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.

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.

Go East Young Man

The pressure kicked in the day after the fire. I had to find a new apartment.

I felt desperate but not enough to move into the first available place. I couldn’t afford to be too choosy, of course, nor could I risk moving into someplace even more dingy – or dangerous –than 78 Washington Place. Once again, all signs pointed east.

In 1981 the East Village exerted the attraction of a powerful magnet, extending far beyond the allure of the music scene that first drew me there. Young people populated the bars and breakfast spots, people far younger than the kindly folks I saw at work every day.

I avoided going to East Village with Jeff the super, though the Ukrainian and Polish fare on offer there was right up his alley: starchy, filling and cheap. The World War II era décor and cafeteria service at Katz’s Deli suited his taste to a “t”, but at $5 plus their Himalayan pastrami sandwiches were too expensive. And his enthusiasm for global cuisine stopped at the Indian restaurant row on East 6th street. Unlike the diners Jeff frequented, homey coffee shops like Kiev, Leshko’s, Veselka, and the Odessa were full of people closer to my age not to mention appearance. The few times we did go, I felt acutely self-conscious about my companion. We were one odd couple.

To be honest, I pulled back from my relationships with both Jeff and Frank before the fateful night of the fire. Frank understood, better than I did, the transitory nature of urban acquaintance. He tacitly acknowledged our divergent social lives. Jeff, on the other hand, was confused and hurt by my sudden reluctance to discuss The New York Times over two-hour dinners. It was cruel but as my raw hunger for human company abated, or became sated in other situations, hanging out with Jeff, even occasionally, began to cramp my style.

I didn’t dare mention to either Jeff or Frank that I was looking for a new place to live. They didn’t share my urgency about relocating. Unsurprisingly Jeff assumed an attitude of brittle defensiveness about the fire, when he wasn’t blithely acting as if it never happened. And Frank, despite his moving-on-up ambitions, now seemed to be content with his base of operations. Maybe he enjoyed, or relied on, the relative anonymity, the cover it provided.

I wanted to get the hell out. The first weekend after the fire I looked at a basement apartment on 1st Avenue near 12th Street that shocked me in its abject decrepitude. “Cramped quarters” can’t begin to describe the size of this place, at six feet even I could barely stand up. My head bumped against the single light bulb that barely illuminated the windowless gloom. Thinking of a prison cell or indentured servant’s quarters, I half-expected the gruff Chinese landlord to insist that I also wash dishes in the restaurant upstairs.

On the next weekend I visited two more East Village addresses with vacancies. The one I loved and didn’t hear back about, further east on 12th, was a modest studio in a weathered, yet well-kept building that wrapped around a small, shadowy courtyard. The other apartment, the one I turned down, was a generously sized one bedroom in a bombed-out tenement on 3rd, near Avenue C. I knew it was no go when I saw punctured trash bags in the halls and smashed-in holes in the walls. At first I didn’t have the heart to tell the super, a simpatico Hispanic man of about 70 who seemed surprisingly eager to get a young gringo in the building.

The following Monday I called a building management company, as opposed to the usual real estate agency, in response to an ad in the Times. The apartment had already been rented but when I mentioned the fire at my current address, the bland masculine voice on the other end of the line adopted a new tone.

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“I handled that building for awhile. Oh god. You’re lucky. We can get you out of there. OK. Go look at 48 9th Avenue on the corner of 14th street. Hold on while I get the super’s number.”

The corner of 14th street and 9th Avenue abutted the northern fringe of the West Village. West? So far west it was nearly in New Jersey. I stopped by after work, walking straight up Hudson Street.

When I was ushered into apartment 9A, the first thing I noticed was the back window. I looked around for another room. Nope. If my previous studio was small, then this place was miniscule. I tried to imagine conducting my home life within these four walls: eating, sleeping, reading, relaxing. I’d be existing in this tiny box.

A sink, stove and refrigerator flanked the front door to the left. To the right was a wall. Take half a dozen steps forward and you’d reach the rear wall: two long windows on either side of an ancient radiator, a massive heater many times too large for such a small place. Tall ceilings didn’t create any illusion of spaciousness.

The shallow closet was barely deep enough to hang a jacket in. There was a narrow bathroom off the main room: chipped tiles, battered sink and a big white bathtub. Lifting the toilet seat, I smiled at the message scrawled on the flip side. “I Love You.”

I signed a two-year rent-stabilized lease for $240 a month.

dont you ever stop long enough to start take your car outta that gear…

Reading tabloid articles in the aftermath was as close to the Public Image rout as I cared to be but The Clash’s proposed seven-night stand at Bond’s International Casino in Times Square, just a couple weeks later in May 1981, was a different matter. I’d witnessed the Detroit stops on every preceding Clash tour and there was no way I would miss my favorite band when they hit my new home turf.

True to form the group had recently released a sprawling, foolishly ambitious three-record titled Sandinista! The name was a tribute to the left-wing guerilla movement in El Salvador that was currently giving Ronald Reagan a serious case of indigestion. Politics aside, to my ears the diversely influenced songs on the album succeeded more often than not. Even disco – the bete noir of every punk-rock true believer – was seamlessly woven into the Clash’s newly cosmopolitan style. On a track called “The Magnificent Seven” the English rockers appropriated the rhythmic rhymes of rap, the latest sound to rise from the uptown city streets. And New York returned the compliment: on WBLS, Frankie Crocker was spinning a funky instrumental remix called “Magnificent Dance” in heavy rotation. After a few stagnant years, America’s musical melting pot was bubbling again.

Naturally I wasn’t the only person hotly anticipating these concerts but even the Clash must’ve been surprised at the ensuing melee and melodrama. I expected a mob scene when I showed up at Bond’s, a former department store converted into a disco, with my ticket in hand. The presence of mounted police and blue barricades was initially reassuring. All in a Saturday night’s work for the NYPD, I figured, but the subsequent arrival of fire trucks with sirens blaring suggested something extraordinary was afoot. Indeed I never made it in; the show had been oversold, double the club’s capacity according to news reports, and the Fire Department shut it down. Sticking to their guns, The Clash hurriedly called a press conference the next day and extended their stay at Bond’s for another seven nights.

Finally shuffling into the vast ballroom on the following Thursday I wasn’t disappointed. Balancing their recent material with the urgent anthems of their punk past, as far as I was concerned The Clash ascended a new peak that night. “Guns of Brixton,” in particular, came across like a promise delivered rather than an implied threat. But I sensed impatience in the audience, bordering on intolerance. Not for the Clash themselves, who were irresistibly charismatic performers to the end, but for the direction they sought to push their followers. The indifferent reaction accorded to the opening act, the luminous reggae superstar Burning Spear (Winston Rodney), came as no surprise. Later, I cringed when the saintly poet Allen Ginsberg was booed as he joined The Clash onstage. Free verse beatitudes and clanging guitars clamor isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Still the crowd’s close-mindedness was upsetting. I kept waiting to hear somebody call for “Whipping Post!” or “Free Bird!”

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.