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Love Goes To Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Foreverby Will Hermes
Love Goes to Buildings on Fire
WILD SIDE WALKING
This is the era where everybody creates.
An hour after midnight on January 1, 1973, Ernie Brooks was barreling down I-95 toward the city in his mother's Volvo. His band, the Modern Lovers, had been booked for a New Year's Eve show at the Mercer Arts Center. The New York Dolls were headlining. But his van died outside New Haven. So he hitched to his parents' house in New Canaan, got the family car, drove back to the van, jammed guitars and microphones into the Volvo, and drove like hell.
The Mercer was packed. There were teenage girls in miniskirts and garish makeup. There were guys in miniskirts and garish makeup. A woman wore a dress that had been cut into pieces and reassembled with safety pins.
The Modern Lovers went on at around 3:30 a.m., plugging into the Dolls' amplifiers. As a rule, they wore T-shirts and jeans, but for this gig their leader, Jonathan Richman, had bought a white dress shirt. During "Hospital," a love song as raw as a skinned knee, he ripped the shirt off. A girl standing beside the stage bent to pick up a stray button as a souvenir.
The Dolls went on just before dawn. The lead singer, David Johansen, wore a white blouse, tight white pants, and white platform heels. He swigged from a bottle of Miller, flipped back his hair, and introduced a song called "Trash." The band was sloppy--the bassist, who was wearing a yellow plastic tutu, could barely play--but thrilling. And the song sounded amazing, like some '50s rock 'n' roll gem retooled for a more jaded age.
There were lots of artists in the crowd that night; actors, dancers, musicians. Truman Capote was there. So was Richard Meyers, a poet who was beginning to play bass and write songs. He was impressed.
The Village Voice announced an "Invent the '70s" contest in its January 4 issue.
"If you know what the '70s are, or have any inkling where they're going," read the item, "write to [us] and any feasible answers will be printed."
The '70s had an identity crisis from the get-go. Richard Milhous Nixon was inaugurated to a second presidential term on January 20, 1973; thousands of troops remained in Vietnam. If a change was gonna come, as Sam Cooke had predicted, it was running way late.
You can hear this stasis in the music. Listen to the Grateful Dead's Europe '72, released just before the New Year. It's the '60s caught in amber, the Dead's prickly psychedelia smoothed out in a mix that reduces the audience's tripping howl to a distant murmur.
But the Dead were living the '70s. Their hard-partying singer/ harpman/organist Pigpen was so sick from years of alcohol abuse that he could barely sing. He played some keyboards on Europe '72, that's all, and on March 8 he joined his pal Janis Joplin in rock-star heaven. The Dead's first show after his death was a week later at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. They played mostly with their backs to the crowd, facing one another in a mourners' circle.2
As for the Voice's "Invent the '70s" contest, there were no winners.
Meredith Monk wrapped a wineglass in foam rubber and newspaper and tucked it into an old 45 carrying case marked FRAGILE. She had a concert that night, January 11--her biggest to date, a coming-out party of sorts--and besides her remarkable voice, the glass would be her only instrument.
Monk, a thirty-year-old composer, singer, dancer, and multimedia artist, had rented Town Hall, a 1,500-seat theater on West Forty-third Street built by the League for Political Education, a bunch of monied idealists who'd fought hard for women's suffrage. In 1921, the year it opened, Margaret Sanger was hauled offstage and arrested for daring tospeak to an audience of men and women about birth control. In '35, the great American contralto Marian Anderson gave her first New York recital there; in June '45, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker pretty much debuted bebop to the world there. Through the '70s, it remained accessible to artists who most promoters wouldn't touch.
Dressed entirely in white, her hair pulled back into tight braids, Monk walked downstairs from her new loft space on West Broadway ($400 a month, a stretch for her) and caught the uptown IRT at Franklin Street.
Monk performed Our Lady of Late that night, her wordless vocals dancing over a drone created by rubbing her finger around the rim of the wineglass. Sometimes she mirrored the drone perfectly, making micro-tonal shifts in her voice so it rippled like a banner in the wind. She purled out gorgeous, haunted, lowing melodies; sighed breathlessly in rhythm; applied severe vibrato to frightened babbling; bleated vowels and phonemes into unintelligible, sometimes hilarious chants. Her friend Collin Walcott, a multi-instrumentalist with an interest in world music, occasionally tapped out rhythms on another wineglass. Periodically, Monk sipped water from her own glass to alter its pitch.
A couple of days later she got a review in The New York Times, her first. John Rockwell called her "an incontestable virtuoso" and the concert "an extraordinarily consoling, meditative experience" that he heard as "a compendium of womanly experience, from birth to girlhood to motherhood to shamanistic ecstasy to grief to old age to death."3
It amazed her that the aesthetically conservative Times reviewed it. Even more amazingly, the writer seemed to get it.
That Sunday afternoon, the twenty-five-year-old Laurie Anderson lay on Coney Island beach with the chill of the New Year swirling in the salt air. Her turtleneck was pulled up to her nose, her watchman's cap pulled down over her eyes. She was trying to sleep--perchance, to dream. It was a performance art piece sans audience, to be documented by snapshots and diary entries, part of what she called her "Institutional Dream Series."
The work was not entirely successful. Sleeping outside the women's bathroom in the Schermerhorn Library at Columbia University (where she'd recently earned an MFA in sculpture), she managed to dream thatthe library was "an open-air market" and that all the shelves were stocked with produce. She dreamed of "a bright white desert" in a boat berth at the South Street Seaport, and had her camera confiscated while trying to sleep on a bench in night court at 100 Centre Street, where, for some reason, she couldn't dream.4
Dreaming would play a major role in Anderson's creative life. But at the moment, she was just an ambitious midwestern art-school kid with a viola, wanting New York City to shape her subconscious. As with many, it did.
About twenty-five miles down the coast from where Anderson slept in the sand was Asbury Park, a kindred seaside town in New Jersey where Bruce Springsteen, age twenty-three, a small, skinny dude with a scrubby beard, had been living in an apartment over a drugstore. But he'd been evicted, and his buddy Big Danny Gallagher was letting him crash on his living room floor. Springsteen wasn't around that Sunday; he was wrapping up a seven-day, fourteen-set run opening for David Bromberg at Paul's Mall, a jazz and blues club in Boston. Some of the ads misbilled him as "Rick Springsteen." But that was nothing new, and Bromberg, being a gentleman, let him play nearly eighty minutes per set, way more than most headliners would allow. Things were going great; unbelievable, really. He'd done his first-ever live radio performance that week at the local WBCN-FM. And his debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., had been released by Columbia just over a week ago.
Last spring, he'd ridden the bus into the Port Authority Bus Terminal with his acoustic guitar to audition for John Hammond, the producer who had gotten Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, and Aretha Franklin their record deals. Springsteen's manager, Mike Appel, an Irish-Catholic-Jewish hustler from Flushing, had wrangled it. And the singer-songwriter did well, impressing Hammond so much, the label don helped arrange a last-minute showcase for him that night at the Gaslight Café on Bleecker Street. Hammond wanted to see him in situ. He also wanted him back the next day to record demos at the CBS studios on West Fifty-second Street.
There were maybe eight people in the Gaslight audience that Wednesday night, but like most any room in the city, it was full ofghosts. Originally located in the basement of 116 MacDougal, where it helped spawn the Greenwich Village folk explosion (it was the site of a widely bootlegged 1962 Dylan performance), the club had recently moved into the basement of 152 Bleecker, formerly the Café au Go Go, where Lenny Bruce was arrested in 1964, and where the Dead had their first New York gig. Springsteen played originals: "Growin' Up," "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City," "Arabian Nights." Hammond was wowed yet again.
In the studio the next day, the desire in Springsteen's voice was so aching, coiled, breathless, it was like he was about to explode, or pass out. In the first line of "Mary, Queen of Arkansas," he sang tenderly, "It's not too early for dreamin'."
Hammond thought that one was a bit melodramatic. But he was sold.
Springsteen signed a contract in the summer; deducting the money they needed for recording costs, he and Appel got to celebrate with an advance of $25,000.5
Hammond was convinced that the singer-songwriter's future was as a solo acoustic act. Springsteen liked playing the lone troubadour, and he could be riveting in that role. After all, he had caught the music bug as a kid in part from watching the guys in the folk-song circles on the Asbury Park beach, wooing girls with their acoustic guitars. "I'd be standing there like 'Someday I just wanna get good enough so that I can bring my guitar to the beach, sidle into that circle, and play along,'" he said years later after a rehearsal in the old Paramount Theater on the Asbury Park boardwalk. "That was the height of my ambition."
But ever since he began fronting the rock outfit Child in '69, playing beach parties and college peace rallies with his pal Danny Federici, he'd been, at heart, a band guy.6 So, against the wishes of both Hammond and Appel, but with the support of Hammond's boss at the time, Clive Davis, Greetings from Asbury Park was recorded with Springsteen's bandmates. It riffed off rock history, and indulged in Dylan-style lyrical splatter-painting. The title, meanwhile, chosen by Springsteen, proudly proclaimed him a Jersey kid when Columbia was hoping to sell him as a New York poet.
The record tanked; it sold fewer than twelve thousand copies that year, despite full-page magazine ads showing the bearded singer in a tattered denim shirt beneath a headline declaring, "This man puts morethoughts, more ideas and images into one song than most people put into an album." The hype probably hurt more than it helped. Radio pretty much ignored the record; Dave Herman, DJ at the powerhouse New York rock station WNEW-FM, was so put off by the hard sell, he wouldn't even listen to it.7 When Rolling Stone got around to running a review six months after its release, Lester Bangs described an artist singing verses that reveled in "the joy of utter crass showoff talent run amuck and totally out of control." For Bangs, the magazine's enfant terrible, this was a fairly positive review, but still.8
As a teenager, I found the record and its characters hypnotizing; I spent hours with it. This was not the noodling blues-rock or fantastical prog rock I heard on the radio. This music was virtuosic and expansive, but a sweatier, more hardscrabble thing, telling stories about neighborhood characters with a soulful, speed-freak poetry. Queens, like Jersey, was bridge-and-tunnel territory; we were all exiles from Manhattan's main stage, acting out small-potatoes, inconsequentially life-and-death dramas. I knew these people.
Springsteen began a six-night opening-act residency with his band at Max's Kansas City on January 31. The bar-restaurant, at 213 Park Avenue between Seventeenth and Eighteenth Streets, was the temple of New York's rock scene, home to the Velvet Underground until their split in '70, and now a proving ground for up-and-comers. Springsteen was out of his element there, the South Jersey rocker among the terminally cool downtown crowd. But Sam Hood was booking lots of folk music in the upstairs space, and Springsteen had been working in his solo singer-songwriter guise there. In '72 he opened there for Odetta, Dave Van Ronk, and the New York Dolls.9 He'd usually play his last note, pack up his guitar, and grab a cab up to Port Authority to catch the last bus to Asbury Park. (He first saw the Dolls on a night he missed his bus, watching the show from beside the soundboard. "The scene was unusual for a provincial guy out of New Jersey," he recalled. "But they were incredible.")
Tonight, with his band, he impressed the crowd that had come for the hippie-folk wise guy Biff Rose, splitting his hour-long set between acoustic spiels and rockers. Along with songs from his debut was a VanMorrison exercise, "Thundercrack," and "Bishop Danced," a boozy rocker about Catholicism that ends with drunken choirboys chasing a girl named Dinah--a play on "Dinah blow your horn," a cheap pun by a Catholic school kid who liked tweaking the Church.10 The Voice critic Dan Nooger caught one of the Max's shows and predicted, "If he doesn't get lost under the attendant hype, Springsteen might even do something really amazing one of these days."
Bruce Springsteen was the least of the Church's worries in New York in 1973. The year began with the decision in Roe v. Wade on January 22, which legalized abortion in the first trimester. It was, as Andreas Killen suggests in 1973 Nervous Breakdown, Year One of the Culture Wars.11
One of the year's biggest films--among the first true "blockbusters"--was William Friedkin's The Exorcist, which depicted a heroic Catholic priest saving a twelve-year-old girl (Linda Blair) from Satanic possession. Upon its release, the critic Andrew Sarris wrote that the film "may represent the most spectacular public relations coup for the Jesuits since the conquest of forensic television by William Buckley."12
The Exorcist hit home with everyone who felt America was a moral cesspool in need of soul-saving. And looking back, you could hardly be called a prude if you felt that way a little bit, especially in New York City, where the very stink of the place made simply wandering around Manhattan feel obscene.
Porn's great push into the mainstream began in June 1972 with the opening of Deep Throat at the New World Theater in Times Square. The film had legs, among other parts; its tale of a woman with a clitoris in her throat was one of '73's highest-grossing films, and it was quickly followed (with a nod to The Exorcist) by The Devil in Miss Jones and a flood of other titles.13 Porn was not confined to the Times Square tittie-show ghetto; you could see Behind the Green Door at downtown art houses like the Cinema Village, over at the comfy Lido East on Fifty-ninth Street, or at the Capitol Cinema in Passaic, New Jersey, which hosted a personal appearance by the film's star, Marilyn Chambers--a onetime commercial model whose face was a cultural icon of purity thanks to a particular brand of clothing detergent ("Prints of the famous Ivory Snow package will be given away to each patron, plus personallyautographed photos"). An ad for Resurrection of Eve quoted Kevin Saunders of ABC-TV exclaiming, "Marilyn Chambers is the first hard-core film star who has radiated the old-fashioned Hollywood-style glamour."
