How do you get from here …
… to here?
If you’ve listened to WFMU over the last few years, chances are you’ve heard Jeffrey Lewis‘s 9-minute-long track “A History of Punk Rock on New York’s Lower East Side, 1950-1975,” which he classifies as a “lecture in rhyme.” (Click here to download via FMU’s On the Download.)
Lewis, who self-identifies as anti-folk and clearly positions himself as the inheritor of the East Side scene — or at least of several of its key strains — runs through a quarter century of downtown music, from Harry Smith, a “beatnik weirdo” compulsive collector who curated the Smithsonian Anthology of American Folk to Richard Hell singing “Blank Generation,” the birth of CBGB, the debut of Punk magazine, and then the fatal day when “the whole thing moves over to England, England steals all the credit, and that’s how it goes. The End.” His catalog of characters and clunky rhymes is interspersed with him singing snippets of songs from the people he’s namechecking, which is what makes the track really amazing. The whole thing is a tad on the obsessive side, more than a little nerdy, which is probably why I like it so much.
The story he tells may seem a little counterintuitive (punk grew out of the folk scene?), but it basically lines up with an argument I’ve been making in my “Writing New York” class for the last several years, having to do with the tradition I see running from the Beats to the punks, straight through Bob Dylan. Again, a counterintuitive link in this genealogy, perhaps. After all, of all the genres Dylan’s ranged through and been associated with in the last 45 years, punk isn’t one of them. The pre-history of punk is usually traced backwards instead to the Velvet Underground, and if they’re linked to earlier downtown scenes, it’s Warhol’s factory and the minimalist music crowd John Cale ran with. But bear with me. The notion I’m arguing for was originally based on a comment a friend had once made to me that Highway 61 authorized everything that was to follow, and though such statements shouldn’t be taken seriously most of the time, this one stuck with me.
In class, I trace the first links this way:
Notice that beatnik prophet wandering around in the background? Look familiar?
Lewis doesn’t actually sample Dylan in his homage to the east side (he does get a nod), but for me “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” from the half-electric, half-folk Bringing It All Back Home (released earlier in the same year, 1965) is the essential link between the Beats and the punks, or at least it’s thematically as essential as Highway 61 is musically. The song’s title looks backward to — and identifies the speaker, if somewhat equivocally, with — the Beats …
… and looks forward to a smoother, more seductive, more heavily drugged underground:
The “subterranean” trope sidles up nicely to the notion of “downtown” as a sort of underground or underworld, a notion seized on first by the original Village bohemians, circa 1900-1920, many of whom worked advertising or publishing jobs in midtown but by night invented the Village as a sort of imaginary space with lots of “atmosphere” borrowed from Italian neighbors in tenements south of Washington Square. (According to the OED, the term “downtown” was used primarily in relation to New York as early as the 1830s, in part in opposition to “up-town,” which connoted high society, but my hunch is that it’s really the bohemians at the turn of the century who associate the term with what would later be called a scene.) It had to do with east side slumming at the turn of the century and the kind of urban underbelly reporting being carried on by folks like Stephen Crane and Djuna Barnes.
By the time the Beats identified themselves with the Village, the only one of them who could afford to live there was Burroughs, who got a monthly stipend from mom and dad. In 1958, two years after Howl was first published, Allen Ginsberg returned to New York and settled on the Lower East Side. Rents had continued to rise in the Village and tourism increased dramatically with the explosion of a new scene centered on folk music. Shortly after his return he wrote to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the owner of City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and publisher of Howl, that the Village had been overrun with weekend beatnik wannabes: “God, reporters all over, all asking the same questions and no end in sight, it’s getting stranger and stranger, life. Beginning to get invites from TV programs but have been holding out for a scene where I can read poetry rather than discuss Beatnikism. The world is really mad.”
I don’t remember where I found that anecdote (if you know where it came from, please remind me), but for a long time it’s seemed to me like a birth announcement for the East Village, carved out of the LES the way the original bohemians carved “The Village” out of the Italian spillover from Mulberry Street. The other text to vie for that title might be Dylan dressing like a rocker, plugging in, and, in the wake of “Positively 4th Street” and its brutal dismissal of the Village folk scene, Dylan’s equally brutal comment in an interview: “Folk is a bunch of fat people.” (I do remember where I found that one — it’s in Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street.)
But this is a slight digression from the central argument here, that Highway 61, and the single “Like a Rolling Stone” in particular, helps us track the movement from the Beats to the punks. “Like a Rolling Stone” opened the road to punk in several key ways: First, it liberated pop music from the 3-minute radio edit format. Sure, most punk songs would move in the opposite direction, cramming a 3-minute edit into a 1:15 live performance. But if you buy the argument that punk came to be in part through the Velvet Underground, then you have to recognize the significance of shedding the 3-minute format to the VU. (Imagine “Heroin” cut for radio play.) Second, in jacking up the Hammond (which was being played by a kid who really didn’t know how to play the Hammond), in pushing the harmonica toward dissonance, and in giving the piano a sort of metallic ring and a highly repetitive part, the song almost starts to sound industrial. Put that together with the vitriol of its lyrics and you realize why Dylan used it to play over angry crowds in 1966, turning up the volume. How much more punk can you be than playing loud over the top of a hostile audience? The lyrics, too, anticipate punk by violating the longstanding rock and roll tradition of meliorating the alienation its audiences were taken to feel. Another friend of mine once made the argument that rock and roll’s most abiding message is “Everything’s Going to Be Alright.” Dylan’s song — which has been cited as perhaps the best rock song ever — says just the opposite in its bitter dismissal of a former friend: “How does it feel to be on your own, a complete unknown?”
