Downtown scenes

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.)

hwy 61

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?

31 responses to “Downtown scenes”

  1. Lane says:

    It is touching to read things like Patti’s remeberance of bohemia’s gone by. But it’s also important to remember the importance, to a shocking degree, of that little silver haired “trickster” standing in the between Nico, Moe and Lou: Andy.

    All the success, all the money, all those kids moving into those bright new NYU dorms, they’re all future clients!

    As James Murphy of lcd soundsystem sang. “I wish, I could complain, more about the rich, but then, who would, (something something something) GO TO EVERY SHOW.”

    You’ve always helped me understand this about New York, Bryan, thanks. And besides after the last gasp of the East Villiage in the late eighties the whole game moved across the river.

    Patti’s world still exists, but now it’s called Brooklyn.

  2. ha ha. certain outposts in brooklyn, of course. i’d hardly call park slope slumming, though. yeah–the reliance on rich folks to go to every show is certainly part of the game. and it’s no secret that the east village was invented by real estate agents as much as it was by punks and beatniks moving east in the early 1960s.

    oh — and i had wanted to link this somewhere but couldn’t find the right place. a good example, i suppose, of what ginsberg was talking about when he moved back from san francisco.

  3. Lane says:

    Oh yeah, “the Slope” But cut me some slack, Adriana is a writer, and up until ’01 this was a sleepy little “writer’s neighborhood”. It was nothing like the basiton of comfy luxury it has become.

    And we love it this way.

  4. sure, sure. i’m sure you’ve even got a hotplate and nescafe to prove it.

    hey, though. another thing i wanted to link to but somehow forgot last night. a couple weekends ago we went to this 20th anniversary party for a squat on the east side — one of the last remaining ones. it was badass as all hell, a DIY performance space and gallery, communal living, walls papered with notices to vacate the premises, the whole shebang. they’ve had electricity for under five years. and it was right here on the island of manhattan. they were also launching this book, which seems pertinent to this conversation.

    by “this way” did you mean “bastion of comfy luxury”? park slope … the new new tribeca.

    one of the things my post laments, if it’s generically related to a lamentation, is the loss of the geographical specificity of “downtown.” there’s something about that concept that derives from manhattan geography and has an unmistakable and unreplicatable ethos. “outer borough” comes close, with its emphasis on removal from the center, but “downtown” maintains its alterity because it’s so damn close to the center of things and yet exists (well, existed) as an alternate universe.

  5. Scotty says:

    Bryan, thanks for clearly pulling these links together. I’ve linked the folk and punk movements, but only through their reactions to the above ground and the act of mining authenticity from below.

    I think it is important to also consider the influence glam had on punk; I certainly recognize a link from the ‘Dolls to the Ramones. Of course there’s the whole Lou, Bowie, Iggy triangle…perhaps it all does come back to Lou.

    Recently I started referring to the Stooges as the originators of nihilism rock, and thought about the connection between standing for nothing and punk. I do think that without the exhaustion and disappointment of the ’60s, punk would not have happened – at least not in the same way.

    PS: I miss CBs. Between playing a couple a couple of shows there and shitting in the restroom, people who know the club are usually more impressed by the latter. It was a rough time indeed. The club did have the best stage sound I’ve ever experienced; all kick drum in the chest, snare across the face and bass in the gut.

    Hey ho let’s go!

    Again, thanks for this rockin start to my week back at school.

  6. Ruben Mancillas says:

    I thought those New Yorker cover maps with Manhattan as the center of the universe were a joke.

    That first photo was taken in Tangiers.

