One Life, Breathlessly Lived: On Artist and ’70s Scenster Duncan Hannah’s Memoir

Things get hazy with drugs and bloody with violence, but hipster Hannah remains happy.

Twentieth-Century Boy: Notebooks of the Seventies
Duncan Hannah
W. W. Knopf
Mar 2018

Most documents of a time long gone, filled with hipsters and scene-makers, have a glossy sheen of self-satisfaction that make them hard to endure. This is understood from the beginning. To read journals written by participants of an artistic or cultural movement is to understand that the outside world will not intrude. Everything in the text will be in and of the moment at hand. Celebrities will wander through the pages. The writer will recount cheeky comments and rejoinders he spouted at them, and the reader will be expected to either embrace the audaciousness or place the entire narrative in its proper context. The reader may ask whether or not such examples as Hemingway’s waxing poetic about his “lost generation” of the ’20s in A Moveable Feast (published posthumously in 1964) should have been released, or random notes by members of the beat generation and other major participants of “scenes” deserve a place at the literary table.

No matter our patience for solipsistic indulgence and literary onanism, the possibility of making money will trump any and all questions of merit. We read the documents because they serve as testimony to a life lived, no matter how tedious they may be to read. The difference between something like Duncan Hannah’s Twentieth-Century Boy Notebooks of the Seventies and a standard memoir is that we don’t know if the former was ever meant to be published as a literary recollection of a time experienced. Hannah was born in Minneapolis in 1952. He attended Bard College between 1971-1973 and Parsons School of Design from 1973-1975. He came of age in a New York City brimming with artistic freedom and possibilities and decadence, where Warhol, Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Patti Smith were among many who wandered in and out of the endless scenes. Hannah notes in his foreword, dated February 2017:

I had never read these journals before transcribing them… I removed a lot of extraneous detritus. I didn’t do a lot of navel gazing, as many diarists do…

The astute reader might immediately have problems with that last claim, but such are the elements of a lively literary debate. Hannah comes off much better (as one might hope) in this forward, where he expresses that upon reading these journals now he felt more sympathy for his sister and parents than he did at that time. He continues:

I felt sympathy for me as well, in the throes of nascent alcoholism that I didn’t then understand. I saw the arc of addiction going from bad to worse.

It’s this contemporary Duncan Hannah that the reader meets only briefly at the beginning. His journals from the ’70s end in early 1981 when he’s 28-years-old, and he admits here that he didn’t start growing up until that point. How the contemporary reader absorbs Twentieth-Century Boy now will depend on many issues. Will we be triggered by endless accounts of sexual dalliances of all sorts? Will we want to know more about the process of understanding visual art of the ’70s (featuring real supporting player performances from David Hockney, Andy Warhol, and Robert Mapplethorpe) and less about drug ingestion and alcoholic deliriums? Twentieth-Century Boy demands certain things of the reader in 2018. Suspend judgment of this lead character. Don’t expect a standard narrative arc (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution). Don’t expect your hero to grow up.

This book is separated into a series of interesting sections that give it some structure. The first, “Mystic Eyes”, covers the winter of 1970. Hannah is in his private boys’ school (where we’ll later learn he was classmates with Saturday Night Live writer/performer team Al Franken and Tom Davis). It’s Minneapolis cool as he attends concerts by Jefferson Airplane and Roland Kirk. He starts with the lists of more concerts (including Rod Stewart, Traffic, the Who). It’s a world where, just five years earlier, the song of the summer was The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” but now it’s Iggy Pop and the Stooges album Fun House. Jimi Hendrix dies. (“Saw him a couple times at the Auditorium, found him a bit clownish but he sure could play the guitar.”) Janis Joplin overdoses. (“I got high with her and Big Brother when they played the Guthrie.”)

It’s this type of teenaged self-centeredness that can be either endearing in retrospect or insufferable no matter the conditions. The political observations are more pointed and the reader wishes Hannah had included more of them. “Magazines say the seventies are gonna be about nostalgia,” he writes, and perhaps that’s a clear signal early in the book of the theme we’ll encounter. Nostalgia is a deadly narcotic that can kill if only because it calms us, first. Hannah wins us with his account of first encounter with Allen Ginsberg:

Then he recites ‘Please Master’…He looks down at me and chants it into my wide eyes… It’s all about teenage bellies and innocent man-boy love…

Time marches on. In the “Cat Food” chapter, Jim Morrison dies in Paris of a heart attack (July 1971.) Led Zeppelin plays Milan and the building caves in. The Who debuts songs from Who’s Next and Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks impress with “I Scare Myself”. In “Punk”, January 1972, Hannah fails his Draft Physical and becomes 4-F. The poet John Berryman dies: “We didn’t know who he was, but he seemed like a cool old guy.” It’s these brief fleeting glimpses of the once strong and mighty that impress most in Twentieth-Century Boy, as when Hannah comes upon a vagrant-looking Chet Baker in line at a bank in NYC. The mighty fall as quickly as they rise in Hannah’s world.

In “Bombardier”, Hannah worries about Hallucinations. “I’m so goddam young! There’s a shadow looming over me.” These worries are underpinning a great deal of the narrative, and the fact that they are not fully resolved is perhaps understandable. After all, this is not fiction. What’s more exciting for those interested in the artistic process are Hannah’s conclusions, in an April 1972 entry:

I learn painting is about painting… It’s not just what you put in but also what you leave out.

