REALITY SANDWICH IS PSYCHEDELIC CULTURE

True Punk: Everything I Say Is a Lie

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The following is the transcript of a talk the author gave in 2007 at The Lab at Belmar — a center for the presentation and study of contemporary arts in Denver, Colorado.

 

Being asked to speak as an expert on rock invokes a schizoid history. I came at music as a musician before I came at is as an expert. But it wasn’t just that I played guitar in bands and then later learned what scholar historians have to say about guitars and bands. It’s more complicated than that. Before I became a punk, when I thought I was a classical guitarist, I became involved, by a series of accidents, with artists older than I whose work fed into punk.

It all started like this: In 1976, I began to work as guitarist accompanist with the poet Allen Ginsberg, and this continued on and off for twenty years, during which I got to know the people he knew, which was a lot of people, some of whom were musicians with whom I continue to work to this day.

In 1988, I met a punk band that needed a guitarist to fill some bookings, and I agreed to sit in for two weeks. I stayed for five years. In 1992, with the thing unraveling, I discovered by accident that my life could be a dissertation in musical anthropology, and went from punk to professor.

In 1993, I had a conversation about the roots of punk with Allen Ginsberg, who had been observer-provocateur on the New York scene since the ‘40s. He said, “It came from attempting to do things on a small scale, which was the philosophy of the underground film. That you could bypass the entire Hollywood business which was public and vast, but you could entertain yourself and your friends. Which is the same thing as the revival of poetry readings on a small scale. So the best thing to do is do your own thing with a garage band in your own little club in a small town, decentralized culture.”

Allen’s relating punk to independent cinema and poetry performance set me off on research that cast a broader net than is commonly used in books and articles on punk.

I have in mind two broad streams that feed into punk. One is the African stream that since the mid 19th century has been a wellspring of American popular musics, and the other is the avant-garde stream that, also since the mid 19th century, has blurred the boundaries between art and popular culture and between art and life. Both streams made art a medium of protest, and these streams fed the DIY ethos that enabled punk to happen, and that is still with us in hip hop and graffiti art, to name just two contemporary examples.

My account will wind up New-York-centric, maybe because my musical activities have been based there, but also because New York was the place where various new syntheses of R&B and free jazz and blues and avant-garde noise and old rock that were cooking in Cleveland and Detroit and LA and innumerable galleries and garages and bars scattered around the country in reaction to the sorry state of music in the early ’70s crystallized in a new style that was dubbed, somewhat sarcastically, punk. And this happened in New York for the same reasons that, a century earlier, young rebel artists who broke with the mainstream trends of their day and generated new styles — that were dubbed, sarcastically, “avant-garde” — brought their syntheses about in Paris. Look at it this way: Paris in the 1870s and New York in the 1970s had a few crucial factors in common: both were capitals of art and commerce, both had a history of harboring radicals, and both had cheap rent.

Punk was not the spontaneous utterance of juvenile delinquents, though that Dickensian romance was marketed in London by the art-student entrepreneur and his designer partners who convened, clothed, and promoted the British band that launched the punk style as an international phenomenon.

Punk happened because there was a widespread sense that rock had fallen into a state of decay and needed to be revived; it happened because two generations of blues and folk revival had made it OK for persons other than slick crooners to sing; and it happened because two generations of interdisciplinary experimentation in the arts had made it OK for poets and painters and sculptors to present themselves as musicians, so that people who had gone to New York to be artists in various disciplines brought elements of art-historical consciousness to bear on a popular genre in a blending of high and low forms that had precedents of which they were more or less aware.

The first books on punk featured the British bands that emerged in 1976. A second round discussed the American roots of punk, but there is still a narrow focus in punk historiography, because it has largely been the produce of the journalists whose job it is to promote corporate product in the mainstream press. Much of this literature describes punk as having “died” with the ‘70s, but punk did not cease to exist when Rolling Stone magazine moved on to Boy George. Punk is alive and kicking.

I have in mind the idea from narrative anthropology that culture is the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, that we locate ourselves in webs of narrative, and that myth is a way of making a paradox tolerable. Life and death, for example, can only be reconciled in myth. Myth is a cognitive apparatus for the accommodation of absurdity. And as we know from the classic mythologies that, if we are lucky, we learn in childhood, any given myth does not stand alone. Myths form a system, a cosmos, a culture, a psyche. So in the limited time that we have, I will trace a few myth vectors that converged in a style of absurdity that crystallized in a Bowery bar in 1975, from which it entered an old trans-Atlantic trade route that had, in the 17th century, carried an Algonquian Indian word meaning “a smoldering thing,” to England, where it came to designate a fallen woman, as in this scene from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

 

DUKE: What? Are you married?

MARIANA: No, my lord.

DUKE: Are you a maid?

MARIANA: No, my lord.

DUKE: A widow then?

MARIANA: Neither, my lord.

DUKE: Why, you are nothing, then-neither maid, widow, nor wife?

LUCIO: My Lord, she may be a punk; for many of them are neither maid, widow, nor wife. (V. I. 179 [1603])

 

To start with, I need to say something about the theme of authenticity that rock derives from its roots. Philip Ennis describes rock’s roots as six streams that converge in the 1950s, some of which emanate from what he calls “communities of conscience.” Gospel music and folk music, for example, tend to carry with them the idea that there exists a pure, authentic strain, and that the music and its community are threatened by corrupting, co-opting commercial interests. We can see this in the furor that arose when, in July of 1965, Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival. Dylan had “sold out” a community of conscience — the audience that had idealized him as the voice of the real America that had been silenced by the conformist crack-down of the post-World War period. Blues and Jazz, too, inherited some sense of purity or authenticity, but nowhere is the issue more insistent than among the die-hard rockers for whom the struggle between real rock and commercial rock is an ongoing reality. Now I don’t mean to be cynical and dismissive about this. I believe in rock and roll, and I believe that the mythic cycle of birth, corruption, death, and rebirth is appropriate for describing the life cycle of rock. So, like a good punk, or anthropologist, I will follow that form in discussing the creation myths of my people.

