude toward blacks is similar to that of Americans toward Commies in the fifties: they’re smarter and sneakier than us, so we have to stick together and be pure of heart.
A White Negro, even a disillusioned White Negro, watching the meat-packing scene in which noble-savage Stallone pleads to the middle-class black reporter, “Just don’t take no cheap shot, please,” is stunned by the manipulation of racial images since the ’60s. It is almost as if whites have been given the message: You don’t have to pretend to like “them” anymore. Now, to whites, blacks are either the faceless unmentionable or just another creep trying to take your job. Either way they are better off forgotten.
Eyeballing all this, Legs’s indifference to spades was more understandable. Legs is a hipster who takes his input from Square sources. If TV tells him Italians are cool, he may adopt their way of saying “fuck you” — a short, blunt blast as opposed to the sultry, many-syllabled “fuck you motherfucker” of the blacks — but he’s not taking the whole thing. Catholics are far too earnest for a hipster like Legs; that’s what he’s trying to get away from.
But blacks have never even entered his mind as a role model. How could he dig jazz when the radio no longer plays jazz? Blacks had essentially been wiped out as a compelling cultural force before Legs ever got a chance to appreciate them.
But the more I dug, the more I realized blacks would have been irrelevant to a ’70s hipster like Legs anyway. The old White Negro looked to the blacks to lead him through a landscape that was in the midst of total change, due to the introduction of the atomic bomb. That was 25 years ago, when the apocalypse was a new idea and truly existed as a meaningful force only in the minds of a few “urban adventurers.” America still operated by pre-atomic rules. Buildings were still made out of bricks; people still read books, ate in real restaurants, and had families.
Now, of course, much of the above is gone. America has adjusted in profound ways to the spectre of the apocalypse. Now we have throwaway television, throwaway burgers, throwaway housing. None of it has the permanency of the pants your mother bought an inch too long so they’d fit next year. The society has caught up to Hiroshima. We are living, as Legs and I learned at the Sleaze Convention, in a fully fleshed-out post-atomic world. Everything we touch, eat, and see has the singe of doom on it. So Legs doesn’t need anyone to tell him secrets; he knows the score in this world as well as anyone. He needs no guide; he’s on his own.
Orgasm, Where Is the Orgasm?
Today, two years after we waited for Godzilla and I declined the responsibility for making him famous, Legs McNeil is in my kitchen, telling a tape recorder why the teenagers did not take over the world. 1977, Legs says, was a terrible year. Punk almost went broke. John Holmstrom and Ged Dunn battled. Holmstrom claimed Dunn’s grandiose ambitions to make Punk another Rolling Stone within a year overextended the magazine’s meager resources. Legs figured John was the talent and Ged was the business, and in that case you got to go with the talent, but it hurt him to have to make the choice.
Also, the CBGB rock scene had disintegrated before Legs’s eyes. Many of the first-generation bands, the ones Legs thought spoke for him — Talking Heads, Ramones, Blondie, and the Dictators — got recording contracts and went away on tour. Legs was all for that. Hipster punks knew that the popular culture created them. And they were determined to do something — anything — to make their mark on it. The bands, Legs and Holmstrom figured, were the best bet to express “teenage” obsessions. The media never seems to outgrow its need for rock and roll. Sooner or later, Legs thought, the punk bands had to become the next big thing.
But once Joey Ramone and Chris Stein went out of town, Legs had no one to discuss Jerry Paris with. His fellow hipsters were disappearing. Everyone cool seemed to be. Who else but Handsome Dick Manitoba would go around blustering about how he could break Buddy (Nature Boy) Rogers’s figure-four leg vine and then get himself flattened by a drag queen like Wayne County? What a punk. But now he wasn’t around. The punk bands were diving into the nexus of the popular culture they worshiped like the sun, hardly ever to bubble up above the Hot Hundred again.
Those who came to replace them were a drag. Legs hated the British punks. They came humorless, snarling the same anti-establishment rant of the Animals a dozen years before. Don’t things ever change in England, Legs wondered. The youth is always discontented. They always hate the government and punch each other about soccer. Rockers aren’t supposed to care about sports, especially soccer. The Brits also brought bleached hair and a pile of punk paraphernalia. Legs saw what was happening. Punk was becoming a movement of mindless followers. Anyone who stuck a safety pin in his nose could be a punk.
