Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever

Excerpted from Excerpted from Chapter 1: Wild Side Walking (footnotes omitted) from Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever by Will Hermes, published in November 2011 by Faber and Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by Will Hermes. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

On October 31, the New York Dolls played the Waldorf-Astoria Grand Ballroom. Their debut LP had been out for three months—Ellen Willis, The New Yorker’s pop music critic, wrote that it had “virtually no competition as the most exciting hard-rock album of the year”—and although they did a week of shows at Max’s in late August, this was their New York City coming-out party. They’d just returned from their first proper tour; they’d been on TV in Los Angeles, and Johansen had been jailed in Memphis for “lewd public behavior” and “inciting a riot” after a boy kissed him on the lips during a show.

The Halloween homecoming gig was conceived as a spectacle. The promoter, Howard Stein, took out a full-page ad in The Village Voice. Tickets were steep at $7.50, though they automatically entered the holder in the Best Costume competition (one prize: a weekend for three at a hotel in Newark). The Waldorf-Astoria was the epitome of uptown, uptight, upper-crust New York; whoever agreed to give the ballroom over to the Dolls and their wasted fans was either clueless or wickedly subversive.

By midnight, a thousand-some freaks of various stripes were packed into the ballroom entryway, pressing against doors that were supposed to have opened at 11:00. Tempers flared, doors were smashed, and someone lit a stink bomb in the hotel lobby in protest. Security guards admitted a portion of the mob, but hundreds were turned away. Arthur Bell described the scene as “Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange and Joel Grey in Cabaret by the dozens, chains and hoods, silver buttocks, scarlet breasts, dildoed noses,” with old-school trannies washing down Demerol capsules with swigs of whiskey. It even occasioned a lock-up-your-daughters (and sons) TV news report by Tony Hernandez of WNBC. Walking through the crowd, he described the Dolls as “a rock group with an aura of bisexuality” and as “a group of five tough Brooklyn street kids.”

“The Dolls usually play at a sound level of 130 decibels!” Hernandez bellowed at the camera. “A jet plane at take-off has a decibel level of 115!”

The band finally came onstage at about two a.m., with Johansen in a white tux and a black top hat: for a dude who generally walked around in semi-drag, men’s clothing constituted a Halloween costume. They proceeded to play what may have been their greatest gig. By the finalé of “Frankenstein,” Johansen was shirtless, yelling into the mic with his top hat teetering on his head and his lush brown curls sticking to both sides of his face.

“New Yawk City!” he shouted near the song’s end, in his camp Howlin’ Wolf–meets–storefront–preacher delivery. “It’s Halloween, and it’s the night you’re all gonna get down and do it really evil if you’re ever gonna do it at all… And before you go home tonight to do it, I’m gonna ask you one question about yourself: Do you think that…”

Johnny Thunders hit a monstrous power chord. 

“…you can make it…”

Another Thunders explosion, this one lower, gurgling, the sound a man makes after being poisoned and before he falls to the ground.

“…with Frank-en-steeeeeeeiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiin?!”

Thunders’s and Sylvain’s guitars hurled feedback; Johansen yelled

“Happy Halloween, everybody!” over the squall, grinned broadly, pivoted in his top hat, and strutted offstage, turning to throw a kiss perfectly synched with one last Thunders power chord.

A few days later the Dolls were back in England for the first time since Billy Murcia’s death. Their most important gig was on the BBC music show The Old Grey Whistle Test, hosted by the absurdly tweedy Bob Harris, who introduced them with withering condescension as practitioners of “mock rock.” Their performance of “Jet Boy” and “Looking for a Kiss” made an incalculable impression on countless impressionable youths. “I couldn’t believe it,” recalled the future Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones. “They was just all falling about all over the place, all their hair down, all knocking into each other. Had these great big platform boots on. They just didn’t give a shit, y’know? I thought it was great.”

The future president of the New York Dolls fan club and future lead singer of the Smiths, Steven Morrissey, was also watching. “I was thirteen,” he recalled, “and it was my first real emotional experience.”

“It’s ten o’clock: Do you know where your children are?”