Even Fresh Meadows had its own porn palace: the Mayfair Theater, just off Utopia Parkway and Sixty-ninth Avenue. It had once been an arthouse cinema, but the local crowd (which included budding film enthusiasts Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who in those days pretty much lived there) couldn't sustain it. If I decided to walk to school--as I often did, since riding the young-thug-packed Q17 bus was the most dangerous part of the day--I'd pass the Mayfair en route to and from Ryan Junior High. I think it was open only at night; I can't recall ever seeing anyone go into it. The posters for Behind the Green Door, or whatever, hung in the marquee window, curling up at the edges.
Lou Reed's Transformer, produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, was released in November '72. It earned its name: it transformed Reed from rock musician into rock star. In early '73 the single "Walk on the Wild Side" was a radio staple, reaching number 16 on the Billboard charts despite, and because of, lyrics that peeped through a dirty window at New York City's gender-melting underground. Reed biographer Victor Bockris called it "the no. 1 jukebox hit in America in 1973," which may well be true; it was definitely worth a quarter to play it in a diner or pizzeria and watch heads turn. Most listeners had no clue that the song's characters--Holly the transvestite, Candy the blow-job queen, Little Joe the gay hustler, Sugar Plum Fairy the Harlem cruiser, Jackie the speed freak--were actual people: Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling, Little Joe Dallesandro, Joe "Sugar Plum Fairy" Campbell, and Jackie Curtis were all members of Reed's extended artistic family at the Factory, Andy Warhol's salon/clubhouse/culture incubator, which at the time was located on the sixth floor of 33 Union Square West, just across the park from Max's.
Reed was born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island. He was moody, pegged as a problem child, and the summer after he turned seventeen, a psychiatrist convinced his parents to send him to Creedmoor State Hospital in Queens for eight weeks of electroshock therapy, intended to cure him of his homosexual and antisocial sentiments. He attended Syracuse University, played in a rock band, took drugs, andstudied with the poet Delmore Schwartz, who he called "my teacher, my friend, and the man who changed my life." He moved back home to Long Island and got a job as a staff songwriter and session musician with Pickwick Records, where he met John Cale, an expat viola player from Wales.14 The two became musical pals and drug buddies, and Reed moved into an apartment with Cale at 56 Ludlow Street, south of Delancey, in the old Jewish ghetto of the Lower East Side.
The two formed the Velvet Underground in 1965 with two other Long Island kids, the guitarist Sterling Morrison and the drummer Maureen Tucker. They were all fans of raw R&B: Ike and Tina Turner's "It's Gonna Work Out Fine," Eddie & Ernie's "Outcast." Reed also loved Ornette Coleman; Cale had worked with John Cage and, when the Velvets came together, was performing screechy, hypnotic drones with the composer La Monte Young in the latter's Theatre of Eternal Music ensemble.15 The Velvets swiped their name from the title of a paperback about suburban sex kinks that Cale's friend Tony Conrad plucked from a Manhattan gutter, and they made music where scuzzy primitivism camouflaged brainy underpinnings, playing Reed's vérité rock songs about S&M and heroin at the height of international flower-power culture. As the critic John Rockwell noted, "Psychedelic weirdness never caught on very firmly in speedy, street-oriented New York."16
The Velvet Underground never made it big, but their aesthetic had a lasting effect. In a sense, the '70s began with them. And with Transformer, Reed became an idol. He still held court in the back room of Max's Kansas City, but his solo debut in January took place uptown, at two shows in Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall.
Tom Miller was tripping his balls off on LSD in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware. The next thing he knew, a week later, he was in New York City, crashing in a crappy East Village apartment with his old friend Richard Meyers. They were both nineteen years old.
They'd met at Sanford, a boarding school for ne'er-do-wells and other types near Wilmington. Meyers was raised in Lexington, Kentucky, a town shadowed by the Lexington Narcotics Farm rehab facility, where William Burroughs and Sonny Rollins, among many others, had taken the cure. At fifteen, Meyers stole and wrecked a car; he was suspended from school and wound up at Sanford, but didn't last long there.By late '66, he headed to New York City. He was besotted with Dylan Thomas, and intent on being a poet.
Miller stayed in touch and eventually followed. "Will be coming up Friday for good," Miller wrote to him in the summer of '68, scrawling on loose-leaf paper in ballpoint ink. "Had first acid trip on last Friday. Fucked me up and I know I found out some shit about everything." In the center of the page is a smiling cartoon figure caught in a whirlpool. Miller added that he'd probably be broke, and hoped Meyers and his girlfriend wouldn't mind him being around. He signed the missive, "Love, Tommy Poop."
Soon enough, Miller had a room at the seedy Village Hotel on Bleecker Street. He also saw himself as a poet. He and Meyers were now in thrall to the French Decadents, Baudelaire and Lautréamont, Rimbaud and Verlaine, Bréton and the Surrealists. Meyers was already self-publishing a tiny poetry magazine, Genesis : Grasp. The final issue, completed in 1971, featured a mysterious woman named Theresa Stern. Her poetry was actually the collaborative work of Meyers and Miller, her photo a composite of the two young men in drag. They liked the female alter ego, who Meyers imagined as a Hoboken hooker; a Stern chapbook called Wanna Go Out? followed.
They also adopted individual aliases--Tom Miller became Tom Verlaine, in honor of the poet; Richard Meyers became Richard Hell, in honor of the locale and Rimbaud's Une Saison en Enfer. Having enjoyed collaborative poetry, they turned their attention to music. Verlaine, who studied classical music and played sax in high school, worshipped Albert Ayler and John Coltrane. He'd begun playing guitar, further inspired by Hendrix, the Mahavishnu Orchestra's John McLaughlin, and the Grateful Dead's improv epic "Dark Star."17 Shortly after he'd arrived in New York, he picked up a Fender Jazzmaster for ninety-five dollars up on Forty-eighth Street, and eventually persuaded Hell to buy a Danelectro bass at a pawnshop on Third Avenue.
Hell, who'd never studied music, was a fan of the Stooges. The two shared a love of the Velvet Underground; for the tight, mid-'60s British Invasion rock of the Stones, the Beatles, the Yardbirds, and the Who; and for the gnarly mid- to late-'60s American garage rock of bands like the Seeds and the Standells. Their taste for the latter had been stoked recently. Verlaine bought a box of old singles from a Hare Krishna kid in Washington Square, and also picked up the double-LP anthology titledNuggets, released in the fall of '72. A hard-boiled mix of the familiar and the forgotten, it was compiled by a rock critic, musician, and record-store clerk named Lenny Kaye, who called the music "punk-rock" in the liner notes.18 Like Harry Smith's 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music--also curated by an erudite, record-collecting New Yorker--it caught the ears of many musicians. It was a between-acts staple on the sound system at Max's, where Hell and Verlaine would sometimes hang out, nursing drinks and rubbernecking, trying to make the scene.
Eventually they formed a trio called the Neon Boys with their old pal Billy Ficca, who came up from Delaware to join them in the fall of '72. They tried to recruit a second guitarist the way all local bands did, through an ad in the Voice. Theirs read: "Narcissistic rhythm guitarist wanted--minimal talent okay." A Brooklyn player, Chris Stein, tried out, but didn't like the material; according to Verlaine, he thought it too fast and uncommercial. A Queens kid named Douglas Colvin auditioned, but was too inept.19
The Neon Boys never found a second guitarist, but in April they decided to record some demos anyway, Hell playing bass and Verlaine playing both lead and rhythm. The six songs, including Hell's "Love Comes in Spurts" and Verlaine's "Hot Dog," were harsh and high-strung, in the spirit of Nuggets. Demos cut, they disbanded. Verlaine knocked around as a solo act with his Jazzmaster. Hell went back to the life of a writer, as he imagined it, living in a girlfriend's apartment overlooking the St. Mark's Church cemetery, working in a $16-a-week furnished room on East Tenth Street, where he would set up every day with a bottle of cheap wine and unspool words until he'd filled one single-spaced page. Before the end of the year he'd finished a short novel of surreal, horny, grim metafiction involving two young men, Caspar Skull and Arthur Black, that bore some resemblance to Hell and Verlaine. He titled it The Voidoid.20
Since last summer, the Mercer Arts Center, a theater complex at 240 Mercer Street, between Third and Bleecker, had become the New York Dolls' live-performance home. It was started in 1970 by the theatrical producer and off-Broadway pioneer Gene Frankel, who set up shop on two floors of the crumbling Broadway Central Hotel building with his partner Seymour C. Kaback--an engineering consultant who was thesilent partner in another multiroom venue around the corner on Bleecker Street, Art D'Lugoff's Village Gate (where Bob Dylan wrote "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," in an apartment in the club's basement). The Mercer was primarily a theater space. It made its mark in '71 with a revival of the '65 Broadway production of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, a play whose theme of inmates taking over the asylum seemed fitting for the place. Another early hit was Tubstrip, which was advertised as a "new play with all male cast ... better than a trip to the baths."
The site itself had a storied past in the city's arts world. In the fall of 1850, the opera singer Jenny Lind--"the Swedish Nightingale"--had a historic fifteen-show run, arranged by her manager, P. T. Barnum, at Tripler Hall in the Lafarge House Hotel, which occupied the same footprint as the Mercer. In the 1860s it was the Winter Garden theater, hosting a legendary hundred-performance run of Hamlet with the renowned thespian Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth (whose assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 made Edwin's life very difficult; he subsequently required a police escort to get through the hotel lobby to his dressing room so that he wouldn't be assaulted).
The Winter Garden burned down in 1869, and the hotel expanded, eventually renaming itself the Broadway Central. It saw lots of action. The Wall Street shyster and playboy James Fisk was shot dead on the grand stairway in 1872 by a jealous suitor over the affections of a showgirl. In the Gay '90s, Diamond Jim Brady partied hard in the hotel's restaurants. A bit later, one of the hotel's eateries--Trotsky's Kosher Restaurant--was allegedly a fave of a Russian visitor of the same name, the gentleman known, pre-Revolution, as Lev Bronstein.21
For their venue, Frankel and Kaback divided two floors in the Broadway Central (then functioning more or less as a welfare residence called the University Hotel) into seven small theaters. The Dolls usually played on the second floor in either the Oscar Wilde cabaret or--as they had for the New Year's Eve gig--the slightly larger O'Casey, which had tiered seating for three hundred or so people. They'd grown a good-sized following, and word was out; at one show, as legend has it, the seventy-one-year-old actress Marlene Dietrich--a fan of drag balls back in Weimar-era Berlin--turned up with some friends one night to check them out.
But it had been a nightmarish few months for the Dolls. In November, their drummer, Billy Murcia, died during their debut British tourafter mixing champagne and Mandrax (the British brand name for methaqualone, the popular sedative/aphrodisiac/date-rape drug sold in the United States as Quaalude). The "friends" who attempted to revive the unconscious Murcia--killing time between gigs without his bandmates--heaved him into a filled bathtub and poured black coffee down his throat, quite possibly drowning him, and proving once again that serious drug users should study basic EMS.
Murcia's replacement, Jerry Nolan, joined the band just weeks before the New Year's gig. He was a fairly seasoned musician--he played with Queen Elizabeth, among other local acts. But his debut with the Dolls, the early show at the Mercer on December 19, was a debacle of missed cues. Doubly unfortunate, it was in front of a room full of bizzers looking to sign the band. "That night we blew it fucking big," said Syl Sylvain. "Every major record company passed on us."22 23
At the late show, however, after Ahmet Ertegun and the other industry folks left, the band played an awesome set. "Dolls are the new Rolling Stones," Patrick Carr typed breathlessly for his column in the Voice. "Dolls are the best New York City band in a decade."
In the April 19 issue of The Village Voice, an item in the "Scenes" column noted that heroin, sniffed ("no needles, please"), was staging a comeback at parties in the Hollywood Hills, where people would "go downtown" with a snort, then "go uptown" with a wake-up toot of coke.
"You can bet that if it catches on out there," it read, "it will sweep its way through New York press parties by mid-summer."
The rioters at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in '69 were, by and large, not closet cases; they were warriors, and drag queens like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. (for "Pay It No Mind") Johnson were on the front line.24 Richard Hell remembered James "Sweet Evening Breeze" Herndon, the real-life cross-dresser immortalized in Carson McCullers's Suttree, who cut a striking figure on the streets of Lexington.25 In Hell's new home, Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis, and Holly Woodlawn--variously cast by Warhol in films such as Women in Revolt and Flesh--were celebrities. Queen Elizabeth's front man-woman Wayne County was mixing drag with crude garage rock, and Reed appeared in full dragon the back cover of Transformer. Now the Dolls, who played their first proper show in a Times Square welfare hotel with Curtis as a support act, were ramping up their own cross-dressing. Boys with long hair were no longer shocking, at least in New York. But add lipstick, panty hose, and high heels ... people noticed. What, after all, was more badass and transgressive than a New York tranny?
The Dolls were émigrés in Manhattan. Sylvain Mizrahi began his musical career playing a toy oud in Cairo. His father was a banker there until 1956, when the Suez Crisis made Egypt an impossible place to be Jewish. The family moved to France, then to Buffalo, New York, and wound up in Queens, where Mizrahi got kicked out of Newtown High School for, as he put it, "lookin' like a fruitcake--because I was wearing bell-bottoms and had long hair."
