Robert Downey – Sr.’s – Budget-Busting Ego-Booster

[Archivist’s note: Before there was a Robert Downey Jr., there was a Robert Downey Sr. — who was originally just Robert Downey. The elder Downey (born 1936) made some wild films, one of which, Putney Swope, drew high praise from the Voice in 1969. Filmmaker/critic Jonas Mekas gave the tale — about a token black board member taking control of a Madison Avenue advertising agency — a rave, stating, “I am quite certain that it’s the funniest, the most absurd, and probably the most intelligent film you’ll see in town this week and next week and the week after that.” Three weeks on top in the hothouse hurly-burly that was low-budget/experimental filmmaking in the Big Apple back then indeed said a lot for Downey’s creative verve.

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A few years later Downey was given a cool million by a producer looking to capitalize on Putney‘s cult-hit success. But big-time money apparently didn’t scale up Downey’s absurdist sense of humor in the new film, Greaser’s Palace, with New York Times critic Vincent Canby opining that the movie’s million-dollar look “depresses me even more than its witlessness.”

A month later, a Voice reviewer basically agreed, noting that Greaser’s Palace was imbued with “a tedium that is surprising from Downey, who has been entertaining even when bad.”

That, however, didn’t stop Downey’s backers from making a major advertising buy in the Voice at the end of the year. Were they looking for Oscar buzz? Hoping to build word-of-mouth momentum through the Voice‘s audience of sophisticated filmgoers? Whatever the reason, someone bought six pages of ads — in two successive weeks — to spell out the director’s name. Not even his megastar son (who appeared in Greaser’s Palace as a young child who meets a bad end at God’s hand) ever got that sort of love from the studio (at least not in the pages of the Voice).

Below we give you the original Voice review of Greaser’s Palace, and then 12 pages of old-school ego-stroking ads — the kind that would rub off on your fingers. —R.C. Baker]

Downey gets religion — & gets tedious

Robert Downey’s comic genius has always been rooted in the idea that the satiric, if pushed far enough, becomes the absurd — but it is not until GREASER’S PALACE that he has given a religious underpinning to his style. Those bit players in Putney Swope and Pound ob­sessed with their Sisyphusian “shtiks,” determined to maintain their personae and desires despite an unresponsive world, turn out to have been unwitting Christian existentialists, if the new film is any evidence. I was happier with Dow­ney before he supplied us with this information. What’s wrong with Greaser’s Palace is not, as at least one influential critic would have it, its million dollar budget, but its arch explicitness. 

Maybe it’s because we were all so busy laughing that few if any wrote about Downey “seriously” before. But his people always were involved in “meaningless” existential struggle, passionately involved with themselves, their hilarious fixations emerging as prayers or at least affirmations: the Chinaman’s son in Putney exploding firecrackers one by one at the ad agency, the German dog in Pound continually professing unwanted love to the French poodle. They acted as if the only communication was between themselves and God; for all the relating with other people they might as well have been on a desert. although the films took place in New York. Yet this was a part of their brilliance: Downey’s desert, like Sartre’s hell, was “other people,” and this was an especially hard trick to pull off in the context of the Brueghel-like atmosphere of Putney. In Greaser’s Palace, the charac­ters do their vaudeville turns on a real desert, and there, for one thing, lies the difference. The co­median should leave it to the crit­ics to explain his jokes. 

Into this desert — actually an isolated Southwestern town circa 1880, and its environs — comes an anachronistic bop singer, an un­witting Christ. There is also a “fa­ther” and a Holy Ghost and of course the Caesar/Greaser of the title, a constipated despot to whom the people render what is his. They render it incidentally, by standing in line and offering material tribute (money, food) — ­rather as if they lived in A.D. 35 Rome rather than 19th century America. This sort of thing — ­there are a couple of other ex­amples — vitiates the allegorical aspect of the film, as one can hardly be convinced that we must continually relive the Passion unless it relates lo changing sociological reality. 

But that’s a minor squabble. Far more important is that in get­ting “serious” Downey has also gotten ponderous. In his previous films, the absurdity of each char­acter was countered continually by other characters: if they didn’t simply ignore something they responded with an absurdity of their own. In Greaser’s Palace only one absurdity per scene is allowed; the rest is blank stares. James Antonio, for example, tells marvelously raunchy stories as Greaser’s horny son Vernon, stories filled with brilliant Downeyisms such as “I snuggled up to her cunny,” stories delivered with perfect vulgar intonation. But laughter sticks in the throat be­cause every time he tells one of these tales to the father, the old man simply looks at him express­ionless for a minute and then walks on. 

