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Music

The moment Norman Mailer went to see The Ramones at CBGB

In 1979, one of America’s most controversial authors, Norman Mailer, was looking for a new audience. After winning the dark heart of his nation with his novel The Naked and the Dead, for which he won the coveted Pulitzer Price at the age of just 25, he continued to publish incredibly successful novels while side-stepping into journalism. This venture saw him develop a lyrical and abstract approach to non-fiction, eventually coined: ‘new journalism’. Alongside Truman Capote and Hunter S. Thompson, he became one of the most provocative writers working in America and was revered and despised in equal measure.

Feeling as though he’d used up his old readership, Mailer sought to find a new audience for his 1979 novel The Executioner’s Song, published nearly 20 years after he’d stabbed his wife with a penknife in a drunken altercation. With the anarchy of the New York punk movement still swirling around him, he thought he’d finally found the figurehead of this new audience in the form of a young journalist called Legs McNeil. Hoping that McNeil would allow him to access the seedy underbelly of this untapped audience, Mailer convinced the young punk to take him along to a show the Ramones were playing at CBGB.

During the show, Mailer knitted himself to the bar, knocking back glasses of something muddy as young punks churned together. Describing the night in an interview a few years afterwards, Mailer said: “For me, it was like I was an old car and I was being taken out for a ride at 100 miles an hour, and I kind of like it because I was really getting rid of a lot of rust. I don’t know if I’d like it night after night, and I’m not sure it isn’t absolutely killing. You’ve got to be super-human to pay that stuff night after night and not have your senses wiped out by it.”

Afterwards, Mailer was invited to stop by Arturo Vega’s loft, the graphic designer who had been dubbed the Ramones’ artistic director. As the night went on, Mailer, McNeil, and the Ramones got steadily drunker, until they were on the cusp of unconsciousness. Mailer felt the weight of his head pulling his body towards the floor, but managed to pull himself up, only to see Joey Ramone – who had just given one of best performances of his career – sipping at the thin neck of a Budweiser; an impish grin spread across his face. “Hey Norman,” he jeered, “Go write another fucking Bible!”

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