In life—though not in fiction—I think nostalgia is probably an itch best not scratched too vigorously. But this morning, I got an email telling me that a magazine article I wrote more than twenty years ago has found its way onto the Internet, along with a clip from a shambolic television appearance that followed on the Donahue show.
Certain memories were roused, like hungover prisoners asleep in the holding pen.
Back in 1986, I was an unsightly little coffee stain in the corner of the creamy-white menu of urban delights offered by New York magazine. As anyone who’s read even a page of one of my books can attest, I was singularly unsuited to write for a publication which typically ran cover stories on “Restaurant Madness” and “Spring Fashion.” Nevertheless, the people in charge were kind enough to tolerate me for a while and after several years spent scrounging at the bottom of the barrel I was given an opportunity to write an actual feature.
One of the senior editors, Peter Herbst, spotted an upper-middle class family dining at an East Side restaurant accompanied by a creature in a dyed Mohawk who turned out to be their son. Peter saw the germ of a story there and asked if I’d be interested in following up on it. What he had in mind was a sort of 80s version of a famous story that had run in New York the previous decade called “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” which was the basis of the film Saturday Night Fever.
Keen-eyed readers might by then have noticed what the article’s author Nik Cohn later admitted: that the story was a total fraud. It purported to be about the disco scene in 1970s Brooklyn, but most of the lingo used blatantly came from the mod scene in Swinging London circa 1965. I am the Face. Sure, that sounds like Bensonhurst.
I decided I was more comfortable operating in what those in the computer world and the White House might call “the reality-based community.” In other words, since it was my first—and probably my last—shot to make it as a writer, I had to be able to produce actual living people and prove my story was true after I turned it in.
So I found myself in front of CBGB’s, the legendary punk club on the Bowery, one cold Sunday afternoon in January. There was a “hardcore matinee” of local bands playing inside, and the sidewalk was jammed with skinheads, skate punks, suburban cast-offs, runaways, poseurs, and of course kids who hadn’t entirely made up their minds what they were.
I was twenty-six then and I felt as out of place as any of them. It wasn’t that the setting was unfamiliar. I’d grown up in the city and had been to the club dozens of times in the 70s, when my brother worked with the psychobilly outfit, the Cramps, and introduced me to the music of Television, the Ramones, the Patti Smith Group and all the rest. My discomfort was more internal. More than anything in the world, I wanted to be a writer and I felt I was failing. I couldn’t get out of my own head and I couldn’t get in the magazine. Something had locked up inside me, keeping me from making contact with the outside world and writing about it. I needed someone, as Kafka said, to take an axe to the frozen sea.
So I stood there with the kids milling around me, knowing I had to find a way to marshal my resources and find a story among them. Right about that moment—and this is the truth—there was a scream from the midst of the crowd and a hefty young skinhead in a sleeveless denim jacket stumbled toward the curb, clutching his bloody hand.
“Bags bit his finger off!” someone yelled. “You fucking believe that?”
People crowded around the victim. A police car showed up. Names were taken. Rumors were started. Fiery oaths were sworn. I looked around and at the fringe of the crowd I saw a girl with close-cropped hair and the same kind of plaid shirt that every other kid there was wearing. But there was something open and disarming in her expression, and for some reason I turned to her with my notebook and said:
That young woman, who’d come into the city that morning on the LIRR, became one of the main subjects in the story I’d eventually write. Her little journey from the suburbs to the heart of the city hardcore scene became a sort of narrative about growing up in the Reagan era. I owe both her and her parents a debt of gratitude and possibly an apology for exposing her that way (I’m not using her name here, because it’s twenty-one years later and wherever she is now, she’s more than entitled to her privacy). Because that story eventually made it possible for me to make a living as a writer.
Not that I had intended to make her the main focus of the article in the first place. I was more interested in the truly marginal kids in the scene, the ones sleeping in Tompkins Square Park, raising pitbulls and surviving on their wits. The kind of people in other words I often write about (and in truth, sometimes indirectly identify with) in my novels. If my memory serves, I met Roger from Agnostic Front after that first matinee and thought he’d be a great person to focus on—an edgy character to be sure, kind of funny, lewd, and politically provocative. I went out for curry with him, his girlfriend and some of the other guys in the group. Over a beer, he casually remarked that it was hard for them to hold on to a drummer, because the ones they played with were usually either too lousy to keep a beat or too good to stay in a group like theirs for long. He already had a lot of tattoos and in a quiet moment he admitted having second thoughts about certain future opportunities that might be foreclosed because of them.
Later, we went to some kind of crazy little club between Avenues C and D where we walked in just as a skinhead girl was taking her shirt off to a reggae tune on a makeshift stage. A big short-haired lesbian—well, I think she was a lesbian—ran up and started to grope her. And then another woman jumped up and decked her with one punch, and then sat down to finish her beer.
All of that was a little much for New York magazine (though not for me!). So no Agnostic Front. Instead, I ended up writing about an older girl who’d been on the scene for a while, someone who had affluent parents, a private school education, and a boyfriend in a band called Murphy’s Law who called himself Jimmy Gestapo (and who later became a writer herself). I braided her narrative with the one about the younger girl and included some scenes explicating the science of stage-diving, slam-dancing, ‘zines, and a group called Doggy Style. Those were the days, my friend.