There’s a deliberation to this, of course: the vaudeville joke in a vacuum is the stylistic modus operandi of Greaser’s Palace. But for all the variety of the gags and routines, they are all subser­vient to one rather basic and simple idea — an idea that in itself remains unelaborated. The result is a tedium that is surprising from Downey who has been entertaining even when bad. One hopes this is no permanent matter, and that the explicit Greaser’s Pal­ace is the “out of his system” picture it seems. 

Robert Downey Sr review of Greaser's Palace

Then, from the December 21, 1972, Voice:

And there was a repeat ad buy one week later. Here we present the pages from the bound Voice archive volumes to give you that old tabloid newspaper feeling.



Soundtrack to Watergate Vol. 2: Pirates, Angels, Dinosaurs, Gas Masks — and Ziggy Again

If Donald Trump gets impeached he’ll leave office to strains of excess and decadence — think of the Jonas Brothers copping to “dancing on top of cars and stumbling out of bars” in “Sucker,” Ariana Grande cavorting amid waterfalls of champagne in “7 Rings,” and Lil Nas X’s genre whiplashing as he makes off with the loot in “Old Town Road,” to name just a very few.

The only time an impeachment forced a U.S. commander in chief from office was after the Watergate scandal, which can be dated roughly from the Watergate burglary in June 1972 until Richard Nixon resigned his office, a little more than two years later.

The ads in our second installment of “Soundtrack to Watergate” are all full-pagers — and mostly right-hand pages at that, because advertisers pay a premium to snag eyeballs on the side of a spread that readers see for a few extra nanoseconds as they flip through a periodical. Back in 1972, the Watergate scandal was simply a police blotter report that Republicans were dismissing as a “third-rate burglary,” even though the perps had ties directly to the White House. A number of the ads here feature a logo with the stars of the American flag replaced by the number 18, signifying the voting age, which had recently been reduced from 21, along with the exhortation “Use the Power — VOTE.”

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Nixon, a buttoned-down Quaker who was the antithesis of the counterculture that most of the albums trumpeted, would win in a landslide in November, which relieved his innate paranoia for a few months until the drip-by-drip revelations of his administration’s SOP corruption, self-dealing, and obstruction of justice became a deluge that even his staunchest supporters could no longer explain away.

We have to admit there’s a lot of music below that, almost half a century on, we had never heard before, even though the record companies back in the day thought they were worth an expensive ad buy. So we’ve plunged down a number of streaming-service rabbit holes to bring ourselves up to speed on the flea-market vinyl below.

Much of the archive scanning work here was done while listening to the Latin-infused rock of Macondo, who, according to various record-collecting sites, were an East L.A. group discovered by Sergio Mendes in the early ’70s. Any album with a T-Rex on the cover deserves a listen, and we were not disappointed by Albert Hernandez’s fire-breathing guitar licks and Fred Ramirez’s rollercoaster organ riffs, especially on “Cayuco.”

Jefferson Airplane recorded their seventh studio album using the time-honored tradition of avoiding personality clashes after years of creative intensity by recording a number of the tracks in separate sessions and then getting the band back together in the final mix. Perhaps the pirate in the ad was drooling over the cigars printed on the album sleeve.

Looking Glass gave the world “Brandy” — “a fine girl” who served whiskey and wine and whose eyes “could steal a sailor from the sea.” Not, however, the one seaman she really wanted, because, “Lord, he was an honest man / and Brandy does her best to understand” when he —most probably in a pillow-talk whisper — informs her, “my life, my love and my lady is the sea / It is, yes it is.” $4.49 for the 8-Track at Sam Goody.

Despite the innocent-looking cherub hawking their new album, Black Oak Arkansas was upfront about delivering “more raunchy rock from the good ol’ country boys.” With songs of nightriders in trucks and on horseback, you might get the impression that these southern boys were into raising some serious hell.

Jack Nitzsche worked with everyone from Phil Spector to Neil Young to the Stones. He also did the soundtrack to the film Performance, which featured Mick Jagger and James Fox as, respectively, a rocker and a gangster who eventually meet on a higher plane. Perhaps writing the choral arrangement for “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” prepared Nitzsche for his collaboration with another breed of “long-haired friends,” when he recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra in an ancient London church with the sonorous name “St. Giles Cripplegate.”

Tina Turner leaps across the ad for Feel Good, and with the exception of a cover of Lennon and McCartney’s “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window,” she also wrote all of the songs for her and then husband Ike’s 17th (!) studio album.

