New York Rock: From the Rise of the Velvet Underground to the Fall of CBGB

new-york-rockNew York Rock is music writer Steve Blush’s presentation of the city’s old music scene, from the 1960’s to around 2006. He describes himself as having spent a good deal of his youth working at his grandfather’s Lower East Side printer, at a time when the 1980’s bands like Talking Heads and Blondie were on the up-and-coming. The book is full of primary sources, mostly quotes from magazine articles of the time. Lou Reed, Richard Hell, David Johansson, and others reminisce about the “hot summer” years of Manhattan’s golden age. Wait, maybe that’s not right, more like a “trash-strewn, grimy, filthy, and vomit-smelling.” It was great for bohemian life, but throughout the book, there’s the constant pull between two aspects of city life; the run-down neighborhood that foster bohemian living, versus the desire to live in the city without being attacked.

There’s a short chapter about the demise of Tin Pan Alley, just like the old New York jazz scene which ended decades later. The small venues of show tunes that came from Tin Pan Alley gave way to big musicals (see The Great Parade) which is how the small theatres of 42nd Street became porn houses. The 45rpm record made recordings cheaper, and the sheet music business was no longer profitable. Now we have foreshadowing; the demise of a music scene would be repeated 40 years later, as CBGB’s would close the way others had gone before.

Next comes the chapters on CBGB and that’s probably the mainstay of the book. Despite the small size, it lasted over 30 years (or longer, if you count it previous life as just another Bowery bar) so we might as well give Hilly Cristal credit for tenacity. Bob Gruen (who shot the iconic photo of John Lennon in a NYC tee shirt) describes the Lower East Side as a “seedy, Spanish, and scary fucking neighborhood.” You’d probably get mugged down there, so looking dirty, messy, scruffy, and crazy would make all the other crazies think you had no money. If you made it there and back alive, you were considered tough. It was art of the lore of the place.

With each new generation, Blush adds new quotes. Rob Zombie, in a quote from 1986, says he hates being called a sell-out, because that’s exactly his intention, to get famous and rich. Lou Reed, who once claimed he took drugs to free himself, had since cleaned and sobered up. The people who disliked the gentrification of the neighborhood kind of gentrified themselves. You can’t be a long-haired crazy rebel when you’re 45 years old, you’d run out of things to rebel against. That’s why so many rappers become producers; they can’t rap about “the ghetto” once they start living in high-riced condos and gated communities.

While New York Rock is full of well-researched material about rock music in the city, a lot of it was already covered in an earlier book titled Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, along with a book called Art After Midnight, about the East Village art scene of the 1980’s. If you want to learn more about this era, there’s a documentary called NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell.

I’ve met NYU students in $250 punk rock outfits who decry the “fake” music scene. They’ll trek from Avenue A to Driggs Avenue, looking for authentic punk rock shows, and they’ll end up crying into their $20 drinks. The punk rock bands they’ll find are either balding middle aged me or a strictly amateur act. My question is, what made them think they’d find it here in New York? When I ask, they’ll say they read about it in a book or saw it in a documentary. But the New York City punk scene is gone now, the Ramones are all dead for cancer or heroin. CBGB got forced out by high rent and the store that’s there now sells designer jeans. Hilly Crystal, the owner of CBGB, died of old age soon after the place closed. In the last ten years of its life, CBGB was only half full, and the last time I went there was back in 1998. Until the death of Joey Ramone in 2001, nobody cared about the place, and CBGB shirts were never seen until the years 2002-2007. After that it was forgotten again.

In the book’s epilogue, Iggy Pop laments the whitening of New York City, but I say “so what?” Iggy Pop wasn’t even from New York, but Detroit, a city that had some great music in its history. He moved to Berlin because he thought New York wasn’t decadent enough (actually it was, but he was probably too stoned to tell the difference) which means he’s just another out-of-town transplant who thinks he’s the prince of the city. Well not in my book he isn’t. He’s just another celebrity with money who wants to enjoy the scene and leave when it’s no longer luxurious. That’s probably why the punk scene ended anyway; bohemian life is not possible when your money goes to (a) high rents, or (b) a drug habit.

 

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My Life in the NYPD: Jimmy the Wags

517dsnt9vtl-_sx302_bo1204203200_If you’re an ex-cop writing a memoir, the jokes have to all be on you, otherwise it won’t work. If you write about what a tough guy you were, then the readers will think your big stupid ego is getting in the way. But if you write that someone’s lunch fell on your head, then it can be funny. If you wonder that perhaps you’d made a mistake in taking the job, then the story gets dark. You can make the memoir creepy, funny, dark, or dull, and in this book, you get it all; a hair-raising roller-coaster ride through New York City’s worst times. It’s Death Wish, Annie Hall, Basket Case, The Lost Weekend, Taxi Driver, The Warriors, Escape From New York, and The Taking of the Pelham 1-2-3 all rolled into one. It’s both dark and humorous, horrifying and wonderful to read.

