Pop Stars Are Not Your Friends

The first full-length article I contributed to Star Hits was a feature on the group Madness. The piece turned out fine, editorially rendered in the trademarked Smash Hits fashion, but getting there turned out to be no fun at all. This excruciating interview taught me a lesson about journalism if not life itself.

Now We Are Six: England’s magnificent seven, Madness, cope with the loss of founding member Mike Barson. Whither now the nutty boys wonders Mark Coleman.

The musical circus called Madness has always lived up to its name. From the snazzy reggae-flavored ska of “One Step Beyond” (which kicked off their career in England) to humorous pop portraits like “Our House” (which broke them in the States), Madness sound like they’re having a blast and playing music at the same time. These seven young Brits just have a way of drawing in listeners and making them feel like part of the celebration, too.

Better make that six young Brits. Just when Madness’ much-awaited Keep Moving LP hit the streets, keyboardist Mike Barson announced that he was leaving the group he founded. That’s a tough break for any band, but for a group whose friendship was a big part of the sound, it could have been fatal. How will singers Carl Smyth and “Suggs” McPherson, bassist Mark Bedford, guitarist C.J. Foreman, sazist Lee Thompson and drummer Woody Woodgate carry on?

Sire Records resided on 54th Street just off 5th Avenue, spread across several floors of a slim high-rise. It was a far cry indeed from the humble Lower East Side flats where I’d interrogated Sonic Youth and Bush Tetras. Exuding a professional friendliness, which I found neither seductive nor off-putting, the publicist guided me into a plushly carpeted conference room.

Vocalist Carl Smyth and “Suggs” hunched over an upright piano in the corner of the room: toying with the ivories rather than tickling them, I’d say. They immediately admitted to abruptly cancelling the American tour that brought them here — because they couldn’t find a suitable pianist to substitute for the departed Mike Barson. They were quotably honest about their uncertain future, and with my polite probing out of the way, obviously relieved to recount past glories for the duration of the interview.

We chatted for nearly an hour and I quietly decided it had proceeded rather well. “Hey I’m really hitting it off with these guys!” When the publicist re-entered the room, I turned to greet her and the two Madness members drifted back to the piano for more tuneless tinkling. I switched off my tape recorder and prepared to to leave. Before I could say goodbye and thanks, “Suggs” asked the publicist where to find some authentic New York pizza and I piped up: “John’s on Bleecker St is fantastic!”

My suggestion wasn’t acknowledged. Nor was my presence in the room. As though I no longer existed! I tiptoed out, humiliated beyond words. Perhaps I overreacted, but the experience burned a tattoo on my brain: POP STARS ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS.

New Pop: Prelude

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After knocking around lower Manhattan for a couple years, I began hearing the following declaration. “Oh I never go above 14th Street.” Sometimes the demarcation line was 23rd, or maybe even Houston Street for the truly committed (or terminally cool). This statement was asserted as a point of bohemian pride more than an ironclad geographical rule, or so I assumed. Surely I wasn’t the only downtown resident who ventured uptown for a mercenary 9-5 job (albeit briefly in my case) or the occasional doctor’s appointment. But a certain provincial spirit prevailed and I subscribed too.

Midtown’s sunless corporate canyons resembled, well, not exactly no man’s land, maybe occupied territory? The predictable grid of numbered streets reflected the rigid mindset of the workaday squares occupying all those high-rise office buildings. Of course, for young people of the 1980s who wisely were more concerned with making money and establishing a traditional career, soon to be known as yuppies, Midtown Manhattan was the shining citadel, their means to an end if not the eventual main event.

So it was appropriate that my first break in glossy magazine publishing, my move into the mainstream, landed me in a sleek midtown office tower.

It all happened fast. Overall, the pace of my life accelerated from that magic moment in late 1983 onward. Once again, it began with a phone call.

One desultory evening in October, David Fricke contacted me about applying for a job at a music magazine start-up he was involved with. I knew his byline from Rolling Stone and Musician, but we had never met.

Smash Hits was at that time the best-selling music publication in the UK though it was almost impossible to obtain in the States. Hence the need for an American edition, though due to legal conflict it would be saddled with the ungainly title Star Hits. In those days I monitored the UK scene by reading the weekly New Musical Express; until Fricke phoned I’d never heard of Smash Hits. There was a resistance, verging on hostility, among many American journalists toward English groups. When I wrote about New Order and Joy Division in The Village Voice at the beginning of 1983, most writers in my circle were incredulous. “How can you stand that shit?”

