Rock and Roll Book Club: Duncan Hannah's '20th Century Boy'

Duncan Hannah's '20th Century Boy.'
Duncan Hannah's '20th Century Boy.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Imagine you're a college kid from Minnesota, hanging out in New York City in 1973. You see Bob Dylan, and you go up to him. "Hello," you say with a smile, "I'm from Minneapolis."

His response? "Go back."

That didn't happen to Duncan Hannah, but it did happen to one of his fellow Gopher State expats. Hannah himself got to say things like this, at CBGB. "Eno, this is Nico. Nico, this is Eno."

Such was life for a young, good-looking artist with a nose for parties and a head for booze. Hannah's 1970s adventures are chronicled in the new book 20th Century Boy, a compilation of 20 journals Hannah kept, "under the spell of Kerouac." In a preface, he explains that he's edited out his drug-addled attempts at stream-of-consciousness creative writing, keeping what he presumes readers will really care about: the stars, and the sex.

There's an incredible amount of sex in 20th Century Boy — but as they say, it was the '70s. Hannah was a highly sexed, none-too-reticent young man in one of the century's most notorious hook-up scenes. What do you expect? None of the sex involves celebrities, but that's what the rest of the book is for.

Hannah grew up in Minneapolis, kicked out of Blake for selling LSD ("under duress," he claims). The book starts in 1970, as he's finishing up at Eisenhower High School in Hopkins and jamming with an early band called the Hurricane Boys. In addition to going to all the concerts he could, Hannah worked as an usher at the Guthrie — then a serious venue for rock concerts by artists like Janis Joplin, with whom Hannah naturally got high backstage.

In 1971, Hannah started at Bard College, later transferring to the Parsons College of Design. That put him at ground zero for the legendary New York scene of the '70s, and he made the most of it...or as much as he could given that he seems to have been drunk approximately half the time. For example, he once shared a car with David Bowie, Andy Warhol, and Brian Ferry. He was so drunk, he didn't say a word for fear he'd make a fool of himself.

An early regular at CBGB, Hannah befriended Television — even trying out for the band when they were considering replacing their drummer. He took Andy Warhol to see Talking Heads for the first time ("They're so cute," declared Warhol when the band played "Artists Only"), and later shot them at Warhol's studio for Interview magazine. He bumped into Patti Smith at the laundromat, and woke up in bed next to William Wegman's dog Man Ray.

One way to read the book is just to jump into the index and see what pops up. Ray Davies? There he is in 1977, at a Saturday Night Live cast party after the Kinks played the show, sitting sullenly with a "completely" unfunny Steve Martin. Todd Rundgren? There he is at Iggy Pop's 1973 New Year's Eve party, with his Playmate girlfriend Bebe Buell, wearing suits "that look like they were made from matching shower curtains." Steven Tyler? There he is at a party in 1975. "I eavesdropped on him," wrote Hannah, "was surprised at how stupid he seemed."

Therein lies the beauty of these journals having been written in the moment. This isn't a memoir, it's a diary of the life of an artist on the make, aware that history is being made but unsure just where the chips will fall. It's a document of how readily the worlds of art and music crossed in New York in the '70s, and the fact that Hannah came from the art side of that equation meant that he was more focused on the personalities than on the songs.

Some rock fans will just about die reading this — Hannah had a chance to chat with David Bowie in the 1970s, and the best he could come up with asking him whether he's looking for material for new songs? — but this scene was full of Duncan Hannahs, and in that respect the book feels gratifyingly typical. Yes, there was a time when you could walk into a shoe store and there would be John Lennon, waiting for Yoko to try on a pair of boots.

The diaries end in 1981, just as Hannah is becoming famous enough to be written about in Interview. Throughout, Hannah chronicles his occasional returns to his hometown. Here he is recounting Christmas 1975.

Cocktail hour with Dad before dinner. When Mom calls "Dinner's ready," Dad says, "Let's have a rammer," which is a glass of bourbon to be thrown down the hatch thirty seconds before you sit down to the dinner table. Candlelight and wine. Dad discusses the troubled world we live in. It gets him down. He turns the conversation to me and my struggle to "make it." At one point he says, "Look, I don't know anything about art, and I don't care." Will it be ever thus? It's snowing outside the window.

"Minnesota is on the cover of Time magazine," wrote Hannah in 1973. "Says it's the best place to live in the U.S. I can't wait to leave."

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