Wednesday, April 22, 2009


New York City was broke and dirty in the seventies. It begged Washington for help, but Nixon pardoner Ford refused to lend a hand. NYC toughed it out.

The music that came out of 1970s New York embodies that survivor spirit. The city adds grit and soul to anything it touches, including the post-punk sounds that exploded from a grimy little club on the Bowery, CBGBs. For some reason, that dive spat out the Ramones, Television, the Patti Smith Group, the Dead Boys, Talking Heads, The Dictators, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, Misfits, and Blondie. There were no rules but one, to play the venue the bands had to write their own songs.

Free-form beat poet and punk godmother, Patti Smith was the first of the CBGBs gang to land a recording contract, even beating the Ramones to the punch. "Horses," her first album, was a powerful combo of poetry and rock that sounded like the Shirelles on acid. Patti cast herself as the missing link between Mick Jagger and Arthur Rimbaud, firing the DIY aesthetic in a million pink bedrooms and garages nationwide, and spitting in the eye of conventional definitions of what it meant to be a female performer. Primitive and sophisticated, she was a contradiction in boots with a Keith Richards' haircut and a volume of William Blake's poetry. Songs of Innocence and Experience. She wrote "Because the Night"--her biggest hit--with Bruce Springsteen. I interviewed her in Portland when this record came out, and up close she was charming and charismatic, not at all the enfant terrible, not the arrogant rock star but more like the girl who scrawls poems in her PeeChee, and I took a couple photographs, too, and she helpfully tossed in a scowl and snarl which seemed to be equal parts art and act. Desire and hunger is the fire I breathe.

Blondie. Guilty pleasures...I confess I liked "Heart of Glass." Sure it was slick and commercial and they ran it into the ground, but as a lad I was powerless to resist the charms of icy robot Debbie Harry, even if I knew better. New Wave meets frozen disco--forget about punk--Sold out? Maybe. But nobody ever listened to her first band, The Stilettos, and this was a number one hit. This is when people who were too cool to dance thought, well, okay, maybe. Let's dance on the left of the dial.

tom verlaine and patti smith

Television was brilliant. They looked like French criminals, Patti Smith said. I can see that. Breathless era crooks, skinny as junkies, with eyes glittering like desert mystics. They were city poets, which in a way is criminal.

Marquee Moon is one of the greatest albums from a great year, 1977. No, from any year! Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd played these intricate guitar figures in perfect counterpoint and created something shimmering & beautiful but with enough NYC grit to keep it real. It was punk or post-punk but it was worlds away from the basic 3-chord variety...these were virtuoso guitars. A guitar solo! And poetry. Before "punk" got narrowed down to a brand name and a rigid set of guidelines (Green Day, anyone?) there was still room for poets and criminals to remix and reinvent rock any way they wanted. They created a new sound.

It's nighttime in the city. You've had a few drinks and you're sweaty from dancing but you're outside in the cool night air and the skyline is twinkling. The band is on break. A yellow cab swooshes by. Someone is yelling in the street. You hear those chiming guitars and you know the band is back onstage and you're surprised to be face to face with a world so alive. That sound.

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