  7. you’re so literal, ruben — i didn’t mean to imply the photo itself was taken on 4th street or something. if you want to get picky like that, you should remind me that “the subterraneans” isn’t actually set in NY. but neither detail changes my mind about the links.

    scotty — welcome back! yes, of course glam has to be in the genealogy. again, though, isn’t there something a little pre-glam about bob in the late 60s? lewis accounts for iggy in his genealogy, which reminds me — the stooges are playing tonight way up town!

    iggy and mick jagger also figure in this great novelty song by wayne/jayne county and the backstreet boys from 1976, a promo single for Max’s Kansas City. worth downloading if you can find it. or it’s on Rhino’s NYC scene in the 1970s comp, which I think is called “Blank Generation,” if I remember right.

  8. Stephanie Wells says:

    Bryan, how on earth did you stage that first photo with Burroughs to your right, Gregory Corso at your feet, I don’t know the guy behind you, and Paul Bowles sitting humbly at your FEET? My god, you’re so much more connected than I ever realized.

  9. Stephanie Wells says:

    i meant corso at your left–damn these uneditable comments!

  10. swells — that’s pretty funny. the other day i got kind of creeped out by this photo of a young ginsberg pointing at a moloch robot apartment building, which made me realize i need to stay fit! (scroll down after you link)

  11. Scotty says:

    I was going to make the same comment about the picture, but mine would’ve been much less clever, and much less knowledgeable about the beats. Thanks babe, you truly are my better half.

    B, you’ve got tickets right? The new record is a smash, especially the song “Free and Freaky:” England and France their cultures are old; their cheese is stinky and their beer aint cold; when I’m over there I wanna go home and get free an freaky in the USA!

  12. Marleyfan says:

    This morning, on the way to school, my son was playing a song from his ipod for his friend and me, while explaining the irony of these lyrics –

    “Rockaway Beach”
    Up on the roof, out on the street
    Down in the playground the hot concrete
    Busride is too slow
    They blast out the disco on the radio

    Rock Rock Rockaway Beach
    Rock Rock Rockaway Beach
    We can hitch a ride
    To Rockaway Beach

    It’s not hard, not far to reach
    We can hitch a ride
    To Rockaway Beach

  13. Ruben Mancillas says:

    As far as being literal, I’m the one who interrupted you guys defining the boundaries and resulting character of certain neighborhoods.

    And you and I both know where The Subterraneans was set so I didn’t bother mentioning it.

    But my point was that the links, no matter the welcome and expected clarity of your writing, are strained.

    Last pedantic photo credit-though I can’t think of a more “NYC band” than my beloved Velvets that iconic shot of them with Andy was taken in L.A. of all places.

    Maybe that’s why they all look like they’re trying so hard to be cool…

  14. are you trying to tell me you’re calling out the genealogy based on where the *photos* were taken?

  15. Scotty says:

    Marleyfan, please specify. I think of Rockaway Beach as one of the most earnest and uplifting summer songs I can think of: a bunch of blue collar hoods hitchin’ a ride to go and raise some cane in the summer sun. The imagery is like the Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out of Brooklyn. Where is the irony?

  16. Marleyfan says:

    Glad you asked, because he (my son) was wrong. He thought it was a punk group making fun of the Beach Boys who were on the charts at the time.

    I looked it up on Wiki, and it said-
    “Rockaway Beach”, penned by bassist Dee Dee Ramone in the style of the Beach Boys and other early rock ‘n’ roll bands, was written about Rockaway Beach, Queens, where Dee Dee liked to spend time. Johnny Ramone claims that Dee Dee was the only real beachgoer in the group…”

    if you listen to the first verse, it sounded like the city was their beach (obviously he was wrong, and I’ll tell him Scotty called him on it).

    Blitzkrieg Bop and Sedated are my favorites.

  17. i think it’s fair to say it was spoofing california beach songs by writing a city beach rejoinder. i see his point. it did come a decade later, though.

  18. Demosthenes says:

    Reading this post made me smile. I really like the Ramones as a group and I actually bought my first Ramones cd in Manhattan while visiting Bryan. Talk about nostalgia. By the way MarleyFan, It was Rock ‘N’ Roll High School, not Rockaway Beach that I played for you this morning. In addition, was explaining that it is ironic that the Ramones are so eclectic in their style having popular songs like “I Wanna Live” while also acheiving popularity in the that California rock “n” roll style. But I do understand what you were saying.

