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Legs McNeil: Teenage Hipster in the Modern World

Cool in an Uncool World

Two years ago, standing on a pier jutting into Delaware Bay, I told Legs McNeil, the “Resident Punk” of Punk Magazoon, the most moral thing I’ve yet said in my journalism career.

Legs and I were in Wilmington, Delaware, for the “First Annual Sleaze Convention.” Legs was the “Con Special Guest Star.” This owed to his then-inflating reputation for doing nothing much but drinking, eating in McDonald’s, watching television, and reading comic books. Those days Legs’s professed only goal in life was to sing the theme song from Eva Gabor’s TV show Green Acres before a packed house at Madison Square Garden. He had also been known to take an elevator to the top of the Empire State Building, look out on a perfectly clear city night, and say, “Wow, you can see Nathan’s from here.”

This was very impressive to the organizers of “Sleaze Con,” a group of Delaware weirdos who edited a magazine called the Daily Plague. Legs was the embodiment of sleaze, a true citizen of the Modern World. They treated Legs and me to an annotated tour of an all-night supermarket. All nine brands of pork rinds were identified and labeled. A boys’ choir sang recipes for “mock apple pie” off a box of Ritz crackers. Later, Richard Nixon sugar packets were passed around. It was all “random American rot,” the Sleaze Con people said.

Now Legs and I were waiting for Godzilla. There was some hope the great beast would raise his head above the electric green waters. After all, the entire state of Delaware is the personal playground of the Du Pont family, and the city of Wilmington puts up signs on Interstate 95 saying, WELCOME TO WILMINGTON, THE CHEMICAL CAPITAL Of THE WORLD. These factors seemed to produce a unique environment. Not long before Sleaze Con, the Wilmington city fathers paved over the decaying downtown streets where blacks hung out. Shiny malls full of potted oak trees and contemporary supergraphics were put in. The idea was to get white people to shop downtown, and that worked, but there was a problem. The development was overrun by Mall Monsters, a mutant strain of huge cockroaches. Supposedly swollen to an incredible girth by the concentration of test-tube runoff in the area, the giant bugs were the scourge of Wilmington’s urban renewal plans. Baskin-Robbins employees reportedly got plenty of overtime sweeping the roaches away with push brooms.

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Legs and I, both hypersensitive to the thickening rumble of the apocalypse, took the insects as a sign. Our sources had informed us that there was enough witch’s brew in the Delaware River to make a comfy home for any Oriental radiation monster that no longer got high off the atomic surf in the Sea of Japan. Legs and I felt that if we watched the water long enough, things would begin to cook. The air would get dank and expectant. The water would begin to crash against the hulls of supertankers. Soon the trumpeting ring of raging foam would begin to form. And then, there he’d be — ­Godzilla, sardonic and magnificent, the soul of the Modern World, the patron saint of the postatomic age. Just sitting there, staring at the smelly water, made Legs and me feel like Wise Men, searching the skies for the right bright object.

But Legs, with an attention span as long as a manic-depressive’s fingernail, got bored. He bought a six pack of Rolling Rock and drank it all, just the way he always did. Soon he was raving, screaming his usual shit about teenagers taking over the world. Shut up, I told him, yelling was spoiling the vigil. Fuck that, Legs said, he wasn’t waiting for Godzil­la, like some asshole in a play. He was taking matters into his own hands. Seconds later he jumped off the pier and disappeared into the murk. Next time l saw him was a minute lat­er. He had his spindle arms wrapped around a piling. Bright algae was smeared across his face so he looked like a messy kid eating a blue ice. After I helped him onto the dock, he looked at me with a desperate horror that had my socks going up and down. “I saw things down there,” he said. “I saw things, but I didn’t see him. I didn’t see Him.” Then Legs collapsed. I had to carry the jerk back to the Lord Della-Warr Motel, the hooker­-infested joint where we were staying. It was then, as I recall it, with Legs over my shoulder like a harpooned carp, his spittle dripping on the back of my knee, that I said my most moral thing. I said, “Legs, you asshole. I am not doing this story on you. I am not taking the responsibility for making you famous.”

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Teengenerate

It wasn’t until later that night, only after he had rolled out of bed, located a Sleaze-Con groupie, taken her back to the motel, and was interrupted fucking by members of the Blondie band who broke into his room and threw ice cubes on his kitty back, did Legs get the gist of my meaning. Those days I was working in the Felkerian salt mines for New York  magazine. The Felk, frothing to finger still another trend, sent me to “identi­fy” punk, the crest of which was then beginning to media crash. Legs liked the idea of New York magazine, he thought it was toney.

Back then Legs was devoting most of his ferret energy to becoming “famous.” He used to crawl around the beer­-dripped floor of CBGB, biting people on the calf. When they looked down, Legs would be there with a shit-eating grin on his face. “Hi, I’m famous,” he’d say, and scurry away. After the Godzilla incident, however, Legs and I weren’t so tight. He’d see me on the Bowery and shout, “There goes the guy who didn’t want to take the responsibility for making me famous.”

Legs will never believe it, but I held off for love, because there’s something about Legs McNeil I really love. I used to think that someday I’d write a novel with Legs as the leading character, and the book would contain everything I know about living in the Modern World. Legs’s character would be similar to the one Ray Milland plays in the Roger Corman film X — The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. In that movie Milland is a doctor who discovers a special serum that enables him to see “what others cannot see.” In the beginning Milland has fun. He cheats at cards and looks through blouses. But eventually he sees too much. He sees the center of the universe, the driving force of the galaxy. “No one,” he says, “should see so much.” The last scene in the film takes place at a revival meeting. The harrowed and half-crazed Milland tells his problem to the brimstone preacher, who says, “If thy eye offends you, pluck it out.” Milland does.

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Talking to Legs has always given me the ghostly feeling of being with someone who knows too much for his own good. In Legs’s case, it is knowing too much about the true horror of his generation. That, as it turns out, is a road to madness.

Legs could have avoided this if he didn’t have such a crazy desire to be cool. Legs has got to be cool, or Legs isn’t anything at all. Once Punk ran a contest asking readers to write in why they were punks. The best reply came from somewheres in Queens. It said, “I’m a punk because I’m cool and I ain’t got nothing to show for it.”

That was Legs. He grew up in Cheshire, Connecticut, a suburban town that has DENTIST written all over it. The streets in Cheshire are neat and Waspy. The kids go to college and have fathers like Jim Anderson. Legs’s life, however, did not follow that pattern. He lived across the railroad from the manicured lawns, in the hollow of swamp bog. His father died of cancer when he was two months old. Before that, his grandfather blew his head off in the family chicken house, and his grandmother committed herself to a mental institution. Throughout his childhood Legs always asked his mother where his father was and why his grandmother’s house had bars. His mother worked as a secretary to make sure the McNeils would always have a home in Cheshire. But they never really belonged there. Legs’s face tells you that. It is a shanty-­Irish face, the kind that rides a forklift in Fall River, Massachusetts. But Legs wasn’t born for the treadmill. He felt a tiny artist’s pitter-pat in his cholesterol-influxing heart and wanted desperately to have something to show for being cool.

To Legs, teenagers were the coolest. All the Archie comics he read and TV he watched in Cheshire told him that. He saw how the big kids drove cars and took chicks to the Fillmore blasted out of their gourd. He figured that must be what cool is. But by the time Legs got to be a teenager, in the early 1970s, everyone was telling him he was too late. All the cool stuff was over. The Summer of Love, acid, battling the government, splitting for the Coast, none of that was left.

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Legs couldn’t believe it. Waiting all this time to be cool and getting gotz. There had to be something to break him out of Cheshire, something cool to call his own. The radio and everything else were still jammed up with the flotsam and jetsam of another generation. Crosby, Stills, and Nash, my asshole — Legs knew a burnt-out case when he heard one. He tried glitter rock, but he couldn’t make his butt fit the French cut.  And everywhere they were talking about how this new batch of youth had the “new seriousness”; how kids today only wanted to get good grades and be corporation lawyers. No doubt, Legs thought, these have got to be the uncoolest times ever to come down the pike.

Desperate, Legs dommied up in his room overlooking the swamp and proceeded to go into one of the longest wigstretches on rec­ord. II ow could a cool person be cool in an uncool time? It was a skull buster and Legs schemed far and wide. He went out into the stratosphere, the zoneospbere, the goneos­phere, and the way-goneosphere. When he came back and dug what he had brought back with him, it knocked him under the bed covers for another two weeks. Cool, Legs psyched out, is an arbitrary thing. Anything could be cool if you say it is. Hitler said hating Jews was cool, so the German teenagers said, hey, lets stop painting our toenails and go hate some Jews, it’s cool. That nugget buzzshotted Legs’s gray curls. So he stayed home another week and spun out another mess. He furthermored, it wasn’t so much the things you thought were cool that made you cool, it was the feeling of being cool — ­when you know you’re cool — that really made you cool.

This month-long head session gave the teenage McNeil a blueprint for action. In­stead of apologizing for being born too  late, Legs railed against his smug ’60s-loving eld­ers. “What do you love?” he demanded. “Pot, long guitar solos, battling the govern­ment, wearing bright colors, being mellow? … Well, I hate all that. All that sucks and is uncool.”

“And what do you hate?” Legs went on. “Television, burgers, drinking, violent beha­vior? … Well, I love all of that. I declare these things to be mine. I appoint liking Ho­gan’s Heroes and McDonald’s to be cool. I love America, too. I love everything about Modern America, the long freeways, the whole bit. Any country that produced Eddie Haskell has to be cool.”

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Legs’s coolness cosmology was, of course, total reaction. But anyone without his brains buried on the Upper West Side has to realize the necessity and logic of it. I mean, the kids have to dance. But who would have figured Legs’s coolness would turn out to be brave? By deciding the Modern World was his Godhead, Legs decreed that, in order to be cool one had to be hip to how to live in such a contemporary landscape. It was a task an entire generation had called impossible, choosing instead to label the Modern World “plastic” and cuddle themselves in the fantasies of “going back to the land.” Legs had picked a rough road to ride. But at least it was convenient. To be cool, Legs wouldn’t have to go to Mexico and get the runs under a volcano. Nor would he have to give pennies to belly-swelled babies in Calcutta. Legs grew up in Cheshire, Connecticut. His muse was all around him, inside and out.

It didn’t take Legs long to realize there were other disgruntled, would be cool teenagers who shared his search for the hip. There was John Holmstrom and Ged Dunn, his buddies from Cheshire. They wanted to be cool, too, albeit without Legs’s manic desperation. Better adjusted to the middle class, they dug Legs because he did reckless things like talk the local high school into giving him money to make a class film and then get expelled for spending all the bread drinking. One night, when the three friends were driving down the Wilbur Cross Parkway with nothing to do, Legs grabbed the wheel, swerved the car across three lanes of traffic, and drove it into a ditch. Then he jumped into the back seat, stuck his nose into the crease, and started whimpering about how he was having a “coolness freakout.” He needed an outlet for his coolness or he’d commit suicide.

To save Legs’s life, Holmstrom and Dunn decided to move to New York and start a magazine. At first Holmstrom wanted to call the mag Teenage News because they were only interested in teenage issues. But it was eventually changed to Punk because Legs was a big fan of a Dictators song, “Weekend.” It goes: “Eddie [Legs’s real name, sort of — his actual name is Roderick Edwin McNeil. He took Legs because he loves Ray Danton] is the local punk / throwing up and getting drunk/ eating in McDonald’s for lunch.” Dunn, a budding capitalist who compared Punk‘s mimeograph machine to a Carl Sandburg steel mill, became the publisher. Holmstrom, a genius cartoonist, and Harvey Kurtzman disciple, made himself editor. Legs, however, couldn’t figure out what to call himself. He couldn’t draw and had no head for business. Finally he decided on “Resident Punk,” a combination “secret agent”/ Alfred E. Newman title calculated to make him a legend by age 19.

