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NYC’s Underground Scene: ‘This Must Be the Place’

Music may be the glue of every NYC underground scene This Must Be the Place covers, but Jesse Rifkin’s primary interest is in the community held together by that glue.

This Must Be the Place" Music, Community and Vanished Spaces in New York City
Jesse Rifkin
Hanover Square
July 2023

It is possible that there have been more books written about New York City music than there have been bands or artists whose careers in the city managed to last more than a year. Certainly, there is no shortage of either one, and despite or perhaps because of the ceaseless change characteristic of the city, no sign of diminishing any time soon.

In the past 60 years, New York City has been either the literal or the de facto origin of modern folk music, loft jazz, minimalism, hip-hop, salsa, disco, punk rock, no wave, mutant disco, antifolk, and indie rock, among others, not to mention the original home base of arguably three of the most influential popular artists of those six decades—Bob Dylan, Madonna, and the Velvet Underground—along with more iconic rappers and rockers than can easily be counted. Indeed, New York City has been a performance magnet for almost every other major movement in vernacular music. In other words, there’s a lot of history to tell, and despite myriad losses, there are still a lot of people left around to tell it.

It can be difficult to avoid telling the same stories over and over. This means a lot is familiar with musician, local historian, and tour guide Jesse Rifkin’s mammoth and obsessively detailed new history, This Must Be the Place. Fortunately, more than enough is new in Rifkin’s book to make it welcome nonetheless. As its subtitle indicates, the niche claimed by This Must Be the Place is “Music, Community, and Vanished Spaces in New York City”, Rifkin works hard to match his writerly practice to that subtitle.

Conversant with the print historiography of New York’s popular music, performance, and club scenes, Rifkin’s preferred sources are primarily journalistic, biographical, and especially oral rather than scholarly. The acknowledgment pages list nearly 150 interviews of mostly longtime New Yorkers ranging from loft jazz trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah through folk-pop singer Judy Collins, hardcore punk guitarist Denise Mercedes, and downtown turntablist and producer DJ Spooky to Williamsburg music promoter Erik Zajaceskowski. Befitting the focus on community, Rifkin is at pains to highlight not only the dozens of musical genres around which the chapters are organized but also the owners, promoters, bookers, sound designers, deejays, staff, and audience members that created and were created by each club, scene, or movement. Nor does he neglect the economics, politics, and racial dynamics that both constrained and enabled each one.

This Must Be the Place’s 11 lengthy chapters begin with 1940s folk hootenannies in Greenwich Village, range into SoHo, Tribeca, Union Square, the Bowery, Alphabet City, the Lower East Side, the Meatpacking District, and Chelsea, and conclude across the East River in Williamsburg and Bushwick in Brooklyn. Essentially, Rifkin follows the symbiotic relationship between artists, performance venues, nightclubs, and gentrification as bohemian musicians seeking affordable space to practice, perform, exhibit, hang out, and (sometimes) sleep in created successive scenes that inevitably attracted media, investment, development, and law enforcement, displacing first the working poor and then the artists.

The process of gentrification was not new to postwar New York; however, the specific pattern Rifkin traces and the increasing rapidity of transformation are characteristic of a city drained by redlining policies, highway construction, deindustrialization, and selectively granted veteran benefits of much of its high-quality, affordable housing stock and most of its white tax base. Having become a majority Black and Latinx city, most of ’60s New York was consequently underfunded, underserviced, and written off as a ghetto or a post-industrial wasteland.

This also made the city wide open and affordable for anyone who didn’t mind living without heating, reliable electricity or plumbing, or any other services. Loft spaces in vacated industrial buildings offered practice and performance space with few complaining neighbors and little attention from authorities. Despite (and for some because of) the devastation that would be wrought by drugs, alcohol, and other forms of burning the candle at both ends, soon compounded by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, this was an alluring lifestyle, mostly off the grid. Rifkin terms it the “ecosystem of the music scenes … and the relationships and choices that allowed them to flourish”. He leans into the spatial concentration of artists in these neighborhoods, how each neighborhood functioned as a community and the impact of each scene on the working-class or industrial buildings in which they took place.

Here’s his template for the process “1) A small, tight-knit community of mostly white musicians making oppositional, marginal art settle in a neighborhood primarily inhabited by a longstanding ethnic community. 2) The music is promoted through a network of small, shabby venues. 3) Increasing attention on the scene draws in entrepreneurs looking to exploit the music and the neighborhood for their own gain. 4) The scene itself collapses, with a handful of artists elevated to fame, and many more fleeing the city because they can no longer afford their neighborhood, which has been taken over by wealthy Johnny-come-latelies who displace all the people responsible for the things that made it appealing to them in the first place.”

