February 21, 2016

To the Victor Go the Spoils


I’m sorry, this whole thing just really pissed me off.

            New York’s history was written in and defined by music of all stripes and styles, from classical to jazz to glam to punk to avant-garde and hip hop. Music has always been a measure of the city’s breath and pulse, flowing not just out of theaters and concert halls, but stores and street corners and passing cars. But there was a stretch there like few others between the mid-seventies and the mid-nineties when you couldn’t walk two blocks in any direction in the Village without running into some kind of live music venue, from filthy dive bars with a tiny makeshift stage against the back wall to swank 1200-seat theaters. There was CBGB and Mudd Club and Max’s Kansas City of course, but there were also the Roxy, the old Ritz, the new Ritz, Cafe Wha?, The Pyramid, the Palladium, Brownie’s, The Village Gate, The Gas Station, Limelight, The World, Pete’s Candy Store, Continental, The Bottom Line, The Knitting Factory, Mercury Lounge, Rodeo Bar, Sidewalk Cafe, and on and on. It was a sonic free-for-all featuring everything from national rock acts to country has-beens to eclectic New Music ensembles to underground gods to singer-songwriters armed with acoustic guitars to scrubby little local bands with goofy names playing their first and last show.

            The lampposts and construction sites throughout the neighborhood were wallpapered with layer upon layer of photocopied handmade flyers announcing upcoming shows. Stacks of colorful postcards promoting bands and clubs were left atop bars or scattered across the sidewalk. Scanning through the newspaper listings to see who was playing in the neighborhood on any given night was a mind-boggling ordeal: trying to figure out just who you wanted to see, who you absolutely had to see, what friend’s band you were obligated to see, and who you were merely curious about. Every band in the world played New York, sometimes a couple of times a year, and sometimes at shockingly small venues. Sometimes there was a small cover ($6-$10) depending on the act, sometimes no cover at all. Just agree to buy a couple of beers and everyone was happy. If you were young (however you care to define it) and still had some energy and adventure left in you, it was a glorious time to be in the city.

            Man, I had me some times. I saw The Pogues and Public Image, Laurie Anderson, Johnny Cash, John Zorn, The Residents time and time again, strange avant-garde quartets, Sinatra impersonators, bawdy old-school British music hall acts, and countless hardcore shows at CBGB. The most memorable, the best times of all, though, were seeing rough little no-name bands playing mostly empty little bars at two a.m.. Don’t remember most of their names and couldn’t hum a single song they played for the life of me, but the experience and the atmosphere were magical. I just wanted to be there and have a few beers and hear some nothing little band do their damnedest for an audience of six drunks in a stale, smoke-filled bar.

            All that’s gone now, most of the smaller clubs having fallen victim to a variety of economic forces. Although the grungy little Pyramid is still in operation somehow, CBGB now exists in name alone as a theme cafe in Grand Central, and its old location on the Bowery is now home to a high-end boutique. Limelight’s a fancy boutique as well. The long-defunct Max’s was recently resurrected as a traveling museum show (of a sort), and most of the others are simply gone and forgotten, replaced with Rite Aids and Gap stores in a Village that’s just as dead as the scene itself. Oh, there are still a few venues left, but they’re so sparse (and usually so large) they’re now in a position where they can actually force bands to rent the space at grotesquely inflated prices if they want to play there. As a result, ticket prices have gone through the roof to cover the rent. Only the big national acts can afford to play in the first place, and more and more of those big acts are starting to avoid Manhattan if they can help it, as there’s no money to be made. As for the scrubby little no-name acts, they’re fucked.

            Now Marvin Taylor, director of New York University’s Fales Library and Special Collections, has put out a call asking NYU alumni who were there at the time to donate any old flyers, posters, stickers, ticket stubs, buttons, announcements, any physical ephemera of the time and place and scene to help build what they hope will grow into the world’s largest archive of printed material from New York’s music scene in the eighties and nineties. They’re calling it the “NYU Alumni Clubbing Collection.” The collage which graced the cover of the alumni magazine in which the collection was announced featured flyers and ticket stubs for the likes of Nina Hagen, DEVO, and Lou Reed.

            It seems like a fine idea, right? Collecting and preserving that lively slice of New York nightlife, that time before social networks and handheld devices and the Internet, when a DIY mentality ran rampant as people had to make and post their own flyers and small bands could still grab a half-hour slot on a six-band bill at some grimy dive on Avenue A, a time before all the venues were owned by Ticketmaster. Yes, let’s preserve that long lost part of the culture, that time when people actually did things and didn’t just stare at screens. God bless New York University for helping make sure it’s never forgotten.

            But here’s the ironic thing.

            Of all the political and economic forces that killed the Village, including the rush by Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg to sell off every square inch of Manhattan to the highest corporate bidder, no institution was more singularly responsible for the decimation of what the East Village used to be than NYU. Over the past two decades they’ve gobbled up huge swaths of real estate which they’ve either flattened or repurposed, turning them into high-rise dorms, classroom buildings, recreational centers and administrative offices. Today the East Village exists, more than anything else, as a sprawling NYU campus, filled with high end chain stores, boutiques and hipster bars to accommodate thousands of new students who can afford to pay the school’s exorbitant tuition. (Tuition, by the way, which is then dumped into the coffers and used to buy up still more real estate.) The once glorious Palladium is now a dorm with an attached rec center, and The Bottom Line, where Bob Dylan, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Ringo Starr, and so many others played over its illustrious history, is home to chemistry classrooms. Although locals have attempted to organize and bring legal action to stop the devastating expansion and the destruction of so many historic and cultural landmarks, the city has always sided with the university, simply because the university had the money to get whatever they wanted.

            After crushing a once-vibrant music scene, now the university’s special collections library is asking people to donate their memorabilia, ostensibly to preserve it. But what it really boils down to is this: Now that they have successfully killed the scene itself, they’re asking people to hand over their very memories, all this material they’ve held onto and treasured all these years, with a promise to erase those memories forever by locking them up tight and far away in a place where no one will ever see them again. At least not without making arrangements long in advance and paying for the honor of perusing the collection in a strictly controlled environment for a carefully delineated amount of time. They’re not only crushing the memory of the past along with the reality, they’re further capitalizing on it. The winners get to write the history books, right? It does them no good, after all, to have people remembering what the Bottom Line, the Palladium, CB’s or all those other clubs used to represent, or what the Village was like before NYU owned five-sixths of it. Better to quash all that, too, and if the university can make a tidy profit while bolstering its hipster cred in the process, so much the better. Oh, look at how cool we are, saving all these old Ramones flyers! Now as soon as you forget who The Ramones were, our job will be done.

            You know what gave the whole game away? The fact the official call for contributions kept referring to what an amazing scene it was for “clubbing.” “Clubbing”? Unless you’re talking about those vapid fashionable tools going to the dance clubs, I never once heard anyone involved in the music scene in any capacity back then refer to it as “clubbing.”


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