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At last, Legs was cool. It was mid-1975, the beginning of the CBGB punk emergence that Punk would help turn into a national media phenomenon. Legs was key on the scene. Any night you could see him standing in front of CBGB, a loose cigarette hanging from his lower lip, two punkette groupies on either arm of his leather jacket — the one with the rips under both armpits — cutting a wicked figure.

Those days Legs’s brain cooked like a burning idea factory. On the Bowery he met other suburban kids who had suffered the uncertainty of cool through their early teenage years. Kids who had also racked their brains for an answer to the question: How to be cool in an uncool time. Many of them, like the Ramones, the members of Blondie, and the Dictators, had come to the same conclusions as Legs and thrown themselves headlong into study of the Modern World. Legs spent those early CBGB nights discoursing on Bullwinkle Moose and TV commercials with Joey Ramone. To Legs, these conversations had the momentous freshness of Mao and Chou revealing their similar passions for ideas by the light of one candle in a cave.

One night Legs found out that he, Joey, and two members of Blondie had all had the same dream. They dreamed of Monty Hall saying, “Well, would you trade your life for what’s behind that curtain?” After that, Legs knew that his generation, the first ever to grow up completely within the Modern Age, had acquired a huge collective subconscious. The power and vastness of this concept made Legs burst with creativity. Often he would sit in the back of CBGB, listening to the Talking Heads sing “Don’t Worry about the Government” and make up his “Famous Persons” interviews for Punk. Legs did straight Q-and-As with “personalities” like Boris and Natasha and the cast of Gilligan’s Island. He treated people like Carl Betz as if they were real. Which they were, to Legs. Once he said “I am exploring an alternative environment. It’s love a world like ours, but not quite. It’d the kind of place you could wake tomorrow and think you’re home but actually you’d be just part of the boot heel of some asshole in another galaxy.”

I remember the day Milton Glaser came by my desk and picked up an issue of Punk. He thumbed through it, looking at the hand-printed features (it was Holmstrom’s master stroke that made Punk the best magazine of neo-literate times — he made the whole thing look like a comic book; that way he could print the theory of relativity and kids would read it), the illustrated interviews with Lou Reed, Legs’s craziness. Glaser sat down, visibly shaken. “These guys could put me out of business,” he said. If Punk worried Milton Glaser, I knew here was something big.

This was the beginning of my appreciation of punk as a spectacularly American way of cool. How fabulous to have something new to dig after years of mealy-mouthed postmortems in Berkeley. All that baloney by drones like Norman Plodmorris about the essence of the 1970s and here it really was. I loved that the Ramones’ first record was made in 18 hours and cost only $6000. Figures like that cut away the flab of indecision. So did the music. The Ramones song “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around with You,” which has the lyrics, “I don’t wanna walk around with you/ I don’t wanna walk around with you/ so why you wanna walk around with me?” boiled away any other, superfluous ideas I had about high school cool. It was all I needed to know about adolescence in general. It was as if the Ramones, none of whom were named Ramone, were saying to the dull sixties establishment: “See, we can express ourselves fast, cheap, and good. We’ll tell you about our own experience as teenagers, and it will be real.”

The hipness of this idea pulled my coat no end. Like Legs said, “We don’t care what no one says. Sure, things are supposed to be shit now. But, fuck it. We’re here and we’re gonna have our fun. We’re gonna be cool.” The audaciousness was super; Legs and his buddies were reinventing cool before my eyes. They were accepting the crap of the Modern World, all that mind rot, and they were celebrating it, not protesting against it. What a brilliantly existential decision! How modernistic a concept!

I thought back to all the philosophizing I’d once read about what was hip and what was not. And dredged up an old quote from Norman Mailer. Big Norm said, “For Hip is sophistication of the wise primitive in a giant jungle … ” Who else was Legs? This described him and his fellow punks to a T.

It was early 1976, the Five Spot, where so much bop was played, had just closed for the last time. It was replaced by a clothing store called the Late Show, which catered mostly to the CBGB crowd and played Ramones records constantly over its booming speaker set. I made this a sign. And envisioned a whole generation of hipsters lurking along the Bowery in black leather jackets. A collection of wise primitives making incisive comments about a culture nobody even wanted to admit existed. To me, it was very moving.

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Legs McNeil and the Obsolescence of the White Negro Theory

Legs became the spokesman, such as it was, for this new generation of hipsters, partially by default, since most of the band members were into catatonia, and partially due to his zeal for self-promotion. Legs would sit under the Fonz poster in the “Punk dump,” the storefront “office” he, Holmstrom, and Dunn kept underneath the approach ramp to the LincolFcarlinn Tunnel, and pontificate for the pop-culture reporters. About hippies he said, “A bunch of yin wimps. Woodstock was a hip capital pajama party.” About glitter rock, he said, “Homosexuality shouldn’t be pushed on 15-old kids.” About the future of visual expression, he said, “I think movies should only be thirty minutes long and be in black and white. Kids don’t have the concentration for more.” About himself, he said, “Every time I look in the mirror it’s like watching a home movie.”

One of the classic Legs McNeil interviews appeared as part of an August 1976 Voice article by Frank Rose. Rose was trying to decipher punk’s effect on the supposedly large issue of “butch,” a term Frank described as “self-conscious masculinity.”

At the time, Legs was on a search-and-destroy mission against disco, which Punk had described in an editorial as the source of “everything wrong with Western civilization.” Legs said disco was the creation of synthesizers, a fact he claimed left the limp shit devoid of human energy and turned listeners into “zombies.” Disco, Legs asserted, was an uncool Communistic plot invented by jaded grown-ups to rob teenagers of their naivete. But more interesting and inflammatory was Legs’s conjecture that disco was the product of an unholy alliance between blacks and gays. Neither of these groups was currently in favor with Legs, and he routinely called them niggers and faggots. If Legs was the next big thing, as Lester Bangs and others suggested, then Rose was worried about this.

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Rose’s story had Legs saying all kinds of apparently reactionary and reckless things like, “Punks are normal people, that’s what we are, normal. We’re not a bunch of perverts” … “Punks are like — the guys know they’re guys and the chicks know they’re chicks” … “David Bowie is really sick. He’s such a faggot” … Also, about blacks, he said, “We’re not really racist …. We’re just into our own thing. It’s like saying to Italians [why don’t you like] Polacks?”

Rose concluded, not incorrectly, or surprisingly, considering the evidence he was given, that Legs was a blue­-collar poseur who saw life as “giant high school.” Legs’s racism and gay-baiting, portrayed as borrowed from Irish bars in Ridgewood, were simply attitudes to fill in the image of a man’s man. This seemed true enough on the surface, but I couldn’t help feeling that in Rose’s rush to tenderly put Legs and his punk crew down as still another potentially brutish terror a gay man in New York has to contend with, Frank had taken McNeil’s quotes far too seriously.

I thought back to a night at the 82 Club. The Dictators were playing. Punk had run a “Punk of the month” contest. Readers were asked to send in pictures of themselves proving they were more punky than anyone else. One Ronald Binder won three months in a row. He sent in low-angle pictures of himself eating chains. Sent telegrams threatening to blow up the Punk camp if he didn’t win. Holmstrom said, “Wow, we got to give it to this guy. He’ll kill us if we don’t.” Still, no one had ever seen Ronald Binder in the flesh. Until that night at the 82. Binder came over to Holmstrom and said, “Hi, I’m the punk of the month.” One look was enough. Binder was maybe five feet tall, he weighed plenty. He looked completely harmless. Holmstrom was beside himself. “My God,” he said. “I thought you ate dead babies for breakfast … This is terrible. Don’t tell anyone who you are, you’ll make us look bad.”

Binder seemed hurt by Holmstrom’s abuse. He went off in a corner and hung his head by the 82’s Ukrainian wallpaper. He stayed there until Legs, who had seen the whole confrontation, came over and said, “Don’t let it get you down. I’m a fake, too.”

This was no surprise. Self-mockery has always been Legs’s meat. He wore his leather jacket as a cocoon of fakery. He was to a real street punk as Goldberg’s is to a pizza pie: a witty but not particularly faithful parody. Legs has never been tough at all. He weighs about 110 pounds. He couldn’t break his own nose. As a macho aggressive, he’s never been confused with a tiger fighting for his mate. That, of course, was the whole joke, the ironic core of the coolness.

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But this didn’t make Legs a clown. To me, his self-mockery recalled the way Thelonious Monk plays the piano or Earl Monroe dribbles the basketball. With those two there has always been a tension between the dead seriousness of technique and the ironical understanding that in the scope of the universe all those hours developing a style like no one else might mean nothing. They could drop a bomb on you. You could get hit by a truck. The only sane way to deal with this looming spectre of random destruction was to have a sense of humor about yourself.

This, I figured, was the key to Legs. No matter how ardently he argued his perceptions about the world, he didn’t want to be held to them. For him, proselytizing was technique, but none of it was hard and fast. It was Legs’s hipster nature, I thought.

But it also caused problems. If Legs was a hipster, and CBGB a hipster scene, where were the blacks? I can’t remember seeing more than three or four black in any CBGB crowd. Not one punk-rock band has been dominated by black musicians. No CBGB band even seems to borrow firsthand from traditional R&B or blues sources. The only noticeable influence down at CBG are the fall-down guys who drift over from the Men’s Shelter. This, coupled with Legs’s remarks about how “blacks have their culture and we have ours,” seemed to contradict everything I know about white hipsters.

Everything I know about white hipsters, theoretical-wise, comes from Big Norman’s famous essay, The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster. And I knew I’d have to go to the woodshed with Mailer if I wanted some enlightenment on this Legs puzzlement. Written in 1957, Norm’s essay says the hipster was a man who realized “our collective condition is to live with instant death by atomic war.” This fact was particularly distressing to white men ticketed for two cars in the garage and a neat hedge around the lawn. With the threat of death haunting every moment, middle-class striving seemed a waste of time. According to Mailer, the only sane thing to do was “to encourage the psychopath in one’s self, to explore that domain of experience where security is boredom and therefore sickness, and one exists in the present, in that enormous present which is without past or future, memory of planned intention, the life where a man must go until he is beat … ”

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This road, especially for the passel of Brooklyn-Queens Jews and Texas gays who felt compelled to take it, was totally uncharted. A guide was needed, and in the Negro these searching whites found one. Spades had been living with the knowledge that they could be wiped out at any given moment for 350 years. Mailer called this “living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy.” He also said the blacks had produced an entire culture based upon living on the edge. They traveled light, spoke a secret and flexible language, gambled, and wore orange pants with green shirts. It was living on the brink, but their constant state of “psychopathy” had also produced the wondrous jazz, the perfect “orgasm” of brinksmanship.

Hipsters, or whites who recognized the descending sword for what it was, understood and dug the brilliance of the blacks’ achievement. “So,” says Big Norman, “there was a new breed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out at night, looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts. The hipster had absorbed the existential synapses of the Negro and, for all practical purposes, could be considered a White Negro.

I was a White Negro for the better part of my consciously hip life. Probably still am. I worked as a porter at the Port Authority Bus Terminal so I could do a black man’s job. I began smoking Pall Malls because the blacks did. Along with my other White Negro friends, I lived at the Brittany Hotel on 10th Street. When Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf brought their blues band to stay at the Albert, we supplied them with smoke.

We hung around with as many jazzmen as would have us. Major Holley, who played bass with Roland Kirk occasionally back then, was our buddy. He knew we were just another bunch of hopeless Queens Mezz Mezzrows looking for a taste of the millennium, but he was sweet and let us play our game. In return we would sit ringside at the Five Spot and, when Holley soloed, we’d shout, “Major, you so fucking good, they ought to make you a general.” Once, the Major must have been bugged because he put down his bass during a Jazz Interactions concert, went to the microphone, and said, “Damn, I am all tuckered out. So let’s meet and greet Jake the Snake, who will provide us with some meal ticket in the meantime.”

