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Taking Aim at the Sex Pistols

Vicious and His Circle: Taking Aim at the Sex Pistols
From the Voice Literary Supplement

On the level of gossip, where most rock hagiographies tend to begin and end, the Sex Pistols’ bio contains no more death and decadence than a hundred other tales of fame and misfortune. The Beatles, the Beach Boys, even Geraldo Rivera all have more skeletons in their closets. “What you can never get in your book,” prophesies John Lydon to Jon Savage in England’s Dreaming, “is the utter, total boredom of being in a band.” But by placing their story in the context of the time — and even more significantly, by filtering its unprecedented theoretical drainage — Savage transforms the Pistols’ tale into an intellectual epic (and at 600 pages in length, including dis­cography, it had better be). Especially when stacked up against other recent takes on the same scene, one by a journalist and another by a band member, England’s Dreaming is a no-nonsense rendering of punk’s over­determined glory.

The whole project, however, is grounded in Savage’s personal enthusiasm, as one of several diary entries makes clear: “30.10.76: I go to see my first proper punk group. I know what it’s going to be like: I’ve been waiting for years, and this year most of all: something to match the explosions in my head. The group are called the Clash … One song: a genuine cry, a child scream­ing in fear: ‘Waa waa wanna waa waa.’ Within ten seconds I’m transfixed, within thirty, changed forever.”

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***

Formed by guitarist Steve Jones, fronted by a shamanic singer with rotten teeth, and named by manager/provocateur Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols (“Why didn’t they just call themselves the Penises?” wonders an analyst of my acquaintance) produced records that were clarion calls to anarchy and transformed concerts, inter­views, and meetings with their record com­panies into incendiary, tabloid-titillating events. During a two-year carnival of chaos, from 1976 to their breakup in 1978 as toothless victims of the apparatus they at­tempted to undermine from within, they ceaselessly disrupted business as usual on tired, stodgy Planet Rock. Less rock band than art project, “the group embodied an attitude into which McLaren fed a new set of references: late-sixties radical politics, sexual fetish material, pop history and the burgeoning discipline of youth sociology,” explains Savage, high claims he actually justifies without lapsing into either mind­less boosterism or I-was-there-and-you-­weren’t smugness.

Savage constantly returns to the primal fitting room scene, however, reminding us that punk rock can never be dissociated from its mondo-bondo dress code. “Never forget,” McLaren says to Savage early on in England’s Dreaming, “that clothes are the things in England that make your heart heat!” He omits the transitional artifice an introduction or preface might provide and instead tosses the reader into the middle of swinging England, onto the stoop of 430 King’s Road. There Vivienne Westwood and McLaren, “Couturiers Situation­nistes,” launched a mordantly entertaining and highly influential fashion movement generating countless safety-pinned cheeks, strategically torn T-shirts, besloganed jack­ets, and spikey haircuts tinted various col­ors unknown to nature. Chez Savage, their conception and dissemination were no less significant than the music itself in the con­struction of punk’s willful mocking of ev­eryday perversity. The clothing mirrored the era’s recessionary and reactive tenor in all its Thatcher-motivated bleakness and paranoia. As glam rock waned and disco had yet to wax, punk style provided the perfect cultural jolt, a new kind of “No!” that brought together fashion, music, press, and politics to tell the world a story En­gland still can’t be too eager to bear.

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More self-conscious than any popular music ever, and postmodern to the max, the Pistols and punk operated at the level of iconography, spectacle, and low-to-high concepts rather than mere sonic signifiers. McLaren’s genius was to exploit boredom with rock as institution, and then to sell a brutalist version of the same back to the kids under the guise of something com­pletely different, which it wasn’t. The Ra­mones, the Dolls, and a generation of New York art-school bands preexisted as role models from which McLaren took the ball and ran in the wrong direction, disguising his Warholian commercial inclinations be­hind naive appropriations of anarchist, Si­tuationist, and Lettrist fantasies.

In this regard, England’s Dreaming also functions profitably as an extended gloss on Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces (wherein Savage is acknowledged as a “co-conspira­tor”), and that’s a compliment. Marcus’s wild analysis recuperates the Sex Pistols phenomenon as a hot and gnostic coda upon Dada, Situationism, Lettrism, etc. But where Marcus interprets the Sex Pis­tols as the mythic tale of John Lydon’s negation of the negation, Savage avoids apotheosizing McLaren, Lydon, or even Sid Vicious as a prime mover of this particular cultural blip. If punk is the subject, the Sex Pistols were its object. At times Savage sounds like a closet idealist, as when he quotes Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell in hopes of making this confusing era rever­berate mythically; but his analysis always returns to the fresh bedrock of modem mu­sic sociology as pioneered by such writers as Simon Frith and Dick Hebdige.

For a fly-on-the-wall perspective, it’s at least worth skimming Glen Matlock’s whinging I Was a Teenage Sex Pistol for a brisk reality check. The group’s original bass boy and primary songwriter was ex­pelled from the group in favor of Ur-punk Sid Vicious, so his bitterness, if not his syntax, are to be expected: “We created a lot of talk and a lot of pie-in-the-sky theor­ising, but what was the end result of it all? When you cut right to the chase, The Pis­tols — and the whole punk phenomenon — ­were an inoculation for the music business which has enabled it to survive in its cur­rent depressingly flat state … The Pistols have become one of history’s big So What?’s” And of course Matlock’s absolute­ly right and absolutely wrong at the same time. Punk rock’s recuperation by big busi­ness surprised only the most credulous believers in pop art as a revolutionary activity.

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Charles Shaar Murray offers a different report from the front in his embarrassingly titled Shots From the Hip, an uneven col­lection containing what seems like every syllable scribbled by the veteran hack be­tween 1971 and 1990, gaffes and all. For example, amid a somewhat prescient over­view of the New York punk scene circa 1975, Murray notes that “Blondie will never be a star simply because she ain’t good enough.” And then, a couple of months pri­or to the show that would change Savage’s life forever, Murray appraises the Clash as being “the kind of garage band who should be speedily returned to their garage, prefer­ably with the motor running.”

Beyond proving that John Simon has at least one British fan, Murray’s observations on the punk scene back then illustrate how much what we think of as punk rock is a journalistic construction after the fact. Punk was not particularly subtle as music, yet it threw open the doors to endless theo­rizing. These days, amid an almost inslilu­tional “punk revival,” it seems nothing less than the most immediately nostalgic pop style to come down the pike. Abject nihilism is still in fashion and, as Murray wrote in 1986, “The punchline is this: most people don’t want things changed to any funda­mental degree, but they do like a little bit of excitement now and again.”

You can’t get much more reductionist than that, but in that whimper of defeat there’s an element of the conclusion Savage draws in England’s Dreaming. Everything changed after the Pistols’ infamous appearance on Britain’s Today show in December 1976, during which allegedly intoxicated host Bill Grundy provoked Steve Jones into a volley of live-on-the-air curses. “From that day on,” Jones tells Savage, “it was different. Before then, it was just music: the next day, it was the media.” According to Savage, the subsequent backlash forced the Pistols into a reactionary trajectory leading to stasis, and worse: it reduced them to being an ordinary rock band and transformed punk from move­ment into cult. “They left the creation that was to follow destruction unstated and unresolved: as very few people had the courage to see nihilism through, this negation curdled into the nullities of dogma, cynicism or self-destruction.”

