Ponder this: The rock star cameos and tails of music industry excess that populate Marc Spitz’s “Poseur: A Memoir of Downtown New York City in the ’90s” are the least interesting thing about it.
That’s not to say hearing about Spitz’s email relationship with Courtney during his Spin magazine days (“Don’t do heroin,” she advised the author. “It’s passé. I killed it. It’s over baby. Stop it right now.”) or his nerves around Smiths icon Morrissey (“I haplessly stuck paper towels to my forehead to blot the sweat,” Spitz writes), is not fascinating.
But “Poseur” moves beyond mere industry gossip, into somewhere infinitely more satisfying. It is a truly moving study of a disappeared New York, of a Bukowski-obsessed Long Island kid’s desperate desire to immerse himself in its romantic ideals, and where that longing took him.
Music critic memoir? Yes, it’s that, too. But it’s so much more.
Spitz is the author of biographies of Mick Jagger and David Bowie, along with studies of L.A.’s punk scene, novels and plays. He’s also contributed to Spin, Rolling Stone, New York magazine and the New York Times.
But above all else, he is a needle-sharp, self-deprecating writer with pop culture coursing through his veins. These references are his lifeblood; they’re part of how and why he became who he is.
This is a memoir, then, where names from the last 20 or so years of music come rushing back — not just Nirvana, Wu-Tang Clan and Sonic Youth, but Urge Overkill, Toadies and Seven Mary Three, too — and movies, icons and song titles are as ubiquitous as sunshine.
Spitz drops in “Goodfellas” references; on his father’s nose-dive into the white stuff: “And with the mid-seventies and the invention of coke culture, we were soon in the second act of ‘Goodfellas’ (jail, blow, ‘Monkey Man,’ and Carbone in the meat truck).”
He speaks of “Kids,” Larry Clark’s controversial tale of “virgin surgeon” Telly and his teenage friends, as a cautionary tale for a mid-’90s heroin addict like himself: “ ‘Kids’ was like being trapped in a room with your younger, stupider self (if your younger, stupid self was a white b-boy skater). It made me want to get an AIDS test and go home to Long Island forever.”
And he equates his style of dancing to Hughes-ian Reagan-era cinema: “We pushed past the sweaty bodies onto the floor and did the white kid new wave movie hop, which I could do pretty well. You basically dance like they do in the montages in ‘Sixteen Candles,’ ‘Valley Girl,’ ‘Hot Dog: The Movie,’ or any number of eighties flicks.”
Indeed, it’s hard for me not to swoon over a writer who speaks of “stopping everything to watch ‘The Godfather’ and ‘The Godfather Part II,’ ” or had a romance “scored to Radiohead, Oasis, Blur, Elastica, Pulp.”
And as someone who makes his living as a writer and editor, and actually began as a (quasi) music critic, I found myself feeling intimately connected to Spitz, his style and his journey. His description of dating (sort of) and loving the actress Julie Bowen, for example, is the kind of wistful, adoring thing that perhaps only a skinny former pop-obsessive could truly identify with:
“I thought of kissing her, of how she tasted like watermelon and salt, and how necking with someone so beautiful felt like a small victory for every awkward kid who ever lived.”
That prettiness alternates with casual sex at South by Southwest, the intrusion of sudden pregnancy and abortion, think pieces on Jeff Buckley and a then still-MIA Axl Rose, and a melancholy feeling that a certain era of music journalism and NYC life itself is now gone. Spitz was there for the dying days.
But “Poseur” is no death march. Its first chunk, especially, is coming-of-age bliss, never more so than when young Spitz moved to the elegantly wasted confines of the Chelsea Hotel, that mythical rest stop for everyone from Kerouac and Burroughs to Sid Vicious and Edie Sedgwick.
Spitz, on waking up after the scary first night at 222 W. 23rd St.:
“I woke up, and it was a Chelsea morning, and I was still alive. That very fact made me bold. I might have only slept an hour and a half. It was still early, but I sensed that was the most important hour and a half in my life.”
This is criticism and memory merged, and it’s funny, beautiful and wise.
In the end, long after that night at the Chelsea, Spitz points to a Patti Smith quote that perhaps indicates his romantic quest for New York life, while worth it in this case, may not be the path to greatness today: “New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling,” said the punk poetess. “But there are other cities. Detroit. Poughkeepsie. New York City has been taken away from you. So my advice is: Find a new city.”
That is the book’s real victory. It makes the reader – any reader, really – feel that the youthful aspiration to “find your city” is not a shallow, silly pursuit but a wholly necessary one. It’s essential reading for any burgeoning or even veteran writer, especially one who ever dreamed of dating Chloe Sevigny or sipping tea with Morrissey.
It is the music memoir as art, and it just might make some mp3-hording music-journo-wannabe teenager in Westchester County (or West Falls) think of Spitz the way he once thought of Charles Bukowski. And that’s strong praise.
Poseur: A Memoir of Downtown New York City in the ’90s
By Marc Spitz; Da Capo Press, 336 pages, $15.99 (paper)
Christopher Schobert is a staff editor at Buffalo Spree and a frequent Buffalo News contributing critic.