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The World of Cecil Taylor, 1929–2018: An Appreciation

It was the night Garth Brooks played Central Park: August 7, 1997. While a throng of 750,000 crowded into the North Meadow, and who knows how many others watched live on HBO, I crammed myself into the claustrophobic basement of the Village Vanguard along with a hundred or so other contrarians to see Cecil Taylor.

The pianist, then 68, began with the kindest, most delicate of notes, about three or four, with his right hand, and then commenced his assault on — or rather, exploration of — the piano, not only its eighty-eight keys and three pedals, but its guts and frame itself. Bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jackson Krall joined in, and for the next hour they unleashed a torrent of sound: confrontational but sensitive, free-form but collaborative, turbulent but rhapsodic. It all washed over you. Taylor ended, solo, with those same three or four genteel notes, and without saying a word, left the stage. It was the equivalent of a mic drop, and the audience erupted. It was an experience, conceptually stimulating with an inherent drama, and even though he didn’t read his poetry or engage in one of his modernist dance maneuvers, it was as much performance art as it was a simple concert or a gig. There was a second set, but I was spent, and anyway there was another group of like-minded souls lined up the narrow staircase waiting to get in.

By then, Taylor, who passed away on Thursday at his Brooklyn home at age 89, had begun to receive his due. He was the recipient of a Jazz Masters Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts in 1990, and won a MacArthur grant the following year. But it wasn’t always like that. It rarely is for those who go their own way.  

Taylor was a native New Yorker, born in Long Island City in 1929, and by the early 1950s he was studying Stravinsky and Bartók at the New England Conservatory. In 1956, he recorded his first album, Jazz Advance, a relatively conventional recording compared to what was to come, but even then his take on Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” is mind-bending.  

By the early 1960s, he’d begun a run of fabulous albums — The World of Cecil Taylor, for one — for the visionary label Candid, where Nat Hentoff, the longtime Village Voice writer, served as the a&r director. “I am not afraid of European influences,” he once told Hentoff. “The point is to use them, as Ellington did, as part of my life as an American Negro.”

Taylor’s marriage of a certain European aesthetic with an African-American one put off large portions of both audiences as well as its gatekeepers. He was an abstract artist when black music was seen as entertainment, something either dangerous or merely fun. As Val Wilmer wrote in her 1977 book As Serious as Your Life, recently republished in a new U.K. edition, “The music of Cecil Taylor is not a particularly encouraging backdrop for sexual overtures.” At a certain point in the 1960s, he was forced to wash dishes and do odd jobs to pay the bills.

“The epicurean aristocrat of the piano,” as the critic Howard Mandel called Taylor, in Miles, Ornette, Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz, “reviled by jazz’s canon-makers as if he were the Marquis De Sade.”

Taylor and Ornette Coleman were the twin spires of the free jazz movement — Taylor played at Coleman’s memorial three years ago at Riverside Church — or, as A.B. Spellman wrote in Four Lives in the Bebop Business, “They were the first two musicians to appear on the scene who placed themselves totally outside the mainstream and had the temerity to suggest that all the assumptions of hard and cool bop would have to be overhauled before the individual voice could once again replace the cliché in jazz.”

And as the saxophonist Jimmy Lyons told Wilmer, “Playing with Cecil made me think differently about what music’s about. It’s not about any cycle of fifths, it’s about sound.”    

In a career that touched on seven different decades and that included poetry and dance — he often collaborated with the dancer Min Tanaka, the subject of the documentary The Silent Eye, by Amiel Courtin-Wilson — his mark has been profound. Virtually any musician who played free is indebted to Taylor. He’s influenced too many pianists to list.

In 2016, not long after the new Whitney Museum opened in the Meatpacking District, it made one of its boldest moves by featuring Cecil Taylor. But the octogenarian pianist was not only featured in concert — the entire fifth-floor gallery was given over to exhibiting his life’s work: album art, poetry, documentary clips projected on a large screen in the center of the space, archival texts, and listening stations with headphones for museumgoers to take in his world of sound. 

When friends pose the question, “What was the best live show you ever saw?” I don’t hesitate. For me, it is unquestionably that August night in 1997. It doesn’t exist in photographs or on YouTube. It’s only a memory. And a beautiful one.

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Vijay Iyer and the Brentano String Quartet

Pianist and composer Vijay Iyer has won a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” regularly tops the jazz critics’ polls, and recently began teaching at Harvard. With a degree in physics from Yale and a doctorate in music cognition from Berkeley, Iyer attests to the often counterintuitive correlation between music and math. Contrary to sociobiologist Steven Pinker’s assertion that music is “auditory cheesecake,” a byproduct of the pleasure principle, Iyer cites free jazz visionary Cecil Taylor’s maxim that “music is everything that you do.” Ergo Time, Place, Action, Iyer’s new piano quintet that is a celebration of life as collective improvisation and features the Brentano String Quartet, the strings behind A Late Quartet.

Thu., April 24, 7 p.m., 2014

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Cellular Chaos

Local no wave skronk-mongers Cellular Chaos are the real effin’ deal: Improvising extremist Weasel Walter slings the most criminally underrated shred ax on the Brooklyn DIY scene, 63 year-old jazz vet and drum-thwacking dinosaur Marc Edwards (dude has backed David S. Ware and Cecil Taylor) mans the destructive kit, and front-lady colossus Admiral Gray stands front and center, hooting, hollering, whooping, screaming, kicking, and sliding amidst the glorious din. It’s no wonder iconoclastic no wave goddess Lydia Lunch is a fan. Tonight, the band celebrates the release of their self-titled debut, ugEXPLODE. Get ready for serious rip-faced action.

Sun., Oct. 27, 8 p.m., 2013

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Saluting Pianist Cecil Taylor

Free jazz forefather Cecil Taylor has lived in a three-story brownstone in Fort Greene for nearly 30 years, but the 83-year-old reclusive avant-garde iconoclast is finally coming home to Brooklyn.

Produced by Harlem Stage and ISSUE Project Room, “Cecil Taylor: A Celebration of the Maestro” will take Taylor’s acolytes, devotees, and the musically soon-to-be-liberated down the rabbit hole for two nights of his dizzying solo piano work, including a home-borough performance he has effectively been planning since the Reagan era; a program featuring pianists Vijay Iyer, Craig Taborn, and Amina Claudine Myers and poet Amiri Baraka; a tribute featuring pianist Thollem McDonas, bass clarinetist Arrington de Dionyso, and drummer William Hooker; and a retrospective of video footage from his storied career.

Catching Taylor in person is highly unlikely—this writer’s attempts to contact him included an impromptu trek out to his ivy-lined residence and extended correspondence with insect pathologist and jazz advocate Ana Isabel Ordonez over the course of a year. As it turns out, though, despite his status as a free-jazz innovator, Taylor is unable to define what it means to be “free.” “I have no idea,” he says with a bellowing laugh. “Freedom is mostly a written illusion.”

