All Hopped Up And Ready To Go: An Introduction
I was halfway through my first two-hour interview with the guitarist, producer, songwriter, journalist, and author Lenny Kaye, about as educated and enthusiastic a student and participant of the New York City music scene as anyone could ask to meet. Ostensibly, we had reached the point in our conversation where we were talking about the New York Dolls and why, despite their considerable influence over both the short and the long term, they had imploded so quickly, barely making it through two albums.
“New York is a city that’s not going to tell you no,” said Kaye, which I thought to be perhaps the most perceptive—and oddly poetic—single sentence I heard during thousands of hours spent discussing my subject matter over a five-year period. “It’s only you who can tell you when you have to go home and go to bed. So unless you have a great sense of personal responsibility, you can get lost here.” He was only partly alluding to the various problems that brought the New York Dolls to their knees, which is why he went on, “It’s not just the usual sex and drugs, etc. You can be so swamped by the amount of cultural material. Where does your art end? How do you define this? Are you going off on some wacky side road? All of these things come into play.”
Indeed they do. When I set off on the idea of writing a musical history of New York City, I envisioned a book that would start with the vaudeville impresario Tony Pastor and trace the birth of the American music business to the back rooms of the German and Irish beer halls along the lower Bowery—home of the original b-boys—in the years directly after the Civil War. By the time I had sold the idea to a publisher, half my initial research appeared to have been thrown out the window, and we had settled on a book that would begin eighty years later, after World War II, and end at the present day—in a New York City whose music scene, I felt then (and still believe now), had been rejuvenated by a fresh influx of musicians and entrepreneurs in the aftermath of that great New York tragedy, 9/11.
And about halfway through the process of actually writing it, I realized I had almost split the difference. All Hopped Up and Ready to Go starts in 1927, in the midst of the Jazz Age. It ends in 1977, a year marked in New York by the blackout, “Son of Sam,” a heated mayoral election, the opening of Studio 54, Paradise Garage, and Disco Fever, and the release of debut or second albums by the Ramones, Blondie, Television, Talking Heads, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, and Suicide.
Why those fifty years? Well, both start and end dates are major musical peaks, and the period in between covers the vast middle of the twentieth century, a period of explosion in popular music unlike any other. Besides, to delve back much farther than 1927 would necessitate recounting the birth of jazz itself, a subject so deep, so wide, and so well covered that I prefer to consider it already told. To travel much later than 1977, especially allowing for the growth of hip-hop from so-called novelty to predominant musical format, would have involved so much more detail that it would have demanded another book.
Indeed, there already is another book. It’s lying in bits and bytes on my hard drive. I admit that, per Kaye’s comment, I found myself absolutely swamped by the amount of cultural material available while researching this project, and I freely confess that I headed off on many “a wacky side road.” New York is a city of vast wonder, and so much information is embedded and entwined in its short history that it’s all too easy to pull the writer’s equivalent of a club kid’s all-nighter, and binge on the excessive possibilities.
But it’s all part of the process of getting to the heart of the story, that of the many musical genres that have emerged from the New York streets. Music scenes have always fascinated me. And I have always believed that those scenes arise not out of vacuums but out of a specific set of social and economic (and of course musical) circumstances. Those that I write about in this book—from Cubop to hip-hop, from disco to punk—were very much a product of New York City. They could not, and did not, happen anywhere else, at any other time.
It should come as no surprise that New York has nurtured so many musical cultures. No other city undergoes such constant transformation with every new generation of immigrants; no other city can claim to be so powerfully driven by capitalism and yet so obsessed with community; no other city lures so many talented outsiders willing to risk total failure for such a small chance of success. And in no other city do so many millions of people from so many hundreds of different nations live cheek by jowl in such a confined mass, distilling and absorbing each other’s cultures, creating in the process a melting pot—not just of the demographics that New York is so famous for but, crucially, of ideas too.
Other books have detailed the growth of the specific cultures or genres that I’ve identified in individual chapters. But no book, to my knowledge, has tried to weave these different cultures together and attempted to show, for example, how the entrepreneurs who popularized the mambo were the same ones who then cornered the vocal harmony/rhythm and blues scene. Or how the almost exclusively black hip-hop culture that everyone knows was born in the Bronx was directly related to a predominantly gay disco scene in downtown Manhattan. How glitter rock could not have happened as it did without the Ridiculous Theater, which itself would not have been what it was but for the reassuringly libertarian presence of Max’s Kansas City. How the Lower East Side rock scene was a direct product of the area’s thriving movements in poetry, filmmaking, avant-garde music, and experimental theater. How punk and disco emerged not so much in opposition to as in tandem with each other. And how the thorny issue of race raises its head frequently, but rarely between the musicians themselves, who appear, from the start, drawn to New York’s music scene in large part because it offers an opportunity for social as well as musical harmony.
In drawing these connections and identifying my characters, I discovered that just about every scene revolves around three groups of players. First, there are the young musicians who set about formulating their own sound, consciously or otherwise, out of their geographical and social circumstances. Next, usually, there’s the nightclub owner who either opens a space specifically to promote this music or otherwise embraces it at a venue that exists already but needs the business. Finally, there are the independent record company entrepreneurs who, being similarly enthusiastic, either establish new labels for the benefit of the music or turn existing imprints over to it. You’ll find this three-cornered foundation in chapters on Afro-Cuban jazz and Cubop, on folk music several times over, on the mambo, the male harmony vocal groups, the Lower East Side rock scene, punk rock, and hip-hop. (And you’ll find exceptions in chapters on the Brooklyn songwriters, the girl groups, and the birth of disco, all for patently obvious reasons.)