To answer the question posed nightly by an ominous broadcaster’s voice on the bump before the 10:00 p.m. Channel 5 news: my parents’ children—me and my sister, Liz—were usually in our rooms, either asleep or pretending to be. I’d stay up reading comics like Unexpected or Ghost Rider, mags like MAD and National Lampoon, or books by Ray Bradbury and H. P. Lovecraft while listening to Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Yes, or ELP. My allowance was five dollars a week. The Korvettes department store sold new records at three for ten dollars. But the Music Box on Union Turnpike sold used titles for one or two bucks. It was run by Keith, a glam rocker with long straight hair and bangs. He had a band called the Brats, who I’d never actually heard; they had a following and eventually became regulars at Max’s. He’d point things out for me. By the end of ’73, I’d begun a decent record collection.

Other than as a sensationalist news item, the New York Dolls didn’t make it onto television in their hometown. The only real outlet for rock on TV at the time was ABC ’s In Concert, channel 7, Fridays at 11:30 p.m., simulcast on WPLJ 95.5 FM. Whenever my father went to bed early, I’d sneak down to the basement and watch the procession of British acts. The show gave me my first black-and-white glimpse of a rock concert that August: the Electric Light Orchestra (not bad, I thought) with Black Oak Arkansas (lame). I sat there, riveted, until the station signed off the air, footage of an American flag flapping in the wind while “The Star-Spangled Banner”—not Hendrix’s—wheezed away in the background. What was happening in Manhattan, I had no idea.

In 1963, as music director for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Steve Reich pulled together a group with his Mills College cohorts Phil Lesh and Tom Constanten. The idea was to create an improvisatory music-theater piece with dancers, brightly colored lights, and chaotic/hypnotic music. Soon afterward, Lesh (and later Constanten) joined the Grateful Dead. In his memoir, Lesh describes the Mime Troupe production— titled Event III/Coffee Break—as the prototype for Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests, the “happenings” that help launch the Dead’s musical journey.

Reich, meanwhile, followed a different path. Raised on the Upper West Side, he’d studied music and philosophy upstate at Cornell, continued his music studies at Juilliard on West Sixty-sixth Street, then headed west to Mills in Oakland, where he worked with the composer Luciano Berio. Like his pal Lesh, Reich fell hard for the music of John Coltrane, whose gigs he caught whenever possible, often at the Jazz Workshop in North Beach. Around the time of his Mime Troupe stint, Reich began experimenting with magnetic tape, making loops and collages. He also began a working relationship with Terry Riley, a composer who lived down the street from him.

In the fall of ’64, Riley—well known in Reich’s circles—attended a concert by Reich’s group at the Mime Troupe theater in San Francisco’s Mission District. Bored, he left midway through it. The next day, Reich walked down the block to Riley’s garage, where Riley kept his piano, and confronted him about the previous evening. They smoothed things over, and Riley showed Reich a new composition written on a single sheet of paper.

In C was a series of fifty-three melodic modules, each to be repeated by each group member as often as he or she liked, until moving on to the next, each at his or her own pace. It was simplistic, anarchic, and, in practice, ecstatic. Reich loved it and offered to help arrange it. That November, the piece premiered at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, with Reich playing percussion and his girlfriend playing piano. It received a rapturous review in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Reich was completely taken with the piece. He began experimenting with repetitive structures.

The first fruit was It’s Gonna Rain, composed for multiple tape loops of a preacher’s voice that begin in unison and gradually slip out of phase. Reich was still interested in performing with live musicians, though. So in the fall of ’65, with hippie culture heating up and Lesh having run off to join the circus, Reich headed back to New York, where he figured he’d have better luck finding kindred spirits.

Stoned and Droning

Riley wound up back in New York that fall, too. He wasn’t pleased when he discovered Reich pursuing ideas Riley felt were his, and they never worked together again. Reich did strike up a friendship with another like-minded composer, Philip Glass, a Juilliard classmate who reintroduced himself at a concert Reich gave at Paula Cooper’s Park Place Gallery—the foremost exhibition space for minimalist artists such as Sol LeWitt—in early ’67. Reich and Glass soon formed a collective ensemble to perform each other’s work. They also formed a furniture-moving company, Chelsea Light Moving, as neither of them made enough money from their music to pay their bills.

Meanwhile, Reich’s longtime interest in drumming was rising up. He was inspired to visit Ghana in 1970 by Alfred Ladzekpo, a Ghanaian drummer teaching at Columbia University. (Ladzekpo’s African Dances and Games LP, which may have seeded Willie Colón’s “Che Che Cole,” had just been released.) The trip was something of a nightmare—Reich contracted malaria and left a month earlier than planned—but his studies there blew his mind, confirming many of his ideas on rhythm. At the end of ’71 he premiered his extended Drumming—for bongo drums, marimbas, glockenspiels, female voices, piccolo, and a whistler (for now, himself)—over two weeks at three concerts: at the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Town Hall. As a new music composer, he had arrived.

