On May 7, New York Press sponsored "Rock in New York," an evening of stories and songs at the Bowery Ballroom, with proceeds benefiting Flemister House, AIDS-supportive housing in Chelsea. The participants represented more than 40 years of rock 'n' roll in the city, from doo-wop through the Fugs to Blue Öyster Cult, Max's Kansas City, CBGB, the New York Dolls, the Ramones, Sonic Youth and Soul Coughing to the teenager Marianne Nowottny today. Danny Fields and Jim Fouratt emceed the bulk of the story session. After the stories, there were performances by Nowottny, the New Mexikans, the Brain Surgeons, the Rattlers, Bebe Buell, Furious George, M. Doughty, Starr, Noel Ford & the Fanatics and special guest Ronnie Spector, whose six-song set shot from "Baby I Love You" to "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory."
We've excerpted a few of the stories.
Tuli Kupferberg: The Fugs "startled" in 1964. I was a poet monkey?I was a poet manqué, living on E. 10th St. between B and C. We poets would all read at Le Metro cafe, an early, cheap coffeehouse on 2nd Ave. just north of St. Marks Pl. We spelled that Marx. Actually the proprietors made their money as a bookie joint, and all the faux antique chairs and tables were for sale. So this coffeehouse became the place, and any poet of any renown who came to New York would read there... Ginsy, Burroughs, Corso, et al.?especially Al?would read there often. Among the lesser luminaries were myself and Ed Sanders...
After reading, we would all retire to a local Polish bar in the cellar of the Dom on St. Marks Pl., and the fat-ass poets would drink beer and attempt to dance to the jukebox tunes of the early Beatles and the Rolling Stones. One night Ed Sanders said to me, "We poets can do better than these dipshits. Let's start our own rock 'n' roll band." I loved that idea, and I picked the name Fugs from Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead... Dorothy Parker is reported to have met the young Mailer at a party, and upon introduction is reputed to have said, "Oh yes, Mr. Mailer. You're the young man who doesn't know how to spell fuck."
...Our first gig was in Ed Sanders' Peace Eye Bookstore, a former kosher butcher?the kosher sign was still in the window?at 383 E. 10th St. In the store Ed sold beatnik poet pamphlets and other esoterica, like a set?and this was sorta unique?each in its own glassine envelope, of pubic hairs of the poets... Our first concert was held in the store in 1964... We next played a few gigs in Diane DiPrima's repertory theater in the Ukrainian Communist meeting hall?you remember that hall? Remember Ukrainian Communists??on E. 7th St...
[W]e played Izzy Young's Folklore Center on 6th Ave. near Bleecker. Izzy loved to boast that he hosted Bobby Dylan's first New York concert. We then moved into weekends at Jonas Mekas' Cinematheque at St. Marks near 3rd Ave. We were an instant hit there. The whole East Side hippie community attended. They came up alongside the stage to sing along, to laugh, to scream, to break furniture, and they even helped to write some of our early songs.
And the rest is a mystery?no, a history. And the rest is a mysterical history...a hysterical mystery.
Now I'd like to sing a song from that period...
David Johansen: ...I went straight from being a really terrible student in high school to being in the New York Dolls. We had a great time. It's not that much different than what people do in a frat house. Except in drag...
[The Dolls] had kind of like?this sounds really sick?we had kind of a blessed existence. We kinda got together and rehearsed for a couple of days. We were the biggest thing in town two days later. After that whole thing transpired, that's when I started paying my dues. What I would do is get in a van with about six guys and travel back and forth across the country, opening for heavy mental acts in hockey rinks...kind of like officiating at Hitler Youth rallies.
When I was home I used to hang out at Tramps, 'cause I lived around the corner. People would do residencies there. Charles Brown would play for a month, Big Joe Turner would play for a month, Big Maybelle would play for a month. I used to hang out there and read the paper to Big Maybelle and go to the track with Charles Brown. It was great.
[Tramps] was open on Monday, but there was nobody singing on Monday. I thought it would be a good idea to do a show for Mondays, which was the Buster [Poindexter] thing. So we started out with like three guys and it got really hot. I started working there two or three nights a week. I was making as much as I [had been] schlepping, and I was actually able to stay home and get a life?if that's what you call this...