The author, Jimmy Wagner (aka Wags) was a cop in the East Village back in the 1970’s, at a time when the city had gone to pot. If you remember 1970’s New York as a dump, then the East Village was the cesspool. It’s the same neighborhood where Travis Bickle shoots all those people in Taxi Driver, and where you had to be crazy to go at night. The area was full of junkies relieving themselves on the sidewalks, and any minute you’d find a dead body on a doorstep. Maybe it was an overdose, maybe he fell off the roof, maybe a shooting. Regardless, nobody would’ve been shocked. Take this for instance; they get a call because a film crew has come across a dead body on the roof, and it’s going to set them back a few hours. Now guess who the star actor is? Charles Bronson! The movie they were shooting was Death Wish. Talk about life imitating art.

One of the things I love about Wagner’s book is the cast of colorful East Village characters. There are the Bowery winos, many of whom are shell-shocked WWII veterans, and he cracks a missing person case in one of the flophouses. There’s the Hells Angels (the least difficult group, it turns out) and the Filmore East, crooked cops, a mystic named Oric Bovar, teenage runaways, and more. Some of the funniest things happen after Wagner becomes a sergeant, like the “easy” parade detail that becomes an ordeal when one cop accidentally shoots another (through the smell of cordite, he smells alcohol on their breath). I shouldn’t say that’s funny, but Wags talks of it like a comedy. By the time he got promoted, the younger cops were from the suburbs and not as tough (Baby Boom versus Generation X.) One of them is bitten on the ass by a pit bull, beaten by a gang of punks and saved by a local, then trips on his own nightstick. Another one is so short that she’s obscured by a mailbox. None of them are intimidating enough to scare away the thee-card-monte man. Again I see life imitating art; a decade earlier it was Death Wish, now it’s the Police Academy movies.

If you’re a NYC history buff and you can’t get enough of 1970’s New York, then you’ll love this book. It progresses right into the 1980’s with the cocaine, Wall Street execs, yuppies (don’t worry, the yuppies get theirs too) and he loses his hat in the Tompkins Square Park riots (among other things.) You get heroin, vomit, blood, trash, graffiti, abandoned tenements, pimps, prostitutes, grimy streets, cult leaders, and in short, it’s a wild, smelly, sweaty, drunken ride through the mean streets of the Lindsay-Beam-Koch era of Manhattan. You can’t walk a block without getting mugged, unless you look like you’ll fight back.

How I long for the bad old days.

Manhattan, When I Was Young

manhattan-when-i-was-young    Mary Cantwell’s memoir, about her first New York adventure (though I’m not sure if I could truly call it an adventure) turned up in the book bin of my building’s laundry room. The author, a Radcliff graduate, goes to 1950’s New York for the “career girl” experience of the time, and ends up, via an employment agency, at the magazine Mademoiselle. She admits to having absolutely none of the skills necessary for magazine work, as her college education taught her nothing about layout, paste-up, typesetting, journalism, or even what a secretary would need. Perhaps things haven’t really changed in the last 50 years? Only difference I see is that nowadays she’d be doing it as an unpaid internship. At least her generation got paid.

Since this was the 1950’s, she got paid less than the men, but that couldn’t have been a problem, because she admits to doing almost nothing in her spare time. She says she never went to art galleries, never explored the city, and never enjoyed any of the free things in the neighborhood because she simply didn’t know about it. I could tell early on that this would not be an interesting story. The only thing funny here is where she finds (the formerly crowded and bustling Midtown Manhattan) desolate after 10pm. The book is divided into apartments (one per chapter) and from what I read here, Cantwell’s generation wasn’t into creative décor. She prided herself on having furniture and doodads that looked almost exactly like something you’d buy in Macy’s. Today’s college grads, skilled in the art of dumpster-diving for new furniture, are lucky if they can afford folding chairs from Kmart.

I gave up at page 77, because the story is too repetitive. I can understand that life in her time wasn’t so much fun. College grads back then, especially women, didn’t go on crazy adventures the minute college ended, probably because the jobs were a bit more plentiful and their skills were better. They didn’t need the free room and board arrangement to pay back their student loans, like today’s grads with huge debt and zero skills. As for the women, there weren’t a lot of white collar jobs for them in those days, save for teacher, nurse, or secretary. But still, did she do nothing at all that would pique the reader’s interest? Okay, maybe she did nothing, but then why write a book about it?

What I can’t figure out are the reviews like the Boston Globe’s praise of the “storytelling.” Same thing with New York Magazine, I don’t know what they saw in it. This book had one paperback printing in 1995, and that was it, gone and forgotten. Maybe that is why we should take Andy Warhol’s advice and never listen to the critic? Despite having a column of their own, the critics can’t make me buy the book.

 

Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal

gowanusGowanus Canal is a fetid, polluted, smelly waterway that runs through Brooklyn, and by all accounts it’s nothing but a drainage ditch. For years the locals complained about the stink, and nothing was ever done. The area was so unpleasant that the inhabitants deserted in droves. This book explores a question that a lot of local residents have; how did this useless canal become an object of fascination?

