Photo courtesy of Will Hermes
This article is part of an editorial series sponsored by our friends over at HBO celebrating the launch of their new show 'Vinyl,' from Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, and Terry Winter exploring the crazy and fantastic world of music in the 1970s. Throughout the week, Noisey will analyze this iconic era with articles looking back in time.
Sometime in the early 1980s, a 20-something-year-old middle class kid from Fresh Meadows, Queens, saw Sonic Youth perform in a club on Queens Boulevard. He can’t remember the name of the room, only that it was connected to a subway station. When he heard the reverb of the screeching guitars, it echoed the background noise of the train screeching to a halt. The music in New York always seemed to mirror its sonic environment: the hustle and bustle of the streets of Manhattan, the honking horns of traffic jams and the natural ambience of underground transit.
Today, Will Hermes is someone you would call a rock historian. A long-time music journalist in both print and on the radio, he’s always been fascinated with how the ever-changing social, economic, and political climates of New York City have affected the music it’s produced. And while his audible revelation occurred in the 1980s, his true decade of expertise is the 1970s. In those years, he went to high school a mere 15-miles from the cultural epicenter that would change modern music. In Manhattan, the West Village’s gay culture and DJs like Nicky Siano gave birth to disco while Downtown Tribeca hosted composers. In the Bronx and East Harlem, salsa saw a generational shift with younger Latin musicians who were ready to upgrade from the standard mambo classics. In West Harlem and the South Bronx, hip-hop was born under a streetlight with DJ Kool Herc. And in the East Village, jazz musicians created a loft scene while punk bands took stage in dresses or leather jackets.
Years ago, when reveling in the legacy of Patti Smith as a bellwether for innovation in punk, he recognized the multilateral changes that occurred across all genres of music in the 70s. This led to his 2012 book, Love Goes To Buildings On Fire, which chronicled the evolution of New York’s musical landscape in the 70s. We spoke to Will Hermes about how life in the city dictated the art it created far beyond the similarities of sonic urgency. We tackle the urban decay of a city impacted by a crippling local economy, the aftermath of the flower power 60s and the defining presentation of punk’s origins.
Noisey: Your love for the 1970s New York City music scene is rooted in the assertion that those years changed music forever. What made this time period so transformative?
Will Hermes: It was a perfect storm of things. The 60s was running on fumes. There was a generation coming up and saying, “This is a golden era of drugs and sex and music, right!?” Eventually, it felt like, “Eh, not really.” A lot of the greatest musicians had overdosed and drugs are turning out to not be all that great. Rock ’n’ roll has turned from this street culture into this superstar culture. If you want to go see a band, you would go see British prog-rock or Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden and you had to camp out overnight for tickets. At the same time, there was a real economic crash in New York. That made people more open to trying weird stuff. If there’s not that much money out there anyway, why not live in a crappy cheap apartment in a crime-ridden neighborhood and try to do something really fucking cool with your art?
So the country was in a recession, but New York was hit the worst. Unemployment was high, so was poverty and drug use. Could any of this great art have existed without the urban plight the city was facing?
That’s a tough question to answer. There’s always an impulse to make art. But somehow when times are tough, maybe art becomes more necessary. You need pleasure and joy, and in a capitalistic culture during hard times, you’re unable to get that from material things or money. You’re searching elsewhere.
And so developed this grimy underground punk movement and the jazz loft spaces. Is it safe to say finances and background had a lot to do with those choices of venues?
Right, but it had to do with aesthetics, too. At the time, all the people who were making rock music in the Downtown scene couldn’t get a gig unless they were a cover band. There were no places that you could go in and play originals, until Hilly Kristal opened CBGB. His whole thing was that he didn’t want you playing covers in his club. He only wanted original music. He was a cultural mentor in that way. This went for jazz as well. If you’re gonna play at a jazz club, they want you to play five to six minute songs then take a break so people can order food and drinks. If people were doing spiritual jazz or really intense free-jazz improv (where you’ve got a 40-minute piece) that didn’t necessarily encourage people to buy more drinks. That’s not what The Village Vanguard was going to present.