We enter the punk myth web in a dive bar down at the dark end of the street, where people are listening to music, and the kids at the other end of the street hear about it, and wander in, and it grows to the point where the corporations catch on, and force it into a formula, because what the hucksters want is the same hit over and over again, until the kids lose interest and find another bar down another dark street.

The Dark End of the Street was the title of a song recorded in 1967 by soul singer James Carr. It tells of illicit love; that the forbidden hook-up is interracial is implied, but never stated. It’s a fitting metaphor for American music. As for punk, the African American roots in particular have not been much discussed, except by the musicians themselves. In fact, there was some chatter for a time in the music press claiming that punk was purely white rock.[1] The idea that punk is purely white music is, I believe, unsupportable, and as we go along that will, I think, become apparent. For now, I’ll go with musicologist Christopher Small who says that all American music is to some extent Afro-American, a hybrid. There are some instances that approach Ivory Soap. Take the African out of American music and you get “How Much is That Doggie in the Window.”

Another node in the punk web is Albert Einstein. I don’t mean the thing about Einstein never wearing socks. I mean that he had an acquaintance, Sholem Asch, whose son Moses was interested in recording music. One day in 1938, Sholem asked his son to put his recording machine in the car for a drive down to Princeton, where Einstein was to record a radio message urging American Jews to aid German Jews fleeing Hitler. When the recording was done, Einstein asked Moe what sort of business he was in, and Moe told him that he made his living installing PA systems in theatres, but his real love was recording music. What sort of music? Moe said that he knew a musician by the name of Leadbelly, whom he thought everybody should hear, but he couldn’t get the record companies interested. Einstein says, “You’re right, Americans don’t appreciate their own culture, it’ll be a Polish Jew that does the job.” So Moe recorded Leadbelly, and sold a few records, and then he recorded Woody Guthrie, and other folk artists, and then he went bust, and started again, and kept going. In 1986, Moe sold his Folkways catalog of more than 2,000 titles to the Smithsonian Institution.

In 1952, Harry Smith, a painter, folklorist, filmmaker, and collector, is in need of money, so he’s looking to shift his collection of thousands of old ‘78s. Harry goes to Moe, who suggests that Harry compile a selection of recordings for publication. That year, Folkways issued “The Anthology of American Folk Music.” It was six LPs in three boxes, 84 cuts recorded between 1927 and 1932, selected and sequenced by Harry, with an extensive booklet containing Harry’s notes on the recordings. The set eventually sold a half a million copies and helped touch off a major movement in popular culture.

In 1991, Harry got a Grammy Award for his contribution to American music. His acceptance speech consisted of the following statement. “I lived to see my dream come true; I lived to see America changed by music.” Some idea of the impact of the anthology can be got from the comments of the folk singer Dave Van Ronk who years later said, “Before the Anthology came out, I thought American music meant Frank Sinatra and Doris Day.” It’s hard for us to imagine this now, because for fifty years we have been listening to musicians who were influenced by the folk and blues revival in which the Anthology played a part.

In the 1930s, the rise of network radio and the Great Depression dealt a major blow to the record business, and it broke the small independent labels that were doing what they called race records and hillbilly music. At the time, radio and records were in competition. They hadn’t figured out yet how to profitably join the two. A radio was cheaper than a phonograph, and once you had the radio, the music was free, but then you were limited to what the broadcasters were doing. The big broadcasters had bet on the big bands to push cigarettes and biscuits, until that musical trend died in the ‘40s. Then it was Frankie and Doris, who came through the demise of swing, the collapse of the big band touring circuit, the consolidation of big radio with big records, and the shift of music consumption from the ballroom to the living room. At this point, the corporations went with the crooners, and failed to provide young people with music they could dance to. And this became a factor in the rise of rock.

Harry put Blind Lemon Jefferson and Mississipi John Hurt and Blind Willie Johnson on the anthology, and old medieval ballads refigured by strange Appalachian tenors, and Cajun dance tunes, and William and Vesey Smith hollering about the Titanic going down. It set a lot of kids on fire, and some went looking for more stuff like that, which they found at the New York Public Library, where Harry had sold the records that didn’t get issued on the anthology.

So at the time when Columbia Records is promoting Mitch Miller and his “Gang” of baritones in Civil War uniforms singing minstrel songs in unison, a growing number of young people are listening to the country blues, and Dave Van Ronk is in the Village covering the old ballads, and Joan Baez is singing them in Boston coffee houses, and Dylan drops out of college in Minneapolis and hitches eastward looking for Woody Guthrie, and American merchant sailors are taking blues records over to England and trading them around the ports of Liverpool and London where they are discovered by art students so that when Elvis turned into a crooner the Brits could remind white America to shake some ass.

The folk and blues revival made punk possible in the sense that it reminded people that music doesn’t have to be slick and expensive, and entertainment doesn’t have to be Las Vegas and CBS. It said that you don’t have to take on the whole giant corporate Mafia apparatus. You can get a few friends together and just do it. And when, in the cycle of things, pop music goes bad or inaccessible, you can always go back to the source.

The folk revival, and its punk progeny, were part of a larger wave of democratization in the arts that came out of the world-war years and went widespread in the ‘60s. It had to do with the blurring of lines between high culture and pop culture, an iconic instance of which is the President’s wife shaking her money maker at the discoteque. And Civil Rights fits into this too, because social reform in the U.S. goes back to the anti-slavery movement, which is where, to take one example, women first learned to speak out and organize, which is another vector in the American myth web.

