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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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As Annie announced on Tuesday, she and I will be posting Q&A’s with our Networked New York conference panelists over the next few weeks.  Speakers will elaborate on their work and questions the conference raised for them. Next up: Marvin Taylor, the Networked NY keynote speaker and Director of the Fales Library & Special Collections at NYU.

In your keynote, you emphasized that the Downtown Collection embraces materials that defy conventional “archival” designation and that in doing so, offers a model for how libraries, museums and other cultural institutions might relate more productively to one another.  Can you elaborate on the kinds of interpretive or categorical flexibility you’ve internalized or identified with the Downtown Collection?  What insights has it generated about defining “the archive” that might be applied more broadly?

There are two common processing strategies for archival materials: the literary and the historical. The literary model emphasizes the construction of literary works and the importance of biography to literary interpretation. These collections tend to be personal papers of authors, “personal papers” being the term for individual’s collections and “archives” the term for organizational papers. The literary model organizes materials according to various “series” or groups of like materials such as journals, diaries, correspondence, manuscripts, photographs, audio, video, etc. The emphasis in processing is on the draft versions of manuscripts that ostensibly show the process of the creation of a literary work. The historical model tends to be chronological and to look at the “great names” of history as a means of determining which correspondents, for instance, are more important than others when it comes to level of detail in “processing,” i.e. organizing and describing the collections. These traditional models do not work for artists’ papers, for instance—and perhaps never really worked all that well for literary and historical collections.  Artists work in very different ways. Objects are much more common in their creative process and serve as source materials. Traditionally, archives have shied away from collecting non-paper-based materials because of storage, lack of preservation expertise, and difficulty in describing such items. Of course, this is a prejudice within the epistemology of library and archival practice that is self-perpetuating. The same rationale removes all media from its context within a collection and all photographs to separate divisions of archives, if the materials are even collected in the first place.

At Fales we process all the materials from an artist’s collection together in the “finding aid” so that the intellectual organization of the artist’s materials is maintained. We separate the materials for storage, of course, but we are committed to maintaining the artist’s intellectual organization. My favorite example is David Wojnarowicz’s Magic Box. [See photo]. Wojnarowicz kept this old orange crate under his bed and didn’t tell anyone about its meaning, even his partner, Tom Rauffenbart. It contains about 80 objects, including a primate skull painted Klein blue, a plastic dog, a cloth snake, a metal globe, a crucifix, and other various objects. If you know Wojnarowicz’s work, you find physical representations of his set of symbols and metaphors that he uses in his painting, photography, films, and writing in the box. This is the very kind of thing that most archives would not accession or would refer to as “realia” and not describe in any detail. For me, the Magic Box is essential to understanding Wojnarowicz’s artistic practice and central to the collection. We borrowed descriptive methods from museum practice to accession each object in the box as a part of the whole, so there is a number for the box itself, a “parent record, and each object within it has a number as a “child.” We are able to blend these styles of description because of the flexible nature of Encoded Archival Description (EAD) that is used now as a standard to create finding aids. For me, each time I bring in a collection that confounds typical archival practice, I am reminded that libraries and archives are grand narratives of culture that impose the epistemology of their time onto materials rather than merely describing those materials. Downtown art questioned these structures of culture. Downtown collections query the library and archive in the same way. To adequately represent downtown work, I have to constantly be careful not to let the systems of the library and archive undermine the disruptive qualities of downtown work. This disruption that downtown work causes should make us look at all library and archival systems for their inherent modes of power and control.

Your talk included two especially striking phrases. First, described the Downtown Collection as offering a “genealogy of outsider practice.”  You also talked about needing to see punk’s shaping of the downtown scene as a geography and a metaphor.  Beyond the beauty of their language, these phrases also get at the heart of how the Downtown Collection re-imagines the cultural work that archives can do.  Can you say more about what these phrases mean to you?