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***

Punk’s death was inscribed in its birth, of course. Born under a bad sign and swathed in basic black, London punkdom fought to overturn an overexposed city in which speed, both chemical and cybernetic, had subsumed space. The movement even had the audacity to present the swastika as its über-icon, which may have been its most unforgivable transgression. Punk’s dark lib­eration suggested what writer Nick Kent early on termed “Rock’n’Roll Fascism,” but Savage tends to take swastika usage at face value, as mere shock therapy. More than a merry détournement, punk’s fascination with fascist symbolism betrayed a somewhat less than healthy interest in au­thoritarianism and a decidedly masculinist sexography, while suggesting that punk rock, despite Rock Against Racism’s utopian rhetoric, was always more interested in exclusion than inclusion. And while Savage lauds the Crass as an example of a group that transcended punk’s political limita­tions, he neglects the battles of punk ideology still being waged in the pages of such fanzines as Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll.

But that is now and this was then. Cul­turally, nothing has happened with quite so much velocity and spunk since (William Burroughs’s recipe for riot — “Record, instant playback, fast forward” — becomes a nervous mantra for these events). Punk was a fabulous meaning generator, and Savage’s book is the movement’s most finely tuned reading so far. By the time you hit the 45-page discography that concludes England’s Dreaming, however, you might be less eager to reimmerse yourself in the music than in such responsive texts as Lipstick Traces and Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin’s 1989 collection On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word. Punk lives in these traces, these theories — and in a million bands— even more than in boxfuls of decaying singles and CD reissues. In its own way, punk is as dead as Elvis. Histories such as Savage’s, however, ensure that the zombie movement will stumble on for the diversion and edification of its believers — by their rainbow Mohicans and steel-tipped boots ye shall know them — at least until some­thing badder this way shambles. ■

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ENGLAND’S DREAMING: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond
By Jon Savage
St. Martin’s Press, $27.50

I WAS A TEENAGE SEX PISTOL
By Glen Matlock with Pete Silverton
Faber and Faber, $12.95 paper

SHOTS FROM THE HIP
By Charles Shaar Murray
Penguin, $10.95 paper

1992 Reviews of books about the Sex Pistols in the Village Voice by Richard Gehr

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Lou Reed Rising

Naked Lunch Becomes TV Dinner: The Rise of Punk Rock

No “legendary” rock band of the 1960s has proven more legendary than the Velvet Underground. The name alone (before it was abbreviated by fans into “the Velvets”) carried a special resonance, evoking Genet decadence, whip-and-leather s&m, Warhol chic, and European ennui. And even though other urban bands (the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Rascals) were more commercially successful at the time, the best songs of the Velvets (“Sweet Jane,” “Candy Says,” “Waiting for the Man,” “Beginning to See the Light”) have an emotional texture and a sharply defined drive which propel the songs beyond the time in which they were written.

Yet when one tries to think of the Velvet Underground photographically, one draws a grainy blur. The great rock stars of the ’60s live vividly in our memories through their photos; one thinks of the Beatles first in their suit-uniforms, then in their glossy Sgt. Pepper outfits, of Hendrix in his black-nimbus Afro and layers of scarves, of countless shots of Jagger pouting and preening and hip-thrusting. Yet the Velvets, except for the imperially lovely Nico, seemed not to occupy visual space at all. Even when one listens to their live albums now, it’s impossible to imagine what they looked like playing their instruments — they don’t come into focus. This shadowiness makes the power of their music all the more provocative since it means that not theatricality but its absence is what gives that music its current urgency. The Velvets didn’t have a strong stud-star at center stage (as did the Stones and the Doors) and didn’t provide a good-vibes community atmosphere (as did the Dead and the Airplane) and didn’t attempt to stagger the audience with histrionics (as did Alice Cooper and just about everybody else). What makes the Velvets vital now is not only what they had but what they lacked: stylishness, ornamentation, politics, and a hedonistic ethos.

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I first heard the Velvet Underground in the record library of Frostburg State College in western Maryland; the album, their first (with a jacket painting by Warhol), was the only rock album in the entire collection, and that distinction intrigued me. Yet, except for their chanteuse, Nico, and her ghostfloating vocals on “Sunday Morning” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” except for Reed’s quirky phrasing and John Cale’s merciless viola on “Black Angel’s Death Song,” the music was unenthralling. The liner-note quotes about “three-ring psychosis” and “Warhol’s brutal assemblage” described a realm of experience that was for me as faraway and nocturnally exotic as Apollinaire’s Paris, or Brecht’s Berlin. At a time when the most popular bands on campus were corporate entities like Grand Funk Railroad, Chicago, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, it was difficult to connect with a band that dedicated songs to Delmore Schwartz. What I didn’t know at the time was that the Velvet Underground had already disbanded, that they had left behind not one studio album but four; only when I came to New York and discovered a dingy copy of White Light/White Heat in a Canal Street 99¢ bin did the music of the Velvets hit me with its careening bloodrushing force.

Now, three years later, their music is even more compelling. And though the Velvets were either ignored or denounced in their prime — they go undiscussed in Charlie Gillett’s The Sound of the City and Carl Belz’s The Story of Rock, and even in Stephen Koch’s vertiginously brilliant book about Warhol their music is described as “the hideous ‘acid’ maundering … of insufferable navel-gazing guitars” — it’s clear now that they were the supreme American avant-garde band. With the Warhol affiliation no longer impinging upon their aesthetic, the music can be freshly heard and appreciated for its radical primitivism. “Sister Ray” is still throbbingly dissonant, a river of electronic fever, and the best of Loaded is as vibrantly alive as if it had been recorded last week at C.B.G.B. by white-shirted kids with virginal Stratocasters. This is true precisely because the music of the Velvet Underground was in no way formally innovative. The Beatles, the Mothers of Invention, the Grateful Dead — all were more experimental, eclectic, and orchestrally inventive, yet there’s something wanly dated about their music now … it’s as pale and faded as old Peter Max posters, or discarded copies of the EVO. Once the values and sentiments of the psychedelicized counterculture lost their sway, the audaciousness of the music seemed sheer pretentiousness — intricate toys being passed off as sacerdotal gifts. The desire for community was so fervent, and the reverence for pop stars so fanatically intense, that when John Lennon sang, “I don’t believe in Elvis … don’t believe in Beatles,” people reacted as if he had said something shattering, something revolutionary. If someone next week sang, “I don’t be-Aretha … don’t believe in Roxy,” he’d earn a tempest of derisive laughter. And rightly so.

