It’s becoming commonplace to note that New York City in the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s was a place of remarkable musical innovation across a range of sounds. During this period, hip hop evolved in the boroughs and then made inroads into the city; punk, new wave and no wave transformed the aesthetics and culture of rock; the jazz loft scene that unfolded in venues such as Ali’s Alley consolidated the sound of free jazz; the minimalist music/new music of La Monte Young, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, who were also based in the city, mounted a concerted challenge to the serial and post-serial music establishment; and contemporary dance culture was forged in private parties and public discotheques. I made my first trip to New York City in 1993, aged twenty-six, and had a great time. But just to think: if I had been old enough to visit twenty years earlier.
Inasmuch as they’ve been written about, New York’s music scenes of the 1970s and 1980s have for the most part been characterised as being segmented, with punk, disco, orchestral music and so on unfolding in discreet isolation. But during the last couple of years more attention has been paid to the actual location in which these sounds have developed ⎯ that location being downtown New York. Exploring downtown as a territory in which music was developed between as well as within a series of aesthetically inventive scenes, Bernard Gendron detailed the rock-compositional exchange that took lace between some of the key players at the Kitchen and the Mudd Club in Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club, which was published in 2002. Applying that critical analysis to the equally permeable art, literature and theatre scenes, and inviting Gendron to contribute a chapter on music, Marvin J. Taylor edited a collection titled The Downtown Book in 2006. (“Rarely has there been such a condensed and diverse group of artists in one place at one time, all sharing many of the same assumptions about how to make new art,” Taylor noted.) And late last year, Stuart Baker published another edited collection, New York Noise, which was organised around the photographs of Paula Court, and included short essays by downtown artists and musicians such as Laurie Anderson, Glenn Branca, David Byrne, Rhys Chatham, Peter Gordon and Ned Sublette. With Gendron working on a book-length study of downtown, interest in the location, rather than any singular sound that might have developed in downtown during the 1970s and 1980s, is on the up.
The geographical focus on downtown has been significant for at least two reasons. First, it has helped to highlight the way in which the aesthetic innovations of the 1970s and the early 1980s were connected through and maybe even enabled by social and economic conditions, and, in particular, were related to the flight of manufacturers out of what was then known as the Cast Iron District. Along with artists, sculptors, writers, film makers and theatre directors, composers and musicians started to move into downtown New York during the 1960s and 1970s because industry had moved out and the cost of living in these ex-industrial spaces was artificially low ⎯ and even lower in adjacent neighbourhoods such as the East Village. As artists and musicians arrived, a network of galleries and performance venues began to emerge, of which the Mercer Street Arts Center, which housed alternative rock and compositional performances, was one of the most influential. Other venues opened in these loft spaces as well as cheap-to-run clubs ⎯ so the empty CBGB’s took off when the building that housed the Mercer Street Arts Center collapsed, and the rock bands that had been performing there headed over to the Bowery. The concerted innovation lasted for as long as rents remained cheap, after which the artistic communities dispersed, and the creative impetus dissipated.
The analysis of downtown as a cultural location has also enabled an approach that shifts towards an appreciation of the way in which downtown New York during the 1970s and early 1980s was a space of social and creative flux that often cut across genre. During this period of downtown history, artists and musicians lived as neighbours, bumped into each other on the streets, and started to form unlikely collaborations that were often cross-generic in nature. Laurie Anderson commented in New York Noise: “There weren’t any boundaries or categories. We all worked on each other’s pieces and it didn’t matter that one was a dance-like thing and another was a sculpture-like thing… The definitions came later.” Contributing to the same collection, the drummer Don Christensen noted: “It seemed like the painters, filmmakers, performance artists, musicians, dancers all went to the same bars, events and concerts and socialized together.” David Byrne maintained that “awareness of what was going on outside your own field” was unusually high. And he added: “There was, as rumoured, a nice rubbing together between disciplines during the later part of that time ⎯ borders were definitely fuzzy, which was inspiring.”