There are long passages that follow detailing estrangement from his parents, what he calls a “near-rape experience” and stumbling through scenes after scenes. What works best is describing the scene of David Bowie’s NYC debut (September 1972) and more talk about art:

Drawing is a way of learning to see. A way of reasoning on paper. I’m striving to do it with ease and simplicity. I’ve got a long way to go.

It’s hard not to like lines like “We are students of love, entangled with possessiveness, feeding on jealousy and lust.” As he contemplates love, he notes that he’s attracted by “The drug of female illusion. It’s complicated.” All the while he’s trying to “…find my own visual language from my mind’s warped filing cabinet.” It’s these moments that prove more exhilarating than endless appearances by Danny Fields and cameos by Todd Rundgren and Patti Smith. They’re certainly important players in the NYC scene at the moment, but they rush through the scenes in a harried way. Perhaps that’s the point. The catty elements include (but are not limited to) scenes where Lou Reed claims “…Patti Smith amounted to nothing more than a haircut.” More is detailed of Reed’s decadent talk, and Hannah admirably makes a cogent conclusion: “My hero worship is immediately over. Ick.” One of Hannah’s friends encounters Bob Dylan and says “Hello. I’m from Minneapolis,” to which he replies “Go back.” Cheeky burns, it seems are eternal.

There are moments in Twentieth-Century Boy where the reader sees Hannah nostalgically connecting with his parents. One of them is in a brief paragraph saluting drummer Gene Krupa, on the occasion of his death, under a picture of the author (at 14) posing with the man. Hannah’s parents are also in the photo, and Krupa has signed it with a “Good luck with your drums” line. Hannah understands his own time (like when he notes of the New York Dolls that they are “…the glue that binds this scene together”) and he’s trying to connect with his parents and their cocktail generation.

What could be fun in Twentieth-Century Boy more often comes across as both overwhelming and annoying at the same time. Look, there’s Keith Moon and Pete Townshend. Look, there’s Bryan Ferry and the smooth sounds of Roxy Music. By the summer of 1974 there’s a “…tinge of the apocalypse in the air”, and the reader would have been better served had there been more of that. Still, it works to set the scene of a New York City broke and dirty and desperate, like the burgeoning punk and modern art scensters it hosted.

Things get hazy with drugs and bloody with violence, but Hannah remains happy. “I watch the present unfold. Nothing has value except the moment we are living.” Later, he wakes from a nightmare and sees it as “…the downside of having your subconscious filled with crime films.” His parents remain in the picture, but they’re distant. They talk with him in-between trips sailing around South America. “Never believe what an artist says, only what he does. Teachers tell me to pick one idea and stick with it. Then start on a series of variations on a theme.”

By 1975, the New York City music scene becomes small enough that even the Rolling Stones can be encountered on Fifth Avenue. “They looked appropriately scruffy in denim and worn leather, good shag haircuts…” Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler shows up at a bar, and Hannah notes he was “…surprised at how stupid he seemed.” One of the more powerful passages comes at the end of this section (“The Sacred + The Profane. Fall 1975 Manhattan”) when Hannah realizes the truth about his hero Jack Kerouac:

…He became homophobic, Commie-fearing, bigoted, right-wing. A sad trajectory. So this is my role model? I don’t want to end up like that! I must re-assess… I’ve been delusional. Precious youth is eking through my fingers. I promptly went on the wagon.

The Talking Heads arrive on the scene. Hannah wakes up from a drunken daze and meets William Wegman. Debbie Harry appears with Blondie to stake her claim on a newer wave surfacing by the late ’70s. Hannah switches exclusively to oil paints in the summer of 1977, as David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz shoots up parts of the city, and like moves on. Jean-Luc Godard likes Amos Poe’s film Unmade Beds (1976), in which Hannah starred. Hannah gets to a party at Leonard Bernstein’s Dakota apartment and sees Bill Evans perform at the Village Vanguard. There’s a glimpse of Lillian Hellman, “…looking like she smoked a million cigarettes…” and then Hannah is off again to Europe to accompany Unmade Beds at the Cannes Film Festival.

There is no real “ending” to Twentieth-Century Boy because it didn’t really begin. We met our hero as he was rambling through the start of 1970, very sure of himself, and the observations are a little trite, As the book closes, though, Hannah gets deeper and we see a greater sense of artistic rules and ethics:

A work of art needs a set of rules. In an avant-garde world, the real risk might be in being a neoconservative. Sometimes, painting is a form of wishful thinking. Escapism. A way to balance out an irrational world. I’m interested in an art that lasts.

It’s this last line that seems to be the strongest takeaway from Twentieth-Century Boy. He’s come to understand that “so much of contemporary art seems like empty things for empty people.” The B-52s and the Pretenders enter the scene. Hannah is understandably scarred (like most New Yorkers) by the December 1980 murder of John Lennon (though he refers to the album Double Fantasy as that album “…about the bogus love affair between him and Yoko.”) Life ends. Life moves on.

The cumulative effect of Twentieth-Century Boy is that of a compulsively readable collection of chronological journal entries with long stretches of tedious hedonism punctuated by striking elements of profundity. We don’t know what has become of Duncan Hannah in the nearly four decades after the close of Twentieth-Century Boy, and he probably doesn’t want us to get too close again. This book could have been trimmed by a third and included more examples of his work. It would have better served Hannah’s artistic legacy. As a narrative about the artist, it can be tedious and overwhelming, but as a document of a frantic decade, it’s an at times impressive snapshot of ten years, breathlessly lived.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.