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Well, the Velvets never fell for the platitudes of transcendence (via acid) and community (via rock) which distance us from so much of the Sgt. Pepper era rock. The dynamics of the Velvets’ music — its disorderliness, loneliness, melancholy, abrupt joyfulness, claustrophobia (contrasted with the wide blue vistas of much post-Woodstock rock), chiaroscuro shadings (contrasted with the Peppery psychedelicized rainbows), antihedonism, and druggy wistfulness — are consonant with the tensions of the Ford era. Though there’s a pull of litany in their songs, the Velvets were never purveyors of salvation — they were always too thoughtful, too tentative. Their modest expectations, their distrust of charisma (both political and cultural), and their disdain for grand gestures are attitudes congruent with the apolitical politics of Jerry Brown. (Is this why Alexander Cockburn plays “Sister Ray” at least five times a day?) It’s a leaderless time, and the Velvets never believed in leaders; their music always stressed survival over community. Even their most beautiful love songs (“Pale Blue Eyes,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror”) were about the distances between people — about the inability to penetrate the mystery of the other. The drug they sang about was not a vision-inducing agent like acid, or a partytime pass-it-around substance like pot, but the drug that most completely isolates one from others: heroin. The Velvets’ music was about nihilism, the nihilism of the street, and this barely bridled energy — what John Cale called “controlled distortion” — is expressed cinematically by Martin Scorsese and Sam Peckinpah novelistically by William Burroughs, musically by post-Velvet rockers like Patti Smith (who sings “Pale Blue Eyes” more passionately than Lou Reed ever did), Roxy Music, David Bowie, the Dolls, Talking Heads, and Television.

The Heads and Television may even be more commercially successful than the Velvets originally were because both are more melodic, more visible (unobscured by multimedia effects), and more photogenic. The Heads look like a still from a Godard movie (“La Chinoise,” maybe) and Tom Verlaine looks like Artaud from Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” But since they’re as yet unsigned, the underground-rock breakthrough which is most precipitous is embodied in a wonky little wacker named Jonathan Richman, the auteur-alumnus of a Velvet-influenced band called the Modern Lovers.

This Jonathan Richman, a feral child of Rocky and Bullwinkle, will soon be shuffling his way across the FM dial and into America’s bruised bosom. Richman has already received moderate airplay and modest notoriety with his soupy contributions to Beserkley Chartbusters, Vol. 1, particularly his witty celebration of highway life called “Roadrunner,” which offers a fine antidote to Springy’s overripe imagery. An album of keen documentary interest has just been released which may make Jonathan Richman a household name in every household in which Mary Hartman is the smiling madonna. It’s called Modern Lovers and it’s a demo tape produced by ex-Velvet John Cale for a Warner Bros. album which was never made. The Velvet influence is reflected not only in the music (the organ work, for example, is strongly reminiscent of “Sister Ray”) but in the expression of angst.

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Fascinating is the contrast between the New York of Loaded and the Boston of Modern Lovers. Where the cityscape of the Velvet Underground is cluttered yet lonely, Richman’s ironic rhapsodies about Boston conjure up a city which is somnolently empty, a city visually and aurally impoverished.

I’m in love with the modern world
Massachusetts when it’s late at night
And the neon when it’s cold outside
I got the radio on
Just like a roadrunner

(“Roadrunner”/Jonathan Richman/Jonathan’s Music)

And here is Richman faced with the mysteries of amour at his local bank:

There’s only three in the other lines
In my line, well, I count eleven
Well, that’s fine cause I’m in heaven
I got a crush on the new bank teller
She looks at me and she knows

(“The New Teller”/Jonathan Richman/Jonathan Music)

Small wonder Joni Mitchell is having sleepless nights …

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Yet when Susan Sontag wrote that new art is painful because it hurts having your sensorium stretched, she was anticipating Richman’s effect. For he has an unforgettable voice: off-key, off-pitch, so achingly widehorizonly flat that it makes a Rothko painting resemble a lunar landscape by comparison. When he performed last year at C.B.G.B., he lazily strummed his acoustic guitar and yammered mindlessly on about Love, wonderful Love, and how wonderful it is to have a girlfriend to share Love in the Modern World with, strum strum strum, and after the audience gave him exaggerated bravos, he performed his special version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” for the third or fourth time.

Wedded to such an instrument of torture, Richman’s Weltschmerz-pose could make him a sui generis rock star, though we’ll have to wait until his first solo album is completed for Beserkley Records before we’ll know if he can stretch himself, or if he’s just a dandy with a gift for punky pinched irony.

Punk humor, a healthy parody of rock machismo, can be found in the music of the Dictators (who sing: “The best part of growing up/Is when I’m sick and throwing up/It’s the dues you got to pay/For eating burgers every day … “) and the leather-jacketed Ramones, in the Daffy Duckery of Patti Smith, in magazines like Punk and Creem, and in television heroes like Fonzie and Eddie Haskell. It’s a style of humor which reverses banality, thrives upon it, and enjoys juxtaposing it with high culture references in order to create a comically surreal effect.

Of course, the rock-and-roll regent of punkish irony is ex-Velvet Lou Reed whose solo albums include Transformer (with Reed’s most popular song, “Walk on the Wild Side), two live collections, Sally Can’t Dance, Berlin (my favorite Reed work, a misery-drenched masterwork: sunless, spiteful, and cold-bloodedly cruel), and Metal Machine Music, a two-record set of such triumphant unlistenability that it crowned Reed’s reputation as a master of psychopathic insolence. What Reed learned from Warhol (though he could have learned it equally well from Mailer or Capote) is careermanship: making yourself such a commanding media figure that even when your latest work is a pathetic package of retread riffs and coffee-grind lyrics, people will still be intrigued by the strategy behind it.

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In the forging of an emblematic identity, Reed not only turned himself into a clown but into a cartoon. When he played with the Velvets, he looked like a bright brooding college kid in sweater and slacks; now, in the premiere issue of Punk magazine, a hilarious interview with him is interpolated with cartoons showing him grumbling, sneering, wrecking television sets — transformed from Joe College into a metamphetamine W. C. Fields. The diva of American rock critics, Lester Bangs, has described the decline of Reed’s artistry thusly: “Lou Reed is the guy who gave dignity and poetry and rock ‘n’ roll to smack, speed, homosexuality, sadomasochism, murder, misogyny, stumblebum passivity, and suicide, and then proceeded to belie all his achievements and return to the mire by turning the whole thing into a monumental bad joke … ” Bangs sees Reed’s post-Velvet career as one long graveyard stroll, noting that after the breakup of the Velvets, “People kept expecting him to die.”

Instead, he became a death-artist, a performer in pursuit of ultimate separateness (a pursuit very much like Warhol’s futile quest for perfect pristine stillness), and after absorbing chemical cannonades which left his brain as battered as Charles Bukowski’s face, Lou Reed survived and parodied Death on the Installment Plan. “Heroin,” for example, was a song which was dropped from the Velvets repertoire for a while because too many people embraced it as being pro-smack, when in fact Reed intended the song as a sort of exorcism. Yet only a few years later Reed would not only perform “Heroin” in his solo act but would take out a syringe, wrap the microphone cord around his arm, pretend to shoot up, and hand the syringe to someone in the audience. When Cher said that the music of the Velvet Underground would replace nothing except suicide, she was unknowingly anticipating the rue-morgue antics of Lou Reed and his progeny. Just last week I heard one of New York’s underground bands, the Miamis, do a song glamorizing the La Guardia bombing incident, and at one point the lead singer proclaimed, “There’s no such thing as an innocent bystander!” Maybe he and Reed should take a ride in De Niro’s taxi …

Where Lou Reed used to stare death down (particularly in the black-blooded Berlin), he now christens random violence. Small wonder, then, that his conversation ripples with offhanded brutality: though he probably couldn’t open a package of Twinkies without his hands trembling, he enjoys babbling threats of violence. One night, when a girl at C.B.G.B. clapped loudly (and out of beat) to a Television song, Reed threatened to knock “the cunt’s head off”; she blithely ignored him, and he finally got up and left. No one takes his bluster seriously; I even know women who find his steely bitterness sexy.