He and his Queens pal Billy Murcia soon formed the Pox (with the inevitable "Catch the Pox!" gig flyers), playing their first gig at Crawdaddy's, a club in the West Fifties owned by the R&B legend Lloyd Price. The Pox played tough, hard rock à la the early Who. It wasn't hippie music, but something newer and older, with a sensibility the Dolls would inherit.
But not for a few years. When the Pox failed to take off, Mizrahi and Murcia turned their attention to the schmata trade. With help from Billy's Colombian mom, they set up a business--Truth and Soul Fashions--manufacturing trippy South American-style sweaters and tie-dyed bikinis upstate in Woodstock. They sold wholesale to various shops; one customer was a young designer named Betsey Johnson. In '69, the men drove over to Bethel on the other side of the Catskill Mountains to sell their goods at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, which had been relocated out of town at the last minute. Restless hustlers, they soon pawned their designs to a large-scale manufacturer in Brooklyn, took the money to Europe, and blew it on hash, clothes, and musical gear.
Back home, they hooked up with the art school dropout Arthur Kane, a quiet, blond, extremely tall Irish kid from the Bronx, and Johnny Genzale, an Italian baseball obsessive and sartorial cockatoo from Queens who, like Mizrahi, had been kicked out of Newtown High School. The lead singer, David Johansen, was a troublemaker from Staten Island who had gotten expelled from Catholic school. "They just realized I was not the right person for them," he told me decades laterin a café on Twentieth Street, exploding in a phlegmy laugh. "Because they couldn't break my spirit. They don't try to break everyone's spirit--only the people with spirit."
Johansen had been in San Francisco, mostly hanging around the Fillmore West; he worshipped Janis Joplin and pictured himself as her onstage, wailing hot-wired blues. When he wound up back home, he shifted his studies to the Fillmore East on Second Avenue, played with a few half-assed bands, got involved with the fringe theater scene. He hooked up with the Warhol actress Diane Poluski, a few years his senior, who introduced him to the inner circle at Max's. After a visit to the band's Upper West Side rehearsal space, located in the back of a bike shop, the twenty-one-year-old singer signed on.
The Dolls took their name from the New York Doll Hospital, a toy repair shop across the street from a midtown boutique Mizrahi had worked in. Ditching his last name, he became simply Sylvain Sylvain; Genzale became Johnny Thunders. The Dolls played dives, gobbled up drugs, and loved playing dress-up, their fashion sense inspired in equal parts by the Max's drag queens and Detroit glam rockers like Alice Cooper and the Stooges, in stacked heels, blouses, and makeup. They played simultaneously brute and campy rock 'n' roll that owed plenty to those bands--Thunders spewing metallic riffs, alternately squealing and spitting power chords, over Johansen's sashaying street-punk hollers.
"Personality Crisis" was their defining song, summing up a zeitgeist where who you were on the street, in the club, and in the bedroom was infinitely, confusingly mutable. "You're a prima ballerina on a spring afternoon," sang Johansen. "Change into the wolfman, you're howlin' at the moon--OWOOOOOOOOO!"
One of their earliest gigs was at the cowboy-themed bathhouse Man's Country, located in the basement of 55 Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights. During one set, Johansen pulled a prop saddle off the wall and put it on Arthur Kane's back and rode him around a bit. The first night, the band were all dosed on MDA. "I think I was selling it at the time," recalled Sylvain. "There was no audience, because all the guys stayed in their cubicles having sex. We weren't sure how to dress for the bathhouse, so the first night we went feminine; I wore hot pants. They didn't seem to appreciate the femme look, although we had a lot of fun on the MDA. The next night we came back in leather and chainsand got more interest--everyone came out of their little cubicles to watch us."26
Few venues supported live music by rock acts playing original material; you pretty much had to be a cover band recycling the '60s. So the Dolls threw rent parties at their loft at 119 Chrystie Street, two dollars a head. When they heard the Mercer was booking bands, they went on a reconnaissance mission.
"They walked us all through the rooms and everything," Sylvain said. "You had to go through this one place, sort of like a cabaret, and the group Suicide were playing there. I don't know if they were doing their soundcheck or their first performance of the evening--there were like two people in the audience, black tablecloths on the table. And they scared the shit out of me. Marty Rev would glue together all this stuff to make these synthesizers, and Alan Vega was onstage in this wig looking like this kind of--I don't know how to describe him. He was wearing these glasses, like radiation glasses. I was like 'Oh my God, do we have to play here?'"27
But it was definitely a step up from the baths, so they did, with a residency that gave them the Oscar Wilde Room every Tuesday. They played there for seventeen weeks straight. Lou Reed turned up. Alice Cooper. And one night, David Bowie, the twenty-five-year-old British superstar, producer of Reed's Transformer. Bowie grilled the band about their clothing sources.
On March 20, the New York Dolls signed a two-album deal with Mercury and got a $25,000 advance. Their debut, The New York Dolls, was released on July 27.
And on August 3 at around 5:00 p.m., the Broadway Central Hotel building, with the Mercer Arts Center in it, collapsed. Rescue workers dug through the rubble with shovels and picks; twenty pine coffins were sent down to the site. Many people were carried out. Four people died.28
Eric Emerson and the Magic Tramps, a glam-rock band who also called the Mercer home, were rehearsing in the building when it came down. At first they thought it was an earthquake; they grabbed whatever instruments they could, and made it out. A Long Island band, Mushroom, had been rehearsing in another room; they made it out as well. Alan Vega was walking down the street and could see the BlueRoom, where Suicide had just played. "There was just a stage sitting there, with no building around it," he said.29
Until the following spring, New York's rock scene was essentially homeless. In the interim, the semifamous Dolls would travel to L.A., where Thunders would taste the heroin those Voice columnists had written about back in April while hanging around Hollywood with Iggy Pop, one of his heroes.
Thunders was nineteen. It was his first time. He liked it a lot.30
On certain days, if the sun was out and you cocked your head just so, you could still hear Sonny Rollins searching for a sound on the Williamsburg Bridge. Or at least you could imagine it. Rollins became a fixture up there in the early '60s, when he'd grown sick of the liquor-and-dope-fueled jazz club scene. He took a hiatus from gigging, and as he didn't want to disturb the neighbors in his Grand Street apartment on the Lower East Side, he hit on the idea to practice on the bridge. Out over the water, he'd parry with the sound of tugboat foghorns, weave around the steel-on-steel clatter of the BMT subway trains when they surfaced between boroughs, echo the hum and grind of the automobiles. He'd play for eight, twelve, fifteen hours at a stretch, the crisscrossing lines of girders and cables suggesting a physical geometry for his fast-changing melodic lines.
He bothered no one. After all, only fools even walked under the Williamsburg Bridge. The damn thing was so decrepit, it rained a steady shower of rust on the sidewalk below.
On April 5, the beleaguered mayor of New York, John V. Lindsay, presided over a ceremony and jam session at City Hall, declaring April to be "Jazz Month." Elected in 1966 with a campaign slogan of "He is fresh and everyone else is tired," Lindsay was now exhausted, in his final year of an eight-year run trying to hard-sell progressive politics to a city in fiscal meltdown. Hosting a jazz gig probably seemed a safe-enough move. Tellingly, the event was mostly old-schoolers: Billy Taylor, Roy Eldridge, Jo Jones, Willie "the Lion" Smith, Teddy Wilson.
It was a tough period for most New York jazz vets. Bebop and postbopseemed like ancient history. Coltrane had been dead for five years, Albert Ayler two. Sonny Rollins was back from yet another self-imposed retirement--spent partly in India--and playing brilliantly. But his comeback LP, Sonny Rollins' Next Album, was disappointing, and no one was setting the scene on fire.31
Not even Miles Davis, who, ever ahead of the curve, began inventing '70s jazz in 1969, first with the sublime electrified sounds of In a Silent Way and again, later that year, in New York City at Columbia Records Studio B (the same room where Springsteen would record his demos). At 10:00 a.m. on Tuesday, August 19--the morning after Jimi Hendrix closed the Woodstock festival a hundred miles upstate with his wildly improvisational take on "The Star-Spangled Banner"--Davis began recording Bitches Brew, the opening salvo of the jazz-fusion movement.32
That record sold well, but the jazz establishment hated it, and hated Davis's subsequent fusion records even more. After a stretch of declining sales and critical drubbing (the genre bible Downbeat dismissed the complex funk of 1972's On the Corner as "repetitious boredom"), the trumpeter was in a bad way, hoovering up cocaine, gulping down Tuinals and vodka.33 He fired his manager of seventeen years, and one morning that fall, he fell asleep behind the wheel of his Ferrari on the West Side Highway--en route to an after-hours party in Harlem, as far as he could recall. He plowed into the divider, breaking both his ankles.
Davis began 1973 with crutches, hobbling onstage at the Village East (formerly the Fillmore East, on Second Avenue off Sixth Street) with another version of his endlessly mutating band. On February 23, he was busted with a girlfriend in front of his apartment building on West Seventy-seventh Street with a .25 automatic and three packets of coke. He'd been banging on the lobby door--he'd lost his keys--and a neighbor had called the cops.34
Miles's band boasted two Hendrix-influenced electric guitarists, Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas. They came on like a lava flow, often working a single chord while the drummers would pile on churning cross-rhythms. The records, produced by Teo Macero, continued to pioneer the use of tape collage and other postproduction trickery in a jazz context. But there was already a young generation of fusion musicians outshining Miles--many, like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, and Tony Williams, former sidemen/protégés of his. Andlike Lou Reed in the city's rock demimonde, Miles was at once of the scene and above it.
What generally gets called "free jazz"--improvised music that considers set chord changes, keys, time signatures, and bar lines optional--began in the explorations of Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman the late '50s, abetted by Coltrane, Ayler, and others in the '60s. In 1970, Coleman launched Artists House at 131 Prince Street, a combination performance space, recording studio, clubhouse, and apartment. Coleman was following Yoko Ono, one of his many musical collaborators, who hosted what was arguably the first New York loft concert in her sixth-floor walk-up at 112 Chambers Street one snowy night in December 1960. Soon a new generation of players took their cue from Coleman, building a scene in downtown industrial lofts repurposed as both homes and venues.
During July Fourth weekend in '72, the jazz promoter George Wein staged Newport--the World Cup of jazz festivals--in New York City for the first time. The festival had been kicked out of Newport, Rhode Island, the previous year after a mob of stoned kids, feeling music should be free and taking a cue from Woodstock, crashed the gates and freaked out the town elders. But New York presented its own problems. The city had emptied for the holiday, crowds were lean, and Miles was a no-show for a Carnegie Hall booking, allegedly due to a money dispute. There was a triumphant performance by Cecil Taylor (a single shape-shifting forty-minute piece that earned him a standing ovation), and the American premiere of Coleman's symphonic piece Skies of America, a composition funded by a recent contract with Columbia. But the bookings were otherwise typically conservative, largely ignoring the young loft scene.
Which, in fact, wasn't entirely young. The saxophonist Sam Rivers, who also played flute, piano, harmonica, and most anything else, was no newbie; the son of a Fisk Jubilee-schooled gospel singer and a student of the Armenian composer Alan Hovhaness, he was a transitional member of Miles's group in 1964, had albums on Blue Note as a leader, and at this point was pushing fifty. He'd moved into a loft at 24 Bond Street, between Bowery and Lafayette, back in '69, so he could give lessons and make music with his colleagues after hours.35 Before long, it became a performance space, too: Studio Rivbea, named in part for his wife and comanager, Bea.
The drummer Rashied Ali, ten years Rivers's junior, also had a résumé, including his tenure as Coltrane's drummer during the saxophonist's final, farthest-out years. He'd been living in Williamsburg, in a loft building on Bedford Avenue whose tenants included other jazz players: Don Cherry, Archie Shepp, Roswell Rudd, Karl Berger, Marion Brown. Ali was paying double rent--$100 a month--because he'd connected two lofts. He had a good head for business, and was making good money with Coltrane. In 1971, Ali moved into a second-floor space in Manhattan, at 77 Greene Street, just off Spring. When the rag merchant on the ground floor finally called it quits, the drummer nabbed that space as well, and he, too, opened a performance venue: Ali's Alley. His total rent there for both floors: around $200 a month.
Together, Rivers and Ali organized a Newport counterevent in '72 called the New York Musicians' Jazz Festival, staged simultaneously in venues across the city. Rivbea presented Anthony Braxton, Dewey Redman, Andrew Hill, and Rivers. Studio We, run by the trumpeter James Dubois and the drummer Juma Sultan at 193 Eldridge Street, hosted Leon Thomas, Clifford Jordan, Cedar Walton, and Paul Bley. Pharoah Sanders played up at Mount Morris Park in Harlem with a fledgling bassist, Stanley Clarke, who had just turned twenty-one. There was music at the University of the Streets on Seventh and A, Slug's on East Third, Free Life Communication (run by the musicians Dave Liebman, Bob Moses, and Richie Beirach) on West Thirty-sixth, the Third World Cultural Center in the Bronx, and the Far East in St. Albans, Queens.36
Audiences were modest at best. "Despite its attempt to be rebellious," pooh-poohed The New Yorker's estimable jazz critic Whitney Balliett, the event "appears to be merely an inevitable overflow from the Newport affair." But for the loft scene, it was galvanizing--a validation and a baptism. Jazz players around the country heard about it, and New York's gravitational pull grew that much stronger.37
For the '73 Newport Festival, the pragmatic Rivers worked in conjunction with Wein, and the bookings reflected it. In addition to a concert by Sun Ra and his Arkestra on July 6 (the synthesizer-playing big-band leader released his trippy, landmark Space Is the Place in April), Rivers led his own trio at the Wollman amphitheater in Central Park on a July 5 afternoon bill that included the New York premiere of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Responses were mixed. Robert Palmer, a young clarinetist and saxophonist from Little Rock, Arkansas, who also wrotefor Rolling Stone and had spent January in the Rif Mountains of Morocco with Ornette Coleman playing ritual music with the master musicians of the Jajouka village, penned an enthusiastic preview piece for The New York Times. In his New Yorker review, Balliett described the Art Ensemble's one-song set--staged with the tribal face paint and trailerload of percussion instruments that became their trademark--as "entertaining for a third of the forty-five minutes it lasted." He pronounced his feeling at the end of Rivers's "cantankerous" set as akin to "having just eased out of a pair of tight shoes."