I hope I didn’t say “punk’s shaping of the downtown scene as a geography and a metaphor.” What I meant to say is that I see the Downtown Scene as both a geographic and a metaphorical space. Punk would be a subset of the larger culture of that time period. I have never hidden the fact that I admire critical theory. I find literary work that does not engage with it unsatisfying. At the same time, I detest literary work that is jargon-ridden and intentionally obtuse. Time and again I have found that the work of the post-structuralists is very helpful to me as a librarian who thinks about the larger philosophical issues of how knowledge is created, how it is structured, how it is documented, how we collect it, how and what we preserve, and how power is displaced across time in the preservation of knowledge. The process of accreditation that libraries maintain is rarely questioned, but it should be. The post-structuralists taught us how to look at master narratives, interestingly, none of them looked at the library as such a structure. I’ve spent a lot of time doing just that. I found that special collections and rare book libraries were one of the most conservative and most heavily politicized places in library history. Book collecting and connoisseurship go hand in hand. Many people think of rare book and manuscript libraries as the lofty heights, off-limits to ordinary students, where only the most seasoned scholars are allowed through the locked doors. This was not the kind of special collection I envisioned. I wanted to document cultural moments as completely as possible so that whatever critical fad was in fashion, there would be resources for students and faculty to use for primary research. The downtown scene provided me with the perfect subject matter for just such a project. It also had the benefit of being our “neighborhood” collection and of supporting departments as varied as performance studies, American studies, drama, photography, English, art history, museum studies, and a host of others. To get around the connoisseurship model I devised a strategy for collecting that was based, in part, on geography. Anything that happened in downtown NYC, that is, below 14th Street, was game for acquisition. Of course, not everything below 14th Street was really “downtown” material, so some things that were not a part of the various scenes has been left out. (Post-twelve-tone chamber opera, for instance, didn’t make the cut.) And many things that are not downtown geographically are very “downtown.”  Think Dennis Cooper’s papers. So, my vision of downtown is primarily a geographically centered one that also has a metaphorical component. Anyone sharing the same sets of concerns as downtown artists might be included in the downtown collection, even if they were not primarily involved in the scene. The archive, as I conceive of it, can comprise much more cultural material than has traditionally been the case. And it should. Archives should be catalysts for change.

 Given your experiences with the Downtown Collection and other collections at Fales, what parts of the story would you say scholars sometimes miss when they use archives to tell the stories of subversive artistic or creative networks? Where should we be directing our attention? 

Archives are the fossil evidence of human experience. They are necessarily stripped of the quotidian context in which they were originally embedded. The practical, the daily, the mundane aspects of a person’s life may not be evident from the remains of their artistic practice, but they may be incredibly important to a more complex understanding of the artist’s life, work, and the broader cultural milieu in which he or she lived and worked. My best example is not from downtown, but from the scholarship on Oscar Wilde. Richard Ellmann’s monumental biography of Wilde is a thoroughly researched and masterfully written authoritative tome. There is one major part of Wilde’s life that Ellmann neglected to research thoroughly enough: his daily writing for Women’s Day—his day job. The archival materials about this are at the Henry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin. I find it very interesting, for instance, that Wilde may have been the first person to write about women’s fashion as an expression of “lifestyle” instead of merely discussing dresses and current fads. It seems to me perfectly aligned with his own self-fabrication and with the theme of self-created personalities that runs throughout his work. One can conjecture that Ellmann found the story of Wilde’s queerness in sexual terms, more interesting and more important for the focus of his biography, but there is another story about the working, family man that needs to be told along side the more sensational narrative.

At the opening of your talk, you gestured to the artistic and political communities beyond punk whose work gets documented by the Downtown Collection—especially the ephemeral traces and performative strategies of radical feminist and queer artistic activism.  What other material traces from other New York-area communities, movements or networks lurk in the collection? 