After dumping all this dirt, I have to confess that this walking crystallization of cankerous cynicism possesses such legendary anticharisma that there’s something princely about him, something perversely impressive. There’s a certain rectitude in Lou Reed’s total lack of rectitude: one can imagine him sharing a piss with Celine in some smoky subterranean chamber, the two of them chuckling over each other’s lies.

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In the absence of Celine, it’s encouraging news that Reed and John Cale may soon team up again, for Cale could force Reed to exert himself, and Reed’s presence could help raise Cale’s visibility. Though Cale is currently touring with the Patti Smith Group, doing a rambunctious miniset along with the encore numbers, he’s still a tiny figure in the rock tapestry. The post-Velvet career of the classically trained Cale (he studied with Aaron Copland) has been stormy, flamboyant, and fueled by alcohol. But his output has been prolific: Vintage Violence, Church of Anthrax (with avant-garde composer Terry Riley), Fear, Slow Dazzle, and, most recently, Helen of Troy. Where Reed did his deathwalk by looking like an emaciated survivor out of The Night Porter, Cale went the rock-Dada route — performing cunnilingus on a mannequin during a concert, playing guitar in a goalie’s mask, lurching around with Frankensteinian menace. Like Reed, Cale has been treated as a joke yet, unlike Reed, his latest work is worthy of serious attention — Helen of Troy is a classic of drunken genius. The album lacks the stylishness of his earlier work and at first listen, everything seems askew — the mixing is odd (the bass dominates, the vocals seem distanced), the pacing seems muscle-pulled, the lyrics offhand then arrowy — and then the sloppiness shapes itself into force and beauty. Island Records has not yet decided whether or not to release Helen of Troy in America. Which is indecision bordering on criminal negligence. In the meantime, seek out the album through stores which deal in English imports and see if it doesn’t haunt your nights like a reeling somnambulist from the cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Indeed, the Velvets and their progeny are all children of Dr. Caligari — pale-skinned adventurers of shadowy city streets. Richard Robinson, author of The Video Primer, has a video tape which shows Lou Reed and John Cale rehearsing for a concert to be performed in Paris with Nico. After Reed runthroughs “Candy Says,” they perform “Heroin” together: Reed’s monochromatic voice, Cale’s mournful viola, the dirgeful lyrics (“heroin … be the death of me …”), the colorless bleakness of the video image … a casual rehearsal had become a drama of luminous melancholia. What was blurry before became indelibly vivid, and the Reed/Cale harlequinade melted away so that one could truly feel their power as prodigies of transfiguration. For them — as for Patti Smith, Eno, Talking Heads, and Television — electricity is the force which captures the fevers, heats, and dreamily violent rhythms of city life, expressing urban disconnectedness and transcending it. Electricity becomes the highest form of heroin … listening to the Velvets, you may have been alone, but you were never stranded.

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What If They Gave a New Year and Nobody Came?

Lately every time you turn around somebody’s saying: “The eighties are coming!” Like at the stroke of midnite on New Year’s it’s all gonna be different! And when you tell ’em, “Come on, you know everything’s just gonna keep on slowly sinking,” they get downright mad! Spoilsports! No sense of social duty! It’s true that I am antisocial! But so is my whole crowd. When our fave bar the Bells of Hell closed down a few months back we all stayed in our apartments instead of seeking out a new watering hole. (Perhaps suggesting that, like the buffalo, we are soon to disappear.) I told my shrink this and he said: “You’re all pathetic.”

Another time when I complained I was getting weirded out around other people because I never saw ’em because all I did was lay in bed with the covers over my head because I truly believed as the mighty Ramones quoth that there was “nothin’ to do and nowhere to go” so I just wanted to be sedated, my shrink suggested I call up all my friends in all their separate little cells and see if we couldn’t figure out some way to repatriate ourselves in the human race and enjoy it. So I conducted this plebiscite, and when I came back he said: “So what’s the consensus?” I said, “The consensus is, ‘Whaddaya wanna be around people for? Most of ’em suck anyway!'”

I suppose you think I’m being negative. All right, if I’m negative you go tell Mother there’s something wrong with the womb! Ha, gotcha! Besides which, as the eighties loom I suspect that my antisocial minority will soon be a majority, and we’ll have an antisociety! Imagine that! Will Rogers the ultimate outlaw! And what better time to inaugurate this ghost town than New Year’s Eve! Ring out the old, ring in the old! And older and older. I ask you, have you ever had a New Year’s Eve you enjoyed? Of course not! Why? Because you’ve persisted in this insane delusion that somehow things are supposed to keep getting better, or that the cyclical nature of the ying-yang means that the earth is supposed to replenish itself or some such horseshit! Horseshit doesn’t even replenish itself. Do these sidewalks? This peeling paint, crumbling plaster, backed-up plumbing? A replenishable landlord? Fuck no!

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There are two directions in which extants can go: (a) stasis or (b) decay. And New Year’s Eve is the biggest bummer yet, because we all go out with these expectations and get totally soused just so we can stand to be around each other because we’ve spent the late fall and winter’s first blush sinking deeper into TV Guide, and now we’re expected to positively revel in proximity to these globs of hideous humanity. So OF COURSE horrible scenes ensue.

The first New Year’s I have a clear memory of was probably the first one I was old enough to get drunk for: I got stoned on nutmeg instead. All my friends did get drunk tho and exiting this teenclub full of depressed zit-lumpen reduced to flat colas we drove aimlessly around El Cajon, inevitably ending in the line at Jack in the Box where, as people vomited all over the inside of my car, I said “Welcome to 1967.” We shoulda known right away Hippie wouldn’t work.

1968: I went to a party where everybody drank too much vodka too fast and pawed each other or tried to while Donovan trilled of fat angels. Only saw one person vomit: my girlfriend, all over her brand-new white hiphuggers. (Earlier in the evening I had told her, re said fem-trousers: “You look like a Tijuana whore.” A downy lad I was and twee.) I was on Marezine and kept seeing little men with axes and hammers chopping naked gabbling pigmy demons to death in other people’s lapels. When I got home I hallucinated all kinds of people coming into my room and reached out to them screaming, “Don’t dissolve! Don’t dissolve!” But sure enough they did. Then I thought I saw a friend of mine silhouetted behind the windowshade whispering from the garden: “Lester! Lester!” I leaped out of bed and yanked up the shade, pathetically grateful for some human companionship. There was nothing there but the empty street with leaves blowing.

I went into the bathroom to take a piss and hallucinated that my mother was ogling my dick with one huge roc eyeball through a crack in the door. Then I went back to bed and dreamed that narcs in steelgrey suits were stationed at strategic points all over my school watching me through slowly swiveling Silva-Thin shades. For the first two months of 1968 I couldn’t look anybody in the eye.