The Hollies had a top-ten hit with “Long Cool Woman,” which pulled their album Distant Light to No. 21 on Billboard magazine’s charts. For fans of the Hipgnosis design studio, the gatefold album cover — featuring Boschlike grotesqueries in the depths of a bucolic pond — made the $3.77 tab go down easier.

According to Billboard, covering the 1972 release of Phoenix, “Grand Funk have by now attained an almost permanent place in rock’s hierarchy. They have legions of devoted, ready followers at every performance and lining up to buy their every album.” However, as the website notes, Lester Bangs, reviewing the album in Rolling Stone, was having none of it: “It’s not that there’s anything wrong with mediocrity or cliché — could you or I have written ‘Sugar, Sugar’? — but when mediocrity loses all its flair, all its panache, becomes this bland and this pompous at the same time . . . it’s time for some Chuck Berry.”

Herbie Mann’s flute (and David “Fathead” Newman’s sax) cover much musical terrain here, beginning with the traditional spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and concluding with a rock standard for the ages, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The ad’s illustration reinforces aspirations both high and low.

Take your pick that fall of 1972: Roberta Flack and Quincy Jones in September, The Fifth Dimension hitting the stage near Thanksgiving, with Bowie, Elton, America (of “A Horse With No Name” fame), and other chart toppers in between. Top ticket price was $8.50 for Engelbert Humperdinck (born Arnold George Dorsey), who once told the Hollywood Reporter, “I can hit notes a bank could not cash.”

According to the ad copy, Bonnie Raitt was a balladeering belter who’d been described as “earthy and innocent, winsome and whiskey-headed.” When asked for her own opinion, Raitt told the ad agency that her “batting average for the summer is something over .250.” Considering that this propulsive collection of rocking blues filigreed with New Orleans brass accents landed on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, we’d say she was swinging an even hotter bat back then.

Tim Buckley (1947–1975), whose music ranged from jazz to all manner of rock into funk, poses with a gas mask in the full-page ad for Greetings from L.A. A postcard of the City of Angels blanketed in smog on the album cover gives an idea of the down and dirty tunes on the vinyl.

Prog rock was ascendant in the early 70s, and it doesn’t get much more proggy than Curved Air’s synthesizer solos accompanying the Renaissance-festival-like vocals of lead singer Sonja Kristina on Phatasmagoria’s “Marie Antoinette.” The ad copy beneath the undulating logo reads “The one group that might be too good for America.” Indeed, these folky Brits hit No. 20 in the UK, but Phantasmagoria didn’t chart in the states.

Spokane, Washington, native Danny O’Keefe, on the other hand, hit it big with his single “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues,” which pulled his LP, O’Keefe, up to No. 87 on the album charts. The single has long since been etched into the pop pantheon, having been covered by artists from Waylon Jennings to Mel Torme to the King himself, Elvis Presley. The world-weariness of one particular verse has resonated with different singers; the original, “Ya know my heart keeps tellin’ me / ‘You’re not a kid at thirty-three’ / Ya play around, ya lose your wife / Ya play too long, you lose your life,’ “ gains a decade in Charlie Rich’s telling, the country maestro figuring he’s finally grown up at age 43.

If you had dreams of stardom back in ’72 you could’ve done worse than to head over to the former Fillmore East on Second Avenue and audition for . . . well, since they were seeking not just your standard-issue actors, jugglers, and fire-eaters but also “Dancing Bears,” “Aging Astronauts,” and “Animal Tamers and Big Namers,” we’re just sorry we weren’t around to see what kind of show they were putting together.

If hard rock was your jam, then Ramatam fit the bill. The band featured some established heavyweights, such as drummer Mitch Mitchell, late of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and former Iron Butterfly guitarist Mike Pinera. The quintet also featured a rarity for that time — a hard-rocking female guitarist. April Lawton (1948–2006) was a Long Island native who some hailed as the female Hendrix, but although Ramatam’s second album sported the enticing, semi-eponymous title In April Came the Dawning of the Red Suns, the band never caught the whirlwind.

If it was sun you were seeking, you could at least get it on vinyl in a two-record set capturing the “Mar y Sol” festival, held earlier that year in Puerto Rico. The eclectic gang had all been there, ranging from B.B. King, the Allman Brothers, Dr. John, and J. Geils to the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.