There are many other communities documented in the Downtown Collection. One very important one is artists’ collectives. SoHo was the breeding ground for artists who were trying to break the cycle of the commodity art world. By working together as collectives, groups such as the A.I.R. Gallery, Group Material, RepoHistory, Godzilla, and Artists Space created new possibilities for artistic production and display. Similarly, experimental theater collections such as Richard Foreman’s and John Vaccaro’s papers, and the archives of Mabou Mines, Eye and Ear Theater, Ohio Theater, Ubu Reporatory Theater, and Split Britches provide a window into downtown theater. Another subspecialty is public art. Such collections as Judson Memorial Church, Public Art Fund, Joyce Pomeroy Schwarz, and Creative Time reflect this community. Artists who use media make up another category with collections like Guerilla TV, Jaime Davidovich, Paper Tiger, and Deep Dish Television. Queer communities are represented by papers of Jay Blotcher, Alan Klein, Bill Bytsura, Lee Snider, Fred McDarragh, Frank Moore, Dennis Cooper, David Wojnarowicz, Gary Indiana, David Trinidad, Tim Dlugos, the Gay Cable Network archives, and many others. AIDS decimated the downtown scene.  Many of our collections reflect this devastation. Similarly, topics such as gentrification, drug abuse, sex work, police brutality, homelessness, performance art, experimental poetry and fiction, experimental music, installation art, postmodern dance, experimental film and video, and a variety of others are found in the collection. All of these areas have been collected intentionally to show the wide, overlapping, and cacophonous mess that was the Downtown Scene.

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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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A post from last year that rounds up our Patti-related content on this site (and a little bit elsewhere as well). Since then, we took note that her 2010 memoir, Just Kids, won the National Book Award.

Most of what I have to say about Television I’ve saved for this project, due out in June, as most of our readers and/or Twitter followers undoubtedly know (#shamelessselfpromotion #seeadontheright). Our students have a couple preview chapters to make their way through this week and may come out knowing more than they ever wanted to about CBGB arcana. Over the last year or so I’ve posted a few related items here: some memories of Club 82, the drag venue on 4th St. that played co-host to early punk alongside CB’s and Max’s. I mentioned some selections from the CBGB jukebox, along with some of Television and Patti’s rival bands. I embedded a clip of Television performing in the Chinatown loft that was their rehearsal space (1974, w/ Richard Hell). For more, stay tuned. I’m sure Cyrus and I will both have plenty to post leading up to the June release date for both our volumes.

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In keeping with the 1977 flashback that’s dominated our late-summer “Don’t Ask Me to Blog, I’m on Vacation” posts, here’s an interview with John Holmstrom and Legs McNeil, founders of Punk Magazine, conducted by an Austrailian teen TV show, Flashez. It has a few regrettable silent spots in the soundtrack.

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We’ve had quite a bit of content on Patti Smith over the last however many years we’ve been running this site. She’s one of the figures from the downtown scene to whom we devote extended attention in our Writing New York class; students are expected to read Philip Shaw’s 33 1/3 volume on Horses, to search out and study the lyrics online, and to listen carefully to the album.

Our supplementary material on her and on the broader scene has been broad-ranging. I’ve linked to material I posted on another blog some years ago that offered a thumbnail of the trajectory from the Beats to the Punks that we’re tracing in this unit. On that same blog I prompted a discussion of Smith’s controversial song “Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger,” placing it in the context of racial cross-imagination or appropriation we’ve discussed throughout our course. On the PWHNY side of the fence, I once posted an entire Rolling Stone interview from 1978 in which she talks extensively about her use of the N-word and her understanding of cross-racial solidarity in the experience of dissent and alientation. (She talks about a lot of other things as well.) And I wrote up a quick review of Patti Smith: Dreams of Life, the documentary by Steven Sebring, from which I showed a few clips in today’s lecture.

For fun, last year, I also compiled a video playlist that traced the interlinking histories of Beats, 60s downtowners, and 70s punks, and we linked to another site with some great photos from the scene back in the day. All of this stuff should be useful — or at least interesting — to our students or to those with an interest in the downtown scene in that era.

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This is basically my next two Writing New York lectures in a nutshell, though I give a little more credit to Dylan along the way. The ending seems apropos to the recent passing of Malcolm McLaren.

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Last night we planned to see the new Woody Allen film (though they never bill them as the new Woody Allen films these days). Turns out we had the dates wrong and it doesn’t open until Friday, so we caught a quick cab down the street to Film Forum where the Patti Smith movie (mentioned here earlier by Cyrus) was already a few minutes in progress. From what I understand we missed some opening footage of horses, horses, horses, horses.