I actually really liked going to the shows and talking to some of the kids. The music wasn’t always to my taste, but I loved their passionate identification with it, the way they literally threw themselves into it, body and soul. I loved the idea of a bunch of misfits finding each other in those pre-Internet days through letters and magazines, through their commitment to hardcore and their mutual alienation from the mainstream. I wasn’t too crazy about the mainstream myself in those days (or really these days either), having had my fill of Ronald Reagan, junk bonds, Revlon ads, and the most awful man in America, Donald Trump, at New York. What I didn’t love was some of the politics that came out of the scene, especially the virulent racism. Any halfway decent reporter knows his or her job is to shut up and take notes. But on at least one occasion that comes to mind, I had to stop an interview with a moron skinhead and his tiny-brained girlfriend because they had nothing to say beyond baiting me with the dreariest cliches of anti-Semitism.
On the other hand, there were some truly risible moments. I particularly liked the way one group called Warzone introduced every song, “Wahh-zone, Old School style” or “Wahhzone, reggae style,” and then jackhammered away at pretty much the same tempo on every number. They could’ve gone on. Wahzone, with a touch of the Cole Porter magic. Wahzone with sort of like a Polynesian influence, like, you know, early Don Ho, but not so mainland-influenced…”
Anyway, the story came out and all seemed well, at first. The reader was response was good and the editors were happy. The older girl in the story called the day after it hit the stands and told me it was the best thing ever written about hardcore. Her only complaint was that I referred to her as a “young woman,” rather a “girl” in the story (you never know.) But then the mood changed. Some time over the next few days, she decided she hated the story. It made her look like a social climber. Her friends hated it too, she said. And most of all, they hated me.
By then, the magazine publicist had received a phone call from media heaven. The Donahue show—that era’s Oprah—had decided to devote an hour to the subject of hardcore. I was invited to appear, along with some of the subjects of my story. With just a little hesitance, I accepted, perhaps thinking of the advice of (I think) Gore Vidal, who said that there are two things that one must whenever asked: have sex and appear on TV.
So I arrived at the NBC studios at 30 Rockefeller Plaza at the appointed time and was shown to the set of Donahue. There, I found the audience liberally salted with my antagonist’s friends, various angry skinheads, hardcore kids, asterisk heads, Crumbsuckers and Cro Mags (the last two were hardcore groups).
In a state of high excitement. one of Donahue‘s producers took me aside and said: “Now remember: This is your chance. Don’t be afraid to interrupt! Speak up! Don’t wait for your turn!”
Even then—and this was before the era of O’Reilly and Hannity—I knew I was supposed to be baring my teeth and growling like a Rottweiler.
I took my seat on the panel wearing the one suit I owned, a hundred dollar poplin number bought on sale, and found myself looking out at a hostile crowd, sitting near Jimmy Gestapo, the girl who hated me, and another guest.
The results are easily viewable on YouTube and have popped up in assorted other places on the web. You’ll hear me loudly booed and passionately denounced as “a dick” on the air (I don’t know if that was a first). I’m afraid I wasn’t at my best that day. I probably took it all a little too seriously. And frankly, after a certain point in the yelling and screaming, I got sort of bored because the conversation wasn’t going anywhere.
What you won’t see on YouTube is that same producer running out between commercial breaks to implore me to be more aggressive in interrupting other guests, while as soon as we got back on the air Phil keeps holding his hand up and insisting we give each other a chance to be heard. Speak up! Shut up! Stand up! Sit down!
Anyway, the show ended with more of a whimper than a bang and the guests were asked to come to the green room afterwards for a few last words with Phil. So there I was alone in the room with Jimmy Gestapo and his still-seething inamorata. After a few tense minutes of silence, Phil himself came in and—I kid you not—delivered a scorching tirade that left the hardcore kids speechless. The gist of it was—and again I’m relying on my faltering memory: You idiots! You blew it! I gave you a golden opportunity and you behaved like morons! You should be ashamed of yourselves! And so on and so forth.
Having expressed his Johnny Rotten-like fury to the fullest, he abruptly departed, leaving us alone in the room once more. We looked at each other for a moment and then Jimmy after making sure Donahue was down the hall and well out of earshot said sotto voce “welll, fuuck yoooou!”
I started to leave, but then a production assistant ran up and implored me to wait for the NBC limo to take me back to my office. That seemed to be an especially inappropriate mode of transportation for someone who’d just written a story about hardcore, but she was quite insistent and acted as if her job was at stake.
I walked through the revolving doors and out into a spring afternoon in New York. The limo was at the curb and the driver was holding the back door open for me. I guess in an 80s movie this would be the moment when the main character knows he’s really arrived. But the fact was, I knew I didn’t belong back in a magazine office. I wasn’t cut out to write cover stories about Donald Trump or Calvin Klein, or really to celebrate the “achievements” of any of the overdogs of the world. On the other hand, I couldn’t pretend I was still a kid rolling around in the gutter. On the sidewalk, a few yards away, people from the hardcore crowd were still roaming around aimlessly, with no music to provide catharsis. They started to turn on each other, forgetting me altogether, and I was later told that somebody whipped out a bicycle chain and began hitting people with it.
I think I was probably gone by then. Further adventures lay ahead. I’d just started seeing the woman I’d later marry; novels and children and many other ups and downs were in the future. Needless to say, I didn’t get in the Lincoln Town Car that afternoon. I just nodded to the driver and left it there—and if the Donahue people want to bitch about it now, they certainly know where to find me. I felt like walking anyway. I’d like to believe some kid who was there in an Agnostic Front t-shirt could have used the ride more than I did.