- .@_waterman's #dwntwn12 undergrads are talking abt Arthur Russell tomorrow. Here are all our posts that mention him: http://t.co/SAv856pM #
- (Note: that string of posts kicks off with a kickass guest mix by @jennpelly, veteran of the first Downtown Scenes summer course.) #dwntwn12 #
- Happy birthday, Walt. RT @TweetsOfGrass I am afoot with my vision. #
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Dinosaur, “Kiss Me Again,” 12-inch, side A, 1978. Composed by Arthur Russell. Remix by Jimmy Simpson.
The personnel for this record blows my mind:
Arthur Russell (cello, organ)
David Byrne (guitar)
Sammy Figueroa (percussion)
Frank Owens (piano)
Henry Flynt (violin)
Peter Gordon (sax)
Larry Saltzman (guitar)
Peter Zummo (trombone)
Myrian Valle (vocals)
The Henry Flynt finale is an especially rewarding touch, & it’s kind of thrilling to hear him — and Byrne — on the same record as Russell, Gordon, & Zummo.
Our Friday afternoon playlist comes from Jenn Pelly, a Brooklyn-based music writer and recent NYU grad in English and journalism. Her music writing, often about the current BK DIY scene, has appeared on Altered Zones, Thought Catalog, and elsewhere and she maintains the weblog Pelly Twins with her sister Liz, who writes about music for the Boston Phoenix. Jenn is a WNYU alum (though she’ll host the New Afternoon Show through this summer) and is also a veteran of #wny11 and the first run of my Downtown Scenes course last summer. Follow her on Twitter @jennpelly.
This mixtape is half all-time favorites and half contemporary locals, which to me totally exude “New York.” I left off many of my actual favorites for the sake of avoiding the obvious and out-of-place, but these songs are all steeped in my memories of bumming around the East Village in high school and floating around today’s Brooklyn DIY scene. Download the entire thing right here, or stream Side B below.
1. Eric B. and Rakim – I Know You Got Soul
2. Blondie – Fan Mail
3. Bob Dylan – Talkin’ New York
4. Arthur Russell – That’s Us/Wild Combination
5. Sonic Youth – Bubblegum
6. Swans – God Damn the Sun (Live at WNYU 1987)
7. Richard Hell & the Voidoids – Blank Generation
8. Suicide – Rocket USA
9. Shangri-Las – Leader of the Pack
10. Jeff Buckley – Je N’en Connais Pas La Fin [
1. La Big Vic – FAO
2. Widowspeak – Harsh Realm
3. Crystal Stilts – Crystal Stilts
4. The Babies – Meet me in the City
5. Holy Ghost! – Wait and See
6. Woods – September with Pete
7. Black Dice – Glazin’
8. Vivian Girls – Damaged
9. Coasting – Coasting
10. Juliana Barwick – Choose
Side A kicks off with one of my favorite tracks from Eric B. and Rakim, who, like me, were transplanted from Long Island to E. 4th and Broadway. I can remember exactly where I was the first time I heard the smooth, golden beats and scratches of Paid In Full: the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts near Lincoln Center, reading about the album in a dusty, faded SPIN back issue. I’d been living in the city for just a year, and “It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at” was exactly what I needed to hear as I dealt with my morphing New York identity. Another highlight here is a live recording of Swans playing “God Damn the Sun” live on WNYU, July 1987—in the last ten seconds, catch Gira thanking Hilly Kristal for “doing what he’s done for us at CBGB’s.”
I tried to avoid the obvious, but I couldn’t help including a few. Blondie, Richard Hell, and especially Jeff Buckley are, for me, the musical equivalent of that part of Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That” where she talks about what New York was like for her “before she knew the names of all the bridges,” when everything was still exotic and unfamiliar. They remind me of my romanticized 15-year-old notions of the city.
What I love most about this playlist is how traces of Side A can be found all over Side B; when I took Bryan’s “Downtown Scenes” class last summer, I couldn’t help consistently drawing parallels to New York’s underground music culture today. If you’re into music, nothing’s more enthralling than your own times. At least when you’re 21 in a place like New York.
Starting up Side B is “FAO” from retrofuturistic Brooklyn band LA BIG VIC, which includes New York native Emilie Friedlander on vox/violin, guitarist Toshio Masuda of Osaka, and synthesist Peter Pearson. Emilie is editor of two music websites, Altered Zones and Visitation Rites; Toshio previously performed in a major label J-Pop boy band; and Peter is an apprentice to Pink Floyd’s former live sound producer, Jeff Blenkinsopp. They’re the type of band that could have only formed in New York.
