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.
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.
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.
At Madison Square Garden, 1992
Queen Latifah, A Tribe Called Quest, Kid ‘N Play, Heavy D, and Naughty By Nature opened (Will Smith, then still the Fresh Prince, was sick), which, in retrospect, makes it all sound warm, fuzzy, a ready-for-Oprah crew. But back then, only six days after Puffy’s nightmare at City College (nine people stomped to death), with Dr. Dre’s The Chronic about to come from out west to kill Old School, the vibe was tense. Dinkins had said that if things went nuts, that would be it for hip-hop, he’d send the troops in. Public Enemy wasn’t cowed. They came out with flashing police lights, doing “Shut ‘Em Down,” then slashed through anthems “Fight the Power,” “Black Steel,” and “Don’t Believe the Hype” as hard as Tyson’s left hook to Mitch Green’s honker (Iron Mike was wearing a “Don’t Believe the Hype” jacket at the time) in front of Dapper Dan’s all-night leather emporium on 1-2-5. Chuck D, the man who rhymed “school of hard knocks” with “they drink Clorox,” said “not to do nothing to bring down what should not be brought down,” because the music was revolution enough. And on that night at the cusp of Giuliani time, it was.
At 54th Street and Sixth Avenue, 1943-1974
From the Chinese zither player in the Canal Street station to the Hendrix imitator outside the old Runway 69, street musicians make up the city’s biggest collective gig. But none beat Moondog, though he rarely played a note in public. Born Louis T. Hardin, he silently manned his midtown post for 30 years, dressed in Viking gear, complete with helmet and spear. Blinded at 16, he employed “deep listening” of “city noises” to compose eclectic works like the Moondog Symphony (the theme for Alan Freed’s rock-and-roll show) and “All Is Loneliness,” recorded by Janis Joplin. When he vanished in 1974, passersby thought he’d died, but he’d just moved to Europe, where – still occasionally wearing his helmet – he was revered as a postmodernist master until his death in 1999.
Maskarave, Halloween 1992, 1993
If he was Christian, vegan, or really related to Herman Melville, who knew and who cared? He’d made “Go” and “Thousand” (as in 1,000 beats per minute), but he was still this little alien space case with a shaved head. One more latter-disco figure. Except now it was Halloween, and those little plastic backpacks were bouncing, and rooms were swirling, and it clicked. Was it the silver vests and the liquid sky, or had the paradigm actually shifted under everyone’s feet? In 1992, at Sound Factory, he played records in between Soul Slinger, Jason Jinx, and hard breathing in the chill-out room. Next year he was onstage, another kind of cold and perfect strange, after Aphex Twin. Now he’s a gospel singer, but those were the days.
At CBGB August 16, 1974
Dee Dee was raging about who took his bass; he just set it down on the stage and someone fucking took it. A few moments later, it was found, string-side down in a pool of vomit behind the bar. “Okay,” Dee Dee said, wiping off the strings, “let’s go.” And, 1-2-3-4, they went, just in the nick of time – a good thing because it was an emergency. Punk, the antidote for the dregs of wimpy hippie rock and the horror of disco, had to be invented that night on the Bowery, and the Ramones – manic Dee Dee; Joey, the storky object of desire; scowling Johnny; and Tommy, the drummer, all in from Forest Hills in F-train leather – were the only ones who were going to invent it. Anyone blotto in that railroad flat of a bar in those early evenings, hearing “I don’t wanna walk around with you / I don’t wanna walk around with you / So why you wanna walk around with me?” knew this ear-bleed haiku was all anyone needed to know about high school, or anything else, for that matter. Short, hard, complete – this was what you got at CBGB’s those nights. Even better was to see them on the Lower East Side streets, like Zeitgeist shock troops in one of John Holmstrom’s Punk Magazine cartoons, or walking to the gig from Arturo Vega’s house on 2nd Street, or Johnny thumbing through wrestling rags at the Gem Spa. ‘Cause they were the landscape – ours, all ours.
