Marc Spitz on “Then” and “Now”

Written by Alissa Fleck on . Posted in Arts Our Town, Arts Our Town Downtown.


A walking tour with a music journalist brings his memoir to life

If “raucous” and “intimate” can coexist adroitly, that describes the atmosphere at the release party for Marc Spitz’s new memoir Poseur, an affair tucked cozily away up a staircase at the Lower East Side’s Slipper Room.

Everyone here knows each other, laughs heartily like old friends, embraces one another eagerly. An outsider would hardly recognize Spitz, who fades purposefully into the crowd, ceding the limelight, preferring a spot at a tiny table pressed up close to his old pals. Writer fame is different than other kinds, he’ll later explain, and release parties are stressful.

The Slipper Room is one of Spitz’s old haunts. He used to DJ here back in the day when DJing was nothing spitzlike how we think of it now. You’d have to seek out your records at a joint like the House of Oldies in the West Village, wait for your coveted 45s to zip up on a dumbwaiter.

Spitz would DJ many such bars, which rented out their booths to free agents like him.
“I’d stumble in drunk,” he says. “It was like a status thing.”

He adds: “Modern DJ culture happened over night.”

The burlesque dancers who take the stage at the Slipper Room are a handful of originals from Spitz’s days of haunting the venue, moving salaciously to such 90s acts as Nine Inch Nails while suggestively gripping copies of Poseur.

Brought back to perform just for Spitz, they show no hint of being out of touch.

The man behind the sunglasses

Forty-three-year-old Spitz, born in Far Rockaway, has written plays, novels, and nonfiction, and has a prolific career as a music journalist for Spin.

Perhaps this is why, when I ask to meet somewhere “of significance,” he chooses the White Horse Tavern in the West Village, a famed joint known for drawing such patrons as Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan, and Hunter S. Thompson over the years.

Spitz, who shows up with a Sylvia Plath button on his authentic Burberry trench coat and two Basset Hounds—named for Joni Mitchell and Jerry Orbach—in tow, is just a slightly aged version of the grungy, gangly, and perhaps slightly awkward kid in sunglasses and Edie Sedgwick t-shirt who graces the cover of Poseur. He still wears a black leather bracelet and sunglasses, and seems perpetually caught off-guard.

“I’ve been there, but I don’t really like it,” says Spitz of the White Horse. “It’s why I came to the City,” he adds, referring to the larger, rich history of writer culture rather than the establishment itself.

In Poseur, Spitz recounts studying at Bennington College in Vermont but knowing if he wanted to make it as a writer, he must get to New York City, and fast. Specifically, he must live at the Chelsea Hotel in a sort of “bohemian squalor” in order to launch himself into the kind of pictures of success with which the ambitious collegian figuratively surrounds himself.

Eventually Spitz’s young ambitions will amount to more than just pipe dreams. His story is truly one of wanting something badly enough and succeeding, though at some point, he realizes merely getting his body to the city where great artists flourish (and often founder miserably) isn’t enough.

“There’s definitely a ‘what now?’ moment,” he says.

In Poseur, Spitz writes of spending his first night in the renowned Chelsea Hotel, scared to death, barely expecting to survive, unsure who or what might break down the door in the middle of the night. It’s not exactly the romantic experience he envisioned when he thought of Patti Smith walking into the lobby and feeling as though she’d “come home.”

“The Chelsea was the home I wanted, but it was also a place where people suffered and sometimes died,” he writes in his memoir.

As a music writer, Spitz interviewed many of rock’s big names, but even then had trouble getting past the sense he was nothing more than a fraud. He would have to invent a persona to overcome his shyness.

“Bowie was shy,” he explains. “It’s genetic, people are predisposed, but I overcame it by inventing someone who wasn’t shy.”

“I couldn’t even talk to a rock star. Interviews felt like blind dates. I’d have to drink, put on sunglasses, I couldn’t be honest. I’d have to take a pill.”