Also of note here is “September with Pete” from Woods, whose place at the center of the Woodsist label makes them poster-children for my generation’s NY music culture. (Not to mention that, at the drummer’s recording studio, Rear House, sessions “usually start with a conversation about the first Ramones record.”) I love the sense of community that seems to circle Woodsist, the cultural importance of which I first felt in ’09 at the inaugural Woodsist/Captured Tracks festival. “September with Pete” also features Pete Nolan of Woodsist band Spectre Folk.
Repping the Captured Tracks camp here is the young band Widowspeak, whose debut “Harsh Realm” 7” is like a more magnetic Mazzy Star. Where indie rock and pop is concerned, Side B has also got The Babies, Vivian Girls, and Coasting. Coasting is Madison Farmer (of Dream Diary) and New Zealand-transplant Fiona Campbell (drummer for Vivian Girls), who met while working at DIY shows in Brooklyn.
On the slicker side of the spectrum is Holy Ghost!, a disco-inspired duo of Manhattan natives who take more than a few cues from New York scenes of the 70s and early 80s. Their debut LP was released this year on James Murphy’s label, DFA — who also released early LPs from the experimental electronic group Black Dice. I like to think of my life’s milestones in terms of live music events, and seeing Black Dice (who grace Side B with 2009’s “Glazin”) at Bushwick venue Market Hotel in 2008 certainly makes the cut. I was 18 and living on the Upper West Side, and it was my first time at Market Hotel; I had no idea where I was, and the kids at the shows were all so hip, they looked like aliens to me.
My undergrad course (Downtown Scenes) is reading material on and from Yoko Ono, John Cage, and others for this afternoon. We’ll be talking about conceptualism, minimalism, Fluxus, Happenings, and the like. Here’s the hillbilly minimalist and philosopher Henry Flynt recalling his introduction to the proto-Fluxus performances at Yoko Ono’s loft, a series curated by the composer La Monte Young. He has quite a bit to say about Young, John Cage, Nam June Paik, the downtown scene in general, and the place of the avant garde in the late 20th century.
You’ll find several other “Henry Flynt in New York” pieces on YouTube. Flynt pops up later in our course when Arthur Russell invites him to perform at the Kitchen in the ’70s.
- New Common-Place has a piece on NYC's 19c anti-smut (and later anti-birth control) reformer Anthony Comstock: http://common-place.org #
- Tomorrow evening, W Oct 6, our @CambridgeUP Comp to NY Lit contributor Eric Homberger will be giving a @tenementtalk: http://ymlp.com/zlH634 #
- @theatrescene Very much looking forward to THE DRUNKARD @metplayouse. We'll have a big contingent in the house on the 10th! in reply to theatrescene #
- Great piece by @jennpelly in @nytlev on a newly released Ginsberg/Arthur Russell collaboration, "Ballad of the Lights": http://bit.ly/cOabIw #
- #ff our daily downtown must-reads: @evgrieve @boweryboogie @jeremoss @TeriTynes What would downtown/NYC blogosphere be without them? Boring. #
- Lost castles on SI, vanished fish mkts in Harlem, Poe in the Bronx, sculpture science in LIC, threats to Coney Island: http://bit.ly/am38mi #
- w00t @caleb_crain! RT @asteger RT @huffduffer: ☞ Melville's Secrets http://bit.ly/cPzgeG #
David Byrne gave a TED Talk last February, which has now been posted online. TED is a nonprofit organization that devotes itself to what it calls “Ideas Worth Spreading.” It started in 1984 as a conference that brought together leading practitioners from the worlds of design, entertainment, and technology. It now sponsors two annual conferences — the TED Conference in Long Beach and Palm Springs each spring, and the TEDGlobal conference in Oxford UK each summer — as well as a number of other programs.
Speakers who are invited to give TED Talks “are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes).” Here’s how Byrne describes his talk:
My own talk (it wasn’t a musical performance) was based on the idea that the acoustic properties of the clubs, theaters and concert halls where our music might get performed determines to a large extent the kind of music we write. We semi unconsciously create music that will be appropriate to the places in which it will most likely be heard. Put that way it sounds obvious … but most people are surprised that creativity might be steered and molded by such mundane forces. I go further — it seems humans aren’t the only ones who do this, who adapt our music to sonic circumstances — birds do it too. I play lots of sound snippets as examples, with images of the venues accompanying them.
The talk makes a nice follow-up to our Faculty Resource Network seminar on the idea of “Lost New York,” because Byrne (a crucial member of the downtown scene that we discussed in our consideration of the work of Arthur Russell) talks about the relationship between architecture and music. He even begins with CBGB, which cropped up frequently last week.
