Twentieth Century Low Life, Illuminated

Luc Sante, "Maybe the People Would Be the Times" (2020, 328 pp.)

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On the blank white back cover of Luc Sante’s second essay collection stands a single blurb, from New York School poet John Ashbery: “Luc Sante is a superb writer who can give astonishing form to floating moods that no one noticed before.” Though I’d say Sante isn’t quite so evanescent, anyone who’s read him knows why Ashbery wanted to sing his praises. The man’s honed and acidulous yet speechlike and deadpan prose is an astonishing and deeply pleasurable thing even though pleasure per se—as opposed to laughs, which he nails on the regular—seldom seems his goal as a writer, person, or aesthete. Strange conjoinings, sudden apercus, deep background set off in relief—these he treasures in Maybe the People Would Be the Times, a book seldom slowed by a dull moment. Artistic sweep, formal nicety, the great ideas of Western man, nah.

Thus Sante’s decision to isolate Ashbery’s rave stands in stark opposition to the odd fact that in a book dominated by criticism Sante never addresses a single artist of Ashbery’s stature—scarcely mentions one. A scan of his 2007 Kill All Your Darlings collection seems similar until 200 pages in, whereupon materialize appreciations of Victor Hugo, René Magritte, and Walker Evans and cordoned off in a brief farewell section a fondly loopy celebration of his longtime East 12th Street neighbor Allen Ginsberg and a permanently awestruck account of an infatuation with Arthur Rimbaud that began well before Sante was 19, which as he can’t get over was the age when Rimbaud pretty much stopped writing anything more poetic than bills of lading. I should note for the record that John Ashbery later translated Rimbaud’s Illuminations. I should also note that Maybe the People Would Be the Times sports an epigraph from Rimbaud elder Charles Baudelaire: “I wanted to speak the beautiful language of my time.”

This Sante interprets liberally, as he pretty much has to in a book that ranges around less than chronologically. But its linchpin is the title essay, which follows a paragraph headed “My Generation”—lead sentence: “You wish you’d spent more time with your generation before it died”—and a five-part rumination topped off with an entranced account of the Jaynetts’ transcendent 1963 hit “Sally Go Round the Roses.” Sante wrote his “Maybe the People Will Be the Times” piece for Vice in 2017, when he was 63 and I was a 75-year-old grateful to be tending a column in Vice’s Noisey music vertical. So I figure that like me Sante was aware that his readership in this online powerhouse was much younger than he was, and that he therefore conceived this remembrance of his early twenties as a way to inform, impress, and perhaps inspire later twentysomethings—fledglings whose life experience was generations removed from his own.

I should add that Maybe the People Would Be the Times seemed a rather murky title until I determined that it honors Arthur Lee’s catchiest song on Love’s classic 1967 Forever Changes, its title “Maybe the People Will Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale.” As a fledgling 25-year-old rock critic I always dug that album without giving much thought to its trippy lyrics, which with this song are easier to grok once you know that L.A.’s soon iconic Whiskey a Go-Go, where Love was the de facto house band in the early psychedelic era, was located on Sunset Boulevard between Clark and Hilldale. I imagine that holed up in his New Jersey bedroom, hyperintelligent 13-year-old rock fan Sante did know this as he envisioned the subcultural ferment he at some juncture in the middle future would be old enough to partake of—without imagining that by then he’d also be inspired and abashed by the insuperable example of a 19th-century French poet he’d barely heard of in 1967.

“Almost everything of interest in New York City lies in some degree of proximity to music,” the Vice piece begins, overstating its way past the Statue of Liberty, the Bronx Zoo, Coney Island, and the 7 Train before taking off from an early CBGB performance by Richard Hell-era Television that names neither band nor venue. Nor does Sante’s CBGB evolve into New York punk’s Whiskey as it did in history, where that single club generated Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Ramones, Blondie, and Talking Heads, none of whom Sante even namechecks. Oh well—at least Patti Smith, subject of the superb New York Review of Books appreciation “Mother Courage” a few pages on, gets to introduce Columbia dropout Sante and his phantom cohort of 200 or so to Jamaican toastmaster Tapper Zukie, who heralds the dubwise bass that along with other funk game-changers, uncounted postpunk here-and-gones, and nominal no wave immortals will lead Sante through an unmapped circuit of shot-in-the-dark clubs and unadvertised dance lofts. This action evolves ever more raggedly until 1981 or so, by which time he’s doing too many drugs—not grass, which for the young Sante barely counted, but heroin, called “boy,” and cocaine, “girl”—and comes to realize what every avant-garde generation-monger must: “[Y]ou have a year written on your own forehead and it’s not the current one. You have aged out of the struggle just in time for the struggle to be done with you.”