Still, Spitz “felt like part of rock and roll even though [he] wasn’t in a band because [he] was part of a larger phenomenon—part of the ecosystem of the rock world.”
Perhaps not too much has changed, as he relays his own anxiety over being interviewed to this day. “I can write about it, but in person it’s like maybe I should leave it in the shrink’s office,” he says.

Shy kids write diaries, explains Spitz. He kept a diary his whole life, allowing him to recall with ease, as he does, what songs were playing on the radio at any given moment.

(Spitz’s choice to include in his memoir so many references to artists he says is a nod to technology—the ability for the reader to quickly Google anything unfamiliar—as well as a stylistic choice.)

Poseur

Spitz says Poseur is the first book of his last four that didn’t feel “like a job” to write because he called all the shots, giving it—for him—an unprecedented level of honesty and integrity.

“There’s no way to bullshit it. Maybe I just wanted to be an authority on something,” he says.

Still, writing a memoir was a new experience with its own challenges. “It’s hard to have things come to light after the fact. I still have dreams that I’m working on it,” he adds. “It’s sad.”

Spitz wrote Poseur before selling it. He says it occupies a place in his heart which hasn’t been fulfilled since he wrote at length about The Smiths.

“My other books are sold in airports,” he says. That’s not to say he’s not waiting for Poseur to become a sensation.

Poseur is the story of how Spitz searches for the authenticity that makes great writers and artists, but it’s also a candid examination—peeling back the skin of downtown New York City in the 90s.

In penning the memoir, ruminating on downtown now versus then, Spitz describes a mix of emotions.

From ‘93 to ‘94, he briefly moved to Hollywood. Even then, he says, New York City was changing.

“I moved back for good in ‘95; you could tell it was a different city.”

“It changed so much,” he says. “If I left the Lower East Side in ‘95 and came back, I would not recognize anything…I would wonder ‘is it still dangerous?’”

“It took 15 years to become that way,” he adds. “It took 30 years to get beyond the 70s myth. I thought it was time to write this book because of how quickly things were changing.”

“It offers a record of bygone time that is literally bygone.”

Spitz describes writing Poseur as an instinctual and freeing process. As a writer who no longer tries to write like others, he notes Poseur offers a good lens to view the changes in himself as well as the City.

Despite this, Spitz says a lot of what went into the book arose from input and discussions with others. He was also not afraid to pull back the curtains on his process and personal evolution.

“Does older, wiser me comment in the book?” Spitz asks. “Yes, but I think that makes for a more pleasant, sadder, sweeter read.”

He also worried at times about missing out on the humanity that can arise in fiction if he was too busy trying to get the period right.

Taking in the city with Spitz

As we walk through the Village, Spitz pauses briefly, perhaps nostalgically, below the “Peace to the World” sign at the Saint Anthony of Padua Church. He recalls the church as a sort of East to West gateway from his younger, wilder years.

We wind up at The Library bar on the Lower East Side, where Spitz worries he won’t know who’s working anymore. To his delight, Kendra is behind the bar, as she has been for the past 10 years. She tells Spitz her psychedelic solo act is taking off and slides us a couple business cards.

“I used to drink here all the time,” says Spitz from behind his sunglasses, sipping a tall Bloody Mary. The coolly distant boy from the cover of Poseur momentarily reemerges. “I can’t count how many hours I’ve spent here.”

At some point, Spitz realized he was ready for a slower pace of life. “New York is for young people,” he says. “I want to age gracefully. You feel like a ghost, haunting the neighborhood.”

“I loved anyone who wanted to die young…I could only die too young.” It’s too late for that now, he adds.

Before taking off into the brisk Lower East Side afternoon, Spitz sheds a little more light on the artistic process with an observation that would resonate with anyone who’s just completed their magnum opus: “The world didn’t end when the book came out.”
“Just make me sound cool,” he says, finally, making sure I know he’s quoting Almost Famous.

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