NYC rekindles its love affair with its outlaw past
by Richard McLachlan
Iggy Pop, many times life-size on a video billboard, looms over Times Square watering his lawn. Well, someone’s lawn. He’s holding a hose. It has water running out of it. He waggles it, desultory, with the bare hint of a smile, aged torso bared, turning a trick for H and M. The clothing chain has made a video about how you should wear whatever, or look however, the f**k you like.
Right now, there’s a thing about downtown Manhattan in the 1970s and ‘80s, a lot of talk about an era that still resonates powerfully. Plenty of people in this city, still walking around and breathing in and out, were very involved in the world below 14th Street.
They danced at Studio 54 or the Mudd Club, watched Iggy, Patti Smith or the Dolls perform at CBGB’s, scored drugs in Alphabet City, got mugged there, and saw Keith Haring’s drawings freshly made on the blank advertising spaces in the subways, or Basquiat’s graffiti on Lower East Side walls. And, of course, had friends and acquaintances who began to die mysteriously in the early ‘80s.
But that scene, the downtown demi-monde, is over. AIDS, Ronald Reagan and skyrocketing property values were all markers of its demise. It’s a still-potent 30-year-old memory.
Last month T magazine published a piece by Edmund White called Why Can’t We Stop Talking About New York in the Late 1970s? In it he refers to a city on the verge of bankruptcy (‘on its knees’, they like to say), but also more ‘democratic’, in that people shared a certain common ground: a decaying and dangerous urban environment from which even money couldn’t entirely insulate the wealthy. That has changed so far in the other direction that it seems there may soon be, following LAX’s example, a purpose-built air terminal just for celebrities at JFK international airport.
The low rents and availability of spacious industrial lofts allowed people to pursue ideas, stage events, and risk failure, while less constrained by high living costs. This facilitated a sort of loose community with opportunities for face-to-face contact, and the inspiration that generates.
White says this is much more difficult today, as soaring rents push such people out to fringe areas like Brooklyn’s Bushwick. This too is changing. Rents in Bushwick rose 13% last year, pushing the price of a one-bedroom apartment up to around $2000 per month.
In 1974 a law was passed making it legal to live in the Soho lofts. In 1982 the Centers for Disease Control officially gave a name to a new and mysterious disease that had appeared among the city’s gay community, 13 years after the Stonewall Riots. That’s a piece of time right there, during which the downtown scene flourished in a particularly intense way.
But by 1974 the Velvet Underground was already finished, and Keith Haring didn’t even leave art school until 1980. He died from AIDS in 1990. It’s hard to stick a meaningful pin through a continuum like this.
An excited blurb for The Downtown Book, a series of essays to accompany a 2006 exhibition of work from that period, describes an attitude that “forever changed the face of America.” When New Yorkers make claims like that, you really have to query how far they have travelled beyond the western bank of the Hudson. But there’s no doubt the downtown scene it describes had a big impact in many places, some a very long way from the Lower East Side.
Living 14,000 kilometers away in rural New Zealand, my signals from downtown New York took the form of intermittent beeps, as if from a distant planet. But the impact was undeniable. A late 1970s documentary on punk, providing fugitive images of apartment buildings and darkened streets, made it to national TV while I was living in rural Wairarapa. The music sounded great, the people were indeed cool – but being 22 at CBGB’s was an experience hard to conjure among shearing sheds, dog trials and Young Farmer of the Year awards.
Around the same time, a documentary on street graffiti arrived (I think this link is the right one), filled with shots of New York subway trains covered from end to end with fat lettering in tropical colors and interviews with young graffiti writers. This seemed to have an almost immediate impact on blank walls in New Zealand.
In the early 80s in Colville (again surrounded by sheep and cows), Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens transported a roomful of us, as if in a space capsule, from our more-or-less wholesome rural valley to the dark and exciting source of those other-planetary transmissions. [Seidelman later made Desperately Seeking Susan and, more recently, episodes of Sex in the City]
The Chelsea Hotel, while not technically downtown, is certainly part of that scene. The city’s first apartment cooperative, it was the tallest building in New York when it was built in 1884. Its architect designed accommodation and studio space that would meet the needs of painters, writers, musicians, filmmakers, and other artists.
