This piece is written in memoriam for the old New York, before the clean up and the gentrification took hold. I know nothing stays forever and nostalgia isn’t what it used to be but indulge me as I reminisce about the good old days, where artists, musicians, filmmakers, freaks and general chancers of all persuasion frolicked in the last chance saloon of downtown New York, amidst the burnt out buildings and shattered dreams, before the real rain came and washed all the scum off the streets.
I had just split up with the girl of my dreams and had enough of my boring job working in an office next to London Bridge. Every day I looked out of my window, over the grey river Thames, and knew I didn’t have it in me anymore. I tried to get the sack once by dying my hair orange and was sure I would get sent home. I got into the lift with the chairman of the company, ‘Nice hair mate!’ was all he said and then it was back to the drawing board. I worked in the computer room and at that time you could get away with murder. All the people who worked in computers were misfits or mentalists. It suited me fine for a while as we could come and go as we pleased and often a lunch break would last 2-3 hours in a pub or wine bar. Soon though the tedium set in and I knew I had to get out. I had lucked into the job in the first place due to my higher-level math skills, and after three years, and at the ripe old age of 21 it was now or never to pursue my dreams.
I was already immersed in the nightlife and underground clubs of London. I was going to a lot of rare groove parties at the weekends in the abandoned warehouses that ran down the edge of the river from Rotherhithe to Blackfriars and Waterloo. I was also going out to lots of clubs in the week and then going straight to work. Clubbing in the week was always more fun and for the hardcore hedonists. Wednesdays was the Batcave at Gossips, run by proto-goth group Specimen, or Pyramid at Heaven for early house and all forms of sweaty electronic body music. Often with bleary eyes I’d stumble into work, down loads of coffee but still end up half asleep over my computer. After a few years of this routine it was time to escape. I had an old friend from New York who had been living in London and when she went back home she asked me to visit her and it seemed like the perfect opportunity. I had fallen in love with the music coming out of the city after hearing the first ‘Streetsounds Electro’ compilations at school. These had turned me into a vinyl junkie desperate to feed my addiction. I started buying some of the limited import copies of fresh new tunes that arrived in a few select Soho record shops every week. My two main sources were Hitman in Brewer Street and Groove Records in Greek Street. You had to be quick to snap these tunes up as not many copies made it over, then suddenly they were gone forever. I was fascinated by the seemingly exotic places mentioned on the labels inside the heavy cardboard shrink-wrapped sleeves. The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island all seemed incredibly glamorous to a boy from South East London and I yearned to check out these mythical locations. I finally made a decision to quit my job and decided to leave with immediate effect. With my last month’s paycheck burning a hole in my pocket I flew to New York, excited and ready for new adventures.
I was picked up from the airport and whilst driving into Manhattan we stopped at a gas station in the Bronx. I got out to ask for directions. No one spoke English, only Spanish, and everyone looked at me blankly like the alien I was. Welcome to New York. For a big part of my eventual six-month stay I lived at the New York University (NYU) building in Washington Square as a guest of my friend Sara who was studying there. You could have a guest stay with you for 4 days if you filled in a form. Over the first month I filled in countless forms and various people I met kept signing the papers that allowed me to stay. After a while the desk security assumed I studied there and I could pretty much come and go as I pleased. NYU was in the middle of downtown New York and was based in Washington Square at the very bottom of 5th Avenue. Walk out the front door, head down MacDougal Street, the Blue Note Jazz club on your right, and then straight on into Bleeker Street and you were in the pulsing heart of Greenwich Village. It was immediately love at first sight. You could feel the energy all around you and coming from a London that wasn’t yet a proper 24-hour city I loved the fact that the city truly never slept and you could always find somewhere else to go and party.
The Village and particularly the Lower East Side were exactly how I imagined after seeing them portrayed numerous times on film and screen. I’d regularly walk past the original police station where Kojak was filmed or stroll by the docks on the West Side where numerous shootouts and chase scenes from bad cop shows always seemed to end up. Often streets would be blocked and filled with cameras and lights whilst another New York story was told. It felt like you were taking part in your own TV show every time you walked down the streets, a permanent movie set in which to live out your dreams.