But the Newport gig was a sign of things to come. Studio Rivbea was now at the center of the new jazz scene. The building at 24 Bond Street was lively. The landlady was the painter/art-world activist Virginia Admiral, whose son, Robert De Niro, a young actor, had just hit the Hollywood big time that summer with the baseball drama Bang the Drum Slowly (he had also finished a film called Mean Streets, which would open in October). The building had recently become home to a young photographer as well, Robert Mapplethorpe, who bought a loft on the fourth floor in late '72 for $15,000. Mapplethorpe had shot some portraits of Rivers, and would occasionally take the elevator down to Rivbea to check out the music. Ali's Alley, meanwhile, became home to regular gigs by the drummer's own group; he'd get a liquor license by the end of the year.
And soon players were coming in from around the country: from L.A., St. Louis, and especially Chicago. Many would stay. Jemeel Moondoc was a Chicago sax player who studied with Cecil Taylor when the pianist was briefly on the faculty at Antioch (Moondoc never enrolled; he just showed up to the class). The saxophonist soon moved to New York and assembled the band Muntu. Their playing was very free; gigs were hard to come by. Moondoc was ready to throw in the towel when Rivers offered his band a standing Thursday gig at the club in '73. And thus the scene grew.38
Of course, the loft scene was based on affordable lofts. And just as it gained momentum, the beginning of the end arrived on April 4, 1973: the official grand opening day of the twin 110-story towers of the World Trade Center.
Designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the towers were meant to reclaim and revive the area written off by Robert Moses in the early '60s, when the city's emperor-bureaucrat planned to level much of the areas nowknown as SoHo and TriBeCa for his unrealized Lower Manhattan Expressway project. Reclaim the area they did, when the financiers who moved into the WTC realized the potential of the surrounding loft district.39
It makes an odd kind of sense that the event to announce New York salsa's coming-of-age, and to reboot the career of Latin music's greatest living singer, would be a salsa remake of the Who's Tommy staged at Carnegie Hall.
The "rock opera" Pete Townshend had written a few years earlier represented more than his need to be perceived as an Artist in the wake of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band; it was a landmark of prog rock's hypervirtuosic, movin'-on-up sensibility of the early- to mid-'70s. Similarly, salsa wanted to travel beyond the barrio--to be seen, and to see itself, as more than just a ghetto dance-hall soundtrack. It was virtuoso music with deep history and an international pedigree; it wanted respect.
Appropriate to salsa's melting-pot culture, Hommy, a Latin Opera was cooked up by the flamboyant composer-bandleader Lawrence Ira Kahn, a.k.a. Larry Harlow. Kahn grew up in Brooklyn, the Jewish son of the opera singer Rose Sherman and Buddy Kahn, who worked for a while as bandleader at the Latin Quarter in Times Square under the stage name Buddy Harlowe. By the time he was a student at the High School of Music and Art up on West 135th Street in the '50s, Larry was obsessed with Latin music. He would head back to Manhattan on Sunday afternoons to see incredible bands at the Palladium Ballroom, the second-floor dance club on Fifty-third and Broadway--Arsenio Rodriguez, Machito, Tito Puente. Harlow was underage, but the owner, Max Hyman, a kindred Jewish mambo fan, would let him in anyway. In his late teens, Harlow went to Havana to study Cuban music. But the revolution soon forced him back to New York, where he followed in his father's footsteps--first playing Latin music, and, for a while, leading a Blood, Sweat & Tears-style rock band, Ambergris.40
The storyline of Hommy was written by Genaro "Heny" Alvarez, a Puerto Rican singer, drummer, and songwriter who worked days as a jewelry polisher in the Diamond District on West Forty-seventh Street.It involved a blind and deaf boy with a talent not for pinball but for--what else?--Latin percussion. The music bore no resemblance to the Who's original; this was Cuban son and guaguánco spiced with jazz charts and other flavors. And who better to sing the production's signature number, thought Harlow, than Celia Cruz?
Cruz had been living in the New York area since declaring herself a political exile from her native Cuba in '62. But the music she'd been making in Havana as a singer with the great Sonora Matancera, and in New York with Tito Puente and others, had fallen out of fashion, overshadowed by Latin soul and boogaloo, as well as rock and the nascent pan-Latin salsa sound. At this point, she spent seven months of every year living and performing in Mexico.
Harlow met Cruz in Mexico and told her about his project. When Cruz returned to New York, she scheduled her first meeting with Jerry Masucci, cofounder (with the bandleader Johnny Pacheco) and business end of New York's preeminent Latin label, Fania. Cruz had come merely to talk. But it was a setup: when she arrived, she found a studio full of musicians ready to record. The song was Hommy's equivalent of Tommy's "Acid Queen," the kinetic "Gracia Divina." Cruz had never heard it before.
"I got so angry," she recounted in her memoir, "and I'm not an angry person." But the gracious and professional Cruz learned it and sang it.41 Over a swirling, elegant charanga-style groove with full strings and gleaming brass, her bittersweet chocolate alto sound is unassailably regal. It's hard to know whether to dance or simply bow down.
Knocked off in a day, "Gracia Divina" became a massive hit on New York Latin radio: on Polito Vega's Spanish-language afternoon show on WBNX 1380, Joe Gaines's late-night English-language show on WEVD 1330, Felipe Luciano's Sunday specialty show on the jazz-minded WRVR 106.7. On March 29, Cruz sang "Gracia Divina" for a packed house in Carnegie Hall at Hommy's world premiere, backed by the Orquesta Harlow and alongside the deep-voiced Cheo Feliciano, who had recently returned to claim his throne as the king of New York salsa singers after kicking a heroin addiction. The record flew out of the racks; the opera was produced in Puerto Rico and elsewhere.
But Hommy's greatest effect was validating a group of young musicians, proving their music was worthy of Latin music's queen, and ofone of the world's great concert halls. And performancewise, Harlow and the Fania crew would pull off something even more amazing by the end of the summer.
Latin music had been an integral part of New York's musical fabric for decades. Always part of the jazz scene, there were periods when the music's cultural presence ballooned. There was the mambo craze, which took off in the mid-'40s at the Palladium Ballroom. In the late '60s, there was the boogaloo era, in which Latin acts responded to R&B's golden era with their own hybrid soul music. Boogaloo was hated by Latin music purists, but it was perfect New York street pop, all simple, irresistible rhythmic and lyrical come-ons. (One critic dubbed it "cha cha with a backbeat.") Joe Cuba's "Bang Bang," Johnny Colon's "Boogaloo Blues," Ray Barretto's "El Watusi," and Pete Rodriguez's "I Like It Like That" are songs smart DJs still drop into dance mixes, and they always rock a party.
The "salsa" of the early '70s was not only more traditional than boogaloo, it was hotter, faster, brighter. It was not mellow, and it was not as refined as its Cuban models. Heard as a compressed radio signal blasting from shops, apartment windows, and passing cars, it sounded brassy and shrill--fun, hustling, terminally high-strung.
New York salsa was fusion music; you could hear urbane Havana son and country Puerto Rican jibaro styles, jazzy horn and flute solos, Santana-style rock guitar, wah-wah keyboards, long percussion jams that drew on funk and African music while mixing in various Caribbean and South American rhythms. It was integrated, like the city it came from.
To wit: on May 3 at the Lowe's Paradise--the spectacular old Bronx theater at 2413 Grand Concourse--a triple bill featured the formal debut of Tipica '73, the salsa group that had just splintered from the conguero Ray Barretto's band. With them was the Jersey City R&B crew Kool and the Gang, who were working on an album that would include a song called "Jungle Boogie." Rounding it out were the '60s pop-rockers Tommy James and the Shondells, whose '69 hit "Crystal Blue Persuasion" was a hit among Bronx soul fans, Latinos included; Joe Bataan and Tito Puente both covered it.42
It was an unusually mixed bill, given the tendency of music marketersto divide audiences along cultural lines. But salsa, R&B, and rock have a central thing in common: they worship rhythm. If it makes people move, it's all good. Not far from the Grand Concourse, a group of smart young DJs were learning this.
Hip-hop's ur-jam, described in Jeff Chang's sweeping hip-hop history Can't Stop Won't Stop, was a party held on the last week of August 11, 1973, in the west Bronx rec room of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue. There, Clive Campbell came of age as a DJ. He was a fairly recent immigrant, coming with his parents and siblings to the Bronx from Kingston, Jamaica, in 1967. It was a modest affair, coordinated by his younger sister Cindy, a budding businesswoman driven by a desire to buy herself a sweet back-to-school wardrobe.
Cindy's brother was known in the neighborhood as Kool Herc: the latter part of the nickname, short for "Hercules," was given to him by kids on the basketball court impressed with his size and power, the former inspired by a TV ad for the menthol cigarettes everyone smoked. Herc set up the gargantuan sound system he'd rigged with the Shure P.A. equipment that their dad, Keith--himself a hard-core music fan--used for gigs with a local R&B group. The siblings bought soda and malt liquor (Olde English 800 and Colt 45, the strongest brews of the era) and charged at the door. The space wasn't much for vibe--linoleum floors, steel-encased radiators, and a low, white-tiled drop ceiling with fluorescent lighting fixtures that a friend of the Campbells turned on and off to heighten the mood. Herc played some reggae sides--the kind that would fire up the yard parties he'd witnessed as a wide-eyed kid in Jamaica. Here, though, they didn't go over. Then he played some harder, funkier tracks: "It's Just Begun" by the Jimmy Castor Bunch, "Bongo Rock" and "Apache" by the Incredible Bongo Band, "The Mexican" by Babe Ruth, "Get Ready" by Rare Earth, Baby Huey's "Listen to Me," the Isley Brothers' "Get into Something," "Yellow Sunshine" by the Philly funk band of the same name, James Brown's "Give It Up or Turn It Loose."43
The crowd, mostly high schoolers, went bonkers. Being August, the side door of the building was opened to let the heat out. Kids hung by the Dumpsters smoking weed and drinking, and Herc's dad's sound system pumped beats out into the summer night, over the Major DeeganExpressway, up toward River Park Towers. It was Herc's first party under his own direction, on his own turf. The next day, it was the talk of the neighborhood.
In truth, the hard funk that the kids were sweating to that night was out of style in 1973. R&B was toning down and dressing up: Barry White's "I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little Bit More, Baby," Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On," and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes' "The Love I Lost." Some grittier, funkier tracks still made the charts: War's "Cisco Kid" in May, Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" that fall. But by the year's end, the satin-sheeted "Love's Theme" by Philadelphia's Love Unlimited Orchestra would become a radio staple, followed the next spring by "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)" by MFSB featuring the Three Degrees: the string-sweetened opening salvos of disco.
These were the records played by Herc's competition--guys like Anthony Holloway, who went by the moniker DJ Hollywood and played at grown-up clubs like Charles Gallery and A Bunch of Grapes, both on 125th Street in Harlem, places you generally had to look sharp to get into. Holloway became a DJ by accident, seeing a route out of the numbers running that helped land him in the Spofford Detention Center in the South Bronx during his high school years. His hero was Frankie Crocker, the king of New York soul radio, who made his own name at Harlem's WWRL-AM until he was hired away by the newly launched, black-owned WBLS-FM in '71. Crocker--who, coincidentally or not, also used the nickname "Hollywood," among others--often rhymed on-air between tracks, and his acolyte started doing the same in the clubs. Hollywood chanted things like "Throw your hands in the air, and wave 'em like ya just don't care. And if you got on clean underwear, somebody say 'Oh yeah!'" And then the crowd would shout back: "Oh yeah!"44
There were others in the game--the veteran R&B party-starter Pete DJ Jones; Edward Sturgis, a kid from Harlem's Douglas projects whose sobriquet was Eddie Cheeba; Brooklyn's Grandmaster Cameron Flowers, who played records in Yankee Stadium before James Brown's 1969 concert there. But at this point, Hollywood was the prince of the uptown discos.
Downtown, meanwhile, was a different story.
There is a pretty young woman standing on West Twenty-second Street, and she is screaming hysterically. Her pupils are pools of motor oil. Between shrieks, she tries to form words. One utterance sounds like "animal"; another like "gorilla." A young man with longish hair is trying to assist her, but he's laughing so hard he's nearly choking.
The scene takes place outside the Gallery, located on the second floor of an industrial loft building at 126 West Twenty-second Street. The nightspot began its life as a straight club in February 1973, but floundered. When it was reopened as an invitation-only, mainly gay dance club on June 28, 1973, the world's first modern disco was born.
