downtown scenes

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tv2In Martvch 1974, a band called Television — Tom Verlaine, Richard Hell, Richard Lloyd, and Billy Ficca — played both their very first show (at Townhouse Theater on W 44th) as well as their first gig, a few weeks later, at a dive country and bluegrass bar on the Bowery recently renamed CBGB + OMFUG. They were not a country or bluegrass band. Within months CBGB had become a mecca for new music, underground rock and roll by New York’s unsigned bands, including The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and the Patti Smith Group. This is where punk rock was born.

Several events this week commemorate punk’s 40th anniversary:

Thursday, March 20, 7 pm, at The Strand, 828 Broadway: Richard Hell in conversation with Bryan Waterman, marking the pbk release of Hell’s autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp. [open to public]

Thursday, March 20, 6pm, third floor, Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South New York University’s Fales Library and Special Collections presents the GoNightclubbing Video Lounge, a multi-media installation curated by Pat Ivers and Emily Armstrong paying tribute to the infamous Danceteria Video Lounge, which they created in 1980. [open to public]

Friday, March 21 through Sunday, March 23, 11 am to 1 pm, Silver 401, NYU: “Punk and the City,” a three-day seminar as part of the annual American Comparative Literature Association meetings. Twelve presenters on a range of related topics, from Latin American punk to Pussy Riot. [registration fees apply]

so so glosSaturday, March 22, 7 pm, Great Hall at Cooper Union: Punk Turns Forty: A Plenary Sponsored by the American Comparative Literature Association and the Fales Library. Part I: Brandon Stosuy, editor at Pitchfork, interviews Richard Hell; Part II: Avital Ronell moderates a panel with Vivien Goldman, Kathleen Hanna, and Tamar-kali. [Free admission at 6:30 for ACLA conference attendees and at 7:00 for the general public, as space allows]

Saturday, March 22, 10:30 pm doors, Judson Memorial Church, 55 Washington Square South: So So Glos, with Household and Arm Candy, a concert to benefit Silent Barn. [$5-$10 sliding donation; all-ages]

Sunday, March 23, 5 to 8 pm, The Panther Room at Output, 74 Wythe Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn: Classic Album Sundays presents Television’s Marquee Moon. Presenter: Bryan Waterman, author of Marquee Moon (33 1/3 series). [Tickets: $10 at the door or online here]

 

 

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From Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise:

[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.

Previously. And.

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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.

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.

Previously. And.

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For the past couple summers I’ve taught two versions of the same course, though with separate titles and a few tweaks that suggest multiple possibilities for ordering the material we examine. The undergrad version of the course is called Downtown Scenes, 1960-1980. It grew out of a lecture I’ve given several times in the Writing New York course Cyrus and I have taught since 2003. I also used this more specific course — which is a 2-week summer intensive, meeting 4 hours/day for 10 days — to help me prep for writing about Television’s Marquee Moon. The grad version of the course is called Literature in the Age of Warhol. It also focuses primarily on the downtown scene in the 60s and 70s, though in this version Warhol is more pronounced as a defining figure in the era. The first time I taught the undergrad version, Ginsberg emerged as a link between several of our readings. Here are a few links to prior material on the blog, especially about Ginsberg.

So is there something more to be said here about defining these decades variously as an Age of Ginsberg or an Age of Warhol? (For what it’s worth, I think we’re still living in the latter.) Are there other figures you’d suggest had as strong an impact on underground literary and artistic subcultures? I’m just waiting for either one of these fellows to get a cameo on Mad Men.

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Downtown Body

Ward Shelley, “Downtown Body,” 2008. View an enlarged image here.

More on the Downtown Body Project here.

Thanks to Hannah Smith for pointing me in the direction of this print.

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Reblogged from the excellent Dangerous Minds — the BBC4 documentary Once Upon a Time in New York: The Birth of Hip Hop, Disco, & Punk (2007):

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Happening from Django's Ghost on Vimeo.

From Ubuweb: “An irreverent portrait of America of the 60s seen through the experiences of artists of the Beat Generation and Pop Art. The America of the Vietnam war, ploughed by contradictions and explosive social tensions but potentially saturated with expectations for the future. With: Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Gregory Corso, Marie Benois and Leon Kraushar.”

From the Ginsberg Project:

“The prophecies of Marinetti are coming true some of them, the wilder, more poetic ones”, so, gleefully, declares Allen in this quintessentially 1967 documentary film by Antonello Branca, What’s Happening? What, indeed, is happening? Poets and painters and a brash New York City just for that moment in time and space come together. Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg candidly speak (Andy speaks!). Allen appears first (around six and a half minutes in) being interviewed as he walks along the street and then (circa 3o minutes in) is seen holding forth at a street cafe. Gregory Corso makes a cameo appearance right at the very end (with a baby!). He gets the punch line. “War makes people crazy”.

“We have all come here together. Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground, poet Gerard Malanga, over here, if you move your camera, poet Ed Sanders of a rock n roll group called The Fugs [unfortunately mis-translated on the screen by the Italian translator as The Fags!]..over (t)here, Tuli Kuperfberg, a poet and singer in The Fugs, over there, writing at the table. Peter Orlovsky with the long hair, who is a poet and also a singer, behind him, his brother, who was in a madhouse for 14 years. He’s a superstar of the Underground. Oh, and Jonas Mekas, Jonas Mekas, head of the Filmmakers Cooperative. He’s the one who puts together films like Flaming Creatures and The Brig and sends them around Europe and in America, the impresario. He also makes films, which he’s doing now.”

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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.

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This afternoon my Downtown Scenes class was fortunate enough to take a walking tour of the East Village (or a portion of the Lower East Side, as he would have it) with Cary Abrams, a long-time teacher, friend of PWHNY, and affiliate of the Lower East Side History Project.

At the outset Cary shared a quote from Alfred Leslie, who moved to the Lower East Side following WWII and took up a career as an artist. Tomorrow we’ll watch the famous film he made with the photographer Robert Frank, Pull My Daisy (1959), and think about it alongside the poetry of the Beat icons who feature as actors in the film. For today, Cary wanted us to think about people who walked these same streets in past eras. To that end he quoted Leslie:

There’s an essay at the end of Thoreau’s Walden on the pleasure of walking. I can’t recall it exactly, but it went something like this: “I wish to speak a word for walking and for wildness, for taking little walks along unmapped paths, like the saunterers of old….” After the war, the wild was no longer nature, it was the city. You had the feeling that you were starting out on a journey that had no end in sight, and from which you’d never return. There was an element of danger in it, and of psychic and primitive power…… Everything was accessible, if you went after it…. And it was particularly so on the Lower East Side which was like an abandoned part of the city.

We’re not sure where the quote comes from. (Does anyone out there recognize it?) I tried finding it on Google Books to no avail. Cary says he took it from the placards attached to the fence on the Second Avenue side of St. Mark’s Church, which we passed today on our walking tour. Wherever it comes from, it’s a terrific quote, encapsulating the thrill of walking in the city in a particular moment of time whose echoes are barely audible to us.

Photo of Alfred Leslie, 1960, by John Cohen, from Artnet.com.

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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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