downtown scene

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This week I begin teaching two summer courses, both of which are outgrowths of the Writing New York course I team-teach each year with Cyrus.

The first is an undergraduate seminar called “Writing New York: The Downtown Scene, 1960-1980.” I pioneered it last summer as a way to get me in an appropriate frame of mind to work on my book for the 33 1/3 series. It’s a 2-week intensive seminar: four hours a day, five days a week, for two weeks. It’s baptism by immersion, and by the end of the second week we certainly feel like we’ve been through a full semester.

My second course this summer will be a graduate seminar called “New York in the Age of Warhol.” Compared to the undergraduate course, this one will have  luxurious pacing, spread out over six weeks. This is still quite a bit faster than a seminar in the regular semester, though, meeting twice a week whereas in the regular semester we’d meet once.

The two courses share over 90% of the same readings, which is one way I can keep this load manageable. They begin with some seminal figures on the downtown scene — Ginsberg, O’Hara, Cage — and end with Patti Smith’s glance backwards in Just Kids. I’m going to be curious to see, though, what effect the course title has on our discussion. What will it mean to foreground the concept of “scenes” over any particular personality? Or to define an era by the influence of one figure — Warhol? The grad seminar will have a heavier dose of Warhol, it’s true: we’ll read Popism in full and even tackle “his” novel, A. In my 33 1/3 book on Television’s Marquee Moon I consider, following the critic and filmmaker Mary Harron, the long shadow Warhol cast over the downtown underground rock scene, even as some bands (including Television) eventually sought to define themselves by breaking with the Warhol-influenced glitter scene that preceded them. Implicit in my account, I think, is my own sense that we’ve not yet escaped the Age of Warhol. Will we ever?

Over the next six weeks I’ll have more to say here. I’ll also be using the Twitter hashtag #downtown11 to indicate material relevant to our discussions. Feel free to follow along and join in as you’re inclined.

Photo: CBGB Pinball 1977, by Bob Gruen.

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The Marquee Moon project I’ve been working on in earnest for the last several months has given me occasion to read an enormous amount of music journalism from the scene at large and also the excuse to spend countless hours on YouTube looking for stray footage that’s survived and been made public.

Here are a couple clips I find quite compelling. They’re united in their indebtedness to simple rock and roll structures, though the Suicide track obviously pushes the boundaries and reimagines the form a little more forcefully than the rather straight-forward Mink DeVille song. But the acts are related as well by their mutual impulse to define themselves against the band Television, who were clearly, from 1975-77, kings of the scene. Tracks first, talk later:

Here’s Willy DeVille ragging on Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell (and the Ramones, for good measure) to NME in August 1977:

The first time Mink DeVille played CBGBs they opened for The Ramones and before the show they almost got into a rumble with them. “What a buncha fuckin’ pussies, man! ‘Punk Rockers’ and we’re antagonistic!” Maybe Mink were just a bit too real – or maybe the Ramones just felt threatened: “We used to play double bills with the Ramones and end up in fisticuffs. It is a very competitive scene in New York and as soon as the contracts started floating around everyone started getting edgy.

“Yeah, the Blank Generation – I understand what guys like Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell are talking about, but they’re fuckin’ rich kids from private schools in New Jersey. Personally I live close enough to the void that I don’t have to flirt with it. Once I walked around the streets for a coupla months thinking I was dead – but I couldn’t remember dying.”

And here’s Suicide’s Martin Rev, interviewed for the book Suicide: No Compromise, on their disconnect with the CBGB’s scene:

I was never close with either Television or Patti. The only conversation I had with any of their members was one occasion with Richard Hell, who once at an after-club party told me how much he dug Suicide. He also asked me to join his new group, the Voidoids, which he was forming when he left Television. He seemed genuinely disappointed when I avoided coming to the early rehearsals. I told Hell, I have a band, it’s Suicide.

Turns out Television was indirectly responsible for Suicide cutting its first single. Rev again:

I heard that there was a Television single on the jukebox at Max’s. I asked Tommy if we could put a single in the juebox and he said, “Yes.” I took a tape of “Rocket USA” and “Keep Your Dreams” to a guy on 48th Street. We cut two copies of the single and I put one on the jukebox. That was our first record.

