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1980-1989: The Eighties According to Malcolm McLaren

Fax Home

Never has there been so much at­tention on girls. The ’80s were very female, and about females’ desire to do everything a man could do. In the end they realized that it wasn’t such a brilliant idea, be­cause what men do is mostly stupid. To wear trousers, carry briefcases, and be in jobs — most of it’s rubbish, really. It’s all replacement for men’s inability to go fishing. So women look to change men in the only way they possibly can — and that’s to make them more feminine. It’s a more feminine world that will ultimately preserve the planet.

“Pretty” is a word that men always had to fear to use and now desperately are finding ways to bring back. “Pretty” is about a nuance that men have always dismissed. It’s either black or it’s white; you don’t go into a room and say, “Oh, this is pretty.” Only girls do that. Girls know the nuance. Men are trying to find a way to understand that nuance. I think the ’90s are going to be a period when men are going to realize that they are not as interesting as women.

The art of conversation will come back in the ’90s. The art of letter writing with the invention of the fax will come back. Now you no longer have to burble and blather and inarticulate yourself over the phone. You can dutifully spend time rein­venting the language. If your girlfriend is across the ocean, you write her a fax. When you write, every word on the fax has to have intention, and it is read. When you read a letter, you really believe it. And so, words count. Now, every word has to have intention. You can make love by fax. You can basically court again. The world of Emily Post might have a major comeback. Lessons in deportment, manners.

Manners are something that will im­mediately determine what a good politi­cian is. We already know that Gorbachev has far better manners than George Bush, so therefore we’ve got to believe he’s more worthy, more intelligent, more sexy, a better friend, someone to take notice of. Manners become important, because the cardinal principle of etiquette is to address yourself to thinking about the effect of your actions on others. That will go a long way to changing the world.

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It’s definitely going to come back, the art of monogamous living. Men are going to become conscious of what they repre­sent in society, the bull charging at the gate, and be a little guilty. Some will act vigilantly. Perhaps we’ll have green patrols. And women will become more like animals and be quite proud of it — to be associated with a dying breed.

And men have to become more femi­nine. That means sitting back a bit more, that means taking care, learning to live with less rather than more, being more economical, and ultimately, I think it just means common sense. I’ve noticed that style and music are definitely trying.

In fashion there’s movement toward things that are very soft and overtly feminine.

Architecture is going out of business. Who wants to build anything? Isn’t there enough? Who wants to tear things down? We’re desperately trying hard to pre­serve — and that’s a very feminine thing.

Music’s a Little harder, because musi­cians are generally very coarse people. They can’t help but be. You can’t live in a room and look at the frets on a guitar or the keys on a piano and know what’s going on. Only the visual artists know what’s going on. Musicians always have to be catching up. The pack is led by the visual artists.

That’s the reason the art market has soared here. It’s the last holy watering place because the artist never lies. People say it’s because art can somehow turn gold into more gold — I’d rather not even think about that, because to think about that is misery. You’re really better off to say the reason they’re paying these for­tunes is because art’s the only truth, in this world, as we know it, that still re­mains intact.

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THE GREEKS had it right when they cre­ated all these different gods — men and women who could walk among us and we could knock them down. And they could commit terrible crimes and then go back upstairs. That’s why opera has become so popular in the ’80s — because it’s so much about things pagan. And ultimately that’s very much about what rock and roll was supposed to be about too, but we lost it. Rock and roll in the ’60s and early ’70s was all about those irresponsible urges we adored in the gods of Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley. And when the gods became baroque and mannered — and ultimately corporate — we got bored with it. They didn’t live seven lives; we couldn’t be as awestruck.

From the time we were very young, we believed that pop culture would free us from everything, liberate us from the old world that we decided was repressive. Rock and roll made us jump out of all that and it gave us a culture we could understand and use — very easily. It was a tremendous call to arms. If Elvis Presley was like Henry V, shouting “into the breach,” we’d sign up instantly, because it sounded so great. “Heartbreak Hotel” or “Jailhouse Rock” or “Summertime Blues” or “Anarchy in the UK” or Jim Morrison shouting “I want the world and I want it now” — they’re all brilliant an­thems. We were all ready to sign up. The culture was undisturbed and the move­ment was very clear.

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But as we got older, we started to look at the inside of it. We realized that rock and roll really wasn’t about what we dreamt it was about when we initially heard it. It had turned from something very entrepreneurial and cowboyish into a modern corporate machine that sold us not freedom, but Coca-Cola and Donald Duck.

We were caught between two worlds in the ’70s. All the freedom that was pur­ported for us to grab, all the culture that was thrown like footballs at our feet, was taken away. It didn’t really exist. And the ’60s, that whole dream, had gone. We suddenly saw the cracks in Andy Warhol: the notion of good art is good business and bad art is bad business suddenly left a bad taste in our mouths. We didn’t like the hardness in him. This whole god­damned pop culture that America sold — ­and that we adored to buy — was demysti­fied as a huge vacuous lie. We were left with the only worthwhile thing, which was finding a way to break it all down.

Now, we’re trying to bring it back if we can. We’ve decided to believe, just for the sake of it. It’s the reason for the nostalgia for the Rolling Stones. It’s a fundamental thing — this wanting to believe in things again. Today people are trying desperate­ly to be naïve. Desperately. The long dresses, the softer curves, the pasty faces, the whole nocturnal ideal of a ghostly image, or looking like something from the 19th century. People are trying to taste again a little of the ’60s. Perhaps they could reinvent the pose, the homespun, the do-it-yourself, the flagrant dismissing of the word career. Today take away the notion of career and people walk around empty, scared stiff, because it’s vested in the ’80s if you don’t have a career you’re an irresponsible bum.

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I THINK AS WE entered the ’80s we gave in, totally, and started to believe in this business of selling a perfect way of life, this capitalist dream. Most people decid­ed, having thrown all their ideas that they were originally born with into the dustbin, they might as well get on and make money. And they did. And we came to the end of this decade realizing we’d got the money, but there’s nothing to fucking buy. Nothing there. We didn’t make anything, really.

So we must go in search — for the mem­ories, for the parts of the culture that we’d completely destroyed. Do we have to go to the valleys of El Salvador where they cleared out peasants’ houses, having machine-gunned all the inhabitants down? Will we find it in some old chair that has some history, and that’s got half its paint rubbed off? How can we appear romantically old and decrepit and still beautiful because somehow we’ve man­aged to retain something of our past that we now care about? Because pop cul­ture — we don’t care about that any more — it’s part of the world of the artificial.

It’s extraordinary that the fashion of the ’80s is all these broken-down chairs and half-painted tables and stuff that looks like peasant furniture from the Third World, that this is a great chair because it actually stood in Guatemala City. There’s this capitalistic determina­tion that we will inevitably put on the wall someone else’s grief.

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And so I think this mad hoorah hoorah for the demolishing of the Berlin Wall is a fabulous metaphor, because what the Berlin Wall represents is probably the best art monument that the West ever had, and the fact that they’re tearing it down suggests that everything that came after it wasn’t worth very much at all. So to have a chip of the Berlin Wall is to actually have a bit of this culture — it will be as good as having a print of Andy Warhol or anything else.

The interesting thing now is that Eu­rope is decidedly selling its whole culture, and the biggest part of it is yet to come. Which I think is what the tearing down of the Berlin Wall is going to be all about. Because the other side, luckily in some respects, has preserved the old. We’ll be seeing Vogue on the streets of Prague. Those East European faces, buildings, at­titudes, are something that people are going to want to be part of. The idea of the broken-down, the imperfect, the crumbling — fashionable people decided that’s attractive. It’s what they searched for on every holiday they ever embarked on — something real. And the most real place today is Eastern Europe.

And the funny and most ironic thing is that the Communist bureaucracies in the Soviet states were able to retain the old culture much better than the capitalists. They may not realize what jewels they possess. It’s a little like the U.S. selling whiskey to the Indians — because you’re going to be trying to sell Coca-Cola and MTV to the Poles. And in return try in some way to enslave them to your system and make them consume the dream that no longer is selling anywhere else. ■

NEXT…

The Crack-Up: The Decade of the Quick and the Dead
by Barry Michael Cooper

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

1980-1989: Rockism Faces the World

Let’s wrap it up, OK?

The ’80s were above all a time of international corporatization, as one U.S. major after another gave it up to media moguls in Europe and Japan. These acted locally while thinking globally in re audiences/markets (will it sell in Germany? Australia? Venezuela? Indonesia now that we’ve sunk the pirates? the U.S.S.R.?) and artists/suppliers (world music, anyone?). After a feisty start, independent labels accepted farm-team status that could lead to killings with the bigs. Cross-promotional hoohah became the rule — it was the time of the soundtrack album, the sponsored tour, the golden-oldie commercial, the T-shirt franchise, the video as song ad and pay-for-play programming and commodity fetish. Rock was mere music no longer. Reconceived as intellectual property, it was a form of capital itself.

The ’80s were when stars replaced artists as bearers of significance. The ’70s yielded its honorable quota of Van Morrisons and Randy Newmans and Patti Smiths and John Prines, and all those guys were still around, as were new variants like Blood Ulmer and Laurie Anderson and the Mekons and Kid Creole. Those are only my nominees, however; yours are different. So though nobody blinked when break-even commercial nonentities like Morrison and Newman were ranked with the Stones and Stevie Wonder among the crucial rockers of the ’70s, but in the ’80s the only list that computes is pure megaplatinum — Prince and Bruce and U2 and Michael J. and Madonna, with maybe a few million-selling status symbols like Sting, Talking Heads, R.E.M., or Public Enemy (no, not Elvis Costello) tacked on for appearance’s sake. When art is intellectual property, image and aura subsume aesthetic substance, whatever exactly that is; when art is capital, sales are intrinsic to aesthetic quality.

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The ’80s were when ’70s fragmentation went kerblooey. The “adult contemporary” market took out its wallet as the teen audience became more distinct than at any time since the Beatles. Even within a domestic market that counted for so much smaller a piece of the whole enchilada, enormous new subsets arose, from rap’s slouch-strutting B-boys to the affluently spiritual ex-bohemians of New Age. Tiny subsets got serviced, too — by hardcore crazies and lesbian singer-songwriters and disco recidivists and jazzbo eclectics and pigfuckers and Christians and a dozen varieties of messenger from the African diaspora. The metal and country audiences split at previously invisible seams; folk music came back. Leading the semipopular parade as it exploited an unpaid army of interns was college radio, a growth industry designed to expose hungry hopefuls from enterprising Britannia, American college dropouts with day jobs, and other marginal pros who’d made a cult for themselves. Behind every subset were small-time entrepreneurs with vision; when and if profits mounted, these visionaries were handsomely reimbursed for their foresight by somebody with better distribution. The system worked so equitably that sometimes a visionary would have money in the bank when the dealing stopped, and sometimes a subset wouldn’t get fucked in the process.

The ’80s were when rock became less and more political. After the Clash faltered, white musicians of pop mien left revolution to the Tracy Chapmans and Public Enemys to come, and there were no metaphorical musical revolutions either. But with a few dismaying exceptions (Neil Young, Paul Westerberg, Joan Jett) and a few predictable ones (Johnny Ramone, John Anderson, Duran Duran), rock and rollers had no use for the reactionary chiefs of state pollsters said their demographic supported (pollsters also discovered that clubgoers constituted America’s most electorally apathetic subculture). In the U.K. Paul Weller worked to revive Labour, in the U.S. Bruce Springsteen turned union benefactor, and from Amnesty International to the Prince’s Trust, charity/cause records/concerts/tours signified varying admixtures of rock resistance and rock responsibility. The socially conscious lyric didn’t displace the love song, but politics became a sexy pop topic; by a strange coincidence, rampant reactionaries and responsible liberals united in a censorship drive at about the same time. Dylan was big in Tiananmen Square, and even as I write, an ad hoc group of democratic socialists is singing “Imagine” or “Give Peace a Chance” somewhere in Eastern Europe.

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The ’80s were a time of renewed racial turmoil after 10-plus years of polite re-segregation. As they began, AOR was 99 per cent white and Ray Parker Jr., who later created the decade’s preeminent kiddie anthem, couldn’t get on pop radio because he was “too r&b”; as they ended, AOR was 98 per cent white and the Beastie Boys, who earlier created the decade’s best-selling rap album, couldn’t get on “urban” radio because they had “no street credibility.” In between came the “Beat It” video, Purple Rain, Yo! MTV Raps, Professor Griff, Living Colour vs. Guns N’ Roses, and race-baiting comedians who entered to “Whipping Post” the way white-and-proud rock bands entered to “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”

Technology changed everything in the ’80s. Cable brought us MTV and the triumph of the image. Synthesizers inflected the sounds that remained. Sampling revolutionized rock and roll’s proprietary relationship to its own history. Cassettes made private music portable — and public. Compact discs inflated profitability as they faded into the background of busy lives.

The ’80s were contradictory. The ’80s were incomprehensible. The ’80s weren’t as much fun as they should have been.

Half a score years ago, I brought forth a mammoth tribute to the rock and roll of the ’70s, and I had a ball. Working from the theoretically depressing themes of fragmentation and the semipopular whilst thumbing my nose at ’60s crybabyism, I argued that the ’70s were when the music had come into its own: only in the wake of countercultural upheaval could individual musicians buck rationalization’s conformist tide to create oeuvres and one-shots of spunk and substance in the belly of the pop beast. The title of this enormous precis, “Decade,” was also the title of a three-record compilation released in 1978 by the unreconstructed weirdo I fearlessly designated Artist of the Decade: Neil Young, who beat out my equally eccentric choices for numbers two and three, Al Green and George Clinton.