This offended Legs’s hipster nature. He never really quite decided whether he wanted punk to turn into a ’60s-style movement or not. But now he’d be sitting with Joey Ramone, and some Westchester kid would come and say, “Hey, you’re Joey Ramone. Hey, I’m a punk, too. I got a band. We cut up our cocks onstage.” Then Joey would make with his Martian reflex and say, “Why do you do that?” The kid would say, “Because I’m a punk.” And Legs would know that Hip cannot be a movement. Because if Hip is a movement and everyone’s the same, that’s not cool. Like Big Norman said so long ago, ” … and, indeed, it is essential to dig the most, for if you do dig, you lose your superiority over the Square, and you are less likely to be cool … ”
Legs understood coolness isn’t something that comes easy. His cool had been achieved through spiritual agony, which led him to the basic precepts about how to be hip in postatomic America. The Brits’ egalitarianism was all wrong. First of all, they knew nothing about America. They didn’t watch the same shows, they ate weird things. And in their knee-jerk rebellion they offered a bunch of asshole kids who did nothing to try to deal with their existential place in the universe a chance to be as cool as Legs. Now Legs says, “I hate this punk thing these days. The kids at CBGB aren’t cool. They don’t have any opinions about anything. They just sit around saying, This place sucks,’ This place is beat.’ They all smoke pot and wear stupid clothes. It’s just like the fucking hippies. Just like them.”
The anguish Legs McNeil suffered being the “Resident Punk” of a movement he had come to hate — no man knows. But he did the only thing he felt he could do: He threw himself headlong into the job as a protest. He drank more, offered more diatribes about the foul influence of faggots, and directed manifestos at the invading British. Weeks went by “out of control.” The drinking ravaged his already beleaguered liver. He slept at a different frumpy “groupie’s” house every night. Their names he did not remember. In his haggard look and dedication to the task at hand, Legs reminded one of the lead character in Diary of a Country Priest. One time, while a French reporter was asking him to compare the Three Stooges with Laurel and Hardy, Legs spewed forth a three-foot curtain of blood and phlegm.
From everywhere, uncool people who didn’t get the joke besieged him. Once, a burly idiot from Ohio wielding a pearlhandled switchblade came into CBGB looking to dethrone Legs as “Resident Punk.” Legs had to hide in Phebe’s among the off-off Broadway failures. It appeared that Legs would soon fulfill John Holmstrom’s blithe and oft-repeated prophecy: “Legs has to die young. Look at his eyes. Can’t you see it? That’s what makes him so romantic.”
One week Legs’s older brother, a hot-dog ski pro who Legs always thought was as cool as James Bond, came to town. The brother took one look at Legs and asked Holmstrom, “What’s wrong with my brother?” John, who had been trying to get Legs to eat something for weeks, said, “I don’t know, I think he’s going crazy.” The brother said something had to be done. According to Legs, “One minute I was upstairs, drinking. They called me down. An hour later I was on my way to the nuthouse. It happened just like that. They didn’t commit me. I signed the papers myself. But they said it wouldn’t be too good for me if I didn’t. After all, I knew they could get everyone in this city as a character witness against me.”
Legs was in the bughouse only for a month or so, but that was long enough for his roommate to kill himself. Every day the doctors dragged Legs to “creative” encounter sessions. He could hardly keep from cracking up every time one of the fright-wig ladies in the white smocks read their poems, usually about “the beauty of fucking nature or how they wanted to kill their mothers.” Legs read no poems, but the doctors loved him. “They really thought I was an interesting case,” Legs says. “They wanted to keep me there forever. They said I had a unique outlook on life. They kept poking me, wanting to know why I thought everything was so funny.”
Legs signed himself out. Staying there wouldn’t have done anybody any good, he says. The doctors didn’t understand a word he was saying. Actually, the shrinks should have saved their breath. Big Norman said 20 years ago a “psychopath” hipster makes a bad mental patient because he is “ordinately ambitious — too ambitious ever to trade his warped brilliant conception of his possible victories in life for the grim if peaceful attrition of the analyst’s couch.” Big Norm, of course, knows what Legs’s problem is: He ain’t come.
Norm says, “Orgasm is his [the hipster’s] therapy.” And it takes a hipster from the ’60s, whose orgasm did come, over and over for three Tantric years, to dig the sadness of Legs’s coital interruptus. Who knows why Legs’s brand of punk failed to sustain itself as a meaningful hipster force? Probably the punk-hipster vision was too intellectual for most modern teenagers to relate to. Instead of offering the solid psychology of broadside rebellion against parents, legs advocated the elusive psychopathy of dealing with the fearsome swell of Modern America by celebrating it. This is a difficult and ultimately unhappy way to think. Especially for someone as bright as Legs. For him, saying Modern America is great is just more of the joke. But it’s hard to keep laughing when you walk into a supermarket and hear the clerk singing “You Deserve a Break Today” and you know that the McDonald’s jingle is the only song in the whole world he knows the lyrics to.
That’s why I guess I didn’t want the responsibility for making Legs famous. I must have sensed defeat back on the dock waiting for Godzilla. But if Legs and his buddies are the direct descendants of me and my pre-hippie friends, we can sympathize with the bad hand the Bowery Boys drew. They really should have had the spades to show the way. They really were born too late.