But it turned out I was familiar with the musicians covered in Smash Hits. And thanks to MTV’s explosive growth over the preceding two years, so were millions of young Americans. While the so-called New Romantic movement came and went on our soil, its hyper-stylized standard-bearers like Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran had apparently soldiered on back at home. And their videos — especially Duran’s lavishly produced and ludicrously “plotted” travelogue clips — had become staples of the new music video channel in the States. Which meant teenage mall denizens across the country were hearing more new music than the self-styled tastemakers in the big city (like yours truly) might have ever imagined.

Signs of an impeding breakthrough surfaced throughout 1982 and ’83. Synth-friendly English groups like Human League and Soft Cell, who were also not averse to the increasingly tech-driven rhythms of contemporary black music, began to be heard on the playlists of downtown dance clubs and urban radio stations alike. When Culture Club reached Number 2 on the Billboard pop charts with the gently soulful Motown appropriation “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” in late 1982, there was no turning back.

As pleasant as Boy George’s sweet Smokey-derived voice sounded, and still sounds, actual music accounts for only half of Culture Club’s appeal if even that. Androgynous performers were absolutely nothing new in pop music yet the former George O’Dowd brought something unique to his gender-bending persona. Boy George decked himself out in outrageous makeup and natty dreadlocks while simultaneously projecting a cuddly, non-threatening, nearly asexual vibe — a drag queen you could bring home to meet Mom. Or hang his poster image on your bedroom wall without her freaking out.

Revealingly, Culture Club’s videos were nowhere near as sophisticated or well-made as Duran Duran’s, as British journalist Dave Rimmer indicates in his indispensable study Like Punk Never Happened. Nevertheless Boy George’s perversely wholesome charm and penchant for camp proved to be irresistible to American audiences. For awhile. In the wake of Michael Jackson’s soaraway success, pop visuals suddenly mattered more than ever before, perhaps even more than the music itself.

Even Rolling Stone, then as now the house organ of traditional rock culture, deigned to address the coming sea change with a Culture Club cover story; Boy George (alone) fronted the November 10, 1983 issue, in all his finery.

“Something was definitely happening, “ wrote Kurt Loder. “We turned on the radio, and white-boy black rhythms boomed from the speakers. We went for our MTV, and there were dozens of dandies parading across the screen. We danced at the clubs and noticed it was getting hard to tell the boys from the girls, the girls from the boys, and no one seemed to mind. A trend, perhaps. A new British Invasion. Indeed, the American charts now list more records by U.K. acts than at the height of Beatlemania, nearly twenty years ago.”

With an interview scheduled less than a week after David Fricke’s phone call, I had to scramble on the requested writing samples. I chose two reviews of British groups, the aforementioned New Order epic and a shorter look at Eurythmics’s debut album Sweet Dreams. In addition I’d been asked to compose brief takes on two current singles: David Bowie’s “Modern Love” and Eurythmics’ “Here Comes The Rain Again”. Luckily, I liked both quite a bit despite (or because of) their presumed commerciality. The magazine was going to be called Star Hits for a reason, right?

On the designated day, I hopped the E train to 53rd Street and then walked up Lexington Avenue to East 58th Street. Though the office of Pilot Communications was only a half-dozen or so blocks away from where I’d worked at Video Marketing Newsletter for six months in 1982, the parent company of Star Hits proved to be situated in another world entirely.

Bloomingdales, the fabulously upscale department store, defined this bustling neighborhood. Alexander’s, a slightly downscale department store roughly comparable to Macy’s, sat directly across the street from my destination. I regarded this area as “the retail district” and never came up. May’s on 14th Street, if worse for wear, was closer and more affordable.

Though it wasn’t yet noon the sidewalks were already packed with suburbanite ladies toting hefty shopping bags amid a better-groomed breed of beggars and street hustlers than you’d see in Times Square. On the corner of 58th and Lexington, before I turned right, an incongruous figure stood behind a table. Her stentorian voice drowned out the traffic noise.

“SIGN THE PETITION! FIGHT BAAAAACK WOMEN!

Passing close by her pulpit I saw why people steered clear. Hanging from the table was a gruesome poster, reproduced from Hustler magazine: a naked female body being fed into a meat grinder, under a doctored caption reading “STOP PORN.”

The feminist protester was a gaunt thirty-something redhead with freckles and a confrontational stare. Between her ascetic crew cut, faded army-surplus pants and combat boots, she resembled a lesbian graduate student who’d scolded me for playing The Rolling Stones’ “Stupid Girl” at the record the store in Ann Arbor. Dubbing her “the anti-porn lady”, in the interest of diplomacy I opted not to sign the petition. I never suspected that witnessing her lonely crusade would become part of my daily routine.