And speaking of the prog gods, ELP was also promoting their own album at the time, Trilogy, which featured, among other virtuosic instrumentals, the trio’s take on an American classic, Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown.” The album hit No. 5 on the Billboard charts, though Voice music critic Robert Christgau bluntly disagreed: “The pomposities of Tarkus and the monstrosities of the Moussorgsky homage clinch it — these guys are as stupid as their most pretentious fans. Really, anybody who buys a record that divides a . . . composition called ‘The Endless Enigma’ into two discrete parts deserves it. C-”

And if you didn’t get enough of the J. Geils Band on the “Sea and Sun” discs, you could buy their live album Full House, which featured a winking Queen to let you know the hand was actually only a three-of-a-kind. More important, the title implied that they could sell out any venue they played.

Geils and crew were indeed bringing their boisterous rock to ever larger audiences, but they still didn’t have the drawing power of Alice Cooper, who was headlining a show at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City. The concert was a big deal — Cooper flaunted his sexuality in a solo ad as the big day drew near — but the venue’s greatest claim to fame came on April 18, 1946, when the home team, the Jersey City Giants, a farm club of the New York Giants across the river, hosted the Montreal Royals. The Royals trounced the Giants 14 to 1, but anyone who was there was undoubtedly impressed with the debut of the Brooklyn Dodger’s farm team’s second baseman, Jackie Robinson, who had four hits in five trips to the plate, including a three-run homer.

Another megastar coming to town was less abrasive than Alice Cooper: John Denver was promoting his album (and single) Rocky Mountain High. Carnegie Hall had probably never felt vaster.

Then again, in the same week, that storied music venue would also host Ziggy Stardust. And he’d come all the way from Mars.


Beam Us Up. No Wait — Just Get Us Outta Here!

[Archivist’s note: When we saw the ad in the October 10, 1968 issue of the Voice, we thought, hmm, this looks interesting — “INTERCOURSE begins at EARTH. Hallucinate yourself in a variety of environments where everyone joins hands in a new coalition understanding and love.”

Talk therapy? Group sex? It was 1968 on East 49th Street, after all.

Two weeks later we got an answer of sorts when the intrepid, street-level culture reporter Howard Smith made the scene at EARTH in his weekly column.]

October 31, 1968
By Howard Smith

I guess the sociologists could explain why people act like lemmings whenever anything new opens in town. Just use the right pop words and huge first night crowds will appear. I made myself the victim of this two weeks ago while attending the opening of a new discotheque called EARTH. The invitation beckoned: “We would like to include you as an honored guest … when the chic inherit the ‘EARTH.’ New York’s most avant-garde restaurant and discotheque. A whole new concept in dining and entertainment. Be kind to all you see and touch. A deep sense of oneness with nature … The earth steams gently … touch the warm wetness … Breathe in fragrances … The enchantment of ‘EARTH’ is knowing the joy of being alive. The newest sights, the newest sounds. Opening a whole new world … ‘Earth.’” Pretty good reading, but the discotheque was something else.

Full page ad for EARTH

Outside was the proving ground of human behavior. It was as if THE BOMB had fallen and this was the only refuge for the beautiful people. To get in became the only aim in life, and how was unimportant.

Suddenly the invitation seemed prophetic. I had a deep sense of oneness with the crowd. Tempers were steaming gently. I couldn’t help but touch the warm wetness of the person pressed against me. It was impossible not to breathe in the fragrances. I was kin to all I saw and touched, but far from a meaningful encounter, everyone was gagging from this unwelcome shoving kinship.

Earth’s owners, who managed to raise enormous sums of money to open their doors, were unable to manage the doors themselves. There was an ability gap. Even their publicity people would do nothing more than smile. Pleas of form a line, please, were ignored when it became apparent that brandishing invitations, press passes, even folded money didn’t accomplish what just plain shoving did. A few creative people used their tongues when elbows were rendered useless in the crush: “I work here … and besides I left my coat inside.”

The fact that people were struggling to get out as intently as others were struggling to get in did not dim anyone’s determination. When at last the resistance gave way and I penetrated the inner depths of this “new concept” in entertaining, the experience was literally over.

The inside story was the biggest let-down of the season. The first floor, dubbed “Earth Gardens,” was crammed with tables, chairs, potted plants, and perplexed people. The hot-house atmosphere was carefully created by that infamous interior design firm of Broken Air Conditioner.

Onward, with much climbing of stairs and peeking into hot, dim caverns. Each floor had its own self-conscious name: “Cafe Intergalactic,” “Karamu Safari’ Room,” and “Up.” There was the usual light show and deafening music. A visual miasma of rather passé day-glo wall decoration and the dismal sensation of flash bulbs popping at unexpected moments did cause me to blink occasionally. The soul food buffet was tasty but in short supply. Kool-Aid flowed like wine, increasing everyone’s thirst and irritability. Squeezing back down the steps required almost the same elbows and determination that it took to get in.