DIY and the democratization of the arts was impacted also by technology, which has played a major role in American music since cheap printing allowed revolutionary America to rip off English publishers’ sheet music. By the middle of the twentieth century, a lot of apparatus for making art had become accessible and portable, like movie cameras and tape recorders. In the ‘20s, some European avant-gardists, like the Surrealists, took to film. Then the establishment of the 16mm format after 1923 helped make do-it-yourself cinema a medium of broad exchange. In 1946, Maya Deren booked a movie house in Greenwich Village to show what she called “Three Abandoned Films,” taking her cue from Guillaume Apollinaire’s observation that a work of art is never completed, just abandoned. Deren toured her films around the country, setting a precedent for self-financed and distributed movies (a precedent echoed three decades later by self-publishing punks). The DIY cinema led to the first museum exhibit of experimental film, at the San Francisco Museum of Contemporary Art in 1947. And the tape recorder, introduced in the late 1930s, enabled people to record an hour or more of audio at a time, so that now there are archives of thousands of hours of poetry performances. The connection between poetry readings and punk is of particularly interest, and I’ll return to this in the lead up to ‘60s underground rock.

One further note on technology. In 1948, RCA introduced a new phonograph that cost 12 dollars and change, and it played 45s, which were then only made by RCA. So any kid with a paper route or a baby sitting gig could now have his or her own record machine, but the machine only played the RCA disks. Now Suzie’s no longer getting her music from the big radio in the living room with the parents, she’s got her own music in her own room. This played into the generational split that was initiated by youth unemployment during the depression and exacerbated by post-war target marketing of young people by the consumer industries, and this so-called “generation gap” would have far-reaching, unforeseen effects. But for now let’s ask, “What’s Suzie listening to?”

The magazine ad for the new record machine shows a tornado spinning out of the turntable, and in the graphic whirl are pictures of the artists available on 45s. White pop singers Perry Como, Tony Martin and Jane Pickens, and country artists Hank Snow and Ernie Lee are mixed up with jazzmen Illinois Jacquet and Dizzie Gillespie and rhythm and blues pioneer Jesse Stone. Suzie is listening to the styles that are about to meld together in a new hybrid that, three years later, would be marketed to a new category of citizen, first named by the ladies garment trade, the “teen.” The new music was named by DJ Alan Freed, after an old black slang term for sex. As Trixie Smith sang in 1922, “My man rocks me with one steady roll, makes no difference if he’s hot or cold.” Well, wake up little Suzie, and what are we gonna tell your mama?

Rock was more than a category of product; it was young people’s response to the post-depression, post-world-war drive to a hyper-production, hyper-consumption economy. Post-war, target-market advertising defined a youth culture apart. By identifying youth as a market force, by playing up young people’s difference from their parents, commercial culture pushed the seventy-five million baby boomers born between 1945 and 1964 closer to the other end of the street, to the side of America that a century of migration and culture-industry exploitation had made increasingly visible and audible.

African-American culture, real and imagined, has been a source of inspiration and renewal in American popular culture since, in 1828, a white actor calling himself “Daddy” Rice painted his face with burnt cork and made “Jim Crow”– a song he learned from a poor black man — into the first international song hit of American popular music. In the early twentieth century, segregation had been sufficient to allow two white men, George M. Cohan and George Gershwin, to bill themselves, respectively, as “the king of ragtime” and “the king of jazz.” But the nation-wide swing craze of the 1930s showed the mainstream where the jazz was coming from. Then, in the 1950s, while major public institutions began to debate desegregation, white teens brought Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Chuck Berry home to meet the folks.

Rock went beyond youth rebelliousness. As veteran journalist Jack Newfield noted. “Falling in love with black music prepared a lot of whites like me to join the civil rights movement. B.B. King and Ben E. King were warm-up acts for Martin Luther King. Rock ‘n’ roll didn’t lead to delinquency; it led to democracy.”[2]

The major labels initially resisted the new trend, but once the massive post-war youth constituency demanded rock, the corporations couldn’t say no. Record sales roughly doubled every five years ($1 billion in 1967, $2 billion in 1973, and $4 billion in 1978) making pop music the leading entertainment industry. With growth came consolidation. By 1973 six companies controlled 66 of the top 100 releases. By the end of the decade they controlled 82 percent.[3] Consolidation brought homogenization. Fans’ and novice musicians’ options were limited by the narrow focus of corporate rock, and many young people went back to the wellspring, and took to making music themselves.

In the mid-1940s, a teen-aged Allen Ginsberg and his friends Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs concocted a “New Vision” based in Arthur Rimbaud’s [1854-1891] idea of the poet as seer or visionary, and Guillaume Apollinaire’s [1880-1918] idea of the “New Spirit” that he saw in the paintings he called “Cubist” and which he translated into a poetry that wed directness of expression with juxtaposed images that resist synthesis, a poetics that would, after his death, inform the movement Apollinaire named before it occurred, Surrealism.

The European avant-garde of the pre-world-war era influenced the whole mileu of writers, musicians, filmmakers, dancers, actors, and visual artists on the ’60s downtown New York scene. In his Village Voice column of May 2 1963, filmmaker Jonas Mekas linked what he called a “new freedom” in experimental cinema to some authors whose work also influenced the young poets who played a pivotal role in the emergence of punk, so that Mekas’s comments on the new indy films could also have been said of the indy music of a decade later.

“These movies are . . . opening up sensibilities and experiences never before recorded in the American arts; a content which Baudelaire [1821-1867], the Marquis de Sade, and Rimbaud gave to world literature a century ago and which Burroughs gave to American literature three years ago. It is a world of flowers of evil, of illuminations, of torn and tortured flesh; a poetry which is at once beautiful and terrible, good and evil, delicate and dirty. . . . I know that the larger public will misinterpret and misunderstand these films.”[4]

If the new freedom goes back to the French Symbolists, democracy in the arts goes back to Walt Whitman, who championed an open form delivered in the American vernacular. By the time of the Objectivist poets, who emerged in the period between the world wars, an aesthetic comes into play that favors direct treatment of ordinary reality in the native, spoken idiom. A generation later, in 1950, Charles Olson describes the new poem as a transmission of energy from the mind of the poet to the ear of the reader that is measured not in the old European forms of rhyme and syllable count but on the length of the breath. Olson uses the metaphor of a dance — that the syllables dance on the poetic line. The ear, the breath, energy, the dance — maybe this starts to sound like rock and roll? It’s a stretch, perhaps, but not as much of one as it first appears, because in the mid-20th century, the return to the voice took poetry, as Kenneth Rexroth demanded, “out of the hands of the professors, and out of the hands of the squares . . . and into the life of the country.”[5]

As a teenager in Chicago in the 1920s, Rexroth [1905-1982] teamed up with Langston Hughes to read poetry with live jazz. He went on to correspond with the Objectivists, and was published in their venues. He continued to read with jazz ensembles, and he published articles championing jazz. In San Francisco in the 1940s, Rexroth and poet/dramatist Madeline Gleason befriended a group of younger poets based in Berkeley, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser. And in April of 1947, Gleason presented Rexroth and the Berkeley group in a gallery reading along with other young poets, the first presentation in what became known as the San Francisco Renaissance.

