Love Goes to Buildings on Fire

Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever

by Will Hermes

18 November 2011


Voracious Eaters of Music

In his autobiography, John Cale writes about being busted for selling opium when he was working for Young. Of course, by 1973 drugs were a part of every music scene, for players and listeners both. When I started sixth grade that fall, my friend Ron’s older brother, a music fanatic, offered to smoke some of his “Acapulco Gold” with us if we’d alphabetize his vast LP collection. We did, and he did. I didn’t get high, but filing all those records had a lasting effect.

The New York artist who played most spectacularly to Rockwell’s “newly meditational mode of perception” was in fact not a musician. It was the playwright Robert Wilson, who in December presented The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Fort Greene. The work ran from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. A casting call in the theater column of the November 15 Soho Weekly Newsread:

Robert Wilson is looking for 32 dancing ostriches, over 100 sleepwalkers (experienced and non-experienced), bears, mammies, fishing ladies, apes, a pregnant woman, a Wilhelm Reich- and an Alexander Graham Bell look-alike for his latest epic… Anyone interested (no professional experience of any kind necessary) may call Mel at 966-1365 or stop by Wilson’s Soho studio, 147 Spring St., this Thursday night from 8–12.

Philip Glass, a composer also interested in extended forms, was in the audience for one of the performances with a friend and a bag of sandwiches. At the cast party/breakfast afterward, Glass and Wilson met for the first time and hit on the idea of working together.

Glass was born in Baltimore in 1937; his dad had a radio repair shop that also sold records, both classical and popular. He began studying violin at age six, and followed a conventional prodigy path through to Juilliard. He detoured in 1964 to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and also worked with the sitarist Ravi Shankar, transcribing his music. By the time he returned to New York City in ’67 and reconnected with his old classmate Steve Reich, he was ready to make a new sort of music.

Throughout ’73 Glass worked on Music in Twelve Parts; by the time he completed it in ’74, it was around four hours long. He frequently presented his music in Sunday concerts in his loft at 10 Elizabeth Street, just off Bleecker. Glass and his players would sit in a circle around a ring of electric organs, surrounded by audience members, most either seated cross-legged or lying on their backs on the hardwood floor, eyes closed.

John Rockwell describes a ninety-minute performance of an earlier work, Music in Changing Parts, that spring at the loft of Glass’s pal Donald Judd, the sculptor:

Glass’s ensemble that night played with the spirit and precision that only years together can bring. The music danced and pulsed with a special life, its motoric rhythms, burbling, highly amplified figurations and mournful sustained notes booming out through the huge black windows and filling up the bleak industrial neighborhood. It was so loud that the dancers Douglas Dunn and Sara Rudner, who were strolling down Wooster Street, sat on a stoop and enjoyed the concert together from afar. A pack of teenagers kept up an ecstatic dance of their own. And across the street, silhouetted high up in a window, a lone saxophone player improvised in silent accompaniment like some faded postcard of fifties Greenwich Village Bohemia. It was a good night to be in New York City.

The chugging rhythms of Music in Changing Parts were a sharp contrast to La Monte Young’s sprawling drones, the same way the New York Dolls stood in opposition to noodling psychedelic guitar jams. It’s as if the pulses and beats of ’70s sounds were necessary to march music out of the miasma of the late ’60s. Music in Changing Parts unrolls sustained pitches roughly the length of a loooong breath—by trumpet, violin, voices, flutes, and saxophones—over a rigorous electric-organ pulse. There’s some improvisation in the drone placement, and some psycho-acoustical magic going on too, the way chords rise up like ghosts from the typing-pool swirl of keyboard patterns.

Glass’s attitude toward recording, and commerce in general, was also different from Young’s. And it was informed by rock ’n’ roll. In 1970, a friend of Glass’s was dating Jerry Leiber of Leiber and Stoller, who wrote songs for Elvis Presley, among many others. It turned out Leiber and Glass had gone to the same Baltimore high school; and though Leiber was four years older, he knew and adored Glass’s mom, who was the school librarian. Leiber invited the composer to come by his office in the Brill Building. When he did, after passing down a hallway lined with gold records, Glass saw a room full of people sitting at desks in front of typewriters and telephones.

“What are they doing?” he asked.

“Finding money under stones,” Leiber replied. “This is publishing. This is how you make a living at music.”

Always a quick study, Glass went down to the county clerk’s office shortly thereafter, plunked down two hundred dollars, and registered Dunvagen Music as his publishing company. He also started his own record label, Chatham Square, and released his first record in late ’73: Music in Changing Parts. It didn’t go gold. But he owned it.