Rereading now, I’m amazed by my own confidence, which I can see was bolstered by a consensus more sustaining than Monterey or Woodstock or Chicago ’68 or the Mobilization or any number of excellent Grateful Dead concerts. To affirm historical continuity and momentarily finesse the Brit “rock”-“pop” distinction, let’s resort for the millionth time to the old-fashioned term and call this consensus the rock and roll community. Its core comprised colleagues and correspondents of shared yet far-flung musical enthusiasms, its body and soul the larger cohort that materialized at any number of punk-etc. gigs. On the one hand, an inferred community of music-lovers cum discophiles; on the other, a lived-in community of music-lovers cum night people. Predicated here on a shitload of discrete sound-objects whose aesthetic was so legible you could build a canon around it, there on a burgeoningly inchoate scene that didn’t shrivel up and die when the Sex Pistols quit on us — not even in Thatcher’s London, where the hopes the Pistols engendered were so much more desperate than in New York. Predicated here on the biz, there on bohemia.

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For anybody who loved punk, 1979 was an exciting time, because punk — or rather its flakstorm, christened postpunk in the twinkling of a convolution — was still raging. Just like real revolutionary movements, it was at its best before the world got it down, but that doesn’t mean its diffusion into strictly musical issues was a perversion — a view now promulgated by both passionate partisans and fellow travelers who’ve gone on to better things. However reduced our ambitions, the growing legions of postpunk fans and postpunk musicians were fighting all kinds of battles at decade’s end — for airplay, for venues, for viable business structures. Maybe John Rotten-Lydon claimed to hate rock and roll, but we didn’t — we just thought we understood it better than the keepers of the pop machine.

The promise of postpunk, however, was only half of what made 1979 an up. The other half was the pop machine, which was still belching out major music — Rust Never Sleeps and Into the Music, Chic and Donna Summer. The end of the ’70s is remembered as the time of the dinosaurs, and that was the dominant perception in the rock and roll community. But though intergenerational aesthetic comprehension (not to mention pleasure) was already eroding, the banal notion that the biz was the root of all banality was not yet an article of faith. For one thing, the biz was still where records came from. Young CBGBites may not have thought Rumours was a better album than Talking Heads 77, or Some Girls a better album than This Year’s Model, but at least they recognized all four as competing aesthetic objects — that is, accepted the terms of the comparison. So when in early 1979 I asked the gods of history for a fusion of the two great subcultural musics of the ’70s, the smart punk then establishing a commercial beachhead and the dumb disco then sopping up venture capital, my petition was regarded as misguided, but not preposterous by definition.

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I’ll say. Somewhat to my surprise — I always plead ignorance when asked to predict the coming trend — the fusion I posited is what happened. Yet I’m not having a ball. I hear as much good music as ever these days, but little of it is punk disco except in an impossibly broad sense. And though the average pop fan doesn’t complain much (about anything), not many veterans of the rock and roll community are feeling groovy. The various colleagues who scooped me on the decade story — notably Simon Frith in his monthly Voice thumbnail, Bill Flanagan in Musician, and a 14-headed monster at Rolling Stone — all did their best to sound chipper, but only the young people at Spin, which seized upon a readers’ poll proclaiming the Smiths the greatest group since the Beatles to point out that time was on its side, were more than bemused about it. And after all, what other decade did they have?

Writing about writers in a music piece goes against my grain, but if the poststructuralist/postmodernist blitz has established anything, it’s that the proper study of discourse is other discourse. And though I’m far from buying the postmod fallacy that that’s end-of-story, neither do I intend to describe the decade without exploiting its preeminent critical fashion, which not only holds that theory always refers to other theory, but has loads of auxiliary themes going for it — international media net, cross-promotional recontextualization, compulsive recycling, etc. The idea that rock and roll isn’t merely music is nothing new: before the invention of progressive radio, the great lost rock critic Ellen Willis was arguing that Dylan’s songs were an aspect of his persona. But over the past 10 years the aforementioned postmod hallmarks became pervasive, definitive. It’s fitting that when the upstart trade mag Hits, the ’80s’ answer to Creem, tried to steal ad bribes from indie tipsheets and leisure weeklies by expanding its “alternative rock” coverage, the new section was entitled “Post Modern.” Regrettably, the Hits nickname “PoMo” hasn’t caught on, maybe because it’s so glitzy it deflates everything in sight. Not even postmod prophets of disposable pop are ready for that.

Somehow it doesn’t seem propitious that as the ’80s ended, the freshest and most profound new insight into the aesthetics of rock was that surface was all. Yet in his quiet, complex, obliquely confident way, that was where Simon Frith — the decade’s most searching and consistent critic, an unflinching leftist who chronicled underlying patterns of corporatization with great diligence and irony — seemed to end up. His ’80s sketch zeroed in on a 19-year-old Smiths fan who’d gotten hooked on the dance music she’d been clubbing to for social reasons. She queues for “new indie tracks” more than what she once considered “pop, chart fodder, music for the mindless,” but the point is the same: she’s discarded rock that means the way the Smiths do for functional pop that fetishizes its own status as aural construct.

Though I’m sure Frith likes the new house-identified Eurodisco, I don’t see enough of his reviewing to have any feel for the pleasure he takes in it, which may be why I wonder how much of its appeal is theoretical — whether what really turns him on is the modes of consumption it makes possible. The blanker music is, the more you can project on it — the more listeners (and also professional interpreters) can bend it to their own whimsies, fantasies, needs. Hence, pop function empowers the consumer (who in Frith’s example, and don’t think he didn’t know it, happens to be female) where rock meaningfulness privileges the author (and by implication patriarchy and hierarchy). Call it revolutionary metaphor the postmodern way. For although Frith is too realistic ever to put it so baldly, a part of him believes that, ultimately, the people know enough to struggle with the pop machine, and that sometimes they win.

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This vision is an end result (or way out) of the “rockism” debate that raged through the U.K. music press in the early ’80s. Near as a body could tell from here, rockism wasn’t just liking Yes and the Allman Brothers — it was liking London Calling. It was taking the music seriously, investing any belief at all not just in its self-sufficiency, which is always worth challenging, but in its capacity to change lives or express truth. Rarely was it noted how blatantly the terms of this debate favored the growing nationalism/anti-Americanism of U.K. taste. Irony, distance, and the pose have been the secret of British rock since the Beatles and the Stones, partly because that’s the European way and partly because rock wasn’t originally British music — having absorbed its usages secondhand, Brits who made too much of their authenticity generally looked like fools. This polarity was reversed briefly around 1976 — American punk was an unabashed art pose, while the British variant carried the banner of class struggle. But when the Sex Pistols failed to usher in the millennium, lifelong skeptics who’d let their guard down for a historical moment vowed that they wouldn’t get fooled again. Hence, Dave Rimmer’s unauthorized Culture Club bio, Like Punk Never Happened, a key ’80s rockbook that’s almost unknown here. Hence, “rockism” — and rock versus pop.

The distinction is obviously imprecise, and over a quarter-century of commerce hybrids and exceptions have proliferated, but make no mistake: even today, American rock really is more sincere. Or to add a little precision, American rockers act more sincere — they’re so uncomfortable with the performer’s role that they strive to minimize it. Often their modus operandi is a conscious, and rather joyless, fakery. But sometimes they end up inhabiting amazing simulations of their real selves, whatever exactly those are. The early ’80s proved an especially rich time for this aesthetic, especially in L.A., where singer-songwriter sincerity had been perfected a decade before. Roots-conscious postpunk Amerindies X, Los Lobos, and the Blasters, together with two Twin Cities bands, the virtuosically posthardcore Hüsker Dü and the roots/junk-inflected quasihardcore Replacements, spearheaded a U.S. rockism revival just as the New Pop was dwarfing a U.K. indie scene symbolized by Joy Division-styled gloom merchants. The Amerindies didn’t sell much, of course, but among observers with any use for white American rock at all, only a few daily critics and the more-sincere-than-thou Rock & Roll Confidential crew doubted their artistic standing. In the U.K., on the other hand, three new, cannily differentiated slicks — first Smash Hits, then The Face, then Q — provided a field of anti-rockist discourse where the new pop (as well as dance music from the Caribbean or the South Bronx or Africa or Paris or Chicago or Miami or even England) gained panache under intelligent scrutiny. By the time the Amerindies finally achieved some credibility over there, mostly with the shrinking readership of the older music tabloids, Boy George and Annie Lennox had shared the cover of Newsweek.

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Trendhounds announced a second British Invasion — bigger than the first, some said. Well, whatever — five years later it had evaporated. It was hard to see how Boy George or Annie Lennox could reconquer the charts without picking up pointers from Elton John and Phil Collins, who in the end were the biggest British hitmakers of the ’80s as well as the most boring. A later New Pop idol, George Michael, has sold almost as many copies of Faith stateside as Culture Club did of its entire album catalogue, and looks to have staying power, too. But in 1989 the nearest thing to New Pop on the U.S. charts was the Fine Young Cannibals, who were British, Milli Vanilli, who were German if anything, and Paula Abdul, a California girl whose video-powered ascendancy mimicked the British model, and it seems significant that none of the three was white, although calling them black would be more misleading than usual — their café au lait images were intrinsic to their half-sincere appeal. And then there was the strange success of Depeche Mode and the Cure, two English bands who were more or less pop in their native land but snuck into U.S. arenas via college radio, and the even stranger success of New Order né Joy Division, who took the high road from indieland to the disco — all more durable and profitable, though certainly not more starlike, than any New Pop brand name except George Michael and maybe Duran Duran, whose December 1989 compilation sported a droll title: Decade.

Please don’t mistake kidding for contempt — drastic shifts of fashion are to be expected when you valorize disposability, and whatever the contradictions of postmod pop theory, I meant it when I said there was nothing better out there. Just try on the competing discourses if you don’t believe me. Flanagan’s “The Age of Excess” in Musician, which has assumed Rolling Stone’s responsible-progressive music-mag mantle on an economic base of equipment ads, is responsible and progressive. Although I’d quibble with a few details (in the great Rolling Stone tradition he doesn’t know shit about dance music), his facts are solid and his analysis is judicious. But scratch the objectivity of a responsible progressive and you’ll discover somebody with turf to protect: there are evasions and moments of queasiness all too predictable in responsible progressivism for would-be rock and roll professionals. “West End Girls” by the Pet Shop Boys — whose melodically accessible, rhythmically hip, machine-generated gold albums represent a postmod ideal, confounding safe distinctions between surface and substance (and also, postmods, between “performance” and “authenticity”) — is listed among the “Top 25 One-Hit Wonders of the 1980s,” ha ha ha. And neither Flanagan nor Jock Baird’s accompanying MIDI-focused tech wrapup has anything to say about sampling and the copyright wars, which aren’t what you’d call musician-friendly developments.

Perhaps most revealingly, Michael Jackson makes Flanagan twitch: “his enormous fame seemed to have less to do with his music than with his recreating himself as the perfect product for a decade when surface was trumpeted over substance and the media feasted on soundbites.” Like any thoughtful person, you probably have your own reservations about imagemongering in general and poor loony Michael J. in particular, but please, reflect on the middlebrow seriousness of a passage that epitomizes why postmods have no use for authenticity: its interlocking commonplaces, its hand-wringing smugness, its automatic assumption that music is what matters. Doesn’t there have to be a more enlightened way to understand the rock-pop conundrum, or dilemma, or crisis?

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Not that responsible progressivism can’t help. It’s the way of inadequate working assumptions to reveal their own truths, and I’d still rather read Musician than Q, or even Hits, though not Spin, because however undefinitive the musician’s point of view may be, it’s always essential. Mark Rowland’s endpaper tribute made Madonna the mag’s unmusicianly choice for Artist of the Decade (recalling the long-ago when he and she belonged to the same “semi-seedy health club,” he concludes that Madonna “is the winner” because “she worked the hardest, or at least she worked out the hardest”). And give Flanagan credit for thinking socially rather than reducing his decade story to art and artists: “In fact, the lesson of the ’80s may be that musical trends are now shaped more by delivery systems than by any act. The next Elvis or Beatles may be a technology.” Smart, even if Frith among others has been saying something similar for years. A lot smarter than (haul that dead reptile in here now, willya?) Rolling Stone.

Inspired by the newsstand sales of similarly ridiculous issues and its well-established distaste for thought, the old apatosaurus lumbered up to 1990 with a typical piece of product: “The 100 Greatest Albums of the 80’s.” Naturally the display was preceded by a brief apology for the decade’s failure to provide a rock “revolution, or true revolutionaries,” and naturally it didn’t mention that come the revolution, Stone is always on the other side of the barricade with assault rifles, tear gas, sticks and stones, anything (and by the way, if Bowie and “punk and New Wave” count in the ’70s, why don’t Prince and rap count in the ’80s?). But there’s no point quibbling with a nonexistent argument. In fact, there’s no point quibbling with individual choices, either — the list is presentable enough, raising the unthinkable possibility that Stone‘s editor and publisher left the selection to his 14 critics, who have their deaf spots but know their trade. There’s no point quibbling at all. The problem’s not substance and it’s not surface. The problem is formal, and total. For as somebody who’s reviewed six or seven thousand rock-etc. albums over the past 23 years, I have no doubts: the ’80s is not a decade that can be understood in terms of its albums. It’s the decade when the Great Album died.