Looking over the invitation again, it seems someone had a great idea in his head. Too bad we don’t all fit.

Howard Smith's SCENES column, which appeared every week.
Continuation of Howard Smith's SCENES column, which appeared every week.

Taking the Stage with Alfred E. Neuman

Before she won six Tony awards, between 1970 and 2012, and prior to her 1979 Emmy for her lead role in the TV show Alice, Linda Lavin appeared on stage in The Mad Show, singing Stephen Sondheim’s (uncredited) “The Boy From …,” a breathy parody of “The Girl from Ipanema,” which includes such lines as “When I tell him I think he’s the end / He giggles a lot with his friend.” In this case, girl does not get boy.

And before she became a household name on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, Jo Anne Worley trod the boards alongside Lavin to bring the satirical magazine’s gags to life in a 1966 production at the New Theatre on East 54th Street.

The first hint Village Voice readers had of this hybrid of the printed page and live theater was an ad in the December 23, 1965, issue announcing “A New Musical Revue Based on MAD Magazine,” to which Alfred E. Neuman declaims, “ECCH!”

Two weeks later the paper included a publicity photo of three mugging cast members.

At the bottom of that same page, the magazine’s mascot’s mug appears again, blasé about the show’s opening date, Sunday, January 9, 1966.

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The following week there is no word from Voice critics, but others have weighed in. In the ad, the clip art of Alfred remains stoic.

Come January 20 and the Voice passes judgement in the Theatre Journal column. This time, the production department took pains to keep the ad on page 19, separate from the editorial critique on page 20.

Critic Michael Smith liked the show, but lamented the omission of the magazine’s “threat of savagery in its satiric bite”:

“The Mad Show” is a speedy and consistently funny musical revue. Its five performers are likable and highly skilled, Steven Vinaver’s direction leaves barely a moment unoccupied, Mary Rodgers’s music is energetic and versatile, and the sum is thoroughly diverting. It’s difficult to break the show down into its parts, since it moves at an almost blurring velocity. Linda Lavin is absolutely bewitching in “The Boy From,” and Paul Sand’s “The Real Thing” is a flawlessly performed miniature. MacIntyre Dixon and Dick Libertini, previously familiar as the Stewed Prunes, are as unpredictably zany as ever, and Jo Anne Worley has comic expertise to spare. Together and separately, they look like the ideal revue cast.

“The Mad Show” is based on Mad magazine. It shares the comic book’s irreverence, sometimes mimics its mating of the far-fetched with the dead-pan, but omits its air of tenuous control, the threat of savagery in its satiric bite. Much of the time the source is not visible, and I would have preferred to see more risks taken, more point of view, more precision in choosing targets for satire. I prefer theatre to be less innocuous; despite its shambling exterior, “The Mad Show” would not be outré in a chic midtown boîte. (But when would you find time to drink your drink?)

In other words, if you like this sort of thing, this is an excellent example of it. Aesthetic commitments ablush, I report it readily recommendable.

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Soundtrack to Watergate: Ziggy, Cheech, and Chong Hold Their Heads High

There was a lot of anxiety on Main Street during the Watergate scandal. We will be posting music ads that appeared in the Voice from the period that started with the bungled burglary in June 1972 and ended in August 1974, when Richard Nixon resigned from office in the face of near-certain impeachment due to his self-dealing, corrupt practices, and obstruction of justice.

Those were heady times. The rock was classic — we just didn’t know it yet. And even as it was becoming canonical, it was also progressing. Or at least morphing into the technical virtuosity that characterized Prog rock.

We’ll start with a passel of ads from the early days of the scandal that brought Nixon down. Released one month before five men broke into the Democratic National headquarters in the Watergate Complex, the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street set the musical tone for the coming national nightmare: two discs of warped, dirty Americana.

In support of Exile, the Stones had embarked on a 50-date American tour that made headlines for all the wrong reasons. The week before the Watergate break-in, 60 Stones fans were arrested outside the band’s San Diego show, while police used tear gas on hundreds more. Two nights after the inept burglars were caught in the act, the Stones were trashing the Playboy Mansion, in Chicago.

Although they were not as huge as the Stones, Argent had a major top-10 hit around the globe with “Hold Your Head Up.” We’re not sure, though, just what those surrealistic objects beyond that particular Door of Perception in their ad might be. Not pillows at least — Jefferson Airplane took care of that way back in 1967.