When I was a kid, in the 60s, when I was, you know, 14, 15, Bleecker St. and MacDougal St. were really rocking. The Night Owl and the Cafe Au Go Go, you could see really great acts. Like you would see Paul Butterfield and Muddy Waters for three dollars... You could see three great acts for three dollars, totally diverse acts, it wasn't so homogenized as it is today. And then when we came around, there was really no place to play. All the places were boarded up. I think there was some situation, the cabaret laws or something, some kind of fascist dictum had come down and a lot of the places had closed.
So we kind of just fell into the Mercer Arts Center. Eric Emerson had a band called the Magic Tramps, and he said to me one day, "You know I'm playing at this place, the Mercer Arts Center. Do you want to open for us?" And, I was like, "Yeah." We would play anywhere, 'cause we didn't have anyplace to go, really. So we went and played for him, and then people liked us a lot. The guy who owned the place, or ran the place, his name was Al Lewis, he was like an old-fashioned showbiz guy with a bowtie and his hair parted in the middle, like an old-fashioned agent kind of a guy. And he was like, "Oh play again, play again," after Eric played. So we played again and then they offered us a night of our own every week in the Oscar Wilde Room. So finally we had a place to vent, which was good, and all these people started coming to the show who had seen each other on St. Marks Pl. but hadn't really had a situation to get together in. And this kind of brought this whole scene, an instant scene, together. Because so many people were looking for some kind of outlet for their rock 'n' roll ideas, and we were very fortunate to be in the center of that at the time.
Deborah Frost (Brain Surgeons): I was in this band, Flaming Youth. I had answered an ad in the Village Voice, because at that time I had written plays?I was very precocious, I couldn't wait to get out of Westchester. So at 16 I had written a play for Joseph Papp, who said, "You're the voice of your generation." And I said, "Voice of my generation! What do I do now?" I freaked out and ran out of the Public Theater. It was also because I had to work with grownups there and I didn't know how to deal with that. So I did the next best thing. I wanted to be in a band like the Rolling Stones, but I really wanted to do it with girls... Nothing really worked out until I got into this band, Flaming Youth. They took me to this apartment on E. 10th St... It turns out that this guitar player, Denise Mercedes...was involved with Peter Orlovsky, and they said, "Here's your bed," which was usually Allen Ginsberg's bed... He wasn't always there, but they gave me his bed. There was this Buddhist shrine. I said, "Why does this Jewish person have a Buddhist shrine?" I knew I'd come a long way from Scarsdale...
Danny Fields (manager, Stooges, Ramones): [I went to a Beatles convention] a few weeks ago to sell my book on Linda McCartney, and it was 3000 Beatle fans. The women were okay?they kissed the pictures of Paul McCartney and George, that's okay. But any male who's a Beatles fan?if he's young, it's like arrested development, and if he's old, he's just, by definition, so pathetic that it makes the Star Trek people look like...Nirvana. These people were loathsome. They all had bodies by Homer Simpson and hairdos by Meathead. They actually wore Beatles things, Beatles buttons and Beatles beanies. They stood around a lobby singing fucking "Rocky Raccoon" and "Strawberry Fields" all day?songs that sucked when they first came out, and they suck even more now. You know, it's like music for grandparents. And they had these like 60-year-old losers, with their 35-year-old loser children all dressed up in Beatles, and their little babies already?like hostages to this lapse in taste. I mean, I liked [the Beatles] when they first came out. They had long hair and I could throw that back at my father and say, "Look, these people are so famous, on the cover of Life. They have long hair?how can you yell at me?" Rubber Soul was sweet. I liked Rubber Soul. But after that?ho hum.
Jim Fouratt (Hurrah, Danceteria): I grew up in Rhode Island, working-class family, precocious, only child, and I used to listen, under my pillow when I was seven years old, to Alan Freed and the Hound. I didn't know at that age who they were, what they were, one guy came from Buffalo, and they were playing what was called rock 'n' roll, which was sort of a mixture of black rhythm & blues music and early...Bill Haley & His Comets, Bill Doggett, the Del-Vikings, you know, those kind of songs. A little tiny kid, and I'd listen under my pillow when I was supposed to be asleep. Why I did that I don't know. It took me to another world...
