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
Students Not Mutants

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.

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.