After entering the wrong side of the building I was grudgingly redirected by security and gradually made my way to an office suite on the 20-something floor. Riding the elevator, I observed a gamine adolescent who vaguely resembled Brooke Shields listening with bowed head while a middle-aged woman (obviously Mom) hissed inaudible instructions. When they disembarked on a floor in the teens, I glimpsed a sign reading “Elite Models Youth Division.” This too would soon become familiar.

Star Hits headquarters consisted of four or five rooms opening into a reception area barely big enough to contain the receptionist’s desk and visitor’s couch. At this juncture, Pilot Communications was a startup business, not successful enough (yet) to require (or support) a full-time receptionist. Susan Freeman, who occupied that desk on my first visit, also served the company as production editor, office manager and right-hand woman to the CEO. And since Felix Dennis split his time between New York and London, Susan was often left in charge.

With her prematurely grey Jewish-Afro hairstyle and piercing vocal timbre, Susan Freeman was a presence. She greeted me effusively.

“Oh you must be MARK COLEMAN.”

Ushered by Susan into the compact editorial sanctum, I quickly took in the sweeping city view through the picture windows and met the co-editors. They couldn’t have been more different, in terms of physical appearance. David Fricke was imposingly tall, well over six feet and slender, sporting shoulder-length hair and blue jeans, quiet of demeanor yet displaying quick, lively eyes behind light-sensitive wire-rimmed glasses. Neil Tennant, on extended loan from Smash Hits’ London office, registered as more outgoing in our initial encounter: effortlessly articulate, succinctly describing the magazine’s mission while flashing the occasional sparkling glance of amusement or sardonic raised eyebrow. Neil was medium height and build, with slightly curly and neatly shorn brown hair. Though at that point I rarely noticed clothes on women or men, I remember he wore a striking collared shirt and shiny black leather shoes with his Levis. Impressed by both men, I decided minutes into the interview that I would do anything to get hired.

Somehow I fronted my way through the interview with revealing my ignorance of the magazine itself. Or maybe they knew? Still they praised my test assignment and gave me a few copies of Smash Hits to take home. When they said, “we’ll be in touch”, I tried hard to hide my enthusiasm.

Reading the magazine for the first time back downtown in my 9th Avenue cavern, I totally lost my shit. Smash Hits really was a teen mag, with screaming girls and everything. However, when I read Neil Tennant ’s cover story on Kajagoogoo (one-hit wonders of “Too Shy” infamy) in the May 26 1983 issue, and read it again, and again, I finally saw the light. Another road to Damascus moment. The story was, in the breathless parlance of the time, brilliant: witty, sharp and observant.

     I was a mildly fierce critic of the group myself until it began to dawn on me that, if they were criticized so widely and so frequently, they must be doing something right.

Instead of gushing or condescending or pandering, Neil and Smash Hits gave their young readers a sense of what the pop-star subjects were like as people – plus a peek behind the Wizard of Oz music-biz curtain.

At first, I was hired as a freelance writer/editor, though “freelance” translated into Neil or David calling almost daily. “Are you busy?” “Uh, NO.” I was between jobs and scraping by on writing assignments. “Why don’t you come up and give us a hand.” New Pop and Star Hits were a godsend. Next stop: 1984 and something resembling World Domination.

Dirty Secrets of the Hidden Industry

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Near the end of 1981, I stumbled across a promising job opening, at yet another publication I’d never read or even heard about: Video Marketing Newsletter. Though I didn’t yet own a recorder, I knew video cassettes were the future. Right away, I was sold: the future had potential. The future sounded like a solid commercial proposition.

At a couple hundred bucks per subscription, business newsletters only required a few thousand subscribers to turn a profit. Production costs were almost non-existent on these glorified brochures; they were stapled, picture-less, ten-page pamphlets. Veteran rock critic and folk music maven Ira Mayer ran Video Marketing Newsletter. He’d just rented a five-room suite on a tidy midtown side street between Lexington and Third Avenue. Next-door was an enclosed concrete park with a fountain and a snack bar that operated in warm weather. On the other side was a synagogue, housed in a modestly handsome modern building. Across the street was an outlet of the “Erotic Baker” chain, its display window stocked with a grotesque assortment of penis and breast-shaped layer cakes. New York City was so tacky sometimes. Little did I suspect that the porn presence was prescient.

A few weeks later, I was introduced on the back page of VMN as a “veteran trade reporter.” From that point on, I knew we were all in trouble.

