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.
DNA “Blonde Red Head”
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.

All Aboard Amtrak

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My actual point of departure for New York City turned out to be less than romantic: a forlorn platform in the freight yards outside the grand old Union Terminal. One of Cincinnati’s architectural treasures, with murals by German artist Winold Reiss, thirty five years ago Union Terminal was functioning – fitfully — as an upscale shopping mall. Just a few stores huddled beneath the sprawling paintings, and customers were scarce, or at least they had been on my aimless exploratory visit the previous week.

The Amtrak Cardinal pulled through Cincinnati on its way to Washington D.C. from Chicago. It must’ve been about 6:00 pm, because I remember saying goodbye to my apprehensive mom and dad in something approaching daylight, après an early dinner at home. It was a frigid Tuesday in February 1981.

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Rural West Virginia passed by my window most of the night: a sea of pitch-black nothing, occasionally interrupted by random islands of illumination: the pointless blinking of a traffic signal over a deserted intersection, a beacon spot-light shining forth from the side of a windowless corrugated shed.

Changing trains in D.C. passed by as a blur. Somehow I managed to get aboard the Metroliner. The window view looked decidedly different from the day before: disused factories, decayed warehouses. A sign hanging on a huge smokestack in Wilmington, Delaware grabbed my attention: Documents Shredded. The gory details of Watergate, Nixon’s secrecy and paranoia, were fresh enough memories to render this service both wildly funny and slightly ominous. I was entering the part of the country – the east coast — where information mattered. Documents, words, data, ideas and writing: it was all taken quite seriously. Or so I presumed.

Pulling out of Philadelphia, the north side of the city stunned me, a vision out of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. North Philadelphia really did resemble a bombsite: crumbling row houses, junked autos, cracked concrete walls further pockmarked with cartoon-letter graffiti, bumper crops of broken bottles harvested in vacant lots.

The concluding hour or so of the journey consisted of a very leisurely crawl through a tunnel deep below New Jersey. This delay lent a starkly claustrophobic air to the already uncomfortable (cold, crowded) train car. I survived by fantasizing about the way my friends and I used to cruise to downtown Cincinnati via automobile, watching identical acres of ranch houses with lawns gradually shrink and give way to row houses, apartment complexes and office buildings. No, the east coast was different. Dive right in the muck.

Talk about being fresh off the boat, wet behind the ears you name it: I got played for a sucker not half a dozen steps into Penn Station. The entry-level exam in urban savvy is easy to flunk.

“Hey my man you need a cab?”

I sure did. However, this helpful stranger – a thirty-ish African-American with mustache and what I interpreted as a jaunty taxi driver’s cap – grabbed my battered Samsonites just as I nodded in the affirmative, lugging my suitcases toward a distant exit sign. About a minute later the truth sunk into the pit of my stomach. This guy was no cab driver. His “help” would consist entirely of steering the unwitting customer – me — toward the clearly marked cabstand where other potential passengers waited in an orderly line and the real drivers remained snugly behind the wheels of their cars. My guy demanded $10 and accepted $5, while I silently thanked him for a quick education in the potential hazards of public transportation and by extension, the city itself. People looking to take advantage waited around every corner.

“Just look for a red door under the cow sign…”

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For exactly one year, from fall 2012 to fall 2013, I went to work every day just a block away from where I lived in the early 1980s. Walking the same route thirty years later, I quickly concluded that no other Manhattan neighborhood could’ve changed as much as the meatpacking district. And after a few months of plowing up and down that still-familiar stretch of west 15th Street, I heard echoes of the 80s and the music in the street.

Home was the stark white three-story building on the north corner, across the street from the Apple Store today. A nameless Greek coffee shop, run by three separate men called “Georgie,” occupied the entire first floor. On 14th Street other neighbors included: faded Irish bar with live bluegrass music, failing Metro supermarket, busy beer distributor’s outlet, busy bicycle shop, gypsy fortune teller living with her family in a storefront that doubled as her salon. According to the sign, that is. I walked past the picture window every day and never once saw Madame with a client.

Around the corner on 9th Avenue neighbor sat The Old Homestead Steakhouse. A hulking neon-lit replica steer stood guard over the restaurant’s canopied and carpeted entranceway. Our front door, next to the Homestead’s satellite butcher shop, had just been painted a flagrant shade of red. Look for a red door underneath the cow sign, I’d tell my infrequent guests. You couldn’t miss it.