And oddly enough, Kristal didn’t intend for CBGB to be a punk club, it was branded off of country, bluegrass, and blues. Then you have the anecdote where Television talked him into allowing them to play a gig…
There’s the Richard Lloyd [guitar, Television] story where he told Hilly, “Yeah, we play the blues!” [laughs] They sorta did! There were some blues progressions buried in what they did and they played some Rolling Stones covers. These communities were pretty close-knit too. The art communities in New York are so spread out now, but the Downtown scene was pretty small and people were playing for each other. I think in all these styles, originality and inventiveness was really prized. That’s another thing that I think fueled the way that entire genres were shifted, because everybody was trying to do something new rather than just hop on the coattails of what other people had been doing.
Does that go hand-in-hand with what you’ve described as “gender-melting,” this integration of the gay and trans community into the arts and music scene?
The glam scene definitely was the transition from the 60s-hippie to punk rock. Glam definitely had a gender melting aspect to it (for all the supposed sexual liberation of the 60s), but the culture was still pretty homophobic. At the time, it was New York post-Stonewall. The gay community was a lot more unafraid and disco culture was built around queer club culture. As always, there was a large queer community not only in the arts but in the world. Certainly, in the arts maybe there was a little bit more freethinking and wanting to express their realities. It became part of some of the cultures, but not all of them. Punk did prove, in a lot of ways, pretty homophobic. That’s despite the gender play in terms of costume. Hip-hop and salsa, they were not necessarily known as being that hetero-flexible, either.
I guess what I’m referring to would be Lou Reed’s relationships, the influence of the 50s’ Beat Generation’s prevalence of sexual fluidity in jazz and seeing the vast cultural impact of what were then considered non-traditional communities…
Yeah and how they ultimately manifested themselves was interesting. But there was still conservatism there. Lou Reed and David Bowie were not the norm. At the same time, in the punk scene, there were definitely a lot of queer folk who were doing their thing and not getting hassled about it either.
This may be like a jarring change of direction – but why does every artist who created in the 70s seem to owe something to John Coltrane?
[Laughs] He blew a lot of people’s minds! It’s kind of astonishing, you could talk to Tom Verlaine [Television] about him or Steve Reich. Anthony Braxton or David Murray, they were either trying to escape his influence or transform it. That was an interesting thing about researching the period. Going in, I had a sense of this received wisdom, that I assumed the 70s was this complete break with tradition where punk rock and hip-hop supplanted 60s psychedelic music and old-school soul and completely new things were invented! But they really were not new; they were transitional. Hip-hop took so much from James Brown. Patti Smith took so much from the Beat poets, the bands on the Nuggets compilation that Lenny Kaye put together and even jam bands. Television certainly as well, there’s no way those guys didn’t listen to the Grateful Dead and the Stones while trying to figure out how to make two guitars sound completely awesome.
American culture has always romanticized the late 60s counterculture movement in San Francisco and the scene at Haight-Ashbury. New York didn’t really want any part of that. Why do you think that was?
It’s regional culture. It has to do with weather, with business. Both of those things affect the way people live. I lived in Northern California for two years and I chilled the fuck out. I ended up moving back to Brooklyn and took a job at Spin Magazine. Even now, you get off the subway, and the streets are just teeming with people, its dense and intense, people are rude and hard. It’s not necessarily conducive to walking around with stars in your eyes and wanting to hug people.
In the past, you’ve made an interesting comparison between disco and punk. They were happening at the same time, but you said disco was a form of escapism, whereas punk was like dancing in the decay. How does that divide develop? And is there any similarity?
I think all of this stuff had a certain simplicity and repetition to it. Certain beats let you lose yourself. With disco, you didn’t have to look at anything. There wasn’t somebody performing that you had to stare at. You could go into your own head, whereas punk had somebody shouting in your face. But everyone was trying to simplify stuff. Maybe there was something that happened in the 60s that had to do with acid and marijuana and how it encouraged these long-flights in terms of composition or melodies. There was an interesting reductive quality to punk rock compared progressive rock and psychedelic music. Hip-hop was reductive compared to the string-drenched soul of the late 60s. Early 70s minimalism, compositionally was much different than what had come before. Salsa was a harder-edged less complexly arranged form of Latin music. I’m not sure what to make of that; but the times had gotten hard and maybe people just wanted to cut to the chase.