[to Danny Fields] Do you remember the Dom?
DF: Yeah, I remember the Dom when Andy Warhol moved the Velvet Underground into the Dom, around '66 or '67. It was a show called the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Don't ask... The Velvet Underground were trying to play their wonderful music on the stage at the Dom and [filmmaker Barbara Rubin] had a wonderful idea to run around with a film projector and cast polka dots on them... It was not a visual aid, it was a visual detriment to their music. I'm sorry if Barbara has a lot of fans here, and we loved her very much...
JF: Remember the night?
JF: The night that we all went to see?
DF: I don't remember any night in particular.
JF: Well let me refresh your memory. We all went down to the Dom one night, and you were with Nico, to see this new young singer. And we all walked down into the downstairs of the Dom?which became the Electric Circus later and was totally destroyed. It was an old Polish or something kind of bar on St. Marks Pl. Anyway, the whole Warhol group went down to see this young artist, and Nico said to Danny, "Look at him." And it was a young?
DF: Jackson Browne, at the age of 16... Jackson and Nico quickly became lovers, and he accompanied her and she sang his song on her first album. He was 16. He was the most beautiful little thing...
JF: David [Johansen] didn't talk about his job at Max's Kansas City.
DF: He was one of the very distinguished busboys there. We called them Phoebes, because All About Eve ends with Eve herself?who has usurped a position high in the Broadway theater?being attacked by a younger generation of climber called Phoebe. So we called the busboys Phoebes... And there were the waitresses, who were very beautiful and leggy, and they wore black and they all married rich people.
JF: And there was [owner] Mickey Ruskin, and there was the back room. Why don't you describe what it was like to walk into the back room of the only place in the world that mattered at that time.
DF: Well, it was a real restaurant in the front. In the back room, there was no doorkeeper, but there was a distinct vibration of you belong here or you don't. In fact, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe both told the story of the two of them cowering in the doorway of the back room, "Oh look at all these incredibly trendy people, there's Andy Warhol and Janis Joplin..." We were saying, "Who are those adorable people? Is it a boy and a girl? Are they two girls? Are they two boys? What are they? Why don't they come in and sleep with all of us?" So we sat there staring at them, and they stood there trembling about us, and finally I just said, "Sit down." And that was the invention of Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith... And I'm not name-dropping, they'll verify this?well, she will. He's not in a position to do very much...
Steak was $2.95. Coffee was free, you could keep taking it yourself. You would run up?Mickey was so wonderful, you would just sign the check "Fatty Arbuckle," "Donald Duck," whatever, it didn't matter. As long as you signed the check, they would take it away. We thought we had big tabs. We had tabs three or four thousand dollars... But the heterosexual Abstract Expressionist alcoholic artists at the bar, like Frosty Myers, had checks of $60,000! For alcohol! In 1968. I mean, how do you do this? The drinks were 95 cents! They had 60,000 drinks there! And Mickey would just let it flow. Until he went out of business.
JF: Let's talk a little bit about how live music came into Max's Kansas City under Mickey Ruskin.
DF: This is not my favorite thing that ever happened there, because it suddenly became not exclusive?because you had the kind of people who want to hear rock 'n' roll, and they were not the kind of people that you wanted to sit with or drink with or...sleep with, maybe.
JF: They didn't get into the back room, Danny. They went upstairs.
DF: I know... It was just dark and it was very wonderful and it was a place to play. Peter Crowley is here, and he booked it, and he was very creative and imaginative, and wonderful people were there. But originally, it was just a discotheque upstairs. There was no live music. Jayne County, formerly Wayne County, was the DJ. Every night closed with "Gimme Shelter." That was the last dance. You'd go upstairs and dance, and then you'd go back downstairs and you didn't have to see anybody who'd lined up on the street to hear Bruce Springsteen or something like that?coming to play at Max's Kansas City! It was a revolting turn of events!
JF: Young boys from New Jersey?
JF: Well, Steven Tyler fit in the back room. I don't think Bruce ever got down there, did he?
DF: Please. What would he do? Who would he talk to? Who would talk to him? No, no... He was like the antithesis of everything we were...