For the most part, I have tried to close out each chapter around the point that the scene in question hits the mainstream, which is usually when the major labels come in to market the music to the masses and inevitably water it down in the process. (For all that New York is the home of the American music business, these major record companies have typically so removed themselves from the streets that it quite caught me by surprise to realize that Bob Dylan, almost alone of the musicians in this book, never served an independent label apprenticeship.) By then, as far as I am concerned, the story has been told, and all that’s left to do is count the number of record sales and ask: who made all the money?
That question took me off on many fascinating tangents that I ultimately realized were not part of the main narrative. Rather than list them all here, I invite you to visit my Web site, www.ijamming.net, and look for the link to this book, where I will post additional endnotes, host video links, and offer musical playlists for those who would like to read, watch, and listen in more detail.
Squeezing such a large time frame into a few hundred pages has inevitably involved picking and choosing my movements, and I am bound to disappoint some people by what I have left out. I followed the Latin scene as far as the mambo in the 1950s, but backed off at the point that it mutated into the bugaloo and salsa, even though there is a great story waiting to be written about the Latin funk of “El Barrio.” As I wrote about the disco scene of the early seventies, it dawned on me (too late for this book) that nobody has ever done justice to the great soul, funk, and R&B bands of the early seventies New York metropolitan area: Crown Heights Affair, Fatback Band, Kool & the Gang, Brass Construction, B. T. Express, and more. Doo-wop fans will be unhappy to know that I cover in detail the mostly black groups of Harlem and the Bronx in the fifties, but offer very little about the mostly white groups of Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island in the sixties; I can only say that I felt the story had been told by that point. I interviewed several of the singer-songwriters who came to prominence in the sixties but could not get as excited about that aspect of the Greenwich Village scene as about the one that thrived, outdoors and independently, in Washington Square Park for decades. The avant-garde minimalism of John Cage, La Monte Young, and others is barely touched upon. Neither is modern jazz, another minefield of a massive subject. As I picked my scenes, I kept coming back to three key questions. Was the movement emanating from the streets? Was it unique to New York? And was the music offering something new? I needed an affirmative to all those questions to justify the chapter.
I could, at this point, tell my own story: how I came to New York from London, fell in love with the city, decided to move to Manhattan, and endured the familiar struggles of making rent while simultaneously having the time of my life. But I prefer to relay the account of an interviewee, one whose story is just beyond the time frame of this book, but in whose experiences I recognized some of my own—perhaps because, among the few people I interviewed, he also came to New York City from another country. François Kevorkian arrived in New York City, on a flight from France, in September 1975, at the age of twenty-one. He carried with him $300 in cash, a short-term tourist visa, and little else but his deeply ingrained love of jazz, which he knew he could satiate only by moving to the Big Apple. He spent his first night in the city at the YMCA on 34th Street, sleeping alongside Vietnam vets. It cost him $8. He spent a considerable chunk more of his savings on a bicycle to get around town; when he went to see Miles Davis in Central Park during his first week in the city, someone cut the lock and stole it.
Kevorkian refused to let that baptism of theft bring him down, nor was he deterred by having arrived in the midst of the city’s bankruptcy. His memories of his early days in the city remain, instead almost unanimously positive. New York, he said, “was too good to be true. Yes, there were economic problems and all this crime, but these things were secondary to me. I never paid attention to it.” Looking for his inroad into jazz, he picked up the Musicians Union handbook in a midtown music store instead, and found that it listed the home phone numbers for many of his idols. He called several of them, “and they were all so pleasant and sweet, and so welcoming,” as he recollected. He saw the great Tony Williams advertising drum lessons in the Village Voice, and signed up—something he could never have even contemplated living in Strasbourg. Walking through Manhattan during his first month, he got talking to a friendly face and was invited to an after-work dance party on Church Street. There he discovered that, unlike those in France, the New York DJs used two turntables and a mixer and that they could actually cue in one record from their headphones while the other one was playing. Kevorkian had never seen anything like that before. (Nor, at that point, had many of the hip-hop DJs in the South Bronx.)
From that chance encounter, Kevorkian found himself taking off on what could have been some wacky side road—but for the fact that, in New York City’s often serendipitous manner, it allowed him to create and establish his own niche. Within a year, he was immersed in the thriving discotheque scene, a resident at the club Galaxy 21—playing jazz drums on the dance floor to accompany the music that the DJ Walter Gibbons spun from the booth up above. A year after that, he was hired as an A&R man by the pioneering disco record label, Prelude, “on the strength of a five-minute conversation.” And around the same time, having worked on his own DJ skills via promotions at the Hotel Diplomat, a seedy midtown location that shows up in more music scenes than you might initially presume, he found himself hired as the actual resident DJ for the main competitor to Studio 54. That club was called New York, New York. You could forgive François Kevorkian for humming a certain Frank Sinatra song. You could also understand why, thirty years later, having become an institution on the city’s ever-thriving dance music underground, Kevorkian might still say of his first years in New York, “I’d never seen a place in my entire life where I witnessed so many instances of the generosity and the goodness of the human spirit.”
For if New York, as Lenny Kaye put it, is a city that’s not going to tell you no, then that must mean, as François Kevorkian discovered, that it’s a city that wants to say yes—that any idea will be entertained, and anyone with a positive attitude and the requisite determination can find his or her calling. Over the years, this uniquely New York attitude has created many musical movements that have gone on to create an impact around the globe. This is their story.