Young, Bored, Horny, Disgusted... and Hell-Bent for Kicks
On December 16, 1973, due west of Hilly’s, a cement truck was heading up the West Side Elevated Highway near Gansevoort Street when a sixty-foot section of the roadway collapsed.
The truck, as it happened, was bringing cement to repair the road. But like many things in town, the West Side Highway was beyond repair.
On Christmas Day up in the Bronx, Puerto Rican families were carving up lechon asado, cooking rice and pigeon peas, and drinking coquitos.
Countless stereos played Fania’s two Asalto Navideño LPs—classics of salsafied Puerto Rican jibaro holiday songs. The joke is that while asalto navideño is the boricua equivalent of door-to-door caroling, asalto also means “assault.” The cover of Volume One showed Willie Colón, in a variation on his usual gangsta pose, as a cigar-chomping Santa, stealing the presents and the TV set. The newly released Volume Two showed Colón, Héctor Lavoe, and the cuatro virtuoso Yomo Toro in a timely variation, given the current fuel shortage: holding up a gas station.
The big New Year’s Eve rock event was at the Academy of Music, a crumbling old theater on Fourteenth Street, just east of Union Square. Headlining the early and the late show was the Blue Öyster Cult, a heavy outfit cooked up by a bunch of kids on Long Island with input from the rock journalist Sandy Pearlman. Also on the bill were Kiss, a newly signed bunch of hard-rockers from Queens, and Teenage Lust, a glammy repurposing of the Lower East Side, the backing band of the pothead activist and John Lennon buddy David Peel. In from Detroit were Iggy and the Stooges. (In a coincidental culture swap, the New York Dolls were playing that night in Detroit, at the Michigan Palace.)
The Stooges released two records of dark, heavy rock in ’69 and ’70 that spiritually had little to do with flower power and San Francisco hippie culture: the music was about being young, bored, horny, disgusted with almost everything, and hell-bent for kicks. Younger brothers to Detroit’s MC 5, the Stooges similarly dug raw electric blues and Coltrane’s modal freakouts, and their front man was inspired by the audience-confrontation tactics of the Doors’ Jim Morrison. They also loved the nasty drone of the Velvet Underground, so much so that they had John Cale produce and play on their debut. But both records tanked commercially, and except for the guitarist Ron Asheton, everyone in the band had acquired nasty drug habits, and by ’71 they’d been dumped by their label, Elektra Records.
Their second act began later that year, when David Bowie, in New York to sign his U.S. deal with RC A, began asking about the band, whose records fascinated him. After a dinner at Ginger Man on West Sixty-fourth Street, where Bowie met his labelmate Lou Reed, another hero of his—the beginning of the relationship that produced Transformer—the entourage headed down to the back room of Max’s. Danny Fields was with them, a music journalist turned scene macher from Queens who got both the Stooges and the MC 5 signed, and he happened to have James Newell Osterberg, Jr. (who got the nickname Iggy from his high school band, the Iguanas, and later added Pop as a surname) crashing on his couch. So Fields went home, splashed water on his ward’s face, and dragged him to Max’s. In a matter of days, Iggy Pop was booked on a flight to London to record a new record with Bowie’s management company, Main Man. Pop took his childhood pal James Williamson, who had recently joined the Stooges as a second guitarist. Bowie’s people wanted a solo act, but eventually Iggy managed to convene the Stooges in London to make their third LP.
Raw Power, released on Columbia in February ’73, condensed, amplified, and accelerated the negative energy of their first two records. Sonically, it was an assault, all screeching high end, Iggy’s death-tripping lyrics (“I’m a street-walkin’ cheetah with a heart full of napalm /I’m a runaway son of the nuclear A-bomb”), Williamson’s stabbing guitar shifting between loudest and louder still, Ron Asheton—now on bass— and his brother Scott pounding out brute rhythms. It was raw, muddy, thrillingly nihilistic, and there was no market for it. By the end of summer, both CBS and Main Man had cut them loose.
But Raw Power had lots of fans in New York. Back in May, Rolling Stone published a review by Lenny Kaye, the Nuggets curator who also worked at the Village Oldies record shop at 118 West Third Street, just off Sixth Avenue. “The Ig,” he wrote. “Nobody does it better, nobody does it worse, nobody does it, period. Others tiptoe around the edges, make little running starts and half-hearted passes; but when you’re talking about the O mind, the very central eye of the universe that opens up like a huge, gaping, sucking maw, step aside for The Stooges.”