There’s no doubt, too, that these songs were about getting high in a gritty part of town, even before he gets to the “I’m going back to New York City” line at the end of “Tom Thumb’s Blues.” Can anyone make sense of the speed-freak jibberish Dylan wrote for the liner notes? It makes Howl seem downright civilized:
… then Savage Rose & Fixable come by & kick [autumn] in the brains & color him pink for being a phony philosopher — then the Clown comes by and screams “you phony philosopher!” & jumps on his head — Paul Sargent [a cop] comes by again in an umpire’s suit & some college kid who’s read all about Nietzsche comes by & says “Nietzche never wore an umpire’s suit” & Paul says “You wanna buy some clothes, kid?” & then Rome & John come out of the bar & they’re going up to Harlem …
You wonder if, when they get there, someone’s going to ask, “Hey white boy, what you doing up town?”
If the Velvets ever had the subterranean homesick blues, they probably holed up deeper in the basement and took stronger drugs. By that point no one was worrying about vandals or handles or — the preferred footwear of folkies — sandals.
All this is to say that one thing happening in the Village over the course of the 60s is the move of poetry eastward (the urban frontier, where cowboy costumes were in vogue); another thing to happen is the decision of some would-be poets — and Dylan may be seen as inaugurating this tradition too; certainly Lou Reed, who studied with Delmore Schwartz and later would sing a sonnet to his former teacher in the opening track of The Blue Mask, falls into it — to be rock stars instead of (or as well as) poets.
Enter Patti Smith (and her friend Tom Verlaine, who also had ambitions as a poet) and we’re just about done with this story. The story of Patti plugging in a band to sing behind her “reading” at St. Mark’s Church is just about as famous as the one about Dylan plugging in at Newport. She was opening for Gerard Melanga, a poet who’d earlier toured with the Velvets as part of the Warhol troupe the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. But I’m less interested in whether these stories are already too familiar (certainly they’ve been told to death one at a time) than in what sense they make together. Literary histories of the Village often sign off around 1960, as if somehow the heyday of the Village’s artistic energy had come and gone. That can only be true if you fail to recognize that downtown poetry scenes fueled the emergence of the CBGB crowd and that punk rock was a significant chunk of the downtown literary scene in the middle of the 1970s. (My first year here I advised a terrific undergrad thesis that really made this historiographical blindspot visible. Props to “Niko” Taylor.)
At that point, what existed downtown were an overlapping set of artistic circles and scenes that fed on a set of desires, figures, and social imaginaries that had been simmering — and transmitted in neighborhood mythologies — for 100 years. Bohemians, underbellies, shadows, squats, dope. It couldn’t last forever, as anyone trying to rent an apartment in the East Village (or any of a half dozen successor neighborhoods) can tell you. I got a kick out of Patti herself commenting on the state of the neighborhood last year when CBGB finally packed up shop and took the urinals out to Vegas. Here she is in Rolling Stone talking to David Fricke:
DF: The economic changes in New York City, particularly on the Bowery in the last few years, have been a factor in the club’s closing. Did you notice those changes when you moved back to New York, from Detroit, in 1996?
PS: I felt heartbroken. I came to New York [from southern New Jersey] in 1967. The city was down and out, and so were we. … But New York was an artist- and poet-friendly city. You could find a place for sixty-five dollars a month, find a crappy practice place and do your work. We all had jobs. I always worked in a bookstore. Lenny worked at a record shop, Village Oldies. I think Jay [Dee Daugherty, drummer] worked at Crazy Eddie’s or Radio Shack. We could get by.
I used to love walking to CBGB. When you came up the Bowery, back then, it was all winos. In the winter, they would have oil cans, set them on fire and warm themselves. You could see their bottles lined up, and they’d have old overcoats on. Sometimes you couldn’t distinguish us from the winos. These guys looked at us like we were the weirdos.
DF: Did you feel threatened?
PS: I never felt threatened. I feel more threatened now. I feel confined by the intense commercialism. The stores, the shopping, these people all night long in their limos, acting like they own our little streets. New York to me was the worker city, the artist city. It was a place to get your shit together. Now it’s a place people come to with their shit together. They have a lot of money, and they want condos. They want high life. They come to film here and have fashion shows. You try to walk on your street, and they act like they own it.
Cities should be edgy. They are edgy parts of America. They are not suburbia. They are supposed to be a melting pot of struggles, a collective force of ideas and energy. I watched horrified recently — NYU students coming in with truckloads of fancy stuff. Magic Chef stoves and boxes with new computers. I mean, these are not struggling college kids. Get a hot plate. Drink some Nescafé.
I admit, I wasn’t one of those people who got all choked up when CBGB closed. If it had still been an indecent place to listen to decent shows, it would have been different. I was moved, though, by other people getting worked up, and I can sympathize, certainly, with Patti’s complaint.
Then again, she’s the one broke the place into the mainstream. Watch her perform “Gloria” on the first season of SNL, back in ’75.
It’s like a postcard from another country, and it must have been even then. What must this have played like in middle America? It defines downtown, just like “Heroin” did, just like “Positively 4th Street” did, just like the opening lines of Howl did. Hell. Throw in Melville for good measure, who uses the term “down-town” in the opening lines of Moby-Dick.
And then there’s Patti at the end of the SNL performance, sending a shoutout to her peeps downtown, right in the middle of the city’s financial crisis (which is partly why Broadway looked medieval late at night). Maybe the city was better off that way, though I imagine the “Whole Foods — Bowery” crowd feels otherwise. Happy Easter, CBGB, indeed. Will someone pass the organic, grass-fed lamb?