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I didn’t want to go onstage, I had never even held a bass before. But my buddies pushed me to it. I picked up the big momma and plucked it a couple of times. Then Roland Kirk turned to me. With the cigarette smoke around his beret like gauze, three fat horns stuck in his mouth, and wraparound sunglasses across his blind eyes, Kirk was a vision of boogie hell. But it was okay. He said, “Shit, sounds black to me.”

This, I have always felt, was one of the crowning moments of my life. But Legs would not buy it. Explaining why spades were cool and worth imitating was a pointless conversation to have with Legs. As pointless as trying to explain why Dylan going electric was important, as pointless as explaining why getting arrested at People’s Park was both useless and consummate at the same time. Legs simply refused to comprehend why my generation of hipsters dug blacks. He would not even accept such seemingly irrefutable black-coolness raps as George Carlin’s schoolyard scene. Carlin said put a bunch of white kids and a bunch of black kids together and after a week the whites will be talking like the blacks. But none of the blacks would be saying, “Golly, gee, we won the big game.”

To Legs, blacks were mostly on the radio, making the rotten disco music he hated, or in the first three pages of the Daily News sticking 9mm guns into people’s chests. He said he had “no guilt.” The only other thing he’d say about blacks involved a bizarre theory about why listening to their music was so repugnant to him. He said that because of “racism, or whatever,” most blacks didn’t get on the radio until they were 30 or 40, so they always sang about 30- and 40-year-old concerns. He said this was alien to him. If all blacks were teenagers, like the Jackson Five, singing “like A­ B-C, One-Two-Three,” that would be all right with him. Otherwise, blacks didn’t interest him in the least.

This troubled me. Racism, or whatever, is understandable, even poetic, in the mouth of a blue-collar worker or a southern sheriff — it’s an integral part of their worldview. But this attitude of racial indifference coming from a hipster hit a discord. If Legs McNeil were a hipster and he didn’t think blacks were cool, my universe was about to go into a tilt.

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Actually, I had been busting my brain with certain notions about the apparent de-emphasis of blacks in the Hip and Square cultures respectively for some time.

Mailer’s essay was better than a nice sum-up of ’50s attitudes. He predicted the ’60s, too. Norm drones on in The White Negro about hipsters relentlessly seeking their “orgasm,” which I have always taken to mean the sexual­-emotional act or state that would give meaning to their “psychopathic” position on the edge between oblivion and the security of the middle class. For me — and I assume this is true for most White Negroes of my generation — the entire ’60s experience was an “orgasm.” After all, what were hippies if not white kids acting like spades? It horrified me when sign-wavers chanted about “student as nigger” and the rest of that. But there was a basic truth to it. We were smoking dope, being casual about sex, pretending poverty so we might be niggers.

Blacks, not surprisingly, were aghast at this national insanity. They might hang around Hippie Hill for some white pussy, but they had to be wondering why people with money were trying to act like niggers. Once, when I thought I was a dope dealer, I got ripped off in a Stanyan Street apartment by a black guy. I was supposed to pick up 10 keys of Michoacan from the guy. But as soon as I got into the room, he stuck a gun in my ear and took the $750 my friends gave me. He tied me up so I wouldn’t “even think” about following him and put a Jimi Hendrix record on the box. Then he looked at me, like this is just too easy, shook his head in sympathy, and said, “You know, I just don’t understand you people. Don’t you know this is dangerous?” Then he split. A few minutes later a paste-white chick with drugged eyes and matted hair came out from behind an Indian-print curtain. She squinted into the red light bulb, said it was cold, and lit the stove. After she untied me, she said, “Doug is really a dynamite guy, he just gets wild sometimes.”

I don’t know what I was expecting: to sit down with the ghetto guys, talk about the impending shadow of night, and have them say, “Hey, we’re all in the same boat, welcome aboard”? It was never going to happen. Knowing handshakes and slick words didn’t make you cool. Besides, the “psychopathy” in the blacks that we admired was not calculated to produce white-man-lovers or even very nice guys. You could dig their orgasm, feeling passionately about the plight that made them crazy men, but you had to be wise. Wise that getting next to them was like cutting your own throat.

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Also, sometime in the early ’70s, blacks began doing things that might be considered uncool. Their horrendous affectations of the worst parts of the hippie movement were embarrassing, no lie. Talk of astrology and wearing medallions didn’t fit the image of the existential hero. What were the Temptations doing singing about “Psychedelic Shacks”? I felt like grabbing black kids with Robert Indiana LOVE pins stuck to their double knits and saying, “Don’t do it. Don’t go down that road. It’s shit. I know.” This was distressing. Blacks acting crazy, like psychopaths, made sense: being black drove you crazy. But blacks acting dumb was another thing; these were the people who were supposed to understand the secret of the 20th century.

It didn’t take long to figure out what was happening. When you have Diana Ross playing Billie Holiday in a movie made by blacks, when a WBLS destroys WWRL in the ratings, when macho singers get pushed out of the foreground by violin strings, it’s pretty clear. The Nat King Cole element of black culture is overrunning the James Brown segment. Black culture is redefining itself in a middle-class mode. This, of course, is the blacks’ right as Americans. In this country all immigrants — even ones who were brought here in chains — are allowed to become consumers.

But this produced a serious dilemma for White Negroes. If ghetto blacks were simply too dangerous to deal with, the middle-class ones, with their “crossover” concerns, were no longer compelling. George Jefferson wants the same things as my parents; his cleaning lady steals, too. This is not acceptable. It brings to mind the old hipster saw about blacks with seemingly white values: “What an Oreo. He’s not a spade at all.”

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Doing a little cultural cross-referencing, I dug that so-called “Squares” had also made a shift on black people. During the civil rights time in the ’60s, when the closet Commies and liberal types still had pull in showbiz, media blacks pretty much got the Eleanor Roosevelt treatment. Between them, Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones produced more guilt through dignity than a million Jewish mothers could through nagging. But now, it’s almost as if the guilt-exorcising Squares are saying, “Well, we gave these guys their chance. We highlighted their struggle. What did they do? Gave us Rap Brown, the ungrateful loudmouth, and mugged our grandmothers.”

Therein, I think, is the basis for the elevation of the Italian-­American in the mass media. With a self-propelled reputation for toughness and the supposed ability to call their Uncle Vinnie at the drop of a confrontation, Italians are perceived by black-fearing Squares (as well as black-fearing hipsters) as the only group of whites capable of fending off the onrush of “them.” How many times have you heard the joke, “Well, I guess this is a safe neighborhood” while walking by Bella Ferrara? If you’re dumb, that means Italians don’t like “yoms” much and are willing to fight them on their own physical terms. Blacks know this, and they also know Italians are some cold-blooded motherfuckers (what they didn’t know they saw in the Godfather movies, which were big in the black ghettos), so they stay away. This set of pseudo-facts is so ingrained in the public consciousness, it is no surprise that many of the TV cops — Baretta, Petrocelli, Delvecchio, and Columbo — are some have-been Italians. Who else can be depended on to keep the blacks in their place?

To facilitate this myth-making, the media moguls have imbued Italians with much of the “soul” that used to be the exclusive property of blacks. This is quite clear in the seminal work of revisionist racial theory, Rocky. You’ve got to figure Stallone knew what he was doing, I make him that cynical. He portrays Rocky as a guileless but lovable blue-collar plodder who has an indomitable spirit. The major black characters, the champ and the female TV reporter who interviews Rocky, are both seen as slick, hollow hustlers. Stallone’s attitude toward blacks is similar to that of Americans toward Commies in the fifties: they’re smarter and sneakier than us, so we have to stick together and be pure of heart.

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A White Negro, even a disillusioned White Negro, watching the meat-packing scene in which noble-savage Stallone pleads to the middle-class black reporter, “Just don’t take no cheap shot, please,” is stunned by the manipulation of racial images since the ’60s. It is almost as if whites have been given the message: You don’t have to pretend to like “them” anymore. Now, to whites, blacks are either the faceless unmentionable or just another creep trying to take your job. Either way they are better off forgotten.

Eyeballing all this, Legs’s indifference to spades was more understandable. Legs is a hipster who takes his input from Square sources. If TV tells him Italians are cool, he may adopt their way of saying “fuck you” — a short, blunt blast as opposed to the sultry, many-syllabled “fuck you motherfucker” of the blacks — but he’s not taking the whole thing. Catholics are far too earnest for a hipster like Legs; that’s what he’s trying to get away from.

But blacks have never even entered his mind as a role model. How could he dig jazz when the radio no longer plays jazz? Blacks had essentially been wiped out as a compelling cultural force before Legs ever got a chance to appreciate them.

But the more I dug, the more I realized blacks would have been irrelevant to a ’70s hipster like Legs anyway. The old White Negro looked to the blacks to lead him through a landscape that was in the midst of total change, due to the introduction of the atomic bomb. That was 25 years ago, when the apocalypse was a new idea and truly existed as a meaningful force only in the minds of a few “urban adventurers.” America still operated by pre-atomic rules. Buildings were still made out of bricks; people still read books, ate in real restaurants, and had families.

Now, of course, much of the above is gone. America has adjusted in profound ways to the spectre of the apocalypse. Now we have throwaway television, throwaway burgers, throwaway housing. None of it has the permanency of the pants your mother bought an inch too long so they’d fit next year. The society has caught up to Hiroshima. We are living, as Legs and I learned at the Sleaze Convention, in a fully fleshed-out post-atomic world. Everything we touch, eat, and see has the singe of doom on it. So Legs doesn’t need anyone to tell him secrets; he knows the score in this world as well as anyone. He needs no guide; he’s on his own.

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Orgasm, Where Is the Orgasm?

Today, two years after we waited for Godzilla and I declined the responsibility for making him famous, Legs McNeil is in my kitchen, telling a tape recorder why the teenagers did not take over the world. 1977, Legs says, was a terrible year. Punk almost went broke. John Holmstrom and Ged Dunn battled. Holmstrom claimed Dunn’s grandiose ambitions to make Punk another Rolling Stone within a year overextended the magazine’s meager resources. Legs figured John was the talent and Ged was the business, and in that case you got to go with the talent, but it hurt him to have to make the choice.

Also, the CBGB rock scene had disintegrated before Legs’s eyes. Many of the first-generation bands, the ones Legs thought spoke for him — Talking Heads, Ramones, Blondie, and the Dictators — got recording contracts and went away on tour. Legs was all for that. Hipster punks knew that the popular culture created them. And they were determined to do something — anything — to make their mark on it. The bands, Legs and Holmstrom figured, were the best bet to express “teenage” obsessions. The media never seems to outgrow its need for rock and roll. Sooner or later, Legs thought, the punk bands had to become the next big thing.

But once Joey Ramone and Chris Stein went out of town, Legs had no one to discuss Jerry Paris with. His fellow hipsters were disappearing. Everyone cool seemed to be. Who else but Handsome Dick Manitoba would go around blustering about how he could break Buddy (Nature Boy) Rogers’s figure-four leg vine and then get himself flattened by a drag queen like Wayne County? What a punk. But now he wasn’t around. The punk bands were diving into the nexus of the popular culture they worshiped like the sun, hardly ever to bubble up above the Hot Hundred again.

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Those who came to replace them were a drag. Legs hated the British punks. They came humorless, snarling the same anti-establishment rant of the Animals a dozen years before. Don’t things ever change in England, Legs wondered. The youth is always discontented. They always hate the government and punch each other about soccer. Rockers aren’t supposed to care about sports, especially soccer. The Brits also brought bleached hair and a pile of punk paraphernalia. Legs saw what was happening. Punk was becoming a movement of mindless followers. Anyone who stuck a safety pin in his nose could be a punk.