Murray The K
At Brooklyn Fox, 1961
At the Loft, 1973
Murray (the K stood for Kaufman) was the city’s most public D.J. He did his “Swinging Soirée” show from 7 to 11 p.m. on 1010 WINS back when the station was all Brill Building (and payola) all the time. He spoke his own personal pig Latin, Meyezurray, watched submarine races, had his mother credited for titling “Splish Splash,” ate a lot of pastrami, and claimed to be the fifth Beatle. Panama-hatted and in continental pants, he fronted at the Flatbush Avenue Fox (now a Con Ed office) with New York post-do-woppers like Little Anthony & the Imperials, Dion, and the great Jackie Wilson, who lived in Murray’s Runyonesque Broadway building and once got shot in the lobby.
David Mancuso, a different D.J. for a different time, was a more shadowy presence. Guiding spirit of the Loft, the first great New York party disco, Mancuso, the segue master in a hidden booth, was a myth at his own club. You’d enter the unmarked doorway at the corner of Bleecker and Broadway, dance alongside every kind of humanity, and never know who or what had hit you. “David’s like the Lone Ranger,” said one blitzed reveler. “He sends the bass through your heart, and then he’s gone again.”
Sees Kool Herc spin at a Bronx party, 1973
Before the beginning, there was Kool Herc, a.k.a. Clive Campbell, who brought “de sound system, mon” to the Bronx from his native Kingston. This was when people did 360s on their skulls and the IRT rumbled over Tremont and Jerome covered with pastel bubble-letters – Phase 2, Chain 3, Lee (Quinones) 163, the great Taki from 183, and others watching their names go by. Bambaataa, once Kevin Donovan, roughneck of the Black Spade gang, was only 14, but old enough to see the future. There was culture in this scratching vinyl, spray paint, and rhymes. It was a nation, a Zulu Nation, for people who’d never known a Zulu. The message spread in schoolyards, like J.H.S. 123 (the Funky 3), where the Bam engaged Disco King Mario in the new universe’s first D.J. battle. It would go over the world, anywhere beats could be found. It was Planet Rock, and it was unstoppable.
At Danceteria, 1982
She says this about the days when she was living in “a crappy tenement on Avenue B and 4th with no air-conditioning” and frequenting Danceteria, a several-story disco cavern on 21st Street: “I used to go there every weekend, trying to meet the D.J. or an A&R person to give my tape to … I’d spend all night on the dance floor in some hideous outfit while all the pretty, skinny, fashionable girls threw their drinks on me.” Well, she showed them, all right. When Madonna finally did appear on the Danceteria stage (legendary doorman Hauoi Montaug presiding), doing “Everybody,” it was lip-synced – no surprise. But who cares? Sometimes people are absolutely, totally convinced they’re stars and are actually right.
At The Bottom Line, August 1975
It was easy to be cynical about this fagin-hatted Jerseyite who was prophesied to be “the future of rock and roll” on the covers of Time and Newsweek during the same week. Kissinger didn’t even get that, and he’d blown up half of Cambodia. Springsteen, the prole straight shooter, understood the wariness – he grew up in Freehold, where the only thing to do was go to the crummy harness races, a shuck and a half at best. He knew there was something to prove – all night. The message was: Come and see, dig it or don’t. Even then, the earnestness was winning. On line for that first show, we saw the Man off in the shadows bumming a Pall Mall from Clarence Clemons. He shook his head in thanks. Polite, he was always polite, you got the sense it was how he was raised. The piano opener, “Spirit in the Night,” brought fears of pretension. But “Thunder Road” and “Rosalita” blew them out of the building. We went back another night, caught “Jungleland,” always the favorite, no shuck.
At the Palladium Ballroom, 1952-1966
It would have never happened without him, but according to Tito, he did not play salsa. Salsa was “something you ate,” he said. He played mambo, and of all the fifties mambo kings – Joe Cuba, Machito, and arch-rival Tito Rodriguez – Ernest Anthony Puente Jr., from East Harlem’s El Barrio, was rey of reys. For fourteen years, Tito and his Orchestra could be found laying down the serious clave upstairs at the Palladium Ballroom on 53rd Street and Broadway. When Puente cranked up the “Baile Del Pinguino,” great Latin dance teams – the Mambo Aces, the Cha Cha Taps – cut much rug. But the real show was the rank-and-file, dressed to the nines and ready to swing all night. Sabrosa! Tito put his timbales up front, all the better to blow the minds of the visiting jazz players from 52nd Street. He was certainly the best loved Puerto Rican musician; a three-day mourning period was declared on the island after his death last year.