I’ve been drawn to these “fuzzy borders” in my own work. In my first book, Love Saves the Day, I set out to write a history of what I took to be the marginal, irretrievably different culture of disco, but during my research I became struck by the way in which disco wasn’t hermetically sealed off, but was instead grounded in a complex range of aesthetic and social exchanges. Situated on the same block as the Kitchen before it reopened on Prince Street, the Loft typified the way in which pre-disco dance culture between 1970 and 1974 brought together R&B, funk, soul music, African and European imports, Latin music and also danceable rock ⎯ a fusion that was called “party music” before disco came into usage around 1974. In addition, the crowds that danced at downtown dance venues such as the Loft, the Gallery and the Paradise Garage were resolutely mixed. (Coming out of the countercultural rainbow alliance of the late 1960s, David Mancuso, the influential party host at the Loft, typified the outlook. As he told me: “Nobody was checking your identity at the door.”) And while rock became quite hostile to disco during the second half of the 1970s, in downtown New York this antagonism was really directed at the commercial midtown and borough end of disco ⎯ the disco of Studio 54 and Saturday Night Fever ⎯ and not the kind of socially and aesthetically progressive dance culture that was evolving in downtown venues. Rather than end with the homophobic, racist and sexist backlash against disco that swept through the United States during 1979, Love Saves the Day concluded where it had opened: back in downtown New York, where the dance scene experienced a new burst of energy when the private party and post-punk scenes overlapped and took club culture in new directions.
I dug deeper into the milieu of cross-generic downtown while researching my second book, a biography of the musician Arthur Russell, an Iowan-born cellist who spent time studying orchestral and Indian classical music in San Francisco before he moved to New York City to enrol in the Manhattan School of Music in 1973. Friendly with Allen Ginsberg from his time in San Francisco, Russell moved into the poet’s East Village apartment shortly after arriving in New York and soon started to hang out with the composer-musicians who were congregating downtown. Rhys Chatham was already there, Peter Gordon and Ned Sublette arrived a year or two later, and along with these and other composer-musicians, Russell helped turn the compositional scene into something that was notably open to cross-generic work. Russell was a key figure in this movement, having booked the pre-punk outfit the Modern Lovers to play at the Kitchen while he was Music Director between 1974-75, and this turned out to be a pivotal moment in the rich crossover that took place between compositional music and rock during the second half of the 1970s and beyond. Russell ended up living in the East Village until he died of complications arising from AIDS in 1992, and during his twenty-year stay he worked not only in compositional music but also folk, straight-up pop, new wave, disco and various forms of heavily syncopated music, including hip hop. Because he didn’t progress from one sound to another, but instead attempted to work with everything at the same time, Russell helped reveal the way in which downtown could function as a fluid a space in which a wide range of sounds and scenes explored their possible connectivity. And because Russell didn’t just engage with these sounds and scenes as if they were discreet, but instead continually looked to form connections between them, he consolidated the idea that downtown could operate as a space of hybrid interaction. The book attempts to draw out the way Russell was an exemplary but by no means isolated figure within the interacting, collaborative network of downtown New York, and is accordingly subtitled Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-92. Ultimately it’s not really a book about him. It’s about him and them, which is how he would have had it.
Even though downtown disco and the disco-friendly Russell contributed to the reinvention of the way music could be made and experienced, they’re not even referenced in other accounts of downtown. With Russell, it’s reasonably easy to work out what’s been going on. However broad ranging and collaboratively minded he was, Russell was finally an individual, and a complicated, publicity-shy, awkward individual at that. Gendron quite reasonably notes that when he wrote his chapter on the downtown music scene, as well as the downtown section of Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club, he simply didn’t know about Russell because Russell left so little evidence of his work. But disco ended up becoming a whole movement, and it wasn’t only founded in downtown, but also developed its most socially and aesthetically progressive expression in downtown as well. Venues such as the Loft, the Gallery, Flamingo, the SoHo Place, 12 West, Reade Street, the Paradise Garage and the Saint formed the backbone of a culture that pioneered turntablism, as well as the practice in which DJs and dancers combined in a call-and-response pattern to produce an extended and improvised musical tapestry across the course of a night. None of these downtown disco venues have been referenced in the recent flurry of books on downtown music culture, and the suspicion follows that someone like Russell has also been overlooked not simply because he was shy, but because one of his most important interventions was to explore the relationship between the downtown compositional scene and disco. Whereas the likes of Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham have been rightly lauded as key players in the downtown scene thanks to their exploration of the crossover potential between new music and rock, the parallel investigation of new music and disco, or disco and new wave, which was one of Russell’s areas of interest, has been omitted.
