The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2011

All Issues
OCT 2011 Issue

Don’t Mind the Maggots

A couple of music-related volumes have caused a bit of a stir here lately at the Book Ranch. They’re among the latest entries in David Barker’s Continuum 33 1/3 series, notable for its oblique approach to well-worn musical subjects (and its keen design). Bryan Waterman’s Marquee Moon and Cyrus R. K. Patell’s Some Girls were conceived in tandem: The authors, both humanities professors at N.Y.U., are friends who share a personal/professional fascination with New York punk/street culture of the 1970s. This twin portrait of New York’s halcyon rock era represents the fruit of their efforts.

As often happens with good books, the more I read the more I realized that the “punk era” (whatever parameters you might want to give it) is, like most things, a welter of unresolved contradictions. What has changed more than anything else over time is my tolerance for such contradictions.

Bryan Waterman
Marquee Moon
(Continuum, 2011)

Cyrus R. K. Patell
Some Girls
(Continuum, 2011)

Take, for example, the idea of punk as a musical (as opposed to a cultural/fashion) style. Historically, it was a self-conscious return to “simplicity,” an effort to offend the corporate rock establishment, such as it was perceived circa 1974. What this boiled down to, more than anything else, was anti-virtuosity: the drive to play, write, sing something that sounded as if anyone could do it. Put another way, it was anti-professional: tear down the wall between musician and fan; play in small venues, don’t charge a lot of money, interact with fans; produce records that sound “live”; avoid excessive arranging, layering, processing. The Antichrists of the movement, such as it was, were, predictably, such megastars as the Eagles, Steely Dan, Starship. Its guiding lights, as Richard Hell states in an interview, were still-outré, mid-’60s garage bands like the Kingsmen, Sonics, Them, Velvet Underground.

OK, so, here’s the rub (ignoring for the moment that “punk” never really went away—witness the Stooges, Dolls, Groovies, Modern Lovers). When Television began, in 1974, they did sound pretty much like an extension of the Velvets (as did their immediate precursor, the Neon Boys, from what we can tell). It always seemed to me that Hell was the true spirit of the band: The guy couldn’t really sing or play bass, but he had a vision of what was right for the moment—and, I think, a sense of fun. Hell virtually created the “punk look”: shades (by way of Lou Reed), torn garments (by way of Bowery bums), mental-patient hairdo (by way of mental patients). According to a much-rehearsed myth, Malcom McLaren beheld Hell’s look on a visit to New York City and forthwith exported it to his charges in England with a predatory élan any hip couturier would envy.

But Hell left the band (in 1975) as Verlaine was wresting away control. What this ultimately meant was that Television went from a garage-y ensemble (as an early review by Josh Feigenbaum in the Soho Weekly News put it, “The great thing about this band is they have absolutely no musical or socially redeeming characteristics, and they know it”) to four guys who could actually play. The Dionysian sloppiness of early Television morphed by degrees into the Apollonian precision of Marquee Moon. The mature Television sound not remotely punk. Smith and Ficca might be spare, but they aren’t simple. The rhythm section provides a groovy, almost funk-based counterpoint to the throbbing, psych-prog guitar helix of Verlaine/Lloyd. This is about as far from the Ramones as you can get, although in both cases the production style could be termed “minimal.”

I really, really like both the Hell and Verlaine versions of Television. But, folks, Marquee Moon and Adventure ain’t punk—at least if the term has any musical meaning.

Bryan Waterman is, I think, more interested in punk’s meaning as a fashion/subcultural category: he spends much of the book disentangling myth from fact by, for example, recounting the band’s and Hilly Kristal’s divergent versions of the Historic First Encounter. And, since Television/CBGB was almost from the very first a self-conscious act of mythmaking, he focuses on how exactly the myth was made, and this makes for fascinating reading. Hell and Verlaine, Patti Smith, Terry Ork, and others have left behind them an extensive paper trail, and it’s remarkable to see the forging of new connections that have become so overly familiar. Hell, Verlaine, and Lloyd, with the help of a phalanx of writers and general bohemian types, carefully crafted their onstage personae, based on an outsider prototype borrowed from Verlaine (Paul) and Rimbaud, Burroughs, and the 1950s cliché of the “juvenile delinquent.” In time-honored rock ’n’ roll tradition, their conventional middle-class origins were replaced with new identities far more dangerous and romantic.

Waterman is a good historian. He takes us back to a seminal time and place by recreating—not downplaying—its complexity and contradiction. So we get a picture of punk-era New York where Warhol and the glitter/drag scene assume their proper places: At the time, the worlds of Wayne County and early Television were all but indistinguishable. Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye first brought out their act in West Village cabarets. Jeff Hyman, before he became Joey Ramone, sang for the glitter band Sniper under the name Jeff Starship (!).