The Cotton Club was “a classy spot” where “impeccable behavior was demanded,” recalled the Duke, the Hot Bach, the master of the Jungle Band. The joint, at 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue, was once owned by heavyweight champ Jack Johnson, who called it the Club Deluxe. Then Owney Madden’s gangsters took over. They wanted only whites at the fancy tables but had to have the young Duke on the bandstand. Except Duke was booked, long-term, at a Philadelphia theater. Madden called one Boo Boo Hoff, who dispatched his minion Yankee Schwarz. “Be big,” Yank told the theater owner, “be big, or be dead.” So Duke’s band, in white jackets, boiled shirts, and crimson trousers (Duke himself in charcoal gray with henna-tinged pants), came to Harlem. They’d been together a mere four years by then, but many immortals – Cootie Williams, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Barney Bigard, Sonny Greer – were already on the scene. Ditto the famous tunes – “Mood Indigo,” “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” “Rockin’ in Rhythm” – that Ellington would play until his death in 1974. At the Cotton Club, the Duke said, “Sunday was the night. They had about twelve dancing girls and eight showgirls, and they were all beautiful chicks. They used to dress so well! All the big New York stars in town, no matter where they were playing, showed up to take bows … They were tremendous representatives, and I’m darned to know what happened to them, because you don’t see anybody around like that nowadays.”
At The Continental Baths, 1970-1972
The joint was in the Ansonia Hotel, where Caruso and Stravinsky used to live, but now it was filled with a thousand men wrapped in towels, a full-time VD clinic, and a KY vending machine. Bette and her accompanist, the less-than-divine Mr. Manilow, entertained the troops. Stalking chlorine-drenched tiles like a pint-size Mae West, Bette advanced a bent rendering of New York cabaret tradition, a mix of Cole Porter, Pearl Bailey, and Mabel Mercer, with an occasional reprise of her days as Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof, for old time’s sake. The only downside, according to Edmund White, was that Midler’s performances made “everybody stop their sexual activities to listen to her.”
On the Williamsburg Bridge, 1960
By the time he was 30, Sonny Rollins, the great mohawk-headed saxophone Colossus, had played with Miles, led a quintet with Clifford Brown and Max Roach, and made Tenor Madness with Coltrane. But it wasn’t enough. So he disappeared. For two years he played – “woodshedding,” he called it – up on the rusted walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge, amid trucks and BMT squeal, the winter’s wind hard against his face. “I went up on the bridge because I was living on the Lower East Side and it was close,” he said. “It was a way of controlling my destiny.”
At the New York Paramount,
October 12, 1944
It was a busy year, 1944, for the 28-year-old not-yet-Chairman of the Board. He met Roosevelt, and Frank Jr. was born. Walter Winchell, working with J. Edgar Hoover, who thought Frank was a commie, spread rumors that he paid $40,000 to beat the draft. Still, Frank found time to do his part in the invention of the postwar American teenager, then primarily in the guise of screaming girls referred to as “bobby-soxers,” on account of the white half-hose they wore. The apotheosis of what one contemporary psychiatrist called “mammary hyperthesia” occurred in Times Square on Columbus Day, when 30,000 Sinatra fans, insufficiently controlled by several hundred of New York’s Finest, broke numerous windows in their attempt to rush the box office of the old Paramount Theatre, dubbed “the home of swoon.” It was a libidinal outpouring matched only by the Sullivan-show appearances of Elvis or the Beatles. Sinatra, who had previously appeared at the Paramount opening for Benny Goodman on December 30, 1942, was in fine voice, singing several of his No. 1 hits: “Night and Day,” “Embraceable You,” “All or Nothing at All,” “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Asked about his remarkable hold over young women, the soon-to-be leader of the Rat Pack said, “Well, I’m a boudoir singer.”