Friday, February 2, 2018

Why Can’t We Stop Talking About New York in the Late 1970s?

Edmund White

Ati photo series New 1970s

THERE IS A STRONG CURRENT of nostalgia for the late ’70s and early ’80s in New York, even among those who never lived through it — the era when the city was edgy and dangerous, when women carried Mace in their purses, when even men asked the taxi driver to wait until they’d crossed the 15 feet to the front door of their building, when a blackout plunged whole neighborhoods into frantic looting, when subway cars were covered with graffiti, when Balanchine was at the height of his powers and the New York State Theater was New York’s intellectual salon, when John Lennon was murdered by a Salinger-reading born-again, when Philip Roth was already famous, Don DeLillo had yet to become famous, and most literary insiders were betting on Harold Brodkey’s long-awaited novel, which his editor, Gordon Lish, declared would be ‘‘the one necessary American narrative work of this century.’’ (It flopped when it finally came out in 1991 as ‘‘The Runaway Soul.’’)

This was the last period in American culture when the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow still pertained, when writers and painters and theater people still wanted to be (or were willing to be) ‘‘martyrs to art.’’ This was the last moment when a novelist or poet might withdraw a book that had already been accepted for publication and continue to fiddle with it for the next two or three years. This was the last time when a New York poet was reluctant to introduce to his arty friends someone who was a Hollywood film director, for fear the movies would be considered too low-status.

Recently there’s been, in TV and film and certainly in books, an intense yearning for a specific five-year period in New York City, those years between the blackout in 1977, and 1982, when AIDS was finally named by the Centers for Disease Control. First was Rachel Kushner’s 2013 novel ‘‘The Flamethrowers,’’ whose heroine is a sharp-eyed bystander in the SoHo art scene, and now, the forthcoming novel ‘‘City on Fire’’ by Garth Risk Hallberg, which also concerns itself with the same time period. There are two television series in development that take place in the late 1970s as well, one directed by Martin Scorsese and co-written with Mick Jagger; the other by Baz Luhrmann. Next year, the Whitney will mount the first retrospective of David Wojnarowicz, the ultimate East Village grunge artist, in over 15 years; the work of his lover, the photographer Peter Hujar — which has recently been used both for an advertising campaign for the men’s wear designer Patrik Ervell and on the cover of the T editor Hanya Yanagihara’s novel ‘‘A Little Life’’ — will be the subject of a retrospective at New York’s Morgan Library.

COLLECTIVELY, THESE WORKS express a craving for the city that, while at its worst, was also more democratic: a place and a time in which, rich or poor, you were stuck together in the misery (and the freedom) of the place, where not even money could insulate you. They are a reaction to what feels like a safer, more burnished and efficient (but cornerless and predictable) city. Even those of us who claim not to miss those years don’t quite sound convinced. ‘‘Well, I sure don’t have nostalgia about being mugged,’’ John Waters told me. Though then he continued: ‘‘But I do get a little weary when I realize that if anybody could find one dangerous block left in the city, there’d be a stampede of restaurant owners fighting each other off to open there first. It seems almost impossible to remember that just going out in New York was once dangerous. Do any artistic troublemakers want to feel that their city may be the safest in America? Who’s going to write a book about walking the safe streets of Manhattan? It’s always right before a storm that the air is filled with dangerous possibilities.’’

THEN, THERE WERE only possibilities. The cultural world — at least the cultural world that mattered — was much smaller then. Painters knew musicians knew writers, and they were all accessible. ‘‘It was easy then to meet John Ashbery or Jasper Johns,’’ says Brad Gooch, the author of the recent memoir about love and loss in the ’70s, ‘‘Smash Cut.’’ ‘‘Not that we took them for granted.’’ According to Fran Lebowitz, everyone who read Andy Warhol’s Interview knew one another, and yet this small world had a lasting influence on American taste and music and painting and poetry and amusements. These years held the origins of the Downtown Scene, a multidisciplinary, simultaneous movement that was headquartered in the East Village and was characterized by the birth of punk music, gonzo journalism and disposable painting; by body art and the messy theatrical antics of La MaMa. At its height in the mid-’70s, Max’s Kansas City, on Park and 18th, was a home to the New York Dolls, the Ramones, Blondie, Klaus Nomi and Sid Vicious. In the East Village, on Bleecker and Bowery, was CBGB, which was home to Television, Patti Smith and many of the bands that also played at Max’s. Little temporary art galleries were opening and closing every week in the East Village.