Joseph Alexiou, a NYC tour guide, tells how the area went from a natural hunting and fishing ground to a farming community, an industrial zone, and now a high-priced neighborhood. Originally a treeless marsh, it was bought by Dutch farmers from Indian chiefs. As for the name, nobody knows how or where it came into being, it could mean “Thorny Bush” or “Sleep.” Throughout the book, the author repeatedly discusses the drainage problem of the area, and even uncovers unused plans, going back to the 19th century, to cut a direct canal to the river, providing sewers as well. The problem was that the area is ungraded, meaning there’s no downhill anywhere. The area is flat, so gravity doesn’t pull the water towards the river. The first thing we learn of in this book is how the hurricanes cause the Gowanus Canal to overflow and dump sewage all over peoples’ basements.

Alexiou spends some time discussing the actual neighborhood, but it gets a little repetitive. The area was industrial, and because of the stink nobody wanted to live there unless they had no choice. It was always a high crime area, and as soon as better housing became available, people left. The artists only moved into the area because it was convenient to Manhattan by subway. He ends the book with the Superfund designation, which would not have happened without the large number of wealthier people moving in, but so far hasn’t amounted to any real effort. There were some plans for cleanup back in the 1970’s, but the city was bankrupt at the time, and by the 1980’s most of the people had moved away.

I’ll give Alexious high marks for his research. He dredges up old engineering plans, old maps, drawings from the 1800’s, and lots of information from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. As for the neighborhood, I don’t go there much myself, but the canal doesn’t smell as bad as I imagined. It smells more like a stagnant bayside area, not a sewer, and it’s even less smelly in the winter. But even if the Gowanus Canal stinks in the summer, keep in mind that the beautiful city of Venice doesn’t smell much better. It’s full of nasty stagnant canals, smelly for half the year, and flooding for the other half, and this is Europe’s priciest tourist attraction. By comparison, Gowanus is nowhere near that bad.

Besides, the living cost in Gowanus is a lot lower. And best of all, you can get around by subway.

Bread Givers

bread-giversIt seems that lazy narcissistic parents make for a great story these days. Back in 1997 we had the good-intentioned, yet perpetually drunk father in Angela’s Ashes. Then came The Glass Castle, a crazy family saga. Next comes Fiction Ruined My Family, where the father spends years refusing to work, pipe-dreaming of the day he’ll become a great writer. All of them were predated by a lazy, good-for-nothing Rabbi, the protagonist of Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, written in the 1920’s. I can tell this is going to be funny and tragic at the same time.

The story begins on the dirty, smoky, crowded, noisy Lower East Side of Manhattan in the days before the car. Sarah Smolensky slaves away, as do her sisters, so that her “scholar” father is free to read the holy book. Their mother? She slaves too. They want take in a boarder to help pay the bills, but no, they can’t do that, the scholar in their home needs a room for his books. Take a job? How dare you expect a Rabbi to work! You’d think his wife would say “work, or you eat last” but that doesn’t ana-yezierskahappen either, she always serves him first. But don’t blame this lazy, callous husband and father. Back in the old country, his wife was taught to put up with it.

As the story progresses (or goes downhill, depending on how you look at it) her sisters marry lousy men, Sarah moves out on her own, enrolls in school, her mother gets sick and dies because she can’t afford a doctor. Sarah goes to an upstate college, becomes a new person, and in the meantime, her father marries a gold-digger. It ends well for Sarah, terribly for her family. But there are funny parts, like the one where her landlady yells “no, I won’t rent to students, they keep the lights on too long to read and waste electricity!” Then Sarah gets to college, and she’s shocked by the clean air; she’d never experienced anything but pollution (this was discussed in Supreme City). As for the boring college meals, they’re a luxury compared to her previous diet of bread and herring.

yezierskaMy problem with this book is that the last chapter should’ve been extended. When she returns to the city as a schoolteacher, you really get the feeling that this is a triumph. She has a steady paycheck, a decent room, and she can afford to dress well. Everything from here on is a breath of fresh air to her. It gets funny when she tries to get her students to pronounce the words right; they call a pearl a “poil” and to drive her nuts, they pronounce the word oil as “earl.” Unlike the teachers of today, there’s no trip to the bar after work, women in those days couldn’t drink in bars anyway. At least not the “respectable” ones who come up from the slums.

I hadn’t heard of this book until recently. The author Anzia Yezierska was born in Poland in 1885, moved to New York City as a child, spent time in San Francisco as a social worker, wrote lots of stories with rags-to-riches themes. Hollywood studios took interest in her stories, one of them made it to the screen. But most of her income was from college fellowships, or later the WPS writing program. By the 1960’s, it was mostly the feminists who were interested in her work, as part of the women’s studies programs that were sprouting up at the time.

As a Jewish American, I was always taught that we were the model minority, always free of problems, and any mention of less-successful Jews was hushed up. This book kind of un-hushes a lot of problems that Jewish immigrant families had. There were many Lower East Side families destroyed by poverty, and many of them didn’t do well. The whole stereotype of the “smart Jew” is just that, a stereotype. At the time Bread Givers takes place, Jewish immigrants scored very low on IQ tests, and very few went to college. My grandmother’s family believed in education and hard work, but there were some dysfunctional families too. Bread Givers is just that; a dysfunctional religious Jewish family whose success (aside from that of the protagonist) is still a generation ahead of them.