During the six months I worked at VMN, every so often I answered the phone and heard this: “Who the hell writes this crap?” I was never quite sure how to answer. Naturally I knew who wrote it, and so did the film studio executives and video store owners who called to complain about the subtle shadings of their quotes. Our sources were also our subjects, and our subscribers. Businessmen – successful executives – paid good money to read VMN musing on the future of consumer electronics. And consumer electronics was about to change the world. Ira and his California-based partners foresaw the all-conquering acronyms: VCR, CD, DVD, and PC.

Though I still hate to admit it, my bosses were right. On the money. Considering how much of the specific short-range stuff they consistently got wrong – such as laser discs overtaking videocassettes – only makes their omniscience on the big picture all the more incomprehensible. Video Marketing Newsletter was a high-tech oracle, a handbook for nerds before being a geek became cool or insanely profitable.

“In the future all our media, all our entertainment will be consumed and delivered on machines made in Japan” — this was our mantra in early 1982. Churning out vague yet obvious predictions turned into a lucrative business for Video Marketing Newsletter. Too bad I spent most of my time there writing freelance music articles for little or no money.

The videocassette market, in terms of movie content, resembled Times Square circa 1982: evenly divided between Hollywood blockbusters and the vast tawdry empire of pornographic films.

Times Square was hands-down my least favorite place in Manhattan. Relentless sleaze permeated the neon atmosphere. It was literally breathtaking, and depressing beyond words. The grim aura of human exploitation extended from the joyless porn movie palaces to the various personal services offered in strip clubs and on the streets. Obvious and not-so-obvious whores of various genders bantered with the tourists who stood around gaping at the marquees: Live Nude Girls 24 Hours, Peep Show/Private Booths and XXX All Male Cast Triple Features Daily.

There were still first-run movie theaters on Broadway in those days, too. The Times Square audiences were lively, let’s say: openly smoking pot, yelling at the screen. Watching a movie in these conditions may not have been dangerous, but it wasn’t remotely pleasant either. As a rule, I tried to avoid those sorts of potential-mob-scene situations.

The mass popularity of pornography (and prostitution) was simply astonishing. Not merely the prevalence, but the demand and the apparent frequency of consumption. Put it this way: I knew porn was popular but I had no idea how popular. The proximity of Times Square to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and Penn Station only partially explained the lurid proliferation. How many commuters made a secretive sex stop on the way home?

Though porn movies accounted for roughly 50% of the burgeoning video cassette market, you (understandably) wouldn’t have read about that in Video Marketing Newsletter. The retail outlets and video stores that serviced the new market couldn’t afford to be so discriminating; the “adult section” was discreetly situated in the rear of the store.

A crucial issue for VMN was sales versus rentals. Most consumers preferred to borrow video cassettes for $2 or $3 and return them to the store, rather than purchase and own a movie for $20. Columbia Pictures tried to squelch the new videocassette rental market in early 1982 by announcing that it would begin restricting movies on tape to “sale-only” but the video dealers weren’t having it.

Ira Mayer and I attended a hastily convened meeting of the regional branch of the Home Video Merchants Association, a loose knit group of video-store owners, taking place in New Jersey at a chain-hotel conference room. The day before I had called the main office of Superstar Video (let’s call it), New York City’s popular new chain of video stores, located in the back room of what was basically an upscale pornography supermarket in Times Square. When he found out VMN knew about the meeting, the owner got on the phone. Of course he was pissed off by the security leak. Swearing me to secrecy until the story ran, he grudgingly said we could attend the meeting as long as we didn’t draw undue attention to ourselves. “Mr. Superstar” rallied the troops that night; he rocked the house.

We built this business for the studios. They wouldn’t have Home Video divisions if we didn’t risk our necks in 1978, 79. The movie companies didn’t know they were sitting on a goldmine. Retailers created the home video market. It didn’t exist back then. Now we’ve got fucking, excuse me, Fotomats renting videos. [applause] I don’t have to tell all of you. We watched it grow, the home video market. We grew it. And now the movie studios are trying to snatch it back from us. No thanks. We’re not laying down. No way. My stores aren’t carrying sale-only videos.

We were mildly exuberant on the way back to New York. A little drama made for lively journalism, even in The Hidden Industry. The story would write itself, for once.

***

A shot at establishing (or redeeming) myself as a business reporter arrived with the coming of warmer weather. The Summer Consumer Electronics Show, or CES to those in the know, was scheduled for the first week in June. Naturally my boss planned to attend, this season with me in tow. I spent the week before CES on the phone. Ira hoped to interview every – any – executive who could be corralled for five minutes on the convention floor. “Why in the world does he want to speak with me?” was a frequent response. Eventually, nearly everybody gave in. VMN was impossible to avoid before the bloody show even began.