This offended Legs’s hipster nature. He never really quite decided whether he wanted punk to turn into a ’60s-style movement or not. But now he’d be sitting with Joey Ramone, and some Westchester kid would come and say, “Hey, you’re Joey Ramone. Hey, I’m a punk, too. I got a band. We cut up our cocks onstage.” Then Joey would make with his Martian reflex and say, “Why do you do that?” The kid would say, “Because I’m a punk.” And Legs would know that Hip cannot be a movement. Because if Hip is a movement and everyone’s the same, that’s not cool. Like Big Norman said so long ago, ” … and, indeed, it is essential to dig the most, for if you do dig, you lose your superiority over the Square, and you are less likely to be cool … ”

Legs understood coolness isn’t something that comes easy. His cool had been achieved through spiritual agony, which led him to the basic precepts about how to be hip in post­atomic America. The Brits’ egalitarianism was all wrong. First of all, they knew nothing about America. They didn’t watch the same shows, they ate weird things. And in their knee-jerk rebellion they offered a bunch of asshole kids who did nothing to try to deal with their existential place in the universe a chance to be as cool as Legs. Now Legs says, “I hate this punk thing these days. The kids at CBGB aren’t cool. They don’t have any opinions about anything. They just sit around saying, This place sucks,’ This place is beat.’ They all smoke pot and wear stupid clothes. It’s just like the fucking hippies. Just like them.”

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The anguish Legs McNeil suffered being the “Resident Punk” of a movement he had come to hate — no man knows. But he did the only thing he felt he could do: He threw himself headlong into the job as a protest. He drank more, offered more diatribes about the foul influence of faggots, and directed manifestos at the invading British. Weeks went by “out of control.” The drinking ravaged his already beleaguered liver. He slept at a different frumpy “groupie’s” house every night. Their names he did not remember. In his haggard look and dedication to the task at hand, Legs reminded one of the lead character in Diary of a Country Priest. One time, while a French reporter was asking him to compare the Three Stooges with Laurel and Hardy, Legs spewed forth a three-foot curtain of blood and phlegm.

From everywhere, uncool people who didn’t get the joke besieged him. Once, a burly idiot from Ohio wielding a pearl­handled switchblade came into CBGB looking to dethrone Legs as “Resident Punk.” Legs had to hide in Phebe’s among the off-off Broadway failures. It appeared that Legs would soon fulfill John Holmstrom’s blithe and oft-repeated prophecy: “Legs has to die young. Look at his eyes. Can’t you see it? That’s what makes him so romantic.”

One week Legs’s older brother, a hot-dog ski pro who Legs always thought was as cool as James Bond, came to town. The brother took one look at Legs and asked Holmstrom, “What’s wrong with my brother?” John, who had been trying to get Legs to eat something for weeks, said, “I don’t know, I think he’s going crazy.” The brother said something had to be done. According to Legs, “One minute I was upstairs, drinking. They called me down. An hour later I was on my way to the nuthouse. It happened just like that. They didn’t commit me. I signed the papers myself. But they said it wouldn’t be too good for me if I didn’t. After all, I knew they could get everyone in this city as a character witness against me.”

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Legs was in the bughouse only for a month or so, but that was long enough for his roommate to kill himself. Every day the doctors dragged Legs to “creative” encounter sessions. He could hardly keep from cracking up every time one of the fright-wig ladies in the white smocks read their poems, usually about “the beauty of fucking nature or how they wanted to kill their mothers.” Legs read no poems, but the doctors loved him. “They really thought I was an interesting case,” Legs says. “They wanted to keep me there forever. They said I had a unique outlook on life. They kept poking me, wanting to know why I thought everything was so funny.”

Legs signed himself out. Staying there wouldn’t have done anybody any good, he says. The doctors didn’t understand a word he was saying. Actually, the shrinks should have saved their breath. Big Norman said 20 years ago a “psychopath” hipster makes a bad mental patient because he is “ordinately ambitious — too ambitious ever to trade his warped brilliant conception of his possible victories in life for the grim if peaceful attrition of the analyst’s couch.” Big Norm, of course, knows what Legs’s problem is: He ain’t come.

Norm says, “Orgasm is his [the hipster’s] therapy.” And it takes a hipster from the ’60s, whose orgasm did come, over and over for three Tantric years, to dig the sadness of Legs’s coital interruptus. Who knows why Legs’s brand of punk failed to sustain itself as a meaningful hipster force? Probably the punk-hipster vision was too intellectual for most modern teenagers to relate to. Instead of offering the solid psychology of broadside rebellion against parents, legs advocated the elusive psychopathy of dealing with the fearsome swell of Modern America by celebrating it. This is a difficult and ultimately unhappy way to think. Especially for someone as bright as Legs. For him, saying Modern America is great is just more of the joke. But it’s hard to keep laughing when you walk into a supermarket and hear the clerk singing “You Deserve a Break Today” and you know that the McDonald’s jingle is the only song in the whole world he knows the lyrics to.

That’s why I guess I didn’t want the responsibility for making Legs famous. I must have sensed defeat back on the dock waiting for Godzilla. But if Legs and his buddies are the direct descendants of me and my pre-hippie friends, we can sympathize with the bad hand the Bowery Boys drew. They really should have had the spades to show the way. They really were born too late.

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Now Legs is “Resident Punk” in name only. These days Punk comes out infrequently at best, and Legs is talking about moving on. So many things have changed in two years, Legs says with a beer-sodden nostalgia you expect from someone who carried the hippie coffin down Haight Street. “l don’t even want to be famous anymore,” Legs says. “I mean, being famous is neat and all, but I wasn’t making no money. It’s dumb to be famous without something to show for it. That’s why I hate People magazine. Those people are famous for doing stupid things. Now I only want to be famous for doing cool things. That’s what I want to do, cool things.”

Legs’s current cool thing is a band, Shrapnel. He manages them and is their “spiritual leader.” The association began when Legs was in the bughouse. The Shrapnels, five teenage rock and rollers from Red Bank, New Jersey, then calling themselves the Hard Attacks, had read Legs’s “famous persons” interviews and found them intense. They also liked the time they saw Legs pass out in CBGB’s after making still another speech about teenagers taking over the world. They called Legs every day he was in the hospital, begging him to take them on. Legs thought about it for a while, asking the kids pertinent questions like, “If you had all the money in the world, what 10 movies would you make?” They described 10 war films full of fire, destruction, and Armageddon, all of it done in Frank Frazetta style with Venus Paradise color.

Legs recognized the modernistic values in such thinking. He decided that a “war band” was just what New York rock and roll needed. Living in New York was sort of like that anyway, he thought. Everywhere are contending platoons of ethnic groups, looking to aggrandize territory and goods. The fucking Bowery already looked like a B-52ed Nam village. Besides, war expressed Legs’s frame of mind. His cool was under attack from Brits on one side, the dumb CBGB kids on another, and the snotty “punk as art” Soho creeps on the other. The time had come for the true American teenager to stand up. Legs read that Dali said war was “a heightened state of awareness.” If that’s what the moribund punk hipster scene needed to fight miasma like disco, so be it.

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Now, after a few months of woodshedding with Legs, Shrapnel may be the only rock and roll band outwardly advocating World War III. They appear onstage wearing army fatigues and carrying models of M-16s. They use sandbags, cardboard tanks, and mock incendiary bombs as props. They sing songs entitled “Get the World,” “Girls and Guns,” “Special Forces Boy,” and “Cro-Magnum Man.” Their lyrics include stuff like, “I’m fresh from a Vietnam hangover / I got nothing to do / So I’m going to a Texas tower / and rain bullets down on you/ down on you.” Their lead singer, who was 10 years old during the Tet Offensive and looks Like a suckling-pig version of Legs, yells “Hey, you, asshole creep, I bet you were against the war,” and drinks out of a canteen.

Clearly, this is an idea with limited commercial possibilities. How do you hype this band? “Hey, kids, get with Sgt. Rock Rock!” or “Listen to the Curtis Le May Sound!” What do you say about a band whose most melodic song is called “Combat Love”? It is almost as if the Vietnam War is another of the ’60s things Legs feels deprived of. But it’s consistent with his hipster view. The group’s best song, “After the Battle,” which Legs wrote, tells the story of a soldier who gets lost from his platoon in the middle of a firestorm. “Guys,” he screams. “Where are you? Are you out there? Littlejohn, Kinch, Kowalski, anybody?” Kinch and Littlejohn and Kowalski, of course, were members of the platoon on Combat, the television show. It’s just like Legs to call out for pop­-culture characters when he’s lost in the Modern World.

Perhaps only the apocalypse itself can be Legs’s orgasm. But Shrapnel makes him happy, that’s good enough for me. We’ve always been kindred spirits, two white boys trying to be cool. And no matter how seemingly disgusting Legs gets, I prefer to see him poetically: the man who tried to be hip in an unhip time. Besides, it’s kind of funny to watch Legs and the Shrapnels in the band’s one-room apartment on St. Mark’s Place. The kids sit around in their dog tags, reading Soldier of Fortune magazine and singing “Hey, hey, we’re the Shrapnels … We like to Shrapnel around.” Legs says, “I like these kids because they’re real teenagers. The way teenagers should be. They’re normal, they like to read comics, watch television, and get drunk. Being with them makes me feel cool. I kind of look out for them.”

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Legs McNeil as a daddy, the mind boggles. But there is a certain tenderness in the way Legs gives his kids advice on how to be cool. The other day he was telling his guitar player, “Don’t go out with Catholic girls. They never fuck you until a year after they get out of Catholic school. I know.” Legs also takes the Shrapnels up to Connecticut, where they play “army” together in the swamps around Legs’s mother’s house. They split into two squads and fight to take the bridge over the Farmington Canal. Legs says, “My guys are good. They are so fucking good. They’ll wait in a bush for two hours. I’d put my guys up against an A-team Green Beret outfit any day.”

Personally, I like this image of an aging Legs McNeil playing army with his teenage kids. I see him sneaking around the edge of a brick wall, lying low in the tall reeds fertilized by the bodies of so many other soldiers before him. Then he bursts out into the line of murderous enemy fire, his toy gun waving, his high-pitched voice screaming “budda­-budda-budda” like some wild, degenerate manically cool Holden Caulfield. ❖

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Blondie Is More Fun 

Punk rock was kind of a joke in the first place, as a listen to Count Five or the Seeds makes clear, and given the campily ironic distance most CBGB groups bring to it, it becomes a joke once removed, which is like seeing the punch line approaching from a mile away. It’s been said that the punk rock “renaissance” is really just an invention of media in desperate need of something new to pretend to be saying about American youth; the trouble with that theory is that most of the bands seem to be buying the hype. If that’s the best anybody can come up with to say about this generation, then this generation may not be very interesting in the first place.

But all of that might be a blessing in disguise. Because, as we all know, if you’re not expecting anything from a record, you’ll be doubly pleased and surprised if it’s wonderful. Blondie is the second group from the New York “underground” club scene (discounting Patti Smith and the Dictators) to get recorded, and when I called up my friends to tell them what a delight I thought their album was, they sniffed, “Oh come on, haven’t you seen ’em live?” No I haven’t, but then I don’t care much for most live rock anyway and I know a great album when I hear one.

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Like most of the other stuff coming out these days, Blondie’s album (produced by Richard Gottehrer, who wrote “My Boyfriend’s Back” and produced the original “Hang On, Sloopy”), is a pastiche of ’60s rock moves. Debbie Blondie herself has the Shangri-Las/Crys­tals girl group sound down to a perfect snotty whine, but unlike Patti Smith, she never comes across as snotty or pretentious, and, as “Man Overboard” and “In the Flesh” respectively demonstrate, she knows it’s not uncool to sound like Cher or Kathy (“A Thousand Stars”) Young once in a while. She gets off her best Shangri-Las moves in the single “[Se]X Offender” and “Rip Her to Shreds,” where I’m sure all of us of whatever sex will be able to empathize with her reaction to an urban archetype: “Red eyeshadow, green mascara/Yecch! She’s too much!”

