[John] Cage’s definitive refutation of Beethoven came in the form of an epic, almost daylong performance of Erik Satie’s piano piece Vexations. The original score is only a page long and would normally take just a minute or two to play, but at the top appears this instruction: “In order to play this motif 840 times, one would have to prepare oneself in advance, and in the utmost silence, through serious immobilities.” Cage took this sentence at face value, and, on September 9 and 10, 1963, at the Pocket Theatre in New York, he presented Vexations complete. A team of twelve pianists played from 6:00 p.m. until 12:40 p.m. the following day. The New York Times responded by sending a gang of eight critics to cover the event, one of whom ended up performing. In the audience for part of the time was Andy Warhol, who remembered the experience when he made an eight-hour film of the Empire State Building the following year.
Cage was the fifth pianist to perform; John Cale was the fourth.
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.
See Tim Lawrence’s richly detailed Hold On to Your Dreams, pp. 130-37, for an account of this record’s origins. Find a download link here.
It’s a question I find myself asking every summer. Here’s this year’s answer:
Cyrus and I are both away this week with limited ability to post. If you want to get a leg up on something, though, I’m re-reading Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City over the next couple weeks and am toying with the idea of an online discussion. Sound like something you’d be into?
We’ve decided to make our guest playlists a regular feature of the blog, and to kick off that series — or to continue the one we ran leading up to the release of our 33 1/3 volumes — we turn to an alum of a prototype for our Writing New York course. In the fall of 2001, one of the first two courses I taught at NYU was a small honors seminar called “New York Writing,” which contained a decent amount of material that would eventually wind up in the course Cyrus and I would launch together a couple years later.
Nicholas Taylor is an editor and writer from Long Island, now living in Seattle. I advised his undergraduate thesis at NYU on Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground, and the downtown 1960s NYC scene. He has also written on music and culture for Pop Matters, the Park Slope Reader, New York Spirit, and Cinemit. Find out more here.
Lou Reed is the James Joyce of New York. It seems he has made it his life’s work to understand this place that defies understanding, to provide snapshots of meaning in a place that often feels both meaningless and too full of meaning. From what brings outsiders to the city to the challenges and enticements encountered there, Reed’s work covers the gamut of the NYC experience.
“Smalltown,” by Lou Reed and John Cale, from Songs for Drella (1990). This tale of Andy Warhol’s odyssey from Pittsburgh to New York beautifully captures what draws creative misfits from all over the world to New York. Here he focuses not so much on the greatness of the city but rather on the suffocating dreariness of the small towns that people leave. “I hate being odd in a small town / if they stare let them stare in New York City / at this pink eyed painting albino / how far can my fantasy go?”
“Rock and Roll,” by Lou Reed, from the live album Rock and Roll Animal (1974). The more optimistic version of the coming to New York story. Jenny isn’t persecuted and shunned like the gay Warhol in the Rust Belt; rather, she’s suffering from your more run of the mill suburban ennui. Here, New York, as the source of the rock and roll music she hears on the radio, is her Emerald City, the shining jewel on the horizon that promises something better. She’s not seeking home so much as heaven. “Then one fine mornin’ she puts on a New York station / she couldn’t believe what she heard at all / she started dancin’ to that fine fine music / you know her life was saved by rock and roll.”
“Sheltered Life,” by the Velvet Underground, demo recording from the Peel Slowly and See box set (1995). Another version of Jenny and Andy, this time more whimsical and innocent, romanticizing all the experiences one can have in the big city. As a fellow Long Island to New York transplant, I know exactly where he’s coming from. “Never walked about on the streets at night / never got into an uptown fight / never smoked a hookah, never saw a rug / couldn’t even squash a beetle bug. . . . I know it’s true, / guess I’ve lived a sheltered life.”
“I’m Waiting for the Man,” by the Velvet Underground and Nico, from The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967). . This is where the sheltered life starts to not look so bad. In this reinterpretation of the classic flâneur narrative, Reed pulls back the curtain, taking us on a voyeuristic tour of the city’s seedier side. Notice how the song’s rhythm mimics the subway train this neophyte would surely have taken up to Harlem to score drugs. “I’m waiting for my man / twenty-six dollars in my hand / up to Lexington, 125 / feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive.”