Our hotel, more of a motel, was a Holiday Inn equivalent next to O’Hara airport. The McCormick Center was accessible via buses from the motel. My flight was delayed five hours so I the missed Thursday’s evening festivities, including Sony’s legendary all-you-can-eat sushi buffet and a luau hosted by Panasonic, among other draws. I slept fitfully in the unseasonably sub-polar air-conditioning. The first bus departed at 7:30 and I was on it, clutching my styrofoam coffee cup.

A battery of satellite dishes guarding the entry plaza imparted a militaristic Star Wars vibe to the airy lakeside complex.  Welcome the wonderful world of gadgets. Batteries not included. It was a midnight-sun environment, relentlessly bright. Natural light would’ve been inappropriate, somehow. The harsh lighting gave me a near-blinding headache after a couple hours exposure.

Predictably I was so overwhelmed by the magnitude of variation that I had trouble putting each product in context. What makes this one different? I’d think, and then silently answer: who cares? Who would want to watch the Sony Watchman, a portable TV with a tiny 4-inch screen? Presumably not the same sort of person who would fork over $10,000 for a Sony Trinitron 30-inch screen sunk in a wood cabinet, complete with monogrammed gold plate. I didn’t have anything invested in “consumer electronics” because I wasn’t an electronics consumer beyond my Walkman, cheap stereo and TV. I felt like an enemy spy behind the lines at CES – or a double agent.

I studied name tags and loitered close to the booths, zeroing in on the nerdy-looking guys who seemed to be in charge while avoiding the moderately pretty and provocatively dressed Midwestern blondes who were stationed by the display tables.

Identifying yourself as a journalist at a trade show meant removing yourself from the ranks of potential paying customers. You served no purpose, as far as the exhibitors were concerned, you were useless. These guys bought ads to sell their products, paid to publicize their companies; they didn’t need an inept trade magazine reporter to spread the word.

I had a hard time getting past “what’s new?” in other words. My problems started with “I’m with Video Marketing Newsletter.” The invariable response was “what? Never seen it.” I didn’t have a snappy answer at hand. There was no snappy answer.

The most popular exhibits at CES – by a wide and obvious margin – were situated in a roped-off section devoted to the so-called adult video industry. This was the most heavily trafficked area in the entire McCormick Center. When various porn actresses were appearing, the line of guys waiting for (presumably) autographs stretched past the life-sized cardboard statue of Jane Fonda in her workout leotards at Karl Home Video.

Naturally I ran into my boss and his business partner near the entrance to Sodom and Gomorrah.

“What are you doing here?” The tone was accusatory, as though they weren’t “here,” too.

“I came over to check out the crowd. I should’ve known what was going on.”

“What else have you been up to, Mark?”

I flashed my reporters’ notebook, blue ink visible on its fluttering pages. My shoulder-pouch was stuffed with brochures.

“Wait there’s something else you could do before lunch. There’s a secret meeting of retailers back at one of the hotels. The guy from Superstar Video is rallying the troops. I want you to just show up.”

“He’ll kill me. Then kick me out.”

“No, it’ll be fine. Tell him we’re sending you in my place.”

The Red Roof Inn conference center resembled a mid-sized college classroom. One notable difference: Mr. Superstar, looking fierce in a button-down shirt and warm-up suit, glowered next to the podium and empty blackboard. Everybody seated at the long tables in front of him – maybe fifty or sixty people – turned to look when I slipped in. I shut the doors behind me, turned around and smiled like a fool. “How’s it going?”

“You!…you sold us down the river with that fucking article!”

You said we could write about the dealers’ meeting. The entire piece was your quotes. Hey, we got in hot water with our subscribers for taking your side.”

“No that article was fine. The one after that pissed me off. These Hollywood pricks say we’re greedy? Don’t get me started.”

“No, no, let’s talk, let’s talk, you should do a follow-up interview.”

“Kid why don’t you come down to my store back in New York and I’ll rent you a copy of All The President’s Men.”

“How about Deep Throat?” I hoped he got the joke.

“Get the fuck out of here. Now.”

No More Nukes 1982

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Two industrial AC/heating units squatted outside my apartment window, servicing the restaurants downstairs. When these behemoths rumbled into action around three or four every morning, the sound resembled the roar of a low-flying jet passing overhead. I’d wake up about half-way and groggily imagine: Here Come The Bombers. All the apocalyptic anti-Soviet rhetoric that Ronald Reagan threw around in the early 1980s scared me, and plenty of other people.

Naturally I attended the huge Nuclear Disarmament rally on June 12, 1982. Some estimates put the turnout at nearly one million people. This momentous event occurred on the weekend after my first business trip, a disastrous jaunt to the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. Making my way to the Central Park with some college friends on that sunny Saturday, I remembered the rusted Fallout Shelter signs on public buildings in Cincinnati.