I know, I know — that’s putting it ass-backwards. Write about what happened, not what didn’t happen. And forget Rolling Stone — the idea that the album defines anything is a known dinosaur itself. The past 10 years have been terrible for singles sales — the vinyl 45 is outta here, and despite a possible cassingle boom the RIAA has halved the gold certification threshold to 500,000. But structurally the single has been coming on. It’s once again an all but essential sales device — only in metal, new age, and street rap (and rarely there) do albums go platinum without a boost from a “hit.” Not counting dance DJs — who’ve kept the single alive with 12-inches but will groove to anything, the odd LP track included — the album’s only significant new outlet is college radio. MTV is a singles medium, as is the hottest (warmest?) new radio strategy God help us, “adult contemporary”; even AOR devotes the contemporary portion of its programming to putative singles. And from traditionalists to postmods, singles fans are on a critical roll. “Singles are the essence of rock and roll,” declares Dave Marsh’s 1989 release, The Heart of Rock & Soul, which details “the 1001 greatest singles ever made,” and if he certifies fewer than 100 of them from the ’80s (highest: “Little Red Corvette” at 45), well, there’s no accounting for traditionalism. Across the way Newsday‘s John Leland, the best American postmod critic (the best new American rock critic period), found his voice as Spin‘s singles columnist. In Minneapolis’s City Pages recently, he cited a factlet from Q that sums up postmod critical wisdom: the average American album buyer, he noted, played his purchase one-and-a-half times.

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Leland allows as how this statistic may not be too well-documented; I’ve yet to find an informed source who believes it. But it’s got poetic resonance for damn sure, meshing cunningly with a countervailing trend I’ve left discreetly unmentioned: the rise of the CD. After all, since everyone knows those pricey little pieces of eternity have saved the biz from perdition, how can the single be coming on? The usual answer is demographic. The CD is thought to suit what Frith calls “casual adult consumption” — past-30 yuppies in search of atmosphere and/or the pleasures of their youth, as opposed to kids buying music because it shapes their lives. Me, I’m not so sure. The CD has generated so much catalogue action — not young people discovering rock history, but older ones repurchasing their faves in “permanent” form — that its profits could flatten fast (whereupon the biz will discover that aluminum erodes and reresell the same music in “indestructible” DAT). But the claim that it’s purchased more “casually” than other configurations — even singles, which as we’ve seen aren’t much purchased anyway — seems tendentious. Really, who knows?

Nevertheless, there’s something about CDs that’s always bothered me — a peculiarity that dovetails with both the casual-consumption and Great Album ideas. It’s that they only have one side. Because listeners don’t program their CD players — because it’s standard to insert the thing and press play — they now consume a whole album at once. This may be the way God planned it, but it’s inhuman: except in the flush of rapt concentration or first acquaintance (or when enjoying an illicit C-90), the typical vinyl or cassette owner uses an album one 17-to-23 minute, four-to-six-song side at a time, usually developing a preference for one side over the other (after passing the one-and-a-half-play threshold, of course). Crucial perceptual habits have grown up around this timeframe, which is based partly on vinyl’s physical limits (it dims when loaded with more than 25 minutes of music) and partly, I suspect, on an attention span bound up in the mysteries of the industrialized sensorium. Even classical compositions, which are knit together far more intricately than any song collection, honor a similar parameter. Most concertos and sonatas run under 30 minutes; symphonies crept up to 45 under the influence of Beethoven and went into decline after Mahler and Bruckner pumped them over an hour.

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Almost unnoticed, albums are headed in the same general direction. Song lengths over five minutes and album lengths over 50 are now common, with many albums close to an hour and a few over, and the reasons are manifold — because rock professionals love the age of excess, because CDs cost 12 bucks on sale, because 50 minutes won’t fit on one side of a C-90, because it’s there. In any case, there’s nothing tendentious in the assumption that people don’t listen hard to CDs. Who has the time? So even if they’re not purchased more casually than vinyl, CDs are almost certainly heard more casually, the technological counterpart to the luscious languors of new age. The only question is whether a more concentrated listening pattern is desirable.

The myth of the Great Album makes both assumptions. You’d hit up Layla or The Clash or Court and Spark or What’s Going On or The Dark Side of the Moon for the 20th time, and once its familiar pleasures had spirited you to new depths and heights and patches of shadow, you’d go out into the world enriched and refreshed, your weltanschauung altered yet again. But though as an aesthetic ideal this myth clearly has its origins in the age of pot — no albums were ever examined more minutely than late-’60s Beatles-Dylan-Stones — as an image it reeks of the post-’60s ’70s. When art has this kind of aura, it’s possible to imagine that your great work of choice — Never Mind the Bollocks, Tonight’s the Night, maybe even Sex Machine — can straddle a musical era. Do the folks at Stone really claim the same for London Calling or Purple Rain or The Joshua Tree? I certainly don’t for Wild Gift or Of Human Feelings or my beloved Indestructible Beat of Soweto. If it’s reasonable to name a compilation in a foreign language the most meaningful, organic, and enduring album of an era, something has changed.

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For Frith, an inveterate singles booster himself, this change has an economic correlative. Envisioning a world where consumers dial music up from a central computer, he sees both crosspromotional hoohah and simplified electronic piracy transforming records into “bundles of rights,” with secondary income (permission fees for movies or commercials or videos or Personics-style cassettes) soon outstripping primary (software sales). This is a double-whammy theory, privileging the song (as carrier of secondary rights) over the album and 86ing the reactionary concept of the heroic artist whose unique expressive works transcend social determinations. The futurist part (like Frith’s parallel notion that the remix robs songs themselves of definitive status) strikes me as vastly overstated if not just silly — the bizzers I talk to think album sales will be their bottom line for many years to come. The anti-Romantic part, on the other hand, is why I take postmod so seriously. Supporter of Eastern European self-determination though I am, I want my collectivist music metaphors. Anything that pumps the audience and disses genius is jake with me.

Insofar as it’s rooted in a viable rock and roll community, fragmentation works against the Great Album — Purple Rain and London Calling may still be competing aesthetic objects, but the world where the same can be said of Thriller and Madonna and Wild Gift and Of Human Feelings has shrunk as the audience for the first two has exploded. Insofar as it’s culturally bound, internationalization works against it — rock is hegemonic, but that doesn’t mean a kid in Japan (much less Poland, or Senegal) loves the same Joshua Tree a kid in California does. Insofar as it’s human, the primacy of technology works against it. Insofar as it’s artistic, the primacy of capital works against it — as does, above all, the rise of the star as bearer of significance.

I know, I know — you still have your reservations about imagemongering, soundbites, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and people who don’t play their own instruments. In an Age of Reagan that hasn’t quit, so do I. But as somebody who was cheering wildly from the sidelines back when Ellen Willis was telling Commentary that Dylan was more Andy Warhol than Robert Burns, I’m not especially disturbed by the spectacle of artists recreating their (“real”) selves as products. That this is as much a Romantic phenomenon as a postmodern one — there’s a sense in which the first art star was Lord Byron, whose persona has more impact than his work to this day, and if you think that’s an anomaly, tell me you remember Valentino and Monroe for their movies — is just a good joke on the postmods.

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Back in the early ’80s people used to ask me who’d be the next Elvis (“or Johnny Rotten”), and after providing the usual product warning about my crystal ball, I’d ponder the lines of historical force and say nobody — and that if I was wrong the new hero would be black or a woman. Then I would add: “Not Prince.” I was right — there wasn’t one. But if there was, he was black (Prince, of course — about that I was wrong) or she was a woman. Madonna, of course, and not because she worked hardest — a true formal innovator, she showed profound understanding of Andy Warhol. From Dave Marsh to Sonic Youth to Mark Rowland to Sandra Bernhard, she has broad support for rock hero of the ’80s (runnerup in Marsh’s case), her attraction and problem being that she’s so plastic (“capable of being molded or receiving form”) she doesn’t have all that Much To Say. Andy would approve; I, well, understand. What I’m not postmod enough to sit still for — and I say this with “Open Your Heart” one of my top 10 singles of the decade — is the “reassessment” of her musical achievement that’s sure to come. Because though it’s easy to overlook, rock evolved tremendously as mere music over the past 10 years, and Madonna for one barely kept pace. No way has that evolution been self-sufficient, but it’s certainly been essential. It may even have changed rock and roll utterly.

First there’s the synthesizer, which as quasi-organ keyb has transformed the timbral identity of a music that’s always been about sound more than notes, and in its even more crucial sampler form undermined rock’s reduction to capital, set traditionalism on its head, and gave James Brown something positive to shout about whether or not he ever admitted it. And the synthesizer wasn’t even the big story, because the ’80s was a rhythm decade like no decade since the ’50s. Albums didn’t matter. Drummers and drum programmers, funk grooves motorvating the most piddly PoMo and New Pop and CHR, B-boys and -girls who talked more musically than their churchified counterparts sang, disco over the edge, Tommy Ramone, Charlie Watts, Africa, James Brown — all that stuff mattered. Maybe attitude was the secret of punk, maybe not; the secret of postpunk was rhythm, young drummers coming out of nowhere by the hundreds. Only it turned out they weren’t good enough, for if anything was killing indie rock by decade’s end (and something sure was), it was the death-rattle of solid four and its fancier variants — or else the inability of its practitioners to come up with a message, attitude, chord change, or whatever as interesting as a decent dancebeat. So if I had to choose a rock hero of the decade, I’d go with Prince, a synth maven who’s great at rhythm, solid four included.

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But if you don’t mind I’d just as soon not choose. I love sex, but I said “Not Prince” because I don’t consider loving sex a worldview, and damned if I think he has Anything Else To Say. That is, I still look to rock and roll to Say Something, and not just musically, not just formally or structurally, not just in how it’s consumed — literally, in so many words, words that change lives and express truth. That possibility is a ’60s myth, of course, but Eastern Europe reminds us that those myths aren’t exhausted, and while their current go-round may prove as subject to capitalist illusion as left anticounterculturists have always claimed, who knows what Pulnoc, say, will make of them? Similarly, though the proposition that the future is acid house is a classic, parochial British trend-hop, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if the new dance subcultures tried to put their new pretensions into words, a development that could go somewhere even if it doesn’t change that many lives. The dance-sucker proponents of rap, easily the decade’s most vital genre, have been on that case for years, and they’ve gotten somewhere already.

One aspect of internationalization that even a critic as balanced as Frith sometimes seems to forget is that the U.S. and the U.K. are no longer very closely linked. That’s why important Brit rock books never reach U.S. retailers, why reasonable people can believe acid house is worth anything more than a subset here. As Europe develops its own artists/suppliers and even its own roots and Afro-hybrids (not to mention its own Economic Community), Old World loyalties and cultural habits (and economics) pull powerfully against the familiar linguistic ties. And as its pop world becomes more distinct, its example becomes less relevant to the enormous market where pop music as we know it was born.

Certainly the U.S. has a lot to learn from Europe musically. Though in the end Americans dominated world pop in the ’80s — U2 was the only non-American star in the international megaplatinum constellation — that’s unlikely to continue. Pondering the lines of historical force, I think the rock hero of the ’90s will be nobody. But if I’m wrong, he or she (or they) will almost certainly be dark-skinned (racial turmoil will heat up further) and from some other place — maybe won’t even speak English as a first language. (Not Youssou N’Dour.) As bad as the Age of Reagan has been for the American psyche, the Age of Thatcher has been sheer grinding pessimism, a good reason to take the dour projections of postmod futurism (which is often Anglophile when it isn’t Brit) with a grain of salt. The death of the (Romantic) subject is real, and overdue, but things don’t change as fast or as utterly as those weaned on a phenom-a-week music press instinctively expect.

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In fact, a lot of how one views the rock-pop/albums-singles dichotomy has to do with the related question of how deeply one craves epiphanies. Scanning Marsh’s book, I kept thinking how I’d rather hear this Smokey or that Randy Travis song on an album, because as much as I loved them I knew that for me they no longer had the spark, the impact, what John Sebastian and Rolling Stone used to call “the magic that will make you free” — that in fact their impact could only be experienced retrospectively as part of a broader if less intense vision. The myth of the Great Album held that this sort of pop epiphany could be sustained, and for a while it could, but the end of that possibility shouldn’t surprise or even disappoint us. Internationalization has its dire aspects — multinational corporations scare the shit out of me, thank you — but as we absorb the plastic images promulgated in a bright and hooky world-pop lingua franca, it’s also inevitable that we’ll familiarize ourselves with the semi-legible aesthetics of somewhat grainier local cultures — collective realities epitomized by representative individuals. Just the kind of thing the nongreat album is made for.

Hope that’s chipper enough for you. And enlightened enough too.