Whereupon Sante launches a series of impressionistically memoiristic blog posts and scene briefs that include a (fictional—I said fictional) précis of Rimbaud’s second life as a ventriloquist and establish that Sante is a Belgian immigrant whose parents were beaten up pretty good by the on-the-ground horrors of World War II and never really got over it. Ponder these facts briefly and you’ll realize that Sante’s unusual American childhood rendered him a seriously atypical 13-year-old rock fan holed up in his bedroom—a fundamentally alienated one so brilliant and singular he was capable of evolving into a writer drawn to topics like these: endless Georges Simenon crime novels where a cop named Maigret solves the crimes, pseudonymous Donald Westlake crime novels where a crook named Parker commits them, obscurantist New Wave director Jacques Rivette, found-photography ironist Richard Prince, need-I-say-more mystagogue H.P. Lovecraft, dare-I-say-it cult filmcrit Manny Farber, pioneering information artist Sophie Calle, pioneering graphic novelist Lynd Ward, and heroic street artist turned AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz, who inspires the most admiring, tender, and pained writing in the book, at least in part because Cynthia Carr’s biography left Sante no other options.

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After many years as an East Village scrivener who cemented that identity with 1991’s Low Life, a groundbreaking history of 19th-century underclass Manhattan every Manhattanite should read, Sante now commands the award-winning repute he deserves. He lives north of Poughkeepsie and teaches at Bard, his subjects not just writing but the history of photography, a self-taught specialty that dominates the generously illustrated last third of a collection that would be a lesser thing without it. No Walker Evans or anybody else you’ve heard of except maybe original paparazzo Weegee, for three decades the best-known street and hence newspaper photographer in the world. That’s because, in a revealingly populist turn, Sante is interested in everybody’s photographs (physical ones—no cellphones or Instagram here).

A longtime collector of snapshots purchased for pocket change at estate sales, Sante seems interested in any kind of photograph that has no pretensions to art. He examines professional portraits, amateur family snaps, mug shots, evidence photos, staged arcade tableaus, movie stills, fotonovellas, phony spiritualist “spirit photographs” of the dead, and postcards depicting gruesome or sensational historical events (though he rightly refuses to reproduce any of the countless lynching pix that flooded the USPS in the ‘20s). Every one of these pieces is different in approach, and every one explores and respects the uncanonical aesthetic it arrives at; every one attempts to discern both the intentions of these shutterbugs, memento seekers, amusement-park hawkers, and workaday professional documenters and what they turn out to have left us with. Every one penetrates art that doesn’t know its own depths or its own foibles. 

Beyond his prose and the mind that goes with it, what’s attracted me to Sante since Low Life is his simultaneously dogged and delighted concentration on an ever-expanding conception of just that: low life. Bohemian-identified even in his current exurban eminence, Sante continues to recall the East Village where he came of age as the habitat of not just artists both inspired and off the wall but struggling working-class and sub-working-class grunts, strays, misfits, and petty criminals. This vision is all over this collection, most explictly in the penultimate “Neighbors.” But ultimately it’s all for naught. As a finale called “The Unknown Soldier” catalogues in 70 or so acutely differentiated sentences, they’re all going to die. The End.

Another illustrated piece closes out the music-dominated first section: “12 Sides,” photos of a dozen battered 45s Sante purchased cheap like those estate snapshots. Each begins with title, serial number, a note on where Sante found it, and a condition report including estimated number of plays. And each concludes with an imaginary account of their journey through history: who bought them, why, and then what happened. These are all pretty funny. Dyke and the Blazers’ “We Got More Soul”: “He played the record on Saturday mornings, finding in it an analogue to the optimistic cheer that filled him as he contemplated the beginnings of a weekend that seemed as long and promising as the unending highway of his future life. Now he has no recollection of it.” The Tymes’ “So Much in Love”: “He went so far as to try to become a priest to assuage his broken heart, but the order knew better than to sign him up. Today he is an angry drunk, and no longer remembers how he got there.” Doris Troy’s “Just One Look”: “Donated it to the church bazaar on the eve of her marriage. Now she is twice-divorced and sad, misses her records, misses her old friends, misses her mom.”

“Terrific,” I scrawled at the end, and read on. But the piece stuck with me in a disquieting way. Didn’t any of these lives have a happy ending? Any of these records persist in their original owners’ memories, even? Well, one: Arthur still plays James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” on CD while driving to his Con Ed job. Arguably a second, too—all three owners of the Fantastic Johnny C’s “Cool Broadway” “recall a certain brass-section color, a certain parade-drum bounce that stands in for 1968.” Still, the proportions seemed off. Was Sante laughing at these aged-out rock and roll fans? Was I?

Not exactly. But for sure Sante has honed an acidulous pessimism that’s become both a habit and a belief. His felt respect for low life is no less ingrained. But we live in a world where people smart enough to read Sante assume almost reflexively that they understand stuff the less smart are a mite too low to get on top of. Is this all we want from the beautiful language of our time? As someone who’s been an ensconced East Villager since just around the time Sante first visited CBGB, I’m not embarrassed to say that I hope not.