1969: Me ‘n’ a buncha buddies went cruisin’ in some dude’s jalopy. We beered awhile to no avail. One pal who later joined the navy where he majored in underwater demolition (exhorting me to enlist by his bonded side: “It’s real fun blowin’ up stuff!”) said, “Let’s go out ‘n’ git us sum scrunt.” Nobody else said anything. Eventually we all went home too depressed even to feel drunk and fell asleep. The whole evening shoulda been written by (or inflicted on) Robbe-Grillet.

1970: New Year’s Eve I spent getting drunk on beer watching TV at my girlfriend’s parents’ house, periodically ducking out to drive by the motel bungalow of some needle-freak friends because I wanted to buy some heroin, which I had never tried. Finally they were home and sold me some. When I got back to my girlfriend’s house I ran in the bathroom and tried to snort it. Not yet hep to rolled-up bills, I dumped the stuff onto a mirror held at a precarious angle over the sink, balanced it an inch from my nose, and honked amighty. Nothing happened except later I drank some Country Club Malt Liquor, went home, and wrote a review for Rolling Stone (which never got printed) of a Bob Dylan bootleg. Next day I bragged to all my friends: “I wrote a record review on heroin last night!” Being too lame to ingest the shit was the only time I ever got lucky on a New Year’s Eve.

1971: I stayed home and read the Bible. No, that’s a lie. What I did was go to the drive-in with my girlfriend — all hopped up (me, that is) on vodka and her mother’s thyroid pills, totally unable to concentrate on the double feature of I Drink Your Blood (starring Ronda Fultz, Jadine Wong, and somebody merely billed “Bhaskar”) and I Eat Your Skin (William Joyce, Heather Hewitt) which would have been impossible under any circumstances anyway, thinking all night how next morning I was gonna do like Jack Kerouac and just jump in my car eating speed with one hand while flicking the starter with the other and drive drive drive till I plashed through Blakean breakers of light on the golden prows of the Rocky Mountain Shield. Of course I didn’t, woke up with a muzzy hangover instead, which is probably just as well: I coulda ended up being John Denver.

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1972: New Year’s I spent dead drunk and gutpit-depressed at my mother’s house in California. Called up my friend Nick in NYC and miserably groaned through several leagues of whiskey, “I think I’m becoming an alcoholic.” He didn’t wanna hear that because he was just about to spend New Year’s Day making his way down Broadway from 99th Street having one drink in every bar along the way until he ended at Broadway and Third, the very last bar, St. Adrian Co., also known as the Broadway Central Bar, being an adjunct of the Broadway Central Hotel, a flophouse. He called back the next day: “Sorry Les, I’m too depressed to talk.”

1973: Went to a party with my ex-puppylove­-girlfriend (she of the greened hiphuggers) and her sis and brother-in-law. Most everybody else there was a swinging single, or trying to be. I danced dirty with the hostess. It was right out of Doctors’ Wives. My ex-galf’d got mad at me for rubbing up agin said hussy and huffed a bit. I bet Gore Vidal never came out with anything as deft as, “Whattayou care? You won’t fuck me!” She cried. Later in the car in savage ugly liquored sexual frustration I dug one of my nails into her wrist until it bled. She told me I was a sissy. I was.

1974: Back in California again, staying at my old girlfriend’s deserted tho furnished apartment, as, unbeknownst to Mom, she’s off livin’ with some forty-five-year-old businessman who when he stands next to ya drink-in’ at the bar always keeps a fistful of dollars taut-gripped so he can shoot ’em out as he snoots it up. That kinda guy. So there I am enjoying her empty apartment, lying around listening to Raw Power and Berlin all the time, when I get this bright idea: I’ll take all these sleaze-rock LPs to this night’s singles/married/whatever-they-think­-they-are party, and blast ’em. Ey-pa-TAY, MUTHAFUCKA! So I scoop up all the discs ‘n’ off we go ‘n’ all nite long I keep slipping ’em on the record player bumming everybody out tho they was also kinda fascinated, like this room got kinda quiet at times, waxen even, p’raps understandable this being California suburbs everybody’s dressed to the fillings in all kinda chains and whatnot, taco tanktopping it with frappe de la Yardley on the side, big hoop earrings, all the guys got sideburns so sharp they smoke, when Lou wafts thru: “Caroline says … as she gets up off the floor … ‘Why is it that you beat me? … It isn’t any fun … ‘ ”

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Meanwhile all these folks is loungin’ around ’bout to broach a dolce vita thru the looking glass. Frozen moments, all of them bad. Icy lips and frigid sunglasses.

“It’s not me that’s frigid it’s my Foster Grants!”

“It’s not me that’s impotent it’s my English Leather!”

“Well let’s swap!”

“Wow! Okay!”

“Hey, this decadence stuff up my butt is fun!”

Sadly, it never happened that way. I can’t remember this New Year’s Eve and hadda make something up. But the stories you make up the next day are always better than what actually happened.

1975: Sensible for once. I dropped some speed and Valium, went to the office, which was deserted, and stayed up all night writing a story for the February issue of Creem. Devotion to duty? No. Retreat from Gehenna.

1976: I had been going out with this girl for a couple of months kinda scene-makin photog­-lolligagin around Detroit. She’d decided I was a fag since one nite in Oct/Nov thereabouts at a Barry White concert when we’z sittin behind Ohio Players, the world’s worst opening act, and she sez, re the bass player, “He’s got a nice ass” and I sat up a bit to look and she gave me a weird stare and that was that. So anyway me and this snope-lobe keep a-datin’, but no sex. I was clumsy and shy and she, well, I guess her cameras woulda got in the way. Anyhow here come New Year’s Eve, the biggun, and lord if fuckin Creem magazine don’t rent a whole suite in this postrundowntown hotel just to, ah, entertain all the important folk’t might just happen to tum up like, say, local disc jockeys or Martin Mull who’d done his shtick downstairs and did it upstairs too. For some dumb reason I kinda liked this girl. I dunno, well actually I do know: in front she looked like somebody I used to love named Judy, and in back she looked like somebody I did love but wouldn’t see me at the time named Nancy. So MEA CULPA MUHFUH, etc. Anyhoo, come to find out that the only reason she even went to dis bash wid me was that I jus’ happenda work at the same magazine as this guy name Charlie Auringer who ALL the broads thereabouts were hot for cause’n he jes set back so indifferent all the time, eyeball-to­-snowboot, that kinda thing. When I saw her blatantly USING me to get to Charlie I got pissed. And did what any other righteously upstandin Rasta woulda done: slunk downstairs ‘n’ drunk muhsef tuh nullhood. But I was not alone in this endeavor, and long about midnite her ‘n’ me miraculously ended up side by side, right there stageside table in the lounge downstairs, balloons enuff to snuff Steve Martin agozzlin thru the air, treacle paper everywhere, Flo and Eddie runnin’ around grabbin’ all the asses they could JUST EXACTLY like in that Fugs song “Dirty Old Man,” confetti falling, and me and Lee Anne (for that was her name) both of us in li’l tinsel tophats, socute, herecum midnite, whammo, out go the lites.

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I sling my drunken arm around her shoulders and go to kiss her. She turns away tautlipped.

“Hey! I take you out all the time! I like you! We do things together! Boy and Girl! And you won’t even kiss me on New Year’s Eve!!!!!!??!!!!! What is this shit?”

”You’ve got bad breath,” she said.