***

PERSONAL BEST

1. The Indestructible Beat of Soweto (Shanachie); 2. Ornette Coleman: Of Human Feelings (Antil­les); 3. X: Wild Gift (Slash); 4. Sonny Rollins: G-Man (Milestone): 5. Franco & Rochereau: Omona Wapi (Shanachie); 6. Double Dee & Steinski: “The Payoff Mix”/”Lesson Two”/“Lesson 3” (Tommy Boy promotional EP); 7. DeBarge: In a Special Way (Gordy) 8. Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Def Jam); 9. Bruce Springsteen: Born in the U.S.A. (Co­lumbia); 10. Replacements: Let It Be (Twin/Tone)

1. Funky Four Plus One: “That’s the Joint” (Sugarhill); 2. T. S. Monk: “Bon Bon Vie” (Mirage) 3. Public Enemy: “Bring the Noise” (Def Jam) 4. Michael Jackson: “Beat It” (Epic); 5. Imagina­tion: “Just an Illusion” (MCA); 6. Madonna: “Open Your Heart” (Sire); 7. Rob Base & D.J. E-Z Rock: “It Takes Two” (Profile); 8. Afrika Bambaataa & Soul SonicForce: “Looking for the Per­fect Beat”(Tommy Boy); 9. Taana Gardner: “Heartbeat” (West End); 10. Beat: “Twist and Crawl” (Go-Feet import)

***

This and other classic Voice stories can also be be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

1980-1989: The Big Sleep

A Decade of Just Saying ‘Dough’

What? Again?! There were other decades, you know, vintage ones. Take the 2030s, for exam­ple… But no, it’s always, “Oh, please Great-Grampy, tell us again about the incandescent 1980s, and spin doctors and deep doo-doo and the beautiful Shy Stallone.” Well, shoot, who’s to blame you — never was there an age its equal, grody maximus. So laser me up another toddy and gather round, and I’ll tell the stirring tale once more.

It was the best of times, it was the best of times. Deregulation. Insider trading. Leveraged buyouts. Junk bonds. Black Monday. The country was broke, blissful­ly broke, chapter 11 broke, but it was all part of the plan. Reaganomix! That was the beauty of it: prosperity through bankruptcy, the biodegradable economy! We were all material girls back then. Shop ’til you drop. “Order up another of them billion-dollar toilet seats for the B-1, boys.”

America was #1, indisputably and for­ever, and if not #1, then certainly #2, or tied for #2. Yo! Kinder and gentler? You must be kidding. Everyone carried a semiautomatic machine-gun — you never knew when a pheasant or Pee-wee Her­man might suddenly break cover. We were tough as pit bulls, and to prove it, we sold arms to the Ayatollah’s freedom fighters to buy arms for anyone in Cen­tral America who swore he wasn’t a com­mie. Better still, we dispatched 24,000 troops to dismember a nasty little Pana­manian who dared muss our hair — it seemed like fair odds. Yeah, some called us the Evil Empire, but no one messed with the red, white, and blue. We passed a constitutional amendment against burning copies of USA Today or mutilat­ing your cash machine card.

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Okay, sure, you want to nitpick, we had our little vexations. A killer plague swept the land, crack too, and there was a best­selling book called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, which most students took literally. But then Mommy Reagan (a Cancer) conjured up the witch’s spell: we would just say “just say dough,” and puff, faster than you could say loan me a Givenchy, our prob­lems were gone. Poverty? There you go again. Some trickled down — people lived in the streets, just a few million — but the president assured us they were homeless by choice; so they’d take a drug test, visit a flag factory, and right away, don’t wor­ry, be happy, they felt rich in spirit.

It was morning in America. Couch po­tatoes all, we sat transfixed in our home entertainment centers, the 90-foot dish on the roof pulling in dozens of porn channels, hundreds of commercials a minute, tastes great, less filling, remind­ing us how young and beautiful we were in our shiny new four-wheel-drive Sushis, speeding down gorgeous coastal highways (BABY ON BOARD), never another car in sight. The road less traveled indeed! Tearing ourselves away from these tender visions, we would tap the remote control just in time for an instant replay of an instant replay of a long incompletion; though we had seen many millions of long incompletions already (all preserved on the VCR), each was compelling, in­complete unto itself. Tap again and we might view the golden mute, Vanish White, or the templed boudoirs of the rich and famous, which in those years nearly everyone was (except, of course, the poor by choice). Exalting, all this and more, but for us it was mere prelude to the Great Communicator in action.

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The G.C. did not care about the idiotic questions (“What about the deficit, Mr. President?”) shouted by loutish reporters (“What about Oliver North, Mr. Presi­dent?”), and certainly we his subjects (“Why are we invading Grenada, Mr. President?”) didn’t care. But the G.C. was nothing if not gracious. So, striding toward the noisy chopper, Teflon coat resolute against the wind, he cocked his head and cupped his ear, trying in vain to hear the inane queries (“What about the Marines in Beirut/Poindexter/Bitburg/AIDS/ Watt/Wedtech/Deaver/Meese, Mr. President?”). And then the friendly shrug, the chipper Gipper what-me-worry grin, and he was skyward, gone to chop wood at the ranch, call the Super Bowl champs on the hot line, prepare the great space shield that would keep missiles coming in and ozone going out, or was it the other way around? Or both?

He was our virtuoso, but there were so many great communicators then. Phil. Oprah. Geraldo. Morton Jr. Moral equals of the Founding Fathers? At least. Was ever a civilization better informed? Tots who kill… Necrophilia, pro and con… Women who love men who loathe women who despise them… On and on it went, deep into the night, dialogues that belong to the ages.

But the ’80s weren’t only cerebral; sometimes girls just want to have fun. Saturday nights we’d hang around the corner nuclear waste dump getting high on the perfume ads in magazines, then head downtown on our mountain bikes to catch the fabulous Jackson brothers. Bo, let’s see, wasn’t he the delicate one? Talk about performance art: while playing the elephant-man bones, he would surgically renovate his face (always a thriller), then set his scalp on fire. Jesse wore a white glove to signal his abhorrence of publici­ty, but his primary showstoppers, “Hymietown,” “On the Slummy Side of the Street,” and “Somewhere Over the Rain­bow Coalition,” had us dancing in the aisles. Michael, as I recall, was all hunk, ran like the wind, hit for power — the son and daughter anyone would wish for.

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Where was I? Kenneth, what is the frequency?

It was a deeply spiritual age. Or-I’ll Roberts set the evangelic tone: “Give me money or I’ll die.” We had our very own Madonna, and Saint Swagger, too, who out of his own pocket subsidized way­ward flocks he found in the back motels of New Orleans. A far Right Rev. Falwell was bugged by what he called the “gay plague”; it was, he said, God’s way of “spanking” us — a job, one sensed, he would have enjoyed buckling down to himself. Did I mention the miracle of Tammy Faye? “I can see! I can see!” she cried after an angel of the Lord told her to remove her false eyelashes. P.T.L.! There was a woman named Shirley Mac­Laine, who in a previous incarnation had been a famous wacko named Shirley MacLaine; this, understandably, was too embarrassing for her to admit, so instead she claimed to have been Max Head­room’s mother, at which point we summoned Ghostbusters.

What mysterious rites we had! When­ever a man named Murphy said “fuck” or “faggot,” everyone laughed and he got a million dollars. Whenever a man named Rambo slaughtered another hundred Asians, everyone cheered and he got a million dollars. Then there was Trumpet. He bought everything not yet owned by the Japanese, and plastered TRUMPET all over it in 10-story letters, lest someone forget his name at a power breakfast.

In the ’80s, every meal was a power meal: “Bonsoir, I’m Tex…” “…and I’m Mex…” “…and we’re your waiters tonight. Our specials this evening include blackened wheat bran smothered in pork rinds, the $50 Ralph Lauren Pizza served with antlers and a sepia photograph of George Bush, jelly beans flambé, tap water bottled in Alsace-Lorraine, plus any­thing labeled ‘Nature’s Bounty.’ Accom­panying all dishes is the chef’s complimentary microscope.”

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Where’s the beef, you ask? Forget it. We glowed with health, like gods, then Jane Fonda invented aerobics to keep us that way. “Make a fist with those buns,” she commanded, so we would look delec­table for the sex we would be having if we were having any. But sex, which once helped people get born (this was before fax-conception) was now helping them die, so everyone stopped having it except TV evangelists, ghetto kids who couldn’t afford abortions, and a couple of sports named Garvey and Hartpence.

Celibacy didn’t mean we weren’t ro­mantic. We’d run outside in our $100 running shoes and laugh and sing in the acid rain. Or else snuggle up and watch music, you know, hot groups like Tipper Gore Raw. Alone, we might linger over centerfolds of Dr. Ruth or, in a less urgent temper, Federal Express an ad to the personals:

YOU LIKE ME! YOU LIKE ME! Moi: pre­-pubescent powerlifting TriF, like a virgin, double-cross-dresser, enjoys quiet winter walks through Bloomie’s. Thou: chaste, thirtysomething skinhead, CEO, BMW, insincere, enthralled by toxic waste, Jerry Falwell, and English riding gear. No weirdos please.

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Oh, my dears, it was an altogether dif­ferent world. Pro-Lifers bombed medical clinics, Pro-Choicers chose to ignore the survival instincts of fetuses. Our answer­ing machines had answering machines, which could be paged by beeper (“E.T. phone home”) if they were busy recording more $300,000 grants from HUD. From state to state, barges brimming with col­orful garbage plied the great dead water­ways, while we stood on shore checking washed-up milk cartons for the missing Reagan children. Or we’d buy a lottery ticket from Pete Rose, make a quick mil­lion to buy something, anything, from Minolta-Toyota-Sanyo-Seiko-Sony so they could buy the rest of Manhattan, the Washington Monument, and the Missis­sippi River. Exciting days! Every moment was a photo op, and we videotaped them all: syringes on the beach, Sis’s first coke bust, Givens-Tyson bouts, farm foreclo­sures, burning vanities, condom ads, sur­rogate moms, the greenhouse defect, the harmonica convergence, Nancy R. nuz­zling Mr. T (so much for those who called us a racist society!), Granny popping the cyanide-laced Tylenol (we got amazing footage), the Statue of Liberty raising money for Lee Iacocca, the top 40 oil spills… Except for congressional ethics, which were erased, we got it all, set it to rap, showed it on MTV, and went right to work on the sequel.

By the end of a decade this dazzling, we were exhausted with great communi­cations, and ready for something rather more banal. We got it. One candidate asked voters to do nothing more than read his lips, which upon close inspection were seen to be panting, “I’ll say any­thing to be president.” Naturally, he was elected by a landslide. As it turned out, he was our next-to-last male president. A woman ran for vice-president in the 1980s, but her running mate admitted he was a liberal, which was like stomping yourself to death. Liberals had been re­placed by neoconservatives who, along with both major parties, were subsequently swept aside by the immortal Quayle. Orator. Sage. Poet. President. Today, when every schoolchild can recite his address to the United Negro College Fund (“What a waste it is to lose one’s mind, or not to have a mind… How true that is”), and pretenders can be destroyed by comparisons (“Senator, you’re no Dan Quayle”), it is hard to believe that in the ’80s he was an empty suit with 30 han­dlers and a lousy backswing, playing Nin­tendo in the White House war room.

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Well, that was about it. Of course there was hell to pay in the ’90s. Bush was hit on the head with a horseshoe and in­stantly raised taxes. Gorbachev was granted asylum and bought a dacha in the Hamptons. Nancy Reagan checked into the Betty Ford Clinic. Nixon died and came back. Dan Rather finally went over the edge one night and gouged the CBS eye right out of its socket. (“The vision thing,” said Bush.) There was the steamy Teddy Kennedy–Marilyn Quayle scandal, Jesse Helms’s pardon, the war with Germany… But that’s another story… Hey, someone wake Elvis and let’s all go out and watch Halley’s comet. I haven’t seen it since 1986. ■

NEXT…

Fax Home: The ’80s According to Malcolm McLaren
By Malcolm McLaren, as told to Ariel Swartley

Categories
FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

1980-1989: The ’80s R.I.P.

The Wannabe Decade

Ah, yes, we remember it all too well: the age of laughing and singing in the acid rain, of buying CDs in a biode­gradable economy (Just Say Dough!), of junkies and junk bonds, complicity and complacency, the longing to be naive again, like a virgin. Famous couples included: Joel and Hedda, Robert and Jennifer, Nancy and Ronnie, Ed and Himself, Cher and Rob. In the Hades of the ’80s, George Steinbrenner was promoted to the sixth circle of hell. Donald Trump erected, Berliners tore down. Fade away and radiate, y’all. With explanations, fulminations, translations, and prognostications by sixteen writers, and art by Stan Mack, Mark Alan Stamaty, Steve Brodner, Stephen Kroninger, Sue Coe, Frances Jetter, Paul Corio, and Henrik Drescher.

The Big Sleep: A Decade of Just Saying ‘Dough’
By Calvin Fentress

Fax Home: The ’80s According to Malcolm McLaren
By Malcolm McLaren, as told to Ariel Swartley

The Crack-Up: The Decade of the Quick and the Dead
by Barry Michael Cooper

Pop Goes the Decade: Car 54 — Wherever You Are, Stay There
by Eddie Gorodetsky, as ranted to Jan Hoffman

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FEATURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Violence

Paranoid Notes on the Strange Death of Bruce Lee

The gray-haired judge presiding in Arraignment Room No. 2A had spent the better part of the morning listening to the same old story about how this defendant put a voodoo spell on that plaintiff’s gypsy cab, thereby causing the vehicle to lose its steering column while making a 40-mile an hour U-turn on the FDR Drive. The stuff was pretty routine for the gray-haired judge.

Now, however, he was up against something really tough. The plaintiff, Alan J. Weberman — aka A.J., well-known garbologist, as­sassinationologist, and semi-leader of the Youth International Party (YIP) — was charging that defendant William H. Depperman — former YIP fellow traveler, now leader and close-to-only member of the Assassination Information Committee (AIC) — had menaced him with a six-inch blade on Bleecker Street.