By turns laughing Buddha, Angel of Death, and mercurial court jester, Taylor is the indomitable burning bush of the jazz avant-garde—inscrutable yet inescapable, pounding the keys with a fire that burns up the piano but doesn’t consume it. Famously compared to “88 tuned drums,” his celestial constellations of atonal chords have mystified audiences since he exploded onto the scene in the ’50s, a vertiginous rush that sounds like a baby grand falling down a spiral staircase and hitting all the right notes.

Pianist Taborn had his first close encounter with Taylor’s nebulous brand of ostensibly formless form as a preteen, borrowing it from the library. Like the awestruck protagonist in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann”—who discovers the titular character creating haunting walls of sound to keep demons from another dimension at bay—after hearing Taylor, Taborn was never the same again. “The catalyst for it might have been Frank Zappa,” Taborn says, referring to the antiestablishment rock icon’s 1967 “best of” list in Hit Parader. “Zappa [said], ‘If you want to learn how to play piano, listen to Cecil Taylor.’ It sort of made sense.”

Taylor fundamentally altered jazz vocabulary and revolutionized the function of the piano in an ensemble, a role that had been whittled down during the bebop era. “That influence is so hard to evade in the history of improvised music,” Taborn says. “To some extent, still, it’s like you’re playing Cecil whenever you do a lot of things, no matter how hard you try.”

Baraka first felt Taylor’s influence after his groundbreaking 1957 performances at the Five Spot Café in the East Village, and the two eventually connected on the underground loft jazz scene in the ’70s. “Cecil brought the feeling of avant-garde concert music into what’s called jazz,” Baraka says. “He really forced the boundaries of people’s hearing. And if you’ve heard Cecil’s music, you can estimate how it is to work with him.” The two have a history of performing duets, sometimes with Taylor contributing his own poetry. “Cecil’s certainly got a flair for language, but I told him, ‘Next time you do that, I’m going to play the piano.'”

Myers insists that despite how Taylor’s boundary-shattering note clusters might sound to an untrained ear, the emperor is indeed fully clothed. “He’s so open, but the music is constructed. He’s not just playing randomly. It definitely has a focus,” she says.

Taylor, for his part, says that he has spent his whole life honing this accidentally-on-purpose aesthetic.

“It’s a compositional form that leads to an improvisational form,” he says. “I’ve only been doing it for about 79 years. Practice, practice, practice.”

“Cecil Taylor: A Celebration of the Maestro” continues at Harlem Stage Gatehouse, ISSUE Project Room, and Anthology Film Archives through May 22. Taylor will perform at Harlem Stage Gatehouse on May 17 and at ISSUE Project Room on May 19.

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Piano Continues Here: On Spectacular New Works From Keith Jarrett and Cecil Taylor

Only those who’ve followed jazz a good long while—longer than Chick Corea has been a Scientologist, say, or than Vijay Iyer and Jason Moran have been alive—might remember when the piano looked just about done for. Ornette Coleman dealt the first blow by eliminating the instrument from his rhythm section—in the bargain, undermining everything it stood for: improvisation according to strict harmonic guidelines and the tyranny of intonation, for starters. By 1966, when McCoy Tyner left John Coltrane, complaining he could no longer hear himself, nobody else could hear him, either, probably including Coltrane. Despite an approach as obsessively pianistic as Art Tatum’s, Cecil Taylor was routinely praised for subverting the keyboard into “88 tuned bongos,” as if his relevance depended solely on percussive attack, owing nothing to his leading jazz into fertile harmonic territory previously staked out only by European avant-gardists. But the coup de grâce was early-’70s fusion, which reduced what was increasingly referred to as an “acoustic” piano to merely one more keyboard in an arsenal of them, no better than a synthesizer or electric model—no match for them, in fact, in supplying coloration and groove.

Yet by mid-decade, piano had reasserted itself as the pre-eminent instrument in jazz, a position it shows little sign of relinquishing all these years later, given the fairly recent emergence of such acknowledged pace-setters as Iyer, Moran, and Matthew Shipp, and the posthumous elevation of such odd-men-out as Andrew Hill and Jaki Byard (unorthodoxy has become the new orthodoxy, and it’s about time). The short answer to what prompted this dramatic reversal of fortune is Keith Jarrett. Though Tyner’s rise from Coltrane’s shadow was arguably as much a factor, Jarrett’s solo concerts and the poetic image they presented of a solitary figure in communication with his muse—creating music out of thin air and making it new on an instrument still ringing from the touch of the great European masters—struck a chord with audiences previously indifferent to jazz. And why not, inasmuch as what he was doing could be perceived metaphorically as improvisation according to the ways of the hand, a perfect example of the ’70s belief in the transformative power of intuition and fetish for self-realization.

Say what you will about Jarrett, and I bet I’ve written worse—the words “preening” and “meandering” come to mind. But there’s no gainsaying his significance, and when he lets up on the self-stroking and focuses on his material, as he does throughout the new Jasmine (ECM), an album of duets reuniting him with Charlie Haden, his bassist of the 1970s (and link to Ornette, along with Dewey Redman), he can be wonderful. Jasmine was pure happenstance, culled from sessions recorded in Jarrett’s home studio near Woodstock in 2007, following a visit by Haden and filmmaker Reto Caduff to shoot footage for the Haden bio-documentary Rambling Boy, and featuring Jarrett on the same beloved Steinway heard on 1999’s charming, post–chronic fatigue syndrome The Melody at Night, With You.

The emphasis on cosmopolitan torch songs is a bit surprising in light of the duettists’ shared rural leanings, the only hint of which comes via “One Day I’ll Fly Away,” former Jazz Crusader Joe Sample’s grandiose attempt to church-ify a Strauss waltz. But this is Jasmine‘s only misfire. “Body and Soul” is a wellspring that never runs dry, and with Haden holding fast to the tempo and chord structure, Jarrett takes what amounts to a somewhat daring approach to the song 70 years after Coleman Hawkins, spinning elegant variations on the melody in lieu of reharmonizing it. And both “No Moon at All” and Cy Coleman’s “I’m Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life” are very nearly as trim and spectacular.

Before you ask: Yes, Jarrett does that distracting uvular thing of his here and there, especially noisily at one juncture on “Body and Soul.” Yet this tic of his isn’t as annoying this time, maybe on account of the intimate (almost private) nature of these dialogues—it doesn’t seem to bother Haden, so why should it bother us? Jarrett is infamous for demanding abject silence from audiences in live performance, and even though I applaud him for so, the irony is that once he starts “singing” along with himself, it’s him you wish you could shush. The most notorious offender of all in this regard was Glenn Gould, who ultimately withdrew from the stage altogether in favor of the studio, which presented fewer variables. Though I’m not suggesting that Jarrett follow suit, my preference for The Melody at Night over his solo concerts, and for Jasmine over his Standards Trio, does make me wonder if he wouldn’t be better off sticking to his own lair.