The quality of the vinyl, apparently, was negligible. These were meant to be cheap pressings to pass to labels. After a while on the Max’s box, the sound started to deteriorate, but somehow that seemed fitting for Suicide’s general aesthetic. Recalled Peter Crowley, the booking agent at Max’s: “It just added another layer of sound.”

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artbook_2029_38437712.jpgWatching Wild Combination last week, I had my curiosity piqued by references to a club called Tier 3. I’d heard the name before, but never really paid too much attention — it seemed third tier to more famous (and more fully chronicled) places like Mudd Club, CBGB, etc. More references turned up last week, though, in a book I bought as a Christmas gift for a friend: Soul Jazz Publishing’s New York Noise: Art and Music from the New York Underground, 1978-88.  (Review here. Fun fact: I once played in a band with someone featured in the volume.)

I’m sad to admit I didn’t even know where Tier 3 was located. So I poked around. God bless the internets.

Turns out it was an early TriBeCa club, West Broadway and White, that catered to post-punk/new wave acts, a lot of them British acts that provided the soundtrack to my teenage years in faraway rural Arizona. Post-punk photo chronicler Eugene Merinov has a set of Bauhaus photos online from a 1981 gig.

Must be something in the air right now about Tier 3 nostalgia; the current issue of the online music magazine Perfect Sound Forever has a profile on the club by Andy Schwartz, based primarily on an interview with founding booker Hilary Jaeger. The piece is part of an ongoing series about defunct NYC venues. Hilary recalls the club’s origins:

I was waitressing at the L&M Coffee Shop, at
Second Avenue and 10th Street, and I had a friend named June
Giarratano. Her mother, Kathleen Giarratano, and Kathleen’s friend
Maureen Cooper somehow got the lease and the liquor license for Tier 3.
June told me they needed a waitress, and I started working there in
March or April 1979… TriBeCa at that point was just a no-man’s-land.
There was hardly anybody there.

You walked up a few steps to enter the place, and
the bar was on the right-hand side of a sort of narrow room. We built a
DJ booth to the left, and behind that a couple of booths with bench
seating. The whole space was divided by a half-wall, so you could see
over and into the rectangular space where the bands played, to the left
and a few steps down. Because of how low the ceilings were, the stage
was only about ten inches off the floor and maybe fifteen feet wide.

I don’t who named it Tier 3, but in fact it did have
three levels. The second floor was a more brightly lit room with tables
and chairs. People didn’t really go to the third floor–there were
bathrooms up there, and a disco ball, and in the very beginning there
was a DJ booth there. At some point we showed films there, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. God knows what else went on up there!

There were really very few places to play in
Manhattan at that moment–basically C.B.G.B., Max’s, and Hurrah. The
Mudd Club was open, but I don’t think they were doing a lot of live
bookings at the time. My sister [singer Angela Jaeger] was in bands and
my friends were in bands and I was completely involved in music. Tier 3
was obviously an auspicious space in which to do something.

New York acts featured regularly: dB’s, DNA, The Stimulators, The Bush Tetras, 8 Eyed Spy with Lydia Lunch, The
UK bands included the Raincoats, the Slits,
the Pop Group, Delta 5, Young Marble Giants, A Certain Ratio, Bauhaus, and Madness.

All this talk about new wave in TriBeCa reminded me of the great little 10-minute film Soul Jazz included on their ACR compilation Early a few years back. It intersperses footage of the band banging out beats in their TriBeCa loft with a performance at Hurrah’s, the famed “punk disco” venue on W. 62nd Street. The YouTube embedding is disabled; link here.

ACR’s MySpace page has this recollection of the early 80s downtown scene:

In late 1980, the [band relocated] from post-punk Manchester to the
hustle-bustle of the Big Apple, New York City. Romantic Mancunians love
to ponder the similarities between the two cities, the skyline over
Hulme, the great canals running through the cities (born from their
mutual industrial heritage), the fantastic nightlife. Realistic Mancs
know the score — Manchester is fuck-all like New York, but it looks
good in print. The band played gigs with local funk-machine ESG, along
with a fledgling New Order and a little known support act by the name
of Madonna.

For the intellectually and musically curious, our friends at Fales Library and Special Collections have compiled a set of resources for studying the scene.

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