Bill Graham’s Fillmore East had had a brief but storied history: Located at 105 Second Avenue, it hosted all the legends of the era — Hendrix, the Doors, Miles Davis, the Bonzo Dog Band — before closing its doors in June 1971. Today, the space — a block from the Village Voice offices — is home to a bank.

Hits don’t get much more massive than “Lean on Me” — the Bill Withers classic topped the charts in June 1972. Just months earlier, Withers had won a Grammy for “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and in July the R&B singer was scheduled to play a weeklong residency at the Bitter End.

Those with more highbrow tastes could attend a Mozart and Bach fest. (Nixon was a Bach fan, which writer Tom Carson touched on in his brilliant Voice obituary of the disgraced president: “ ‘Do you know why Bach is better than Brahms?’ the grizzled, not-a-­crook former president demanded of a star­tled Gary Hart not too many years ago, when they were seated together at a state funeral. ‘Bach is tougher than Brahms.’ ”)

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If you wanted an evening of avant-garde inspiration, the New School was celebrating John Cage’s 60th birthday.

The Grateful Dead were also in town (well, actually, across the Hudson at Roosevelt Stadium). Nixon was gearing up for a final, typically dirty political campaign spearheaded by the minions of the CRP — Committee to Re-Elect the President — which became more popularly known as CREEP.

Jerry Garcia and the rest of the Dead wanted the youth of America to use their newly acquired right to vote, hopefully to turn Nixon out of office in November. That wouldn’t exactly work out.

Cheech and Chong were concerned with different numbers when they released their second album, Big Bambú, which reached No. 2 on the charts.

Finally, David Bowie was on his way to becoming the Man Who Fell to Earth. Released on the eve of the Watergate break-in, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars was Bowie’s breakthrough: By 1974, the British showman would be big enough to inspire a look-alike contest … and Richard Nixon would be out of office.


Protesting the War — In Your Best Dress

Back in the days before Google AdChoices and Craig’s List, advertisements fueled newspapers — a 120-page issue might be 75 percent ads and 25 percent editorial. Design directors, photographers, cartoonists, pasteup artists, and editors labored mightily to make sure that the news stories, features, reviews, and comics on the edit spreads were at least as enticing as anything Madison Avenue could throw at readers. In the case of a publication like the Village Voice, ad reps often dealt with proprietors of mom-and-pop stores who would bring in homemade ads that might be drawn with a felt marker or glued together like an elementary school project.

For anyone researching cultural history, advertising will reveal a wealth of information about any given epoch — if folks were willing to shell out their hard-earned cash maybe they were getting what they truly wanted.

Or perhaps, as Leslie Savan often pointed out in her “Op Ad” columns — which started in the 1980s, a great decade for hucksterism — we’re just suckers for all those P.T. Barnum wannabes out there. (We’ll be putting our “Cultural Commerce” pieces online in order of decade so there’ll be plenty of Savan’s insights to come when we begin the 1980s and ’90s sections in the near future.)

Another genre that delivered plenty of eye candy were high-end ads for movies. Soon we will start posting ads for some of Hollywood’s biggest extravaganzas — and then take a look at what Voice critics thought of the films behind the hype. Same goes for concerts and theater ads.

We’ll start this new section off with a case of the tale wagging the dog — beginning in the 1960s, Howard Smith brought readers a weekly look at the downtown scene in a column appropriately titled Scenes. In the October 19, 1967, issue he and photographer Merle Steir zeroed in on a young woman wearing a dress patterned with peace signs. Therein lay a tale:

THE DRESS LEAST LIKELY to be seen on the Johnson girls this season is a simple $20 short-sleeved wool knit. Nothing eyebrow-raising about that, ex­cept that the print happens to consist of all-over peace symbols. And while it’s true that Arnold Constable is trying to update its image, in this case the staid old department store’s little fashion trip was an example of how com­pletely out of things it really is. The store evidently bought the dress because they liked the print — but had no idea what all those little circles with the three lines in them were all about. Unfortunately for all you girls who don’t have a thing to wear for the October 20-21 Mobilization, the entire rack sold out in two days.

Besides pointing out that President Lyndon B. Johnson’s daughters probably would not be wearing the dresses since their father was so identified with the ongoing war in Vietnam, Smith also notes that the uptown department store just wasn’t hip enough to understand how popular the item would be.

Well, someone at the establishment perhaps saw Smith’s piece and decided, two weeks later, that there was no better place to advertise their replenished stock than in the pages of that pinko/homo/degenerate rag downtown. Just goes to show once again that capitalism knows no shame.