  19. Marleyfan says:

    Children should be seen and not heard, and sometimes not even seen.

  20. Lane says:

    It seems appropriate in the chain of this post to note the recent passing of Sol LeWitt.

    He was an artist who developed in lower Manhattan in the 1960’s, the high classic period.

    He was an extemely important American/international artist. Perhaps the single greatest exponent of the “movement” generally refered to as “conceptualism.”

    He was a great artist.

    It makes me sad that he is no longer living. Fortunately he left an enormous body of work. Sadly, in my opninon, his late work was his very best. He was headed up, he seemed to be getting better and better.

    Sol LeWitt 1928-2007

  21. Stephanie Wells says:

    Sol LeWitt died??!!! I hadn’t heard!! Lane, a full post please–this comment is not enough. I am a huge fan of what I know of his and would like to be better educated.

  22. Lane says:

    yeah, kind of wierd actually, check the Times. Kimmelman wrote it.

    He really was a MAJOR American talent, really really big. Like Altman, or DeLillo, or Streep.

    It’s strange when someone so important dies. You realize you won’t live to see someone that big develop in your lifetime.

    You will die first.

  23. Dave says:

    Wow, the BW/Ginsberg resemblance is a bit freaky.

    Loved the discussion of “Like a Rolling Stone.” One more proto-punk aspect of it, maybe: you say “it[‘]s [a] bitter dismissal of a former friend: ‘How does it feel to be on your own, a complete unknown?'” But isn’t it rather a dismissal of the poseur, of the middle-class kid who has idolized Dylan and the rest of the early-’60s counterculture (probably including the Beats) from a position of comfort but is now actually “down and out.” The song calls out the inauthentic Dylan fan and cruelly taunts her for having fallen, for having her bourgeois illusions shattered. You can see Dylan with a defensive, cooler-than-thou snarl, mocking those who can’t keep up with him. Very punk.

  24. Dave says:

    Hey, my post tomorrow is on LeWitt.

  25. E. Tan says:

    c/o the velvet underground there’s a reception tonight for a new velvet underground exhibition that commemorates the 40th anniversary of VU and nico… from the website:

    Highlights of the exhibition:
    Warhol’s designs for Up-Tight, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable
    The original artwork for the 1966 Boston Tea Party show
    The famous 1966 acetate demo of The Velvet Underground and Nico – an album The London Observer has cited as number one in a list of “50 Albums that Changed Music”
    Original Lyrics by Lou Reed from 1965
    Original Warhol screen test film stills and photobooth pictures of band members

    it’s running until may 12th but i have class tonight. damn.


    My accomplishments might by some be considered minor, but SUICIDE found their audience at the residency I gave them at Mothers; Lydia Lunch found her’s at Max’s; and I managed to save THE CRAMPS after they failed their audition at CBGB.

    Danny Fields (RAMONES), Leee Childers (HEARTBREAKERS) and I (JAYNE COUNTY & THE ELECTRIC CHAIRS) brought NY authenticity to London as the Brits were stealing our thunder in the Great Punk Rock Explosion of ’76/’77. So, call me an egoist, but I think I deserve to take a bow before I bow out for the last time.

  27. Chris says:

    Peter…you DID!!!!

  28. Joe Tee says:

    I watched Harry Smith puke out his soup at Kiev and then eat it again, Hilly Crystal Rest in Peace

    All good Punks go to Hell

    Joe Tee EX
    Revenge St. Marks And Bowery 1977 -80

    Pantasia Records 2nd ave & 4th street 1976 – 78

    Record City Bway & Waverly 74 -77

  29. #29 — RIP indeed.

  30. roberto says:

    ramones son y seran mi religion, mierda carajo vamos a gritar la posta