Tags: David Byrne
Bryan and I began our third seminar for NYU’s Faculty Resource Network, which sponsors a variety of week-long programs each summer for faculty from affiliated colleges around the country. The subject of our seminar this year is “Lost New York“:
Has New York always been a lost city? On the heels of the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s voyage for the Dutch and the 200th anniversary of Washington Irving’s legendary reimagining of this New World encounter in his Knickerbocker’s History of New York, this seminar will explore the dynamics of creativity and destruction, nostalgia and invention, that have for centuries marked efforts to represent life in New York City. Readings and discussions will address the relationships between the literary imagination and the archives, between migrations and displacements, between loss and remembrance, and between preservation and development in the long and storied history of one of the world’s greatest cities. We will focus our analysis on two famous cultural moments in the city’s history — Greenwich Village Bohemia and the Harlem Renaissance — and explore the ways in which our approaches to uncovering forgotten urban pasts might serve as a methodological foundation for the exploration of urban modernity more generally.
In the end, we decided to cut back on the reading we planned for the course, making it less literary and more interdisciplinary. We’re featuring three guests: David Freeland, the author of Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure; the documentary filmmaker Ric Burns; and the architectural preservationist and Brooklyn maven Ward Dennis.
Our group includes literary scholars, librarians, architects, historians, and a scholar of immigration and public health. During our morning session, we used NYU’s Founders Hall and the old Penn Station to open a discussion of the dynamics of creation and destruction, nostalgia and counter-nostalgia, and the politics of preservation. We showed an excerpt from the seventh chapter Burns’s New York documentary (which we will be showing in its entirety on Wednesday morning in preparation for his visit) and then two scenes from the second episode of the third season of Mad Men, in which Don Draper’s ad agency (on the wrong side of history once again) proposes to represent the Mdison Square Garden Corporation, which is bent on tearing down Penn Station.
The afternoon presented a case study in the loss and recovery of a figure from New York’s downtown scene, the avant-garde cellist and pop musician Arthur Russell. We showed the biopic Wild Combination and afterward Bryan contextualized Russell’s work by linking it not only to the downtown music scene and Allen Ginsberg, but also to Frank O’Hara and his successors. My favorite insight of the day came from seminar member Alma Vinyard, chair of the English Department at Atlanta Clark University: that O’Hara’s poem “The Day Lady Died,” which recounts the poet’s activities on the day that Billie Holiday passed away, might appeal to today’s college readers because it resembles a Twitter feed!
Tomorrow we’ll be talking with Freeland and joining him in the afternoon for a walking tour of Harlem. Stay tuned.
When I first thought of teaching an intensive summer seminar on New York’s downtown scenes — which I just wrapped up last Friday — I planned only to teach the 1970s. Gearing up to write my 33 1/3 volume on Television’s Marquee Moon, I wanted to immerse myself in a broad range of materials from the period detailing a number of overlapping downtown arts scenes.
I quickly realized, though, that much of what I wanted to do with the 70s in class required some understanding of the area’s arts scenes in the 1960s, and so I decided to expand the timeframe to 1960-80. When the final reading list was drawn up, I’d reached back even further: I had a hunch that the work of some particular downtown arts pioneers who created seminal works in the 1950s — Allen Ginsberg and John Cage, especially — would become threads that would weave through the entire course.
Turns out I was right in both cases, but especially in Ginsberg’s. (Other people whose work proved to have lasting effects on the downtown scenes we discussed include O’Hara and Warhol.) Almost without fail, Ginsberg turned up in every day’s discussion over the course of our two weeks, either as a direct influence, a character, a mentor, or a commentator. His appearances ranged from the goofy parka-wearing, pot-smoking version of himself in Pull My Daisy to the author of Howl (which in turn authorized The Fugs’ memorable “I Saw the Best Minds of My Generation Rock”) to the prophet wandering in the background of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back. Jonas Mekas captured him plotting with Barbara Rudin and other LES lefties in the 1960s (we watched the second reel of Walden) and as a fixture on the LES poetry scene he popped up in several of the pieces we read by our friend Daniel Kane. Ginsberg offered astute commentary on Dylan’s lyrics in a PBS documentary on the history of rock and roll. He provided a very memorable scene in Jim Carroll’s memoir Forced Entries, worked with — and claimed to deflower — the downtown composer and scene-crosser Arthur Russell, and befriended Patti Smith. He lived in the same building as both Russell and the members of Television. (Richard Hell still lives there.) In Steven Sebring’s Patti Smith: Dream of Life, which was the very last thing, along with Smith’s Just Kids, that we considered for this course, we see Patti’s very emotional reading at a Ginsberg memorial; later in the film she chants the “Footnote to Howl,” offering all the evidence anyone should need that even Ginsberg’s most idiosyncratic work holds up under someone else’s voice.
