You may not be anticipating it yet, but the forthcoming collection of essays from Luc Sante is killer (which is apt, since it is entitled Kill All Your Darlings and of course, this was the man whose book Evidence looks at old bloody crime scenes with fresh eyes). Reading Low Life was revelatory, if revelatory can mean eternally bummed by the realization that the New York that I now reside in is by far the safest, cleanest, least suicidal, weakest, and most boring it's ever been in its history.
I wrote a brief feature on Sante for a forthcoming issue of Paste Magazine, but wound up using little of our email discussion. And so here's the bulk of our exchange.
I get curious. Usually I have some fairly nebulous questions--nebulous in that they're not articulated and also that they're not particularly rectilinear. That is, I'm not going to find the answer clearly stated, or in any one particular place. Very often they have to do with the emotional gestalt of a particular time and place. I'm always launching the time machine. For some reason, the historical timeline is my underlying reference. I'm the only person I know who arranges his books in chronological order.
Writing about specific people sharpens the focus, since I can see such things through their eyes. Of the subjects covered in the book, some (Rimbaud, Dylan, Magritte, Evans) are obsessions that go back to adolescence, while others (Hugo, Mapplethorpe) I learned about as a consequence of the assignment. But with pieces as big as the last two, the subjects aren't chosen idly. I knew enough about them to have nagging questions that prompted me to want to know more.
I'm writing a book about Paris. It was my agent's idea, but it's perfect: a true lifelong obsession. I won't really know what it's about or where it's going until I'm finished--I'm sort of an idiot savant, never knowing what it is I mean until I've gotten to the end of the sentence. It's not a history, really, and it's sure not a travelogue or an explanation. I'm slapping together a lot of old obsessions (the serial novel, the Commune, the underworld, Surrealism, movies, the Situationists) with some things that are relatively new to me. It does have something to do with Utopia.
I'm obsessed with the past (see above), in particular the 19th and 20th centuries. I'm interested in the present, but when I stopped being young, some time ago, I dropped out of the loop. Right now I am doing some catching up--most of the people I talk to frequently are somewhat younger than me, which helps.
Times Square is a theme attraction, the LES is a theme attraction, etc. I think of the term "dive bar," which seems to refer to bars that wish to project an ambience that resembles that of the popular idea of deadfalls from the past. It's calculated. The bars I frequented in NYC in the past were dives, period. They'd been that way for years and nobody planned it or ever thought of doing so, and you can still find bars like that in certain less favored cities. The change since 2000 seems incremental. A momentum began in the middle '80s and has just been proceeding along the same road. Money and congestion are the primary motifs. On the other hand, I'm really unable to find much specifically post-9/11 change to speak of, beyond the stuff that affects the whole western world.
On things feeling old: I may be living in a different world than you, I don't know. Smoking is busy reappearing among a lot of people I know, for example. Giuliani, on the other hand--well, he is running for prez, so not irrelevant these days, but there's also the fact that I haven't personally experienced any of Bloomberg. Things do quicken up, but that has the hidden benefit of allowing things and people to make multiple stage appearances over time, instead of splashing and fizzling.
Who am I catching up on? Well, primarily all the French stuff I mentioned in my last message. Especially Rivette (me and 200 other people, that is). I'm reviewing the Original Scroll of Kerouac's On the Road (last read the book itself in 9th grade) and I'm really caught up in it, a bit to my surprise. The songs in heaviest rotation at my house are Mos Def's "Crime and Medicine" and Sizzla's "Don't Be Sad" (yeah, I know, I always get to things late). And very belatedly I've discovered the Go-Betweens.