In the 1950s, Robert Duncan taught periodically at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, a school whose founding faculty had included visual artists Josef and Anni Albers who were refugees from the Bauhaus, the innovative German school of architecture, design, art, and performance that had been closed by the Nazis in 1933. In 1952, Black Mountain participants, poet Charles Olson, composer John Cage, dancer Merce Cunningham, and painter Robert Rauschenberg presented their “untitled event,” which set the template for a new kind of art, performance art, what became known, after Alan Kaprow’s use of the term in 1959, as “the Happening.” It was the idea that you could have a set of apparently unrelated events going on at the same time. Olson read his poems while Rauschenberg showed his paintings, Cunningham danced, and Cage lectured on Zen.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, the poetry readings continued, and in the autumn of 1955, Rexroth presented a new group of poets at an old garage that had been taken over by six artists, hence the name of the venue, the Six Gallery. The evening was organized and publicized by an unknown New York poet, a newcomer to the San Francisco scene, who had a background in marketing, and who understood that a postcard advertising the gathering in hyperbolic terms might draw an audience. That poet was Allen Ginsberg, and the occasion was the premier of his poem Howl. Jack Kerouac was in the audience (see The Dharma Bums, chapter 2), as was poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who subsequently published Howl and was busted for obscenity. The trial and acquittal and attendant publicity helped make Ginsberg and the Beats the new hot thing at the bohemian end of American literature. Thus the Renaissance of aural poetry, begun by Rexroth and the San Francisco poets, became associated with the Beats, and the poetry readings moved to New York.

In 1960, Mickey Ruskin opened The Tenth Street Coffeehouse, hosting open readings on Monday nights and readings by invited poets on Wednesdays. Ginsberg told me that reading poetry in a coffee shop was considered so unusual that the Daily News ran an article with a photograph of some of the poets. In the spring of 1961, Ruskin opened Les Deux Magots on East Seventh Street, and the readings moved to the new, larger location. In 1962 the Judson Church on Washington Square began hosting poets’ plays, a reading series, happenings, and concerts of new music. At the same time, the Judson Dance Theater group offered performances and workshops in a new style based in ordinary bodily movement. Also in 1962, Diane di Prima and LeRoi Jones opened the New York Poets Theater, presenting dance, music, film, and poetry readings, and plays by Jones, diPrima, Robert Duncan, Frank O’Hara, and Michael McClure. At the end of ’62, Ruskin sold Le Deux Magots and the readings moved through a series of venues before settling at Le Café Metro on Second Avenue just south of St. Mark’s Church. [In December 1965, Ruskin would open Max’s Kansas City, a venue that would play an important role in the rise of New York punk in the early 1970s]

By mid-1963 the Café Metro had become a focal point of the downtown scene. One typical Sunday program offered showings of experimental films, the playing of Harry Smith’s Kiowa peyote song recordings, and a presentation by Brion Gysin and William Burroughs. The shows attracted large crowds, neighbors complained, and Le Metro was issued a summons for having unlicensed entertainment.[6] The final crisis came in a confrontation between the Café management and the poets. According to Ginsberg: “The poetry at the Metro ran into trouble with the owner who insulted some of the blacks.” So the readings moved to the church across the street.

St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery has a long and distinguished history as a center for performance and progressive politics. Harry Houdini, Isadora Duncan, and Frank Lloyd Wright had appeared there, and the poet W. H. Auden was a member of the congregation. When the poets moved in, the presiding cleric, the Reverend Michael Allen, had recently returned from riding freedom buses in the south, and was preparing to go to Vietnam with Joan Baez.[7] At the time, the church also housed the Black Panther’s breakfast program, the Motherfucker’s dinner program, and a child care service. (Imagine that, breakfast with the Panthers, day care with the Episcopalians, and dinner with the Motherfuckers. Those were the days.) Ginsberg told me,

“There was a community, a forum where people could articulate their relationship to the big national problem of the Vietnam War. . . . Sixties mouths could meet people who had been pacifists in World War I, people who knew Catholic worker saint Dorothy Day. You got a taste of prior eras, prior movements, prior communities and their moments of glory; publications, parties, social activities, and love affairs, decades old.”[8]

Over the next few years Lou Reed, Patti Smith, and Richard Hell were added to the mix.

The beginnings of what became known, briefly, as “art rock” are traced by critic John Rockwell to a pair of New York poets who, in the winter of 1964-65, conceived the band that Rockwell describes as, “The prototypical New York, beatnik, art-rock group, the precursors of the Velvet Underground and, through them, the entire New York and international new wave rock culture of the mid-1970s onwards.”[9]

The Fugs were named after a euphemism featured prominently in Norman Mailer’s 1948 novel, The Naked and the Dead. At the time of the book’s publication, the censorship-busting acquittal of Lawrence Ferlinghetti on obscenity charges for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems was nine years in the future. So Mailer’s soldier characters were given to say things like, “Fug you,” “Move the fuggin gun,” etc.

About the time of Ferlinghetti’s trial, Edward Sanders, then a high-school senior in Missouri, went on a fraternity-visit weekend where he entertained his drinking buddies by chanting Ginsberg’s Howl.[10] In the spring of 1958 he left the University of Missouri and headed for New York University, became active in the civil rights and peace movements, and in January of 1965, opened the Peace Eye Bookstore on Tenth Street between Avenues B and C.