New Year’s Eve Parties — 20th-Century Version

It’s New Year’s Eve half a century ago. What to do? Well, according to the December 31, 1958, issue of the Voice, you could stay home with your “impressionable friend” and have a bottle of 80-proof vodka or some “N.Y. State Champagne” delivered right to your door from Heller’s Liquor store on Greenwich Ave.

Or perhaps you prefer your booze mixed with some serious jazz jams? If so, the Five Spot, on Cooper Square, was the place to be — on New Year’s Eve 1958, both Sonny Rollins and Charles Mingus were on the bill.

A decade later, you could head over to Broadway, near West 3rd Street, and party with David Peel and the Lower East Side as they belted out such no-bullshit numbers as “Show Me the Way to Get Stoned” and “Here Comes a Cop.” For those feeling even more raucous, MC5 were also in the house. (And we’ll just note that, in those days of cutting up type with X-Acto knives and pasting it onto production boards with hot wax, sometimes a piece of copy would fall off. No doubt the Broadway Central Hotel was pissed that its headline “!GET! ON DOWN FOR SIXTY” was missing the “NINE.” Hey, it was the late Sixties, there was always a party going on — even in the Voice production department.)

That same year you could meander over to the Electric Circus (formerly the Dom) to soak up the paisley vibe of the English psychedelic rockers Deep Purple. The club’s ad was straightforward: “A splendid time is guaranteed for all.”

Come the late Seventies, your choices were even more widespread. CBGB’s on the Bowery was apparently having so much success that it opened a new venue on Second Avenue. If poetic punk rock was your cup of tea, you couldn’t do a whole lot better than a double bill of Patti Smith and Richard Hell. Or, if you were in a symphonic mood, what better than a live “Star Wars Laser Concert” on Broadway for a fresh start to the new year? It was, after all, “the Ultimate Laser Trip.”

The Reagan Eighties specialized in crassness, so who better to ring in 1989 than that potty-mouthed greaser throwback Andrew Dice Clay? Who wouldn’t want to “Spend New Year’s Eve with the Hoodlum of Comedy”?

Fortunately, there were other options. One in particular caught our eye. Back in the day, it also caught gossip columnist Michael Musto’s attention, and he would later reminisce about the multilevel dance club Mars: “Inspired by Blade Runner, but with distinct echoes of H.R. Pufnstuf [Mars] had walls of lava lamps and surreal statues to add to the all-around trippy experience.”

Come the late Nineties and it’s just a smorgasbord of sonic sensation all over town. You’ve got Isaac Hayes bringing his hot buttered soul to Life on Bleecker. The more nostalgia-minded could take in a Beatles tribute band at the Rock ’n’ Roll Café, or go back in time to 1984 at the Pyramid Club.

But if we could hop into the Wayback Machine, we’d head over to the Hammerstein Ballroom to blast off with George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars. Because, sometimes, old school never gets old.

From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES show-old-images

4th of July Eye Candy: The Spirit of ’76 in Bicentennial Advertising

This Independence Day we’re taking a trip to 1976 in the Village Voice Wayback Machine. Among other questions: Why was a donkey climbing a skyscraper in an ad for Korvettes department store?

Less than a year after President Gerald Ford told New York that the federal government would not bail the city out of its fiscal crisis (which led to the infamous Daily News headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead”), Gotham gussied itself up to celebrate not only America’s Bicentennial but also the 1976 Democratic National Convention, which would nominate Jimmy Carter. (Who, with the help of New York State’s 41 electoral votes, would go on to defeat Ford in a close election.)

It was a unique convergence of events in the city — first the Bicentennial hoopla, and then the convention from the 12th to the 15th. Of course, New York was — even more so than now — the media capital of the world, but anyone who has ever researched cultural history knows that advertising can be as revealing about the times as editorial content. With that in mind, behold some choice samples of Independence Day carnival barking.

America might have won the Revolutionary War and gone on to invent rock ’n’ roll, but, judging by the holiday playlist of one of the city’s behemoth FM radio stations, the British were beating us at our own musical game. That relative Jersey newcomer Bruce Springsteen was indeed tearing up the airwaves, but DJs were still loyally spinning such stalwarts of the British Invasion as the Beatles (together and solo), eminences such as Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, and Seventies hitmaker Elton John in heavy rotation. This was the advent of “classic” rock — if you wanted to hear real pioneers, such as Elvis, Jerry Lee, or Little Richard, you’d have to find an “oldies” station.