As for the other pianist doing epic solo improvisations in the 1970s, even though Cecil Taylor’s recitals were better organized compositionally, and his virtuosity more dance-oriented in its physicality (and therefore more visual), Jarrett’s promise of rapture was far easier for audiences to grasp than such agitated rumination. Also a by-product of a film portrait (in this case, Christopher Felver’s All the Notes), Taylor’s two-CD The Last Dance (Cadence Jazz) consists of a 70-minute duet with bassist Dominic Duval (who actually receives top billing), followed by three encores ranging in length from two to 18 minutes: a full concert, in other words, from the 2003 San Francisco Jazz Festival. While unlikely to change anyone’s mind about Taylor—who created an entire musical language and has sought to perfect it for more than a half-century without the jazz world ever reaching a consensus about it (he was the lone figure singled out for criticism in Ken Burns’s Jazz, and his critical standing seems to have plummeted ever since)—The Last Dance‘s centerpiece duet strikes me as one of the great pianist’s most totemic recorded works.

As with Tatum, the pleasure here is vicariously tactile—you feel those extended runs of Taylor’s (they gather momentum and then stop short, like waves cresting without splashing the shore) throughout your entire body, starting in your fingers. As if conceding no ground to Duval, he positions himself in the bass clef for much of the performance, and his attack is so brutal that during the few moments of silence, you can still hear the piano’s wood vibrating. Faced with irrelevance in the wake of Taylor’s one-man call-and-response, Duval, familiar from his work with Joe McPhee in Trio X, shifts resourcefully between selfless accompaniment and head-on encounter—his role is to provide Taylor with a canvas, and he does, artfully. There are at least three separate movements here, including an uncharacteristically lyrical one about halfway through and another resembling a mambo, of all things, toward the end. Be warned that Taylor indulges in some antic nonsense with his poetry and sound-text about 40 minutes in. But I know from experience that it must have been fun in person, and it’s far more integral to Taylor’s artistic vision than Jarrett’s atonal bleating is to the poor likes of “Body and Soul.”

Though The Last Dance takes first prize, there seems to be no end to satisfying piano albums lately, and I’d be remiss for not calling attention to two by Geri Allen: the solo Flying Toward the Sound, mostly taken up by a suite in tribute to her forebears on which she comes close to pulling off the difficult trick of reconciling Taylor’s steely intellect with Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner’s very dissimilar styles of impressionism; and Geri Allen & Timeline Live (both on Motema), where she blends the sensational tap prodigy Maurice Chestnut into her working trio. British transplant John Escreet’s Don’t Fight the Inevitable (Mythology) earns comparison to experimental Blue Note touchstones like Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch and Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure for the logic with which freewheeling solos (by Escreet, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, and alto saxophonist and co-producer David Binney) emerge from the leader’s maze-like originals. You presumably already know about Jason Moran’s Ten (Blue Note), but you should also be aware of Equality (Fresh Sound New Talent), the debut album by his drummer, Nasheet Waits, featuring Moran’s Bandwagon with added starter Logan Richardson on alto, and enlivened by Moran’s snaky piano figurations. Then there are Mosaic’s Ahmad Jamal box and Dick Hyman’s multi-disk history of jazz piano from ragtime on. These will be going with me on vacation, and I promise to tell you all about them when I get back.

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PARKER’S PARADE

Two weeks, one sax, no chaser: Evan Parker, a veteran of the radical, thickly contrapuntal, British improvisational scene of the ’60s and ’70s, is that rare bird who prefers a solo stance and no accompanying band. That said, the Paul Desmond/Dave Brubeck disciple has played nicely in the past with such eminences as Peter Brötzmann, Cecil Taylor, the Brotherhood of Breath, and even the rock group Spiritualized. Over the decades, his style has shifted from deeply avant-garde into more electronic roots (i.e., his America 2003), but his free-form is still a much-heralded device live. What will he bring to an extended residency of lone gigs and surprise guests at the proudly paltry Stone? Just the blues, out of time.

Oct. 2-16, 2009

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ODE TO THE NEW YEAR

OK, listening to hours of poetry may not sound like the cure to your New Year’s Eve hangover, but, trust us, nothing else you can do today will make you feel more ecstatic about another year in New York City the way the Poetry Project’s 35th Annual New Year’s Day Marathon Benefit will. Every January 1, an incredible cavalcade of all the downtown celebrities, poets, artists, musicians, drag queens, and radicals that give the city its flavor come together for an 11-hour extravaganza. Today’s program features 140 performers including Patti Smith, Cecil Taylor, Steve Earle, Jonas Mekas, Anne Waldman, Lee Ranaldo, Yoshiko Chuma, Taylor Mead, Lisa Jarnot, and, yes, Justin Bond. (Low on cash? The Bowery Poetry Club at 308 Bowery hosts its free poetry marathon, Ex Tenebris Rising, from 2 p.m. to midnight.)

Thu., Jan. 1, 2 p.m., 2009

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EARS WIDE OPEN

As far as the JVC Jazz Festival goes, frustration is good. The more you wring your hands over which must-see shows to take in, the more you know it’s a strong year for programming. The annual bash doesn’t always rock the house—several ho-hum installments come to mind—but this time ’round, everything looks rather sweet. Cecil Taylor and Hank Jones?! Now you’re talkin’. Breadth can define a fest as much as focus can, and during the two-week stretch that started with Kenny Barron’s dynamo trio and extends to
Charles Lloyd’s mercurial quartet, impressive mainstream swing (Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden’s Quartet West) is entwined with smart funky-jammy stuff (MM&W, Soulive), skronky grooves (Ceramic Dog) are balanced by ethereal rumination (EST), and singers (Dee Dee Bridgewater, Tierney Sutton) and superstars (Herbie Hancock) both receive invites. Sometimes it’s all about location, location, location: The relatively new (Le) Poisson Rouge might be this year’s chicest venue; trios led there by Bill Frisell and Marco Benevento are a must. Don’t forget to shop local after the shows—it’s a strong two weeks in clubland, too.

June 19-28, 2008

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The Songs, Not the Pianists

The trouble with Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, a new documentary featuring excessively singerly performances by Rufus Wainwright, among others, lies in director Lian Lunson’s failure to understand that what the Edge calls Cohen’s “Biblical authority” emanates from the honoree’s unadorned singing voice and only incidentally from his songs. The same problem vitiates most jazz tributes, because so many pantheon figures were defined by their approach to improvisation, not their tunes. Peter Madsen’s Prevue of Tomorrow is an exception and then some. It’s a salute to 10 left-of-mainstream pianists, living and dead, who—save Lennie Tristano, represented by his line on the chord changes to “Love Me or Leave Me”—also qualify as overlooked composers: Mal Waldron, Andrew Hill, Hasaan Ibn Ali, Muhal Richard Abrams, Herbie Nichols, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Randy Weston, and Richard Twardzik. No chameleon—and no fool—Madsen knows better than to try to emulate each of these mavericks in turn. The point could be that an idiosyncratic piano style is one thing and a composition by an idiosyncratic piano stylist another—the latter allows for expansion. Madsen acknowledges the echoes of Hasaan’s pounce, Nichols’s savior faire, Taylor’s percussive arias, Tristano’s bass clef rumbles, Hill’s italicized lyricism, and so on embedded in these pieces—how could he not? But these echoes never obscure his own technical prowess or improvisatory reach. He’s the maverick’s maverick, and this could well prove the year’s most unlikely tour de force.

