What’s behind nostalgia for 1970s New York?by / May 30, 2014 / Leave a comment
“Rather than pining for an imagined utopian past, 1970s enthusiasts yearn for the emblems of ‘Fear City,’ the symbols of dystopia”
If cleanliness is next to godliness, then New York City in the 1970s was practically satanic. Rank with rotting garbage, the streets teemed with rats. When David Johansen, the lead singer of the proto-punk group New York Dolls, shouted, “Trash, go pick it up!” on their 1973 single “Trash,” he wasn’t being figurative. Sanitation workers were being laid off; so were cops and other public servants. The days of post-war plenty were gone: unemployment was rising and the rich were making for the suburbs. Crime got so bad that the city was regularly compared to a war zone—and with periodic bombings by the FALN, the Puerto Rican paramilitary organisation, it sometimes felt like one. By 1975 New York City was almost bankrupt and Mayor Abraham Beame was forced to ask for a federal bail-out. President Ford’s response was curt. The headline in New York’s Daily News summed it up: “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.”
New York did, at least, have one vocal admirer in 1975. That spring, David Byrne, the intense, twitchy singer of the new wave band Talking Heads, wrote a song called “Love -> Building on Fire.” The title was topical: a few months earlier, a fire had raged for 15 hours in New York Telephone’s central offices on 2nd Avenue. And as more and more firefighters lost their jobs, fires became increasingly common across the city. Manhattan got off lightly; as of June 1975, there had been 5,500 recorded cases of arson in the South Bronx in just 17 months. Byrne’s song, normally referred to as “Love Goes to Building On Fire,” was a defiant tribute to the Big Apple.
Hence the title of the new book by Rolling Stone journalist Will Hermes (first published in the US in 2011). Love Goes to Buildings on Fire bills itself as a social and cultural history of the “five years in New York that changed music for ever.” Hermes argues that between 1973 and 1977 New York City was the site of a musical revolution, where iconoclasts forged new musical forms from the shards of the old. He describes the origins of punk and hip hop, disco and salsa, loft jazz and minimalism, carefully weaving in vivid stories of their creators, from hip hop pioneers DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash to Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith. Minimalist composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich also feature.
To this somewhat unwieldy cast of characters, Hermes adds one more figure. In the mid-1970s, Will was a teenager growing up in Queens. He hung out in bomb shelters with his pals (“all guys”), smoking joints, drinking Dr Pepper and Bud and talking obsessively about music. One winter night in February 1976 he saw the Ramones play at the Hammerhead bar in Long Island. He lost his shirt, wound up “sucking face” with a girl and had his “greatest rock’n’roll epiphany.” Love Goes to Buildings on Fire is a cultural history which doubles up as a personal one.
Hermes is not the only one writing paeans to New York. Over the past four years, there has been a steady trickle of memoirs about “making it” there in the 1970s. In 2010, Patti Smith published Just Kids, a majestic evocation of her bohemian life with Robert Mapplethorpe in downtown Manhattan. The following year brought Lucking Out by the critic James Wolcott, a picaresque collection of tales set in the “spread-eagled decade,” as he archly describes it. Wolcott tells how he landed a writing gig at the Village Voice, knocked back beers with Lester Bangs at CBGB, and occasionally dropped by seedy Times Square. CBGB, which became a hub for the early New York punk scene, is also at the centre of Richard Hell’s 70s New York memoir, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, published last year. And the novelist Rachel Kushner lent momentum to this nostalgia boom with The Flamethrowers, which revolves around the downtown art scene in late-1970s Manhattan.
Given this new fascination with the decade, Love Goes to Buildings On Fire makes for a handy guide to its music scene. Most histories of the period limit themselves to specific genres or individuals, but Hermes takes a panoramic view. He also serves up plenty of good anecdotes. During the Ramones’ 1977 tour of Britain and Europe, Johnny Ramone “had tantrums over lettuce” and “refused to get off the bus at Stonehenge to see ‘a buncha rocks’”; the legendary Nuyorican salsa singer Héctor Lavoe apparently encouraged lengthy solos from his musicians so that he could steal away to service his coke addiction; staging Einstein on the Beach at the Metropolitan Opera was so expensive that, to help recoup the cost, its composer Philip Glass was forced to get behind the wheel of his cab again. The story goes that, not long after the Met performances, a well-dressed woman got in his car and said, “Young man, do you realise you have the same name as a very famous composer?”
For all its diversity, Hermes manages to keep his narrative relatively smooth, setting out a convincing account of cultural cross-pollination. At parties in the Bronx, Afrika Bambaataa, one of the founders of hip hop, spun “omnivorous mixes”—melding James Brown’s funk with The Monkees’s pop and the Fania All-Stars’ salsa—in order to defuse tension between gangs. Disco sets were also becoming increasingly eclectic. DJs embraced jazz fusion and began “salting” salsa records into their mixes—tracks like “Puerto Rico” by Eddie Palmieri, and the Fania All-Stars’ “Chanchullo”—at clubs like The Gallery and Studio 54. After his boyfriend dragged him to The Gallery, Arthur Russell, a cellist and composer, became a disco devotee. Russell, it seems, knew just about everyone. He worked with the experimental performance artist Laurie Anderson (who would later marry Lou Reed), played regularly with Allen Ginsberg (who was “entertaining the dubious intention of becoming a singer”), hung out with Talking Heads, and started a pop group called The Flying Hearts. After his conversion to disco, Russell started working on a dance single with Nicky Siano, the DJ who ran The Gallery, and assembled a disco-funk ensemble called Dinosaur.