At the film shows and poetry readings, Sanders met Tuli Kupferberg, an older poet and anarchist who had escaped the Second World War draft by explaining his theories about the causes of the war to an army psychiatrist.[11] One night, after a reading, they were hanging out at Stanley’s bar when the Beatles came on the jukebox, and everyone started dancing. Tuli told me, “The early Beatle songs were very wonderful musically but they really showed no promise of what they would later do in their lyrics. So we said, ‘We could do better than that. How would you like to form a band?’ And we started from there.”

Ed and Tuli recruited Ken Weaver to play drums, and Steve Weber and Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders joined the group for a time. Pete Stampfel recalls, “Knowing nothing about rock & roll whatsoever they proceeded to write sixty songs. . . . Exactly like punk ten years later. . . . [They] did it all on pure balls.” [12] The first performance of the new band was at Ed’s Peace Eye bookstore. Warhol had done a banner for the wall, and William Burroughs, George Plimpton, and James Michener were on hand for that first show.[13] The Fugs developed their act in downtown venues and in the spring of 1965, Harry Smith produced the first album for Folkways Records. In ‘66 the band signed with a small jazz label, ESP records. Part of the deal was a five-month booking at the Astor Play House on Lafayette Street, where they shared the stage with other ESP artists such as Sun Ra and Albert Ayler.

The Fugs Second Album was released by ESP in March 1966 and made the Billboard Top 100 in spite of garnering little radio play due to a tendency for sex and drug references and the band’s anti-war stance. J. Edgar Hoover sent the album to the attorney general, who declined to prosecute. In the fall of 1966, the Fugs signed with Atlantic, who dropped the band before releasing an album. The Fugs then signed with Reprise, after Sanders passed the requisite meeting with Frank Sinatra, who had approval on all new Reprise acts. Four albums followed on that label. The original Fugs played their last show in the spring of ’69 at the Hershey Arena in Pennsylvania with the Grateful Dead. Sanders and Kupferberg reformed the band with new instrumentalists in 1984. I joined the band at that time, and have remained with them ever since.

On the back cover of The Fugs First Album there are advertisements for albums by Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, and Ornette Coleman. This pairing on a record jacket of the jazz avant garde and the early rock underground provides an apt metaphor for the status of black musicians vis a vis white rock. They are the underground beneath the underground. And free jazz would influence the second generation of underground rockers, as we shall see.

The Fugs championed musical amateurism, a disregard for mainstream decorum, and a radical politics. And they were poets before they were musicians. Ten years after the Fugs sang poems by Blake and Swinburne, Richard Hell innovated the punk style on an aesthetic derived from the French Symbolists and Patti Smith matched her Rimbaud-inspired verse to a rock guitar.

A more widely discussed line in the punk origin myth tells of John Cale–a violist and student of composition who left London on a scholarship to study with Aaron Copeland at Tanglewood, played for a time with La Monte Young, abandoned, as he says, the “futility” of avant-garde music for the “urgency” of rock, and founded, with Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground, the group most often cited as the prototypical punk ensemble.[14] In his memoir, Cale says,

“Everybody on that downtown Lower East Side Scene was connected through their work and their lovers. It was an enormous web of networks centered on luminaries like LaMonte, Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Rauschenberg, and Ed Sanders.”[15]

As a teenager, Cale had fantasized about traveling to New York to join the musicians and poets of the Lower East Side. In 1963 he got his chance. After leaving Tanglewood, his first paying gig was as one of a roster of pianists in John Cage’s marathon presentation of Eric Satie’s Vexations-a brief work which the composer had noted should be played 840 times. Cale subsequently joined La Monte Young’s “Theater of Eternal Music” and participated in the recording of the sound track music for Jack Smith’s ground-breaking underground film Flaming Creatures [1963]. In 1965, Cale met Lou Reed.

Reed had studied with writer Delmore Schwartz, whose realist portrayals of alienated young depression-era New Yorkers had a powerful influence on him. Cale says of Reed’s lyrics, “He was writing about things other people weren’t. These lyrics were literate, well-expressed, tough, novelistic impressions of life.”[16] The two formed a partnership which became, in the summer of 1965, a quartet–the Velvet Underground (named after Michael Lee’s novel about the more bizarre sexual practices of suburbanites). After premiering in December of ‘65 at Summit High School in New Jersey, the band went on for two weeks at the Café Bizarre in Greenwich Village. There they were spotted by Andy Warhol, who offered to buy the band new instruments and manage them for 25% of their earnings.

Beginning in January 1966, Warhol arranged a series of shows where the band would play in front of a screen, onto which were projected his films. This living art exhibit, named “The Exploding Plastic Inevitable,” evolved to include additional lighting effects and dancers. Warhol produced the Velvet’s first album, released in March of 1967 by Verve Records. The raw style of the record, and its references to hard drugs and homosexuality marked a departure from hippie-inspired rock. It peaked at number 171 on the Billboard charts, but is now remembered as one of the more important records of the period. The second album, released in January of 1968, fared slightly worse. A third album, without Cale’s participation, came out in March 1969 and flopped. Atlantic released a fourth record in September 1970, one month after Reed had quit. Reed then embarked on a solo career while Cale went on to produce records, notably the Stooges’ debut album and Patti Smith’s 1975 breakthrough, Horses.

As rock historian Alan Cross put it: “Virtually every alternative band formed over the last thirty years owes some debt to the original Velvets. . . . Close to one thousand different bands from around the world . . . have recorded versions of Velvet Underground songs”.[17] As Boulder’s own Jello Biafra put it, “The punk movement consisted of the one kid in every town who was a Velvet Underground fan.”