The pulling of a shiv was well within the gray-haired judge’s frame of reference. The reasons for the alleged crime, however, were somewhat baffling. According to Weberman’s statement, Depperman is in the midst of waging “a one-man counterinsurgency campaign against the Yippies because he claims we’re not Communistic enough.” Depperman, a hairy hulk of frazzled nerves, dismissed these allegations as impossible since Weberman is no “legitimate leftist” but rather “a CIA agent.” Depperman countercharged that it is actually Weberman who plans violent action. As proof, Depperman waved a WANTED — ­DEAD OR ALIVE, WILLIAM H. DEPPERMAN, AKA THE DIAPERMAN poster in front of the judge, a poster supposedly distributed by Weberman and his Yippie cohorts. The text of the WANTED poster depicts Depperman as a “rat-faced, asshole, scum­faced NAZI pig Narc.” It goes on to charge that Depperman is nothing more or less than an “FBI informer.”

With each new assertion by Depperman that it was really Weber­man, not he, who worked for the intelligence arm of the United States government, the gray-haired judge rolled his eyes. He had been cast as arbitrator in a War of the Paranoids, and he was not too happy about it.

My interest in this case is many-fold. First of all, paranoia, the leftover sixties variety, is news this week, and I always make an effort to stay current. I also have a deep-running passion for paranoids, an obsession which began to creep one Early Show afternoon following a Hebrew school class on the Holocaust as I watched Ralph Meeker open a black box full of seething uranium. Since then I have come to take a religious view of paranoia and its adherents. The belief that nothing in the universe happens by chance strikes me as essentially theological. Trilateral Committee, Rockefeller, God, Satan, Reverend Moon — it’s all the same kettle of Prime Movers to me.

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During my paranoia research I have run across some good one­-liners. Jackie Mason, the noted paranoid who once gave Ed Sullivan the finger on national television, has said he doesn’t like to go to football games because when the players huddle he’s positive they’re talking about him. Michael Corleone was famous for not wanting to “wipe out everybody, just my enemies.” Personally, I can pass on the more dangerous paranoids like Corleone and Jim Jones. I prefer to stick with less harmful types like Weberman and Depperman. After all, it was A.J. who voiced the true credo of the slightly gone: “Just because you don’t think they’re out to get you doesn’t mean they’re not.”

But it was not my appreciation of Weberman’s stand-up style that attracted me to his case against Depperman. It was my consuming interest in the strange death of Bruce Lee.

I first became aware of the awesome cross-cultural power of Bruce E. Lee while watching Enter the Dragon at the Lyric Theatre on Forty-­second Street. The vengeful Bruce was on the verge of killing a bad white boy who earlier in the film had tried to rape a Lee sister, causing the woman to commit suicide. Now, however, the hoodlum was staggering on one edge of the Cinemascope screen, while on the other Bruce was winding himself into a corkscrew of death. Then Lee flung himself, feet first, toward the bad guy. Bruce slow-motioned through the air for what seemed an eternity. Just before Bruce planted his dynamite feet into the white guy’s soon-to-be-demolished rib cage, a cry came from a black wino sitting behind me. “Don’t hurt him so bad, Bruce. Kill the motherfucker. But don’t hurt him so bad.” All movie long the wino had been rooting for all the whiteys to get dead, so his show of mercy for the chief bad white guy puzzled me. The only conclusion was that somewhere down deep the wino had connected with the notion that Bruce Lee possessed within his seemingly slight body a cosmic force far more terrible than a battery of M-16s. Even a Forty-second Street wino doesn’t want to be eyeball to eyeball with that kind of power.

This incident occurred soon before the fall of Nam. I coupled the calendar reference with the fact that audiences for Bruce Lee movies have always been almost exclusively black and Puerto Rican — even when the films were only playing down in Chinatown — and came up with the Third World Alliance Theory. The theory postulates that blacks and Puerto Ricans in New York were giant Bruce Lee fans because the United States lost the Vietnam War. Sense could be made of it: For years blacks and Puerto Ricans hadn’t been getting squat in the city due to a heavy white boot heel. Now they were checking the Daily News and seeing little guys, a bunch of egg-roll makers, kicking whitey’s butt in Nam. Kicking whitey’s technological butt. But how were they managing it? What secret weapon did they have? The answer was clear to anyone watching The Chinese Connection or Fists of Fury.

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To any student of paranoia (those with some instinct for pop culture, that is) the Third World Alliance Theory had to seem tenable. After all, times were changing. The Nam War exposed the folly of blindly relying on a computerized military. Balances were turned upside down. No longer could the Anderson family sleep soundly snuggled beneath the thick metal sheets of vaunted American technol­ogy. Jimmy Stewart and the SAC were not up there ready to ward off real and imagined cascades of plague. If they were, they were cooping. It was every man for himself — I mean, how capable are you with your hands and feet, buddy? To the student of cross-cultural paranoia, this situation was fascinating. Kung fu could be the ultimate weapon of these new times, and Bruce Lee its Messiah. And before Lee was finished preaching in the drive-in and sleaze Temples of the Inner City, Western civilization could go down the tube in a flurry of sidekicks and nunchakas. Would the CIA allow a menace to exist? Obviously, something had to be done.

Perhaps that something was done back in 1973 when Bruce Lee died in Hong Kong under distinctly mysterious circumstances. The first report of Lee’s death said he succumbed to “marijuana poisoning.” This had to be the most laughable cover story ever invented. Later the cause of death shifted to “water on the brain,” whatever that is. I decided to do some checking. I went to Aaron Banks’s New York Karate Academy, then and now located above a male burlesque house and Spanish-language theater on Seventh Avenue. Banks, who looks like Dracula and once claimed to have held the record for the most boards broken within a given space of time, turned out to be a valuable source. He said, “quite confidentially,” that Lee had died of the Iron Fist. “An ancient martial arts ritual,” Banks intoned as he shoved several monthly fees into his pocket.

Banks’s story went as follows: Several of the elder Manchu Dynasty martial arts teachers were worried about Bruce Lee. Having watched several of his films, they decreed Lee — who was no fake, but rather a kung fu genius who developed his own style of jeet june do — was giving away too many of the ancient Oriental secrets. The Masters acquired some box-office figures from Variety and saw that Lee’s movies were cleaning up in America. This was terrible, the Masters decided, since Americans are inferior, potentially mindlessly violent people, and thus not to be trusted with these secrets to ultimate power. Then, according to Banks, the Masters dispatched an emissary to reason with Lee. Bruce, however, was already as big as Valentino in Hong Kong, and arrogant to boot. He would not agree to stop making films. So the emissary, a Great Master, simply laid his hand on Bruce’s shoulder for a moment. This, Banks said, was the Iron Fist, a martial arts technique only the Great Masters, with their consummate knowledge of brain-­and-body waves, can apply.

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Weeks later, as if a slow-working poison were pushing through him, Lee’s body functions began to ebb. Eventually, they stopped dead. That was why, Banks said, the doctors could never successfully determine the cause of Lee’s death. This sounded a little odd to me, but a quick check of dojo around the city indicated that, almost to a man, martial arts students believed in the Great Masters’ Theory. Surprising, too, was the fact most students believed the Masters’ findings. They believed they were unworthy of such great knowledge.

This Great Masters’ Theory sounded morally logical on the surface. But natural paranoia told me not to accept it wholesale. Someone, I suspected — probably Rockefeller — had to savvy the significance of the Third World Alliance Lee was forging through his films. The fact that Lee died while making Game of Death, in which he co-starred with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — a pairing that would have cemented the Alliance — added to my suspicions. I figured the Great Masters were paid off to off Bruce Lee, assuming Great Masters can be bought.

So, you can dig my surprise and all-consuming interest when I first came upon the slew of wall posters currently plastered all around downtown claiming BRUCE LEE WAS MURDERED BY HONG KONG AND WORLDWIDE FILM KING, MULTI*NATIONAL CAPITALIST* BANKER RUN RUN SHAW.

The poster goes on, at great length and copious detail and in minute type, to outline how Bruce, once a low-wage contract employee for the Shaw Brothers’ Hong Kong cinema combine, broke away and formed his own production corporation. This new company, spearheaded by Lee’s own fabulous box-office appeal, soon was on the verge of eclipsing Shaw’s empire. Shaw, according to the wall poster, “a monopoly capitalist like the Rockefellers, Mellons, Duponts, and Rothschilds,” had no choice but to destroy Lee. Shaw had no compunction about murder, the poster says, once being responsible for blowing up “a planeload of Cathay Productions executives over Taiwan.” Shaw contacted one Betty Ting Pei, a girlfriend of Lee, and a Dr. Chu-Pro-hywe (described as a “contract killer”). Together these two cooked up an elaborate poisoning scheme that succeeded in killing Lee on July 20, 1973.

As outlandish as these charges appear to be, I made it an interesting document. While the poster does not take into account the cross-­cultural significance or postulate paranoia by right-wing factions over the potential Third World Alliance, it refuted the accepted Great Masters’ Theory. At the very least, the poster was the equal of much of the recent graffiti around town, including the WORSHIP GOD scrawl on every pay phone from here to Sheepshead Bay, SAMO, and the BECOME A CATHOLIC legend on the majority of abandoned buildings in Harlem. Besides, wall posters, too, are in the news this week.

A small sidebar on the poster said it was the work of a group called “The Assassination Information Committee.”

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The AIC described itself as “originally a government counterin­surgency group that ‘formed’ after a Mark Lane talk at NYU in the spring of 1975. The AIC was taken over democratically on October 23, 1975, when members voted by secret ballot to present the Dealey Plaza ‘tramp’ photographs and Watergate ‘burglars’ photo-overlays [positive transparencies which line up the ear cartilages on Frank Fiorini Sturgis and E. Howard Hunt] at a talk again to be given by Mark Lane, but sponsored by the NY AIC. Lane refused. Government people… ran off with the keys, mailing list, and checkbook of this supposed ‘grass­roots’ organization, but by doing so they lost control, and discredited themselves and their methods. Consequently, the AIC of NY is probably the only legitimate assassination research group in this country.”

I read the above and couldn’t make head or tail of it. But then, recognizing telltale paranoia phrases like “counterinsurgency,” I re-read it with a more informed (i.e., paranoid) headset. After which I concluded I was most likely dealing with a termite left group convinced that Mark Lane is a government plant attempting to divert “real” investigation into the John F. Kennedy assassination. I was not far wrong. After glancing at other wall posters under the AIC banner, including LARRY FLYNT SHOOTING IS LATEST CIA PUBLICITY STUNT, I spied a more revealing one. This said: Total Media Blackout… with trumped-up charges. Capitalist state harassing William H. Depperman, coordinator of the Assassination Information Committee of New York… First Assassination Researcher Arrested.” Then I dug that if I was to get information on the Great Masters’ and Third World Alliance theories, I would have to deal with this Depperman.

At the outset I knew nothing of Depperman other than he sometimes gave out leaflets in Washington Square and was rumored to have once broken Bob Fass’s (late of WBAI) nose with a short right. But, being an auteurist, I was determined to ferret out the possible role of Raymond Chow, the director of Enter the Dragon, in Lee’s death. So I went to ten East Sixteenth Street, the address given on the AIC posters. The place, a gray apartment house nestled amongst ware­houses, turned out to be Depperman’s home. I rang the bell under his mailbox and was buzzed in. After an unpleasant ride in a cattlecar elevator, I knocked on Depperman’s door. Nobody answered. I assumed the guy was paranoid so didn’t blame him for not opening the door for someone he didn’t know. I slipped a note under the door describing who I was and my interest in the wall posters.

The next day I got a call from Depperrnan. Before he even let me say word one about the Third World Alliance Theory, Depperman commandeered the conversation. In a voice that had all the resonance of feeding time in Iowa, he said, “Don’t tell me you’re interested in Bruce Lee. I know who you are. I’ve checked you out. You work with Weberman. You are straight from Central Intelligence. If you want to talk to me, you’ll have to put up money, big money. Five thousand dollars. Maybe ten thousand dollars. You might not have the money, but your boss does. So, listen, you agent, pay. Cash. No checks.” He hung up.

This was the first time I had ever been accused of being a CIA agent. It was no fun. Sure, I knew calling other people government agents is common among assassination researchers. Once Mae Brussell, who calls everyone an agent, said I.F. Stone was a CIA operative at the Elgin Theater. That just about killed her credibility amongst the old-line leftists, and Brussell’s career suffered afterward. Still, I was only after a few scraps of information and did not like being called an agent of any government — especially since I was not drawing a check for my supposed services. I was certainly not “with Weber­man.” Once when I marched in a Yippie Smoke-In Parade up Fifth Avenue a Yip reached over the picket fence surrounding the sidewalk cafe of the St. Moritz Hotel, thrust his greasy hand into a Madison Avenue lady’s spinach salad, gobbled a fistful of leaves, and then stuck his green-specked tongue out, saying, “Your lifestyle stinks.” But I wouldn’t exactly call this being “with Weberman.” Who was this idiot Depperman to call me a CIA agent?

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I decided to find out. Discounting talking to Depperman directly, inasmuch as I doubted Rupert Murdoch’s people would look too kindly on an expense report listed “talking to paranoid, $10,000,” I called Joel Meyers. I got Meyers’s name from a Depperman poster entitled TAKEOVER FROM WITHIN OF ASSASSINATION INFORMA­TION COMMITTEE BY COMMUNIST-CADRE “MARXIST” IS DEFEATED. In this poster Depperman accuses Meyers, an old-line Trot whose group was the only one to support Lin Paio at the recent City Center Mao rally, of being the leader of a “government group designed to pace, contain, manipulate, sabotage, and neutralize the Assassination Information Committee of New York.”