“Walk on the Wild Side,” by Lou Reed, from Transformer (1972). In his quintessential song, Reed paints a portrait of the Warhol Factory scene as a bunch of Jenny’s and Andy’s—they’re drawn the city by the desire for freedom and excitement, which they get, though they also experience a lot that’s not in the brochure, as it were. Reed positions the city’s allure as a siren song, enticing outcasts from all over the world, though the they may not like what they actually find. “Candy came from out on the Island / in the backroom she was everybody’s darling / but she never lost her head / even when she was giving head / she said, “Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side.”
“Street Hassle,” by Lou Reed, from Street Hassle (1978). Reed comes full circle. He’s no longer focused on why out-of-towners come to New York, but rather just on what happens to them once they’re there. Even though this song is gruesome, the elegiac beauty of the music makes me think this is no morality tale. Instead of passing judgment of these denizens of the night, Reed finds the grace and drama of all the ways of life New York offers—even the ones most of us would probably rather avoid. “But why don’t you grab your old lady by the feet / and just lay her out in the darkest street / and by morning, she’s just another hit and run / you know, some people got no choice / and they can never even find a voice to talk with that they can even call their own.”
Sometime soon we’ll make a return to regular NYC lit and culture blogging. This week we’re still caught up in launching our 33 1/3 volumes on Some Girls and Marquee Moon.
Tuesday morning we’ll be live on This is the Modern World with Trouble, which runs from 9 am to noon on WFMU. Our conversation with Trouble will happen sometime around 10:30 and last for a half hour or 45 minutes.
Although we’ve had our head in 1970s NYC for the last year or so, we’ve been really keen on launching the books with a live music event that celebrates the sounds of our own moment. We hope these give you an idea why we’re so excited about these particular acts:
We are also planning a more festive launch party with live music from the current BK scene in Williamsburg on 6/26. We’re still working out details on that event and will post updates as soon as we have things finalized.
You can also tune in to hear us on WFMU the morning of Tuesday the 28th, where we’ll be talking with DJ Trouble about the NY scene in the 70s and perhaps even spinning some tunes related to our books. Find that at 91.1 FM or at wfmu.org around 10:30 that morning. Comment or post questions live as we go and we’ll do our best to respond.
We hope to see and/or meet many of you at one, two, or three of the above. Catch you on the airwaves/Internet for the fourth.
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.
This week, to mark the release of our volumes in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, we continue our series of guest playlists from friends, critics, and fellow music lovers. (Check back late afternoons: we’ll probably be posting two a day.) Given that both our books focus on New York in the 70s, we’ve asked contributors to curate lists along the lines of a loose theme: “favorite NYC records.” What constitutes a “NYC record” is left to their discretion.
NYC soundtracks: bart plantenga, Wreck This Mess, Amsterdam
In 1998, I co-produced a 5-hour radio show on Radio Patapoe in Amsterdam with 2 fellow DJs Ron and Grrrrt from Jonges van de Vlakte [Boys from the Plains] during which we attempted to circumnavigate the globe via 170+ geographical location songs: “Amsterdam” by Jacques Brel, “Moi Mon Paris” by Renee Lebas, “Cannes” by Edwin Rotten & Martine Rotte Dweil, “San Tropez” by Pink Floyd, “Per Le Strada di Roma” by Puerro Piccioni, “Upper Egypt” by Pharoah Sanders, “Abu Dhabi Check” by Mad Professor vs Puls Der Zeit, “Timbucktu Express” by African Head Charge, “Hong Kong in Stereo” by Yummy Fur …
The thing was, we could’ve spent hours “in” Paris and NY. There are probably many reasons why there are so many songs about NYC and Paris — some of which are honorable, enthusiastic, and laudatory, while others may be more sycophantic or opportunistic such as built-in airplay or esteem by association. Some may be hyperbolically respectful, oozing civic pride or nationalism even. So more often “New York, New York” than, say, Gil Scott-Heron’s “New York is Killing Me” or middle period Lou Reed, when he was just getting crusty enough to be indignantly grumpy on songs like “Dirty Boulevard,” where he takes on the betrayal of promise head on.