Rifkin’s romantic heart is in the DIY bohemian fringes of the template he describes; he’s especially fascinated by the artists, venues, and scenes that manage to endure more or less outside of the cycle he describes, “safe, nurturing, independently-owned, community-oriented venues” from long-running clubs like Israel ‘Izzy’ Young’s Folklore Center on MacDougal Street, Hillel ‘Hilly’ Kristal and his ex-wife Karen’s CBGB on the Bowery, Pini Milstein and Amnon Kehati’s Sidewalk Café near Tompkins Square Park, Zajaceskowski and Rachel Nelson’s Secret Project Robot in several Brooklyn locations, or LaMonte Young and Marian Zazeela’s immersive sound and light experience ‘Dream House’ to short-lived but fondly remembered spaces like Ali’s Alley, Paradise Garage, or Tier 3.

Rifkin never loses sight of the business side of live music, even of those venues that repeatedly stressed that scenes were most successful when money was not the primary object. Rifkin is more interested in the artists who did not make it big, the scenes that never quite left the underground, and the quixotic, often marginalized figures who had found a way to survive outside the mainstream altogether and wanted to maintain spaces where others could do the same, even if only temporarily.

Music may be the glue of every scene This Must Be the Place covers, but Rifkin’s primary interest is in the community held together by that glue. Consequently, he includes club scenes where the DJ was at the center and no new music was actually created, as well as art, theater, and performance scenes where music was secondary, if present at all. He is especially taken with the opportunities afforded by venues that didn’t serve alcohol and with venues that offered all-ages shows. Similarly, while pop and rock are center stage, episodes branch out to jazz, orchestral, experimental music, and less categorizable forms as well.

Rifkin’s Lower Manhattan is a place where you could find 20 folk clubs and everyone who was anyone within a five-block radius south of Washington Square Park; where, as jazz bassist William Parker remembered, “Any time I’d go out to the store to buy anything, it was, here comes Don Cherry down the street, here comes Frank Lowe, here comes Jackie McLean, here comes Clifford Jarvis. You’d have these summit meetings, standing on the corner, just talking. It took me three hours every time I went out to the store because that’s how many musicians were living on the Lower East Side.” In loft concerts, clubs with barely a stage to speak of and no backstage green room at all, bars that let performers in for free, and cafes with open mic nights, the conventional barriers between artist and audience were blurred, all for the better.

Rifkin is particularly fascinated by the creative and social sparks that fly when genres, forms, and scenes overlap and (one of his favorite words) cross-pollinate: jazz and rock at the Mercer Arts Center; het/cis partiers at gay discos; multiple deejays at spots like David Mancuso’s Loft or the Mudd Club where “rock, soul, funk, Latin, and jazz all blended into what would become disco”. Or, in the words of multi-instrumentalist and composer Elliott Sharp about A7, at 112 Ave. A: “all the no wave people, the more adventurous free jazz people, a lot of the early electronic noise and industrial people. We all hung out with each other, because there weren’t all that many people doing weird shit in New York in those days.”

Across the street from A7 was the Pyramid Club, “at the intersection of post-punk music, drag performance, and avant-garde art.” At the original Danceteria on West 37th Street in the Garment District, according to DJ and producer Mark Kamins, “The people that liked punk got into Bohannon and the people that were into my underground black music got into English punk and new wave because the vibe was the same, the feeling was the same.” Rifkin reminds readers that recording studios like Blank Tapes on West 20th Street were another essential site of similar cross-pollination of forms and genres.

The concentrated geography of Lower Manhattan meant it was easy to locate clubs and cafes at the intersection or within easy walking distance of multiple scenes and neighborhoods, drawing from all of them. Moreover, musicians and fans could easily make the scene on the subway, ferry, or commuter trains from Harlem, the outer boroughs, or New Jersey and Long Island, including those without wheels or too young to drive. But that concentration also meant that, by the end of the century, there were no longer any neighborhoods or scenes cheap enough to support full-time artists or the working poor; soon thereafter, the same would happen to most of Brooklyn.

While it lasted, this cross-pollination provided multiple perspectives and challenges to every new form, and it’s not difficult to agree with Rifkin that the resulting art benefited substantially from this exposure. His writing complements this argument, as Rifkin carefully provides multiple perspectives whenever available throughout This Must Be the Place. In this account, art and gentrification are neither antagonists nor partners; they’re a phenomenon of urban change that requires careful investigation and analysis of each particular interest and stakeholder involved. Rifkin is also highly cognizant of the forces of sexism that led to consistently different treatment of women in nearly every scene, just as he’s painfully aware of the disadvantage Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) musicians and residents face in nearly every situation involving power and authority in which they may be involved, whether being displaced by gentrification as longtime residents, being restricted to particular musical genres as musicians, or being harassed by police as both performers and impresarios, not to mention as fans.

This is a difficult balancing act, and all the more so because This Must Be the Place was not able to find space either hip-hop or salsa, or any of the other genres dominated by Black and Latinx musicians and primarily located outside of the downtown Manhattan that is the book’s center of gravity. In the back matter, Rifkin acknowledges that he had originally written a chapter on early hip-hop culture in Harlem and the Bronx. This makes sense since its ad hoc, community origins perfectly epitomize DIY culture. Of course, Rifkin is right that this history (especially hip-hop) has been extensively and effectively covered, and he (and his editor) are right that it’s beyond the already vast scope that This Must Be the Place covers. But Rifkin never fully addresses the consequences of the self-imposed geographic limits of the book that effectively whitewash the history of NYC music, even as he is at pains to highlight every moment (and there were many) when the musicians and culture of the outer boroughs crossed paths with downtown Manhattan.