There was a civil defense drill on every first Wednesday of the month while I attended  elementary school. This was in the middle-to-late 1960s, the Vietnam era. And yet here we were, still performing an absurd ritual left over from the cold war. A siren on the roof of the school blasted and we’d get marched out of the classrooms onto the ‘playground’ – actually it was the back parking lot of the church. So much for “duck and cover.” We were sitting ducks! Even as a ten year old I didn’t get it. Nobody ever explained what we were supposed to be doing. There was a lot of that in Catholic school. Unquestioning faith.

Flash forward to 1982: we skipped the parade and headed straight to the rally. We entered Central Park at Columbus Circle near 59th street, after riding uptown on the boogie-down D train. Painstakingly, we made our way toward the general vicinity of the Great Lawn, joining the herds slowly moving north on the park drive. The day was seasonably warm. I sported my new post-punk summer uniform: short-sleeved white collared shirt, black Levis and Palladium canvas shoes from Dave’s Army Surplus, cheap sunglasses from a recent 14th Street shopping lark.

The assembled masses were peaceable, not at all riot-inclined. Planet Earth balloons bounced on strings and the banners unfurled.

Bombs Kill Babies 
Mothers Against Nuclear Arms
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Ironically and perhaps intentionally, the inescapable boombox songs-of-the-day were Trouble Funk’s “Drop The Bomb” or The Gap Band’s “You Dropped A Bomb On Me.” Everywhere. The effect was eerie, though of course both songs were dance-party anthems.

My friends wanted to catch Jackson Browne, the eternal bard of sensitive ‘70s teenagers, so we settled on a gnarled patch of grass that seemed theoretically within earshot of the stage. But the speeches and music were audible only as background noise. So we watched the crowd. A message was sent that day, but President Reagan didn’t receive it. Perhaps January 21 2017 will turn out differently.

Uptown funk comes downtown pt.1

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Club Negril was a dive reggae bar on the corner of Second Ave and 12th Street. The occasion was my first look at hip-hop: Grand Wizard Theodore and the Fantastic Romantic MCs promised to “rock the house.” South Bronx meets the East Village.

If I’d learned anything about New York by that point, I knew not to arrive early for a nightclub performance. So I watched the late news and Johnny Carson’s opening monologue on my brand new b&w TV ($43 at Uncle Steve’s) before shoving off. The 14th Street bus deposited me two blocks from the bar just as the big clock on the Con Edison building silently pointed to midnight. Witching hour. It was unseasonably cold, clear, sometime in November or early December 1981.

Inside, Club Negril boasted a small stage, a compact dance floor, and a long bar. The décor consisted of Christmas lights and a few fake palm trees. The joint was packed with people, shrouded in smoke and dim yellow glow. I forked over a very reasonable $5 to the wary Rasta acting as sentry at the door. “Nah reggae tonight.”

The funky beat pulsating from the PA system sounded vaguely familiar and utterly foreign, exotic, at the same time. Literally the music here functioned as a siren song, sweeping any stragglers toward the dance floor, myself included, though up to that point I hadn’t seriously danced since the senior prom.

Recognizing the loopy bass line of “Flashlight” by Parliament, I tentatively swayed with the rhythm, rotating my broad shoulders to the beat. Surrounding me was a writhing sea of humanity, evenly split between the downtown set (white bohemians in their twenties) and the uptown crowd (black and Hispanic teenagers). For New York, in my admittedly brief experience, this ratio was extremely rare. Make no mistake: it was the music that put all of us at ease.

Unlike the discos and rock clubs, where people essentially danced alone in a narcissistic trance, here everybody moved in tandem with everybody else in an ecstatic collective frenzy. Grand Wizard Theodore, a short, solidly built black guy maybe 20 years old, occupied center stage behind two turntables. The soulful groove emanating from the big speakers on either side of the room ebbed and flowed with the fluid assurance of a long-distance swimmer switching strokes in mid-stream. I’ve never felt so compelled to dance yet I kept stopping in my tracks, trying to divine the source of the celebratory, fresh sounds.

Just as I’d felt with Sonic Youth a few weeks previous, the earth seemed to shift under my shuffling feet. Only this wasn’t punk rock – it was a party. Theodore expertly manipulated the crowd’s energy with the records he played, dragging the needle back-and-forth in rhythmic scratches, teasing the dancers with climatic snatches – a honking gutbucket saxophone riff, a thunderous jungle drum break – that triggered mass hysteria.