There was no intercom system in the building. Visitors had to bring a dime for the pay phone, and call me from across the street.

Crossing 9th Avenue and continuing west on 14th Street felt like falling off the map. During the day the meat-packers’ market formed a bleak panorama. By noon the butchers were finished with work and mostly gone. Even after the cobblestones were cleansed of the pre-dawn bloodbath, the streets still reeked. Open dumpsters and rubber trash barrels lined the sidewalks, filled to the rims with freshly rendered hunks of peppermint-striped animal fat. Forget about the rats; in the meatpacking district the flies were scary.

After dark the warehouses turned into hives of activity, much of it furtive. Camouflaged in black leathers, men prowled the shadowy blocks all night long, loners and duos stalking past the packs gathered near a doorway or loading dock. Were there dozens of people walking around on any given night, or hundreds, bar-hopping between the murky nightclubs and after-hours spots? I can’t say. It always looked like a lot of guys from across the street.

Around the building I hardly ever laid eyes on the other tenants. And when I did, passing them in the hall, the vast majority registered as taciturn, reluctant, grunting avoiders of eye contact.

There were exceptions. Bette lived right across the hall, with her husband Abe, a disabled man who barely left their studio apartment. She played Mom, always asking how I was doing even though she was obviously struggling with her husband. He must’ve been nearly 80, she looked younger, maybe 60. Her face was wizened, worn-out, yet Bette had a ready, raspy hack of a laugh. I’d see her at the Irish bar, through the window, smoking and nursing a Bud bottle. Between her warm drawl and crooked teeth, I pegged her as an Appalachian immigrant, though I never inquired.

The local equivalent of Frank and Jeff lived down the hall. Barry occupied the relatively spacious corner apartment; he was an obvious-gay type of guy, clean-cut and genial, always smiling. We got along on the smallest of small talk. Mr. Charles lived alone, next door to Barry’s place. A portly man in his 60s, Mr. Charles wore a bad toupee and insisted that I take his card the first time we bumped into each other. Stanley Charles: Theatrical & Show Business Agent. I endured his inevitable recruiting pitch. After that, I enacted a policy of not saying more than “hello” to Mr. Charles.

Gradually, even the eye-contact avoiders became familiar figures.

My apartment was located next to the stairwell, conveniently allowing for quick ins and outs as well as guaranteeing a bare minimum of neighbor sightings. A pair of virtually identical women lived next door on the other side: dyed-blondes with masculine haircuts, fire-hydrant bodies and the hard-bitten demeanor of old-fashioned stereotypical lesbians. For months or maybe longer I assumed they were the same person and I’m still not completely sure. Perhaps my memory has perfected cloning.

Beside Barry two other residents appeared to be roughly around my age. Subject One was a spiky peroxide-blond scarecrow, the kind of dude who dutifully wore the punk rock uniform year-round: black leather jacket, jeans, t-shirt, Converse high-top sneakers. I nicknamed him the Horror-Rocker. Naturally I suspected he was a junkie.

His apparent friend or sidekick or partner in crime was a middle-aged Hispanic woman who lived down the hall. She wore the uniform of a school crossing guard. (I often saw her in action at the P.S. near the housing projects on 17th, leading the children across 9th avenue.) Theirs was an unlikely relationship to say the least. It only heightened my unease about the Horror-Rocker.

Even more disquieting was Subject Two, whom I unimaginatively nicknamed the Crazy Guy. He sported shoulder-length reddish blond locks and the bushy beard of an Old Testament prophet, or Charlie Manson. Every Sunday his elderly mother came to visit. I ran into them all the time: sitting in the diner or walking arm in arm, painfully slow, the little old lady and the lug. She was, of course, the only person I saw ever with him.

Most of the time the Crazy Guy hurried past me, eyes fixed on the ground. The few instances when we established eye contact were frightening. His pupils glowed like bloodshot lasers, inflamed with anger, fueled by unfathomable rage. He made me step back.

Occasionally, a knock on the door would interrupt my reverie. On Sunday mornings I received regular visits from Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists – I learned how to tell the difference. One Saturday evening I fielded an inquiry from a determined young black guy who insisted his sister was hiding from him inside my apartment. “I know you’ve got her in there!”