On December 10, CBGB and OMFUG—the acronym standing for Country, Bluegrass, Blues, and Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandisers (“voracious eaters of music,” as the proprietor explained)—opened its doors in an appalling space under the Palace Hotel, a flophouse at 315 Bowery, where Bleecker ends. The proprietor was a hirsute Russian Jew named Hillel Kristal, a singer, violinist, and ex-marine who was part of Radio City Music Hall’s house chorus in the ’50s until the chorus was canned. In 1959 Max Gordon hired him to manage the Village Vanguard, a long-running club that had recently switched to an all-jazz format. Kristal had found his calling.

He soon opened Hilly’s on East Thirteenth Street, which showcased folk and blues acts through the ’60s until the bottom fell out of the folk scene and locals began filing noise complaints. In the fall of 1973, he finally closed up shop, throwing a party for the neighborhood Hell’s Angels chapter as a farewell fuck-you to the neighbors.

But Kristal had another venue, a wino bar on the Bowery he’d acquired in ’69 for around twenty grand. Named Hilly’s on the Bowery, he operated it primarily for a clientele of derelicts. “Bums would be lining up at eight in the morning when I opened the doors,” he told Roman Kozak, author of This Ain’t No Disco: The Story of CBGB. “They would come in and fall on their faces even before they had their first drink.”

Now the place had his full attention. Before renaming it CBGB, Kristal had bands perform on the small side stage near the entrance. One was Suicide, the duo that had terrified Sylvain Sylvain at the Mercer Arts C enter. Alan Vega, who was also a visual artist, loved the aesthetic violence of the Stooges, the roaring drones of La Monte Young, and the heavy minimalism of the Velvet Underground. Martin Rev, meanwhile, had studied with the postbop pianist Lennie Tristano and was a Cecil Taylor fanatic. Together they made chaos using microphone feedback and a fifty-dollar electronic keyboard. Vega, dressed in studded leather, stalked the stage like a combination of animal trainer and animal, swinging a motorcycle chain like a whip, cutting his face with a switchblade just to freak people out.

Another Hilly’s band was Queen Elizabeth, fronted by Wayne County. A drag queen from Marietta, Georgia (born Wayne Rogers), who got off the Greyhound bus just in time to join in the Stonewall riots, County fell in with the Warhol crowd and Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, and after being laughed offstage at an audition for the part of King Herod in the Broadway premiere of Jesus Christ Superstar, he started a rock band. At that time, Wayne’s act with Queen Elizabeth involved a strap-on vagina, a dildo, and a can of shaving cream. In a low-budget black-and-white promotional reel made in a friend’s apartment with acoustic guitars and bongos, the singer cleans up the act a bit, refining David Johansen’s gutter-punk snap-queen routine on the song “Wonder Woman” in stockings and a swastikaed policeman’s cap. “Max’s Kansas City,” meanwhile, was a catchy girl-group number shouting out the Dolls and Bowie along with the club.

Hilly’s booked jazz, too. Rashied Ali played there frequently; for years, a black-and-white photo of Ali and his wife, Patricia, standing in front of the club hung on his living room wall.

How well the music went over with the Bowery locals is hard to say. The traditional dumping ground for the city’s down-and-out, the Bowery has a long history as a boozer’s ghetto. As Luc Sante recounts in Low Life, the area’s first bar was probably Cornelis Aertszen’s inn, established in 1665, but the neighborhood didn’t really become notorious until the nineteenth century, when grocery stores fronting grog shops began popping up—joints like Rosetta Peer’s, opened in 1825, home base to the Forty Thieves, one of the city’s first armed gangs. The Atlantic Garden, a massive German-style beer garden on two floors that could accommodate a thousand patrons, operated for nearly fifty years next door to the Old Bowery Theatre, just up and across the street from the site of CBGB. Beer there was five cents, although other Bowery dives began selling it for three: the catch was no glasses—you sucked your drink through a thin rubber tube, taking as much as you could until you had to stop for a breath.

By 1891, more than half the saloons below Fourteenth Street were on the Bowery—sixty-five on the street’s west side, seventeen on the east. Among the latter was the Bowery’s worst dive, McGurk’s Suicide Hall, just above Houston. Opened in 1895, with a four-story interior, it attracted whores and roughnecks who were generally at the end of their rope. It earned its name; in 1899 alone there were reportedly more than thirteen suicide attempts there, six of them successful. Its reputation made it something of a tourist attraction; when it was shut down in 1902, its owner reportedly retired to California with around half a million dollars to show for his efforts.

That a band named Suicide would play this strip for a bunch of winos almost eighty years later was grimly appropriate. Hilly’s certainly conjured the Bowery spirit. The space was a dump; it reeked of beer, sweat, pee, and decay. A photo of Suicide from around this time shows Vega embracing a parking meter, Rev standing behind him, and—a few feet up the street—a bum collapsed in the gutter in a pile of garbage, with the Empire State Building looming in the distance.

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