Around 2:00 AM a space cleared at the lip of the stage for the five Fantastic Romantic MC’s. They were smooth and sure, rhyming in unison and individually, gamely attempting Temptations-style choreography, yet the rappers appeared as an afterthought, a sideshow to the three-ring circus. The main attraction was the DJ, not to mention the action on the dance floor.

At times during the night the dancers would intuitively pause and pull back, making space for the boogaloo crews to athletically twist and twirl their limbs in robotic contortions. But the vision that has stayed with me ever since is not this early sighting of break-dancers but rather the kids dancing around them. I loved the loose-limbed way the b-boys and fly girls bobbed and swayed. Unconsciously I soon found myself duplicating their moves. The sound of hip-hop stimulated a reflex I didn’t know I possessed.

When I reached 14th Street a few minutes after the show ended, the crosstown bus sat at the stop, engines idling, doors open — as if the driver was waiting for me. For the second time in the same night, miraculously, I managed to be in the right place at the right time. As the bus crept westward, I interpreted the evening as a hopeful omen. I couldn’t help thinking that my luck had turned. Finally.

Sleep Alternatives

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You can sleep on it, lounge on it, read on it, exercise on it, and dream on it…in fact, the uses of the versatile mattress pictured here are practically endless.

After the first few nights at 48th Ninth Avenue, sleeping on the floor lost its luster. My back hurt. The Village Voice featured several pages of bed advertisements each week — “a full range of sleep alternatives.” The traditional Japanese futon, or sleeping mat offered a popular solution to the couch versus bed conundrum. Planet Futon (let’s call it) was only a couple blocks south of the Railway Age office on Hudson Street.

A salesperson latched onto me seconds after entering. She was in her thirties, medium-frumpy, wearing blue jeans and Earth shoes. Caffeinated chat flowed from her thin lips. Not necessarily someone who slept well herself.

Her name was “Sunsh” as in Sunshine. I swallowed a giggle.

An old-school convertible couch looked to be way out of my league, price wise, so my guide led me to the main showroom. The basic futon was too basic for my taste: three cushions attached with hinges so they could be either flattened into a mattress or arranged into a vaguely chair-like stance. Clearly, a futon required some kind of brace or support to qualify as furniture.

Scrunching around on the various crossbreed models in the store I found them unsatisfying as both bed and chair. Buying a frame so I could actually sit on the futon without ruining my back felt like the only way to go: more money, but less than a real bed or couch. My eyes fell on an off-white love seat sofa that enfolded a futon cushion. This made for an acceptably spongy compromise, though not exactly the best of both worlds. I would still be spending the night on the floor, in effect, but during the day I’d be sitting on a couch of sorts – a stationary object with back support.

“I thought you weren’t interested in convertibles,” said Sunsh, accusingly, as I circled the futon love seat for the fourth time.

“I didn’t say I wasn’t interested. I said they cost too much! But I like couch beds better, just the plain futon seems too cushion-y.”

“Then this futon love seat has to be what you’re looking for.”

“I guess so but $200 is way more than I can spend.”

“It’s $225. Hey wait, I can probably, maybe, take a little off.”

“That’s nice, but it might not be enough. I’ve got, like $150.”

“Why did you even come over here? Sorry, no, I didn’t mean that. I can’t, no I shouldn’t do this, but you seem like a nice guy. What about $175?”

“Look, I appreciate your offer but I’m overextended. Sorry, you’re right, I shouldn’t have come in here and played it cheap.”

“I’ll give you this for $160. You drive a hard bargain.”

“Well, that I can handle but what about the uh delivery?”

“You didn’t think of that before? Delivery fee is $25.”

“See I can’t really afford this, sorry. Thanks, though.”

“How far away do you live?”

“Not far, 14th Street and 9th Avenue. Why?”

“I could help, you know, I have a car.”

How much is this going to cost, I wondered. For a split second I considered bolting from the store right then and there. But the promise of a good night’s sleep was too seductive to resist.

“Are you sure? I can give you some gas money.”

“No, no. I’ve got a Toyota hatchback, it’ll fit right in.”

I rode in the shotgun seat. The loveseat hung out the back hatch, tethered to the rear bumper by yours truly, an ex-boy scout. The super at my new place, a chubby Spanish guy named Ray, was younger than Jeff, and far more capable. By chance he met us at the door, and helped me haul the pseudo-sofa up one flight of steps and then tilt it through my front door. I slipped him my last $10.

He winked at me and turned toward his apartment. Sunsh was now standing in the hallway. She shifted her feet, unsure of herself.

“Aren’t you going to ask me in?”

“Yeah, come on in.”