The undeniable force majeure of the era is Patti Smith. She wanted out of New Jersey, she wanted to be an artistic success, and the moment she witnessed Television in 1974 it was clear that, as Waterman puts it, they were the incarnation of her ideas. She had gone as far as she could with Mapplethorpe (and Allen Lanier): She drafted Verlaine as musical collaborator on her first single (and as lover), and proceeded, through her powers as artist, writer, and scenester, to make downtown New York the center of the universe.

She succeeded only too well, and it’s thence that the real contradictions begin. The record company suits began sniffing around the scene in short order; Smith, the Ramones, and Blondie were signed to big deals, and everything changed. The Sex Pistols happened, and corporations commenced to sell anti-corporate product to the kids on a huge scale. The irony is that Television made the smallest commercial splash of all the CB’s bands; but in another way it makes perfect sense. In the three years following Hell’s departure they had evolved into something cold—caterwauling of obscure lyrics, angular, long jams (for God’s sake!); what did these guys listen to—jazz? There’s a geek-boy exclusivity to the whole enterprise, especially looking back through the opera glass; Television’s critical currency, as with VU and Big Star, is partly a function of their obscurity/commercial failure. Of course, geek-boys—like Joey Ramone—could achieve world fame by serving as icons for misfits everywhere, but Television doesn’t reduce to anything so comic-book simple: They’re really a band for musos.

Cyrus R. K. Patell is anything but a muso (despite the fact that he’s a dedicated musician). More cultural historian than rock critic, he weaves together in Some Girls a compelling narrative starring a couple of grizzled champs, dragging themselves back into the ring for a final shot at glory.

The Stones in 1977 were on the verge of cultural obsolescence. Not since Exile had they “mattered.” Their next three records—the dreadful Goat’s Head Soup, the not-so-dreadful It’s Only Rock ’n Roll, the so-dreadful Black and Blue—had the public wondering whether, at long last, they had turned into Keith Richards’s worst nightmare: professionals. They even looked tired on Black and Blue’s cover: as if they were punching a time clock, fer chrissakes. As Johnny Rotten spewed: “Groups like the Rolling Stones are revolting … they have nothing to offer the kids anymore.” This really was a widespread sentiment—I remember it, although I wasn’t in the punk camp per se.

Patell reminds us that New York punk owed a great debt to the Stones, from Patti Smith’s Keef-do and sullen mien on the cover of Horses to Television’s bad-boy pose: They regularly included “Satisfaction” in their live sets. Yet the late-’70s Stones were increasingly seen as what they were: comfortable burghers, engaged in the business of rock ’n’ roll.

How to become relevant again? No easy task. Patell skillfully ties their fate to that of New York itself. Jagger moved there in 1976 (lagging Lennon by a bit, as usual) just as the city was hitting rock bottom, its bankruptcy memorialized in the famous Daily News headline “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.” But seemingly all at once the disintegration and violence bloomed into something compelling: The East Village rose from the ashes of spent hippiedom, SoHo started to happen, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver mined the streets for poetry—and the Yankees were winning.

Jagger was busy hanging out at Studio 54 and pursuing Jerry Hall (though still officially attached to Bianca); Richards was busy getting high and drunk as often as possible. But they were starting to take their irrelevance personally. Richards is on record as feeling that “We’ve got to out-punk the punks. Because they can’t play, and we can. All they can do is be punks.” No one wants to be a dinosaur—they would show the upstarts how it’s done.

As Patell notes, Some Girls refocused the Stones in more than one way. For one thing, it got Keith back into the band; he and Jagger had been going their separate ways for a number of years, and his absenteeism had become notorious. For another, it heralded a return to an earlier production aesthetic. Engineer Chris Kimsey believed that “the band’s last few albums … had sounded too clean in places, almost clinical.” If not as rough and ready as Exile, Some Girls largely dispensed with overdubs in favor of a more spare, “live” sound. And, perhaps most important, it provided a subject matter they could sink their teeth into. Just as Exile was a declaration that “we are a bunch of guys who play balls-to-the-wall r ’n’ r in a dank basement while drinking Jack Daniel’s,” Some Girls was a declaration that “we are a New York band, and this record sums up what New York is all about RIGHT NOW.”

This last point is worth stressing. Patell begins page one with a quote from Scorsese (regarding his concert film Shine a Light)—“For me, for many other people, they will always be a New York band”—explaining that, “This book takes Scorsese’s remark as a point of departure.” I think he wins his point. Listening to the record now—especially “Shattered” and “Miss You”—it evokes its time and place more poignantly than anything I can think of.


Dann Baker

DANN BAKER is freelance editor, writer, and musician living in Brooklyn. His musical projects have included Love Camp 7 and the late, lamented (?) Admiral Porkbrain, a Beefheart cover band.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2011

All Issues