The elision of disco in the recent wave of books about downtown is entirely predictable, if only because this has become established practice in music criticism. In Richard Crawford’s impressive America’s Musical Life, for example, disco doesn’t get a single sentence in a book that runs to nine hundred pages, and this kind of amnesia has become standard. Responding to an article I completed recently about the pioneering DJ and remixer Walter Gibbons for the Journal of Popular Music Studies, an anonymous reader noted that disco is “the most understudied of all pop music genres of the recent past.” The reader continued: “Punk, rock, rap, jazz, even folk, enjoy the sort of cultural capital that disco, lodged as it is at the bottom of our ‘cultural escalator’, has never acquired.” The failure to be taken seriously can be traced to the germination of disco in downtown New York of the early 1970s, where the culture struggled to find wider acceptance because it was so explicitly ethnic.
The exclusion of people of colour from the downtown music scene wasn’t systematic during the 1970s, but it might as well have been. As George Lewis of the AACM (the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) recounts in his book A Power Stronger Than Itself, musicians and composers of colour found it almost impossible to establish a presence in the compositional scene, where they were pigeonholed as exponents of jazz, i.e. African American music that should be performed in bars and clubs, and not concert venues. Struck by the whitening of rock’s downtown arteries, Lester Bangs authored an article titled “The White Noise Supremacists” for the Village Voice in April 1979 in which he rallied against “the racism (not to mention the sexism, which is even more pervasive and a whole other piece) on the American New Wave scene” — something he’d “been bothered about for a long time.” When David Mancuso tried to open the Loft on Prince Street in SoHo — the original focal point of the downtown rock and compositional scenes— local artists joined forces with the SoHo Weekly News and told him where he should stick his queer nigger crowd (who were identified as a threat to rising real estate values). Very few people of colour lived in SoHo and TriBeCa, although the representation was much higher in the East Village, where long-term residents (rather than recent arrivals) contributed to the unfolding of the Latin scene in venues such as the Nuyorican Poets Café and the New Rican Village. But in contrast to the Latin quarter, which was very much apart from the rest of the downtown scene, even if it has yet to earn a mention in accounts of “the downtown era”, disco was also openly gay, and met additional resistance because of this. While individuals such as Jean Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, as well as Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg, were relatively easy to integrate into SoHo and its surrounds, the thousands of black gay men who were dancing at the Loft, the Gallery, the SoHo Place, Reade Street and the Paradise Garage amounted to an altogether freakier presence.
One of the reasons why disco continues to be sidelined is because downtown New York of the 1970s and 1980s is portrayed increasingly as a space of struggle and violence, in which musicians figured that a mix of insanity and aggression were necessary to survive. As Lydia Lunch writes of the “downtown era” in Taylor’s edited collection: “Anger. Isolation. Poverty. Soul murder. The connective tissue where the cultural division of art, film, music, and literature was cauterized, creating a vast insane asylum, part Theater of Cruelty, part Grand Guignol. All Dada, all the time.” Someone like Russell wouldn’t have identified with Lunch’s description of downtown ⎯ which she also describes as the “blood-soaked bones of New York’s underbelly” that was akin to “a filthy spectre who refuses a final exorcism”. And the likes of Russell, as well as the predominantly black gay pioneers of disco, might not have sided with what the art critic Carlo McCormick maintains was “a politics not of engagement but of estrangement”. Open to everything except the nihilistic and the aggressive, Russell had warmed to Ned Sublette’s queer cowboy song “Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly (Fond of Each Other)”, yet he also objected to another song Sublette worked on at the same time with the poet and performance artist John Giorno that included the lines I don’t recommend to anyone to be alive / And I can’t imagine anyone wanting to be alive / Except if they’re completely deluded. As Sublette told me: “Arthur thought that was terrible, not because of the music, but because he disagreed with the sentiment.”
