Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk from the Middle East to the Lower East Side by Rayya Elias

A visceral exploration of sex and drugs in 1980s New York City.

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Rayya Elias was born in Syria in 1960 but fled with her family to Detroit at age seven. Too young to appreciate her family’s culture fully, she doesn’t fit into her new environment, either, and suffers a rocky youth in Detroit before escaping to New York City with her newfound passions: rock ‘n’ roll, hairstyling and drugs. The Lower East Side in the early 1980s was a sparkling playground for a young woman trying to find herself, and Elias becomes sought after both as a hairdresser and as a new wave musician.

It will take her years to identify as a lesbian, but the affairs with women that began back in Detroit blossom into full passion (and dysfunction) in New York–and, for a short time, in a shared London apartment with a married woman and her husband. Her drug abuse also blossoms into an addiction to cocaine and heroin, a problem that will take countless stints in rehab and detox facilities–and jail–to conquer. By the end of her story, Elias is clean, back in New York and pursuing healthy musical creativity.

Far from being just another story of addition and redemption, Harley Loco (a nickname the author earned in jail) is unusual in its rawness and feeling. Elias perfectly evokes New York City in the 1980s and ’90s, complete with sour odors and pain. Her personality–hard-edged and unrepentant, yet tender and vulnerable–is thoroughly bared and, in the end, irresistibly likable.


This review originally ran in the April 19, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 second chances.

One Response

  1. […] Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk from the Middle East to the Lower East Sid… by Rayya Elias – nonfiction […]

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