Sure, there were "dance clubs" before the Gallery, and there were creative dance music DJs before its host, Nicky Siano. There was Francis Grasso, who mixed Chicago with Led Zeppelin at Sanctuary, the gay bacchanal palace located in a former German Baptist church at 407 West Forty-third Street that closed in 1972--partly on account of unruly patrons, who could often be found fucking in the hallways of nearby apartment buildings, but mostly because of its reputation as a mob-controlled drug supermarket (one of its owners, Shelly Bloom, was found murdered in his East Side apartment on the eve of testifying in a drug trial).45 And there was the Timothy Leary acolyte David Mancuso, who began holding invitation-only parties at his home-based club, the Loft, at 647 Broadway just north of Houston, in early 1970. The Loft reimagined the French discothèque in terms of high-fidelity sound, thematic playlists, and the elusive element known as "vibe." It posited dancing not simply as a preface or overture to sex but as its equal.
The Gallery figured all these elements into the equation: a commercial club where admission was nevertheless on a members/friends-only basis, a crucible where room environment, social vibe, narrative-style song sequencing, sound effects, elaborate lighting, awesome sonics with extreme bass frequencies, and drugs combined to take people to places they'd never been before.
These were places not everyone wanted to go to. Thus, the pretty woman freaking out on Twenty-second Street.
"We had this big frog," recalled Nicky Siano. "It was a wading pool for kids, and the top of the frog had two big eyes; we hung it in the middle of the room, and when the room was crowded, all you saw over people's heads were these two weird eyes. One night we filled it with bananas, and we had this guy dressed up in a gorilla suit."
Siano laughed. "My friend Laurie is tripping hard, and she walks into the club and sees these two weird eyes over everyone's heads. So she says, 'Let me get out of here and go out onto the dance floor,' which was in a separate room. Then she turns the corner toward the dance floor and coming her way is this big gorilla! She ran out of the place screaming!"
Like his hero Mancuso, Siano knew how to throw a party. Raised in Sheepshead Bay in an extended family (he estimates more than a hundred cousins), he understood he was bisexual at an early age, and began running away from home at age fourteen. He started the Gallery as a partnership with his brother Joe, who was twenty-six and worked as an engineer. Joe was mainly an investor, and after a slow start, their $15,000 in loans began paying off. Siano was seventeen years old.
"There was no alcohol, but we'd have free food, punch, sometimes acid, lots of stuff," he recalled. "Things were not that expensive back then. The rent was like four-sixty a month, something like that, incredibly cheap. So, seven dollars times eight hundred, that would be fifty-six hundred a weekend, and your expenses would be ... maybe you had like ten people working for you for fifty dollars each, which was five hundred. So you definitely turned a profit."
Back then, blotter acid was five, maybe six dollars a hit, and was strong enough that you could get four or five people very high off a single dose. Two of Siano's early employees, Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan, were often in charge of distributing the LSD, either by dosing the punch or administering the drug to patrons individually, laying the sacramental blotters on tongues like communion wafers.
Like the San Francisco acid tests choreographed by Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, Siano made sure the set and setting were conducive to revelers in altered states of mind. He and a friend painted one wall with puffy clouds; as a DJ, he was probably the first in New York to master the art of dropping out certain frequencies in a cut (usually the bass) at dramatic moments, then crashing them back in on the beat, à la dub reggae, detonating dance-floor pleasure bombs. He'd time these sonic sleights of hand with lighting effects, often cutting the lights altogether when a song reached a break and was building up to another crescendo. The result was breathtaking: you would suddenly be dancing in utter darkness, packed into a sweaty room full of screaming hedonists already out of their minds on drugs and adrenaline, their retinasstill flickering with images, lights, and colors from a few seconds earlier. Then: WHAM! The lights were on and you were yanked back into reality, or some semblance of it.
Frankie Crocker had been playing the Wailers' Catch a Fire on WBLS.46 Released in April, it came in a cool sleeve that looked and opened like a Zippo lighter. The reggae-driven film The Harder They Come had opened in February, and notwithstanding "Mother and Child Reunion," Paul Simon's Jamaican-flavored hit from the previous year, Catch a Fire was the first reggae music most non-West Indian New Yorkers had ever heard, and when the band came to Max's for a six-night run on their debut U.S. tour, it was the first time most of the crowd had ever seen a reggae band. The Wailers were a vocal trio--Peter Tosh, Bunny Livingstone, and the front man, Bob Marley--in the tradition of Curtis Mayfield's Impressions. Marley's presence was riveting, and the sound was hypnotizing. Many of the Max's regulars turned out. Lou Reed caught a show that week. So did the rock critic Lenny Kaye and his friend, a young poet and Max's regular, Patti Smith. They were both mesmerized.
The band played a new song called "Burnin' and Lootin'." Arson and robbery? Most locals could relate, no doubt--even the Jersey boosters who came to see the headliner, Bruce Springsteen.
Springsteen was in the throes of an endless promotional tour, and just coming off some of the worst shows of his life: opening a leg of an arena tour for the hit-making jazz-pop fluffballs Chicago. That group's Top 40-fed fans couldn't have cared less for him. At some dates, they threw things. He was booed offstage in Philadelphia. At Madison Square Garden in June, denied a soundcheck, he bombed so hard, even his supporters at Columbia Records were shaken. Afterward, he refused to play arenas--there was too great a rift, he thought, between the band and the audience--and refused to be an opening act unless he could play a full-length set.
Springsteen was exhausted, but happy to be back on familiar ground at Max's. That week he played two songs from his second album, which he was in the middle of recording upstate. "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" was a paradoxically romantic kiss-off to his hometown. "New York City Serenade" was a ten-minute elegy--lush, jazzy, deeply influencedby Van Morrison--for a town he also had mixed feelings for, full of hookers, small-time gangsters, and musicians who get the soul sucked out of them.
This life wasn't easy. Springsteen's band members were pulling around fifty dollars a week, when he could make payroll. By the end of the year, the bandleader had cleared about five grand for himself.
Released in September a mere eight months after his debut, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle was filled with New York imagery, from Bleecker to Fifty-seventh streets.
"It's midnight in Manhattan," Springsteen crooned to the crowd at Max's, strumming his acoustic against David Sancious's jazzy blue piano. "This is no time to get cute."
In early '73, Eddie Kendricks's "Girl You Need a Change of Mind" and the Temptations' "Law of the Land" represented a new kind of hit--the DJ club banger.47 Both of the records were on the Motown label, but they weren't retreads of the label's signature sound: instead of compact pop songs, they were extended soul workouts with heavy percussion. Both prominently feature congas in their mix, and it's worth noting that the conga player on "Law of the Land" was King Errisson, the conguero who played with Kool Herc's beloved Incredible Bongo Band and also drove Kendricks's "Keep On Truckin'," the number 1 song in the country for two weeks in November. That Errisson's Caribbean hand drumming became a Rosetta stone of DJ beats is not surprising; hip-hop and disco were born of the same rhythmic gene pool.
And the city teemed with all sorts of DNA. The year's most unlikely hit was "Soul Makossa" by Manu Dibango, a previously unknown singer and saxophonist from Cameroon. The song was "discovered" in late'72 by the DJ David Mancuso on a French import during one of his vinyl-hunting expeditions in a West Indian record shop on Utica Avenue in Brooklyn. A low-riding funk track with a fierce groove undertow, "Soul Makossa" was all hot brass vamping, with Dibango's bassy "mama ko, mama sa, mama ma-kos-sa" chants riding over the top. Mancuso made it a hit at the Loft, and it quickly became the hottest vinyl in town. Nicky Siano and other DJs scarfed up the few available copies. Then Frankie Crocker got ahold of it and put it on heavy rotation at WBLS. Soon bootleg and cover versions were popping up. Finally, Ahmet Ertegunand Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records licensed it for U.S. release. In June '73, "Soul Makossa" was on the pop charts. Black, white, Latino: everyone seemed to find it irresistible.48
Dibango's biggest U.S. gig, at the height of the song's popularity, was at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, co-headlining an event billed in handwritten ads as the "1st Latin Soulrock Fiesta!"--although it could have been called the "1st Latin Soulrock Jazz Fusion African Proto-Disco Fiesta!" in its spectacular attempt to fuse nearly all the blooming local music scenes of the moment.
Sharing the bill were the jazz percussionist Mongo Santamaría, the rock guitarist Jorge Santana (Carlos Santana's brother, of the L.A. group Malo), and the fusion powerhouse drummer Billy Cobham (of the Mahavishnu Orchestra). Headlining, and yoking all these players together, were the Fania All-Stars, the supergroup led by Fania's co-owner Johnny Pacheco. The lineup featured the cream of the label's talent, including Ray Barretto, Willie Colón, Larry Harlow, Bobby Valentín, Héctor Lavoe, and their new member, Celia Cruz.
It was insane, of course: renting a baseball stadium to put on a salsa show. It happened because of the mad ambition of Jerry Masucci, an Italian lawyer and ex-cop from Brooklyn, who started Fania in 1964 with his divorce client turned partner Pacheco. Masucci was determined to make New York City salsa a global phenomenon, his label Fania its greatest exponent, and himself very rich.
It cost $280,000 to rent Yankee Stadium for the Friday night of August 24, with $50,000 security up front--mainly to insure the preservation of the field turf. (The stadium itself was slated to be demolished for a major renovation beginning that fall.) About 45,000 fans showed up, paying between $3.50 and $10 a head for tickets.
Manu Dibango played hard. "Soul Makossa" was a heady signifier, flexing the African roots of Latin music, speaking to the brotherhood of New York's black and Latino communities--a brotherhood damaged over the years by gang warfare while manifesting itself in the parallel political struggles of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords. (The impact of Cuban, and later New York, salsa on the music of West and Central Africa is a story unto itself.)
The setting was resonant, too. The year had begun with the deathof the Puerto Rican-American baseball star Roberto Clemente, whose plane crashed into the sea during a New Year's Eve flight from San Juan to Nicaragua on a relief mission. The Pittsburgh Pirates' star player was dark-skinned and, in addition to his feats on the field, spoke out loudly about discrimination against blacks and Latinos, making him a hero to both communities. To witness such a bicultural celebration in a baseball stadium just eight months later made the evening even more profound.
By the time the Fania All-Stars get into their own set, the crowd, which has been prohibited from going onto the field, is getting restless. The band launches into Harlow's fire-spitting "Congo Bongo," and by the end--with Ray Barretto and Mongo Santamaría dueling furiously on tandem congas, and Billy Cobham, wearing a football jersey, thundering beneath and between the beats, lifting everything skyward--the crowd erupts. They burst past the barricades and swarm out over the field, dancing, cheering, and waving Puerto Rican flags. Jerry Masucci's brother Alex, one of the co-producers, is freaking, because he knows he can kiss that $50,000 deposit on the field adios. He tries to get the orchestra to stop, but they keep on pounding it out, Johnny Pacheco conducting wildly in an unbuttoned white dress shirt and stacked heels, hair flying like a crazed Caribbean Beethoven.
Finally they finish the tune, and security breaks down completely. Masucci decides to cut his losses and announces that the rest of the concert is now canceled. Bodyguards rush him to his car, headed for the after-party, while Alex hurries suitcases stuffed with box-office cash to another car. By now, the crowd is furious. People begin climbing onto the stage; some decide to go shopping. By the time things settle down, there is little left onstage besides cables and mic stands; someone has even made off with Larry Harlow's piano.
The most thrilling moment on the Fania All-Stars record Live at Yankee Stadium Vol. 1 is when Héctor Lavoe, a twenty-six-year-old New York Puerto Rican--a Nuyorican--steps to the microphone in front of a cheering crowd and sings "Mi Gente," addressing the crowd as "my people" and declaring his pride, rhyming "este mundo" with "orgullo profundo."
Actually, Lavoe never sang the song at Yankee Stadium; the show had been shut down before he had a chance. The recording was made in Puerto Rico months later, at a performance staged to provide fillerfor two live albums and a film that Jerry Masucci had planned around the historic Bronx gig--a gig that never actually happened, beyond a few songs.
Lavoe had arrived in New York City from Puerto Rico as a talented teenager in 1963 intent on becoming a big-time musician, and he made his name as the singer in Willie Colón's band, a deal bartered by Masucci. Colón, born in the South Bronx to Puerto Rican parents, became Lavoe's mentor and sidekick. But Lavoe liked to get high, developed a taste for heroin, and became a wildly unreliable performer. By the time of the Yankee Stadium gig, the two were about to part ways.
Colón's dad had been a heroin addict. The young bandleader had been down that road before.
The title of Willie Colón's fiery 1972 album, Cosa Nuestra, declared its new-jack aesthetic ("Our Thing") while punning on "Cosa Nostra"--lingua franca for streetwise kids of all ethnicities with the release of Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather. The LP sleeve had the skinny Bronx Nuyorican kid playing gangster dress-up, standing over a body bag, holding his trombone like a tommy gun. Colón's sharp wardrobe came partly from the film world. Colón's mother was dating Harry Belafonte's doorman, who had little use for the handsome silk ties the actor gave him. So he passed them on to her kid, the twenty-two-year-old salsa musician.
The thug persona wasn't empty role-playing: Colón moved amid street gangs, and had a reputation that earned him the nickname "El Malo," the title of his '67 Fania debut with Lavoe. (The nickname was also used by Latin music purists who thought his raw, rudimentary music was just plain bad.) It's odd that the cover depicts him ready to dump a body in the East River down by the Brooklyn Bridge, rather than up in his neck of the woods by the Triborough. Guess you don't shit where you eat.
