New York’s Glitter and Grime
Suddenly Jim felt very awake and no longer in a sedated Carpenters tribute album kind of mood. Inside his head, a projector fired up, casting moving pictures against the back of his skull, a New York movie reel flickering into life. CBGB’s, Max’s Kansas City, silver balloons floating around Andy Warhol’s factory, basement art galleries and yellow cabs cruising around while dark and unspeakable things happened in their back seats. Dark and smoky clubs in which garage bands bashed out buzzy blues and rock covers.
Away from the shiny happy psychedelic people on the West Coast was the biting cold of the East, where art and rock combined with the junkie scene that endured from the early jazzers to Lou Reed and beyond. The look, the sound, the danger, and the low brow character that has made the New York scene a definition of cool again and again—the records sitting in his shop were testament to this fact alone.
When the children of the West Coast were busy putting flowers in their hair the underside of New York was descending into the murky realms of the junk and transvestite scenes. When just about everyone else was pulling on their flared pants and frilly shirts members of the New York underground were pulling on their skinny jeans and black leather jackets. When everyone else was obsessing over manufactured boy bands and teen idols the New York anti was asking, “Is this it?”
Jim spent much of his adult life marveling at records just like the Doll’s first album and yet he still was never been able to pin point what made the New York scene so cool and why a teenage girl in England would want to don the t-shirt of a band that disintegrated after two albums 30 years previous in a place far, far away. Without question there was a vibe underlying it all, something uncountable that went deeper than mere songs about jacking up.
The internal movie reel continued. New York as a tale of two cities, the one presented on the records of the Velvets, the Dolls and the Ramones, all of them giving little musical vignettes of the dark and dangerous metropolis that sat in complete disparity to the mainstream presentations of glitz and glamour, Frank Sinatra and all the rest. Audrey Hepburn sitting down to breakfast in a Fifth Avenue jewelery store with a cat draped around her shoulder, while on 53d and 3rd a young man tries to turns tricks to buy his next fix. The old Times Square of transvestite prostitutes versus its recent Disneyland face lift; the ultra dark undercurrent against the sickly sweet gloss, the rotting underside of the Big Apple, dark sunglasses shielding tormented eyes from the harsh realities of the cold streets the morning after. Sure enough, every New York diamond had its rough.
The movie reel ended suddenly. The girl was still browsing, yet now she was into the swing of it, no longer nervously leafing through the records jammed in the racks but instead digging into the crates beneath, where the real gems where to be found. Jim turned and stole a glance at the shelf that ran along the back wall of the shop behind the counter.
An altar of memorabilia, a haven for his most prized trinkets, safe from grubby hands was his favourite: a Johnny Thunders action figure. As far as he knew only nine had ever been made and to find one intact with the miniature replica of Thunder’s banana yellow 1958 Gibson Les Paul Special was paramount to placing ones hands upon a first edition of the Old Testament. Saint Johnny, hallowed be thy name.
Leather jackets and torn off t-shirts and then later dressed like a suave Broadway star with enough hair wax to cause an oil spill of apocalyptic proportions, a vicious guitar tone and a ferocious heroin addiction to match, the original junkie punk prototype for your all the Sid Viciouses and Pete Dohertys that followed. The stark contrast of New York right there, the ungraspable cool, a distillation of some evanescent force, the fumes rising from the bonfire of the New York vanities
“(They Long to Be) Close to You” faded into Bettie Serveert’s version of “For All We Know”. Jim wheeled around and began rummaging through a stack of crates that sat up against the back wall of the shop beneath the Saint Johnny alter. He franticly dug through a box of dog-eared records, pulling out one with a black cover peeling at the edges, bearing an image of the Gothic picture show that was Lou Reed in the early ‘70s. He grasped the edge of the record with finger tips and whipped it out of both the cardboard cover and paper inner sleeve.
Shuffling over to the hi-fi stack, he flipped the plastic lid on the record player, carefully aimed the central hole of the LP over the stainless steel knob in the middle of the spinning platter, and laid it down. Carefully picking up the stylus arm with his thumb and fore finger, he guided it over the record, counting the deep grooves like valleys cutting into the crust of some obsidian alien planet. Hovering the needle over the fifth groove closest to the centre he carefully lowered the needle while pressing a button marked “phono” on the amplifier.
“For All We Know” was abruptly replaced by a silence punctuated with crackles as the needle rode its way across the record. A faint barely audible hiss emanated, a sound that Jim had learned to cherish, the sound of an LP about to begin its song. Then came the first low slung note of one of the most famous bass lines ever recorded , followed by gentle strummed guitar and brushes stroking against drum skins, Lou Reed’s voice echoing out of it all,
Holly came from Miami, F.L.A,
Hitch-hiked her way across the USA,
Plucked her eyebrows on the way,
Shaved her legs and then he was a she…
The glitz, the glamour and the wild underside of New York, it was all laid out right there. The girl did not glance up from the copy of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures she was handling, but Jim saw the corner of her mouth creep into a smile. She started to tap one over sized Nike in time with the song’s hypnotic beat. Jim smiled and gulped down the last of the cold coffee.