In any case, city songs require a few designated landmarks that anchor them to a particular place. A street, club, or building name may instantly evoke a thousand memories, a confluence of mind’s eye film footage flooding past… And what about wordless songs that evoke the ambiance of the city?
1. “New York USA” by Serge Gainsbourg
Strangely enough for you, not me, my favorite NY song is by Frenchman Serge Gainsbourg [Tim B. already beat me to it!] A perfect song, jungly rhythms of a cosmopolitan/Parisian version of an Olatunji song and great lyrics (“I’ve seen NY / Never seen anything like it / I’ve never seen anything so high / it’s all high in NY”) and then listing the names of some skyscrapers: “Empire State Building, oh, it’s so high” Rockefeller Center, International Building, Waldorf Astoria, Pan-American Building, Bank of Manhattan, Time and Life Building, American Hotel, C.B.S. Building, R.C.A. Building like a concrete mantra … Serge is a unique French performer who did it all; there is no one like him in Anglo culture: part Leonard Cohen, Dylan, Dean Martin, Kerouac, Oscar Wilde… Excellent 1964 video [during the Scopitone heyday] with Serge hanging from a skyscraper ledge, singing. A magical remix: “New York U.S.A.” Snooze vs Serge Gainsbourg. Snooze hits it head on.
2. “ Tribeca” by A Certain Ratio
Here is a live, sloppier rendition of the very pristine acr:mcr [A&M 1990] version by this great white funk band from Manchester, UK. In the same category as Liquid Liquid, Rip Rig & Panic, Pop Group, early New Order… I like lyric-less songs about NYC that evoke the sound and feel of the city [Charlie Parker et al.] Here we have serious grooves oozing ironic frivolity driving a sense ignored existential gloom. The Manchester studio version just feels like a hot day on the city streets, humane and percussive with shimmering hints of street ambience.
It’s not exactly why I moved to NYC but this great declamatory clenched fist manifesto did help justify/motivate the move. “I’m gonna get out of here, I’m gonna get on that train, / I’m gonna go on that train and go to New York City / I’m gonna be somebody, I’m gonna get on that train, go to New York City, / I’m gonna be so big, I’m gonna be a big star and I will never return …” And of course she was right.
4. “O Little Town of East New York” by Shelley Hirsch
This brilliant full-CD memoir by this gifted vocalist evokes vivid, visceral, highly poetic images of growing up in East New York, Brooklyn. Hirsch’s repertoire –- which includes abstract vocals, storytelling, comedy, local accents, memoir, urban history, and singing –- is perfectly equipped to handle NY’s hectic audio overload and make some [non]sense out of it.
OK, this is such a simple idea, weave together a 15-min. yarn of radio weather forecasts to create a true sonic, rapid-fire logorrheic tapestry of NY -– especially in the morning on snowy/stormy days -– and the human/NYer preoccupation with weather reports. So simple it’s genius. I once produced a similar but less-brilliant, piece “Trafficante Onosphere,” and what surprised me was how winter weather reports remixed can evoke a certain apocalyptic angst. Despite the motormouth velocity of Licht’s composition, these weather reports have a kind of meditative effect – soothing and mesmerizing. Also: Charlie Morrow, “Central Park 1850” and Central Park 2007” on Toot, XI, 2011.
This afternoon’s installment in our NYC-themed playlist marathon comes from Jonathan Williger, WNYU and #wny11 alum and founder/proprietor of the Brooklyn-based label Blackburn Recordings. (Pelly Twins interview from early 2010.) He writes: “I was trying to write little blurbs about each one and then remembered I’m not a music writer. hopefully this is a nice change of pace.” Follow Jonathan on Twitter at @blackburnrecs