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1966–1975 Peace & Protest

Background of crisis: the trivia in truth
by Frances FitzGerald

April 28, 1966

SAIGON—This is the war in Vietnam. This is the army making the war in Vietnam. This is the colonel with the well-pressed suit who directs the army to make the war in Vietnam. This is the woman who chews betel nuts and who presses the suit of the well-dressed colonel who directs the army to make the war in Vietnam. This is a Viet Cong guerrilla, the son of the woman who chews betel nuts and presses the suit of the well-dressed colonel who directs the army to make the war in Vietnam. This is the bomb that killed the child but missed the guerrilla, the son of the woman who chews betel nuts and presses the suit of the well-dressed colonel who directs the army to make the war in Vietnam.

From Saigon, from inside, the war looks exactly as it had appeared in the books, the magazines, and the newspapers. And yet it is not the same. To come to Vietnam is to walk through the Looking Glass of a print into a land beyond the vanishing point. Solid objects break loose from their lines of perspective; sensations collide; daily rituals, habits of thought collected over a lifetime refract concentration on the war. In the state of persistent abnormality one makes periodic checks on oneself like an airline pilot before take-off to see whether responses, emotions, opinions are in some semblance of working order.

Because Vietnam is a country deranged. It belongs to no one; it has ceased to obey the conventions of any particular civilization. Four armies fight for Vietnam across a four-dimensional chessboard shimmering with black and white squares, the illusions of solidity and relation. Peace is like life after death—a desire in the future subjunctive; war is the eternal present, the game, the medium of existence. “The war,” said one Embassy official who has been here for three years, “the war is an existential phenomenon. Each person must keep on doing what he believes in without any hope of being proved right or of changing the objective situation.”



Linn house presides over wedding of Anita and Abbie Hoffman in central park (June 1967).
photo: Fred W. McDarrah

Be-In, Be-in, Being
Central Park rite is medieval pageant
by Don McNeill

  • see full text
  • March 30, 1967

    As the dawn sun gleamed off a backdrop of molded metal sky-scrapers on Easter Sunday, a medieval pageant began in the middle of Manhattan. Laden with daffodils, ecstatic in vibrant costumes and painted faces, troupes of hippies gathered on a hill overlooking Central Park’s Sheep Meadow to Be-In. By sunset, 10,000 celebrants swarmed in great rushes across the meadow, and thousands more were dispersed throughout the rest of the park. Bonfires burned on the hills, their smoke mixing with bright balloons among the barren trees and high, high above kites wafted in the air. Rhythms and music and mantras from all corners of the meadow echoed in exquisite harmony, and thousands of lovers vibrated into the night. It was miraculous.

    It was a feast for the senses: the beauty of the colors, clothes and shrines, the sounds and the rhythms, at once familiar, the smell of flowers and frankincense, the taste of jellybeans. But the spirit of the Be-In penetrated beneath the senses, deep into instincts. The Be-In was tuned—in time—to past echoes and future premonitions. Layers of inhibitions were peeled away and, for many, love and laughter become suddenly fresh.

    People climbed into trees and made animal calls, and were answered by calls from other trees. Two men stripped naked, and were gently persuaded to re-clothe as the police appeared. Herds of people rushed together from encampments on the hills to converge en masse on the great mud of the meadow. They joined hands to form great circles, hundreds of yards in diameter, and broke to hurtle to the center in a joyous, crushing, multi-embracing pigpile. Chains of people careened through the crowds at full run. Their energy seemed inexhaustible.

    The password was “LOVE” and it was sung, chanted, painted across foreheads, and spelled out on costumes. A tall man, his face painted white, wearing a silk top hat adorned with straw flowers, wandered ethereally through the Be-In holding aloft a tiny sign reading “LOVE.” . . .

    Although hippies dominated the Be-In, it was by no means exclusively a psychedelic event. Many families came to join the Be-In after the Easter Parade down Fifth Avenue. Be-In posters in Spanish invited members of the Puerto Rican community. Grandmothers and executives, hippies and housewives mingled together in harmony. Three nuns appeared wearing Be-In buttons.

    [

    A young boy, a Negro, was skeptical about the hippies. He turned to his father. “But Daddy,” he said, “they look so funny.”

    “You shouldn’t say that,” his father admonished, “until you know them.”

    . . . read more


    ‘Mass Naked Happening’
    The way of all flesh: stripping for inaction
    by Ross Wetzsteon

  • see full text
  • February 1, 1968

    I have seen the future—and it doesn’t work.

    According to a telegram which arrived at the office late Friday afternoon, “JAPANESE SCULPTRESS KUSAMA WILL STAGE A SPECTACULAR MASS NAKED HAPPENING AT THE GYMNASIUM 420 EAST 71 STREET NEW YORK CITY AT 10 PM THIS FRIDAY JANUARY 26.”

    “Those things never start on time,” I was informed.

    So I showed up about 10.40 just as the first young man slipped off his shirt and pants. Within seconds half a dozen young men joined him, all body-painted, all well-lit by the over-lapping flash of photographer’s bulbs.

    On a stage at the far end of the gym, the Group Image was performing against a huge backdrop of multiple-projections. It isn’t accurate to say they play extremely loudly—like many groups, they don’t seem to make sound at all, but to have entered another sensory dimension altogether. Movies were projected on several screens hung from the ceiling, moving lights dappled the walls, and from time to time strips of paper were thrown from the balcony. Two or three hundred hippies—the term is still valid in certain environments—were dancing in various stages of consciousness.

    And in a kind of pen at the entrance-end of the gym, about the size of a boxing ring, with fluorescent posts at the corners and a C-movie projected on a screen at the back, the naked dancing continued— now 10 or 12 young men, and a few on the main dance floor itself.

    “Put your clothes on,” the owner of the Gymnasium vainly implored, but suddenly, in a heterosexual followup to last week’s naked happening at the Palm Gardens, a fleshy blonde girl strode naked into the pen, and the crowd, merely curious up to this point, clustered quickly around the area. The girl danced for a few minutes, then disappeared as quickly as she’d come—into clothes and into newsprint.

    A little later, another girl lay down in a corner of the pen and casually smoked a dubious cigarette as her boy-friend gently lifted her skirt and deftly painted—but not so deftly that it didn’t tickle—what John Cleland referred to as “nether lips.” Eastman-Kodak stock must have jumped at least a point, and a Time reporter, more indignant than curious, asked “is this what’s going on in New York?”

    For the next hour or so the over-30 reporters and photographers waited around, Marty-like, for more what used to be called “action.” But finally Kusama admitted that that was pretty much it for the evening, and she seemed as disappointed as anyone.

    Actually, I’d very much wanted to like it. . . . After all, everyone had said that theAnn Halprin dance concert at Hunter College last year was exhilarating and liberating, many people in our time regard utopia as a sexual rather than a social ideal, and we have been told that the younger generation is finally overthrowing 2500 years of Platonic idealism in favor of tactility. This was to be a glimpse of the unrepressed future. Animal vitality and acceptance would sweep the world. Que viva body mysticism!

    But how sad and depressing it was. The utopian fantasies, collapsed, and somewhere in between the titillated media and the post-civilization on 71st Street lay hopes that this was not to be the way of all flesh.