As you ventured deeper into the Lower East Side you hit Avenues A, B, C and D. This was the area known as Alphabet City and it had a high number of burnt out buildings and wasteland due to the unfortunate habit of local drug gangs torching their rivals’ businesses. The Hells Angels had a clubhouse in one of the buildings nearby, and there were always a few scary looking bikers outside keeping guard. To get an idea of how this area looked at the time check Paul Morrissey’s classic low budget 1984 film ‘Mixed Blood’, about a group of Latin drug dealers. It features not only real life gang members but is also shot in the real slums and drug dens of Alphabet City.
The Lower East Side had some great dive bars that I frequented. The ‘Lismar Lounge’ was a firm favourite on First Ave, sleazy and dirty with a grimy punk rock vibe. GG Allin used to play there and you could see why as it had the same approach to hygiene and respectability. I never saw GG perform, which was probably lucky, as he was threatening to do a Halloween show where he would kill himself and take out members of the audience with him. Unfortunately he got arrested before this ultimate extreme performance could take place and he finally ended up dying of a heroin overdose like every other rock and roll junkie.
Another cool spot was ‘King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut’, an Egyptian themed bar on the edge of Avenue A. It was right next to Tompkins Square Park, which at the time was a haven and sleeping base for a lot of the winos and rough sleepers of Alphabet City. The Wah Wah Hut was filled with psychedelic murals and occasionally psychopathic customers. Round the corner was the Pyramid bar where transvestites and transsexuals mixed with the other regular varieties of misfits that made up the demographic of the Lower East Side. Within decent spitting distance was CBGB’s, the legendary home of New York punk. I went a few times and once saw Sonic Youth do a benefit gig for a local underground magazine store. I think one of the most ridiculous but still enjoyable cliché rock and roll moments of my life was doing coke in the toilets of CBGB’s with two hot girls from NYU during a particularly dodgy punk rock gig.
As well as bars I was going to plenty of clubs. Mars on the West Side near the docks was the hippest hang out at the time and you had to run the gauntlet of the highly selective door staff to get in. If they didn’t like your look you were refused entry. This form of door control was there to keep out the so-called ‘Bridge and Tunnel’ crowd, the derogatory name for the unhip out-of-towners flocking into Manhattan at the weekends. Once you got inside you were greeted with an amazing multi-story venue with incredible décor and cool features such as a shower in the basement, right next to the dance floor, perfect if you wanted to cool off or get hot and steamy. The first time I went I was amazed at the blatant drug taking. I was no innocent but in London you at least had to try and be discreet, in New York no one cared and there were no inhibitions. DJ Duke was the resident spinner at Mars and it was pumping house music all night long. There were also more underground parties that would take part in various downtown warehouses. Graffiti artist Keith Haring used to do the best ones and he would decorate the space with his artwork. The constant nighttime soundtrack at this time was Todd Terry, everywhere you went you heard his trademark sirens, snares and relentless hip hop meets disco edits. One night I went on a date and we ended up at a killer venue down at King Street in an old parking garage. I remember walking up a big ramp to get in and one of the rooms being full of blue lights with an amazing sound system delivering crystal clear sound. Only years later whilst watching a documentary on Larry Levan did I realize I had visited the now legendary Paradise Garage.
