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Mad, Bad and Dangerous

20TH-CENTURY DREAMS; By Nik Cohn and Guy Peellaert; Alfred A. Knopf: 224 pp., $25 paper

January 09, 2000|JONATHAN LEVI

There is some dispute about when precisely the 20th century began (Jan. 1, 1900; Jan. 1, 1901, or Nov. 11, 1918 being the top contenders). My vote is for Nov. 5, 1899, the day Sigmund Freud gave birth to the Modern Dream.

Born two world wars later, in Northern Ireland and Belgium respectively, the writer Nik Cohn and the artist Guy Peellaert spent their formative years riding the birth of another 20th century infant: rock 'n' roll. In 1963, at the age of 17, Cohn found himself in London with "a job at The Observer . . . pontificating about Youth" and, five years later, looking back at the golden age of rock in a classic book of jaundiced jeunesse called "Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom." Ten years later, he found himself across the Atlantic chronicling the disco dreams of a Brooklyn wild child that would eventually see the light of projection as "Saturday Night Fever."

Even more significantly, the '70s brought Cohn into collaboration on a book of rock art with Belgian artist Peellaert--the now legendary "Rock Dreams." Now disastrously out of print, "Rock Dreams" made Peellaert a favorite of rock 'n' rollers worldwide--John Lennon framed the cover of the British edition (which featured him and Elvis) and David Bowie and Mick Jagger fought for custody of Peellaert's time and genius like jealous parents (he eventually designed album covers for both gentlemen). Twenty-five years later, Cohn and Peellaert are back together, closing out the century with the mad, baaaad and dangerous-to-open-in-public-spaces "20th-Century Dreams."

According to Cohn's preface, "20th-Century Dreams" purports to be a series of illustrated excerpts from the journals of one Max Vail. Vail, born in 1900 as Maxim Valesky in St. Petersburg, Russia, grew up to become the great unconscious for the stars of the century. Mascot to Rasputin at 14, Bolshevik spy at 17, Vail met Freud and Mata Hari before touring with Isadora Duncan and coming "to know the Zurich of the Dadaists, the Paris of Proust, the Venice of Diaghilev," not to mention the New York of Babe Ruth and John Barrymore and the unfrontiered world of Hitler and Picasso, Greta Garbo and Duke Ellington, Einstein and Hemingway.

"It was John Lennon who introduced us," Cohn says in his preface, "in the back room of Max's Kansas City, some time in the early spring of 1971, when Lennon came plundering in with Andy Warhol and Candy Darling, Warhol's drag-queen superstar. . . . Squinting down the long rail of his nose, he looked like a predatory bird scavenging for road kill. He lobbed a spitball into my Jack Daniel's and made Candy Darling cry by calling her 'boy,' then zoned in on an androgynous youth in black leather, sharing a coffee with Patti Smith. 'Who the f--k are you?' Lennon asked. 'Robert Mapplethorpe.' "

With Cohn and this motley crew of scarecrows in tow, Lennon quits Max's Kansas City for Max's penthouse. There, for the first time, Cohn meets the diminutive Vail, perched serenely in front of a Degas gouache and guarded by a North African manservant named Habib and a Persian cat named Rumi. One thing leads to another, Lennon tries to goose Truman Capote, who has stopped by for a teatime gimlet, and Cohn leaves Vail. But Vail never quite leaves Cohn. Vail is omnipresent and seemingly omnipotent, all over the gossip columns "at play with John Travolta, in conference with Richard Nixon or Idi Amin, greeting Solzhenitsyn, visiting Mao." By 1983, Cohn has been re-summoned to help write the autobiography of this ultimate power broker, whose day begins with "breakfast with a group of Chinese diplomats followed by morning phone calls to Warren Beatty and Muhammad Ali" and finishes with "a quick pit stop at Danceteria to catch Madonna, then new in town, and back home to the Carlyle for a last phone call to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis." Yet Vail's frenetic schedule and reluctance to part with his life's story make Cohn's job impossible. Even when Vail himself shuffles off in the waning days of the century, leaving Cohn a stack of journals, "the urge to secrecy . . . proved the deepest and strongest of Max's hungers." Except for the odd line here and there, page after page has been blacked out.

*

But from these odd lines, and with the aid of Peellaert's 86 brilliant computer collages, Cohn fashions a narrative that not only traces the century-long career of his fictional Vail but paints in brilliant color the unconscious of the Mad Dreamer who thought up the bizarre 20th century. Aren't we all, Cohn seems to say, from God to Adam to Vail to the rest of us, power brokers and name droppers in our sleep, struggling to impress our snoring selves by peopling the balls of our dreams with random entries from our blue books?

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