    . . . read more



    Chicago: demonstrators gather at grant park (Aug. 1968).
    photo: Fred W. McDarrah

    Theatre of fear: one on the aisle
    A view from the Chicago Democratic Convention riots
    by Richard Goldstein

    “You afraid?” I asked a kid from California. He zipped his army jacket up to his neck, and filled his palm with a wad of Vaseline. “I dunno,” he answered. “My toes feel cold, but my ears are burning.”

    We were standing together in Lincoln Park, not long after curfew on Tuesday night, watching an unbroken line of police. Around us were 1000 insurgents: hippies, Marxists, tourists, reporters, Panthers, Angels, and a phalanx of concerned ministers, gathered around a 12-foot cross. Occasionally a cluster of kids would break away from the rally to watch the formation in the distance. They spoke quietly, rubbing cream on their faces, and knotting dampened undershirts around their mouths. Not all their accoutrements were defensive. I saw saps and smoke bombs, steel-tipped boots and fistfuls of tacks. My friend pulled out a small canister from his pocket. “Liquid pepper,” he explained.

    [

    Watching these kids gather sticks and stones, I realized how far we have come from that mythical summer when everyone dropped acid, sat under a tree, and communed. If there were any flower children left in America, they had heeded the underground press, and stayed home. Those who came fully anticipated confrontation. There were few virgins to violence in the crowd tonight. Most had seen—if not shed—blood, and that baptism had given them a determination of sorts. The spirit of Lincoln Park was to make revolution the way you make love—ambivalently, perhaps but for real.

    The cops advanced at 12:40 a.m., behind two massive floodlight-trucks. They also had the fear; you could see it in their eyes (wide and wet) and their mouths. All week, you watched them cruise the city—never alone and never unarmed. At night, you heard their sirens in the streets, and all day, their helicopters in the sky. On duty, the average Chicago cop was a walking arsenal—with a shotgun in one hand, a riot baton (long and heavy with steel tips) in the other, and an assortment of pistols, nightsticks, and ominous canisters in his belt. At first, all that equipment seemed flattering. But then you saw under the helmets, and the phallic weaponry, and you felt the fear again. Immigrant to stranger, cop to civilian, old man to kid. The fear that brought the people of Chicago out into the streets during Martin Luther King’s open housing march, now reflected in the fists of these cops. The fear that made the people of Gage Park spit at priests, and throw stones at nuns, now authorized to kill. And you realized that the cops weren’t putting on that display for you; no—a cop’s gun is his security blanket, just as Vaseline was yours.

    Then the lights shone brilliant orange and the tear gas guns exploded putt-putt-puttutt, and the ministers dipped their cross into a halo of smothering fog. The gas hit like a great wall of pepper and you ran coughing into the streets, where you knew there would be rocks to throw and windows to smash and something to feel besides fear.

    The soldiers stood on all the bridges, sealing off Grant Park from the city streets. The kids couldn’t be gassed anymore, because the wind was blowing fumes across the guarded bridges and into every open pore of the Conrad Hilton, and the hotel was filled with good people who had tears in their eyes. So the soldiers just stood with their empty guns poised against the tide. And they were frowning at the kids who shouted “put down your guns; join us.” A few hid flowers in their uniforms, and some smiled, but mostly, they stood posing for their own death masks.

    “Wouldn’t you rather hold a girl than a gun?” asked one kid with his arm around two willing chicks.

    “You don’t understand,” the soldier stammered, moving his tongue across his lips. “It’s orders. We have to be here.”

    That was Wednesday—nomination day—and the city was braced for escalation. At the afternoon rally, an American flag was hauled down, and the police responded by wading into the center of the crowd, with clubs flying. The kids built barricades of vacated benches, pelted the police with branches, and tossed plastic bags of cow’s blood over their heads. . . .

    With every semblance of press identification I owned pinned to my shirt, I set out across the mall. But most of the crowd had the same idea. Across on Michigan Avenue, I could hear the shouts of demonstrators who were re-grouping at the Hilton. I stopped to wet my undershirt in a fountain and ran down the street. My hands were shaking with anticipation and I could no longer close my eyes without seeing helmets and hearing chants. So my body was committed, but my head remained aloof.


    The election-high is a bad trip
    by Jerry Rubin

    March 21, 1968

    Many of my friends expected to be in concentration camps by the end of summer. Some expected to be gunned down dramatically in the streets of Chicago in August while yippie-ing at the Death Convention. These visions lead to caution, and one sometimes feels like he is living in Russia in the early part of the century.

    [

    There is a knock at the door. It could be the agent with our number up, and it could be a messenger bringing the news that Kennedy and McCarthy are going to fight it out for leadership of the anti-war movement! What a fucked up country—we expected concentration camps and we got Bobby Kennedy.

    I am more confident of our ability to survive concentration camps than I am of our ability to survive Bobby. Concentration camps capture our bodies temporarily but set our spirits screaming; Bobby injects a nerve gas into our veins, putting our body and spirit to sleep. The media overwhelm us with the reality of Bobby and Gene, and drug us into identification with THEIR thoughts, arguments, trips, crusades.

    Elections in America are a mind-poison.

    The energy for a mass, people-movement in which we begin to trust our own ideas and impulses, depend on our own strength, face the dilemma of making our own world . . . that energy is oozed out of us as we become voters, door-to-door vote salesmen, and spectators in the country’s greatest theatrical event: the elections.



    Gathering at the stonewall inn (June 1969)
    photo: Fred W. McDarrah

    A Report From the Stonewall Uprising
    View from outside: Gay Power Comes t to Sheridan Square
    by Lucian Truscott IV

    July 3, 1969

    Sheridan Square this weekend looked like something from a William Burroughs novel as the sudden specter of “gay power” erected its brazen head and spat out a fairy tale the likes of which the area has never seen.

    The forces of faggotry, spurred by a Friday night raid on one of the city’s largest, most popular, and longest lived gay bars, the Stonewall Inn, rallied Saturday night in an unprecedented protest against the raid and continued Sunday night to assert presence, possibility, and pride until the early hours of Monday morning. “I’m a faggot and I’m proud of it!” “Gay Power!” “I like boys!”—these and many other slogans were heard all three nights as the show of forces by the city’s finery met the force of the city’s finest. The result was a kind of liberation, as the gay brigade emerged from the bars, back rooms, and bedrooms of the Village and became street people.



    Women of the World Unite (Aug. 1970).
    photo: Fred W. McDarrah

    Women’s liberation: the next great moment in history is theirs
    by Vivian Gornick

    May 15, 1969

    One evening not too long ago, at the home of a well-educated and extremely intelligent couple I know, I mentioned the women’s liberation movement and was mildly astonished by the response the subject received. The man said, “Jesus, what is all this crap about?”

    The woman, a scientist who had given up 10 working years to raise her children, said, “I can understand if these women want to work and are demanding equal pay. But why on earth do they want to have children too?” To which the man rejoiced: “Ah, they don’t want kids. They’re mostly a bunch of dykes, anyway.”

