When Duncan Hannah arrived in New York in 1971, he could have walked out of the pages of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. With big eyes and high cheekbones, Hannah’s androgynous beauty attracted the attention of the city’s prominent women and gay men, who didn’t let his resolute heterosexuality get in the way of their relentless pursuit.
As an aspiring artist coming of age during a mythical time when glam rock, punk, and new wave transformed the underground, Hannah found himself at the center of it all, feeding an insatiable appetite for the finer things in life: sex, drugs, alcohol, parties, and art. Whether partying with Television at CBGB, starring in Amos Poe’s underground film Unmade Beds , or serving as a muse to Patti Smith, Hannah was always in the mix.
Throughout it all, he kept a series of handwritten journals filled with cameos by everyone from David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Richard Hell, and Debbie Harry to Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Nico, and Lou Reed. Their pages, filled with gritty, evocative memories from the 70s, were collected and edited into Hannah’s new book, Twentieth Century Boy: Notebooks of the 1970s (Knopf, March 13).
VICE asked Hannah to take us on a tour of New York through its most debauched decade—an era when punk became a catalyst for cultural revolution.
VICE: You note that you hadn’t read your journals until you sat down to transcribe them. What was it like going through your archive more than 40 years later?
Hannah: Reading them again, I felt giddy and amused and ashamed and kind of amazed that I am still here. Towards the end of the decade, I was wondering, “How did you manage to make it through?” It must have been a close call because a lot of my friends didn’t.
Did you discover any stories that weren’t how you remembered them?
Oh yes—like the Lou Reed story, which I got a lot of mileage out of, because it was in the book Please Kill Me 20 years ago. I was having a tequila with Lou in a booth at Max's and talking about Raymond Chandler. Things quickly transgressed into him asking if I'd like to be "his little David Cassidy,” and if I'd like to shit on his face.
There was more stuff [about that encounter] that I hadn’t remembered even though it was one of my best stories. “Walk on the Wild Side” came on the jukebox while I was talking to Lou, and the chorus girls were going, “doop-dee-doop.” I said, “Hey Lou, let’s sing it together!” He said, “What?” I said, "C'mon, let’s do it." And he did it.
That part I completely forgot. All I remembered was what a gross-out he was, because it ended in such an odious fashion. We had been having fun together and I got him to be semi-playful, which is very un-Lou Reed. I thought, “Wow! This is a goldmine.”
The 70s are a period in cultural history unlike any other. How did the DIY ethos inspire creativity?
If you wanted something to happen, you had to make it happen. When I got here, there wasn’t a big youth culture: There was CBGB’s, Max’s, and a few other crummy rock bars. If you wanted to find each other, you’d follow the bands. The audience at the New York Dolls shows was just as fabulous as the band.
I used to read Interview at Bard and think, “I’ve gotta get in there!” Then I got here and it was still hard to get in—even at the back room at Max’s, there was a velvet rope. You’d look inside and there’s Alice Cooper, and Lou Reed, and Warhol superstars. Someone you knew would have to wave you in and you’d try to stay as long as you could.
Did you have a sense of the significance of the era while it was unfolding?
I never expected the music to cross over the way it did, because its reference points like the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, and Syd Barrett hadn’t been successful [by the early 70s]. There were these bands like the Talking Heads and Blondie who were clearly influenced by that. They were great and fun, but how could you compete with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon?
Especially the Ramones. I thought, “They don’t have a chance in hell.” Even seeing Bowie in ‘72 and ‘73, it was so phenomenally good, but it was still so strange. Maybe it’s just that if you’re close to something, you don’t see it.
There weren’t that many people in the scene, so I get how you might not think it’s going anywhere.
The lag time between underground and the mainstream was long, maybe five years. The media, the internet, and money changed everything. None of this was about money.
Even in the art world, there were a few famous artists but if you were going to be an artist… I had this picture in my head of a coldwater flat, bricks, candles in Chianti bottles, Beatnik girls in black leotards, and bongo music. I never thought of Picasso living in chateaus. I just thought, “La vie boheme! It’s not for everybody, but it’s going to be for me.” I just didn’t want to have a job. I wanted to scrape by. If I could do that, I would be a success.
In the 70s, you had all the benefits of sexual liberation: the “Free Love” movement, Women’s Liberation and the Pill, and the Gay Liberation movement.
It was part of the wave of things. I loved the way "venturing into Eros" was like entering a different realm where you would see a completely different side of someone. Well not always. We’ve all gone to bed with the wrong person and you just collided—there was nothing there. But then, when there was—it’s another high, isn’t it?
In the 70s, nice girls had sex. Not only were they on the Pill, but they were sick of being put in the passive thing of, “Who’s going to ask me out?” They thought, “I’m liberated. I can pick him up if I want to.”
The 70s were so polysexual. The gays did seem to be having the best time of all. I thought, “It’s really too bad I’m not attracted to men at all because clearly this is where the party is.” I got hit on by a lot from men. That was OK, but sometimes it was too persistent and they’d go from trying to be seductive to being hostile.
I was impressed that you told the stories about the way men treated you, sharing both the verbal abuse and the physical assault. Straight men often keep these stories to themselves.
I didn’t resent it. I just thought, “Well, that’s life.” There’s a bad scene in the book where I almost get raped. It was a terrifying evening, but it oddly wasn’t traumatic. I thought, “That’s what happens when you’re living a wild life.” It’s dangerous. I never even thought to go to the police, even though the guy said he was going to kill me. I thought, “He will, too.”
That scene was horrific. Things can go very bad.
That’s exactly it. You’re up, you’re down—you just go through it. A lot of my artwork is about a vision I had of the world when I was ten and what was going to be good about being a grown up. By the time I became an adult, the world wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. I thought, “You were incorrect, but the way you were incorrect is interesting, because it is filled with desire and flights of imagination.”
I never want to lose that. I’m clearly not innocent anymore, but I didn’t want to tarnish that part of me. I almost did. Bad romances and a barrage of drugs and alcohol isn’t really good for that part of you. You can’t kill hope.
There are moments in the book that seem like you were nose-diving, but rather than crash, you pulled up at the last minute.
The book has a happy ending. I get sober in this book, but it took me another four years to stay sober.
I thought living an extreme life with drugs, alcohol, and sex would turn me into a better person and a better artist. Then there comes a point where you realize: “I am doing a lot more of that than actually working, and it’s not going to translate into anything.”
David Hockney told me, “You’re selling yourself short in an attempt to be stylish. Don’t worry about that. That will come by itself. Just work hard, and you will evolve into yourself naturally. Don’t choose who to be—grow into yourself through hard work. And all will be revealed.”
I am reminded of the passage where you mention Artforum had declared painting dead in the 70s. Did you have any awareness of the art world then?
Not a bit. I don’t like reading about painting very much. I just like looking at it. I like reading a biography of the painter, but I’m not really interested in ideas. My painting is love-generated. I follow my passions. I just thought, “I’ll figure it out.” And I did.
E.M. Forester said, “Only connect,” and I think that’s a really good philosophy. You don’t have to do it right. You don’t have to reach your goal. All you have to do is start and just see where it goes and who you meet, and then react against what’s happening, make mistakes, react to those mistakes, and fix them, et cetera, et cetera. Then, at the end of your life, you can look back and say, “Oh that’s what it was all about. I get it.”
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