Kiss, meanwhile, had played some loft gigs around town, including one back in April opening for Queen Elizabeth in a rivet-making factory at 54 Bleecker, just off Lafayette. They were another bunch of New York Dolls–style tranny rockers, minus the wit. But tonight they’d become something else. They’d just finished recording their CBS debut, yet to come out, and they took the stage in full Kabuki-alien face paint (Stein brand, Clown White and Clown Black), with a four-foot illuminated sign that spelled out their name as backdrop. The playing was ham-handed and deafeningly loud, and when the bass player did a fire-breathing trick, the right side of his hair momentarily went up in flames. He also flung a piece of flash paper into the crowd, accidentally singeing the eyebrows of a kid up front. But the crowd loved it.
Their labelmate Iggy Pop, meanwhile, was high as hell. The Stooges blasted through the early show, but by the late show Iggy was so fucked-up he could barely perform. In Please Kill Me, the artist-writer Duncan Hannah, a recent Parsons School of Design grad who was celebrating the New Year, recalled:
I don’t know what he did, it was like he shot two quarts of vodka or something. He comes out and he barfs all over everything, he falls off the stage, he can’t remember any of the lyrics, the band starts a song, they stop, they start, they stop. They’re mad as hell, but Iggy just can’t stand up. He just doesn’t know what’s going on.
By spring, after another few flame-out gigs, the Stooges were done. But the kids they inspired were just getting started.
Back in April, Phil Ochs was down at Folk City on Bleecker Street talking to the owner, Mike Porco, trying to get a “good ol’ days” hootenanny together at the venerable club—Dylan’s launch pad—with some of the surviving old gang: Dave Van Ronk, Carolyn Hester, John Paul Hammond. It was an uphill battle, and all in all, a rough year. The Vietnam War continued. During a trip through Africa, Ochs was attacked in Tanzania by thieves and strangled, which left his vocal cords damaged. On September 11, the inspirational government of Salvador Allende in Chile was overthrown in what everybody knew was a U.S.-backed military coup. Soon after, Ochs’s friend Victor Jara, the radical Chilean folksinger, was publicly tortured—his hands crushed by rifle butts—then murdered.
Ochs ended the year with a six-night stand—not at Folk City, but at Max’s Kansas City, from December 26 through 31. The shows were good, despite Ochs’s drinking and the loss of his upper-register singing voice. The highlight was a relatively new song, “Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon,” which updated Ochs’s ’60s civil rights anthem “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” rhyming “the land you’ve torn out the heart of” with “find yourself another country to be part of.”
Impeachment hearings would begin in the spring.
As for Bob Dylan, the giant of the New York folk scene—a scene unto himself at this point—had stepped off his pedestal. He released two middling albums in ’73, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid and Dylan. By the end of the year, insiders had heard the forthcoming Planet Waves. It was an improvement, yet its muted, domestic tone suggested that rock’s greatest poet was still in something of a creative retirement.
Opening for Ochs at Max’s that week was Patti Smith. There is a black-and-white photo of her taken by her friend Judy Linn in 1971: Smith sits in a wicker chair, wearing what looks like a boy’s school uniform jacket over bell-bottom jeans and snakeskin boots. Covering her face is a magazine picture of Dylan circa ’66, his tousled hair fusing with hers. In a review of Planet Waves for the Detroit-based Creem magazine, Smith described an epiphany she had while listening to it:
Playing “Dirge” over and over. Drawing a picture. I thought it was Rimbaud but it was Dylan. I thought it was Dylan but it was me I was making.
Another photograph of Smith, taken by the poet Gerard Malanga, shows her standing on the edge of a subway platform in knee-high boots, an Indian print shawl around her shoulders and a crucifix on a leather lanyard around her neck that hangs down to her exposed navel. In her hands is a manila portfolio, perhaps filled with verses; she fixes the camera with a burning stare and a Mona Lisa smile.
Lenny Kaye, the rock critic and record store clerk, backed Smith at Max’s on electric guitar. They’d been performing as a duo, Kaye transforming Smith’s incantatory poetic rants into something like rock ’n’ roll. But this was their first extended gig, and the first time Kaye stayed onstage for her entire set.
Standing in a torn T-shirt, spitting between hollered verses, Smith came on like a homeless delinquent who’d just bum-rushed the stage. The older folkies in the crowd were between baffled and repulsed. “She looked like a scarecrow in a garden of chickpeas,” wrote Frank Rose in the Voice about one of her sets. “It was all very hard and furious.”
“Don’t be afraid of me,” Smith reassured the audience that night. “I’m just a nice little girl.”