It could only get better. Having finally won the heart of the aforementioned Nancy, we moved to New York where we starved Barefoot in the Park and huddled together against this city watching Donny and Marie every single Friday nite. New Year’s Eve we watched Jimmy and Rosalynn instead. Their preinaugural ball. We teardropped together when Loretta Lynn sang “One’s on the Way.” We felt hope for society. We were young and idealistic and in love. We were walking sugar comas too stunned to find our way to a diabetic ward should all that glop we ate back up into our lymph ducts. Six months later she left me to listen to the Sex Pistols in peace.

I went through a couple of minor affairs after that whilst mostly staying drunk and practically taking up residence at CBGB’s where I played the role of Bukowskian bohemian/artiste in ze big sitcom. It got me some real great women — the kind that sit crosslegged on your floor after you’ve both been up all night on bad drugs and won’t fuck you but are perfectly amenable to describing in linoleum detail their various suicide attempts and highly complex postexistential Weltanschauung derived from Richard Hell and countless auditions of dear Sidney warbling “My Way,” a philosophical stance reducible to Life is not worth living and everything stinks but killing yourself is too much effort so what the fuck you got anything else to drink?

It sooner or later became apparent that any women who shared my tastes in music might be predicted miles ahead as burnt-out hunchbacked mutes, half-retarded drug repositories given to heavy facial tic action. It was not that I sought something out of Fascinating Womanhood. I can whip up a Stouffer’s Spinach Soufflé deft as Régine herself, but I did feel there might be some slight possibility that something existed somewhere in between these two outposts of you’re-right-gimme-the-gun-I-wanna-blow-my-­brains-out-first. In fact I was ripe as Li’l Abner in full flushblush, and fell in love Xmas ’77 with the first of what would turn out to be a succession of women who, like myself, were gainfully employed in various aspects of media and were not about to end up aborting a broken vodka bottle on the steps of CBGB’s. These were to be women of refinement and urbane cachet. Some of them took cabs everywhere they went! I also noticed a propensity toward the employment of what they laughingly referred to as “my faggot houseboy,” making little jokes about how handy his imagined infantile-fixated compulsions were when it came to scrubbing the bathroom. The first one I engaged even had a doorman, who thought I was a hoodlum and hated my guts because no thirty-year-old man walks around jobless in a black leather jacket alla time, and who knows but what he may have been right.

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As for my new love, hardly had we finished giggling fantasies about “honeymooning” in that heartshaped bathtub in the Poconos when that bastard Reality (who oughta be terminated with extreme prejudice) set in. It took exactly one week for it to become clear though thick with silence that we had absolutely nothing in common, were in fact the mindlessly magnetic attraction of plupolar opposites. I was still into nothing but platters of shrieking anomic noise while her favorite form of leisuretime wowzow was watching endless made-for-TV movies about occultists bending sinister in obscure New England hamlets. It was nobody’s fault and nothing we could do about it but spend the next months torturing each other. Our New Year’s Eve: We awoke to find ourselves sitting on her couch in the deepening silence watching Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians play “Auld Lang Syne” without even a nod to Jimi’s revolutionary interpolations. And then the big ball dropped on all those cheering idiots slow as a senile meteorite. It was the only time in my life I have ever observed this I am told quite popular ritual (though I am a definite Yule Log fan), and it certainly will be the last, inasmuch as it was one of the possibly four or five dreariest experiences I have known. We didn’t even have any drinks, though we had money. Guess we were so gone we forgot to drink, marijuana would needless to say have been much more deadly than usual. I felt like an E string adrift somewhere in the nether gulfs of the second Dire Straits album.

Next day I went to a dinner party with five of my oldest and dearest friends where absolutely nobody could think of a single word to say. Best line of the afternoon: “Does anybody know any good jokes?” (Delivered at dinner table, quantifying silence to brink of catatonia.)

1979: New Year’s things seemed to be looking up. I had plenty of money, got wired up on beer and bennies and showed up at a friend’s party at the exact instant I’d been informed the jumpin punkins’d be lifting off. Only trouble was nobody else was there yet but the host and his girlfriend/roommate and a cousin from Buffalo or somewhere and we all sat nursing tepid beers, our massed alpha-waves bouncing off Randy Mantooth’s forehead on “Emergency One!” An hour or so of such terror and the bennies itched me right outa my chair and down to the since-shut fave bar the Bells of Hell where I made a pretty good job of picking up this woman I’d never met before till the bartender Phil walked over and said to me, “Do you realize that for the last half hour every other thing you’ve said has had something to do with homosexuality? What’s your problem, Lester?” She much less I hadn’t seemed to notice if such were fact but I was just drunk enough for liberal guilt so I blurted out this real vitreous solution about how I’d had a deadly relationship the previous summer with another media maiden who was a self-declared faghag so gee whiz I didn’t mean to be prejudiced against anybody but maybe I really did harbor some previously unsussed resentment … Naturally this had a real salutary effect on the nascent whoknows mebbe truelove beside me. I took her number and split.

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Later I went to a party where I met a British socialist-type girl who gave me her number as well as wrote at the bottom of the scrap “I liked you.” Of course I called her and we saw each other for about three months, earnestly discussing the Clash vs. The Guardian over Japanese dinners. The full extent of our physicals was a peck g’nite on the cheek as she departed at her subway stop headed for Iceland or Brooklyn I forget which. I soon grew to hate her, and we parted in ash-curdling acrimony. But later on that same New Year’s Eve nite I really lucked out by going back to the Bells where this totally comatose thirty-year-old stranger who worked for UPI hung all over me to my manifest indifference and the embarrassment of everyone else at our table. I could have told her to go foist her slumbrous blandishments elsewhere, but I was too much of a wimp. Finally I got up to leave. I was just a ways past the door when I heard these steps following me down the sidewalk.

“Wait … ”

I waited, stood gallantly propping the creep up till I could hail her a cab. Meanwhile I lectured her in my best Bill Cosby voice. “Listen: you are truly foolish. You don’t know me. I could be David Berkowitz, the Boston Strangler, Richard Speck with a new set of contacts. You really oughta be more careful.” I swear, sometimes I wonder if I’m not Jewish, and a Jewish mother at that.

When I went to put her in the cab, she asked, “Aren’t you going to take me home?”

All right, that’s it, I said to myself like Richard Burton looking at his paycheck for The Medusa Touch, and got into the cab. All the ride to her Upper East Side Laura Mars swankpad she kept prattling about the black leather jacket I was wearing.

“Are you a member of a motorcycle club or something?” I laughed.

“Hell no — I’m a media hack, just like you!”

She didn’t get the joke. When we got out at her corner (where believe me I had no thought in ten purgatories of paying), she kept up this leather routine, persisted at this spume of dogs till finally in a rage I tore the jacket off and flung it at her.

Here, take the damn thing if that’s all you’re interested in!”