    Again: Having lunch with an erudite, liberal editor, trained in the humanist tradition, I was struck dumb by his reply to my mention of the women’s liberation movement: “Ah shit, who the hell is oppressing them?”

    And yet again: A college-educated housewife, fat and neurotic, announced with arch sweetness, “I’m sorry, I just don’t feel oppressed.”

    Over and over again, in educated thinking circles, one meets with a bizarre, almost determined ignorance of a fact of unrest that is growing daily, and that exists in formally organized bodies in nearly every major city and on dozens of campuses across America. The women of this country are gathering themselves into a sweat of civil revolt and the general population seems totally unaware of what is happening; or, indeed, that anything is happening; or that there is a legitimate need behind what is happening? How is this possible? Why is it true? What relation is there between peculiarly unalarmed, amused dismissal of the women’s rights movement and the movement itself? Is this relation only coincidental, only the generally apathetic response of a society already benumbed by civil rights and student anarchy and unable to rise to yet one more protest movement, or is it more to the point in the case of women’s rights, is it not, in fact, precisely the key to the entire issue?


    [


    Black Panther Protest (Dec. 1969)
    photo: Fred W. McDarrah

    How do you try a revolutionary?
    A Black Panther trial in New Haven
    by Jonathan Black

    July 23, 1970

    Afeni Shakur twisted over the microphone in the drizzling rain on New Haven Green: “I just came outta that courtroom,” she shouted angrily at the crowd of 300 supporters, “and you gotta see it to believe it. That racist jury in there is gonna fry Lonnie! They’re gonna put him in that chair with wires and they’re gonna electrocute him. Now I ain’t gonna see that happen. We gotta stop it. We gotta do more than rallyin’ and clappin’ our hands. We can’t let ’em fry that brother!” And she turned abruptly away with an angry cry of “Power!”

    Lonnie McLucas is the first Black Panther of the New Haven Nine to stand trial for the kidnapping and murder of Alex Rackley, whose torture-scarred body was found half submerged in the Coghinchug River on May 21, 1969. The significance of McLucas’ trial cannot be exaggerated.

    McLucas is the first Panther to face trial for a capital crime since Huey Newton. Over vehement objection by all defense lawyers, the court severed McLucas’s trial from the other eight Panthers. The prosecution had requested the severance “to guarantee a fair trial.”


    On a clear day you can see your mother
    DANCE JOURNAL

    May 6, 1971

    The title of this episode is new approach: All women are lesbians except those who don’t know it naturally they are but don’t know it yet I am a woman who is a lesbian because I am a woman and a woman who loves herself naturally who is other women is a lesbian a woman who loves women loves herself naturally this is the case that a woman is herself is all woman is a natural born lesbian so we don’t mind using the name like any name it is quite meaningless it means naturely I am a woman and whatever I am we are we affirm being what we are the way of course all men are homosexuals being having a more sense of their homo their homo-ness their ecce homo-ness their ecce prince & lord & master-ness the 350 years of Abraham intersample Abraham lived for 350 years because the bible ages are only a succession of sons and fathers and grandfathers intensely identifying with their ancestors their son so identified naturely with the father that he believed he was the father and of course he was as was Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Esau and Reuben and Simeon and Levi and Judah and Joseph each one lived for 350 years, but who are the daughters of Rachel and Ruth and Sarah and Rebekah the rest we do not know the daughters never had any daughters they had only sons who begat more sons and sons so we have very little sense, from that particular book, of the lineage and ligaments and legacies and identities of mothers and daughters and their daughters and their mothers and mothers and daughters and sisters who were naturally not lesbians if they had nothing of each other save sons so now we much say Verily Verily, I say unto thee, except a woman be born again she cannot see the Kingdom of Goddess a woman must be born again to be herself her own eminence and grace the queen queenself whose mother had pressed upon her mouth innumerable passionate kisses so sigh us . . .


    The Second Gay Pride March
    Toward a gay community
    by Arthur Bell

    July 1, 1971

    Happy birthday, gay liberation, happy birthday to you! The baby is two years old and the song is sung by Martha Shelley and Allen Young and Judy from New York’s defunct Gay Liberation Front, under a Christopher Street banner, a stone’s throw from the old Stonewall Inn, so long ago and far away. Helping along with the celebration are about 6000 birthday guests. They’ve come from Toronto and Washington and Hartford and Columbus and Amherst and all five boroughs and flood Christopher Street from Sheridan Square almost to the river, Sunday under a cloudless pansexual sky . . .

    The big parade starts. A marshal shouts, “Keep behind the Christopher Street Liberation sign!” Somewhere back there, a contingent from Perth Amboy totes a sheet spray-painted and stenciled: “A dream is a dream reality is real, open the door to the way that we feel.” I see a Gay Jewish Revolution banner and the Gay Activists Alliance lambda and all those lambda shirts.

    [

    As the march progresses up Sixth Avenue, past Foam Rubber City, past the flower and plant block, the up-front banners move farther behind and the three city blocks of marchers become nine city blocks. By 34th Street, we’re up to 15. There are no incidents. Some sidewalk observers heed the call and join us. At a 42nd Street construction site, three hardhats make ha-ha gestures. At 45th Street, an observer remarks, “I’m getting to feel like a real creep here with my husband and baby. I’m getting to feel abnormal.” Near the Statler Hilton a group of young women sing “I enjoy being a dyke.” “Join us, join us,” shout the marchers to the bellhops and hotel guests. “Beyond the moon is Lesbos,” says a frizzle-haired woman to a passing hooker. “This is a flexatone—the first gay musical instrument,” says a flexatonist striking his pocket-sized instrument. Two, four, six, eight, organize and liberate.

    The parade enters Central Park. Michael, in a Billie Burke–Wizard of Oz outfit with additional silver cardboard wings, tells the cameramen, “I’m just showing the straight people what a good fairy is.” Miss Philadelphia does a belly dance near the zoo entrance. “I’m here because it’s my day,” she says, “and I want to be beautiful,” and the beads and tassels shake, and click, click go the cameras.

    We enter Sheep Meadow. An army of 200 or 300 more gay people enter from another pathway. We climb a hill. From a vantage point I see hundreds of shirtless men, braless women, give me a G, give me an A, give me a Y. They gloat, they dance, arms interwoven with arms, fists in the air. The Christopher Street banner lies limp on the grass. No one walks over it. The man next to me is crying.

    Small vignettes are played on the grass. The woman with daisies in her hair is plucking out a baroque something on a guitar. An Indian headband falls off someone’s head and a stranger picks it up and gets a kiss in return. Five naked men pass by and one says, “Why don’t you just take off your shorts? Don’t be embarrassed, don’t be shy.” Tarot cards are read. And Jim Owles says, “I’ve never seen so many beautiful faces in my life.”



