[3 June 2014]
Luke Haines has made a career out of being an outsider. It’s a fact that even a non-fan can gauge by simply reading the title of his second memoir, Post-Everything: Outsider Rock ‘n’ Roll. He has also been a faithful mythologizer, in more recent years applying this skill to specific cultural icons and moments rather than on himself. Haines’ last two solo albums, comprising the “psychedelic trilogy” which ends with New York in the ‘70s, have concerned themselves with British wrestlers (2011’s 9 ½ Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and Early ‘80s), and recasting Gene Vincent, Nick Lowe, and Sham 69 frontman Jimmy Pursey as a cat, a badger, and a fox, respectively (2013’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Animals). Now Haines is back to tackle a point in time that has been mythologized liberally, the explosion of debauchery and rock ‘n’ roll that was 1970s New York. If someone who grew up in southern England and didn’t set foot in New York until the ‘90s has the chutzpah to cover such an integral time in cultural and counter-cultural history, you would hope they’re going to stamp their signature all over it, which Haines of course does – liberally.
A Haines newcomer may find New York in the ‘70s feather light if taking a cursory listen, but Google the album’s title and “press release”, and the numerous levels Haines is operating on becomes apparent. Legendary British hill figure the Cerne Abbas Giant is cited, as is a Television-reciting bird left over from Rock ‘n’ Roll Animals, and a Kaballistic order invoking the New York Dolls, among others. It’s a trip on concept alone, but Haines remains a deft enough producer of ear worms to make a listener feel like the majority of New York in the ‘70s’s dozen tracks are on permanent vacation within the recesses of his or her brain.
Haines has often employed almost jingle-like hooks to counter cruel and biting lyrics, but New York in the ‘70s appears to be somewhat of a departure in that its handling of its subjects is almost as sweet as its melodies. Haines himself has even stated , “I’m not joking on any of this ... I see it as a love letter to all those bands.” That’s not to say subjects such as Jim Carroll, William Burroughs, the New York Dolls, and Suicide’s Alan Vega are all treated with treacly sincerity. Haines’ way with words means something like “If variety is all that you’re after / Then get out of the church of repetition, man, because you’re interrupting a master,” on “Alan Vega Says”, is delivered in a way that is equal parts irreverent and oddly sweet.
“Lou Reed Lou Reed” is almost poignant: with lyrics that largely consist of nothing more than the title refrain, it seems to suggest that there’s nothing left to say about certain legends. Then again, Haines is unafraid to also point out the ludicrousness of idol worship, singing that he has a “hard on like the Cerne Abbas Man in the endless sea of rock ‘n’ roll” in closing track “NY Stars” (because, really). Then again, the listener may wonder whether something like “Doll’s Forever” isn’t entirely in jest, but it goes so far beyond being an invocation of the titular decade and brings forth the sensation of being a teenager with an altar to David Johanson in their bedroom (as some undoubtedly did – Morrissey?) so faithfully, that you can’t help but engage in a game of second guessing.
The proliferation of synthesizers on New York in the ‘70s may make some fans yearn for Haines in his more baroque phases, but through such blatant Suicide tributes as “Drone City”, the instrument is justified. The shift that Haines’ output has taken in more recent years has pointed to an artist totally in control of his own direction. Acerbic and oblique tales of life’s darknesses have been replaced by songs singular in concept, accompanied by a more stream-of-consciousness lyrical approach, with Haines remaining steadfast in his outsider stance. The nearly self-deprecating statement of Haines’ heritage in the press release (“A mythical re-imagining of a long gone age, by a man who hails from Surrey, Southern UK“) seems to celebrate how the New York of the titular era looked to anyone who considered themselves a misfit or intrigued by excess. It may not be the final word in this specific chapter of rock ‘n’ roll history, but it certainly is one of the most colorful ones.