I let him take a quick look over my shoulder, and the sight of an empty room apparently calmed him down “Sorry, my man.” After he disappeared down the hall, I realized my heart was pounding.

For the most part nobody bothered me. I became absorbed by the solitary pursuits of reading, writing, listening to music. I learned to cook on the creaky stove, bought discount groceries from the Western Beef retail outlet one block west on 14th Street.

When I wasn’t going out.

Living in cramped quarters propelled me outward, into the world. And the immediate environs, the neighborhood right outside my door, propelled me further still, to another – any other – part of town. More and more, beginning in 1982, my life occurred in public places.

“What the hell do they expect for their lousy 35 cents – to live forever?”

The NYC subways are still frustrating. There are delays due to construction, signal malfunctions, sick passengers, police activity etc etc.  One friend (who’s lived here longer than me) hears “this train is being momentarily held in the station by the dispatcher” and insists there’s no central dispatcher behind the (at times) seemingly random service. But he’s never seen The Taking of Pelham 123. Walter Matthau plays the train dispatcher who cooly and calmly negotiates a safe outcome when a ruthless and well-organized gang of four hijack a subway train on the Lexington Avenue 6 line. Forget the remake: the 1974 original captures all the dread and danger of daily underground commuting during the dirty decade in New York City. Even in 1981, when I arrived, the subways were still limping along, covered with graffiti inside and out, prone to break down at the slightest provocation. Beggars, assorted crazies and gangs of rowdy teenagers patrolled the cars, intimidating passengers at will. I once looked up from my book and saw a man flashing a smile at me – with a razor blade between his teeth. Another time the train halted between stations, and stayed there. Eventually we were led off the train by flashlight-toting MTA employees and walked along the rat-infested tracks, avoiding the third rail, until we reached the nearest stairway.

So the idea of a train being hijacked wasn’t exactly far-fetched. The Taking of Pelham 123 is a taut thriller with convincing low-key performances from Matthau and familiar 70s faces Robert Shaw (as the gang leader), Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo and James Broderick. Fans of Quentin Tarantino will spot strong similarities with Reservoir Dogs. What really makes the movie, apart from the action and suspense, is characterization. As Roger Ebert put it at the time of release: “These aren’t machine-made characters, but individuals and more specifically, New Yorkers with gallows humor, paranoia, warmth and residence.” Those traits are still in abundance among New Yorkers today, even if the subway isn’t as filthy and threatening. Oh, and the hapless mayor in Pelham totally resembles Ed Koch though it was a few years before his election. Prescient.

Brooklyn days & Broadway nights

I saw Saturday Night Fever not long after it was released during the holiday season of 1977. But I never appreciated the phenomenally popular disco movie until I moved to New York City three years later. There I watched it, more than once, on my tiny black and white TV. In Manhattan, SNF registered as both a modern musical landmark – the tipping point of disco – and a classic coming-of-age story, a syncopated hymn to big city aspiration. Today it’s hard to explain, or imagine, just how remote the outer boroughs once felt. In a Village Voice profile of John Travolta published when the movie first came out, Frank Rose wrote: “In Saturday Night Fever, Travolta plays a kid who lives in a world where it’s like the 60s never happened.” There are remnants of this working-class Italian American culture in Brooklyn and Staten Island today, if you squint, but this old world is fading fast. The shocking thing about Saturday Night Fever in 1977 was its newness. Not only the music, though the ensuing disco fad triggered an earthquake with repercussions still heard today. The characters in Saturday Night Fever, the seemingly hopeless post-1960s teenagers drawn from Nik Cohn’s semi-fictional New York magazine story, represented a new lost generation with their own sounds and their own sublimated dreams, struggling to be recognized or just staying alive. Pauline Kael sums it up eloquently in one of her most perceptive and far-sighted reviews: ” …this movie has a new subject matter: how the financially pinched Seventies generation that grew up on television attempts to find its own forms and of beauty and release.” And find them they do: even if the escaping Brooklyn for “the city” angle doesn’t move you the way it does me, the music and dancing haven’t aged a whit. There’s nothing else like it. The Bee Gees were never better and Pulp Fiction aside, neither was Travolta.

And here’s the story upon which the movie was based: a fascinating example of New Journalism. http://nymag.com/nightlife/features/45933/