    Bob Dylan at Madison Square Garden (Jan. 1974)
    photo: Fred W. McDarrah

    August 15, 1974
    Dylan/Band: “Before the Flood,” the live album made on the last night of the 1974 Dylan/Band tour, may turn out to be the least played Dylan record since “Self Portrait.” Sales are not good; radio action is weak. One hears that Dylan’s singing is mannered and emotionless (or worse, emotionally fake); that the music is sloppy and perfunctory; that the use of old songs is both a (failed) attempt to recreate a glorious past and an admission that Dylan cannot create in the present; that Dylan no longer has any real relationship to the generation he helped recognize itself. It is said that, at best, the album is a substitution of physical energy for the imagination and innovation of better days.

    Dylan’s generation dissolved as its members grew up. Dylan, quite some time ago, turned his back on his “generation,” just as he abandoned the strictures of his old styles, and joined a bigger, more complex America. These days, anyone who writes about Dylan’s audience as “us” is using a very ambiguous word, or a very outdated one. Dylan now performs as an American artist, not a generational symbol. “John Wesley Harding” was a deeply intellectual exploration of what it meant to be an American artist; “Before the Flood” offers not ideas but passions, and its ambitions are the same. The old context has crumbled—Paul Nelson is right when he says the center will not hold, but the center is not in Dylan’s music but in the country itself. The triumph of Dylan’s new music is that Dylan seems to take the failure of the center—and in terms of our generation, the failure of the edges—as his opportunity for freedom. If the failure is a fact, it is an exhilarating fact. —Greil Marcus


    Nixon’s pardon: our castle
    by Philip Roth

    Like any number of stunned citizens, I have in recent days been looking for something to help me understand the latest shock to the political system and the national conscience, the pardoning by President Ford of former President Nixon. Now where are we? It has occurred to me that at least for the moment, and perhaps for some years to come, we are in something like the world of Kafka’s “Castle.”…

    [

    [T]he attempt to determine President Nixon’s culpability did not, strictly speaking, have much to do with the plight of Joseph K., the accused isolate of “The Trial.” Nixon protested his innocence no less vehemently and his talent for self-delusion and self-pity undoubtedly enabled him to see himself in a predicament very like Joseph K.’s, as it is described in the opening sentence of “The Trial”: “Someone must have traduced Richard N., for without having done anything wrong, he was arrested one fine morning.”


    What will we write about now? Pondering Nixon’s impeachment
    by Joel Oppenheimer

    August 22, 1974

    There are so many among the vast and devoted legions of voice readers who have come up to me in the last week or so, concern etching their features, worry gnawing at their innards. what, they ask me, will you write about, you and the others, now that you don’t have nixon to kick around? and i wonder myself, sometimes, because the bile raised by the last several years, on so many levels, was certainly a bonus. if only selfishly; there were weeks when the supply was so constant. i wished i had a column a day to do. . . .

    the nixons are easy and don’t come often, and, after all, you are bitching to an audience that pretty much agrees with you and wants you to keep laying on. which isn’t to say that you’re unhappy when that’s happening, but the point, you keep telling yourself, is to say something new, or something old that’s been lost and forgotten in the screaming. make it new, ezra said, every day as the sun rises make it new. the hope is, always, that you’ll trigger yourself and somebody else too, that in presenting some proposition some new jumps will be taken and voila: a new world.


    Scene from a sex conference
    by Karen Durbin

  • see full text
  • October 1, 1974

    SCENE ONE: Saturday morning. The Women’s Speak-Out. Thirteen women take the stage, one by one, in a darkened auditorium, and discuss their sexuality. They range from a Viv, a slim, dark-haired woman in her 30s, who describes herself as a heterosexual monogamist (“I am a token, here to let you know we still exist.”), to Pauline, an earthy, forceful woman who says she has tried everything, including sadomasochism (her description of taking a bullwhip to a man in his suite at the Plaza brings cheers from the audience) and urolania. An urolaniac, according to Pauline, is someone who likes to be pissed on, preferably about the face and in the mouth. She says she met one last year and obliged him. Later, out of curiosity, she took a swig from her urine sample the next time she was at her doctor’s. (“It tasted like Gatorade, but then I know a lot of people who say that Gatorade tastes just like piss.”) Urolaniacs call being pissed on “golden showers,” for which they should get Euphemism of the Year Prize.

    The audience at the Speak-Out, several hundred women, is extremely enthusiastic. They cheer Viv, for example, but they also cheer Pauline and everyone else in between. Everyone else in between covers a wide range. There is Robin, who has an open marriage, has taken Betty Dodson’s Advanced Workshop in masturbation, is currently working on a series of photographs of erections for Viva, and has recently participated in an orgy, which, she said, didn’t turn her on but was “an interesting experience.” And Margaret, black, lesbian, and amused, who remarks that “everyone thinks lesbians know what they’re doing” and adds that they don’t always, pointing out that she didn’t learn to masturbate successfully until eight months ago. And Madeleine, who tells a scarifying tale of incest with her father, whose insistent fondling frightened and pleased her as a child, who tried to fuck her when she was nine years old and who finally left the house when she was 12. The audience applauds at this point. “Well, you can applaud,” says Margaret in a strained voice, “but in some mixed-up way, I felt a great sense of loss.” And for one moment the audience is still, confronted with the unanswerable complexity of sex.

    . . . read more


    Holy war in West Virginia: a fight over America’s future
    by Paul Cowan

    [

    December 9, 1974

    Charleston, W. Va—The turbulent textbook controversy that has crippled schools here is more than a simple fight over the adoption of 325 first through 12th grade supplementary English textbooks. For the 229,000 people who live in the coal and petrochemical rich Kanawha valley it is not an isolated battle, not some rustic re-run of the Scopes trial, but a microcosm of a basic conflict in our culture. It is nothing less than a fight over America’s future.

    This fight has taken place in many different localities, over many different issues. Its themes are the same as those that were echoed in New York City’s fight over community controlled schools, in Boston’s battle over bussing, in the black militant attempt to establish a New Africa in the Mississippi, and in the Chicano’s attempt to drive most Anglos from administrative jobs in Crystal City, Texas. Can America’s mainstream culture, made pervasive by the electronic media, absorb all the diverse groups that live here, that are passionate about maintaining their identity?

    To me, the protests here are a fresh sign that the melting pot—with its dream of a single, unified American culture—is largely a myth. I don’t believe we have ever been united except during times of national crisis like wars and assassinations—and as consumers. I think that, to an unrecognized extent, we are a collection of religious, ethnic, and generational tribes who maintain an uneasy truce. We had to conquer this continent in order to exploit its vast resources. But we were never able to conquer our own atavistic hatreds and loyalties, to live comfortably as a single people.


    Cecil Taylor: an American master brings the voodoo home
    by Gary Giddins

    April 28, 1975

    Cecil Taylor, at 43, has been an American cult figure for 20 years. He has an international coterie of followers who consider him a towering figure in contemporary music, a genius. In the United States, however, his existence is precarious, not in terms of economics—though the economic factor makes it difficult for him to work with large-scale ensembles—but in finding artistic acceptance. Recently, a prominent figure in the rock world offered to present him in a major concert hall, but only if he would put together a funk group. Taylor regards cultural oppression to be far more debilitating than economic or social oppression and when one hears an Ellisonian echo in his talk, it is clearly the hard-won response of a keen intelligence sensitive to an impossible situation. “By being in America, or by being in the West,” he says, “you are invisible, you are not seen.”