“NO, no … ”

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Up in her digs the footlights was boss. She had Grand Marnier night-capwise while I opted for the more proletarian Pinch-with-water. I commenced the usual routine and she pushed me away, blubbering incoherently about some guy she loved who’s stationed with Reuters in Bangkok She tried to call him. He wasn’t home. We hung out in her kitchen awhile and somehow, suddenly, from the way she was acting towards me and my clothes I got the creepy feeling for the first time in my life that just maybe this one wanted me to slap her around a little bit or maybe a lot or who knows what beyond that. This was some time after having been flashed back to the scene in City of Night where the customer throws the hustler out of his house in a rage because this supposed steerhunk truck driver committed the unpardonable gaffe of letting drop that he too had read D. H. Lawrence. I’d had the feeling that something was expected of me, but up till now hadn’t a clue what and doubted she did either. She kept baiting me verbally, weird little zingers from the twilight zone bouncing off the fact that I was about as butch as a college professor who has been sedentary for thirty years. This talk alternated with zonkout google slurs.

It got boring in spite of all freak appeal after a while so I went over and looked through her record collection. The only album she owned that I could remotely relate to was Surrealistic Pillow. I put it on. It sounded nice. We ended up on the couch again where she recommenced to drool aloud. I seem to remember at one point telling her that it really didn’t make any difference to me whether we had sex or not, especially considering the deadening effects of all the speed and booze inside me. Later I grabbed her head between my palms and forced her waxen eyes to look straight into mine sorta and I said in measured dramatic tones, “Do you know what I see when I look into your eyes? Stark, naked terror.” What an asshole I was. A bit later I snapped, “You got any drugs?” By now I was actually beginning to enjoy playing the role. She brought out this vial of pain pills left over from previous misadventure, asked me what use I could possibly have for them. I said that when I had a real bad combination hangover this stuff was the only thing that eased it. Then she decided maybe she’d better hold on to them after because this supposed steerhunk truck driver committed the unpardonable gaffe of letting drop that he too had read D. H. Lawrence. I’d had the feeling that something was expected of me, but up till now hadn’t a clue what and doubted she did either. She kept baiting me verbally, weird little zingers from the twilight zone bouncing off the fact that I was about as butch as a college professor who has been sedentary for thirty years. This talk alternated with zonkout google slurs.

It got boring in spite of all freak appeal after a while so I went over and looked through her record collection. The only album she owned that I could remotely relate to was Surrealistic Pillow. I put it on. It sounded nice. We ended up on the couch again where she recommenced to drool aloud. I seem to remember at one point telling her that it really didn’t make any difference to me whether we had sex or not, especially considering the deadening effects of all the speed and booze inside me. Later I grabbed her head between my palms and forced her waxen eyes to look straight into mine sorta and I said in measured dramatic tones, “Do you know what I see when I look into your eyes? Stark, naked terror.” What an asshole I was. A bit later I snapped, “You got any drugs?” By now I was actually beginning to enjoy playing the role. She brought out this vial of pain pills left over from previous misadventure, asked me what use I could possibly have for them. I said that when I had a real bad combination hangover this stuff was the only thing that eased it. Then she decided maybe she’d better hold on to them after all, giving me two and stuffing the vial down her purse, which was interesting. About five minutes after that she passed out curled sitting up in a foetal ball on the couch as the sun came up through the curtains. What the fuck, I said, I’ll give the bitch the B production she wants: I robbed her. I dug in the purse for the vial, actually found myself looking for a moment at her wallet, either couldn’t go that far or realized how silly this whole charade was, grabbed the fifth of Pinch on the way out the door, stomping down just a little meaner in my badass Frye boots. Still as tough and mature obviously as the ’73 night of the famous fingernail-dig. I wished I could call up Dotson Rader for a Merit Badge. Out in the street I hailed a cab; the driver was a middle-aged black guy. I said, “Jesus, man, I’m so glad to be around another human being at last! Can I tell you a story?”

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Sure, he says, so I belched up the mess, capping it with the declaration that when I got home I was gonna call her and tell her that she was a sicko weirdo Goodbar so-‘n’ -so and yeh baby I stole your pills ‘n’ booze but you stole a li’l bit o’ my soul.

When I finished my story, the driver, who had laughed uproariously throughout, turned and said: “Aw, hell, man, why go to all that fuckin’ trouble? Look, here’s whatcha do. Wait till bout two o’clock in the afternoon when you know she’s up, then phone her and real calm and polite say, ‘I just called to see if you were all right.’ Then after she answers tell her to go fuck herself an’ hang up!”

I realized immediately that he was right and I was still halfway up a horse on some backlot in Hollywood. I thanked him profusely. When I got home I drank her Pinch, took more speed, listened to the Clash through headphones feeling the righteous wrath of all us boots-in-the-alley working class minorities. Then I dialed her number. She wasn’t home. When I told a friend of mine about it a couple days later he just laughed and said: “So you let some barfly take you home, so what?” So I got to be Rough Trade for a Night, something I can tell my apple-eyed grandchildren about around the hearth, so fuck you, you’re just jealous because you never got mistaken for Sonny Barger. I did learn one valuable lesson, though, which convinced me that what all those hippies called karma actually does exist. That very next New Year’s Night, twenty­four hours later, somebody stole my black leather jacket out of the cloakroom at the Bells.

So here I sit, contemplating a coming New Year’s Eve which is gonna usher in a whole new decade doubtless brimming with little surprises beyond the usual roster of economic/spiritual depression, romantic wrong-ways unto entropy, comforting lapses into autism, etc. I guess I could ring up one of those wayout punk philosopher girls and ask her if she wants to drop by with a couple razor blades, dutch treat. Or enlist in the New Army and ask to be stationed in upper Greenland. Or even move back to Detroit and ask Lee Anne to marry me while I returned to work at Creem, in the mailroom. The possibilities are endless. Don’t guess this piece is gonna help my standing with the ladies much New Year’s or any other night. But that’s cool too; I could marry my mother. If she would have me. Go ahead and feel distaste for my antics with the lush, call me misogynous, misanthrope, Mr. Rogers. Just don’t call me late for my Zoom ‘n’ Locker Room! Every single one of you has acted every bit as oafishly base some New Year’s or other or several or all of them. And you’re gonna do it again this year. The occasion just seems to bring out the worst in us: hatred of ourselves, probably deriving from repression of the clear knowledge that we’re another year older and deeper in debt but ain’t accomplished hackshit and in fact are likely backpedaling; hatred of the rest of the human race because they’ve got our number in this department, especially including women if you’re a man or vice-versa, ’cause that’s just like neighborhood gang war, “beating up the kids from Spain” every weekend like the Dictators said. Whoever’s on the other side of the wall gives you something to do in the form of mashing their skulls, don’t really matter a damn which special-interested group they belong to, all interchangeable when you get right down to it. There’s a lot of free-floating rage in the air these days and New Year’s Eve is just one better excuse to vent it. ‘Course that means you’re gonna wind up rendered a crawling slavering subhuman dog yourself, but that’s half the fun. The only alternatives re this “human dignity” stuff are that old saw about crossing the International Dateline, total isolation (always a good move anyway), or perhaps most sensibly JUST GIVING INTO THE THING AND ACTING LIKE TOTAL WRETCHED DISGUSTING BEASTS. And maybe if we all get drunk enough we’ll all have blackouts so trackless and remarkably sustained that we’ll never remember all the reprehensible things we said and did to each other, hence no guilt. Either that or we’ll all wind up killing each other at last. Though that may be the dream of a blind optimist. If so, an alternate experiment in participatory democracy might be arranged whereby we’d all agree to stockpile beforehand so when we wake up on New Year’s Day we’ve made sure there’s a thousand whiskey bottles around the bed, and then we can start over again immediately, quick as a Wheaties Olympian, before a single one o’ them ghastly memories sifts back in. And what’s more, don’t anybody get up, from sea to shining sea, don’t get up ever but just keep on like that under or over the covers, your option, en masse till New Year’s 1990. We’ve worked hard at wrecking after degrading everything we ever cared about, and deserve a good Puritan rest. Like Gore Vidal said when Tennessee Williams told him he’d slept through the sixties: “You didn’t miss a thing.”