The lead track of Cosa Nuestra was "Che Che Cole," which became one of Colón's biggest hits. He adapted it from a Ghanaian children's song learned from an African musician he knew, and built in a traditional Puerto Rican bomba rhythm, which in turn was probably rooted to some extent in the Ghanaian drum music that came over with the slave trade.49
"We're dancing African-style" is Héctor Lavoe's invitation at the song's head; the singer flashing homeboy jibaro phrasing while shouting out Panama and Venezuela, Puerto Rican music reconnecting with Motherland roots in the stew of New York City salsa.50
It's interesting to note that Willie Colón shares his last name with the Genoese seaman Cristobal Colón, a.k.a. Christopher Columbus, who, back in the fifteenth century, spent time in what is now Ghana, on the so-called Gold Coast of Africa, where the Portuguese operated a slave-trading castle and where the explorer no doubt learned some unpleasant things about human nature.51 That his namesake was a New World explorer who celebrated America as a polyglot culture is a small, sweet irony of history.
In 2006, Willie Colón sat in Victor's Café, the posh Cuban restaurant in Times Square, where he is still received as royalty. "To be out in the field in Yankee Stadium?" he said, his heavy-lidded brown eyes widening. "It felt like we were up there with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And I just don't know how it happened, man. This music was marginalized. We were used to playing the wedding room up at 149th Street behind the Lowe's theater."
Looking wistfully across the dining room and back in time, all Colón could do was shake his head and say: "Oh, my God."
Two days after the Yankee Stadium concert, on August 26, about a hundred miles north of the city, a different sort of salsa was being made by Eddie Palmieri. In front of a small audience at the Woodstock Playhouse, a modest hike down the road from where John Cage premiered "4'33"," the Harlem-born pianist led his band through "Adoración." It begins with an extended, free-form, neoclassical piano section with some electric guitar and upright bass colorings, before launching into a son with a fire-spitting montuno section where Palmieri hurls his body at the keyboard, crashing out massive note clusters with his forearms, like a beefy Cecil Taylor. The song, from Palmieri's LP Sentido, pushed salsa further out musically than it had ever gone before.
But it was just a warm-up for his next project, which he describes in the voiceover to the short film made around the gig, Salsa in Woodstock. Palmieri mentions a new composition, "Un Día Bonito," talks about feeling Dylan's vibes, and confesses a wish that he could have played onYasgur's farm in 1969, to represent Latin music to the people. (He doesn't mention Santana's appearance.)52
Although the Lindsay administration was spending $10 million a year trying to erase it, graffiti culture was in full bloom in 1973--the year scrawled spray paint script began morphing into huge 3-D bubble letters and cartoon characters, a new kind of art.
The first spotlight was a front-page New York Times article in 1971 on the tagger Taki 183, who simply wrote his nickname and street number on trains and brick walls with a fat-tipped Magic Marker. A '73 feature in New York magazine titled "This Thing Has Completely Gotten Out of Hand"--by Richard Goldstein, who began his career as a pioneer rock critic at The Village Voice--called graffiti "the first genuine teenage street culture since the fifties." By this time, writers such as Phase 2, Blade, and Super Kool 223 were innovating; the latter is credited with the first "end-to-end"--spray-painting the entire length of a subway car. A ghetto salon known as the Writer's Corner grew up on the benches at one end of the 149th Street elevated IRT station. In late '72, a sociology major named Hugo Martinez organized the first graffiti art exhibit at City College and launched a writers' group called the United Graffiti Artists (UGA). By April, the downtown choreographer Twyla Tharpe had enlisted a rotating cast of eighteen writers to spray-paint live during her piece Deuce Coupe.53
In Queens in the mid-'70s, you would occasionally see artful tags on the E and F trains. But the IRT lines had the best graffiti: wild, multicolored murals. The Flushing 7 train that ran on the elevated line into Manhattan had some; the lines that ran up to the Bronx, especially the 2 and the 5, had the cream.
As a pop-culture junkie, I moved from Marvel and DC comics to underground ones like the R. Crumb vehicle Zap and Vaughn Bode's Junkwaffel, books that had a strong influence on the early graffiti artists. Wacky Packages, the MAD magazine-influenced bubble-gum sticker cards, were introduced in 1973. The cartoon parodies of consumer products--Jail-O, Quacker Oats, Minute Lice, Crust toothpaste, Skimpy peanut butter, Blisterine mouthwash, Chock Full O' Nuts and Bolts coffee--subverted commercial design with a graffiti-like spirit. Many of the concepts came from Art Spiegelman, a cartoon fanatic who workedfor the Topps bubble-gum company in Brooklyn.54 Taking received culture and violating it, breaking it up, transforming it into something funnier, weirder, fresher, more exciting--and one's own: this was the aesthetic engine of '70s art.
Music added its own imagery to the mix. Roger Dean did the lush fantasy art for LPs by Yes and other prog-rock acts; along with Rick Griffin and some of the San Francisco poster artists of the late '60s, he was another influence on the graffiti scene. I drew the fluid-lettered Yes logo on every available surface: school desks, notebooks, Levi's denim jackets. (Wrangler and Lee were, of course, out of the question.)
But I didn't do buses, which were ruled by the black and Hispanic kids who were redistricted from southern Queens to George J. Ryan Junior High School in Fresh Meadows. Most of them would take the Q17, which originated at the Jamaica Bus Terminal and ran north along 188th Street to Horace Harding Expressway, the service road for the Long Island Expressway. As soon as the bus was full enough that the driver's rearview mirror sight line was blocked, kids would light up cigarettes and pop the caps off their fat-tips, making the rear of the bus a sauna of marker fumes and Kool smoke.
These were tense times in northeastern Queens. Across the LIE from Ryan was Francis Lewis High, where white thugs with leather jackets and greased-up ducktails smoked cigarettes against vintage cars like it was still the '50s. They unapologetically used the word nigger, and there were regular "race riots" between them and the bussed in kids. At points the atmosphere was so violent that students were sent home early, or the entire day's classes canceled outright.
I was no thug, but in a gesture of both terror and boldness, I often came to school with a gravity knife tucked into my desert boot. Thankfully, I was never called on to use it for anything more aggressive than carving Granny Smith apples into hash pipes.
On October 31, the New York Dolls played the Waldorf-Astoria Grand Ballroom. Their debut LP had been out for three months--Ellen Willis, The New Yorker's pop music critic, wrote that it had "virtually no competition as the most exciting hard-rock album of the year"--and although they did a week of shows at Max's in late August, this was theirNew York City coming-out party. They'd just returned from their first proper tour; they'd been on TV in Los Angeles, and Johansen had been jailed in Memphis for "lewd public behavior" and "inciting a riot" after a boy kissed him on the lips during a show.
The Halloween homecoming gig was conceived as a spectacle. The promoter, Howard Stein, took out a full-page ad in The Village Voice. Tickets were steep at $7.50, though they automatically entered the holder in the Best Costume competition (one prize: a weekend for three at a hotel in Newark).55 The Waldorf-Astoria was the epitome of uptown, uptight, upper-crust New York; whoever agreed to give the ballroom over to the Dolls and their wasted fans was either clueless or wickedly subversive.
By midnight, a thousand-some freaks of various stripes were packed into the ballroom entryway, pressing against doors that were supposed to have opened at 11:00. Tempers flared, doors were smashed, and someone lit a stink bomb in the hotel lobby in protest. Security guards admitted a portion of the mob, but hundreds were turned away. Arthur Bell described the scene as "Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange and Joel Grey in Cabaret by the dozens, chains and hoods, silver buttocks, scarlet breasts, dildoed noses," with old-school trannies washing down Demerol capsules with swigs of whiskey.56 It even occasioned a lock-up-your-daughters (and sons) TV news report by Tony Hernandez of WNBC. Walking through the crowd, he described the Dolls as "a rock group with an aura of bisexuality" and as "a group of five tough Brooklyn street kids."
"The Dolls usually play at a sound level of 130 decibels!" Hernandez bellowed at the camera. "A jet plane at take-off has a decibel level of 115!"
The band finally came onstage at about two a.m., with Johansen in a white tux and a black top hat: for a dude who generally walked around in semidrag, men's clothing constituted a Halloween costume. They proceeded to play what may have been their greatest gig. By the finale of "Frankenstein," Johansen was shirtless, yelling into the mic with his top hat teetering on his head and his lush brown curls sticking to both sides of his face.
"New Yawk City!" he shouted near the song's end, in his camp Howlin' Wolf-meets-storefront-preacher delivery. "It's Halloween, and it'sthe night you're all gonna get down and do it really evil if you're ever gonna do it at all ... And before you go home tonight to do it, I'm gonna ask you one question about yourself: Do you think that ..."
Johnny Thunders hit a monstrous power chord.
" ... you can make it ..."
Another Thunders explosion, this one lower, gurgling, the sound a man makes after being poisoned and before he falls to the ground.
" ... with Frank-en-steeeeeeeiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiin?!"
Thunders's and Sylvain's guitars hurled feedback; Johansen yelled "Happy Halloween, everybody!" over the squall, grinned broadly, pivoted in his top hat, and strutted offstage, turning to throw a kiss perfectly synched with one last Thunders power chord.57
A few days later the Dolls were back in England for the first time since Billy Murcia's death. Their most important gig was on the BBC music show The Old Grey Whistle Test, hosted by the absurdly tweedy Bob Harris, who introduced them with withering condescension as practitioners of "mock rock." Their performance of "Jet Boy" and "Looking for a Kiss" made an incalculable impression on countless impressionable youths. "I couldn't believe it," recalled the future Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones. "They was just all falling about all over the place, all their hair down, all knocking into each other. Had these great big platform boots on. They just didn't give a shit, y'know? I thought it was great."
The future president of the New York Dolls fan club and future lead singer of the Smiths, Steven Morrissey, was also watching. "I was thirteen," he recalled, "and it was my first real emotional experience."58
"It's ten o'clock: Do you know where your children are?"
To answer the question posed nightly by an ominous broadcaster's voice on the bump before the 10:00 p.m. Channel 5 news: my parents' children--me and my sister, Liz--were usually in our rooms, either asleep or pretending to be. I'd stay up reading comics like Unexpected or Ghost Rider, mags like MAD and National Lampoon, or books by Ray Bradbury and H. P. Lovecraft while listening to Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Yes, or ELP. My allowance was five dollars a week. The Korvettes department store sold new records at three for ten dollars. But the Music Box on Union Turnpike sold usedtitles for one or two bucks. It was run by Keith, a glam rocker with long straight hair and bangs. He had a band called the Brats, who I'd never actually heard; they had a following and eventually became regulars at Max's. He'd point things out for me. By the end of '73, I'd begun a decent record collection.
Other than as a sensationalist news item, the New York Dolls didn't make it onto television in their hometown. The only real outlet for rock on TV at the time was ABC's In Concert, channel 7, Fridays at 11:30 p.m., simulcast on WPLJ 95.5 FM. Whenever my father went to bed early, I'd sneak down to the basement and watch the procession of British acts. The show gave me my first black-and-white glimpse of a rock concert that August: the Electric Light Orchestra (not bad, I thought) with Black Oak Arkansas (lame). I sat there, riveted, until the station signed off the air, footage of an American flag flapping in the wind while "The Star-Spangled Banner"--not Hendrix's--wheezed away in the background. What was happening in Manhattan, I had no idea.
In 1963, as music director for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Steve Reich pulled together a group with his Mills College cohorts Phil Lesh and Tom Constanten. The idea was to create an improvisatory music-theater piece with dancers, brightly colored lights, and chaotic/hypnotic music. Soon afterward, Lesh (and later Constanten) joined the Grateful Dead. In his memoir, Lesh describes the Mime Troupe production--titled Event III/Coffee Break--as the prototype for Ken Kesey's Acid Tests, the "happenings" that help launch the Dead's musical journey.59
Reich, meanwhile, followed a different path. Raised on the Upper West Side, he'd studied music and philosophy upstate at Cornell, continued his music studies at Juilliard on West Sixty-sixth Street, then headed west to Mills in Oakland, where he worked with the composer Luciano Berio. Like his pal Lesh, Reich fell hard for the music of John Coltrane, whose gigs he caught whenever possible, often at the Jazz Workshop in North Beach. Around the time of his Mime Troupe stint, Reich began experimenting with magnetic tape, making loops and collages. He also began a working relationship with Terry Riley, a composer who lived down the street from him.
In the fall of '64, Riley--well known in Reich's circles--attended a concert by Reich's group at the Mime Troupe theater in San Francisco'sMission District. Bored, he left midway through it. The next day, Reich walked down the block to Riley's garage, where Riley kept his piano, and confronted him about the previous evening. They smoothed things over, and Riley showed Reich a new composition written on a single sheet of paper.
In C was a series of fifty-three melodic modules, each to be repeated by each group member as often as he or she liked, until moving on to the next, each at his or her own pace. It was simplistic, anarchic, and, in practice, ecstatic. Reich loved it and offered to help arrange it. That November, the piece premiered at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, with Reich playing percussion and his girlfriend playing piano. It received a rapturous review in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Reich was completely taken with the piece. He began experimenting with repetitive structures. The first fruit was It's Gonna Rain, composed for multiple tape loops of a preacher's voice that begin in unison and gradually slip out of phase. Reich was still interested in performing with live musicians, though. So in the fall of '65, with hippie culture heating up and Lesh having run off to join the circus, Reich headed back to New York, where he figured he'd have better luck finding kindred spirits.