    And yet, if Cecil Taylor’s career has often seemed like a gamble against implacable odds, it is now evident that he has won. It has never been possible to write about him dispassionately, but suddenly one no longer needs recourse to noisy rhetoric: the accomplishment speaks for itself. For Taylor is a prophet—not because he was ahead of his time (whatever that means), but because he was so attuned to his time, to the traditions behind him (European, African, and American) and the values before him, that his vision became the path the rest of us would have to follow. Those encountering his music for the first time in 1975 will find the experience a good deal less disconcerting than it was for those who discovered him a decade ago.



    John Waters (Feb. 1975)
    photo: Fred W. McDarrah

    I call on John Waters (and also Divine)
    by Glenn O’Brien

    March 3, 1975

    I called on John Waters, the great Baltimore filmmaker, the day before his new film, “Female Trouble,” opened in New York. Since he was not staying at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, but with friends, he was taking his interviews at the office of John Springer Associates. There he was, string hair, pencil moustache, chain-smoking Kools, sniffling with a cold, and lurking behind Foster Grants, seated amid the mementos in Springer’s private office, keeping his voice down as if he were expecting the principal to walk in any second to turn him over to the juvenile authorities.

    But Divine, the leading lady gender blur of Waters’s repertory company, her sumo wrestler body poured into a quiet battleship gray mohair business dress from Frederick’s of Hollywood, her Garo Yepremian shitkickers shoved into dainty black patent spike heel fuck me’s and her Clarabelle as Theda Bara visage crowned by a jet black mane of Dynel teased i

    nto a megaton version of the Liz look, seemed, well, right at home in the comfy yet hallowed office of Mr. Springer. Yes, it was one of the trappings of stardom. No, it was no bother at all. I knew both the director and his star from previous sojourns in New York. This time John was telling everybody about his three favorite movies of the year: “The Chainsaw Murders,” “Abby,” and “Lacombe Lucien.” “Ayh luvved it!” I haven’t seen any of these movies yet, but if John says to see them I will. He has the best taste in trash and even in art films. I’ll never forget how crushed he looked when somebody told him that Susan Sontag had walked out on “Pink Flamingos.” (A report as yet unconfirmed.)

    [

    “Oh and I luvved ‘Duet for Cannibals,’ ” he moaned.

    While we were talking about disaster movies, John Springer’s numero uno glided in with Judith Crist’s review.

    “Oooohhh! What does it say? What does it say?” cooed Divine huskily.

    “Well, she says it’s disgusting, crude, revolting, awful, foul, and you can’t dismiss it.”

    “At least she didn’t hate it,” said Divine, relieved.

    “Yeah,” sighed John, “the papers have been just terrible. It only got one star.”

    John had hoped for some good copy for the ads. But as it was, they had one thing that other films didn’t. Alongside the large X is a box that says: “While designated X, preview audiences have also indicated that ‘Female Trouble’ includes scenes of extraordinary perversity and may be seen as morally and sexually offensive.”

    Now anyone who saw John Waters’s previous film, “Pink Flamingos,” knows just where this rejoinder is coming from. “They don’t mean it’s too dirty,” says John. “They mean it’s too ugly.”


    Don’t tread on us: New York should secede from the Union
    by Pete Hamill

    June 23, 1975

    Clearly this is the historical moment for the New Yorkers to revolt. We have spoken for years now about the need for statehood for New York [City], pointing out that it was absurd for say, South Dakota to have two senators for a population of less than a million, while New York essentially has none for a population of almost eight million (James Buckley being basically a national senator, representing fetuses and conservatives, while Jack Javits plays at statesmanship, supporting Republicans and Israel with more passion than he is capable of generating on behalf of New York). New York’s money is taken by the Americans and plowed into defense contracts in Southern California, military aid programs for the likes of Franco and South Korea’s General Park. It is used to maintain 250,000 armed men in Western Europe, at least six separate intelligence agencies, incredible bureaucracies in Washington and elsewhere. On the day that President Ford gave [New York mayor] Abe Beame the cold shoulder in Washington, the Americans were meeting in the Dominican Republic to guarantee $1.6 billion in loans to the Inter-American Bank, loans, by the way, that will be used to help build up the purses of Latin American millionaires at the expense of the people of Latin America. There is absolutely no way that a New Yorker now can have a say about the way his federal tax dollar is spent.

    And there are reasons for this. Most of America hates New York. The citizens of America hate New Yorkers. They cannot stand our diversity, our great clanging mixed-up bowl of Jews and blacks and Puerto Ricans and Irishmen and Italians and Chinese and Poles and Cubans. They despise our energy, the great driving engine of our town that sends us into sweating, muling, ferocious contact with each other every day of our lives. In most of America, people leave their homes, get into the home on wheels they call cars, and drive to the larger homes called the office or the plant, where they work. In Los Angeles, you have to drive miles to see a black skin, unless the black skin belongs to the maid. The hicks and the boobs arrive in New York for their tours in the summertime, and they can’t believe it: “Too much rushing around for my blood.” Of course. Too much talent too. Too much energy. Too much intelligence.

    So they have decided to kill us off. President Ford isn’t going to help a Democratic mayor of this town. He is not going to bail out a Democratic governor who someday might run for president. Instead, it’s easier to play the game of the Iron Noose. You make life intolerable in New York, and the middle class will move out. It will go to New Jersey and Long Island and Westchester, and will become Republican and fearful. There is nothing easier for a president to control than a fearful middle class. And once you have drawn the Iron Noose of middle-class whites around New York, it will choke to death.

    [



    CBGB’S Festival

    A conservative impulse in the New Rock Underground
    by James Wolcott

    August 18, 1975

    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 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, Mink 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.

    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. . . .

    Rock simply 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, as phlegmatic, as a rich old whore. It isn’t only that the enthusiasm over the Stones tour seemed strained and synthetic, or that the Beach Boys can’t seem 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 an 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.


    Theatre
    Dancing in the footsteps of the Bard
    by Diane Wolff

    Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company

    November 17, 1975

    Outside the Evergreen Theatre on 11th Street, there’s a bright yellow banner with a jester winking from beneath a fool’s cap. The banner bears the legend, Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company. The bubbling lightboard is dark now, and the marquee announces, Coming Soon 1975–76 Season.

    It’s kind of glamorous for a hometown boy to have his own theatre, and the Evergreen has been a good home for the Ridiculous for the last year and a half. While it’s been kind of cozy and intimate for Ludlam’s audience, of late it’s been a trial for the actors because it’s cramped, it doesn’t have wings or flys, it doesn’t have one amenity dear to the actor’s heart–showers. But still it has been home, and now it’s another New York real estate story. The building has been sold, and come the end of November, the theatre will be gone.

    You’d think with his new play, “Fashion Bound,” in rehearsal, Ludlam would be stricken, or at least upset, but he sat on the edge of the stage, took the news, and rolled with the punch. Chance runs amok in the theatre. An actor can break a leg on opening night and you’ve got a whole new ball game. “Ah well,” he said philosophically, “change has always been good for us. Keeps us on our toes.”