YOU PROBABLY HAVEN’T HEARD of Duncan Hannah, a New York–based painter and illustrator, though there’s a somewhat famous, mid-’70s photo of him lounging in a rattan chair next to a bathing-suit-clad Debbie Harry. The image comes from an obscure 1976 art film called Unmade Beds, an amateurish, charming New York time capsule directed by Amos Poe (neither Hannah nor Harry could act).
Hannah will now be known as a diarist. As he notes in his new book Twentieth-Century Boy: Notebooks of the Seventies: “This is not a memoir. These are journals, begun in 1970 at the age of seventeen, written as it happened, filled with youthful indiscretions.”
Arriving in New York City from Minnesota, thin and wispy young Duncan is already well read and culturally hip — and not lockstep hip either, but rather a precocious contrarian. In art, he likes comic books, illustrators, and, most of all, David Hockney. To his credit, he tells his knee-jerk-avant art teachers at Bard College that he likes the Pre-Raphaelites. (“They shook their heads…” Well, of course they did. Of course they did.) He paints portraits of his offbeat literary heroes (e.g., Wyndham Lewis, Colin Wilson), which itself is kind of odd, and exhibits them in a group show, “in spite of not fitting in with the show’s agenda.”
Most of this book recounts our young rake meeting almost everyone important in his two worlds of art and music: Hockney, Warhol, Henry Geldzahler, Larry Rivers, David Bowie, Brian Eno, Bryan Ferry. A precocious dialectician, he can spar with the best — and worst — of them:
Danny shouts, “Louis, Louis, come join us!” looking at the entrance to the back room. I crane my neck to see who he is talking to. Gulp. Standing there in an alcoholic stupor, looking into my eyes, is the avatar of decadence and perversion, the legendary Lou Reed!
Creepy Reed lopes over to their table and whispers a truly stomach-turning proposition to our young diarist, which I won’t describe here. Appalled, Hannah becomes an ex-fan: “My hero worship is immediately over. Ick. […] He downs the rest of his tequila and leaves me alone in the booth to ponder my missed scatological opportunity.” It’s telling that Hannah, who lets the reader know that he has excised much from these journals, decided to leave this story in. Later on, he spots Reed at Max’s Kansas City, looking “like a skinny chimpanzee.”
Our narrator’s musings reach a peak of quotability whenever he’s witnessing the sorry truth about his heroes:
Fran Lebowitz sits with us and complains about her latest trick. [New York] Dolls drummer Jerry Nolan comes in with a gaudy chick in leopard skin, zippers, and frosted hair. Real skanky. Fran slips off …
Hannah also displays a shrewd ear for good music versus trash:
Bryan Ferry never disappoints […] Hawkwind […] weren’t to my taste. Queen […] I don’t like. […] Television is sounding better and better. Lenny Kaye called them “the golden apple at the top of the tree.”
[D]rove to Edgar Winter’s house on Sands Point, Long Island. This is Fitzgerald country, the fictional East Egg […] Gatsby! Yet inside this mansion was a rock band, dressed in their glitter sneakers and spandex, playing pinball machines and watching crap TV. Oblivious […] Pearls before swine, I thought to myself. We listened to a rough mix of their new album, which sounded lame […] Just loud, boring product for dullard youths. Rock ‘n roll can be incredibly stupid.
At what must have been the greatest New York rock-star party that ever happened, at the Academy of Music in June 1974, he sidles up to both Bryan Ferry, who’s distant and distracted, and David Bowie, who’s friendly, engaging, and witty:
He graced me with a glance, and I asked him if he was collecting material for a new song at this very minute. He sneered his canines at me and said, “Yah, why, do you wanna be in my song?”
I sneered back, “Yah, what about it?” We kept up our grimaces like a couple of thugs, necks outstretched, until he broke out laughing.
Meanwhile, in the art scene, minimalism is in full swing, but Duncan is (appropriately) unmoved. His stubborn conservatism, though, seems possibly to have cost him a more high-profile art career in such a ripe time and place. Hockney himself pays a visit and critiques his work (“Your drawing is a bit heavy-handed in the American fashion”), but progress remains slow, and he resists painting “something conceptual […] [s]omething that had quotes around it.” Regardless, Hannah’s days in New York were clearly tilted more in favor of “the life” (sex, drugs, and parties).
You might assume that our young-and-waify hero proceeded to screw his way willy-nilly through the gender-bending, glammy ’70s, this being the comparatively carefree, pre-AIDS era. But though his wolf-baiting good looks and friendliness are a constant magnet to a parade of lecherous males, he remains, steadfastly, straight as a razor.
The budding sociologist in Hannah (all of 22 here) is sharp-eyed when recalling a party at “the old Factory”:
This is the place where trigger-happy Valerie Solanas shot Andy. Creepy. They used to shoot laser beams from up here across the park into Max’s. I feel the party’s force fields, currents of strength, currents of weakness. “The love that dare not speak its name” just won’t shut up these days. Gayness has lost its underground status in NYC and is busy becoming the dominant sensibility. Lots of affectation. Sad when things turn to parody.
A short detour through London in August 1972 (“We sit at the dark basement bar and eyeball a couple of likely-looking English lasses, in their ‘frock coats and bipperty-bopperty hats’”) contains yet another best-possible-time-and-place music pilgrimage I can’t help but envy:
Robert Wyatt’s new group, Matching Mole, play. I love them. Then it’s Roy Wood’s Wizzard, who look ridiculous but sound great.
At intermission, we drank vodka […] and wound up talking to a forward young girl named Mary. […] Mary said she liked effeminate boys and I nudged her over to the doorway […] and kissed her and felt up her tits.
Bingo, glam-rock-era success! (This episode aside, the book is disappointingly scant on pornographic details, despite the number of conquests it chronicles.) Our thin white duke’s 20th birthday is summarily ruined, however, when his androgynous looks and excessive drinking in a London gay bar lead to what he calls a “near-rape experience,” the one truly frightening episode in the book.
While the party girls and the art-student girls keep on “flying low” for our handsome young buck, the picaresque life is starting to wear him down:
I smell like booze all the time now, but it’s expensive booze for a change. Perpetual hangover. […] I’m living faster than I can write. Not that I actually have something to write about. There’s no time to do it.
Everything turns sour. “The next chapter of this blackout finds me alone…” Hannah realizes he’s an alcoholic. A “real” girlfriend in his life (a rarity) turns out to be nuts:
Terry was hearing voices in her head, and she stabbed me in the chest with a small penknife she keeps in her bag. The little blade bounced off a bone. Ouch! This because the voices were teasing her about my so-called “harem.” “Terry, there is no harem!” But the voices insisted.
There is much tottering down smelly New York alleyways in platform shoes during many a besotted dawn. It’s a pungent, Scorsese’d-out New York that wafts up from these pages: “It’s hard to unravel people’s origins in New York. They act cagey. Suspicious”; neurosis in the air “mistaken for energy […] the new pissiness”; “[p]eople fall apart all the time.”
As a final flourish, our now jaded dandy is disappointed when he visits grumpy Ned Rorem, who doesn’t come on to him at all but is actually a rather unfriendly old fuck. But Dunc is unfazed. To quote from an old blues song: “His disposition takes him through this world.”
Twentieth-Century Boy is a breezy, demotically precise portrait of Bowie-and-Warhol New York, splayed like a passed-out wino on every page. Hannah, who has no regrets and still looks young, now lives in New York and Connecticut.