The band have hauled all their ’60s readymades out of the toy chest, polished them up so they don’t sound like nostalgia or some horrible “tribute,” and set them spinning around one [an]other like so many tops in solid two- ­and three-minute cuts. “Rifle Range” spotlights Jorgen (“Apache”) Ingmann style guitar, while in “Rip Her to Shreds” I count (besides a fine mixture of Velvets and Shangri-Las vocal flourishes) some “Shakin’ All Over” guitar, a Question Mark and the Mysterians organ break that will reappear in various contexts throughout the album, and ensemble touches highly reminiscent at various times of the Doors, the Seeds, and the Strawberry Alarm Clock. And I mean good Strawberry Alarm Clock! The Spectorish “X Offender” contains the best roller rink organ since the Sir Douglas Quintet, the best drums since “Born to Run,” the best castanets since “Mother of Pearl,” and the best surf guitar break since “I’m Set Free.”

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What makes Blondie’s first set more than just a fanzine-mentality collection of 10-year-old styles by 25-year-old diehards is that it consistently conveys the same energetic conviction in its dumbness as the original punk rockers, yet like, say, the New York Dolls, the group are implicitly intelligent enough not to ram their understand­ing of earlier rock ‘n’ roll down your throat. Like the Ramones, they have both drive and a sense of humor. Unlike the Ramones, they don’t condescend to their material, even when Debbie Blondie’s singing, over a Latin beat and “Arriba!” type cries, “Giant ants from space/stuffed the human race/Then they eat your face/Never leave a trace/La la la la…” Cap that one and the album with an ending that perfectly parodies Neil Young’s “Broken Arrow,” and you’ve got what rock ‘n’ roll has always really stood for: the sort of unselfconscious fun that transcends both scenes and generic restrictions.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Underground Rock: Walk on the Wild Side

Walk on the Wild Side (And Don’t Forget Your Mastercharge)
July 12, 1976

Of course the truly cool and satori-graced visitors who conven­tion-cavort in New York will stay in their hotel rooms and watch Joe Franklin — Franklin being the show-biz equivalent to a Zen master: his questions could make Robert Pirsig crash his cycle into a tree — rather than have their eyes, ears, and nostrils (particularly the nostrils) assaulted by the mongrel heat of the dog days. Yet, some demented souls will insist upon exploring the city in search of underground pleasures, pleasures which have been conjured up in their fevered imaginations by Grove Press novels they road in college. Some will even venture into the Anvil, a boys’ club for budding De Sades, with their Instamatics.…

Being a timorous, gentle soul (I don’t kill cockroaches, I lecture them), I don’t take Travis Bickle Culture Club tours through the intestinal tracts of the rotting metropolis, through the neon worminess of Times Square (where porn star Terri Hall is the patron saint) or the Ganges of garbage that is the Lower East Side or the leather-Nazi bulging crotch homo-Superman haven of Christopher Street… my own neighborhood looks like Wino Gulch… no, I’d rather stay home and make sculpture out of watermelon rinds. However, I can provide a dilettan­tish guide to underground theatrics and atmospherics for those who want to wade ankle-deep into the nocturnal currents.

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For underground rock music, there’s Max’s (17th Street and Park Avenue South, 777-7880), Club 82 (82 East 4th Street, 477-1046 or 477-0820), Zeppz (267 West 23rd Street), and CBGB (315 Bowery at Bleecker, 982-4052); they all present T-shirted musical prodigies who write songs like “l’d Rather Slash My Wrists and Cut My Throat Than Spend the Night With You,” “Tricks Are for Kids,” and “We Need a Better Navy,” and perform with an evangelical zeal which could make rockers out of the editors of Commonweal. In winter, dress at these places is rococo casual — Wayne County, a drag-queen performer who writes a funny column for Rock Scene, has said that to truly achieve the CBGB look, you let a blind man go berserk in a thrift shop. But during the summer, it’s functional casual that prevails. Cheap clothes, but chic, and not too chic… under­stated, that is. It isn’t inverse snobbery, or slumming: Most of the people here buy their clothes at army-navy stores or Canal Street shops because they can’t afford to buy clothes at Barney’s. Most of the band members are in debt and many (most?) of the customers are unemployed. So if you — and I mean you, nervous thrill-seeking Udall delegate — go strolling into these places in your clean Levis and rolled up copy of Cue in your back pocket, you won’t get a hostile glare (nobody cares that much) but you might feel a certain vague peripheral annoyance. To prevent this carry a copy of Punk as a Disdain Repellent.

As far as atmosphere is concerned, Zeppz and Max’s are rather vacant, or, more precisely, the atmosphere is made by the band that is playing there. A good band, good vibes; a lousy band, Yawnsville. Club 82 has atmosphere but it’s the result of interior decoration which could best be described as Glitzy Baroque: leafy ornamentations on the pillars, wall-sized mirrors, strobe lights, hanging mirrored balls which give off swirling atoms of light — a bespangled-funhouse. But nobody’s laughing. It’s actually more comfortable for the musicians, because they have a performing space which allows a lot of room for lurching and mike-twirling.

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The performing area at CBGB is about as wide as a tatami mat but the walls reverberate with History. If Hart Crane were alive today, he would still live at the Chelsea Hotel but he would spend his evenings at CBGB, he and his sailor friends swaying to the music of Television, Talking Heads, Ramones, Mink de Ville, and the Harry Von Well Blues Band. Be sure to visit the bathrooms because someday the panels will be removed and donated to the Louvre.

Sex, soft-core style, can be found by the rock-loathing thrill-seeker at a place called the Project, (127 Grand Street; 580-9119) where for $5 sexual fantasies are dramatized (the money goes for a good cause: to find a Korean fami­ly who will adopt WOR’s Barry Farber). The fantasies are really tacky, they’ll make oatmeal out of your hormones. They’re on this level: A man walks into his kitch­en, finds a woman in his freezer; he tries to thaw her out with popsicle licks and she melts into the linoleum. Lights out. Did that turn you on? (Boy, are you sick.) Afterward, people stick around and actually discuss the perform­ances and the pyschodynamics of the fantasies and it’s like a pseudocourse at the New School. Titillation and mastication all in one package. Still, as jive entertainment it beats “California Suite” (Walter Kerr really lost his mind over that one) and some of  the fantasies do have a Venus in Furs seediness which might send an erotic tingle into your neocortex. Those who are truly Apollinairely decadent will then head down to Night Court and watch irritable whores arraigned before a bleary-eyed judge… it’s the nadir of the underground nadir. It’s a page that Travis Bickle left out of his diary, it’s a.…

This Baedeker is making tapioca out of my mind; maybe I’ll just make an igloo out of those melon rinds and hide out until this whole thing blows over. And reflect upon true decadent protozoa, like Sarah Miles… John Davidson.…

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

A Conservative Impulse in the New Rock Underground

A Conservative Impulse in the New Rock Underground
August 18, 1975

Arabian swelter, and with the air-conditioning broken, CBGB resembled some abattoir of a kitchen in which a bucket of ice is placed in front of a fan to cool the room off. To no avail of course, and the heat had perspiration glissading down the curve of one’s back, yeah, and the cruel heat also burned away any sense of glamour. After all, CBGB’s Bowery and Bleecker location is not the garden spot of lower Manhattan, and the bar itself is an uneasy oasis. On the left, where the couples are, tables; on the right, where the stragglers, drinkers, and the love-seekers are, a long bar; between the two, a high double-backed ladder, which, when the room is really crowded, offers the best view. If your bladder sends a distress signal, write home to mother, for you must make a perilous journey down the aisle between seating area and bar, not knock over any mike stands as you slide by the tiny stage, squeeze through the piles of amplifiers, duck the elbow thrust of a pool player leaning over to make a shot… and then you end up in an illustrated bathroom which looks like a page that didn’t make “The Faith of Graffiti.”

Now consider the assembly-line presentation of bands with resonant names like Movies, Tuff Darts, Blondie, Stagger Lee, the Heartbreakers, Mike de Ville, Dancer, the Shirts, Bananas, Talking Heads, Johnny’s Dance Band, and Television; consider that some nights as many as six bands perform, and it isn’t hard to comprehend someone declining to sit through a long evening. When the air gets thick with noise and smoke, even the most committed of us long to slake our thirst in front of a Johnny Carson monologue, the quintessential experience of bourgeois cool.

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So those who stayed away are not to be chastised, except for a lack of adventurousness. And yet they missed perhaps the most important event in New York rock since the Velvet Underground played the Balloon Farm: CBGB’s three-week festival of the best underground (i.e., unrecorded) bands. The very unpretentiousness of the bands’ style of musical attack represented a counterthrust to the prevailing baroque theatricality of rock. In opposition to that theatricality, this was a music which suggested a resurgence of communal faith.

So this was an event of importance but not of flash. Hardly any groupies or bopperettes showed up, nor did platoons of rock writers with their sensibilities tuned into Radio Free Zeitgeist brave the near satanic humidity. When the room was packed, as it often was, it was packed with musicians and their girlfriends, couples on dates, friends and relatives of band members, and CBGB regulars, all dressed in denims and loose-fitting shirts — sartorial-style courtesy of Canal Jeans. The scenemakers and chic-obsessed were elsewhere. Where? “At Ashley’s,” sneered one band member.

Understandable. Rock simple isn’t the brightest light in the pleasure dome any longer (my guess is that dance is), and Don Kirschner’s “Rock Awards” only verifies the obvious: rock is getting as arthritic, or at least as phlegmatic, as a rich old whore. It isn’t only that the enthusiasm over the Stones tour seems strained and synthetic, or that the Beach Boys can’t seem able to release new material until Brian Wilson conquers his weight problem, or that the album of the year is a collection of basement tapes made in 1967. “The real truth as I see it,” said the Who’s Peter Townshend recently, “is that rock music as it was is not really contemporary to these times. It’s really the music of yesteryear.”

He’s right and yet wrong. What’s changed is the nature of the impulse to create rock. No longer is the impulse revolutionary — i.e., the transformation of oneself and society — but conservative: to carry on the rock tradition. To borrow from Eliot, a rocker now needs a historical sense; he performs “not merely with his own generation in his bones” but with the knowledge that all of pop culture forms a “simultaneous order.” The landscape is no longer virginal — markers and tracks have been left by, among others, Elvis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and the Beatles — and it exists not to be transformed but cultivated.

No, I’m not saying that everyone down at CBGB’s is a farmer. Must you take me so literally? But there is original vision there, and what the place itself is doing is quite extraordinary: putting on bands as if the stage were a cable television station. Public access rock. Of course, not every band which auditions gets to play, but the proprietor, Hilly, must have a wide latitude of taste since the variety and quality of talent ranges from the great to the God-condemned. As with cable TV, what you get is not high-gloss professionalism but talent still working at the basics; the excitement (which borders on comedy) is watching a band with a unique approach try to articulate its vision and still remember the chords.

Television was once such a band: the first time I saw them everything was wrong — the vocals were too raw, the guitar work was relentlessly bad, the drummer wouldn’t leave his cymbals alone. They were lousy all right but their lousiness had a forceful dissonance reminiscent of the Stones’ “Exile on Main Street,” and clearly Tom Verlaine was a presence to be reckoned with.

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He has frequently been compared to Lou Reed in the Velvet days, but he most reminds me of Keith Richard. The blood-drained bone-weary Keith on stage at Madison Square Garden is the perfect symbol of Rock ’75, not playing at his best, sometimes not even playing competently, but rocking swaying back and forth as if the night might be his last and it’s better to stand than fall. Though Jagger is dangerously close to becoming Maria Callas, Keith, with his lanky grace and obsidian-eyed menace, is the perpetual outsider. I don’t know any rock lover who doesn’t love Keith; he’s the star who’s always at the edge and yet occupies the center.

Tom Verlaine occupies the same dreamy realm, like Keith, he’s pale and aloof. He seems lost in a forest of silence and he says about performing that “if I’m thinking up there, I’m not having a good night.” Only recently has the band’s technique been up to Verlaine’s reveries and their set at the CBGB festival was the best I’ve ever seen: dramatic, tense, tender (“Hard on Love”), athletic (“Kingdom Come”), with Verlaine in solid voice and the band playing as a band and not as four individuals with instruments. Verlaine once told me that one of the best things about the Beatles was the way they could shout out harmonies and make them sound intimate, and that’s what Television had that night: loud intimacy.