Its past residents include Mark Twain and Arthur C Clark, who wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey there, Tennessee Williams and Simone de Beauvoir, Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Dylan, various Warhol superstars, songwriters and guitar players – right down to sad ole Sid Vicious and his murdered lover Nancy Spungen. It’s a long list.
Many past denizens of the Chelsea represent what Edmund White identifies as “a cultural flame that passed to New York from Europe with all the refugees in World War II….. (that) now feels as if it’s been doused.”
White’s ‘doused cultural flame’ may not be illuminating a specific scene on the Lower East Side any longer, but neither is New York the Euro-centric domain that phrase implies – and it hasn’t been for a long time. Other civilizations, cultures, and artistic traditions have their home here among the immigrant communities in the city. And they are much more than exotic source material for an artistic tradition passed from Europe.
Some nights you can see and hear three or four musical traditions on a single platform at one of the bigger subway stations – music plucked from enormous strung gourds with a huge sound, or struck on hardwood xylophones, both from – what can I say? – “some country in Africa”. Three plastic buckets (picked up from outside a restaurant kitchen in SoHo) and a pair of drumsticks are all that’s needed for incredible drummers to draw big crowds with people dancing on the platform. There might be an elderly East European man playing violin under the stairway to the upstairs level, and a young African American woman playing electric guitar through a tiny amp in a supermarket trolley.
I don’t know who they are, or where they come from. Mostly their tradition and where they fit into it is foreign to me. I don’t know whether they represent that tradition’s mainstream, or are part of a subculture that is changing that. Or whether the mainstream in question is so challenged by US pop cultural homogeneity that they themselves have become the subculture.
In my neighborhood it’s possible to hear virtuoso Indian musicians play in the living room/recording studio of a local resident devoted to streaming that music to the world. You can hear jazz in a space with just a few chairs and a bathroom, and not believe you are in an audience of only five people, the music is so good.
Maybe these are just luminous fragments, artifacts of global migration, and apartments so small that if you want to practice or perform, you need to head for the subway platform. Maybe they’ll remain fragments; maybe they’ll cohere into a scene, something someone gives a name to. Either way it doesn’t diminish their luminosity.
White reports that back then, “everyone who read Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine knew one another, and yet this small world had a lasting influence on American taste and music and painting and poetry and amusements.”
The mainstream and its defiant, destabilizing fringe is only one part of a story that has exploded into a world that is very different from 1974. I have no doubt White’s face-to-face encounters ‘necessary for the exchange of ideas’ still take place – in the East Village, yes, but also elsewhere.
Brooklyn’s Williamsburg is firmly associated with new music, and niche production of food, drink and clothing styles. But they are saying that Williamsburg is dead, that it’s all about Bushwick now. It’s everywhere. People are producing art and running galleries in many neighborhoods (including Bushwick and other parts of Brooklyn), reading prose and poetry in bookshops and cafes, putting on burlesque shows, performing on the street and in the subway, playing new music in tiny venues and in people’s houses. Comedy is huge and happening everywhere. People are reanimating old school jazz, bluegrass and folk music in bars and performance spaces all over the city.
And one day for sure, somewhere, The Ramones and the Dolls will be brought back to life in the same way, in dive bars in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Those places don’t die easily.
The 1969 movie Midnight Cowboy shows a Times Square of junkies, hustlers and peep shows, as it was before Rudi Giuliani’s ‘zero tolerance’ cleansing of mid-town; before the legislated stopping and frisking of random black men, and before broken windows policing selectively criminalized the impoverished – making the city safe and comfortable for those renting the apartments and the now desirable lofts.
The garbage collection strike of 1981 saw rubbish piled two stories high in some places. Daytime muggings on the street were commonplace. The subway cars were covered with graffiti and cops patrolled inside the cars.
That has all changed. The lighting is still bad on the Lower East Side, but it doesn’t really feel dangerous to walk the streets there at 2am. The people now writing books about that era, when you couldn’t get a cab to take you to Alphabet City, marvel at the difference. CBGB’s is now a high-end men’s clothing store.
