Have you seen Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight in Paris? In it, the main character (a writer) visits present-day Paris with his fiancee, and while roaming about the city at night suddenly finds himself in 1920s-era Paris and meets up with all of his heros of that time period: Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, Dali, and Picasso all figure prominently. It’s the type of movie that you can’t watch without thinking about a time that you’d like to visit. Paris in the 1920’s? Yes, please! But another, more recent, time and place combination that I’m also intrigued by is New York City in the 1970s. New York hadn’t yet turned into the high-rent, glossy city that it is now; in fact, the city was in bad enough shape that it inspired this infamous headline. Artists, writers, and musicians were still able to afford to live in the city, and came from all over to do so. These are three books that I think really capture the energy of the time:
Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York, by James Wolcott: Starting off his career with a letter of introduction from Norman Mailer to then-editor of the Village Voice Dan Wolf, being taken under Pauline Kael’s wing, and hanging out with the likes of John Cale, David Byrne, and Patti Smith at CBGB’s, Wolcott vividly describes New York as it was at its grittiest and most creative. The thing that charmed me about this book is Wolcott’s air of innocence about the whole thing. He writes as someone who was at once part of the scene and just outside of it, making it a very relatable story.
Just Kids, by Patti Smith: This short memoir tells the story of Patti Smith’s relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. It is at heart a love story, but Smith’s memory includes so many little details of New York at that time that it feels as much like a love story about the city as it does about her relationship. Like Wolcott, Smith was part of a circle of rising luminaries in the art and music world, and she writes intimately about her relationship with Mapplethorpe and the other rising stars in New York at the time.
Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain: This book is one of the best oral histories out there, piecing together the memories of lots of different people to tell the story of punk’s heyday. It covers cities from Detroit to London, but New York is, of course, one of the main locales, and the one that I think of when I think of this book.
Where would you like to visit, if you could pick a time and place to travel? I think San Francisco in the 1950’s and 1960’s would be another place on my list, and I wouldn’t mind a trip to England in the late 18th century to visit with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth either. I’d love to hear about those times and places that intrigue everyone else!