When Tom graduated from high school back in Delaware he was voted “most unknown” by his senior class. As if in revenge, he chose the name Verlaine, much as Patti Smith often invokes the name Rimbaud. He came to New York, spent seven years writing fiction, formed a group called Neon Boys, then Television. The name suggests an aesthetic of accessibility and choice. It also suggests Tom’s adapted initials: T.V.

“I left Delaware because no one wanted to form a band there,” he says. “Then I came to New York and no one wanted to form a band here either.” Verlaine came to New York for the same reason every street-smart artist comes to New York — because it’s the big league — even though he realizes “New York is not a great rock and roll town.”

Still, they continue to arrive: Martina Weymouth, bassist, born in California; Chris Frantz, drummer, in Kentucky; David Byrne, singer and guitarist, Scotland. All attended the Rhode Island School of Design, and according to their bio, “now launching career in New York” — a sonorous announcement, yes?

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These people call themselves Talking Heads. Seeing them for the first time is transfixing: Frantz is so far back on drums that it sounds as if he’s playing in the next room; Weymouth, who could pass as Suzy Quatro’s sorority sister, stands rooted to the floor, her head doing an oscillating-fan swivel; the object of her swivel is David Byrne, who has a little-boy-lost-at-the-zoo voice and the demeanor of someone who’s spent the last half hour whirling around in a spin dryer. When his eyes start Ping-Ponging in his head, he looks like a cartoon of a chipmunk from Mars. The song titles aren’t tethered to conventionality either: “Psycho Killer” (which goes “Psycho Killer, qu’est-ce c’est? Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa”), “The Girls Want to Be With the Girls,” “Love is Like a Building on Fire,” plus a cover version of that schlock classic by ? and the Mysterians, “96 Tears.”

Love at first sight it isn’t.

But repeated viewing (precise word) reveal Talking Heads to be one of the most intriguingly off-the-wall bands in New York. Musically, they’re minimalists: Byrne’s guitar playing is like a charcoal pencil scratching a scene on a note pad. The songs are spined by Weymouth’s bass playing which, in contrast to the glottal buzz of most rock bass work, is hard and articulate — the bass lines provide hook as well as bottom. Visually, the band is perfect for the table-TV format at CBGB; they present a clean, flat image, devoid of fine shading and color. They are consciously antimythic in stance. A line from their bio: “The image we present along with our songs is what we are really like.”

Talking to them, it becomes apparent that though they deny antecedents — “We would rather achieve a ‘new’ sound rather than be compared to bands of the past” — they are children of the communal rock ethic. They live together, melting the distinction between art and life, and went into rock because as art it is more “accessible.” They have an astute sense of aesthetic consumerism, yet they’re not entirely under the Warholian sway for as one of them told me, “We don’t want to be famous for the sake of being famous.” Of all the groups I’ve seen at CBGB, Talking Heads is the closest to a neo-Velvet band, and they represent a dis­tillation of that sensibility, what John Cale once called “controlled distortion.” When the Velvets made their reputation at the Balloon Farm they were navigating through a storm of multimedia effects: mirrors, blinking lights, strobes, projected film images. Talking Heads works without paraphernalia in a cavernous room projecting light like a television located at the end of a long dark hall. The difference between the Velvets and Talking Heads is the difference between phosphorescence and cold gray TV light. These people understand that an entire generation has grown up on the nourishment of television’s accessible banality. What they’re doing is presenting a banal facade under which run ripples of violence and squalls of frustration — the id of the vid.

David Byrne sings tonelessly but its effect is all the more ominous. This uneasy alliance between composure and breakdown — be­tween outward acceptance and inward com­ing-apart — is what makes Talking Heads such a central ’70s band. A quote from ex-Velvet John Cale: “What we try to get here (at the Balloon Farm) is a sense of total involvement.” Nineteen sixty-six. But what bands like Television and Talking Heads are doing is ameliorating the post-’60s hangover by giving us a sense of detachment. We’ve passed through the Dionysian storm and now it’s time to nurse private wounds. Says Tina Weymouth, quite simply: “Rock isn’t a noble cause.”

***

More than 30 bands played at the CBGB festival. There seemed to be a lot of women in these groups, and none of them were backup singers. I asked Tina (who once introduced herself as a “bassperson”) whether it was difficult to work with men in a band, and she gave me a look which said, “Don’t you have any better questions to ask?” Albeit, here are some additional notes on the musicianpersons I saw performing during the three weeks:

The Shirts. Annie Golden, lead singer of this Park Slope septet, is a self-proclaimed “street punk.” Her hard-skiing voice is the chief attraction in this technically proficient and equipment-abundant group (on stage they refer to themselves as the Average Cramped Band). They share an artistic commune in Brooklyn and the salient virtue of the band is that the sense of compan­ionship comes through in the texture of the music. The very chords seem bonds of friendship.

The Heartbreakers. Totally different problem here. This band has rockers who have made names for themselves — Jerry Nolan and Johnny Thunders formerly of the New York Dolls, Richard Hell formerly of Television — and the place was crowded with other band members curious about how they would/wouldn’t resemble the Dolls. By the third song, when it was clear they weren’t the Dolls redux, people began streaming out. Actually, they weren’t that bad, certainly better than the advance reports. They’ve managed to give their don’t-give-a-fuck crumminess a certain coherence, and they know how to draw the groupies (no small consideration for a beginning outfit). In rock, talent is only half of it. Sometimes not even that much.

Ruby and the Rednecks. Ruby threw out an oversized teddy bear, shrieked, stomped on the bear, kicked it, clawed at the audi­ence, while her claque (from Interview Magazine I was told) roared back their delight. Meanwhile, Michael Goldstein, of the Soho Weekly News, was telling Tina Weymouth, Trixie A. Balm, and myself that Ruby was going to make it big because she has what it takes. To quote Chico Marx, she can keep it.

Bananas. They’re very melodic, I said. That’s because they’re British, said a corre­spondent from Melody Maker. Actually, they’re Irish. Which doesn’t make them any less good.

Blondie. Someone ought to tell the gui­tarist that the way to sing harmony is to sing into the microphone.

The Ramones. The Ramones recently opened at a Johnny Winter concert and had to dodge flying bottles. During one of their CBGB sets, they had equipment screw-ups and Dee Dee Ramone stopped singing and gripped his head as if he were going to explode and Tommy Ramone smashed the cymbal shouting, “What the FUCK’s wrong? ” They went offstage steaming, then came back and ripped into “Judy Is a Punk.” A killer band.

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***

“Playing with a band is the greatest way of feeling alive,” says Tom Verlaine. But the pressures in New York against such an effort — few places to play, media indif­ference, the compulsively upward pace of city life — are awesome. Moreover, the tra­vails of a rock band are rooted in a deeper problem: the difficulty of collaborative art. Rock bands flourished in the ’60s when there was a genuine faith in the efficacious beauty of communal activity, when the belief was that togetherness meant strength. It was more than a matter of “belonging”: it meant that one could create art with friends. Play­ing with a band meant art with sacrifice, but without suffering; Romantic intensity with­out Romantic solitude.

What CBGB is trying to do is nothing less than to restore that spirit as a force in rock and roll. One is left speculating about success: Will any of the bands who play there ever amount to anything more than a cheap evening of rock and roll? Is public access merely an attitude to be discarded once stardom seems possible, or will it sustain itself beyond the first recording contract? I don’t know, and in the deepest sense, don’t care. These bands don’t have to be the vanguard in order to satisfy. In a cheering Velvets song, Lou Reed sings: “A little wine in the morning, and some breakfast at night/Well, I’m beginning to see the light.” And that’s what rock gives: small unconven­tional pleasures which lead to moments of perception.

Flashes like: the way Johnny Ramone slouches behind his guitar, Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye singing “Don’t Fuck With Love,” on the sidewalk in front of CBGB’s, the Shirts shouting in unison in their finale number, Tina Weymouth’s tough sliding bass on “Tentative Decisions,” the way Tom Verlaine says “just the facts” in “Prove It.” One’s affection goes out to Lou Reed, for such moments are like wine in the morning. Shared wine.

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NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The TRGT Fiasco Was No Mistake

When Target opened its Alphabet City location the week before last, it did more than just add another link in the chain of stores now spreading across New York. For its grand opening, Target created a one-day “brand activation,” a tableau vivant that simulated the life of the city street — the very life that is under threat from overdevelopment and corporatization.

I’d heard about the event on the morning of July 21 from the blogger E.V. Grieve, who tweeted that Target had constructed an “homage to CBGB.” When I arrived on the corner of Avenue A and 14th Street that afternoon to check it out, I found a far more astonishing spectacle. Target hadn’t just built a faux-CBGB storefront, renamed “TRGT” to evoke the famed punk club; it had built an entire Potemkin East Village.

The Hollywood-set fantasy included a life-size backdrop of tenements photo-printed on vinyl sheets; a fake stoop on which a hip-hop dancer wore a Target bandanna tied around his thigh; red Target-branded buckets for imitating bucket-drumming sidewalk buskers; and a red newspaper kiosk that looked a lot like the ones that used to carry the Village Voice. Inside the store, painted on an East Village–themed mural above the cash registers, were the words “NYC Nuyoricans” and “Poets Café.”

As neighborhood appropriation goes, creating a crass and cynical simulation of the local New York streetscape is bad enough. But worse yet, it’s this very ecosystem that is being erased, block by block, by the presence of chain stores like Target — as well as by big developers like its landlord, Extell, which has named the new luxury building in which Target sits “EVGB,” a riff on CBGB that is supposed to stand for “East Village’s Greatest Building.”

Many people welcome these changes. The sidewalk that day was mobbed. Under the watch of three private security guards and an NYPD officer, people posed for selfies and lined up for free promotional trinkets like keychains and sunglasses. No one seemed troubled by the advertainment; instead, they were advertained. I spotted one person who seemed to be observing more than participating, and I asked what she thought. “I think it’s wonderful,” she said, with a thrill in her voice. I felt out of place, alienated in my own neighborhood.

I reached out to Chris Stein of the band Blondie, who got their start at CBGB and helped make the club a household name. He said of Target’s marketing stunt, “It’s grotesque on the level that it’s an attraction that will seduce people. It’s a false god. And it’s the antithesis of what the club stood for — freedom and individuality. Target is just mass sheep appeal. It is massive conformity.”

Target’s opening celebration may have been tone-deaf — the company later issued a non-apology apology — but it was neither an anomaly nor a mistake. It is part of the larger process of hyper-gentrification, the state-sponsored class takeover of urban neighborhoods in our era of late-stage capitalism. Gentrification long ago stopped being the small-scale, sporadic process it was when first observed in the late 1960s and ’70s. By the 1980s, it had become official policy for making New York friendly to big business, tourism, real estate developers, and upscale professionals. That top-down process has since grown exponentially, glutting the city with luxury developments and chain stores that homogenize the streets and rob New York of its character and variety, as well as its affordability.

In this less open, more boring cityscape, the corporate chains often present themselves as friendly and fun. It is part of the Disneyfication of the city, the creation of what architect Michael Sorkin, in his book Variations on a Theme Park, called “a city of simulations.” This is “urban renewal with a sinister twist, an architecture of deception which, in its happy-face familiarity, constantly distances itself from the most fundamental realities.”

Globalized capital aims to distance us from reality, and from community, in order to destabilize us, and to lower our self-esteem. We consume more, studies have shown, when we feel insecure. In their work on terror management and mortality salience (the awareness that one will die), marketing researchers Naomi Mandel and Dirk Smeesters noted that the terrorist attacks of 9-11, as well as natural disasters, increased death-related thoughts for many people, and one way of coping with those thoughts is through excessive consumerism. In their research, they found that individuals with low self-esteem, especially, engage in overconsumption in order to escape self-awareness. (And we know that advertising often lowers self-esteem. As Christopher Lasch wrote in The Culture of Narcissism, “modern advertising seeks to promote not so much self-indulgence as self-doubt. It seeks to create needs, not to fulfill them; to generate new anxieties instead of allaying old ones.”)