Riley wound up back in New York that fall, too. He wasn't pleased when he discovered Reich pursuing ideas Riley felt were his, and they never worked together again. Reich did strike up a friendship with another like-minded composer, Philip Glass, a Juilliard classmate who reintroduced himself at a concert Reich gave at Paula Cooper's Park Place Gallery--the foremost exhibition space for minimalist artists such as Sol LeWitt--in early '67. Reich and Glass soon formed a collective ensemble to perform each other's work. They also formed a furniture-moving company, Chelsea Light Moving, as neither of them made enough money from their music to pay their bills.
Meanwhile, Reich's longtime interest in drumming was rising up. He was inspired to visit Ghana in 1970 by Alfred Ladzekpo, a Ghanaian drummer teaching at Columbia University. (Ladzekpo's African Dances and Games LP, which may have seeded Willie Colón's "Che Che Cole," had just been released.) The trip was something of a nightmare--Reich contracted malaria and left a month earlier than planned--but his studies there blew his mind, confirming many of his ideas on rhythm.60 At the end of '71 he premiered his extended Drumming--for bongo drums,marimbas, glockenspiels, female voices, piccolo, and a whistler (for now, himself)--over two weeks at three concerts: at the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Town Hall. As a new-music composer, he had arrived.
Still, a gig at Carnegie Hall, the bastion of old-school classical music, was not on his to-do list when the phone rang in late '72. Yet the guy on the line--Michael Tilson Thomas, twenty-seven-year-old conductor of the Boston Symphony--was knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Reich's music. He was curating a new-music program for Carnegie Hall called the Spectrum series, which hoped to lure a younger audience. Thomas wanted Reich in it.
Reich agreed. His Four Organs, an extended piece employing extreme repetition and performed with four Farfisa electric organs and some Latin Percussion rawhide-and-buckshot maracas, was presented in Boston without incident. The performance in his hometown on January 18, 1973, was another story.61
Four Organs was not new to New York, having premiered at the Guggenheim Museum back in 1970, with Glass at one of the keyboards. Performed this evening by the musicians in shirtsleeves--a statement in itself on the formal Carnegie Hall stage--the performance lasted about sixteen minutes.62 The music was amplified, but it wasn't rock-concert loud. After a few minutes, the performers could hear the noise of the audience--more old guard than the young vanguard they'd hoped for--fidgeting in their seats, coughing, murmuring, and rustling their programs. Soon, this was joined by groans and, eventually, straight-out shouting and heckling.
The musicians traded glances. There was nothing to do but to keep playing the repeated, stabbing phrases, over and over and over. The audience noise grew so loud, they couldn't hear one another play; they had to mouth their cues, and eventually yell them, to keep the piece from falling apart. The audience was literally trying to stop the performance by shouting it down. At one point, a woman got out of her seat and walked down the aisle toward the musicians. All eyes were on her, and when she reached the lip of the stage, she began mock-banging her head against it repeatedly, wailing: "Stop, stop--I confess!"63
When the piece ended, there was a moment of silence, then a tidal wave of boos and catcalls. The musicians bowed, and walked offstage with as much composure as they could muster.
In his review, Harold C. Schonberg of The New York Times described the audience reaction "as though red-hot needles were being inserted under fingernails," adding that he himself had heard "nothing much to like, nothing much to dislike." Alan Rich of New York magazine praised it as a "marvelous, original invention about musical time and rate of change."64
Afterward, Steve Reich returned to his element, giving free performances of works-in-progress alongside exhibitions by his new friend Sol LeWitt at the John Weber Gallery.65 When Reich's old colleague Phil Lesh came east to play Nassau Coliseum with the Dead that March, they did not see each other.
The Carnegie Hall Four Organs was the most striking aboveground display for the New York school of music branded "minimalism," after the art movement. Some critics called it "static music" (for its apparent lack of motion, not its resemblance to white noise--although using the latter was not out of the question). The composer Tom Johnson, who was also the Voice's classical music critic, wrote of the "New York Hypnotic School"--Reich, Glass, Riley, and the school's provost, La Monte Young--composers who made music "that lulls, hypnotizes, and draws you into its world." It was music that functioned as a more or less flat field, not unlike the visual work of LeWitt, Frank Stella, Donald Judd, and the Nashville jazz saxophonist turned painter Robert Ryman. Static, however, did not necessarily equal boring. "A pitch changes slightly, a rhythm is altered, something fades in or out. They are not big changes, but they are changes," Johnson wrote, "and there are more than enough of them to sustain one's interest, provided he can tune in on this minimal level."66
La Monte Young was raised as a Mormon in Idaho and studied music in Los Angeles, where he focused on the saxophone. He was an L.A. City College classmate of Eric Dolphy, who he beat out for a spot in the college dance band in 1956; he also led a group with the drummer Billy Higgins, and occasionally played with another Ornette Coleman associate, the trumpeter Don Cherry.67 Around the same time, Young became obsessed with a record of ragas by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, and especially by the drone sound of the tamboura; he listened to it so incessantly while living in his grandmother's house that she worriedly wrote the words "Opium Music" on the LP jacket. His interest in sustainedtones grew, and during the summer of 1958 he wrote the roughly hour-long Trio for Strings at the great organ in Royce Hall at UCLA, where he'd just completed his BA. He presented the piece during his first semester of graduate studies at Berkeley, to a composition class held in the home of Professor Seymour Schiffrin; his classmates included Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, and David Del Tredici. The work's vast fields of drones and silences were alien territory. It was the birth of minimalist composition.68
Arriving in New York City in the fall of 1960 on a Berkeley scholarship, at age twenty-five, Young became a proto-rock star, moving through galleries and performance halls in a black cape in the shadow of his hero turned rival John Cage. Within two months he was involved with the Fluxus art movement, curating the first loft concert series with Yoko Ono at her place on Chambers Street.69 Young was composing busily, swinging between Cagean conceptualism and tonal minimalism. Piano Piece for David Tudor #1 (Tudor was a close associate of Cage) instructs the performer to "bring a bale of hay and a bucket of water onto the stage for the piano to eat and drink. The performer may then feed the piano, or leave it to eat by itself." The droning Composition 1960 #7 consists of a B and an F-sharp, notated on a staff with the direction "to be held for a long time."70 Arabic Numeral (Any Integer) for Henry Flynt (1960) called for a loud percussive sound to be repeated at will; in one performance, Young played a piano chord 1,698 times.71 Unlike music made in uptown performance halls, which generally divided concerts into five- to thirty-minute slots for individual works, loft settings gave composers the option of presenting extended pieces. In this way, Young and Ono's brief series changed the sound of modern composition.
By the time John Cale began working with Young in his Theatre of Eternal Music ensemble in the mid-'60s, radically sustained notes and chords were at the core of the work. With his new wife, the light artist turned singer Marian Zazeela, Young moved into a loft space at 275 Church Street, where the group would perform for hours, through the night; a waking day for the couple would last anywhere from eighteen to twenty-seven hours or longer.72 A recording from April 1965 features the table-saw drones of Tony Conrad's violin and John Cale's viola, their modulations stretching clock time like putty.73
The group continued in various forms throughout the '60s, occasionally touring and performing in galleries and museums. But as Youngbecame more obsessed with the idea of the eternal in music--of a work that might literally last forever--he began setting up what he called "Dream House" installations: rooms in which music was produced continuously by precisely tuned sine-wave generators, sometimes with human accompaniment. The initial and primary one was in his loft; it ran pretty much uninterrupted from September '66 through January '70, when Young and Zazeela began their long relationship with the North Indian master singer Pandit Pran Nath, and continued intermittently after that.
Recordings of this music were somewhat beside the point. But Young often rolled tape, and in '73 he captured what became a French LP called Dream House 78' 17". The number denotes the duration of the LP, and the "song titles" note simply the date, time, and locale of the recording. "13 I 73 5:35-6:14:03 PM NYC" demonstrated vocal techniques inspired by Pran Nath. "Drift Study 14 VII 73 9:27:27-10:06:41 PM NYC" was the sound of three sine-wave generators, which presumably burbled out strange harmonics before the recorder was turned on, and continued after it was shut off.
Performances of extreme duration--lasting as long as, say, a psychedelic drug experience--were being explored by many artists of the era. The New York Times critic John Rockwell identified a "newly meditational mode of perception" in audiences, partly code for saying everyone would be stoned. According to the trumpeter Jon Hassell, a devotee of Miles Davis's electric experiments who studied and played with Young, "the history of drugs in America is inextricably interlaced with early minimalism." To him, there was a need in the '70s for a new sort of classical music that "one could actually enjoy listening to, that you could float away to."74 Young's music catered to this need and reveled in it. He had been a weed smoker since his jazz days, and by his own account, the Theatre of Eternal Music got high for every concert.75 And according to the photographer Billy Name of Andy Warhol's Factory posse, who played with an early version of the ensemble, the scene at the Church Street loft was a heady one:
La Monte Young was the best drug connection in New York. He had the best drugs--the best! Great big acid pills, and opium, and grass, too. When you went over to La Monte and Marian's place, you were there for a minimum of seven hours--probablyend up to be two or three days. It was a pad with everything on the floor and beads and great hashish and street people coming and scoring, and this droning music going on.76
In his autobiography, John Cale writes about being busted for selling opium when he was working for Young. Of course, by 1973 drugs were a part of every music scene, for players and listeners both. When I started sixth grade that fall, my friend Ron's older brother, a music fanatic, offered to smoke some of his "Acapulco Gold" with us if we'd alphabetize his vast LP collection. We did, and he did. I didn't get high, but filing all those records had a lasting effect.
The New York artist who played most spectacularly to Rockwell's "newly meditational mode of perception" was in fact not a musician. It was the playwright Robert Wilson, who in December presented The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Fort Greene. The work ran from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. A casting call in the theater column of the November 15 Soho Weekly News read:
Robert Wilson is looking for 32 dancing ostriches, over 100 sleepwalkers (experienced and non-experienced), bears, mammies, fishing ladies, apes, a pregnant woman, a Wilhelm Reich- and an Alexander Graham Bell look-alike for his latest epic ... Anyone interested (no professional experience of any kind necessary) may call Mel at 966-1365 or stop by Wilson's Soho studio, 147 Spring St., this Thursday night from 8--12.
Philip Glass, a composer also interested in extended forms, was in the audience for one of the performances with a friend and a bag of sandwiches. At the cast party/breakfast afterward, Glass and Wilson met for the first time and hit on the idea of working together.77
Glass was born in Baltimore in 1937; his dad had a radio repair shop that also sold records, both classical and popular. He began studying violin at age six, and followed a conventional prodigy path through to Juilliard. He detoured in 1964 to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and also worked with the sitarist Ravi Shankar, transcribing his music. By the time he returned to New York City in '67 and reconnectedwith his old classmate Steve Reich, he was ready to make a new sort of music.78
Throughout '73 Glass worked on Music in Twelve Parts; by the time he completed it in '74, it was around four hours long. He frequently presented his music in Sunday concerts in his loft at 10 Elizabeth Street, just off Bleecker. Glass and his players would sit in a circle around a ring of electric organs, surrounded by audience members, most either seated cross-legged or lying on their backs on the hardwood floor, eyes closed.79
John Rockwell describes a ninety-minute performance of an earlier work, Music in Changing Parts, that spring at the loft of Glass's pal Donald Judd, the sculptor:
Glass's ensemble that night played with the spirit and precision that only years together can bring. The music danced and pulsed with a special life, its motoric rhythms, burbling, highly amplified figurations and mournful sustained notes booming out through the huge black windows and filling up the bleak industrial neighborhood. It was so loud that the dancers Douglas Dunn and Sara Rudner, who were strolling down Wooster Street, sat on a stoop and enjoyed the concert together from afar. A pack of teenagers kept up an ecstatic dance of their own. And across the street, silhouetted high up in a window, a lone saxophone player improvised in silent accompaniment like some faded postcard of fifties Greenwich Village Bohemia. It was a good night to be in New York City.80
The chugging rhythms of Music in Changing Parts were a sharp contrast to La Monte Young's sprawling drones, the same way the New York Dolls stood in opposition to noodling psychedelic guitar jams. It's as if the pulses and beats of '70s sounds were necessary to march music out of the miasma of the late '60s. Music in Changing Parts unrolls sustained pitches roughly the length of a loooong breath--by trumpet, violin, voices, flutes, and saxophones--over a rigorous electric-organ pulse. There's some improvisation in the drone placement, and some psycho-acoustical magic going on too, the way chords rise up like ghosts from the typing-pool swirl of keyboard patterns.
Glass's attitude toward recording, and commerce in general, wasalso different from Young's. And it was informed by rock 'n' roll. In 1970, a friend of Glass's was dating Jerry Leiber of Leiber and Stoller, who wrote songs for Elvis Presley, among many others. It turned out Leiber and Glass had gone to the same Baltimore high school; and though Leiber was four years older, he knew and adored Glass's mom, who was the school librarian. Leiber invited the composer to come by his office in the Brill Building. When he did, after passing down a hallway lined with gold records, Glass saw a room full of people sitting at desks in front of typewriters and telephones.
"What are they doing?" he asked.
"Finding money under stones," Leiber replied. "This is publishing. This is how you make a living at music."
Always a quick study, Glass went down to the county clerk's office shortly thereafter, plunked down two hundred dollars, and registered Dunvagen Music as his publishing company. He also started his own record label, Chatham Square, and released his first record in late '73: Music in Changing Parts. It didn't go gold. But he owned it.
