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.

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.

Recombinant

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DNA 1981 photo by Catherine Cresole

The guitarist scraped and scratched at his electric 12-string while stuttering, squealing, shouting and sighing near-indeciperhable lyrics. The drummer beat intermittent off-center patterns seemingly independent of time signatures while the bassist stalked the stage in a trance, plucking deeply propulsive patterns dictated by some inner sense rather than the sounds surrounding him. Somehow, it all added up into a perfect cohesive whole.

DNA was the power trio to end all power trios and a pioneering musical force in downtown Manhattan circa 1980-82. I must’ve seen them perform ten times or more; with each viewing, their music sounded less random and raw, more purposeful and well not polished but pointed. Guitarist/singer Arto Lindsay, drummer Ikue Mori and bassist Tim Wright knew exactly what they were doing, despite their relative lack of experience as musicians.

Arto was the son of Protestant missionaries who spent a crucial portion of his childhood in Brazil, absorbing the Tropicalismo of Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. You can feel that influence guiding his explosive, emotional delivery. Ikue began playing drums not long after moving to New York from Japan, almost before she learned to speak English, developing an intuitive feel for rhythm. Tim Wright possessed the closest thing to a resume, briefly playing bass in Cleveland’s Pere Ubu. He supplied the musical glue and traditional rock and roll stage presence.

Their recorded legacy is basically the EP A Taste Of DNA and live tapes. Most of their songs were a minute or two long, so live sets lasted 20 minutes. The later-day NYC band Blonde Red Head took their name from DNA’s best song. It’s a stunning, beautiful piece of music than only opens up the more you listen. I’m still trying to figure out the lyrics after 30+ years. “I’ve got a snake on my mind and it’s not my spine.” You go, Arto.
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DNA live at the Mudd Club 1980

Come On Feel The Noise

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“What’s the best way to play guitar with drumsticks? Well, when Thurston Moore jammed one up the neck of his electric during Sonic Youth’s Sunday afternoon set at CBGB it sounded great. Just as the quartet seemed to be on the verge of a melody, boom! A downstroke from bassist Kim Gordon and drummer Richard Edson’s cymbal crashes pushed the guitarists into glorious chaos. The room got drenched with droning feedback, ear-splitting harmonics, tangled rhythms and the amplified whir of an electric drill. A week later and I’m still not sure what hit me, but I know I loved it.” – New York Rocker 1981

In retrospect I was in the right place at the right time entirely by accident. My second assignment for New York Rocker was a live review of a new band called Sonic Youth. (The first was a John Cale show billed as solo piano that wound up being his full band circa Honi Soit LP.)  I’d actually witnessed the prototype version of the band (without Lee Ranaldo) at the noise fest the previous summer. But even that couldn’t have prepared me for what I heard and saw when I walked into CBGB one autumn night in 1981. The band was raw and still working out their radical approach to making music but the now-familiar elements were all in place: clanging harmonics and ear-numbing feedback, yes, but also moments of atmospheric calm and twisted beauty plus Kim Gordon’s hypnotic vocals on a song or two. I approached Thurston Moore after their set and told him I’d been assigned a review; this was long before the days of publicists, hangers-on and backroom protocol on every level of the music scene. Downtown in those days was democratic. People were equals on both sides of the stage. If you ask am I surprised that Sonic Youth went on to achieve everything they did my answer is a resounding NO. While I never could have predicted what happened to them – and me – in the years to come, I knew it would be something. It’s hard to pin down, but the sound of possibility was everywhere in New York City then. There was music in the streets.

Public Image, Limited Viewing: PiL @ The Ritz

One night in May 1981 I toyed with the idea of seeing Public Image Ltd, when the post-Sex Pistols vehicle of John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon pulled into the Ritz. One year previous, the group executed a mesmerizing set at an old roller rink in Detroit, weaving abstract guitar squalls around pulsating reggae bass lines as Lydon’s incantatory catcalls floated through the air like ominous clouds. One year later the group had evolved – or devolved – into a purely conceptual expression of Lydon’s free-ranging contempt for his audience’s expectations.

Rout and roll at the Ritz

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Billed as a video performance rather than a concert, this PiL appearance promised to be different from the usual fare at the Ritz, a cavernous dance hall on East 11th Street. The video aspect was ironic in that the Ritz, like most other new music clubs that followed in the wake of CBGB and the doomed Max’s Kansas City, prominently placed television screens throughout the club. The Ritz was slightly more democratic than the Mudd Club or Danceteria since tickets were sold in advance and there was no exclusionary door policy. Pay the price and you could get in, whether you were a clueless “Bridge & Tunnel” person from the outer boros/suburbs or a bonafide “slum & loft” downtown hipster.

As it happened a sudden thunderstorm and the usual lack of funds prevented me from joining the line for PiL tickets. This was a lucky stroke because the show sparked a riot. Lydon and his compatriots cavorted in silhouette behind the club’s 30-foot wide video screen, baiting the crowd until they responded in kind with hurled bottles, eventually storming the stage and pulling down the screen. If rock and roll was now bankrupt, as John Lydon kept insisting, at the Ritz he proved his point by painting himself into a corner. The only escape was selling out.

Revenge of the Nerds Pt.2

Another staple of the pre-MTV video scene, “Once In A Lifetime” is arguably Talking Heads’ best-known and best song. Of course MTV dropped the video into heavy rotation pretty much from day one, making it hard to believe now that “Once In A Lifetime” got next to no radio airplay at the time and never dented the Billboard pop charts. The elements are as singular and arresting today as in 1981: David Byrne’s twitchy and convulsive “dance” (choreographed by Toni Basil of “Mickey” fame), the searching and vaguely existential lyrics (including phrases lifted from radio/TV preachers), the fluid and funky backbeat (inspired by Hamilton Bohannon’s rolling disco grooves). As a devoted swimmer I totally relate to the aquatic theme – “water flowing underground” = life progressing along unpredictable and barely detectable currents. And as a middle-aged man I lately find myself wondering how did I get here? And how did young David Byrne stumble onto something so profound and well, elemental? Apparently “Once In A Lifetime” is something of an anthem among hydrogeologists as well.

http://waterunderground.org/2014/04/19/best-groundwater-song-ever-once-in-a-lifetime-by-the-talking-heads/

When Men Wore Kilts: New Romantics Remembered

In 1981 new bands from England invaded NYC every week or so but Spandau Ballet made a splash that spring with their New Romantic fashion and vaguely funky dance grooves. (The lachrymose pop hit “True” came two years later.) I clearly remember reading about their gig at the decidedly un-trendy Underground club and deciding not to “dress up” in order to gain admittance. At that point I hadn’t yet acquired the black jeans and thrift shop finery so beloved by East Village hipsters, nor did I own anything resembling a kilt, toga or Star Trek uniform. But I confess to being intrigued by the debut Spandau single “To Cut A Long Story Short” with its chilly synths and awkward rhythms.

Dark and moody, the candle-lit video looks like it was shot in the basement of a castle. The band members aren’t very good at mimicking the act of playing musical instruments, and the costumes still look silly. A couple years later, thanks to MTV, Spandau Ballet and kindred souls like Duran Duran and Culture Club were flaunting their fashion sense on national television. But in 1981, the New Romantics were more like a rumor, or warning, of the brave new pop world on its way.