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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