The audience was made up mostly of fans (like me), judging from the appreciative response.  If you plan to see it but don’t know the basic outline of her career, I’d suggest reading Sharon Delano’s New Yorker profile from several years ago, which isn’t on the magazine’s site but may be accessible here or via Lexis-Nexis if you have an institutional subscription.

patti smith dream of life.JPGPatti Smith: Dream of Life is an impressionistic film, dreamlike (as the title would suggest), alternating between candid moments and short, tightly composed sequences rather than offering a traditional documentary narrative. We get a sprinkling of early footage, lots of photos from the 1970s, some memories of CBGB and the Chelsea Hotel, but this isn’t an account of her rise to stardom so much as a portrait of her return from retirement. She gets the important details out of the way fast via a sometimes stiff voiceover: Living in Michigan for 16 years with her husband Fred “Sonic” Smith and their kids, Jackson and Jesse, she’d been a homebody rather than  the punk rock icon she’d transformed herself into by 1975. When Sonic died in 1994, she decided to return to New York and to performing, her kids in tow, and she hasn’t stopped since.

The movie, which involved over 10 years of filming,  has only the barest hint of chronology, and even then it relies on you to recognize her kids as teenagers and then as early 20-somethings, as it toggles back and forth through those ten years. She mentions musician friends who helped her return to the public — Dylan, Michael Stipe — but the comeback isn’t really what anchors the narrative. Rather, the film grounds itself via two recurring sequences. First, she announces that she’s sequestered herself in a corner of her bedroom until the film is finished. Sitting there, she unpacks boxes of mementos — a guitar given to her by Sam Shepard, her favorite childhood dress, her son’s baby shirt from the hospital, an antique Persian urn containing a portion of Robert Mapplethorpe’s remains — and uses them as touchstones for reflections on her life.

The other pattern is weirder, and is what I think really makes the film: The woman loves graveyards. If Smith’s self-conception as a Romantic poet isn’t evident enough to her fans, the point is hammered home here. She sees herself as an Artist in a genealogy that stretches from Blake to Shelley to Whitman to Rimbaud to Picasso to Ginsberg and Corso and Burroughs to Jackson Pollock and Bob Dylan to herself.  These folks provide her with sacred texts that govern her cosmology; they also structure her world travels. She references all of them over the course of the film; she also visits most of their graves — and in the case of Rimbaud visits his outhouse for good measure.


There’s little in this world that could be more Romantic (in the capital R sense) than visiting graves of the poets, unless you want to go the Gregory Corso route and actually have yourself buried at your master’s feet (we find him, in the film, buried as close as he could get to Shelley). When I asked, during a Q&A with the director, the fashion photographer Steven Sebring, about the tension between the film’s emphasis on “life” (as in her life after the death of her husband) and its preoccupation with death and cemeteries, he made the point that Smith very self-consciously shapes her living in relation to loved ones and heroes dead and long gone: when she travels to a city she often books her hotel in proximity to a graveyard she wants to visit. “She seems to know where everyone’s buried,” he said.

The subject of literary tourism (and “necrotourism” in particular) has its own minor publishing cottage industry in the academy, one which interests me professionally. But it’s rarer to find someone who carries on the practice today to the extent Smith does. She defines herself in relation to the dead — family and friends, but the writers who shaped her personal and artistic identities (which clearly can’t be separated for her). In our jaded, 21c world, it seems a little ridiculous: identifying as a Poet (black hood and cloak and all), taking appreciative rubbings of headstones, scribbling in notebooks everywhere you go, never getting tired of William Blake. But Smith comes to figure, in the film, as an alternative not simply to contemporaries like George W. Bush (whom she indicts in high style late in the film) but to those members of her generation who gave birth to postmodernism as well. She comes off not simply as the last great Romantic but as someone who advocates Romanticism as a way of life — as a way through life. As much as the film relies on graveyard scenes, we find these visits (and her reflections on fallen friends) giving her the strength to survive her husband.

None of this should suggest that the film lacks when it comes to music. It’s not a concert film, and some of the music will be unfamiliar to those (again, like me) less familiar with her recent work than with her classic recordings. But from her punkrock reading of the Declaration of Independence to spittle-laden, vein-popping renditions of “Land” and “Rock n Roll Nigger,” the film reminds you that, contemporary peace activist or no, this woman still earns every bit of her title as the Godmother of Punk.

Smith appears in person at select screenings this week and next; see Film Forum’s website for more details.

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