Meyers responded by painting Depperman as a right-wing son of a “rock-ribbed Republican family” in a counter-poster affixed to the blue formica wall of Whalen’s at Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street. He said Depperman, somewhere in his middle thirties, had gone to medical school in Kentucky but allegedly was thrown out for smoking pot. Meyers said Depperman’s left-wing activity was new, and that he “voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Nixon twice, in 1968 and 1972.” According to the poster, Depperman previously had worked in a “united front” with Meyers’s group, but split after a tactical dispute over an incident with police in Washington Square Park. The poster goes on to say the Assassination Information Committee “consists of only Depperman and one dogged follower,” the teenaged Brian Huber “whom Depperman calls Brainless.”

On the phone Meyers had a somewhat more charitable view of Depperman. “Well,” he said, “I have no evidence that he is hopelessly psychotic as of yet. We have hopes of making a Bolshevik out of him yet. Trouble is, Depperman has a conspiratorial theory of history. He thinks everyone is an agent until proven otherwise. But we’ll keep trying to bring him to his senses. Small groups tend to be desperate for members. We will spend huge amounts of time trying to win over a very few people.”

About the Bruce Lee material, Meyers thought, “It’s something out of the ordinary for Depperman. He probably read some kung fu magazines and made the rest up.” This was not encouraging news.

Still, I pressed on for insight into the Depperman character, talking to John Zirinsky, a lawyer, and David White, a union official. According to his wall posters, Depperman has been “the target of a coordinated attack by many arms of the state,” as well as “twenty-four­-hour telephone harassment and a mail cover.” Part of this harassment, Depperman says, was his recent arrest on criminal mischief charges for allegedly stenciling the Washington Square arch with slogans to the effect that the Moonies and Yippies are government agents. Depper­man claims the “endless series of pretrial hearings (ten to fifteen) are… one of its [the govt.’s] prime ways of neutralizing legitimate leftists.” He further charges he has been sabotaged in much more elaborate and nefarious ways, saying, “On every court date a demon­stration was planned and on every court date it rained!” Then Depperman adds, in parenthesis, “USA admitted to increasing the monsoon rainfall on the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War.”

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In any event, John Zirinsky, legal aid lawyer and member of the Lawyers’ Guild who has often been identified with left causes, was assigned to represent Depperman in this case. Zirinsky says he did his best, but all sorts of arguments arose with his client. “Soon,” Zirinsky says, “the guy was plastering the entire courthouse area with posters attacking me as a government plant. And all during that time he was pleading with me to continue with his defense. Everyone was asking me what was going on.” Zirinsky, a sober type, did not see the humor in this situation. He says, “Besides, it was clear to me the guy didn’t have even the rudiments of leftist thought.” Eventually, Zirinsky withdrew from the case, prompting a triumphant Depperman wall poster saying, “Zirinsky’s withdrawal reflects the failure of the state and the Rock­efeller family strategy against Depperman…”

Woe is the Dep. A few months ago, he was fired from his job as a cardiopulmonary technician at the Hospital for Joint Disease. Depper­man says it was for his “political activities,” primarily his drive to organize R.N.’s at the institution. The management claims Depperman “falsified records” to avoid getting caught for coming in late. Depper­man has described the case in two lengthy wall posters, one entitled DEPPERMAN CASE GOES TO ARBITRATION, MANAGE­MENT LOSES AT 1ST HEARING, and another explained WHY THE CIA IS LIKELY TO BE BEHIND MANAGEMENT’S NEW STRATEGY. Both of these posters were signed by the “Save the Jobs Unity Coalition,” not the AIC.

As of now, Depperman has yet to be rehired. David White, of the medical services union No. 1199, represented Depperman at his arbitration hearing. In the wall posters, Depperman implies that White was acting in collusion with management. White says, “He thinks I was working with management? Oh, boy. I don’t know. I’ll tell you, there was no reason we should have lost that case. Management really didn’t have a thing on Depperman. He said he filled in the wrong time because his watch was slow. That’s not grounds for firing someone. But during the hearing, Depperman just wouldn’t shut up. I had to stop the proceedings a dozen times to tell him to quiet down. He kept jumping up and calling the arbitrator a tool of the oppressors.” White agrees that most likely management was “just trying to get rid of Depper­man.” But not because Dep was union-organizing. “Are you kidding?” White says. “He almost killed our drive. He was going around talking about general strikes and preparing the workers for revolution. You can’t talk to workers like that.”

With each new piece of info I picked up on Depperman, I became more convinced a freshly slivered section of the Dep medulla sold to an independent laboratory might fetch a handsome price. For sure the cat was going into the Paranoia Hall of Fame on the first ballot. I was beginning to give up on ever getting any intelligence out of this guy on either the Great Masters’ or the Third World Alliance theory.

But the most damaging anti-Depperman testimony was yet to come. It was provided by Depperman’s arch-enemies, the Yippies. In his wall poster campaign, Depperman regularly derides the Yips as a govern­ment-funded group attempting to “sidetrack people on drugs and counterculture,” thereby leading the masses “back into the fold of the Republican party.” The most recurring and bizarre Depperman charge, however, is that A.J. Weberman, the Yippie theoretician, is “suppressing his own book.”

The book, Coup d’État in America, written by Weberman and Michael Canfield, details how the CIA allegedly seized control of the United States government on November 22, 1963. Depperman claims Coup d’État, which contains the famous “tramp” pictures and photo-overlays that supposedly prove Frank Sturgis and Howard Hunt were on the scene that day in Dallas, is an example of “controlled release” of assassination material. He says A.J. “must be” a CIA agent to gain access to the overlays in the first place, and that since “exposing” the evidence Weberman has done much “to make the information contra­dictory,” thereby confusing real assassination researchers.

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Now I must admit, I am somewhat biased in this particular matter, since A.J. Weberman, while without a doubt a world-class paranoid, is also one of the most entertaining and hamisha guys I know. And knowing A.J. as I do, I could see that these book “suppression” charges were really getting under his skin. Going into one of his hour-­long stare rages, Weberman barked, “What a Daffyman the Depper­monster is! Why would I fucking suppress my own book? I worked months on that book. It’s the hardest thing I ever did. Harder than a garbology project. Suppress my own book? Only a moron with a low rate of metabolism like the Daffymonster would think that.”

Then A.J. discussed Depperman from the historical perspective, saying “he first came around in 1974, around there. He said he wanted to help put out the Yipster Times. You know, he’d do any shit work. Dana [Beale] was suspicious of him, but I was taken in. I went by his pad and he had all the Dylan records and the Dylan bootlegs, I thought he was cool. It was a moment of weakness. But after the book came out, he started acting suspicious. He put out stickers for the book everywhere. He was overzealous. He put stickers all over the book­stores and they started calling me saying they wouldn’t stock the book anymore. I didn’t know what was happening, then I find out it’s Depperman. We told him to stop, but then he gets his own stickers printed up. Then we realized he was waging some kind of campaign against us. He was spreading all kinds of disinformation. Then he started beating up Yippies. He broke Fass’s nose. He gave Aaron [Kay, the Yippie pie-thrower] a black eye. He’s tough, he’s a fucking powerful guy. We knew he couldn’t be a Yippie, he’s too crazy to be a Yippie. We had to investigate him.”

Then A.J. pulled out part of his FBI file. A.J. obtained the file under the Freedom of Information Act, a statute he makes use of quite often. FBI files supposedly contain most of what the government has on you, but the names of the “informants” and anything you really want to know is blacked out with magic marker. The Yippies have spent many evenings over a piece of hash the size of a deflated football attempting to remember if it was really Sally from Madison or Jim from California who was present on the nights described in the file. On this particular page, however, A.J. claims, the “informer’s” name was insufficiently disguised. “Look,” he said, pointing to a Xeroxed smudge, “you can see the D and the top of an E, also, look, there’s the two Ls. It’s Depperman, no doubt about it. He’s an informer sent to infiltrate us. Probably got into it after he got kicked out of medical school. The reason the FBI sent us this file with the name not completely blacked out is even they couldn’t stand the Deppermouth anymore. The Deppermonster is too obnoxious even for the feds!”

Try as I might, however, I could only distinguish half an L, no D or E. I smoked two more joints, after which I did spot another L, which was not enough to convince me, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that it was actually Depperman’s name beneath the blur. I did, however, agree with Weberman that Depperman’s Yippie-beating activities were to be scorned. And I also promised to show up a few days later when A.J. said Depperman would have to be in court to answer charges of knife-wielding.

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I left the Yipster mansion thinking it was kind of ironic that Depperman, in his unwavering bleat that A.J. has “suppressed” his own book, had, more or less, taken over the role in Weberman’s life that A.J. himself once played in Bob Dylan’s. Back in the days when the Dylan Liberation Front assembled on MacDougal Street screaming “Hey, Bob, crawl out your window,” A.J. stole the singer’s garbage as a “people’s act.” Dylan always yelled at Weberman to “stop hassling me, man,” and eventually beat A.J. to a Greenwich Village sidewalk with karate blows. Thinking about this left one question unanswered: If Depperman is Weberman’s Weberman, who is Depperman’s Weber­man? Someone, I figured, always has to be around to keep you honest.

In spite of it all, I felt a little sorry for Depperman. My heart goes out to anyone who sincerely feels the government is manipulating the weather just to harass him. After all, Depperman really was being “persecuted” for politics, whatever they may be. I decided to attempt to open the dialogue with Depperman again, affording him a chance to tell his side of the story and possibly giving me a shot at obtaining his Bruce Lee information. After learning from a reliable source that Depperman had once been approached as a potential mensa member, I wrote him a closely reasoned letter asking him to give free press a chance. I was, however, still smarting from Depperman’s accusations about me, so, just to be a bastard, I crossed out several passages in the letter and did a cut-paste job. I figured, being the paranoid he is, Depperman would spend a few anxious minutes holding the letter to a naked light bulb, attempting to see what was missing. I taped the letter to Depperman’s mailbox.

This was Sunday. Monday I stayed by my phone hoping Depper­man would give a civil call. He did not. Tuesday was the hearing date, so I trudged over to the Tombs at 9:30 A.M. Near the second floor DAT intake room, I ran into Aaron Kay. Aaron pointed out two guys standing below, leaning on the circular first-floor information desk. “It’s Daffyman and Brainless,” Aaron said. Depperman looked pretty much as I expected except that he was wearing a paisley tie and seemed to have not slept in a month. Brian Huber, or “Brainless,” could have passed for a Tex Watson double.

I went downstairs to engage the pair in conversation. Depperman was in the midst of abusing Huber. Soon as I identified myself, however, he recoiled and clutched his tan attaché case as if it was doll stuffed with money. “Get away from me, you government, government pig,” he said as he edged around the circumference of the information desk. Huber followed Depperman. “I just want to ask you a couple of questions,” I said, trailing both of them. We must have went around that desk three times with Depperman shouting “Stop harassing me. Beat it. Stop harassing me,” before I gave up the ghost.

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Soon the courtroom drama, which I have given you the gist of at the top of this tome, ensued. Depperman, demanding to defend himself and using some legal terms lifted out of Perry Mason, did most of the talking. A.J. was content to play the injured citizen. And, sure enough, Depperman hung himself, getting close to a contempt citation on more than one occasion. The judge told Depperman, “Look, the court is not your adversary.” To which Depperman raised his eyes as if to say, “You expect me to fall for that?” The judge held the case over until next month, prompting Depperman to quote loudly and extensively from a book called The Iron Fist and the Velvet Glove. These quotes threw the West Indian court officers into giggling fits.

There will, however, be quite a bit more court in Depperman’s immediate future. After this case was adjourned, the Yippies, who were afraid to stare at Depperman during the proceedings, unfurled their sneak attack in the person of one Detective Guariello of the Sixth Precinct. Guariello was waiting in the hallway outside AR 2A to arrest Depperman on charges that he assaulted Yippie electrician Robert Druskin. Upon having the cuffs snapped on his wrist and told he was “under arrest,” Depperman screamed, “By whom, by whom?”

Then he yelled, “It’s more harassment, it’s more harassment of legitimate leftists,” as Guariello hauled him into the DAT intake room. Just before disappearing, Depperman shouted in panic to Huber, “Brian, Brian, my briefcase.” Huber, who seemed stunned by this turn of events, was slow to react, prompting Depperman to a more frenzied plea. Finally, Huber picked up the case. As he did, one of the court officers pointed to Depperman’s head and then to the briefcase, intoning, “Tick, tick, tick.”

Moments later, Depperman was gone, except for a few muffled protests emanating from the other side of the door. He would spend that night in the can. Huber waited a few moments, then split aimlessly with Depperman’s briefcase. The kid looked like Renfield lost a master. The Yippies left, too, celebrating their victory. And I figured what a drag it all was. Dealing with paranoids is a thankless task. Depperman saw me talking to Guariello before the pinch and probably, knowing his mania, thinks I was in on the arrest. Plus, who knows, we may never find out who killed Bruce Lee.

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The Dirty Deal That Helped Make Donald Trump

In early February, it was announced that the hotel that launched Donald Trump’s real estate career would be demolished. As Village Voice reporter Wayne Barrett made clear in a 1979 cover story, the Grand Hyatt New York had all the hallmarks of a Trump deal, and shows how instrumental New York’s Democratic political machine was in Trump’s rise to prominence. The story was the Voice’s third investigative feature into Trump’s dirty dealing, and Barrett would prove to be the real estate developer’s bête noire over the next few decades, right up until Barrett’s death on January 19, 2017, the day before Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States.