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Our urban neighborhoods, too, have destabilized. New York is always changing, of course, but for much of its history it also possessed a certain equilibrium. Today, in hyper-gentrified parts of town, your neighbors come and go, many not sticking around for more than a year. Businesses come and go rapidly, too, without long leases and affordable rents to give them stability. More and more, storefronts fill with pop-up shops, creating a “here today, gone tomorrow” city of whiplash changeability.

Almost all the actual elements of New York that were featured in Target’s pop-up village have vanished or are in danger of vanishing. Their Disney-style depiction traffics in a nostalgia that many New Yorkers feel for lost neighborhoods that once offered what Jane Jacobs famously called “the sidewalk ballet,” the lively variety of the local, human-sized city. What was most objectionable in Target’s imitation of life was that it capitalized on the very experience it is replacing.

Target is not alone. It is only the latest actor in the co-optation and commodification of the city’s obliterated history:

  • When G&M Realty, owned by developers Jerry and David Wolkoff, demolished the Long Island City graffiti mecca 5Pointz, it then used the name for the luxury towers that rose on the site, releasing renderings of interiors full of graffiti art.
  • When the Chetrit Group and Somerset Partners tried to rebrand a portion of the South Bronx as the Piano District — for “luxury waterfront living, world-class dining, fashion, art + architecture” — they threw a party that played on the theme of “the Bronx Is Burning,” featuring bullet-riddled cars and oil drum fires around which celebrities and fashion models posed like hobos.
  • When a bar called Summerhill opened in gentrifying Crown Heights, the owner sent out a press release advertising the space’s “bullet hole–ridden wall” and its Forty Ounce Rosé, joking to Gothamist that bottles would be served in paper bags.
  • In the Hudson Yards mega-development, built on a working-class neighborhood upzoned by the Bloomberg administration, a white-owned restaurant called Legacy Records has filled its walls with African-American imagery. In the New York Times, Pete Wells pointed out that Legacy “seems eager to suggest that it has local roots — so eager that it has essentially ginned up a history for itself that brings together sloppy research with a superficial tribute to black culture.”
  • CBGB, evicted and forced to close in 2006, is a repeat victim. In 2007, celebu-chef Daniel Boulud announced that his new Bowery restaurant would be called DBGB — short for Daniel Boulud Good Burger. Like Target, he used the CBGB typeface. (After he got a cease and desist letter, the typeface changed.) In 2008, luxury menswear designer John Varvatos moved into CBGB’s space, throwing a star-studded grand opening party with T-shirts that read, “Varvatos 315 Bowery…Birthplace of Punk.” He sealed CBGB’s walls behind Plexiglas and sold used rock T-shirts for $350. Finally (or not), in Newark International Airport, a facsimile of CBGB serves as a theme restaurant for tourists traveling in and out of the city. It features a cocktail called the Dirty Ashtray.

Often, these marketing stunts trigger a backlash. After the South Bronx real estate party, local social media exploded in outrage. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito demanded an apology and tweeted, “Lack of empathy & basic awareness are signs of an ailing society. Who thought ‘Bronx is Burning’ theme a good idea?” The outcry against Summerhill was also swift and fierce, with neighborhood residents gathering outside in protest of what they saw as a gentrifying white business owner profiting from the pain of the community and commodifying blackness, a trend that American University public affairs professor Derek S. Hyra, in his book Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City, calls “black branding.” At the opening of the John Varvatos boutique, anti-gentrification activists protested what they called the “co-opting of culture to sell overpriced luxury goods.” They held signs that read “$800 Pants Kill Music in NYC” and “40-40-40,000 Dollars a Month, We’re Gonna Be Evicted!”

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But the backlash doesn’t last, and more often than not, the offending business goes on to success. The luxury developers in the South Bronx and Long Island City will probably find takers for their units. DBGB enjoyed eight years of selling $12 hot dogs. People are dining at Summerhill and Legacy Records. They are shopping at the Varvatos store, admiring the preserved CBGB walls. So far, Target appears to be doing just fine on Avenue A. In fact, it’s opening another Lower East Side outpost in the Essex Crossing mega-development, in a building called The Rollins, named for jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who once lived in a now-demolished tenement on the site. As the Times pointed out, rents at The Rollins “will be among the highest in the neighborhood,” with concierge service, a pet spa, a shuffleboard table, a private gym, and rooftop barbecue grills.

What the colonizers desire and replicate is gritty New York without the grit. Punk and jazz and poetry without the enlivening shock of unpredictability. It’s a neat trick that works in part because we are starving for reality and a connection to history. Homesick for our lost city, we can be easily seduced by imitations of life.

The ghosts of tenements past surround

At Target’s grand-opening event, it wasn’t the pseudo-CBGB that really got to me. I keep thinking about that fake stoop. The stoop, so utterly urban, normally brings the inside out; facing the street, it engages residents with the sidewalk ballet. But in today’s homogenized city, the new developments turn away from the street, like suburban developments often do, shielding their residents inside controlled private spaces that reject the communality and chaos of city life. Target’s fake stoop haunts me as a ghost of the unreal, an empty representation recalling a reality that is slipping away. As urbanist M. Christine Boyer has written, in her essay “Cities for Sale,” “these tableaux are the true nonplaces, hollowed out urban remnants, without connection to the rest of the city or the past, waiting to be filled with contemporary fantasies, colonized by wishful projections, and turned into spectacles of consumption.”

A haunted feeling is part of the package in today’s commodified cities. Hyper-gentrification is a horror movie mash-up. An invasion of the body snatchers, it zombifies what went before. It kills and then reanimates its victims, sanitized and tamed, to sell itself and expand into further territory, all while working to convince us that it has the best intentions and means no harm. It just wants to be part of the community. Part of the family. One of us, one of us. Like a vampire at the door it asks, with a seductive smile: Won’t we please let it in?

 

 

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BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Talking to Danny Fields About the Ramones’ Gabba Gabba Heyday

Danny Fields is a punk legend’s punk legend. He’s not the most famous person to emerge from the creative petri dish of 1960s, ’70s, ’80s New York, nor the richest. He hasn’t been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, unlike many of the musicians he has worked with, including the Ramones, Iggy Pop, and the Velvet Underground. But if you are interested in this period in downtown Manhattan, when the city was bankrupt of money but teeming with talent — and many people are, as the phenomenon of Patti Smith’s 2010 memoir Just Kids confirmed — then Fields is your guy. Now 78, he has been a kind of Zelig, somehow involved with what seems like everyone who ever mattered in pre-MTV music.

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Fields grew up in Queens, left for a while to go to school at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard, and made it back to New York in 1960, settling in Greenwich Village, then the beating heart of counterculture in the city, if not the United States. He made friends with Andy Warhol and sort of lived with Edie Sedgwick, worked in and out as a music journalist, became for some time the publicist for Jim Morrison and the Doors, was the first person to give Iggy Pop cocaine, and helped Nico get a record deal with Elektra. “Danny’s a connector, he’s a fuel line, a place where things are liable to erupt,” Iggy Pop said in a 2015 documentary about Fields called Danny Says (named for a Ramones song they wrote about him). “I imagine that Danny’s legacy, aside from the brilliant way he’s chosen to live his life, is how he has enhanced the lives of others by being a connector.” Thankfully for history, Fields had a journalist’s eye, too, and either documented this world or at the very least kept a memory bank filled with stories about it, which he will gladly share if you happen to randomly meet him, as I did one afternoon some years ago. Though our interview a few weeks ago for this piece was by phone, on that day we sat in his living room surrounded by photos of him with the gods and he’d tell amazing tales about any of them if prompted.

This spring, Fields is re-releasing My Ramones, a book of photographs he took of the Ramones at the beginning of their career, originally published in 2016 as a limited edition. The more than 250 photos in the book were shot between 1975 and 1977, during, among other scattered and wild moments, the band’s first tour. Fields became the band’s manager after seeing them live at CBGB in 1975 and, bored while they were busy recording their debut album, picked up a camera and started shooting. Here, the punk behind the punks tells us what they were like.

Ramones on Park Lane, during a guided walking tour of early morning London.

Today, everybody documents everything, but how did you know it might be of value one day to document your life with the Ramones?

I didn’t. I just started doing it for a lack of something to do, because when you’re a manager, you’re sitting at the recording session and thinking, “I’m redundant here.” I did my job — got them the record deal. The engineers turned a lot of knobs and set up microphones and things, and there was nothing I could do. So I took out my camera. I took two rolls of film — 75 pictures — of the early recording sessions. And because I was their manager, I could take candid pictures. I had a Nikon F2 and I used a 35mm or an 85mm.

The Ramones really defined what it looked like to be a punk, partly because of these early photographs of them. Were they image conscious? Was it something that they had to think about or did it just come naturally to them?

Well, both. There’s nothing they didn’t think about. And what they thought about was what will project naturally. They were big fans of the New York Dolls. They would look at them and think, “Oh wow, they’re glam, should I be glam?” And they tried it out for a while. Joey was a fan of the New York Dolls, and I think he was very proud of a tight pink leather suit he had. Johnny, before I met them, wore silver lamé pants. It was a phase. They said, “You know what, we can’t be like the New York Dolls because these clothes are so elaborate, and you’d have to have a wardrobe person with you. What if we just do something that we never have to think about again, which is what we look like every day?” The leather jacket and Levi’s and Converse. It was classic, and they knew that. Simple and classic suited them. They only thing they’d change was their T-shirt and the socks.

Dee Dee, Johnny, and Tommy flicking through bins of vinyl at Free Being Records on Second Avenue.

Did you think they would be a huge success?

No. Yes. I mean, you hope. But I couldn’t have predicted. They were in trouble because of their tempo, radio-wise. Too fast or too loud, or too comical. “I Wanna Be Sedated” — are they serious? That’s a single? It’s a cute tune, but it’s a little weird for a lyric. And yet, though they were “punk,” they were [really] pop songs. And now all music sounds like that. That rolling fast rock. Green Day popularized it and now TV commercials sound like that. It turns out that musicians don’t want to have to learn a lot of complex fingering. They just want to let it rock and let it roll — make it hummable. And it got called punk.

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What was the first time you heard the word “punk”?

The first time I heard that combination of letters? 1930s movies, about a little gangster or someone like that. It’s been in the language for five hundred years, so I don’t know. And when it was applied to them you sort of go, “Okay, it’s a good word, it’s four letters, ends with a K.” Of course, wherever you went it meant something different. There was a style of mohawks and piercings and extraordinary hair, and that was punk. Requiring safety pins and all that. Those kids invented that look for themselves with a little help from Malcolm McLaren, who first saw a safety pin on Richard Hell in New York and went back to London with a fashion idea.

In England, the music had a more political aura. The Ramones were not at all political. In England there were some people saying, “You have some nerve calling yourselves punk, you’re not political, you’re fraudulent.” And what could we say? We didn’t call ourselves that! [Everyone else] called us that. It just became a word that means we don’t really have another better word for this, but it’s different so we’re gonna call it something easy to remember.

Joey on the steps of the Roundhouse in London in 1976.

Tell me about life on the road with them.

I don’t know. Again, unless there was a major market, there was no need for me to be on the road. I didn’t tune the guitars and I didn’t carry things. I was there but I wasn’t into slogging. I wasn’t into sitting in a van with them. The few times I did, I thought, “I’ve got to take the train next time.”

The first times in Europe, all they could do was hate the food. I didn’t want to be around that. It’s food. How can you bother to hate it? You eat it if you’re hungry and leave it alone if you’re not. But they would get into big things about it during their tour in England, because backstage [in England] food is generally Indian. They didn’t like it, and they always wanted hamburgers. Then it’s, Where’s the ketchup? Ketchup wasn’t a common staple in England then. That’s what life on the road was. Who needed that?