Meanwhile, there was also the High Mandarin moment, which has scarcely been isolated or studied as a single impulse, but was the last gasp of both a late-age Modernism and a 1960s-era radicalism: a paradoxical combination of elitism in aesthetics and an egalitarianism bordering on socialism and utopianism in politics. The representative figures of this New York were Susan Sontag, Jasper Johns, George Balanchine, Robert Wilson, Robert Mapplethorpe, Richard Sennett, Richard Howard, John Ashbery and many other cultural arbiters — Barbara Epstein and Robert Silvers, the editors of the New York Review of Books; Bob Gottlieb at Knopf; the critic Richard Poirier. Some of these people weren’t interested in politics at all, but if they were, their politics were radical. Mapplethorpe — with his lubricious African-American nudes, portraits of society ladies and still lifes of ‘‘New York flowers’’ (as he once called them) — was one of the few people of the period who braided these high and low strands of New York culture. Could such a phenomenon occur today? Maybe in Berlin. But not in New York.

THOSE WERE YEARS when rents were low, when would-be writers, singers, dancers could afford to live in Manhattan’s (East, if not, West) Village, before everyone marginal was further marginalized by being squeezed out to Bushwick or Hoboken. Face-to-face encounters are essential to a city’s vitality, even among people who aren’t sure of each other’s names, for the exchange of ideas and to generate a sense of electricity. In the ’70s, creative people of all sorts could meet without plans, could give each other tips or discuss burgeoning theories or markets or movements.

In gay life, that’s called ‘‘cruising’’ (although the French equivalent, draguer, applies to all denominations). In the period before AIDS, the heyday of Studio 54 and Mineshaft, gays were on the verge of being dubbed trend-setters and tastemakers; Frank Rich even wrote a retrospective article for Esquire in 1987 in which he looked back at ‘‘the homosexualization of America.’’ But the outbreak of the plague in 1981 changed all that. Suddenly the glamour boys, with their showboat bodies and high-paying jobs, were Auschwitz skeletons covered with black spots, like Canova’s unfinished marble statues. No one wanted to exchange kisses with someone infected, especially not before the path of transmission was identified (Poppers? Mustaches? Mosquitoes? Tears?). Whereas straight guys had been intrigued with gay life before and could (almost) contemplate experimenting, suddenly the barrier between the two orientations shot up, higher than the Iron Curtain.

Now, with the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing marriage equality and with what might be called ‘‘the banalization of gay life,’’ the imp of the perverse has made ’70s-style queers look mighty attractive. Brad reminded me that the young gays of that decade had been ruthlessly oppressed when they were growing up in Eisenhower’s or Nixon’s America. ‘‘Finally they were free to be open,’’ he says. ‘‘And we felt that we were glamorous and attractive.’’ Certainly this very romantic view of gay life has come back into currency — and it is in the possession of straight as well as gay artists, male or female. It’s a view I subscribe to myself, and that permeates my memoir about the period, ‘‘City Boy.’’

BUT THOSE DAYS, those years, are gone. ‘‘Love Among the Ruins,’’ one might have called it, a time when young unknowns could achieve fame or at least rub shoulders with it, if they didn’t mind the rats galloping underfoot or a stickup in broad daylight on busy Christopher Street.

That delicate ecology has now been irreparably damaged. Of course there are still wonderfully intelligent people around; as you walk past tables in a New York restaurant, you want to join in three out of four conversations. And half the people you meet here would be interviewed or arrested in any other city. But the cultural flame that passed to New York from Europe with all the refugees in World War II and burned bright in the ’50s with the Abstract Expressionists and the New York School poets — and brighter still in the late ’70s — now feels as if it’s been doused. As a group movement, at least — though individual sparks still glimmer here and there. Only the happy few would say the excitement was worth the danger, the ambient ugliness and the poverty.

Correction: September 13, 2015 

An article on Page 182 this weekend about the enduring cultural fascination with New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s, partly stoked by an interest in that era’s bleak realities, misstates part of the name of the institute that named AIDS in 1982. It is the Centers for Disease Control (not Center).

Credits:  This article has been published with slight modification for coherency; it first came out in 2015 in The New York Times Style Magazine.

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