Still, a gig at Carnegie Hall, the bastion of old-school classical music, was not on his to-do list when the phone rang in late ’72. Yet the guy on the line—Michael Tilson Thomas, twenty-seven-year-old conductor of the Boston Symphony—was knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Reich’s music. He was curating a new-music program for Carnegie Hall called the Spectrum series, which hoped to lure a younger audience. Thomas wanted Reich in it.

Reich agreed. His Four Organs, an extended piece employing extreme repetition and performed with four Farfisa electric organs and some Latin Percussion rawhide-and-buckshot maracas, was presented in Boston without incident. The performance in his hometown on January 18, 1973, was another story.

Four Organs was not new to New York, having premiered at the Guggenheim Museum back in 1970, with Glass at one of the keyboards. Performed this evening by the musicians in shirtsleeves—a statement in itself on the formal Carnegie Hall stage—the performance lasted about sixteen minutes. The music was amplified, but it wasn’t rock concert loud. After a few minutes, the performers could hear the noise of the audience—more old guard than the young vanguard they’d hoped for—fidgeting in their seats, coughing, murmuring, and rustling their programs. Soon, this was joined by groans and, eventually, straight-out shouting and heckling.

The musicians traded glances. There was nothing to do but to keep playing the repeated, stabbing phrases, over and over and over. The audience noise grew so loud, they couldn’t hear one another play; they had to mouth their cues, and eventually yell them, to keep the piece from falling apart. The audience was literally trying to stop the performance by shouting it down. At one point, a woman got out of her seat and walked down the aisle toward the musicians. All eyes were on her, and when she reached the lip of the stage, she began mock-banging her head against it repeatedly, wailing: “Stop, stop—I confess!”

When the piece ended, there was a moment of silence, then a tidal wave of boos and catcalls. The musicians bowed, and walked offstage with as much composure as they could muster.

In his review, Harold C . Schonberg of The New York Times described the audience reaction “as though red-hot needles were being inserted under fingernails,” adding that he himself had heard “nothing much to like, nothing much to dislike.” Alan Rich of New York magazine praised it as a “marvelous, original invention about musical time and rate of change.”

Afterward, Steve Reich returned to his element, giving free performances of works-in-progress alongside exhibitions by his new friend Sol LeWitt at the John Weber Gallery. When Reich’s old colleague Phil Lesh came east to play Nassau Coliseum with the Dead that March, they did not see each other.

The Carnegie Hall Four Organs was the most striking aboveground display for the New York school of music branded “minimalism,” after the art movement. Some critics called it “static music” (for its apparent lack of motion, not its resemblance to white noise—although using the latter was not out of the question). The composer Tom Johnson, who was also the Voice’s classical music critic, wrote of the “New York Hypnotic School”—Reich, Glass, Riley, and the school’s provost, La Monte Young— composers who made music “that lulls, hypnotizes, and draws you into its world.” It was music that functioned as a more or less flat field, not unlike the visual work of LeWitt, Frank Stella, Donald Judd, and the Nashville jazz saxophonist turned painter Robert Ryman. Static, however, did not necessarily equal boring. “A pitch changes slightly, a rhythm is altered, something fades in or out. They are not big changes, but they are changes,” Johnson wrote, “and there are more than enough of them to sustain one’s interest, provided he can tune in on this minimal level.”

La Monte Young was raised as a Mormon in Idaho and studied music in Los Angeles, where he focused on the saxophone. He was an L.A. City College classmate of Eric Dolphy, who he beat out for a spot in the college dance band in 1956; he also led a group with the drummer Billy Higgins, and occasionally played with another Ornette Coleman associate, the trumpeter Don Cherry. Around the same time, Young became obsessed with a record of ragas by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, and especially by the drone sound of the tamboura; he listened to it so incessantly while living in his grandmother’s house that she worriedly wrote the words “Opium Music” on the LP jacket. His interest in sustained tones grew, and during the summer of 1958 he wrote the roughly hour-long Trio for Strings at the great organ in Royce Hall at UCLA, where he’d just completed his BA. He presented the piece during his first semester of graduate studies at Berkeley, to a composition class held in the home of Professor Seymour Schiffrin; his classmates included Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, and David Del Tredici. The work’s vast fields of drones and silences were alien territory. It was the birth of minimalist composition.