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A Seamless Web
February 26, 1979

The Grand Hyatt going up on the site of the old Commodore, at 42nd and Lexington, with its 1400 $70-a-night rooms, is the city’s and state’s first venture into the luxury-hotel business. The bureaucrats’ assumption seems to have been that the modern bankrupt American city ought to be opening hotels for its visiting rich while closing hospitals and schools for its unwanted poor. While entire neighborhoods could qualify for city vacate orders, tax exemptions to the tune of $160 million were granted to subsidize the redevelopment of midtown’s wealthiest core. Under the aegis of the state’s Urban Development Corporation, set up in 1968 to rebuild slums, the city is exchanging hospital beds for hotel beds. The Commodore deal is a perfect example of what government calls a “business-incentive program,” which uses public power and takes public risk for private profit — profits that will ultimately accrue to Hugh Carey’s principal campaign contributors.

But the list of Carey supporters who stand to gain is only one phase of this transaction. The deal is laced with apparent conflicts involving practically every public official who ever touched it — from the unknown city and state aides who packaged it to Comptroller Harrison Goldin, Carey appointee Richard Ravitch, and former deputy mayor Stanley Friedman.

In previous stories, I detailed the conflicts and serpentine relationships that made up Trump’s convention-center deal (Voice, January 22), but in acquiring the contract for the Commodore renovation, Trump outdid himself. He persuaded city and state officials to designate him developer on a site he didn’t own — or even have an option to own. Later, he got a binding lease and acquisition agreement from the city and state, though he had no financing commitment to back him up. The Commodore caper is part shill game, part intrigue. Its apologists make it part soap opera. But the size of the deal’s subsidies — it is perhaps the most costly incentive project in city history — make it news.

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On the Bluff

Trump started his negotiations for the Commodore with Michael Bailkin, at the time counsel to the mayor’s office and a protege of then-deputy mayor John Zuccotti. According to Bailkin, Zuccotti and economic-development administrator Alfred Eisenpreis had been interested in renovating the hotel even before its owners — the Penn Central — had ever notified the city that the company was considering closing it. Early on, they instructed Bailkin to design a tax-abatement program for Trump’s proposal. Explaining the city’s interest in the deal, Bailkin said, “It was a combination of political access and a solid scheme. I was aware that he had political clout. Frankly, I thought that was a plus.”

Trump’s clout with the city administration was detailed in my two-part series last month. His family and Brooklyn-based real-estate firm were tied to the same county Democratic organization that had created Beame. His father had known Beame for 30 years and had contributed to every Beame campaign. Beame’s closest brokers — attorneys Bunny and Sandy Lindenbaum and lobbyist Howard Rubenstein — represented Trump on a host of deals. By fall 1975 Sandy Lindenbaum had been put on a Trump retainer to push the Commodore through the Board of Estimate.

But Bailkin says the reason the city chose the Trump deal was the developer’s option on the property. “Trump’s strength was his exclusive arrangement with the organization representing Penn Central, Victor Palmieri Co. The city had no option except to deal with Trump. He had site control.

The problem with this reasoning is that Trump had no option on the Commodore until February 1977, a year and a half after he’d first brought his proposal to Zuccotti and Bailkin. Trump, in fact, had no claim on the property when the Board of Estimate and the state’s Urban Development Corporation gave him project approval in May and September of 1976. John Koskinen, president of the Palmieri firm, told me Trump “had absolutely no agreement or assurances of any kind — formal or informal” with Penn Central until 1977.

Walter Prawzinsky, the city’s deputy comptroller, who participated in the Commodore negotiations extensively, was stunned when I told him that Trump had had no option at the time of the Board of Estimate vote. “He certainly told city negotiators he had an option,” Prawzinsky said. “Other city officials involved told me he had an option. If we didn’t think he had an option, we wouldn’t have talked to him. What’s the use of talking to him and designing a program specifically for him if all he’s going to do is go peddle the program?” Prawzinsky then called the city’s corporation counsel and asked if that office had a copy of Trump’s option on the Commodore. Prawzinsky told me the city had only one copy. “Trump had sent a copy that is only signed by him. That’s all we have.”

Trump was even quoted in the Times shortly before the Board of Estimate vote, claiming that he “has an option — with no particular time limit — to buy the Commodore for $10 million from the railroad trustees.” An earlier Daily News story describes a “purchase contract” between Trump and Penn Central, which it reports was agreed to in May 1975. Dan Dorfman, in a New York magazine article at the time the city approved the plan, repeated Trump’s claim. Though there were stories suggesting that Trump was merely negotiating to buy the hotel, the impression created by the press was that Trump had a claim to the property. Indications are that this impression was created by Trump himself. Indeed, Trump seems to have convinced himself. When I interviewed him recently he offered the following chronology: “I went to Penn Central and said let me buy this building subject to tax abatement and a lot of things. We signed a contract subject to those various elements.” Trump was claiming to have signed a contract with Penn Central in May 1975, almost two years before he actually did. Penn Central officials wanted to leave no room for doubt when I raised the question with them. They wrote me a letter, stating “Whether or not Trump actually stated he had an option, he had no option and no one ever indicated on behalf of Penn Central that he had one.”

Since Trump in fact did not have the option, the city was free to advertise its interest in establishing a tax-incentive program for any private developer willing to renovate the hotel. It could then have negotiated a program with the developer whose proposal offered the best renovation at the least expense to the city. Apparently this approach was not considered because of the misconception that Trump, as Bailkin put it, had “site control.” Further, the resolutions creating the tax benefits on the property had been written so as to apply exclusively to Trump.

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Packaging the Profits

In structuring the abatement program, Bailkin at first [ed note: due to a printing error, a line of text is obscured in the original issue from which this article was transcribed] hotel, sell it to the city for a nominal sum, and then lease it back on a 99-year lease at a minimal rental (with no taxes) for 50 years. Drafts of this proposal were submitted informally to the Board of Estimate in December 1975. As an afterthought, Beame issued a vague policy statement, attempting to place the Commodore deal in the context of an investment-incentive program.

This kind of loose arrangement — where deals are bound by no set of publicly adopted city standards and are implemented on a project-by-project basis — is precisely the open-market condition where connections can best dictate both terms and eventual profits. It is an invitation to the brokers who live at the public trough, shuttling between the roles of campaign donor and publicly aided developer. Indeed, it was the vague terms of the program that permitted Trump to be its first beneficiary, though he was completely unconnected to the property when he received the abatement. Since 1976, the city, under the banner of this program, has given away over a quarter of a billion tax dollars.

Bailkin’s proposal ran into some trouble with comptroller Harrison Goldin. The result was that Trump, Bailkin, and Zuccotti abandoned the notion of a city leaseback and instead proposed that the leaseback arrangement be made with UDC, which could grant the project total tax exemption.

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In March 1976, the UDC board of directors, chaired by chief Carey development adviser Richard Ravitch, voted initial approval of the Commodore as part of a two-step UDC process. But in a letter to Zuccotti, the state agency warned of the possibility that the city’s rental scheme might result “in a windfall profit” for Trump and recommended changes in the arrangement to prevent that possibility.

Ravitch’s opposition to the deal threatened to delay UDC approval and perhaps even end agency participation in the project. Ravitch, who told me he still thought the deal was a “mistake,” said he was pressured by Beame, Zuccotti, State Senator Manfred Ohrenstein, Assembly Speaker Stanley Steingut, and Trump to approve the deal. “They all called and wanted me to move the thing faster,” said Ravitch. Ravitch kept telling the callers that the city could get better terms and told Trump not to call again. “I didn’t like this political stuff,” Ravitch said. “I didn’t want another call from another politician.”

Ravitch also recalled that “at the same time the Commodore was put before UDC,” Trump announced that he’d hired Louise Sunshine, the governor’s chief fund raiser, to be a staff coordinator. The announcement of the Sunshine position in the Real Estate Forum occurred the same day Zuccotti wrote Ravitch to invite UDC’s participation in the Commodore.

“I called Carey,” said Ravitch. “Trump had a proposal before UDC and I thought the whole thing [with Sunshine] was tasteless. Carey told me to do whatever I thought was right.” His hostility forced Sunshine to stay away from Commodore business until he left UDC in 1977. But after his departure, Sunshine became an active expediter on Commodore problems and a political force at UDC.

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Despite Ravitch’s opposition, the Board of Estimate voted to approve the project in May 1976. The final version of the plan contained the following controversial and extraordinary terms, granted specifically to Trump though he still had no option on the property:

  • Trump was given a 42-year tax exemption and instead charged rent in lieu of the $1.4 million annual taxes then assessed on the hotel. That 42-year term is more than double the 20-year limit in similar state tax-incentive legislation. After completing the project he would pay $250,000 in lieu of taxes for five years and $350,000 for the next five, and so on up to full taxes. The city calculated the value of the abatement at $72 million over the life of the project; a New York Times article estimated it at $168 million.
    The Hotel Association criticized the city’s method of valuing the abatement by pointing out that it was pegged to the existing tax rate, which had almost doubled over the past 10 years. The association calculates that if the same rate of tax increase occurs over the life of the abatement, Hyatt should be paying almost $15 million in annual taxes instead of the $2.7 million it would be paying as rent during the final year of the renovation plan. The association’s figures assume that the assessed value of the hotel will remain unchanged, but with the likely prospects of increasing assessment and an increasing tax rate, the value of the abatement turns out to be several hundred million dollars in lost revenue.
  • Ravitch’s view, which he pressed unsuccessfully on the city, was that all Trump had to get to make the project feasible was the right to subordinate his taxes to his mortgage payments. By this formula, he would pay full taxes from the start if the project were successful. He would also be charged full taxes if he finished paying the mortgage long before the 42-year term of the abatement ran out. Further, Ravitch wanted to make it impossible for Trump to refinance the hotel once it was built, thus enabling him to “mortgage out” of the project, immediately recoup his equity investment, and simply take a yearly profit without any investment for the life of the project. The city refused to make Ravitch’s changes in the deal though Bailkin later conceded to me that Trump might wind up with none of his own money in the project. After the Board of Estimate approval, UDC wrote Zuccotti, complaining that the “anti-windfall’’ objective had been only “partially achieved” and that the effort to prevent Trump from mortgaging out “wasn’t achieved” at all. The city’s attitude was best expressed by Bailkin, who was quoted in the Post as saying that it was “possible for Trump to make high profits” and “I think that’s excellent.”
  • In addition to his rental payments, Trump was required to pay a percentage of his annual profits to the city (15 per cent of the profits if they reach $2.5 million). Trump demanded — and got — a “cap” on the profit-sharing clause. This means that the city’s share of the profits stops at whatever point the Commodore is paying full taxes. City Councilman Henry Stern and a group of five Manhattan legislators opposed to the terms of the project charged: “The city makes the transaction possible by granting the substantial long-term tax abatement, but if the hotel turns out to be gold mine, it can only recover ordinary real-estate taxes.”
  • Henry Stern sought full disclosure of all title companies, law firms, etc., receiving fees from the project. Bailkin’s response was that disclosure was “irrelevant to the city’s concern.” The final Board of Estimate resolution set no disclosure requirements.
  • Even while Ravitch raised these objections, Bailkin prevailed on UDC staff to add a sweetener to the Trump lease package. UDC projects are exempt from city and state sales taxes on construction materials, a device built into the legislation to lower costs on UDC housing projects. UDC and the city decided that Trump’s estimated $2 million of sales-tax savings could be used for “public improvements” in the Commodore area. This proposal had several advantages for Trump: He would plan and make the improvements, even receiving an estimated $70,000 fee for supervising the spending of his own tax savings. The UDC lease permitted him to use the savings in ways that directly benefit his own hotel — like the construction of a sidewalk on 42nd Street and a new IRT subway entrance at the front of the hotel. Even improvements like cleaning the facade of the Grand Central Terminal would increase the value of the Commodore. Finally, Trump has struck the pose of a public benefactor while using public funds to enhance the profitability of his own hotel: “We’re doing this restoration because I think it’s important to New York,” he says.

In the end, despite all the objections, Ravitch and his board authorized a draft agreement and lease with Trump in September 1976. Even while UDC considered and approved the agreement, Trump had no option on the land — an issue, as Ravitch recalls, no one ever raised.

The parallels between Ravitch’s handling of the Commodore and his handling of the 34th Street convention-center site are striking. As a private developer, he had bid against Trump in an effort to acquire the convention-center site. His analysis of the Trump bid, filed in federal bankruptcy court in Philadelphia, charged Trump with attempting a windfall profit on the land. But he refused to litigate his claim, and, in effect, backed down in the end. He wound up chairing a Beame-appointed panel that selected Trump’s site for the convention center and his company, HRH Construction Co., was retained by Trump to do a cost analysis of the project.

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Similarly, he went halfway on the Commodore, raising thorny questions but, at the same time, writing Zuccotti and concluding that he “hoped” and “trusted” that his board’s decision on the deal “will be favorable.” He wound up voting for the project himself and presiding over an agency that tailored its own special benefits for Trump’s deal, even beyond those contained in the city plan. And ultimately, after his construction company was sold to Starrett, it was selected by Trump to build the new hotel. One negotiator on the city side of this deal says that Ravitch’s objections to the Commodore were simply efforts to create a record for himself. “Political posturing” was how he described Ravitch’s tactics.

