THEN & NOW: RICHARD HELL ON THE CITY WHERE PUNK BEGAN
I remember New York in the ’70s.
For me, that sentence comes with an aura, a haze of lazy days: youthful poverty, angst, and spiral-bound notebooks. There’s a whitewashed East Village tenement room, sunlit and empty but for a mattress, where I’m 20 and stretched out holding a pen above the pages. Cigarettes, tenements, love-sickness, springtime. Books and books. Used-book stores; guitars and typewriters in pawnshop windows; commercial movies that were intellectual; the Second Avenue Deli, where I glimpsed the faded number tattooed on the counterman’s forearm; The Village Voice’s long lists of cheap apartments and unskilled jobs; side street under-breath crackles of “Cloud Nine,” “Poison,” “dime bags;” dusty storefront displays of Asian trinkets, Sicilian snacks, Latin witchcraft; block after block of Hudson riverfront de Chirico desolate; the overall youthful sense of time as endless, which was equally frustrating (there’s nothing to do, I’m broke) and convenient (I have a million ideas and I accomplish them); entire blocks’ sidewalks lined with blankets marketing indigents’ scavenged trash.
In some ways, it was like the Wild West, in other ways bohemian ’20s Paris—a haunted, peeled-paint funhouse for those drawn by the likes of John Coltrane, Willem de Kooning, the Eighth Street Bookstore, the Velvet Underground, Hannah Arendt, John Cassavetes, Susan Sontag, the Metropolitan Museum, Jack Kerouac, James Baldwin, Frank O’Hara…though I just realized hardly any of those names meant a thing to me when I left for the city. But it was the place to find them!
I’d dropped out of high school and caught a bus from the Southern US to New York. My first year in the city was 1967; I was 17. I worked menial and wrote poems and made a literary magazine and then picked up a guitar, and in 1973 we started punk. I spent most of ’74 to ’77 at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. Those clubs were like a perverse country fair—just as “punk” was white urban folk music—a select carnival of ’70s NYC recreation and produce kept in a few dark rooms for a couple hundred young semi-musicians and those who appreciated them.
At CBGB there was always someone to buy me a drink if I was broke. At Max’s you could dine nicely—“Steak, Lobster, Chick Peas” read its sign—and I had a tab. Nobody ever asked me to pay it, but I was still enough of a rube that I confused the owners by bringing them the near $1K total when I finally got a big enough paycheck. I remember such moments better than those of any band playing, probably because those clubs in the mid-’70s were more like loose social clubs than band venues. They were the local bars for the neighborhood of artists—or, anyway, the young and curious—a clientele that at that time was forming bands (in the ’80s the new exciting medium would be paint).
People are wistful about those days. It was the most recent time New York was its own legend of a rendezvous-and-refuge for unrestrained artists and thinkers.
How were things different then? For me, it’s personal. I was young. That’s how things were different. When you’re young, you don’t know you’re young, as conscious of it as you may be. You think youth is something about strength and energy and being unfairly dismissed by the powers that be. You have to live for a few more decades before you realize that youth is also about innocence, about ignorance (not always necessarily a bad thing), about ideals that aren’t even understood as ideals but as plain standards, and, most importantly, about extreme curiosity and sensitivity. Things won’t stay that fresh for much longer, especially considering all of the self-abuse to which many are prone.
Also, if you’re talking about how New York in isolation has changed, you have to try to filter out the effects of social media and online shopping and portable phones and climate change, for instance, because those things are everywhere. Even the income inequality that has turned much of the town into a spectacle of luxury is nationwide. The rest of the US will always be suspicious of the city, still, though, regardless. They don’t consider it completely American. We’re too cosmopolitan, too immigrant.
In the ’70s, New York was a town, not a display. As broke and forsaken as the place was (municipal strikes, high crime, burnt-out buildings, “white flight” of the middle class to the suburbs, “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD”), there was still a feeling of continuity, of living in a place among cohorts, not living in an idea or a resort. New York was the original capital of the US, always the heart of its arts, on its borough islands and in its grid: the streets, skyscrapers, bars, neon, tenements, people striving and finding inspiration—this was the city, not some idea of status, wealth, and social achievement.
New York was, first of all, one’s neighborhood, often with an ethnic cast (in the ’60s and ’70s, the East Village was still largely Ukrainian and Eastern European). Now neighborhoods are fewer; rather, there is rebranding (as, in fact, the tag “East Village” was adopted as a real-estate marketing ploy in the mid-’60s). When a New Yorker took a walk here in the ’70s, it was to check by favorite local stops, whether bookstores, bars, or parks; thrift stores or pawn shops; record stores or movie houses. Times Square, for god’s sake, with block-long rows of movie marquees for double features, grimy game and novelty arcades, freak shows, pimp-ensemble storefronts, and ancient diners. Then you’d push further to a pocket locality you’d perhaps never before seen, where the menus were mystery and people’s accents and customs unfamiliar. Now when you go out, the sites are what’s missing, since the business turnover is so high, so forced, that there’s always somewhere you didn’t even realize you’d valued until it’s gone.
I don’t mean to overdo it. I don’t think New York will become Las Vegas. I still love it and I couldn’t even say whether I’d trade the city as it is for how it was in 1975 (then again, I’m lucky enough to still have a cheap apartment). The spectacular museums and galleries and restaurants and even the repertory movie houses keep proliferating, and way top now what there was back then, and the streets are safe. I do feel sorry for young artists who have to deal not only with the corporate values dominating all, including many in the arts worlds, but also have to spend all their formative years with multiple roommates because no one except the rich can afford privacy. Still, I do love New York, and I believe in her. I believe she’ll remain the abode of choice for young artists, and there is still plenty here to hold me. But I do remember the ’70s, when I was young.
Words Richard Hell