Arriving in New York City in the fall of 1960 on a Berkeley scholarship, at age twenty-five, Young became a proto–rock star, moving through galleries and performance halls in a black cape in the shadow of his hero turned rival John Cage. Within two months he was involved with the Fluxus art movement, curating the first loft concert series with Yoko Ono at her place on Chambers Street. Young was composing busily, swinging between Cagean conceptualism and tonal minimalism. Piano Piece for David Tudor #1 (Tudor was a close associate of Cage) instructs the performer to “bring a bale of hay and a bucket of water onto the stage for the piano to eat and drink. The performer may then feed the piano, or leave it to eat by itself.” The droning Composition 1960 #7 consists of a B and an F-sharp, notated on a staff with the direction “to be held for a long time.” Arabic Numeral (Any Integer) for Henry Flynt (1960) called for a loud percussive sound to be repeated at will; in one performance, Young played a piano chord 1,698 times. Unlike music made in uptown performance halls, which generally divided concerts into five- to thirty-minute slots for individual works, loft settings gave composers the option of presenting extended pieces. In this way, Young and Ono’s brief series changed the sound of modern composition.

By the time John Cale began working with Young in his Theatre of Eternal Music ensemble in the mid-’60s, radically sustained notes and chords were at the core of the work. With his new wife, the light artist turned singer Marian Zazeela, Young moved into a loft space at 275 Church Street, where the group would perform for hours, through the night; a waking day for the couple would last anywhere from eighteen to twenty-seven hours or longer. A recording from April 1965 features the table-saw drones of Tony Conrad’s violin and John Cale’s viola, their modulations stretching clock time like putty.

The group continued in various forms throughout the ’60s, occasionally touring and performing in galleries and museums. But as Young became more obsessed with the idea of the eternal in music—of a work that might literally last forever—he began setting up what he called “Dream House” installations: rooms in which music was produced continuously by precisely tuned sine-wave generators, sometimes with human accompaniment. The initial and primary one was in his loft; it ran pretty much uninterrupted from September ’66 through January ’70, when Young and Zazeela began their long relationship with the North Indian master singer Pandit Pran Nath, and continued intermittently after that.

Recordings of this music were somewhat beside the point. But Young often rolled tape, and in ’73 he captured what became a French LP called Dream House 78′ 17″. The number denotes the duration of the LP, and the “song titles” note simply the date, time, and locale of the recording. “13 I 73 5:35–6:14:03 PM NYC ” demonstrated vocal techniques inspired by Pran Nath. “Drift Study 14 VII 73 9:27:27– 10:06:41 PM NYC ” was the sound of three sine-wave generators, which presumably burbled out strange harmonics before the recorder was turned on, and continued after it was shut off.

Performances of extreme duration—lasting as long as, say, a psychedelic drug experience—were being explored by many artists of the era. The New York Times critic John Rockwell identified a “newly meditational mode of perception” in audiences, partly code for saying everyone would be stoned. According to the trumpeter Jon Hassell, a devotee of Miles Davis’s electric experiments who studied and played with Young, “the history of drugs in America is inextricably interlaced with early minimalism.” To him, there was a need in the ’70s for a new sort of classical music that “one could actually enjoy listening to, that you could float away to.” Young’s music catered to this need and reveled in it. He had been a weed smoker since his jazz days, and by his own account, the Theatre of Eternal Music got high for every concert. And according to the photographer Billy Name of Andy Warhol’s Factory posse, who played with an early version of the ensemble, the scene at the Church Street loft was a heady one:

La Monte Young was the best drug connection in New York. He had the best drugs—the best! Great big acid pills, and opium, and grass, too. When you went over to La Monte and Marian’s place, you were there for a minimum of seven hours—probably end up to be two or three days. It was a pad with everything on the floor and beads and great hashish and street people coming and scoring, and this droning music going on.

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.

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.”

Photo by Adam Weiss

Will Hermes is a senior critic for Rolling Stone and a longtime contributor to NPR’s “All Things Considered”. His work also appears in The New York Times, the Village Voice, and elsewhere. He was co-editor of SPIN: 20 Years of Alternative Music (2005).

© Will Hermes

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