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AD CANDY ARCHIVES From The Archives

Ads of Christmas Past

It’s yuletide in the East Village, 1970 edition: MGM, the big movie studio, is setting up shop to capture some local color on Second Avenue. But, as Howard Smith reported in his weekly Scenes column, Kip Cohen, of the Fillmore East, was having none of it, fearing the out-of-towners might exploit “the whole East Village scene.” So the club manager covered his venue’s marquee with black drapes and devised a “sound mechanism” to distort the filmmakers’ audio track.

The two-page spread in the December 10, 1970, issue of the Voice exemplified a new decade looking to make sense of the advances, struggles, love, and violence of the tumultuous Sixties. Smith also reported on the travails of Art Raveson, who was having “some really big hassles trying to sell boxes of Christmas cards portraying himself as a kind of tenement Jesus crucified on a fire escape ladder.” Smith added that the long-haired Son of God ringer had turned his one-room apartment into “a miniature Hallmark factory,” and that reaction on the street to his wares ranged from “the standard New York blank stare to outrage — one woman hurled a box of the cards into the gutter and stomped on it after a five-minute harangue.”

Almost half a century on, the ads on that spread reveal that the times were definitely a-changing. The Beatles were no more, but the Plastic Ono Band were releasing an album featuring one of the world’s most famous couples, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, in alternating portraits. A much smaller ad presaged that a more raucous style of rock was waiting in the wings: “PUNK MUSIC BY SUICIDE” exclaims the copy in an ad for a show at the Village Vanguard, more commonly thought of as a temple of jazz. The Ramones would not burst onto the scene for another few years, but Suicide bandmates Alan Vega and Martin Rev were already promising some “nasty punk.”

Another ad from that same month featured a man who needs no introduction now but was still a fresh phenomenon in 1970: Jesus Christ Superstar. As the copy asks, “Was he God, myth or magician?”

Well, he wasn’t yet a Broadway star, but the double album about his life was climbing the charts and would hit number one a couple of months later. Decca bought a full-page ad in the December 3 issue of the Voice to stoke the buzz and tell people what was happening, quoting a reviewer in the L.A. Free Press: “Potentially the single most important recording since Edison waxed his first cylinder.”

What would Christmas be without some serious hyperbole?

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Fan Landers: Our Dick of a Producer Stole Our Demo!

Are you a musician? Is your band having issues? Our new advice columnist, Fan Landers (a/k/a Jessica Hopper), is ready to give you Real Talk about any problems your musical outfit might be having–whether professional, practical, or sartorial. Confidentiality is assured, unless you want to use your drama as a ticket to Internet microfame.

Hi Fan Landers!
My band just got done recording. We struck a really good deal with a dude who’s kind of a freelance engineer, and we appreciated it. But we think he took too much control over our sound. He’s a self-professed arena rock aficianado, we’re a really grungy band with radical politics. On top of saying shitty things about our lyrics during recording, he didn’t listen to our demos at all to know what we sounded like beforehand. Nor did he listen to any examples of music we sent him, so that he’d get an idea of what we wanted to sound like. Now we sound too clean on our recordings. We even went to the studio while he was mixing, but he was moody and rushed through everything. I asked him for the mixes so we could get them mastered by a friend who knows our sound, but he only sent the high-bit mixed tracks. What’s the etiquette here? I feel that if we paid him hundreds of dollars, we should get the mixes. How do you think we should go about this?
Thanks,
Ungrateful Little Punk

See Also:
Fan Landers: When To Call It Quits And When To Commit
Fan Landers: Should I Publicly Shame My Mooch of a Bandmate?
Fan Landers: Either She’s Your Girlfriend or Your Roadie, Not Both

Dear ULP.
Girl, I feel for you. That dude has fully hijacked your record. Was this one of those situations where someone — a supposed professional — cut you a deal, and so you felt like you couldn’t really step in and assert yourselves because it was like he was acting like it was a huge favor and he has been around forever and so he must know what he is doing even when it became apparent that maybe he didn’t? THE VERY STORY OF THE MUSIC BIZ RIGHT THERE. Anyhow. I am sorry this is happening, but first, lets us triage the sitch. You are going to hijack this thing right back. I wouldn’t bother trying to reason with the guy. He sounds like a prick.

You have a proprietary interest with your songs. Seeing as you have paid him for his work, you absolutely have a right to those mixes, raw tracks, what have you. First, if he did this at a studio, call the studio manager and tell them you want a copy of your recordings. All studios keep digital backups. You can all just show up during normal business hours with a hard drive and say you are there to retrieve your copy if they give you even scant runaround. If you did not do it at a studio and it’s just on this dude’s laptop or something, I think you are going to have to ambush him with your hard drive in tow. Go as a band. Roll at least four deep for the intimidation factor. I am thinking full-on wait-in-the-van-outside-the-studio stake out. It sends a message that you are not fucking around. If you can find a way to show up when, say, another band is arriving to load in to record with him he is really going to want to look all solicitous and smooth sailing. Because you already paid in full, you have little in the way of leverage — so you have to muck about in the area that matters to him, which is his ability to get paid by other people. Once you have your tracks in hand, tell everyone in your scene exactly what happened and name him by name. Gossip is the punk scene answer to Yelp; give him no stars.

Once you have your tracks back, and if they are not very “you,” you need to assess if you really want to throw good money after bad or invest much time in fixing them. Mastering and remixing will only do so much. You might have to accept that this was just a bad call and do a one-day punk-it-out sesh in someone’s garage and pay your engineer in beer. Many a classic has been made in such amateur ways, let us not forget!

The big lesson here for you gal(s) is that even if you are working with pros and/or pals on anything that involves money changing hands, services or goods rendered — at the very minimum — outline it in an e-mail. Create a paper trail. In case. Make sure you are on the same page vis-a-vis who is delivering what by when, cost, who is responsible for what. I am also a big advocate of simple contracts. A paragraph about the timelines and conditions of your agreement is useful. If people are trustworthy, they will have no problem signing it. Secondly, do half your payment up front and the other half on delivery. Then you have leverage. And if something goes awry, you can bargain or you can take your business elsewhere.

Lastly, you had a responsibility to yourself and your band that before you went in the studio, you should have had a meeting with him and made sure he had listened to the demos. Or had him come to practice and made sure that he got your vision, parroted some musical reference points back at you. It sounds like he used your band to pay his rent this month and didn’t care about the outcome. Sure, he is the pro, but you were employing him and it is both your right and responsibility to say, “Hold up, this is not what we wanted.” So whenever next time rolls around: Be aggressive, be professional, and exact your vision on the world like a boss. That’s why you’re in band, right?

Have fun on your stake out,
Fan L.