JF: Do you remember [the club] Salvation?
DF: One Sheridan Square.
JF: ...Which later on became where Charles Ludlam did his theater company... They tried to sort of be [Steve Paul's midtown club] The Scene meets Max's in this tiny club. Jimi Hendrix used to hang out there.
DF: ...It was okay. It was not memorable, but I remember that much about it.
JF: But the owner that ran that club, Bradley?
DF: Bradley Pierce, who invented Ondine's, which was a club on E. 59th St. His idea was to bring Whiskey A Go Go, Sunset Strip bands to New York. So he brought Buffalo Springfield and the Doors there in '66. That was their New York debut.
JF: ...This is before the Doors were famous. And we all went up to see them, you remember?
DF: Yes, because all the girls came running down to Max's screaming that there's a gorgeous lead singer at Ondine's and you have go see him, so we all went up there...
Peter Crowley (Mother's, Max's Kansas City): The Fast were one of the first bands that came over [from England] and played Mother's, because they owned a p.a., and none of the big headliners [here] owned a p.a. Television, the Ramones, the Heartbreakers, they didn't own anything. I mean they barely had clothes on their backs. And so the Fast, and I think Neon Leon and a couple of others of those bands, owned p.a.'s, so they got to always be the opening acts.
Hilly Kristal (CBGB): Actually what had happened, that I recollect, I think I was putting up the sign, the awning or something, and I think Tom [Verlaine] and Richard Hell were walking by?I think I was on a ladder?and they asked what I was doing, and I said I was starting this club and this and that... So I think two, three weeks later, Terry Ork came by...and he said, "Well, you're closed Sundays. Can I put in a rock band Sundays?" So that's what started. He managed Television, and he just wanted a place for them to play... Max's wasn't open at that time, that place [the Mercer] literally fell down, there was nothing. I think there was a place in Queens...and there was a place on 4th St. that was a transvestite place that was open a couple of days a week... So I said okay, I'll try it, and they put Television in. I think we charged one dollar... I thought they were horrible. Nobody came. I was used to hearing the best jazz, you know, and at that point they didn't play that well. The sound system?we didn't have the sound system we got a couple years later, so it was not wonderful sound for loud music. For softer music, okay. But...at first, they didn't have it together. They were experimenting, they were fooling around. They could only play in their lofts. So I said never again... Because nobody came, hardly anybody, and it was sad.
[Ork] said, "I have this band from Queens and they have a following." So we got the Ramones. So the Ramones and Television played. The Ramones were worse! It was awful, awful! They'd start, they'd stop, they'd start, they'd stop. Their gear broke down, they'd yell at each other... But you know, that was at the beginning... As they went on, they certainly got better and better.
You need a place to play. You can't just practice. You have to play. It was a growing thing. It was playing and playing in front of people. That was very important.
Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth): When I moved to New York, and a lot of other people moved to New York, there were a lot of people moving here as artists of one sort or another, writers, people involved in the theater, painters and musicians. It was a very interesting time, because there was a lot of cross-talk between these people, there was a sense of community, where you weren't an "artist" or a "writer" or a "musician." Everybody was here trying to do creative activities, and there were a lot of people trying different things...
JF: Why had it changed? In the 50s and the early 60s the Abstract Expressionist movement had been consumers of jazz, and some of them actually made jazz, but there was this popular culture which they didn't participate in, and rock 'n' roll had become a popular culture.
LR: Well, it certainly did, and in the wake of the Beatles and the British Invasion and Dylan?I mean, Dylan, a crucial element of rock music in New York in a certain regard. People just came here. It was a much more freewheeling time, in a sense... I mean, all of the people involved in the music of that time, the new-wave bands of the late 70s and early 80s?Blondie and Talking Heads, Television, Richard Hell?they all came here to do different things... Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell came to be writers... But music had a lot of access, and had a certain sort of fun quotient, that some of these other activities didn't...
When I moved here, and other people that are sort of [Sonic Youth's] peers, people that graduated college in the last half of the 70s or early 80s, the new-wave scene was really big, bands like Television at CBGB's and the Voidoids, and all that stuff was completely incredible. It was taking this music that had gotten overblown and involved with the spectacle of arena rock and bringing it back down to what were the roots of rock 'n' roll... A lot of people at the end of the 70s were disinterested in that [arena rock] music, because it wasn't really very personalized anymore, it was a very large spectacle thing...