Compared to some of the other people you’ve worked with, were they easy to work with or were they divas?

No one is easy to work with who is worth working with.

Dee Dee and his spare Rickenbacker guitar

I’ve always been particularly fascinated by Dee Dee. There’s all these stories about him being a prostitute and nobody really knows for sure. What was he like?

He was more social than the other guys. He was more likely to make friends with people in other bands. Was he a prostitute? I don’t know. Every kid is a hustler at some point. Why starve if you’re good looking? You don’t have a lot of years to be good looking, and if you starve you won’t even get to live them out. So I don’t think he was majorly a hustler, but in times of emergency people do things. As long as they cause no harm, who cares?

Have you noticed how nostalgic people are for this era of New York? Why do you think that is?

There’s nostalgia for it everywhere. I think it was one of the last times when there were humans instead of the internet. Instead of Facebook. With people being really human, and having adventures that made you need to be alive, not to be on the other end of a monitor or keyboard.

Recording “Ramones,” the first album

People like Fran Lebowitz have said sometimes that New York now sucks in comparison to then.

We were all twenty years old or something, so of course the world was better. I think Fran once said something like this, too: Look in a mirror [when you’re young], you’re never gonna look better. Do I miss that, or would I trade with anyone [to get it back]? Of course. Who wouldn’t? But it’s not real, so why waste any time missing it.

You weren’t waking up every morning and saying, “It’s the Seventies! We’re lucky to be alive!” You’re going, “Am I gonna get laid? Am I gonna pay rent? What color socks should I wear?” You don’t think about it as a glorious era. People who claim they miss the Seventies  are the people who weren’t born yet. They’re the ones who say, “It must have been so great.” That only happens when things change and you look back on it.

Was there a moment that you realized that the Ramones had become bigger than just a band?

Maybe during the fortieth anniversary in 2016. As I said before, in the midst of a moment happening, you’re not thinking this is momentous. You’re thinking, Can we live through this? I was only with them for five years. [Later] when they would play a huge city, the neighborhood would have to be police-barricaded because there were so many fans, and they’d play in a stadium for 100,000 people. It must have had its own headaches. You’re sort of restricted now. Wherever you go there’s armed guards around you or keeping people away from you. It’s sort of the opposite of what you loved about what you were doing in the beginning. This is what you wanted, to be so famous that you needed police barricades outside your hotel? No. That’s the price of it, though.

Ramones perform at The Club in Cambridge, MA.

What did they want?

To make enough money to retire so they’d never have to work again. And at the end, when they started making a lot of money, they wanted to invest it well. I don’t know; they wanted to buy nice real estate. What does anyone want when they’re fifty years old?

Did your parents understand the kind of success you had?

No. I was a wretched rock and roll loser. “We thought we brought him up better!” But then my friend Linda Eastman married Paul McCartney, and my father would say, “My son is a friend of a Beatle!” Immense fame eclipses everything, doesn’t it?

Do you remember if John Lennon ever came down to see the Ramones?

I don’t know. You don’t keep track of that. Especially after you’ve stopped caring. Jack Nicholson was at the Whiskey to see Iggy — so what?

Ramones’ first video shoot at M.P.C.’s TV studio. The video contained eight songs in seventeen and a half minutes and has never been officially released.

The real fans matter more.

I’m a real fan — that’s the thing.

I once came to your apartment because I was writing a story about a friend of yours, and it’s like a New York yearbook come to life, filled with framed photos of you with every cool famous person ever.  What is it like to live with all these memories literally staring you in the face?

Recently the kitchen in my apartment was redone and I had to take out giant old appliances and bring in giant new appliances, and to do that I had to take down all the pictures.

No!

Yeah. I went to Madrid for two weeks in February; when I came back it had been done. They are all stored in a carton. So I’m living with empty walls now. And sometimes I miss them. I’ll say to someone, “Let me show you this,” and I start walking to where they used to be, and they’re not there. Just nails sticking out of the wall.

People tell me to put them back up, but I don’t know, it’s kind of mummified. I don’t want to think about [the past]. It’s gone, it’s over. I’m happy that people think I was fabulous, but at any given moment one doesn’t feel very fabulous, and you only sort of get that when people see those pictures and go, “Oh my god, these pictures are so great, can I take a picture of the pictures?” So I guess I should hang them up. People expect you to play the greatest hits.

Shooting pictures for Rock Scene Magazines in the alley behind CBGB, now named Extra Place.

My Ramones: Photographs by Danny Fields
By Danny Fields
Reel Art Press
176 pp.

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CBGB’s Awning Just Sold at Sotheby’s for $30,000

A superb way to make a buck is to pull something out of the trash and then sell it at Sotheby’s for $30,000.

That’s what CBGB’s former manager, Drew Bushong, did when he found the legendary club’s awning languishing in a box in a dumpster.

As he told Sotheby’s, improbably:

It was my day off and I was drunk at Mars Bar, the beautiful, nasty dive bar that was nearby. I think it was about 2004. I walked over to CB’s to see if anyone was around and there was this box in the dumpsters outside. I had seen it before above Hilly’s desk for a year or so. I remember thinking, ‘Why is this in the trash?’ I woke up the next morning — shoes on, I was rather hung over — and the box with the awning in it was sitting in my bed. I learned later that it was in Hilly’s office because one of the interns was supposed to put stamps on it to send to the Cleveland Hall of Fame and it just never got there. I’ve had it under my bed ever since.

A classic Sotheby’s tale, if there ever was one. This, of course, isn’t the awning hung on the club’s exterior during its halcyon days, when it sheltered the likes of the Ramones and Blondie and Television. This awning was from latter-day CBGB, the incoming John Varvatos store already hovering off stage left like a culture-draining vampire bat.

No one knows for sure what became of the original. Rumor holds it was stolen by the punk outfit JFA (Jodie Foster’s Army). The third, now in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, hung for three years until CBGB closed forever in 2006. This awning was the second, and hung from around 1988 to 2003.

But according to Gothamist, the second awning — the $30,000 awning — was removed because it was disgusting. Too disgusting for CBGB’s, which housed a bathroom best known for its baroque palimpsest of vomit and urine and graffiti. As the club’s former booker, Brendan Rafferty, told the website:

Sometime around 2000, the second awning was taken down and replaced after being badly damaged. It was, obviously, not unusual for bands to graffiti their names on the awning. But, one band, The Toilet Boys, painted their name across the awning in ridiculously large letters. They were never booked again.”

In addition to the distracting eyesore of their name plastered across the awning, in the months that followed, someone tore a piece out of the fringe of the awning… and in a very short amount of time, that small tear turned into a large section being ripped off, as people tore pieces off over time.

So Hilly [Kristal] replaced the second damaged awning with a third one. That third one stayed up until the day we closed.

Paying $30,000 for an awning is not punk.

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The Description of CBGB in This 1976 Issue of Modern Screen Magazine Is Amazing

Last year’s CBGB: The Movie made an attempt to capture the essence of that legendary NYC rock and punk club — and failed miserably. It got a lot wrong. And even the things it got right seemed cartoonish (not to mention, we can’t look at Alan Rickman and not think of him saying, “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker” in his most dastardly Hans Gruber villain voice). Well, turns out all the folks involved in CBGB: The Movie needed to do to etch out a realistic depiction of the place is read this spot-on description, from a column called “Rock Scene,” in the April 1976 edition of Modern Screen magazine:

See also: 10 Things the CBGB Movie Got Wrong

Rock ‘n’ Roll in New York: CBGB is a seedy bar on the Bowery, outside of which pretend harlots and apprentice punks lean against cars, or against the sidewalk, or in doorways, carefully thinking about how each move they make will project to the other leaners. It’s like an Andy Warhol attempt to recapture the ’50s — a carbon copy of “cool” and “tough”, but clearly not the real Campbell’s Soup. The electricity of slightly off-kilter minds and loose morals does float around the place: you’re in one of those movies where three deranged teens break into the house, cut the phone wire, terrorize Mrs. Smith with a switchblade, snicker at daughter Debbie, and smack poor Dad around, all without any particular reason other than to have “something to do.” But it all seems to be played out on a Milton Bradley gameboard.

CBGB was the original home — with Max’s Kansas City — of glitter rock. Glitter’s gone now — Kiss has taken the music to the Midwest, and the crowds have all gone to the discos. So CBGB turned arty, and now harbors “adventurous bands — the forerunners of what’s to come.” If you take it from CBGB, the music of the late ’70s is going to be on the psychotic side — both feigned and real. The musicians can’t play, the singers can’t sing — but they do get weirdness across to you. Anyway, it’s not the music that matters — it’s the queasy feeling you get watching those outmates strut their stuff. And the words.

So. Much. Shade.

There’s no byline on the Rock Scene column, so we don’t know who exactly was throwing these bucketfuls of salt at the pretend toughies who leaned on everything in and around CBGB. But we do know that completely cynical and bitter snapshot of the place said more in two paragraphs than The Movie managed in 90 minutes.

If you’d like to read more, you can buy the issue online for $9.99 (plus $4.99 shipping). The column later goes on to call Patti Smith a “visionary” — in quotes — and wonder why, after the release of Horses, she became “an overnight phenomenon, a culture model.”

Actually, you should read part of this, too, because it’s next-level dickery:

Articles on Patti have become so linguistically complex that they are almost impossible to read. Springsteen ran into trouble in Europe — the colossal press outflow, the Newsweek and Time covers, have turned audiences against him. Patti Smith is walking the same tightrope with, in our opinion, considerably less talent to work with — but you’re going to be hearing a lot about her.

Modern Screen, ladies and gentlemen. The place snark was born.

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YOUNG PUNKS

The CBGB & OMFUG insignia graces the spectrum of T-shirts from Hot Topic to John Varvatos, 315 Bowery’s very own usurper. But the idealistic chutzpah behind the legendary rock club lives on, not as a screen print but as just that — an idea. Oh, and also a city-wide party showcasing music, movies, talks, and all things DIY. The CBGB Music & Film Festival is back for a third year. Seasoned veterans like Billy Idol, Devo, and Jane’s Addiction will headline this round’s music lineup alongside the young and rambunctious — Surfer Blood, We Are Scientists, and J-poppers Cheeky Parade among them. In a similar fashion, the film selections comprise old and new — This Is Spinal Tap and Up in Smoke alongside brand-new fan fictions and rockumentaries on Joe Strummer and the Carter Family, among other luminaries. Drop in on one of the many talks and symposiums on making rock music today. This year, each event is individually ticketed, so feel free to pick and choose.

Thursdays-Sundays, noon. Starts: Oct. 9. Continues through Oct. 12, 2014

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Benjamin Scheuer’s Solo Musical The Lion Hums Along

Which guitar would you play your life story on? The weather-beaten one in the corner? The shiny new number? The electric guitar that’s ready to make some noise?

If you were Benjamin Scheuer, you’d choose them all. In his new, solo musical, The Lion, Scheuer sits surrounded by guitars, each evoking a turning point in a life defined by music. Strumming one, then another, Scheuer invites us into a sweet, sincere autobiographical tale about love, grief, and what it means to be a member of a family.

Scheuer learned guitar from his mathematician dad, who looms large here as a source of inspiration but also unresolved pain. From childhood thrills playing a homemade cookie-tin banjo to the angry years cranking out earsplitting electric solos at CBGB, the singer-songwriter gracefully relives his first tastes of romance and loss, a transatlantic coming of age, and a terrifying battle with disease. The titular lion features in the evening’s most memorable refrain, as an image for strength and family solidarity.

Mostly acoustic, mostly rhyming, The Lion‘s earnest ditties sometimes veer into cloying territory, and the heartfelt lyrics don’t offer many surprising turns of phrase. But Scheuer himself is so disarmingly thrilled to be performing that it’s hard to do anything but hum along.