Shockingly, I find myself old enough to be an artifact of New York City’s history. From my current vantage point, I can scroll back through epochs of cultural time — the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s, and so on — like a dendrologist study- ing the rings of time marked on an ancient tree stump … except the rings are within me. I find myself turning into that old tree stump, that fossilized remnant.
In 1966, when I was born, my parents lived on St. Mark’s Place. The poet W.H. Auden and jazz legend Thelonious Monk lived on our block. My mother would sit at the window and watch Monk, in his signature porkpie hat, float by in a haze of marijuana smoke. My father was an abstract artist whose work fell in the commercially unviable gap between the Abstract Expressionists and Minimalists. He needed more space for his studio, so we moved to a huge loft on Greene Street in SoHo when I was three.
SoHo, back then, was raw, a bohemian heaven. Artists were flocking into the area, taking over the lofts once used for light industry. The basement and ground floor of our building stored huge bales of rags. The business was run by an old Hasidic Jew with a long gray beard. I enjoyed wriggling my tiny body behind the rag bales in the freight elevator.
Each night, the artists clustered at the only bar in the area, Fanelli’s, papered with sepia-tinged photos of old boxers, which miraculously still exists in relatively un- changed form. My dad (an English expat) stayed up all night painting 18-foot-long canvases of squares and rectangles floating in colored fields. As a child, you accept your world as a mythological necessity. I believed my father’s totemic paintings were vital for the function- ing of the city. They held its urban gravity, its concrete magic, together.
My parents split up when I was five — my father spent too many nights at Max’s Kansas City, carousing with his painter buddies. He never committed to a conventional relationship. I moved with my mother to the Upper West Side.
My mother, Joyce Johnson, was a writer and a full-time book editor. She published Yippie Abbie Hoffman’s Revolution for the Hell of It and Julius Lester’s Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! Books by leftist historians, muckraking journalists, and feminists. She was the token radical in a conventional publishing house. She assembled the paraplegic Vietnam vet Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July and edited Free to Be… You and Me, a bestselling anthology of mid-70s “children’s liberation” essays. She took me to lunch meetings with James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg, Grace Paley, and her closeknit circle of woman literary agents and editors who quoted Virginia Woolf and Henry James, adorned in Art Deco Bakelite jewelry.
Meanwhile, my father introduced me to the punk and new wave basement clubs popping up in SoHo and the Lower East Side, like the Mudd Club, Tier 3, CBGB. We saw The Lounge Lizards, James Chance, the Plasmatics … and other weird, experimental bands I can’t remember. We loved this raw, frenetic scene.
I inherited my father’s curiosity about whatever is next, whatever zeitgeist is percolating. However, he hated Pop Art, considered Warhol a nemesis, and bunkered down with his other painter friends in a shared distaste for anything past second-generation Ab Ex — with the exception of Basquiat, whose talent he surprisingly gushed over.
In 1982, my mother published her memoir Minor Characters, chronicling her childhood and her relationship with Beat writer/generational avatar Jack Kerouac. They went out for a year and a half, meeting when she was 21 and he was in his mid-30s. In fact, his best work was already behind him. Alcoholism, meth, and other excesses had taken their toll.
She was with Kerouac when On the Road came out in 1957, acclaimed as a masterpiece. He had written it in 1949 but couldn’t get it published for many years, along with many of his other works. Sudden fame only sped his disintegration. My mother accompanied Kerouac to TV talk shows. He would get wasted in the dressing room and proclaim mournfully to the interviewer: “I am waiting for God to show me His face.”
I sought to encapsulate my experience of growing up in Manhattan in the 1970s and ’80s in my book 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl.
“Growing up in New York City was a teaching in impermanence. A bookstore, a movie theater, a café would arrive, as if to crystallize a certain idea of culture … and then vanish like a twig carried off by the rushing torrents of the river of oblivion, named Lethe by the Greeks. My friends and I spent much of our high school years in revival houses, making diligent dilettante studies of Godard, Fassbinder, Antonioni, Woody Allen, Kubrick, adding their phrases and poses to our lexicon.