My argument isn’t with authors of the recent wave of publications about downtown New York, because they’ve revealed progressive connections and collaborations that had been all but lost in the rush to generic orthodoxy. Nor is my argument with the downtown rock scene, which opened up to forms of cross-boundary work and social openness that hadn’t been at all obvious even five years earlier. Rather, I want to begin to question the cultural terrain upon which rock and a range of new music/rock projects have come to dominate the literature on downtown music culture. A certain set of names recur again and again: rock-oriented composers such as Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass; rock-oriented musicians such as Richard Hell and Patti Smith; and rock-oriented bands such as Blondie, the Bush Tetras, James Chance and the Contortions, DNA, the Lounge Lizards, the Ramones, Talking Heads, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Television and so on. Some musicians get to be talked about who don’t fit into the rock matrix ⎯ I’m thinking here of Peter Gordon’s Love of Life Orchestra, as well as hip hop practitioners such as Fab 5 Freddy and Afrika Bambaataa. But other downtown music scenes, including disco and the East Village Latin scene, also counted, and their erasure remains somewhat bewildering.
I want to take Laurie Anderson and David Byrne at their word and believe that the most exhilarating thing about downtown during this period ⎯ the lesson of downtown for now, perhaps ⎯ was the potential for interaction ⎯ the forging of social and sonic alliances. After all, as Peter Gordon told me, and as has been reported elsewhere, Brian Eno arrived in downtown in the mid-1970s talking proudly of his “fight the funk” pin ⎯ which could be translated as “fight black music”. Within a couple of years he was working with Byrne, Weymouth, Frantz and Harrison on the funk-driven album Remain In Light, and he deepened that aesthetic on the rhythmically-layered My Life In the Bush of Ghosts. One critic described that album as “[a] pioneering work for countless styles connected to electronics, ambience, and Third World music.” If Eno’s “fight the funk” badge was discarded in downtown, it follows that the most enduring legacy of the territory might be its level of inter-generic or even rhizomatic collaboration. Downtown’s new wave, disco and new music scenes all rallied for aesthetic and social change, and they were all the more powerful when they didn’t simply dwell on difference but began to explore points of common interest ⎯ which happened with increasingly regularity from around 1979 onwards.
With this in mind, I would like to add a provisional list of names of musicians who contributed to the swirl of sound that made downtown such a dynamic and irreverent place to live in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as a place where musicians from a wide range of backgrounds and tastes could work ⎯ even if their presence has yet to resonate as forcibly as it might. And so I would like to name: David Mancuso (the host of the now thirty-eight-year-old Loft, which developed the most influential and perhaps most progressive party template of all); Nicky Siano (the DJ at the Gallery, and the first DJ to perfect the art of mixing and use three turntables); Walter Gibbons (the DJ at Galaxy 21, who began to mix between breakbeats ahead of DJ Kool Herc, and who pioneered the art of remixing); Larry Levan (the DJ at the SoHo Place, Reade Street and the Paradise Garage, and perhaps the most influential remixer and DJ of all-time); Bob Casey, Richard Long, and Alex Rosner (the sound engineers who, along with David Mancuso and Larry Levan, helped forge the contours of contemporary sound system technology in downtown venues); Armando Galvez, Howard Merritt and Richie Rivera (the DJs at Flamingo, the white gay private discotheque, which was situated on the corner of Broadway and Houston Street); Jim Burgess, Robbie Leslie and Tom Savarese (the DJs at 12 West, where a white-leaning-to-mixed gay crowd danced by the abandoned piers on the West Side Highway); Wayne Scott and Roy Thode (the spinners at the Cockring, one of a series of bar-discotheques located in the West Village); Alan Dodd and the other DJs who span records at the Saint, where a slice of Fire Island was transplanted onto Second Avenue); Will Socolov (who ran Sleeping Bag with Arthur Russell and established the link between hip hop and dance); François Kevorkian (the remixer who blended together disco, R&B, dub, rock and jazz into a heady downtown sound); Julius Eastman, the black queer experimental composer who also enjoyed hanging out in sex clubs such as the Mineshaft, and who died of AIDS; Puerto Rican performers such as Mario Rivera and the Salsa Refugees, Brenda Feliciano and Conjunto Libre, who all played at the New Rican Village; and of course Arthur Russell, who wrote a song that could double-up as a plea to those who are inclined to leave black and Latin dance culture out of the downtown mix. That song was titled: “Don’t Forget About Me”.
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