New York had some amazing record shops. You could still get sealed original 70s funk albums with killer breaks on for next to nothing as well as all the classic hip hop and electro twelve inches I had craved since hearing them first on the ‘Streetsounds’ compilations. These records were all dirt-cheap and I picked up piles of tunes for a few bucks each that years later would have cost me a fortune. A regular haunt was Downstairs Records next to the subway exit at 42nd Street and Times Square. They always had tons of mad bootleg edit mixes and were where the ‘Ultimate Breaks and Beats’ compilations of classic breaks had started. These comps were originally called ‘Octopus Breaks’ and were put together by Lenny Roberts who worked at Downstairs, and his friend Stanley Patzer who worked at another vinyl mecca round the corner called the Music Factory. They both had an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure funk breaks and were responsible for many of the now classic breaks, whose identities had previously been jealously guarded by DJs, finally getting out and into the public domain. Another key record shop I used to visit was ‘Vinyl Mania’ which was on Carmine Street down in the Village. This was round the corner from the Paradise Garage and made its name when straight after a night dancing the regulars would head round to try and pick up some of the tunes that Larry had played the night before. It was the best record shop in New York for house and disco at the time and all the biggest DJs would shop there and hang out. I bought many a classic tune from the racks but sadly like a lot of places it has now closed down.
As well as electronic music I was also listening to a lot of jazz. I had grown up with the music due to my mother being immersed in the Soho scene since the fifties and it seemed fitting to listen to it in the place where Miles and Charlie Parker had invented bebop. The main jazz radio station was excellent and would supply a constant stream of cool and eclectic grooves. One rainy midweek night a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to see a guy called Sun Ra play at a club round the corner. We headed down to The Village Vanguard on 7th Ave, which was a small but legendary basement club where Coltrane used to play. It was fairly empty but the 16-piece band couldn’t all fit onto the tiny stage and they ended making up a big part of the audience. I went to the bathroom before they came on and ended up having to squeeze past a half naked Sun Ra as he was putting his full Egyptian Pharaoh outfit on. The show was unlike anything I had ever seen before and it started my lifelong love of Sun Ra and his totally unique brand of weird space jazz.
In 1988, the area around Times Square and nearby 42nd Street was straight out of Taxi Driver by Martin Scorsese. You almost expected Travis Bickle to drive round the corner, gun in pocket, looking for Jodie Foster. Porn cinemas were everywhere, hustlers sold drugs and weapons openly on the street and video game arcades blasted electronic sounds into the air already thick with sirens and the buzz of the city. I was working at a health food restaurant nearby at the corner of 9th Ave and 42nd Street. ‘Lois Lane’s 9th and Natural’, was owned by the non-Superman related Lois Lane. She had hired me on the spot after I walked in off the street and asked for a job. The place was a haven for actors eating healthily between jobs as well as drug dealers who would buy big bags of organic dried herbs from us and then go and sell them to punters up the block.
One of my co-workers at 9th and Natural was a cameraman at Manhattan Cable, the local public access TV network. This TV channel had an ‘anything goes’ policy and its schedules were filled with a wide selection of libertarian programming. For $50 you could do a half hour TV show with one fixed camera on any subject that you wanted. Al Goldstein, proprietor of Screw magazine, one of the first legal and sexually explicit publications in America, used to do a show where he would rant and rave on air, take calls and abuse his audience or interview underground celebrities. Robin Byrd, who was an ex stripper, hosted a chat show and would interview members of the sex industry.
Through my mate I got invited to the Robin Byrd Xmas party and unbeknownst to me the whole event was broadcast live and a lot of my friends at NYU were watching back at the college. I even appeared once on one of the chat shows. I had been making some music with a guy I had met in the village called Sic Mic. He had changed his name to this by official deed poll and once showed me a video of him doing a live performance strapped half naked to a crucifix whilst screaming into a microphone over screeching industrial noise. I had tried not to laugh too much. Anyway we had made a track, industrial electro funk style with an appropriately weird cut up video but didn’t have a name for our project. We appeared on a Manhattan Cable chat show called ‘The Vole Show’ and the hosts invited the viewers to phone in suggestions for a suitable name for our outfit. My memory doesn’t recall all the answers we received but suffice to say we had plenty of random and obscene suggestions, including one caller pretending to be the Queen of England. I wish I still had my VHS video copy of this chaotic appearance.