I’m still trying to work out exactly what it was that made Ginsberg’s legacy so unique in the materials we discussed. Although I opted not to show it to the class, I privately viewed a late-1980s odd-ball documentary on East Side poetry, Maria Beatty’s Gang of Souls: A Generation of Beat Poets, in which nearly every poet interviewed, including younger writers and musicians such as Richard Hell, Lydia Lunch, and Jim Carroll, singles out Ginsberg as the towering figure of twentieth-century New York writing. Cage’s influence on musicians and artists, by contrast, was subtle, almost imperceptible, though still very much in place. Perhaps Ginsberg seemed to matter because he offered such a clear model for how to make a scene and how to canonize one’s comrades. But he also seemed to matter because he was, quite simply, on the scene for so long, taking an interest in younger writers’ work (and more), offering advice, continuing to read in public. O’Hara mattered as an icon in his early death (and a pioneer of a poetics that clearly took hold among other New York School poets); O’Hara also drew young, aspiring poets to the city, but that hands-on influence was cut short. Warhol mattered as a media mastermind and behind-the-scenes manipulator. But Ginsberg just seemed to be there wherever we turned, presiding, prodding, provoking. In the history of late-twentieth-century New York writing it’s difficult, I’m finding, to come up with someone whose life and work had broader impact.
Cyrus R. K. Patell and Bryan Waterman
The Project on New York Writing seeks to generate significant new research and teaching about New York’s relationship to American and global literatures and cultures. We adopt a broad definition of “New York writing” to include writing by New Yorkers, writing that takes New York to be its subject or setting, or simply even writing produced in New York. We use the term “writing” in contradistinction to the term “literature,” because the Project’s purview will extend beyond the genres of poetry, fiction, drama, and literary nonfiction to embrace such other textual forms as music, journalism, and nonfiction of all kinds.
Interdisciplinary in its approach to literary and cultural studies, the Project examines the evolution of New York City as a literary construct, as well as the city’s emergence and continual reinvention as one of the country’s—and the world’s—premier sites of literary and cultural production. Seeking to understand how New York’s cultures, its history, and even its physical spaces might be understood to function as texts that respond to modes of literary analysis, the Project seeks to demonstrate that literary scholarship can provide vital contributions to urban studies within a wide range of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.
New York University is already a significant location for scholars and teachers who work on New York writing. The university’s Fales Library, with its Downtown Collection, has become the leading site for the study of New York’s mid-to-late-twentieth century avant-garde culture. NYU offers courses in a variety of departments related to New York literature and culture, and it currently reaches out both to high school students (through initiatives that originate in the Steinhardt School of Education) and to professors at teaching colleges in the area and around the country (through the efforts of the Faculty Resource Network). Reaching beyond the University, the Project aims to collaborate across academic and archival institutions in the greater metropolitan region and to disseminate new scholarship widely, both throughout New York City and around the country.
The Project will offer students of New York literature and culture resources with which to interpret the palimpsest that is New York, to help them make sense of the myriad narratives that the city generates. One of the Project’s chief aims is conservancy: we hope to preserve the history of New York writing for future generations. But another aim is the promotion of innovation: we hope to encourage all whom the Initiative serves to add to the living culture of city, reading and rewriting its narratives, enlarging the literary construct that is New York.
The Project’s founding event, a conference and Fales Library exhibition on the theme “Lost New York,” was held at NYU in the fall of 2009, with support from the Department of English, the NYU Humanities Initiative, and Fales Library and Special Collections. The Project also co-sponsored a follow-up conference, “Kiss Me Again: The Life and Legacy of Arthur Russell,” directed by Sukhdev Sandhu.
Current publications include a volume of essays that accompanied that “Lost New York” exhibition (see below) and The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York, edited by Project co-directors Cyrus R. K. Patell and Bryan Waterman.
Future Project activities include an expansion of undergraduate and graduate course offerings devoted to the history and culture of the city, building on the success of the department’s signature undergraduate course, Writing New York; a publication series that will include both new scholarship and annotated editions of classic New York literary texts; and additional conferences, including a major event in 2014 to mark the fortieth anniversary of the birth of the New York City punk scene.
Affiliated faculty within the English department include Thomas Augst, Jacqueline Goldsby, Cyrus R. K. Patell (co-director), Sukhdev Sandhu, Lytle Shaw, and Bryan Waterman (co-director).
LOST NEW YORK, a conference (October 2-3, 2009) and Fales Library exhibition (October 2 – November 6, 2010). [Download the essay collection that accompanied the event here.]