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Jazz was more thoroughly homegrown, and the graphic-design team at Atlantic Records found a way to tie the music to America’s biggest political idols. (Although Richard Nixon played the piano in the White House, it would not be until 1992 that a presidential candidate would capture the spirit of Atlantic’s equating “cool” with American-born music. Bill Clinton wasn’t blowing jazz, but “Hound Dog” — a twelve-bar blues written by two Jews and first turned into a minor hit by a black female blues singer before becoming a monster chart-topper for the Southern white king of rock ’n’ roll, Elvis Presley — embodies an ethnic mix that represents American ideals at least as well as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”)

For those whose tastes ran to symphonic music, the Sheep Meadow in Central Park was the place to be, as America rang in 200 years of being “the last best hope of earth,” President Lincoln’s characterization of the country at the height of the Civil War, when Northern victory was far from certain. The Union survived, and in 1939 the Manhattan-born composer William Schuman wrote American Festival Overture, which he called music for “a very festive occasion.” New York Philharmonic conductor Leonard Bernstein took him at his word, and included the piece in a patriotic extravaganza. Also featured was Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, which incorporates text from a number of the Great Emancipator’s speeches, including these lines from an 1862 address to Congress, as the Civil War raged on: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.”

On the night after the Philharmonic spectacle, celebrators could really kick out the jams — at Shea Stadium. On July 5, 1976, you could hop the 7 train to see comedian Dick Gregory joined by his “running mate” Muhammad Ali, for the conclusion of his “Bicentennial Run Against Hunger in America.” Gregory, who was a long-distance runner, had run from Los Angeles to New York to “awaken a Sleeping America to the plight of the American people who remain poorly fed, poorly housed, and poorly clothed — while America basks in its glory of affluence and bounty.”

Oh, and the musical guests were the Jackson 5.

One of the nonmusical highlights of the Bicentennial was Operation Sail, which brought tall ships from around the world to New York Harbor. Radio personality Don Imus gave the World Trade Towers the fish-eye treatment from a traffic helicopter to welcome the international fleet.

Those who wanted nothing to do with America’s big blowout could head for the movie theaters, where a major British rocker was starring in, as one critic described it, “a spellbinding ‘head picture.’ ” If that wasn’t enticement enough, another critic compared director Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth to “a Picasso painting or novel by Joyce; it should be left to the observer to assimilate.”

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Once the Bicentennial was done, New York City had to prepare for the arrival of the Democrats who were anointing Jimmy Carter as their presidential candidate. The Democratic National Convention took place at Madison Square Garden from July 12 to July 15. Along with coverage of the Dems and an article on the ever-newsworthy Billy Martin, in his first full year as Yankees manager, the Voice cover teased an essay on patriotism by cultural surveyor Greil Marcus.

Korvettes department store was one of many New York City outlets offering convention visitors printed guides to local restaurants, nightlife, and tourist attractions. It was too late, however, for out-of-towners to have witnessed the second coming of a unique bit of Gotham’s fictional lore: the death of King Kong, this time falling not from the Empire State Building — as he had in the original 1933 film — but from the Twin Towers. According to the June 22, 1976, edition of the New York Times, “a horrified crowd of more than 5,000 New Yorkers surged past police lines at the World Trade Center last night on cue and fought its way to the spot where a giant gorilla lay dead after a 110-story fall from the North Tower.” The paper further reported that these unpaid extras had to stage their charge “again and again — and again,” because they were blocking the camera crew’s view of Jessica Lange, who was updating the role, made famous by Fay Wray, of the beauty who killed the beast.

It was certainly a mixed metaphor to have the symbol of the Democratic Party re-create that moment in an ad welcoming delegates. But Korvettes assured the visitors that, although finding gifts for those at home could be tougher than picking a candidate, they could confidently purchase “a flacon of perfume to bring back for the wife, a skateboard for your son, or those studded jeans your daughter warned you not to come home without.” Welcome to the big city.

Brooklyn retailer Abraham & Straus sought to lure conventioneers across the East River by appealing to their patriotism, with ad copy that read, “The Battle of Long Island was fought by Washington’s army against the British under such generals as Howe and Cornwallis on August 27, 1776,” and then promised, “Many of the sights and sites suggested here had a share in that battle.”

And here’s a closer look at A&S’s nifty outerborough map:

And finally, what would the Bicentennial have been without a reference to the Watergate scandal, which proved that democracy is bigger than those who seek to undermine it. In an ad for a comedy record by the comedians Burns and Schreiber, “that great iconoclast from Baltimore,” who we assume to be H.L. Mencken, is quoted: “It is the duty of the satirist to be outrageous and to offend. It is the duty of the government to be responsible.”

Those were the days!