May 2005

Brendan Boyle

nonfiction

Teenage Hipster in the Modern World: From the Birth of Punk to the Land of Bush: Thirty Years of Apocalyptic Journalism by Marc Jacobson

Every freelancer should be as lucky as Marc Jacobson and have a friend like A.J. Weberman. This was the Weberman who led vigils outside Bob Dylan’s apartment, demanding that the Dylan "crawl out of his window" and have his mind "liberated" from the heroin addiction that government agents had orchestrated as part of their plot to neutralize his folkie-radicalism. Dylan never did crawl out his window, but he did walk out his door and liberate Weberman’s face with a few right hooks. What great copy. Weberman then starts harassing Dylan by phone. He tapes the conversations and they get released by Folkways Records as Bob Dylan vs. A.J. Weberman. Still more great copy -- a freelancer’s dream. But in Teenage Hipster in the Modern World: From the Birth of Punk to the Land of Bush: Thirty Years of Apocalyptic Journalism, a teeming new collection of Jacobson’s writings from the Village Voice, Esquire, and New York magazine, these stories are good for about two sentences worth of material. No sense spending any longer, Jacobson seems to say, when there’s so much more to tell.

Even without fisticuffs, Weberman proves a good guy to trail. Jacobson follows him to court to watch the resolution of Weberman’s dispute with a man who’s been stalking him. It doesn’t look like there’s much happening here, until it turns out that the stalker, William H. Deppermen, has been plastering New York with posters claiming to know the secret of Bruce Lee’s death. Things are starting to warm up. Jacobson pays Depperman a visit. He, for some mysterious reason, won’t open the door. Now they’re getting warmer still. So Jacobson asks for a phone interview. And what does Depperman respond? Nothing less than this: "I know who you are [Marc Jacobson]. I’ve checked you out…You are straight from Central Intelligence… If you want to talk to me, you’ll have to put up money, big money. Five thousand. Maybe ten. Cash. No checks."

A writer couldn’t ask for an easier assignment. It’s impossible to mess this stuff up. Remembering to turn on the tape-recorder is all there is to it. The interviewees take care of the rest. Jacobson has a great story about Frank Lucas, who was once the biggest drug dealer in Harlem, thanks in part to an ingeniously offensive scheme that involved transporting heroin from Vietnam back to the United States in the caskets of American servicemen. Jacobson should hardly get credit for writing the piece. He just lets Lucas talk: "We put [the dope] out there at four in the afternoon, when the cops changed shifts. That gave you a couple of hours to work, before those lazy bastards got down there. My buyers, though, you could set your watch by them. Those junkies crawling out… They had to reroute the bus coming down Eighth Avenue to 116th, it couldn’t get through. Call the Transit Authority to see if it’s not so… By nine o’clock, everything is sold and I got myself a million dollars."

Frank Lucas is the baddest of the lot Jacobson interviews, but not many of the others are take-home-to-mom material. They all, however, are perfectly entertaining. There is Nicky Louie, leader of the notorious Chinatown gang the Ghost Shadows; Chuck Berry, the hardest working libido in show-business; Legs McNeil, high-school dropout turned punk nihilist; and Myron Fass, gun-wielding publisher of single-issue magazine like "LedZep vs. Kiss" and "Is Frampton Dead?" Even a story about the landscape brings out some sleaze. The only story that features the natural world in any meaningful way is about, not surprisingly, an oil spill.

Jacobson does a decent job with upstanding citizens. Doctor J, Yoko Ono, and the Dalai Lama are chatty and open with Jacobson, but he doesn’t quite know how to respond to them. The writing sags as he tries to crack these models of decent -- or at least non-criminal -- behavior. He achieves tenderness in a story about his parents’ home, but this is a striking exception. Jacobson wants to write, as he puts it, about "pill-pushers, prostitutes, winos, bums, creeps… and other socially unacceptable netherworld types." Jacobson’s writing seems energized by their company. It mimics the phrasing and cadence of slangy, dirty speech. The sentences are short and incomplete. Grammatical niceties yield to tempo, as in this description of a downtown pusher: "Tonight Big W is wearing his skullcap funny. It’s not pulled down over his head; he’s got it done up in a little crown. Willie says he don’t want it skintight, it puts too much pressure on his stitches. Seems as Willie was in [the bar] a couple of weeks ago and got into an argument with a pimp. Willie thought the guy was just bullshitting until the iron rod came out. He forgets what happened next." This style is perfectly suited to "Big W" and magazine writing of this kind. The reader does no work. Every sentence points downhill.

There is something adolescent about this attraction to the sordid, this hunger for "action" and the "cool." Jacobson positively glows -- but we cringe -- when he tells the story of eighty-year old Harold Conrad asking for a joint on his deathbed, as if this only confirmed Jacobson’s belief that Conrad was always "the hippest guy in the room." Jacobson misses several opportunities to examine the tenacious appeal of this juvenile worldview and what finally causes us to trade it in. One of the last pieces ends with Jacobson, after dropping his teenaged daughter off at some goth club, wondering whether he should march back in, drive her home, and put her to bed. This is Jacobson fully grown-up. But we’re not sure how he got there or what happened to the writer who, just a few years and pages earlier, never would have counseled a goodnight’s sleep when there was action to be had.

Teenage Hipster in the Modern World: From the Birth of Punk to the Land of Bush: Thirty Years of Apocalyptic Journalism by Marc Jacobson
Black Cat
ISBN: 0802170080
480 Pages