But, after three telephone interviews with him, I found him a man caught in the contradictions of his own complex relations and ethical standards. His business partner had died, he wanted out of HRH, and his best potential buyer was both Trump and UDC-connected Starrett Housing Co. His role at UDC was inseparable from his close relationship with the governor, whose most crass political brokers were at his door in search of approval of the Trump deal. Ravitch was also a budding mayoral candidate who eventually left UDC to fund raise for a campaign he subsequently abandoned. His public record on issues of city policy like the Commodore and his relationships with Carey, Trump, and Sunshine interacted with his political ambitions. And, finally, he was a developer himself, inclined toward this kind of development regardless of Trump’s terms and methods, which he found distasteful. In committing UDC to the Commodore, he reshaped the agency and fundamentally altered its social function. It is now no more than a tax-shelter and condemnation resource for private developers. In the world Ravitch lives in, that was a positive transformation.

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The Bailkin Connection

The same week that the Board of Estimate approved the Commodore project in May 1976, Michael Bailkin, the city’s architect of the plan, left the government. A few months later, Bailkin’s staff counterpart at UDC, David Stadtmauer, who’d negotiated the initial lease terms between Trump and UDC, left his position as director of commercial affairs for the state agency. Like Bailkin, Stadtmauer had been an advocate of the Commodore project. When he’d chaired UDC’s public hearing on the project, he’d abandoned his obligatory neutral posture and made a ringing 10-minute speech on behalf of the Commodore deal.

While still with the state and city, Stadtmauer and Bailkin had decided to form a law firm. That firm has since built its practice around economic-development projects, including projects under the Investment-Incentives Program, which they had designed.

Their first client — who promised Bailkin a $10,000 initial retainer before he left government (the offer that provided the income base to create the firm) — was the 42nd Street Redevelopment Corporation, sponsors of an investment-incentives project. Bailkin told me that he and his client had discussed the applicability of the incentive program to his client’s project before he’d left the city. Less than two months after his departure from the city, Bailkin had completed the mortgage closing, acquired the properties, and submitted a site to the city for an investments project.

The project was Theatre Row, the conversion of West Side porn houses into Off-Off Broadway theatres. In 1975 Bailkin, then with the city, was asked by city officials to help design the incorporation of the group.

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“Their concept was of 42nd Street as a river-to-river boulevard, connecting institutional and business uses on the East Side and theatre-related uses on the West Side,” said Bailkin. The Commodore project was an important spur to that development and Bailkin admits that his future employers at the 42nd Street Corp. told him, while he was putting together the Commodore package, how much they favored it. Theatre Row was the West Side complement of the Commodore.

After Bailkin and Stadtmauer had left the government, they were hired as consultants to the city and state. Zuccotti retained his protege Bailkin and assigned him to report on the progress of the Commodore. His $10,000 contract ran through the remainder of 1976 and 1977. His memos as a consultant continued the strident advocacy of the project he’d begun while with the city. Stadtmauer stayed on as a UDC consultant, advising his replacement on the Commodore and other projects, earning some $6300 until April 1977. Both were acting as consultants throughout the period that the city and UDC considered their firm’s Theatre Row project, but Bailkin claims he never discussed Theatre Row with public agencies, except in his private capacity as attorney for the developer. But an analyst at the comptroller’s office who renegotiated incentive projects told me: “I never knew who Bailkin represented or whether he was wearing a public or a private hat.”

The importance of this interrelationship is that in their continuing relationship with the Commodore project — which was widely cited as a prototype for the incentive program — Bailkin and Stadtmauer were using their public positions after they left full-time public employment to define the terms that would then shape the smaller projects represented by their firm. Bailkin himself said, in a Post article, that the Commodore was “a precedent-setting deal.… When other developers come in with other deals, they’re going to say, we want what Trump got.”

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Bailkin was so successful in packaging the first $1.3 million Theatre Row project that it actually closed months before the Commodore and became the first completed incentive project. He has since shepherded a second theatre project, worth almost $8 million, through the Board of Estimate and is now working on additional potential incentive projects for 42nd Street and other developers.

In addition, Bailkin parlayed his government contacts into several consultant contracts, including a $43,000 UDC contract and two other city contracts. His former agency, the Office of Development, recently awarded his client, 42nd Street Corp., a $350,000 commercial revitalization grant, including a budget for its legal costs. Stadtmauer says that he was not personally involved in any way with either Theatre Row project and that, since leaving UDC, he has been primarily engaged in development work in New Jersey. However he did acknowledge that he now serves as counsel to the Greater Jamaica Local Development Corp., developer of several city projects. Their firm has also done work on two incentive projects begun while Bailkin and Stadtmauer were still in government, but Stadtmauer contends they received no fees on one and were paid as UDC consultants on the other.

Bailkin did go to the city’s Board of Ethics for an opinion on his post with the 42nd Street Corp. But the narrow issue before the board, according to Bailkin, was whether his work on incorporating the organization while still a city employee disqualified him from employment with them. Bailkin says the board initially barred him from taking the job on even those narrow grounds. He then marshaled some of his powerful allies in city government and went back to the board, which reversed itself.

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The board opinion, however, apparently didn’t address Bailkin’s continuing involvement as a private attorney with the public program he’d originally designed and was still shaping in his capacity as consultant to the city. Bailkin showed me the board’s letter dated July 15, approving his retainer with 42nd St. almost two months after he’d begun to work for them. He insisted that the board notified him by phone before he joined the company. I asked if he would waive the confidentiality of his board file and allow me to examine the records. He refused.

The final link between the Bailkin firm and the Commodore project is an attorney who worked for Bailkin through most of 1977, Stephen Seldin. Seldin also represented Trump on the closing of the Commodore deal. Indeed, he is an officer in Wembey Realty, the Trump firm that is developing the Commodore.

Bailkin attempted to minimize his association with their firm, claiming Seldin had left them in October 1977. Yet he appeared with Bailkin, representing the 42nd Street Corp. at the Theatre Row closing in November 1977, and two weeks later Seldin represented Trump at the escrow closing of the Commodore. In March 1978, while representing Trump in final negotiations, Seldin joined Stadtmauer as part of a group that applied for a state commercial revitalization grant. Bailkin also claimed that Seldin did not begin his association with their firm until March 1977; but he had notarized Bailkin’s purchase of the Theatre Row properties nine months earlier.

Bailkin also did the legal work on a City Planning Commission report favorable to Trump’s planned housing project on the 60th Street railyards. While a consultant to the city, after he’d left full-time employment, he generated the financing schemes (Triboro Authority bonds with UDC ownership) that was subsequently applied to Trump’s convention-center site. He and Trump were calling each other and comparing notes on my recent interviews with them. The Seldin link to both is a tangible sign of the relationship between Bailkin and Trump during the Commodore negotiations.

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The Web of Connections

Bailkin’s connections are more than matched by the questions that surround his successor as chief city negotiator on the remaining Commodore questions, Mark Levine, the corporation counsel’s former real-estate director. It was he who had asked for a copy of Trump’s Commodore option and received the copy signed only by the developer. Levine had been involved with Bailkin in the early negotiations before the Board of Estimate approval and worked intensely on the project until he left the city in September 1977. He had worked out the detailed terms of the 150-page lease and many subsidiary agreements vital to the final closing of the deal. Levine is now an associate in Sandy Lindenbaum’s law firm, which represented Trump on several aspects of the Commodore. I talked with Levine, but, when I told him I was writing about the Commodore, he abruptly ended the conversation, promising to get back to me. But he never returned several calls from me.

Stanley Friedman, as deputy mayor, rushed all the city commitments on the Commodore to conclusion in the final weeks of the Beame administration, then went to work for another law firm retained by Trump on the Commodore. Richard Kahan, as UDC director of commercial projects, joined Friedman in the last-minute march, similarly committing the state to the deal, then was backed by Trump — and Trump’s top political guns — for Carey’s appointment as president of the agency.

Victor Palmieri and Co. represented the Penn Central trustees in the sale of the hotel to Trump, completed in May 1978, though Trump had failed to meet the terms of the option three times and in fact had no legal option when Palmieri permitted him to exercise it. Palmieri and Penn Central lawyers conducted the sale at the same price set in 1975 discussions, though the city’s hotel market had boomed in the interim. While Palmieri let Trump’s price stand, it was simultaneously at the receiving end of a bid war on three other Manhattan hotels that resulted in a $10 million increase in the previously accepted price. Palmieri did not get an updated appraisal on the property (his last update was nearly two years old).

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The Commodore sale was consummated one month after Trump brokered a lucrative deal for the Palmieri Co. on another, unrelated contract. Trump arranged the sale of Levitt and Sons, Inc., a home-building company divested by International Telephone and Telegraph in a federal antitrust case. Palmieri Co. was the court-appointed management firm assigned to sell Levitt — a task no one had been able to accomplish since 1971. Trump found a buyer, Starrett Housing Co., which purchased Levitt for $30 million, out of which the court paid Palmieri a healthy fee. Trump says Starrett paid him a brokerage commission on the sale.

John Koskinen, the Palmieri president who handled both the Commodore and the Levitt sale, says that discussions between Levitt and Starrett began in December 1977. At the same time, though the option agreement had clearly expired, Palmieri and a single trustee — without the required approval of the bankruptcy court — amended their agreement with Trump and gave him a three-month extension though, by the terms of the court-approved agreement, Trump’s option was automatically voided by his failure to meet the deadlines. At the end of February 1978, the Levitt/Starrett sale was completed. When Trump failed to comply with even this three-month extension, he was permitted to buy the hotel a month later, subject to the terms of his expired option.

This is the ethos of a Trump deal. Harrison Goldin assigns the project to the political side of his office after his first discussion with Trump. Richard Ravitch is pulled by conflicting interests. The Bowery Savings Bank, with a strong economic interest in the Commodore renovation, uses its influence at UDC to shape public policy. Commerce and government blur together.

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No Purpose But Profit

The Commodore plan had nothing going for it but connections. Its defenders said it would generate jobs. But all construction does. This project is less labor-intensive than most. At the time it was approved in 1976, the hotel market was depressed and there was no sign that the operation of the hotel would actually create jobs. A new hotel wasn’t likely to do much more than simply redirect tourists from one place to another. Neither can it be said that the city was prophetic, anticipating the hotel boom, knowing that by the time it was built it would create jobs. If the city had known that, it shouldn’t have had to subsidize what it was expecting to be a booming business.

In order for UDC to use all its statutory powers of exemption and condemnation, the board actually had to adopt a resolution that described the Grand Central area as a “substandard or insanitary area.” We have redefined triage if East 42nd Street is the “substandard” neighborhood that a post-default UDC sees as the site for its largest project.

To try to justify the project, a city study identified one statistical index reflecting a decline in the area — namely an unusually high rate of tax arrearages. The rate was almost wholly due to the enormous back taxes Penn Central owed on the Commodore itself, which, of course, the bankrupt company owed on all of its properties. The city’s report stated: “Some speculative assemblage activity is still occurring in the area, which may mean guarded confidence in the district’s future.” Nonetheless, the city and state rushed in with well in excess of $100 million in abatements to fight blight that apparently speculators couldn’t see.

The other rationale for the abatement plan — one advanced by Trump — was that Penn Central wasn’t paying taxes anyway and that anything he paid “was better than what the city is getting now.” But Penn Central had entered an agreement to pay its taxes on all city delinquent properties, completely independent of Trump’s purchase of the Commodore.

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Palmieri Co. closed the hotel two days before the Board of Estimate hearing on the Commodore abatement. The company denies that the closing was an attempt to affect the Board’s decision on the Commodore. What seems clear to me is that it was Trump’s and the city’s interest in the hotel that precipitated Penn Central’s abandonment of it. In 1974, Penn Central spent $2 million on improvements at the hotel in an effort to restore it as a successful operating hotel. In January 1975, Palmieri asked for another $2 million from the trustees, though the hotel lost almost half a million in 1974 and more losses were anticipated in 1975. Their judgment was that the losses could be reversed. Then Trump offered $10 million for it. The capital improvements were then postponed “during discussions with Trump.” Palmieri Co. indicated they would make no deal with Trump until he got all of his pieces in place, including financing and city approvals. Everyone knew that would take a long time.

The effect of these decisions was that Penn Central gave up on the hotel. In effect, their position was not dissimilar to that of a slumlord seeking urban-renewal acquisition: the worse things get, the more likely it is that the city will be forced to buy. Whether the closing right before the Board of Estimate vote was intended to influence it is incidental. That was its effect. The hotel closing was merely the final, visible sign of a year-old process of abandonment that could lead nowhere except to a sale.

The need for the project was a sham — partially contrived by those who would profit from it. Trump’s claimed option on the property was a sham; he was working immense deals with nothing but a handshake. Then the project passed through a sham closing, orchestrated by its Trump-connected public sponsors, and binding the city and state. What is real, and will get more and more real in this busted city in the next 41 years, is what we gave away. Revenue not collected is as real a loss as revenue expended. The Commodore is the largest symbol of the new state and city resolve to “stimulate economic development” by giving away the future. IBM, ABC, CBS, WNET-TV, New York Telephone, the Palace Hotel, Howard Johnson’s have already gotten abatements under the new state program. Twenty-six projects have been abated in midtown already. Nine projects have been approved under the city’s incentive program, though it is still no more than a phantom program. These abatement programs are the moral-obligation bonds of a future city collapse.

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