Hermes’s stories are fun, but they do not entirely make up for the absence of a serious argument to connect the dots. He expends so much of his energy shuttling his characters from studio to stage and back again, that he never gets round to explaining why mid-1970s New York was a musical milestone. Yes, disco was invented then, so was hip hop, so was punk. But Hermes takes these cultural “revolutions” as self-evident. He never tells us how they were revolutionary. And he rather undermines himself by concluding that, innovative though these movements were, they didn’t break with the past—they were defined by it. This point is key. Technically speaking, hip hop DJs, for instance, weren’t making new music: they were splicing together isolated segments of songs from their record collections. Punk, which reviled the indulgent excess of contemporary prog rock, channelled the raw emotion and pared-back sound of 50s rock ’n’ roll and 60s garage rock. The music being made in mid-1970s New York was both vitally new and constantly engaging with the past in unexpected, sometimes subtle ways. Hermes doesn’t spell this out for us.
His five-year timeslot is a problem, too. He describes salsa as having its “coming of age” in 1973, the year his story begins. And while Philip Glass and Steve Reich composed important pieces in the mid-70s, the minimalist movement began in the 1960s. Similarly, although the loft jazz scene heated up in the early-to-mid 1970s, its roots lay in the previous decade. History is rarely as neat as writers, or their publishers, would like.
Still, it’s not hard to see why a 1970s-focused book should get some publishers panting with excitement. The recent enthusiasm for 1970s New York isn’t simply a sign that the nostalgia industry is churning into gear—the decade now appeals to the people who weren’t even around to experience it in the first place. Last year the Buzzfeed writer Brian Galindo characterised the 1970s as “a now romanticised era of the city’s history.” And in March, Jason Farago, writing in The New Republic, said that the decade felt like “a golden age” to “many young New Yorkers.” This cohort has come to feel alienated from their city, which has become synonymous with exorbitant rents, gentrification and financial greed. Growing inequality and the fallout from the financial crisis have New Yorkers longing for a time when you could get by in the city for very little. They’ve settled on the 1970s, the last era before Reagan arrived in office and “the musk of profit once again scented the air,” as Luc Sante wrote in the New York Review of Books in 2003.
Typically, nostalgists idealise the positive attributes of their chosen period, all the better to highlight the inadequacies of the present. What distinguishes this particular decade-craze is its fetish for the outward signs of hardship and violence. On the internet, images of dilapidated subway cars in the 1970s and early 1980s by photographers Bruce Davidson and John Conn, have proved popular over recent months, popping up on sites like Huffington Post and Buzzfeed. The photos are sexy in a menacing way. One picture shows a disembodied arm clutching a knife; another, a solitary man wielding a bat; another, a man holding a gun to another’s head—and the hard angles of the graffiti-scrawled trains frame every scene. This is nostalgia for the rats and the grit, the buildings on fire, the subway in all its noir glory. Rather than pining for an imagined utopian past, these enthusiasts yearn for the emblems of “Fear City,” the symbols of dystopia.
There is something obviously perverse in this. Writing for Vanity Fair in June 2009, James Wolcott asked whether it would be such a bad thing if New York reverted “to the mayhem of the 1970s.” He went on to hoorah the era’s egalitarianism and cheap real estate, “the variety and velocity of street stimuli” and the “existential frisson” of riding the subway. “Really,” he concluded, “I much prefer the rubble.” Wolcott was subsequently rapped on the knuckles by an article in Slate for being cavalier about that decade’s misery, and duly softened his tone. In Lucking Out, published in 2011, Wolcott penitently cautioned, “The human wastage of Times Square weighs too heavily against slumming nostalgia.” So long, rubble.
The millennial generation, too young to have experienced the ravages of the 1970s but turned on to today’s depredations, are less circumspect. As Jason Farago put it, the enthusiasm for the 70s subway photography is symptomatic of the tendency of many New Yorkers “born after 1980 and now stuck in this unaffordable city” to mythologize a time “which, for all its danger, at least felt alive.” The 1980s, of course, were not lacking in grit and violence, but the AIDS and crack epidemics that swept the city make it harder to glamorise.
To 70s nostalgists, though, the rubble and dirt embody characteristics of the era that they wish were still around: affordability, spontaneity, the exhilarating sense that New York was a place where anything could happen. As Hermes’s book reveals, the same philosophy pervaded the 70s music scene itself. The aesthetic of both disco and punk, he writes, “seemed less about escaping the nastiness of the city than revelling in it, amping it up to a cinematic scale, drawing a narrative in which artists could wage heroic battle.” It seems there will always be an urge to exalt what Wolcott calls the “splendour in the grit.”