One of the joys of being in the city was the feeling of being in the middle of an endless, spiraling creative flow of ideas and the ability to meet all different types of people trying to express themselves through their work. There was a healthy experimental underground film and art scene that matched the vibrancy of the music and club scene. I went to a lot of weird art performance and film events in random locations across the city. I was introduced to the incredible low budget films of Mike and George Kuchar and met some interesting characters, such as the leader of the ‘Cinema of Transgression’, Nick Zedd, who was producing cult violent shock flicks alongside Richard Kern and Lydia Lunch.
Also studying at NYU and staying in the next room to my friend Sara was a guy called Joel, a graffiti artist from Pittsburgh, who had some of his ‘Buda’ pieces featured in Henry Chalfant’s classic street art book ‘Subway Art’. We became firm friends and had several memorable nights out. One acid infused evening we trekked all over downtown Manhattan, tripping hard whilst walking through the different subterranean worlds that came out at night. We went through the gay cruising zone of the docks, past the immaculately groomed West Side transsexual prostitutes, and down to the base of the World Trade Centre, staring up in awe at the tops of the twin towers shrouded in the clouds. As the sun came up we headed up through grimy Alphabet City, past the waste ground where, bizarrely, chickens would always be running about amongst the ruins, and ended up in an outdoor rundown amphitheater in a park running along the edge of the East River. We both suddenly stopped and realized where we were.
We were at the location of the final party scene of the seminal and groundbreaking early hip hop movie ‘Wildstyle’. A film that had initiated me into the four key elements of hip hop culture. Graffiti, Rapping, DJing and Breakdancing. I felt like I had made it to the source. The roof was falling to bits but the space was still filled with lots of iconic graffiti from the film. Above the stage, Lee Quinones’ amazing piece of two giant hands still fired lightning flashes out into the arena. I couldn’t believe I was standing on this spot. The place where Double Trouble, Grandmaster Flash, Grand Wizard Theodore, The Cold Crush Brothers and The Rock Steady Crew had all performed and inspired my teenage dreams.
Myself and Buda later did a crazy road trip down to the Mardi Gras in New Orleans and this cemented our friendship. A year on Joel visited me in London to investigate the early rave and acid house scene I had been telling him about. In 1991, he flew me to Pittsburgh to DJ at the very first rave in the area and for a while we became some of the first proper underground rave promoters on the East Coast of America, but that is a story for another time. After 6 months in New York my visa finally ran out and with sadness in my heart I was forced to return to London.
A few years ago I went back to post 9-11 New York and tried to visit some of my old haunts. I was reminded of a piece of writing by William Burroughs called ‘The 103rd Street Boys’. Here he laments the disappearance of the ‘hipster bebop junkies’ who used to hang out on the corners and in the bars and coffee shops of uptown Manhattan. He describes how the ghosts of the past still inhabit the landscape, despite the connection moving elsewhere. This is how I felt walking the streets I used to love. Lois Lane’s cafe was now a Dunkin Donuts and it was like the 9th and natural was all a dream. Times Square and 42nd Street no longer throbbed to the buzz of sex, drugs and sleaze. The ‘Lion King’ was playing rather than ‘Debbie does Dallas’. Down in the Village there was still a buzz but the ‘Lismar Lounge’ was shut, CBGB’s had its last gig coming up and Tompkins Square had been cleansed, the homeless and undesirables had been evicted and moved elsewhere. Alphabet City was now a hip area to live and condominiums had taken over from crack houses. Like I said at the beginning of this reminiscence, nothing stays the same and it is easy to see the past through rose tinted glasses. Certainly not all elements of life then were perfect or easy. The broken city was a result of years of government neglect and times were tough, but I cannot help but mourn the New York I used to know and love. Out of the dirty streets and run down buildings came an amazing amount of music, art and street culture that influenced the world. Disco, punk and hip hop all had a part of the city in their heart. Unfortunately the artists, musicians, filmmakers, freaks and chancers can no longer afford to live downtown. The memories remain but the connection has moved on.