Another line that feeds into punk begins in 1966 when Jim Osterberg, a young drummer and blues fan, dropped out of the University of Michigan and hitch-hiked to Chicago where he sought out and was befriended by drummer Sam Lay and began sitting in occasionally with Chicago bluesmen. One night, eight months into his Chicago residency, he had a marijuana-induced epiphany when he realized that for the bluesmen, that style of music came naturally, but for him to play it required a degree of effort inappropriate to the style. He determined to play music that came as naturally to him as blues did to Sam Lay and the others. He returned to Ann Arbor and, inspired by local shows by the Velvet Underground and the Doors, formed the Psychedelic Stooges. The outcome of “Iggy’s” vision was a largely improvisatory set employing loud, overdriven guitars, industrial percussion, and various household appliances (a vacuum cleaner and a blender) amplified to deafening volume.[18]

John Cale produced the first Stooges LP for Elektra in 1968. The second Elektra release (1971) flopped. The band broke up, and then reorganized for Raw Power (1974) before dissolving for good. The Stooges provided a model for the punk bands of the mid 1970s, many of whom included their songs in their play lists.

The other Detroit-area band signed by Electra in 1968, the MC5 (Motor City Five), like the Stooges, also saw a connection between machinery and music. Wayne Kramer recalls: “We all shared a love of hot rods and big-assed engines. . . . Drag racing was in our blood. . . It was loud and fast, just like the music.”[19]

This recalls F.T. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto of 1909, which could as well have been the manifesto of the driving, proto-punk bands of sixty years later.

“We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness. Courage, audacity, and revolt will be the essential elements of our poetry. . . . We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap. We say that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.”[20]

Of course, by the 1960s, speed had come to mean something more than rapid motion, and there remains a book to be written about the effects of amphetamine on the arts of the period.

Punk rock, which is usually thought of as a simple song-form-based style, in fact became so only after an initial stage of experimentation. The MC5 played experimental jazz covers before toning down the set for their 1968 Elektra album debut, and the Stooges had taken a similar tack, as Iggy told an interviewer:

“We weren’t interested in anything like writing a song or making a chord change. I didn’t bother with anything like that until I had a recording; once I had the contract I thought I’d better really learn how to write some songs. . . . Our music was flowing and very conceptual. We’d just have one song, called ‘Wind Up’ or I’d change the title to ‘Asthma Attack’ or ‘Goodbye Bozos’ or, I don’t know, ‘Jesus Loves the Stooges.”[21]

The MC5 formed as a cover band in 1964 but with changes in the line-up moved toward free jazz. In 1967 they entered a management partnership with John Sinclair, co-founder of the White Panther Party and a correspondent for Downbeat magazine who liked the idea of joining free jazz and radical rock. In late 1968 the band signed with Elektra, but the use of the word “motherfuckers” in the title track “Kick Out the Jams” caused a major chain store to boycott the record. The band compromised with the label, agreeing that the offending lyric would be changed for a second issue. The album placed in the 30s on the Billboard charts, and the band made the cover of Rolling Stone (January 4, 1969). Their second album (for Atlantic in 1969) failed to establish them with the mass-market audience, and a third album was largely ignored. They split in 1972.

As with the Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop, the MC5’s records are now viewed as milestones in the development of punk rock, a valuation out of proportion to their initial reception.

Another tributary to the punk stream was glam rock, or glitter rock as it was also known. The movement’s adoption of cross-dressing is explained in various ways by the artists involved on both sides of the Atlantic, and you’re going to hear about that later in the lecture series, so I’ll just trace one connection.

In the late ‘60s a group of New York transvestite performers developed what they called “The Theater of the Ridiculous.” They found that using sequins and glitter purchased in bulk from a Chinatown fabric shop was an economical way to brighten up their costumes and makeup. Andy Warhol, who had a habit of tape-recording his phone calls, gave the group a box of tapes, suggesting they use them to generate text for a play. The result, entitled Pork, ran in New York for six weeks in the spring of 1971, then went to London where the cast realized that by claiming to be New York rock journalists they could gain free entry to concerts. There they made friends with David Bowie. Jayne County says,

“We influenced David to change his image. After us, David started dressing up. [He] started shaving his eyebrows, painting his nails, even wearing painted nails out at nightclubs, like we were doing. He changed his whole image and started getting more and more freaky.”[22]

Aspiring actor David Johansen had been attracted to the ridiculous theater and to the Warhol scene, but hadn’t become one of the in crowd, he says, because he wasn’t gay. When he was recruited to sing for a rock band, he adapted the transvestite outrageousness of the theater group to the band performances. The New York Dolls formed in 1971 and played one-nighters in various bars and then, from April to July 1972, played every Tuesday night at the Mercer Arts Center where their raw hard rock began to attract a following.

In the fall of 1972, the Dolls opened for Rod Stewart at Wembley Stadium, after which some British reviewers hailed them as the next big thing. Back in New York, they landed a deal with Mercury, producing two albums that failed to attract the larger pop audience. In spite of picking up a new manager, new material, and new costumes in 1974, the Doll’s failure to catch on, as well as problems with substance abuse led to the band’s demise.

Glam rock fed into punk in that fans in London and New York took to wearing garish makeup, outrageous hair-dos, and flashy costumes as street wear, preparing the way for punk’s colorful ragamuffin look of a few years later. And unlike the more experimental efforts of the early Velvet Underground, MC5, and Stooges, glam-rockers purveyed conventional song forms on records produced in the slick style of the day. The new lyric content of deviance and apocalypse was eased into the pop vocabulary riding on a familiar musical vehicle, preparing the way for the more raw but equally simple punk rock that emerged fully fledged in 1976.[23]

In 1975 the Dolls’ final manager, London boutique owner Malcolm McLaren, who had, while handling the Dolls, become interested in a newer, post-glam punk scene developing at a Bowery bar called CBGBs, returned to England to groom a London band of his acquaintance on the new model. As an art student in the 1960s, McLaren had followed the Situationists whose Marxian critique of commodity culture played a part in the riots that paralyzed France in May of 1968. McLaren had gone to New York to sell clothes, but had failed to interest the New York fashion world in his merchandise. Punk rock presented an opportunity for success by scandal. Now his import/export business took a new turn: he would take punk to Britain, and with luck, would establish himself as the leader of a new pop music fashion. During England’s mid-‘70s economic crisis, McLaren’s group would carry punk culture critique farther than it could go in US mainstream pop culture, and establish punk as a transnational phenomenon.