This kind of passive reinforcement of the marginalization of the music and culture of Black and Latinx communities in mainstream cultural history is only partially mitigated by the good intentions and the deep care with which Rifkin details every possible people of color (POC) intersection with the dominant white downtown scene. He’s equally punctilious in observing how the whiteness of most of these scenes functioned within each ecosystem.

Rifkin is more successful in highlighting the contributions of Indigenous singers like Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree Nation), Karen Dalton (Cherokee), Patrick Sky (Muscogee Creek), and Richie Havens (Blackfoot) to the folk scene, and in making space for and giving voice to overlooked women in this history such as promoters Ruza Blue and Ann DeMarinis, festival organizer Bea Rivers, bookers Hilary Jaeger and Judy Weinstein, accommodating landladies like painter and poet Virginia Admiral, fashion designer and dominatrix Anya Philips, performance artist Chandra Oppenheim, deejays like Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy and Anita Sarko, and musicians Nancy Arlen, Miriam Linna, Lydia Lunch, Ruby Lynn Reyner, and Cynthia Sley, among many others.  

Rifkin is also closely attuned to the significant role played by numerous members of the LGBTQ+ community as activists, scenesters, and creators. One of the attractions of New York City has always been its openness to marginalized communities; Rifkin both documents this attraction details the challenges the city nevertheless posed, and fully acknowledges the essential role these communities played in the development of every scene he covers, even as they were often left behind when the scene went mainstream.  

Inevitably, the piling on of sites and sounds can get a bit overwhelming—the main body of text runs well over 500 pages. At times, the stories blend together into a kaleidoscopic catalogue of venues, promoters, deejays, musicians, artists, and scenes, all of which meet the same sad end, even if not all of it was due, Rifkin explains, to evil developers. Part of this comes from Rifkin’s prose, which is often workmanlike, although graced by the periodic acid aside and a great ear for scenester quotes.

Despite its many strengths, This Must Be the Place lacks the stylistic verve of Will Hermes’ wider-ranging (if more temporally constrained) history of New York music from 1973 to 1977, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire. Rifkin’s accounts of each scene lack the density and texture of single-scene studies, if not for want of trying. At moments, as in his discussion of scenes around Tompkins Square Park, Rifkin does reach more deeply into the past to suggest long-term changes in a particular site or neighborhood. However, the lack of a spatial long view of a study like Ada Calhoun’s 2015 history, St. Marks Is Dead, is one of the reasons the prior inhabitants and disturbed or displaced locals fade into the background despite the author’s best intentions.

Despite these caveats, there’s probably no better account of the extraordinary story of Lower Manhattan’s 50-year run “as the center of musical innovation” than This Must Be The Place. The overarching story is nuanced, persuasive, and important. There’s nothing boilerplate about it; Rifkin is passionate and knowledgeable about his topic. And unlike many historians of New York City, both popular and academic, he resists the easy temptation of doom, gloom, and “those were the days”-isms. Sure, Rifkin makes abundantly clear that the “artist’s life” that so many locals and migrants lived in New York City had its physical and mental costs and has become increasingly untenable. Every chapter concludes with an “Afterlife” section, which mostly concerns something awful now residing where each treasured space had been – if it hasn’t been demolished.

Rifkin nevertheless concludes This Must Be the Place with a spirited checklist of the seven factors that created the best of these scenes (low overhead, respect for performers, very late hours, driven by teenagers, no booze, free or cheap food, and accessible, welcoming entry points for outsiders), and a reminder that scenes like these are born out of both “dissatisfaction with the present circumstances and the ability to notice and seize the opportunities they provide.” There’s never a shortage of the former in NYC, meaning there will never be a shortage of the latter.

Laudably, Rifkin wraps This Must Be the Place with the unavoidable conclusion that “the construction of music scenes—sonically, interpersonally, demographically, and spatially—is inextricable from acts of destruction.” Even if he cops out by only raising this question in the book’s last sentence, and thus relieving him of the responsibility of answering it, at least Rifkin briefly draws it out from the background, as he also acknowledges the outer borough history that he ought to have included but didn’t.

Perhaps one should say “couldn’t”, but I think that’s too easy. After all, in the final chapter, he carves out the space to extend his book’s view all the way along the L train out from the East Village to Ridgewood, Queens, as he follows Brooklyn’s indie rock scene. But that’s mostly a white story. Given Rifkin’s desire to shift the center of gravity away from the stars that shot out of each scene, and despite his attention to all those in the margins they left behind, he has missed a banner opportunity to retell the history of this “center of musical innovation” according to a geography in which white Lower Manhattan is not the irresistible center of gravity.

RATING 8 / 10