Please Take Me Off the Guest List is the latest in a series of collaborations between Brooklyn writer, bartender, and musician Zack Lipez, Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner, and book designer Stacy Wakefield. The book’s title is a more benevolent plea than the one made by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain in the title of their seminal oral history of New York’s 1970s punk scene: Please Kill Me. This discrepancy isn’t surprising. The city’s a different place these days. The cokeheads are doing yoga, the punk kids shop at Ikea, the bars are blissfully free of smoke, and bad neighborhoods are harder to come by. But the joyfully decrepit, the unsanitary, the backwaters of a spit-shined New York are still here, unrelenting and proud, regretful and fucked up, still waiting for that special someone.
The book’s text is made up of six short essays in which Lipez slinks around the dirtiest corners of Williamsburg and the East Village by way of airplanes, pharmacies, bookstores, love affairs, sex, drugs, bathrooms, and bars. Throughout, Lipez runs a subtle and surprising commentary on etiquette. The Post-4am Emily Post, if he’s fond of you, he’ll make out with your girlfriend, but nothing further. When doing drugs in a bar bathroom, he’s always courteous to the girls who have to pee. He also gives an endearing portrait of his teenage self via his loathing of heavy metal and the school bus shunning of his Mudhoney tapes by denim-clad kids whose tastes ran more to Guns n’ Roses and Black Sabbath. “I Like My Metal Like I Like My Women…False” is an homage to our earliest allegiances, the music we listen to, the t-shirts we wear, our first efforts to make ourselves interesting and understood—for some of us, we wanted it to be understood that we were very much mis-understood. Typical of all the essays, Lipez begins with an almost cute observation that he cuts open, spilling the proverbial guts and mucking around in the mess until the piece expands far beyond the initial narrative. He has a well-balanced mix of straightforward, conversational prose and sentences packed tight with abstractions, metaphor, and, well, poetry. “I Like My Metal…” ends:
I have an unflappable faith that we can, together, cut open this overworked 100th rough draft of a heart, where bitter style has made everything overwrought and, let’s admit it, a bit dull, and find the initial, truer heart, hidden beneath.
This line can be read as a code, a cipher through which to read the rest of the book that at times moves into the realm of manifesto.
Guest List has all the full disclosure, all the flimsy self-certainty, all the sweet bare truths and oddball observations of which only good writers and seasoned after-partiers are capable. The first essay in the collection begins:
So there was this one time Nate, Ray Ray, and the Nguyen sisters, and I are about to jump out of a plane, and Ray Ray is like, “Either of you guys holding?” and we’re like, “Ray. We’re about to jump out of a plane.”
In moments like this, Lipez’s narration is reminiscent of Denis Johnson in Jesus’ Son. The drugs, the danger, the ostensibly sordid happenings never become sensational, never follow the easy tact of self-mythology. It rolls along, dark and light on equal footing.
Lipez makes an impressive leap from the long-standing oral tradition of the Boring Coke Story—as that first essay is titled—to a more literary venue. His tone wavers not once in any of the six essays. His voice is immediate, hilarious, smart, cleverly anti-clever, self-mocking, and, above all, celebratory. Even when he’s bummed out. All this in a work that’s exclusive and welcoming at the same time. As with any party that starts after the bars close, we leave these stories uncertain if we’ve been hanging out with the cool guy or the loser.
The essays do have a provincial aspect to them and one wonders if their finer points might be lost on readers who don’t eat the bulk of their meals out of a taco truck or have a flawless notion of how much cash to leave on the bar when you’re drinking for free. Some of the best humor, the most poignant moments, are inside jokes, whittled down references. Who the fuck is Ray Ray? What’s with this Bedford Avenue? How does one get strep throat from sharing keys? What’s a bump? What’s the “usual rigmarole at Mars Bar” and do I want in? But then there are lines like, “I was the sort of teenager who read James Baldwin.” Followed immediately with a line that undercuts Lipez’s own authority on his fixations. “Rather, I looked at the words of each page before turning them, until I got to the last page.” These moments of Ahhh, forget it, I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m an idiot who licks plastic bags, reveal, paradoxically, a meticulous and weird, precise and charming understanding of the self and the many ways in which we are, all of us, equal parts lovable and full of shit.
Lipez’s words are nestled in the larger and more glossy pages that contain Nick Zinner’s photographs—images taken from the road while touring with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. These vary wildly in content: abstract bits of light, off-kilter portraits, scenes from bars and parties, a van or an ambulance on a bit of road in L.A. that looks as though it’s driving across the surface of the moon. These images ricochet off the text, their congruity or lack thereof not always evident, but lovely and striking nonetheless. Both Lipez and Zinner have a gift for detail, for noticing things most of us merely see.
Given the richness and scale of the photographs, the essays in this collection are slight by comparison, diminutive works on frail white paper printed in red ink—not the most confidence-inspiring shade. They appear like small zines, book marking the photographs. This presentation has the same effect as borrowing a friend’s heavily marked book: The margin notes, the mysterious stains, the passages underlined in crimson, the anonymous phone numbers scribbled on the back cover provide as compelling a narrative as the words on the page. One informs the other by virtue of proximity.
Akashic Books founding editor, Johnny Temple—the former bassist for the rock group Girls Against Boys—is known for shifting his punk rock spirit and indie cred from the music industry to the publishing industry. He’s found a perfect match in this book. Literary and punk rock, adolescent and wise, Please Take Me off the Guest List is a pretty mess of a book that will bounce happily between your coffee table and your bookshelf.