“Our parents had participated in the radical shifts of the 1960s… No such freeing gesture seemed possible for my friends and me. We had the permanent presentiment that we had arrived too late — there would be no new under- ground, no French Resistance, no Summer of Love, not even another cleansing scrub of nihilism like the Punk Era that exploded in the late 1970s and immediately collapsed on itself. The revolution — any revolution, or movement, or meaning — was over. It had ended in failure, and we had lost. The butterfly lay crushed under the tank tread. History had snapped shut its traps, and we were exiles in a time after time…”
Ofcourse, it doesn’t stopt here. I dropped out of college, entered the New York culture scene of the early 1990s, worked as a journalist and editor for art magazines, haunted the Odeon, Bowery Bar, and M.K.’s. I cofounded an art and literary journal, Open City. We found offices in the cavernous Tribeca loft of our publisher, Rob Bingham, creating a scene that spanned literary society, the art world, and grunge rock. Rob was from a Southern newspaper dynasty. A talented if selfdestructive writer, he overdosed on heroin just before the publication of his first novel. That marked the end of that short era.
After that, for me, came the discovery of psychedelic shamanism and my first book, Breaking Open the Head (2002). I first tried ayahuasca in a downtown apartment overlooking the Hudson with two California neoshamans. I went to Gabon, Ecuador, Oaxaca, and Burning Man. I discovered Terence McKenna’s Archaic Revival, Artaud’s Peyote Dance, Henri Michaux on mescaline, Aldous Huxley, and Alan Watts.
Walter Benjamin explored the value of altered states as tools for thinking. “The dialectics of intoxication are indeed curious,” he wrote. “Is not perhaps all ecstasy in one world humiliating sobriety in that complementary to it?” I loved subterranean tripping in NYC, wandering into the Max Fish bar where the drinkers appeared as wounded medieval knights and mendicants, taking LSD and going to the Metropolitan or the Rubin Museum of Art, seeing paintings and sculptures come alive. Tiny Grecian figurines suddenly danced, smiling flirtatiously, from their glass cases. Tibetan statues transmitted teachings.
Hakim Bey (pseudonym of the sadly deceased Sufi anarchist philosopher Peter Lamborn Wilson) coined the term “Temporary Autonomous Zone” (TAZ): pirate utopias that appear like mirages within the borders of militaristic empires and, just as suddenly, dissolve. Occupy Wall Street was such a TAZ, a ragtag hallucination of an anarchic free society existing for a few short months. My friends created such a TAZ in an occupied building on the Bowery, given the name Collective Hardware. For a brief time, gangsters, artists, hairstylists, shamans, horror movie directors, Facebook founders, and rappers found a liberated zone in which to congregate. And then, just as suddenly, it was gone.
These days, I am not aware of any new TAZs in New York. Nor am I finding new scenester havens where artists, designers, society wits, and philosophers congregate to pursue the “long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses” — to quote Rimbaud — still the precondition for scheming up new path-breaking disruptions of the known and familiar. Please send me a message if you find one!
This is a moment when it is not clear what New York means anymore — or what it will become. The city still seethes with creative ambition, shoots off sparks of brilliance.
But America’s Puritanical “woke” culture has cast a humorless pall of moralism across the city’s once-anarchic ambience.
Jean Baudrillard once dubbed New York City “the museum of power.” It retains that quality, even though, after Covid and the #BlackLivesMatter riots, vast stretches of Broadway and other districts remain shuttered. The financial services industry has moved away, leaving office buildings empty. The super wealthy warehouse luxury apartments in brand-new needle-thin skyscrapers, parking excess capital out of inertia.
Here’s the problem: New York City is supposed to represent progress, acceleration, the futuristic, glamorous ultramodern. But now progress itself has stalled.
Life in New York was always a trade-off. You suffered rats, the homeless, the casual brutality, and ugliness to be there, ready and waiting for the New/Next Big Thing in music, tech, fashion, art, etc. to arrive. But these days, the New/Next Big Thing doesn’t seem geolocated or physically bounded. It isn’t even clear if there is or will be a New Big Thing.
We are in some new, murky area … a time, perhaps, of degrowth, dissolution, and decay. Or perhaps some new ideal of the future will froth from the trans human technocratic wasteland. Only time will tell. In the meantime … epochs of dissolution and decay also have their decadent pleasures and secret euphorias, which we may as well enjoy.
[Table of contents]
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