Now Legs is “Resident Punk” in name only. These days Punk comes out infrequently at best, and Legs is talking about moving on. So many things have changed in two years, Legs says with a beer-sodden nostalgia you expect from someone who carried the hippie coffin down Haight Street. “l don’t even want to be famous anymore,” Legs says. “I mean, being famous is neat and all, but I wasn’t making no money. It’s dumb to be famous without something to show for it. That’s why I hate People magazine. Those people are famous for doing stupid things. Now I only want to be famous for doing cool things. That’s what I want to do, cool things.”
Legs’s current cool thing is a band, Shrapnel. He manages them and is their “spiritual leader.” The association began when Legs was in the bughouse. The Shrapnels, five teenage rock and rollers from Red Bank, New Jersey, then calling themselves the Hard Attacks, had read Legs’s “famous persons” interviews and found them intense. They also liked the time they saw Legs pass out in CBGB’s after making still another speech about teenagers taking over the world. They called Legs every day he was in the hospital, begging him to take them on. Legs thought about it for a while, asking the kids pertinent questions like, “If you had all the money in the world, what 10 movies would you make?” They described 10 war films full of fire, destruction, and Armageddon, all of it done in Frank Frazetta style with Venus Paradise color.
Legs recognized the modernistic values in such thinking. He decided that a “war band” was just what New York rock and roll needed. Living in New York was sort of like that anyway, he thought. Everywhere are contending platoons of ethnic groups, looking to aggrandize territory and goods. The fucking Bowery already looked like a B-52ed Nam village. Besides, war expressed Legs’s frame of mind. His cool was under attack from Brits on one side, the dumb CBGB kids on another, and the snotty “punk as art” Soho creeps on the other. The time had come for the true American teenager to stand up. Legs read that Dali said war was “a heightened state of awareness.” If that’s what the moribund punk hipster scene needed to fight miasma like disco, so be it.
Now, after a few months of woodshedding with Legs, Shrapnel may be the only rock and roll band outwardly advocating World War III. They appear onstage wearing army fatigues and carrying models of M-16s. They use sandbags, cardboard tanks, and mock incendiary bombs as props. They sing songs entitled “Get the World,” “Girls and Guns,” “Special Forces Boy,” and “Cro-Magnum Man.” Their lyrics include stuff like, “I’m fresh from a Vietnam hangover / I got nothing to do / So I’m going to a Texas tower / and rain bullets down on you/ down on you.” Their lead singer, who was 10 years old during the Tet Offensive and looks Like a suckling-pig version of Legs, yells “Hey, you, asshole creep, I bet you were against the war,” and drinks out of a canteen.
Clearly, this is an idea with limited commercial possibilities. How do you hype this band? “Hey, kids, get with Sgt. Rock Rock!” or “Listen to the Curtis Le May Sound!” What do you say about a band whose most melodic song is called “Combat Love”? It is almost as if the Vietnam War is another of the ’60s things Legs feels deprived of. But it’s consistent with his hipster view. The group’s best song, “After the Battle,” which Legs wrote, tells the story of a soldier who gets lost from his platoon in the middle of a firestorm. “Guys,” he screams. “Where are you? Are you out there? Littlejohn, Kinch, Kowalski, anybody?” Kinch and Littlejohn and Kowalski, of course, were members of the platoon on Combat, the television show. It’s just like Legs to call out for pop-culture characters when he’s lost in the Modern World.
Perhaps only the apocalypse itself can be Legs’s orgasm. But Shrapnel makes him happy, that’s good enough for me. We’ve always been kindred spirits, two white boys trying to be cool. And no matter how seemingly disgusting Legs gets, I prefer to see him poetically: the man who tried to be hip in an unhip time. dBesides, it’s kind of funny to watch Legs and the Shrapnels in the band’s one-room apartment on St. Mark’s Place. The kids sit around in their dog tags, reading Soldier of Fortune magazine and singing “Hey, hey, we’re the Shrapnels … We like to Shrapnel around.” Legs says, “I like these kids because they’re real teenagers. The way teenagers should be. They’re normal, they like to read comics, watch television, and get drunk. Being with them makes me feel cool. I kind of look out for them.”
Legs McNeil as a daddy, the mind boggles. But there is a certain tenderness in the way Legs gives his kids advice on how to be cool. The other day he was telling his guitar player, “Don’t go out with Catholic girls. They never fuck you until a year after they get out of Catholic school. I know.” Legs also takes the Shrapnels up to Connecticut, where they play “army” together in the swamps around Legs’s mother’s house. They split into two squads and fight to take the bridge over the Farmington Canal. Legs says, “My guys are good. They are so fucking good. They’ll wait in a bush for two hours. I’d put my guys up against an A-team Green Beret outfit any day.”
Personally, I like this image of an aging Legs McNeil playing army with his teenage kids. I see him sneaking around the edge of a brick wall, lying low in the tall reeds fertilized by the bodies of so many other soldiers before him. Then he bursts out into the line of murderous enemy fire, his toy gun waving, his high-pitched voice screaming “budda-budda-budda” like some wild, degenerate manically cool Holden Caulfield. ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 1, 2020