The key figure in the new scene that had attracted McLaren’s attention was Richard Hell. Richard never attained the success that some New York rock revivalists did, but he is widely recognized as an originator of the punk style in music and costume.

Richard Meyers was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1951 and after being expelled from various public schools was sent to a boarding school in Delaware where he became friends with Tom Miller. Meyers dropped out in his senior year and headed for New York. He recalls,

“I came to New York to become a writer in 1967-the tail end of the flower children-but I never felt comfortable with that mentality. . . . I was really influenced by the twisted French aestheticism of the late nineteenth century like Rimbaud, Verlaine . . . Baudelaire. . . . And a lot of my view of the world came from that.”[24]

Just as Richard had no interest in flower power, in the 1950s, Baudelaire had had no interest in nature. When asked why he would not write nature poetry, he said, “I can’t get excited about vegetables” He declares that the truly modern artist is the artist of the city street, and he clips his words, and grimaces and twitches through his poems, shocking his audiences, his dandy suit in tatters. Baudelaire, and the young rebel visionary Arthur Rimbaud of the subsequent generation, provided a prototype for New York’s founding poets of punk.

Just as Richard cites Baudelaire, cultural critic Julia Kristeva, in a passage on Baudelaire, cites punk. She describes Baudelaire as constructing an image that is both shocking and artificial, a strenuous joke that challenges any naïve advocacy of an authentic identity, and she describes this as “punk” behavior.[25]

The troubling of identity is a legacy of the avant-garde. Ambivalence, multiplicity of meaning, is an important factor in avant-garde art and postmodern poetics. Roger Shattuck, in his study of the origins of the avant garde in late-19th-century Paris, cites ambivalence as a major characteristic of the new spirit.[26] Richard made ambivalence his metier. As his best-known lyric declares,

 

I belong to the blank generation

And I can take it or leave it each time

Well I belong to the _________ generation

And I can take I or leave it each time.

 

He’s invoking what Gertrude Stein dubbed “the Lost Generation” of post-World-War-One American exiles in Paris, and the Beat generation of the 1950s. He is disassociating himself and his generation from hippie idealism and declaring all labels, all available categories to be unnecessarily limiting, leaving a silent spot in the song’s refrain and inviting the audience members to fill in the blank or not as each chooses, an expression of his belief in rock as a field where one can invent oneself.

In 1968 Tom Miller joined Meyers in New York. They collaborated first on a poetry magazine and a book of poems but soon turned to music. In 1972 Miller and Meyers formed the Neon Boys, then reformed in 1974 as Television and took the names Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine. Television’s torn shirts and cropped hair has been seen as a conscious reaction to the ostentatious costume of the then-current Glam Rock. According to Richard Hell, however, the look had older roots. “There were some artists that I admired who looked like that. Rimbaud looked like that. Artaud looked like that. And it also looked like the kid in 400 Blows, the Truffaut movie. I remember I had a picture of those three guys. I really thought all this stuff out in ’73 and ’74.”[27]

“My look was sort of a strategy. I wanted it to look like do-it-yourself. Everything we were doing at that time had the element, from having ripped up clothing to not knowing how to play instruments. The whole thing was partly a reaction to the hippie stadium music. . . . The ripped t-shirts meant that I don’t give a fuck about stardom and all that glamour and going to rock shows to see someone pretend to be perfect. The people wanted to see someone they could identify with. It was saying, ‘You could be here, too.'”[28]

Television’s series of shows in the spring of 1974 at CBGBs is regarded as a founding moment of New York punk.

Richard left Television in March 1975, just as the band was preparing to record a demo for Island Records. Verlaine had refused to record any of Richard’s songs and Richard quit. Verlaine considered Hell’s musicianship inadequate, and Richard’s three-minute songs did not mesh with Verlaine’s desire to experiment with longer forms. He was musically ambitious, drawing his inspiration from John Coltrane and Albert Ayler.[29] Tom Verlaine’s Television finally recorded their debut album for Elektra in 1976. Although NME’s reviewer called the record “a 24-carat inspired work of genius” and the recent Rough Guide to Rock calls the record “one of the most influential recordings of its decade,” Elektra did not promote the record in the US and it never broke Billboard’s Top 200.[30] A year later the band’s second album met a similar fate and the group broke up.

There would be other partings over musical style, with the inevitable return to love songs that comes with corporate packaging of a sound, while punk purists would continue to play small clubs, record for small independent labels or self-publish, and feed into the hardcore movement of the 1980s and ‘90s, a continuation of the original punk musical ethos, favoring simple, brief, loud-and-fast songs dealing with existential and social issues.

As a teenager growing up in Southern New Jersey, Patti Smith took trips to Philadelphia where she discovered foreign films, Rimbaud’ Illuminations, and found old issues of the Evergreen Review, the literary journal that in the early 1960s had published Jean Genet and William Burroughs.[31]

In 1967 Smith moved to New York City to paint, and found work as a model at the Pratt Institute of Art, where she met a nineteen-year-old student named Robert Mapplethorpe who became a close friend and mentor. In 1969 they moved into the Chelsea Hotel where they met other artists and writers. Beat poet Gregory Corso, a fellow Chelsea tenant, began taking Smith to poetry readings.[32] At this time she met rock critic and guitarist Lenny Kaye, and when Mapplethorpe arranged for Smith to read at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, she asked Kaye to accompany her. That first public performance (February 10 1971), was attended by many of the leading lights on the downtown scene and established her as a new artist to watch.

Smith collaborated on a play with Sam Shepard, Cowboy Mouth, which opened at the American Place Theatre on April 29, 1971. She wrote and acted the part of a character named Cavale, described in the script as “a chick who looks like a crow, dressed in raggedy black” who declares rock & roll to be the new religion. That year she began publishing articles and poems in the rock magazines. Her first collection of poems appeared in 1972. In the summer of 1973 she regularly opened for the New York Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center. In November Smith and Kaye, with pianist Richard Sohl, played the Diplomat Hotel. Their act, “Rock n Rimbaud,” mixed poems, original songs, and blues covers. Now that Smith had begun to sing, the act inevitably moved toward rock. On 14 April 1974, Smith and Kaye went to see a poet-acquaintance, Richard Meyers, play with his band Television at CBGBs.