On December 10, CBGB and OMFUG--the acronym standing for Country, Bluegrass, Blues, and Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandis-ers ("voracious eaters of music," as the proprietor explained)--opened its doors in an appalling space under the Palace Hotel, a flophouse at 315 Bowery, where Bleecker ends. The proprietor was a hirsute Russian Jew named Hillel Kristal, a singer, violinist, and ex-marine who was part of Radio City Music Hall's house chorus in the '50s until the chorus was canned. In 1959 Max Gordon hired him to manage the Village Vanguard, a long-running club that had recently switched to an all-jazz format.81 Kristal had found his calling.
He soon opened Hilly's on East Thirteenth Street, which showcased folk and blues acts through the '60s until the bottom fell out of the folk scene and locals began filing noise complaints. In the fall of 1973, he finally closed up shop, throwing a party for the neighborhood Hell's Angels chapter as a farewell fuck-you to the neighbors.
But Kristal had another venue, a wino bar on the Bowery he'd acquired in '69 for around twenty grand. Named Hilly's on the Bowery, he operated it primarily for a clientele of derelicts. "Bums would be liningup at eight in the morning when I opened the doors," he told Roman Kozak, author of This Ain't No Disco: The Story of CBGB. "They would come in and fall on their faces even before they had their first drink."82
Now the place had his full attention. Before renaming it CBGB, Kristal had bands perform on the small side stage near the entrance. One was Suicide, the duo that had terrified Sylvain Sylvain at the Mercer Arts Center. Alan Vega, who was also a visual artist, loved the aesthetic violence of the Stooges, the roaring drones of La Monte Young, and the heavy minimalism of the Velvet Undeground. Martin Rev, meanwhile, had studied with the postbop pianist Lennie Tristano and was a Cecil Taylor fanatic. Together they made chaos using microphone feedback and a fifty-dollar electronic keyboard. Vega, dressed in studded leather, stalked the stage like a combination of animal trainer and animal, swinging a motorcycle chain like a whip, cutting his face with a switchblade just to freak people out.83
Another Hilly's band was Queen Elizabeth, fronted by Wayne County. A drag queen from Marietta, Georgia (born Wayne Rogers), who got off the Greyhound bus just in time to join in the Stonewall riots, County fell in with the Warhol crowd and Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company, and after being laughed offstage at an audition for the part of King Herod in the Broadway premiere of Jesus Christ Superstar, he started a rock band. At that time, Wayne's act with Queen Elizabeth involved a strap-on vagina, a dildo, and a can of shaving cream. In a low-budget black-and-white promotional reel made in a friend's apartment with acoustic guitars and bongos, the singer cleans up the act a bit, refining David Johansen's gutter-punk snap-queen routine on the song "Wonder Woman" in stockings and a swastikaed policeman's cap. "Max's Kansas City," meanwhile, was a catchy girl-group number shouting out the Dolls and Bowie along with the club.84
Hilly's booked jazz, too. Rashied Ali played there frequently; for years, a black-and-white photo of Ali and his wife, Patricia, standing in front of the club hung on his living room wall.
How well the music went over with the Bowery locals is hard to say. The traditional dumping ground for the city's down-and-out, the Bowery has a long history as a boozer's ghetto. As Luc Sante recounts in Low Life, the area's first bar was probably Cornelis Aertszen's inn, established in 1665, but the neighborhood didn't really become notorious until the nineteenth century, when grocery stores fronting grog shopsbegan popping up--joints like Rosetta Peer's, opened in 1825, home base to the Forty Thieves, one of the city's first armed gangs. The Atlantic Garden, a massive German-style beer garden on two floors that could accommodate a thousand patrons, operated for nearly fifty years next door to the Old Bowery Theatre, just up and across the street from the site of CBGB. Beer there was five cents, although other Bowery dives began selling it for three: the catch was no glasses--you sucked your drink through a thin rubber tube, taking as much as you could until you had to stop for a breath.85
By 1891, more than half the saloons below Fourteenth Street were on the Bowery--sixty-five on the street's west side, seventeen on the east. Among the latter was the Bowery's worst dive, McGurk's Suicide Hall, just above Houston. Opened in 1895, with a four-story interior, it attracted whores and roughnecks who were generally at the end of their rope. It earned its name; in 1899 alone there were reportedly more than thirteen suicide attempts there, six of them successful. Its reputation made it something of a tourist attraction; when it was shut down in 1902, its owner reportedly retired to California with around half a million dollars to show for his efforts.86
That a band named Suicide would play this strip for a bunch of winos almost eighty years later was grimly appropriate. Hilly's certainly conjured the Bowery spirit. The space was a dump; it reeked of beer, sweat, pee, and decay. A photo of Suicide from around this time shows Vega embracing a parking meter, Rev standing behind him, and--a few feet up the street--a bum collapsed in the gutter in a pile of garbage, with the Empire State Building looming in the distance.
On December 16, 1973, due west of Hilly's, a cement truck was heading up the West Side Elevated Highway near Gansevoort Street when a sixty-foot section of the roadway collapsed.
The truck, as it happened, was bringing cement to repair the road. But like many things in town, the West Side Highway was beyond repair.87
On Christmas Day up in the Bronx, Puerto Rican families were carving up lechon asado, cooking rice and pigeon peas, and drinking coquitos.Countless stereos played Fania's two Asalto Navideño LPs--classics of salsafied Puerto Rican jibaro holiday songs. The joke is that while asalto navideño is the boricua equivalent of door-to-door caroling, asalto also means "assault." The cover of Volume One showed Willie Colón, in a variation on his usual gangsta pose, as a cigar-chomping Santa, stealing the presents and the TV set. The newly released Volume Two showed Colón, Héctor Lavoe, and the cuatro virtuoso Yomo Toro in a timely variation, given the current fuel shortage: holding up a gas station.
The big New Year's Eve rock event was at the Academy of Music, a crumbling old theater on Fourteenth Street, just east of Union Square. Headlining the early and the late show was the Blue Öyster Cult, a heavy outfit cooked up by a bunch of kids on Long Island with input from the rock journalist Sandy Pearlman. Also on the bill were Kiss, a newly signed bunch of hard-rockers from Queens, and Teenage Lust, a glammy repurposing of the Lower East Side, the backing band of the pothead activist and John Lennon buddy David Peel. In from Detroit were Iggy and the Stooges. (In a coincidental culture swap, the New York Dolls were playing that night in Detroit, at the Michigan Palace.)
The Stooges released two records of dark, heavy rock in '69 and '70 that spiritually had little to do with flower power and San Francisco hippie culture: the music was about being young, bored, horny, disgusted with almost everything, and hell-bent for kicks. Younger brothers to Detroit's MC5, the Stooges similarly dug raw electric blues and Coltrane's modal freakouts, and their front man was inspired by the audience-confrontation tactics of the Doors' Jim Morrison. They also loved the nasty drone of the Velvet Underground, so much so that they had John Cale produce and play on their debut. But both records tanked commercially, and except for the guitarist Ron Asheton, everyone in the band had acquired nasty drug habits, and by '71 they'd been dumped by their label, Elektra Records.
Their second act began later that year, when David Bowie, in New York to sign his U.S. deal with RCA, began asking about the band, whose records fascinated him. After a dinner at Ginger Man on West Sixty-fourth Street, where Bowie met his labelmate Lou Reed, another hero of his--the beginning of the relationship that produced Transformer --the entourage headed down to the back room of Max's. DannyFields was with them, a music journalist turned scene macher from Queens who got both the Stooges and the MC5 signed, and he happened to have James Newell Osterberg, Jr. (who got the nickname Iggy from his high school band, the Iguanas, and later added Pop as a surname) crashing on his couch. So Fields went home, splashed water on his ward's face, and dragged him to Max's. In a matter of days, Iggy Pop was booked on a flight to London to record a new record with Bowie's management company, MainMan. Pop took his childhood pal James Williamson, who had recently joined the Stooges as a second guitarist. Bowie's people wanted a solo act, but eventually Iggy managed to convene the Stooges in London to make their third LP.
Raw Power, released on Columbia in February '73, condensed, amplified, and accelerated the negative energy of their first two records. Sonically, it was an assault, all screeching high end, Iggy's death-tripping lyrics ("I'm a street-walkin' cheetah with a heart full of napalm / I'm a runaway son of the nuclear A-bomb"), Williamson's stabbing guitar shifting between loudest and louder still, Ron Asheton--now on bass--and his brother Scott pounding out brute rhythms. It was raw, muddy, thrillingly nihilistic, and there was no market for it. By the end of summer, both CBS and MainMan had cut them loose.
But Raw Power had lots of fans in New York. Back in May, Rolling Stone published a review by Lenny Kaye, the Nuggets curator who also worked at the Village Oldies record shop at 118 West Third Street, just off Sixth Avenue. "The Ig," he wrote. "Nobody does it better, nobody does it worse, nobody does it, period. Others tiptoe around the edges, make little running starts and half-hearted passes; but when you're talking about the O mind, the very central eye of the universe that opens up like a huge, gaping, sucking maw, step aside for The Stooges."
Kiss, meanwhile, had played some loft gigs around town, including one back in April opening for Queen Elizabeth in a rivet-making factory at 54 Bleecker, just off Lafayette. They were another bunch of New York Dolls-style tranny rockers, minus the wit. But tonight they'd become something else. They'd just finished recording their CBS debut, yet to come out, and they took the stage in full Kabuki-alien face paint (Stein brand, Clown White and Clown Black), with a four-foot illuminated sign that spelled out their name as backdrop. The playing was ham-handed and deafeningly loud, and when the bass player did a fire-breathing trick, the right side of his hair momentarily went up in flames.He also flung a piece of flash paper into the crowd, accidentally singeing the eyebrows of a kid up front. But the crowd loved it.
Their labelmate Iggy Pop, meanwhile, was high as hell. The Stooges blasted through the early show, but by the late show Iggy was so fucked-up he could barely perform. In Please Kill Me, the artist-writer Duncan Hannah, a recent Parsons School of Design grad who was celebrating the New Year, recalled:
I don't know what he did, it was like he shot two quarts of vodka or something. He comes out and he barfs all over everything, he falls off the stage, he can't remember any of the lyrics, the band starts a song, they stop, they start, they stop. They're mad as hell, but Iggy just can't stand up. He just doesn't know what's going on.88
By spring, after another few flame-out gigs, the Stooges were done. But the kids they inspired were just getting started.
Back in April, Phil Ochs was down at Folk City on Bleecker Street talking to the owner, Mike Porco, trying to get a "good ol' days" hootenanny together at the venerable club--Dylan's launch pad--with some of the surviving old gang: Dave Van Ronk, Carolyn Hester, John Paul Hammond. It was an uphill battle, and all in all, a rough year. The Vietnam War continued. During a trip through Africa, Ochs was attacked in Tanzania by thieves and strangled, which left his vocal cords damaged. On September 11, the inspirational government of Salvador Allende in Chile was overthrown in what everybody knew was a U.S.-backed military coup. Soon after, Ochs's friend Victor Jara, the radical Chilean folksinger, was publicly tortured--his hands crushed by rifle butts--then murdered.
Ochs ended the year with a six-night stand--not at Folk City, but at Max's Kansas City, from December 26 through 31. The shows were good, despite Ochs's drinking and the loss of his upper-register singing voice. The highlight was a relatively new song, "Here's to the State of Richard Nixon," which updated Ochs's '60s civil rights anthem "Here's to the State of Mississippi," rhyming "the land you've torn out the heart of" with "find yourself another country to be part of." Impeachment hearings would begin in the spring.
As for Bob Dylan, the giant of the New York folk scene--a scene unto himself at this point--had stepped off his pedestal. He released two middling albums in '73, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid and Dylan. By the end of the year, insiders had heard the forthcoming Planet Waves. It was an improvement, yet its muted, domestic tone suggested that rock's greatest poet was still in something of a creative retirement.
Opening for Ochs at Max's that week was Patti Smith. There is a black-and-white photo of her taken by her friend Judy Linn in 1971: Smith sits in a wicker chair, wearing what looks like a boy's school uniform jacket over bell-bottom jeans and snakeskin boots. Covering her face is a magazine picture of Dylan circa '66, his tousled hair fusing with hers.89 In a review of Planet Waves for the Detroit-based Creem magazine, Smith described an epiphany she had while listening to it:
Playing "Dirge" over and over. Drawing a picture. I thought it was Rimbaud but it was Dylan. I thought it was Dylan but it was me I was making.90
Another photograph of Smith, taken by the poet Gerard Malanga, shows her standing on the edge of a subway platform in knee-high boots, an Indian print shawl around her shoulders and a crucifix on a leather lanyard around her neck that hangs down to her exposed navel. In her hands is a manila portfolio, perhaps filled with verses; she fixes the camera with a burning stare and a Mona Lisa smile.
Lenny Kaye, the rock critic and record store clerk, backed Smith at Max's on electric guitar. They'd been performing as a duo, Kaye transforming Smith's incantatory poetic rants into something like rock 'n' roll. But this was their first extended gig, and the first time Kaye stayed onstage for her entire set.91
Standing in a torn T-shirt, spitting between hollered verses, Smith came on like a homeless delinquent who'd just bum-rushed the stage. The older folkies in the crowd were between baffled and repulsed. "She looked like a scarecrow in a garden of chickpeas," wrote Frank Rose in the Voice about one of her sets. "It was all very hard and furious."
"Don't be afraid of me," Smith reassured the audience that night. "I'm just a nice little girl."
Copyright © 2011 by Will Hermes
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