Bebe Buell: ...One time my girlfriend Liz Derringer and I were tripping on mescaline that Danny [Fields] gave us... Liz was married to guitar hero Rick Derringer at the time. [Rick and Todd Rundgren, Bebe's boyfriend at the time] went off to the other room, to do whatever geniuses do when they're peaking. So Liz and I went straight into the bathroom to do our little beauty rituals, and we wanted to try this new electric razor that Rick had gotten. it was supposed to be the state of the art, the newest thing, hottest razor on Earth, so we wanted to try it. We were gonna get artistic.
BB: You know, all over. So Liz wanted to clean the razor. She dumps out the whiskers and they're albino! Johnny Winter had used the razor. We're tripping and we're looking at the whiskers and going, "God, that looks just like cocaine!" So we took it, we wrapped it in tin foil, we went straight down to MacDougal St. and sold them for 20 bucks.
JF: One of the things that you just brought up, by mentioning Johnny Winter, is Steve Paul's The Scene.
DF: It was a basement on 46th St. just west of 8th Ave.?a large, sprawling basement where Steve Paul sat and welcomed the great musicians of the time. Jimi Hendrix played there. Tiny Tim was the house band. Took his ukulele out of a shopping bag and sang between acts, "Tiptoe Through the Tulips." It was very great.
JF: It was the only place uptown that catered to rock 'n' roll culture and all the Zeppelins and all the big bands that came across the water....
BB: How about Iggy Pop upstairs at Max's?... That was one of the best shows in rock 'n' roll. I know you [Danny] didn't like music up there, but Iggy was brilliant. That was an incredible night. Everybody was piled in there. I think in our booth there was Alice [Cooper] and Todd and me and everybody... That night was exceptional, because you just never knew with Jim [Osterberg, aka Iggy]...but that particular night, the glass-cutting night, he was extraordinary. I don't think I've ever seen a more incredible rock 'n' roll show. It had everything?danger, art, sex, and the music was phenomenal. This was before Giulinazi, my friends, this was when New York City was really wild and fun
JF: Well, it was also before crack and AIDS...
Albert Bouchard (Blue Öyster Cult): We got together on Long Island and we didn't really play together in the city in the early days. We played at Stony Brook?you know, mixers and stuff like that. Oh, I guess we came into the city a few times. We played at the Third Annual Blues Bag at the Cafe Au Go Go, and that was kinda cool. I got to meet Muddy Waters. You know, I came from upstate New York, it was like a dream come true coming to New York City and seeing all these famous people. Jimi Hendrix, got to meet him. Sly and the Family Stone, Buddy Miles.
Anyway, so, we mostly got our act together out on the Island. We came into the city every once in a while and people would say, "Yo, put on some sides, man! Take a break." We weren't appreciated by the sophisticated city audience. And then Steve Paul gave us a break and let us play at his club, The Scene, for a week. We really met a lot of people. We figured out what we had to do to go over...
Mickey Leigh (the Rattlers): ...I started playing when I was 12 years old. The first show I did in New York City was at a club called Cafe Bizarre on 3rd St. I was 12 years old. We used to come into the city, early 60s, dressed up like Jimi Hendrix, and all the hippies would yell at us to go back to Queens. I was in a band with Johnny Ramone. The first press I got?it was in the Daily News?we played a benefit for the men's alimony prison. We did songs like "Communication Breakdown" and "Good Times, Bad Times." Johnny was 21 and I was 14 years old. And then I introduced him to my brother, who was Joey Ramone.
Noel Ford: The 90s, they weren't as bad as I know you all think they were. D Generation and Green Door, that pretty much says it all... They brought fun back into rock 'n' roll in New York... Rock 'n' roll is not dead, as long as you people want it to stay alive. Gotta come out to the clubs and support the bands.
M. Doughty: I just wanna say disco rules and punk rock is for squares! Yeah!
George Tabb: If it wasn't for my band Furious George none of you would be here, because we recreated rock 'n' roll. Thank you and good-night.