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Live from New York

From Sinatra's swagger to Moby's mixes, the city's had its share of the all-time-great gigs. A highly selective guide to the musical high notes that could only have been hit in this town.

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New York Dolls
At the Mercer Arts Center, 1972

Strange days, indeed, back in those endless late sixties when the traveler could stop into the Garrick Theater on Bleecker to see the Mothers of Invention playing a regularly scheduled gig at 2:30 on Wednesday afternoon, Zappa sitting on a folding chair, bashing away. This was when the Fugs, Ginsberg's comic-book aural incarnation, were singing of "the Slum Goddess of the Lower East Side" and showing up seven nights a week at the Players Theater on MacDougal Street. The Velvet Underground, who in 1970 appeared twice a night, five days a week, at Max's Kansas City, were descended from those other gigs as much as from Warhol's Factory.

The Dolls, our beloved, playing their great regular Tuesday-night gig in the claustrophobic Oscar Wilde Room of the Mercer Arts Center, were a louder, trashier, dumbed-down but equally strung-out version of Lou Reed and John Cale's narcoleptic neo-Euro art rock. Lipstick-smeared Little Rascals, Norman Bates wig-hats on their heads, they fit the time. How we were moved when David Johansen (the future Buster Poindexter), thick rouge cracking on farm-boy cheeks, approached the microphone to express his mock-poignant nightmare of "difference," singing, "Is it a crime for you to fall in love with Frankenstein?" Was it really a shock when the Arts Center, located at the butt end of the once-elegant, then welfare-client Broadway Central hotel, fell in, never to rise again? The Dolls were all about love in the ruins anyway -- it was a sound shot through with rubble. You knew they weren't long for this world, and Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan weren't. A couple of years later, when Johansen visited the next generation at CBGB's, the punks paid respect. They knew a survivor when they saw one.

Bob Dylan
Gerde's Folk City
April 11, 1961

In from the north country, staying at the $19-a-week Earle Hotel, Dylan had to walk across Washington Square Park to get to Gerde's on 4th Street, three blocks to the south. Not yet 20, he was just one more busker carrying his guitar and wearing a stupid corduroy cap. Forty years later, fans can go to the Dylan Web sites and find the set list. Just five tunes, as many as any opening act got, especially when opening for John Lee Hooker: "House of the Rising Sun," "Song to Woody," "Talkin' Hava Negeilah Blues," and two others, identified only as "unknown Woody Guthrie song" and "a black blues." There were earlier nights, at Izzy Young's Folklore Center on MacDougal Street and out in East Orange (where Dylan played Jimmie Rodgers's "Southern Cannonball"); later, there was Carnegie Hall, and the gone-electric boos at Forest Hills. But Gerde's was the official coming out, the start. Unlike most Dylan shows, no one recorded it, so we don't know if he did "Rising Sun" in the persona of a 90-year-old syphilitic whore like on his first album, or how much Zimmerman showed through on "Hava Negeilah." But this is good, this mystery, because with Bob, sometimes, not everything is revealed.

Charlie Parker
On 52nd Street, 1945

Bird came in from Kansas City in the late thirties with Jay McShann, went uptown to Minton's, sat down with Monk, Diz, Kenny Clarke, Bud Powell -- all of them listening to Earl Hines -- and that's where bop was born. But it wasn't until '45, when Parker and his crew, Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, and a very young Miles Davis among them, established a beachhead at swing clubs like the Onyx, the 3 Deuces, and the Famous Door on 52nd between Fifth and Sixth Avenues that the revolution broke wide. "Sorta Kinda," "Koko," "Shaw Nuff," "Groovin' High," all those spiky, silky changes, they formed a canon for a hip new world belief system. Smart but swinging, music for mind and body. Bird, of course, was the key, the greatest player, one more American tragic artist. It made perfect sense that less than two years after the opening of Birdland, named in his honor, Parker would be banned from the club by the Narco Squad. Dead at 34: It is one more cruel joke, but the sounds live on, as new and radical as ever.


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