So New York was having this identity crisis. By 1974 President Nixon had resigned, and Vietnam was still looming overhead. Did that play a role in the music scene?
There wasn’t a lot of politics in the music that came out of the scene in terms of the way, say, the music of Phil Ochs and Woody Guthrie and the folk revival. That was explicitly political. A lot of the music that came out of the 60s outside of New York was too. But the punk movement, for example, its politics were more personal and implicit. The boldness of the form.
The medium was the message?
A little bit. The Black Arts Movement that fed the loft jazz scene, they may not have been specifically talking Black Panther politics in vocal lines of their music, but there was a DIY autonomy to getting a loft space and turning your rehearsal space into a club, like Rashied Ali did. He lived upstairs from it, got himself a recorder for shows, and started his own record label. He did everything himself, but didn’t need to play a part of the record business, which was mostly white controlled. There was independence to all of these scenes in New York that was implicitly political. People feel a little bit of this now, back then things seemed so fucked, that you just had to create your own world. Your own economy, aesthetics, clubs, labels, rather than trying to deal with something that was so broken or corrupt that it was never gonna be fixed.
What was the appeal of artists like Iggy Pop being too trashed to perform or the brevity and similarity of all of the Ramones tracks? Was it the implications of the performance itself?
There’s definitely an element of performance art to it. But that’s something that people tend to interpret from the Stooges or the Ramones, that they were dumb or primitive. But, come on, Tommy Ramone was incredibly knowledgeable about European art films. The New York Dolls came from a Downtown culture that had a lot of pretty advanced experimental theater. All of these things fed into the punk scene. And there was something about the energy that was important.
With the 60s, there was this assumption that musicians were messiahs or prophets, pure and authentic individuals. Once the decade started fizzling out, people were thinking, “Eh, this is all kind of fake.” Maybe there’s a beauty to be found in inauthenticity and the show of it. I think that’s something that Bowie, glam and punk hit on as well. A lot of art was in attitude and presentation. It wasn’t about the chords they played, even if every chord sounded the same. It was the package: being a star or creating an artistic persona. It was telling that so many artists in that era changed their names. That wasn’t characteristic of the 60s, but it definitely in the 70s, The Ramones being the most glaring example.
So in 1973 Hilly’s on the Bowery turned into CBGB, a club with genre qualifiers in its name. How did it make any sense for it to turn into a punk club and later home to New York Hardcore in the 80s and 90s?
Hilly Kristal ran clubs. That’s what he did. He had other clubs, but they ended up closing, so he decided to put an effort into turning this club into a music venue. The Bowery at that time was scuzzy! You would not go down there unless you really had a very good reason! It was the right club, at the right time. There wasn’t anything particularly special about it other than Hilly’s attitude. It so happened that it was very cheap to live around there and this group of people wound up living nearby, it was literally the local bar for the guys in Television, Talking Heads, and The Ramones. It was really cheap to drink there. They could get gigs doing their own stuff, when they weren’t very good because no one was gonna come there anyway. As long as you could get your friends to come, that would be enough. If Hilly respected what you were doing, he’d put you on a bill. It had less to do with being super special, but all these factors aligned. You’ve been there, you know, the place was a dump.
It was disgusting and I loved it.
It was a good place for a bunch of young bands to get a leg up. I think Patti Smith played the closing night of CBGB, which I didn’t even attempt to get into, but I have a cassette recording of it that I play.
Hermes tape of the final CBGB show. Courtesy Will Hermes.
She said something to the effect of, “This place is gonna close, but then the kids will find another place.” Nobody I’ve interviewed ever had much of an idea that it was going to be a place of historical note. They were just fucking playing music. Today’s expendable culture is tomorrow’s history.
Derek Scancarelli got to see one show at CBGBs. He's grateful on Twitter.