“There were only about fourteen people there, but I saw what I was looking for. People who were intelligent, who were revolutionary, who were merging poetry and rock and roll. Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell were my kind of people. Television had taken what we were doing another step.”[33]

On 5 June 1974, Patti and Lenny paid for a few hours’ time at Electric Lady Studios and self-produced a 45 of Smith’s poem/song “Piss Factory” backed by a cover of Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” (with lead guitar by Tom Verlaine). 1600 copies quickly sold and the group began getting offers of gigs on both coasts. This move in the direction of do-it-yourself marketing set an important precedent for other bands. In August of 1974 the Patti Smith group played a string of gigs at Max’s Kansas City with Television. In the spring of 1975, they played a seven-week engagement at CBGBs with Television and auditioned for Clive Davis, who signed the band to Arista records. The debut album, Horses (produced by John Cale), was enthusiastically reviewed in the rock press and made the Billboard Top-50. It was the first mainstream emergence of the new style.

The final stage in the transition from art rock to punk is evident in the work of four guys from Queens who, disillusioned with early-‘70s pop and inspired by the Stooges and the New York Dolls, formed the Ramones in early 1974. They employed the bare minimum of rock instrumentation (a single guitar, bass, and drums) to crank out loud, fast, brief songs with a “wall of sound” overdriven texture and no solos. The Ramones played their first CBGBs gig in August of 1974. That year they recorded a demo of fourteen songs, which they sent to every record company in the phone book. There were no takers, but the band was developing a following and soon attracted the attention of the rock press.

In July 1975 CBGBs organized a festival of unsigned bands that was covered by the New York Times, the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and the London music weeklies. The Ramones were signed by Sire in January of 1976. The debut album was released first in England, and on July 4, 1976 the band played the Roundhouse in London, and the following night played a club called Dingwall’s. Members of the Sex Pistols and the Clash, the two London bands who were about to break punk as an international movement, were in the audience.


 

FOOTNOTES:

 

[1] See Bangs, Lester. 1988. Psychotic Reactions and Carburator Dung., NY: Vintage Books. P. 278. Bangs paraphrases various sources, ranging from a white supremicist rag to the Village Voice which, circa 1977, touted punk and New Wave as “wonderfully white” (the former) and an “almost purely white . . . massive departure from the blues-derived rock of the past” (the latter). Bangs’s rejection of these views is somewhat qualified. Jon Savage is less cautious, calling punk a “purely white, blue collar style in which any black rhythmic influence was bleached out.” I agree with Christopher Small that American pop is inseparable from African influences.

[2] Jack Newfield quoted in Richard Lourie: “Memory Lane” in The New York Times Book Review May 12 2002, p. 29.

 

[3] Friedlander, Paul. 1996. Rock and Soul: A Social History. NY: Westview/Harper Collins. P. 233.

[4] Jonas Mekas, “Movie Journal” column in the Village Voice, May 2, 1963, quoted in Sitney, P. Adams. 1974. Visionary Film: The AmericanAvant-Garde. Hanover NH: Wesleyan University Press.

[5] Rexroth quoted in Lynn M. Zott, ed. 2003. The Beat Generation: A Gale Critical Companion, Volume 3. Detroit, MI: Thomson Gale. p. 275.

[6] See Alan Deloach, ed., 1968. The East Side Scene: An anthology of a time and a place. Buffalo: New York University Press. pp. vii-xii.

[7] Anne Waldman. 1991. Out of This World. NY: Crown. p. 4.

[8] Ibid. p. xxvii.

[9] John Rockwell in H. Wylie Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie, eds. 1986. The New Grove Dictionary of American Music. Volume 2. London: MacMillan Press Ltd. P. 176.

[10] Ed Sanders, personal communication.

[11] Tuli Kupferberg, personal communication.

[12] Pete Stampfel quoted in Heylin, From the Velvets to the Voidoids, p. 21.

[13] Ed Sanders: TheFugs.com.

[14] John Cale quoted in Heylin, Clinton. 1993. From the Velvets to the Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World. NY: Penguin Books. P 7.

[15]Cale, John and Victor Bockris. 1999. The Autobiography of John Cale. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing. P. 57.

[16] Ibid., p. 69.

[17]Cross, Alan. 1999. Alternative Rock: 20th Century Rock and Roll. Ontario, Canada: Collector’s Guide Publishing. P.8.

[18] See McNeil, Legs and gillian McCain. 1996. Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. NY: Grove Press. pp. 37-38; 40.

[19] Wayne Kramer quoted in McNeil, Please Kill Me, pp. 35-36.

[20] Marinetti in Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris, eds., Poems for the Millennium (Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 1996), pp. 197-8.

[21] Iggy Pop quoted in Heylin, From the Velvets to the Voidoids, p. 37.

[22] Jayne County quoted in McNeil, Please Kill Me, p. 95.

[23]Henry, Tricia. 1989. Break All the Rules! Punk Rock and the Making of a Style. Ann Arbor: U.M.I. research Press. P 33.

[24] Richard Hell quoted in Heylin From the Velvets to the Voidoids, pp. 94-95.

[25] Julia Kristeva, Tales of Love (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), pp. 324;320;325;328;337.

[26]Shattuck, Roger. 1968. The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant Garde in France 1885-to World War I. New York: Vintage. pp. 16-17.

[27] Heylin, From the Velvets to the Voidoids, p. 121.

[28] Hell in Szatmary, David. 1996. A Time to Rock: A Social History of Rock and Roll. NY: Schirmer Books. P. 224.

[29] Heylin, From the Velvets to the Voidoids, pp. 135; 138.

[30] Martin in Buckley, Jonathan, and Mark Ellington eds. 1996. The Rough Guide to Rock. London: Rough Guides. s.v. Television.

[31] Sharon Delano: “The Torch Singer” in The New Yorker, March 11 2002, p. 48.

[32] Delano, p. 57.

[33] Delano, p. 58.

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