The Chelsea Hotel is about to reopen after five troubled years of renovations, and struggle between tenants and developers [Inside the Dream Palace. 2013. Sherill Tippins]. Who knows how it will reincarnate, but it’s unlikely to be a home for artists with not much money.
The subway trains are shiny clean inside and out now, although there is an old car covered in graffiti functioning as a display space in a flash uptown shoe store. The last vestiges of evidence for a street graffiti culture seem to have disappeared with the destruction in 2013 of the extraordinary 5 Pointz, a huge outdoor repository of graffiti in Queens.
All is not lost though. Just months before he died, Keith Haring took toilet graffiti to Olympian heights with a mural called Once Upon a Time. It covers the walls of the men’s room of the LGBT community center on West 13th street. This spectacular work of lust and coition is described in the NY Times as a ‘priapic panorama’. They did manage to isolate a single non-tumescent image from among the tangle of bodies and genitalia to illustrate an article in the Times.
Now Times Square is an open-air movie theater of retail and finance, available to whoever has the money to advertise there – but it had better look cool. Thousands of tourists gather on the plaza where, in exchange for tips, they can have their pictures taken with Elmo, Spider-man, or Minnie Mouse, or women with their naked breasts painted in red, white and blue (causing a brief moral panic a few months ago). All this is blessed by the avuncular smile of Iggy Pop watering his back lawn, as his image alternates with that of other actors doing and looking whatever, and however, the f**k they want.
It’s hard to imagine, as the effects of wealth metastasize across Manhattan and Brooklyn and apartment and studio rentals become prohibitive, how it is possible to make art and survive here. Downtown veteran, David Byrne sees the 1 percent stifling creativity in New York because it is just so difficult for the middle class to live here any longer, let alone those who want to make art.
He celebrates the immigrant contribution to the city’s vibrancy but would also like to see a more egalitarian and inclusive approach rather than ‘virtual walled communities’ he calls ‘pleasure domes for the rich’, leaving little room for ‘fresh creative types’.
But it is always possible to live, work, and perform in the cracks left by the wealthy, and the art takes new and different forms. There are still places like our Brooklyn neighborhood, with flourishing immigrant communities, where the $10 an hour proletariat can survive in a retail economy that caters to their needs.
At a sold out Beacon Theater concert recently, Patti Smith celebrated the 40th anniversary of her debut and hugely influential album Horses. And at this year’s New York film festival we saw Laurie Anderson’s new lucid and beautiful movie, Heart of a Dog. There are two mature artists from that time whose influence continues to be felt in music, literature, and movies.
It’s clear that sex played a very big part in the downtown scene in those years, both as a creative force and as a shocking and very early introduction to mortality. A show, Alone at Last, just opened on the Lower East Side. It uses video material shot in 1981. Fifty-two women and men of different predilections were encouraged to stand in front of the camera and do their thing to seduce the viewer. It’s a compelling idea that is seductive in a peepshow, touch-the-screen-to-choose-the-object-of-your-desire kind of way. After 34 years interactive technology is now up to realizing the original vision, although the red booths with the curtain in front are still decidedly retro.
One of the artists, Emily Armstrong, says of the work, “People who have seen it feel that it’s a very interesting depiction of that culture, that moment, because it was truly a moment. Soon after it was shot, people realized what AIDS was. So having a lot of sex for pleasure was completely redefined: having a lot of open sex was suicide. Things really changed, really fast.” A number of the video’s actors died from AIDS, that’s true, but the show’s opening was also dotted with middle-aged but still recognizable seducers drinking wine and chatting happily to their friends.
And as for the death of the downtown scene – creative movements are never static. Here’s Robert Crumb from a couple of years ago, “it’s always the end of some era in New York. They’ve been saying that about New York since before the Civil War.”
Editor’s Footnote : For some nostalgic footage from New York’s good old/bad old days between the 1960s and mid 1980s, here’s “ The Guardian Angel is Watching Over Us” by the Golden Flamingo Orchestra, a tribute track to NYC’s subway crime prevention vigilantes. Apologies to all concerned for the Ace Frehley reference in the headline to this story.