I cut off clear ribbons of packing tape with my pocketknife. Then I shoved the love seat against the wall, facing the dresser I’d recently bought at Salvation Army’s thrift shop.

“Have a seat.” I switched on the radio, turned low. “I don’t have much to offer you. Maybe some ginger ale? Or tea? I just moved in.”

“Yeah I know. No I don’t want anything to drink.”

Suavely I opened the cheap folding chair Jeff had sold me as a “going away present” from Washington Place, and sat down. Sunsh settled into the futon love seat.

“So er how did you get into selling futons?”

“Nobody ‘gets into’ selling futons. You end up doing it.”

“Do you sleep on one at home, you know, a futon? From the store?”

“I sleep on a waterbed.”

“Really? I knew somebody who had a huge waterbed. So big he had to move it to the basement before this old house collapsed.”

“Yeah I live in Queens, there’s more room for it out there.”

“I didn’t like sleeping on a waterbed, the time or two I tried. It made me feel sore, like I need the support of something firmer.”

“So you’re all by yourself here.”

This was not phrased as a question. I nodded anyway.

“With a brand new bed to…sleep on.”

“Ah I appreciate you helping me out, really I do. But…”

“But?”

“But well that’s all, really. Thanks for setting me up.”

“Is that all you want? A new couch?”

“That’s enough. I mean, hey, you gave me the hard sell.”

“Well, excuse me, maybe this is why I don’t do deliveries.”

“Look, let me pay you something then. I feel bad now.”

“I don’t need your money. You got what you wanted.”

After that, I went out of my way to avoid walking past Planet Futon.

Blowing Dodge & Burning Rubber

I first read New York Rocker at my record store job in Ann Arbor during the summer of 1979. The newsprint tabloid miraculously appeared alongside slick publications like Billboard and Rolling Stone in the modest magazine rack near the check out counter. My appetite for the new rock coming out of lower Manhattan had been whetted by The Village Voice, and NYR further stimulated that hunger with deep coverage of each subsequent ripple, from radical no wave bands like the funky and confrontational Contortions to more user friendly Manhattan imports like the party-starting B-52s from Athens, Georgia.

Sharp writing and splashy graphics distinguished NYR from the amateur enthusiasm of the do-it-yourself journals that came to be known as fanzines. It proved an indispensable guide. Abrasive and syncopated, the Contortions’ Buy took a while to sink in. But the B-52s’ joyous debut became an in-store favorite. While I still loved the energy of punk and the melodic thrust of power pop, when the Knack hit with “My Sharona” that summer, my musical taste began to evolve and expand beyond the confines of rock and roll.

Controversially, I picked the latest disco singles when it was my turn to choose the in-store soundtrack. Never a dancer, I was attracted to Chic and Donna Summer by the soulful singing and sophisticated rhythmic pulse; trifles like “I Love The Night Life” by Alicia Bridges or Anita Ward’s “Ring Your Bell” felt like classic, catchy pop.

Eighteen months later, armed with a college diploma and several hundred LPs, I occupied my old bedroom in Cincinnati and fitfully plotted my next move. Sending resumes to newspapers in search of employment yielded little more than polite pro-forma rejections. Sometime in January 1981 (I’d graduated in December 1980), I noted the decreasing circulation size of the papers I queried. The prospect of obtaining a reporter’s job in say, Chillicothe and slowly working my way up to the Cincinnati Enquirer or Cleveland Plain Dealer seemed unlikely and perhaps not where I wanted to end up anyway. I continued to read The Village Voice every week, and frequented a punk/new wave record store off Calhoun Street in Clifton that carried New York Rocker along with all the latest UK imports and indie singles. The manager rudely dismissed my inquiry about part-time employment and seemed openly annoyed by my many browsing-only visits. Though I couldn’t afford to buy records, I vicariously tried to keep up.

Driving my parents’ car around town, I found myself tuned in to WCIN, the local R&B station; partially because the mainstream rock stations were so dire in those days, dominated by the Axis of Evil (Journey, Styx and Kansas), but also because the bass-heavy sound of funk and the fleet-footed swing of disco sounded so much better, frankly, than everything else available. My personal epiphany occurred not on the road to Damascus but somewhere on Winton Road between between Clifton and Finneytown. The Gap Band’s “Burn Rubber On Me” came pumping out of the cheap Volkswagon speakers and I realized this funky strut rocked more effectively than any current rock and roll, new wave or old hat. I growled along with the lyrics and drummed on the steering wheel, my mind accelerating beyond the speed limit. And as my musical horizons broadened, so did my perception of my own destiny. Suddenly I realized where I’d always wanted to go and only now had the confidence to say out loud. New York City.