Robert Frank (1924-2019)

Robert Frank is probably best known for his amazing and amazingly influential photo book, The Americans.

An outtake from the book became the cover of The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. album:

Frank, also a filmmaker, was then invited along to document the Stones’ 1972 tour in support of the album (I was at the DC stop at RFK stadium on July 4th). The resulting film, titled Cocksucker Blues (after the never officially released last single the band recorded as a final fuck-you when leaving Decca Records), turned out to be far too raw for the Stones’ taste so they sued Frank to halt distribution.

A settlement was eventually reached, that allowed Frank to screen the film four times a year, only in an archival setting, only if he was present. Presumably his death will stop the film’s distribution. At least its legal distribution. The film has long been available through grey market bootlegs (how I first saw it) and can now be found online, both in part and as a whole:

Wrapping the Lower East Side in Nostalgia

The debate over Target’s awkward attempt to appropriate CBGB’s enduringly cool brand is not really about who will define the neighborhood’s present (the developers have already won that fight), but who will define its past.

In the Village Voice, urban preservationist Jeremiah Moss described Target’s CBGB wrapping as “an entire Potemkin East Village,”* but this was actually the reverse. A Potemkin village creates a false-front to mask the old, or non-existent, to give an appearance of a new and thriving city. Target, however, placed a temporary sheath on a new building to evoke (a carefully sanitized version of) the old, like those “renovations” that save a building’s facade, but build an entirely new building behind it.

Target was clearly seeking to capitalize upon nostalgia.  And I understand why some people were upset by this commodification of their past, especially since the chain’s arrival is a later wave in the gentrification that priced CBGB out of the neighborhood in the first place, but the naysayers are promoting their own brand of nostalgia, albeit of a different kind.

Svetlana Boym, author of The Future of Nostalgia, distinguishes between two types of nostalgia. “Restorative nostalgia” attempts to revive or reconstruct a slice of the past, some supposed “golden era” a person or group misses, often based more on myth and vague childhood memories than historical reality, and in the process “make (fill in the blank) great again,” emphasis on the again. Target literally reconstructed an idealized version of the neighborhood’s past.

“Reflective nostalgia,” however, is steeped in melancholy and longing for a piece of the past that now stands in ruins, focusing on what might have been. These are the 1980s East Village ruins reflective punk nostalgics like Moss mourn, . . .

. . . here (at 10:36) described by Jean Michel Basquiat, filmed in 1980-1981 (though not released until almost two decades later):

New York City came very close to declaring bankruptcy in the mid-’70s:

Artists of various sorts moved into the ruins of the East Village, SOHO and Alphabet City for the cheap rent in the remaining partially to completely abandoned apartment buildings and, especially, former factory spaces in SOHO. There were artists such as Basquiat, Jenny HolzerKeith Haring, David Wojnarowicz (featured in a current exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art), Hannah Wilke, Nan Goldin and Sue Coe, along with “Pictures Generation” artists like Sherry Levine, Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger, Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman; performers such as Karen Finley, Ann Magnuson, Laurie Anderson and Eric Bogosian. Then there were the musicians, punk, jazz, no wave, minimalist and beyond, who flocked to the lower east side.

Of course, these divisions were nowhere near so distinct in practice. There was a lot of overlap, with artists such as Richard Prince and Robert Longo performing in bands, while designing record covers for still other bands, with musicians like John Lurie providing soundtracks for films, etc.

Publications such as Just Another Asshole (1978-1987), Bomb (1981-present), Raw (1980-1991) and the East Village Eye (1979-1987) were launched to feature all of this work outside the mainstream. Galleries and clubs opened for the artists to show their work, White Columns (1970-present), Colab (1977-present), especially its influential Times Square Show in 1980, the New Museum (1977-present), Club 57 (1978-1983) and Mudd Club (1978-1983). And CBGB (1973-2006). Many of the musicians who played these spaces also performed on the public access cable show TV Party (1978-1982), co-hosted by writer Glenn O’Brien and Blondie’s Chris Stein.

The neighborhood also served as the background in numerous indie films. The ghost town was the setting for Amos Poe’s The Foreigner (1978):

With no working streetlights, the no man’s (or woman’s) land provided the nightmarish setting for Abel Ferraro and frequent collaborator Nicholas St. John’s exploitation film Driller Killer (1979), in which a painter is driven mad by the band practicing next door:

The opening of Jim Jarmusch‘s Permanent Vacation (1980) contrasts the nearly deserted East Village with the still thriving business district:

Downtown 81, The Foreigner, Permanent Vacation and Smithereens mostly just follow one character walking around the empty streets of the East Village.

Soon enough, though, all tomorrow’s parties began to pall for many. At the end of Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation, Allie departs the city for France. Wren spends much of Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens (1982) trying to gather enough money to move to Los Angeles with punk rocker Richard Hell, but is last seen alone, walking across the bridge to the New Jersey she had hoped never to return to:

Club 57 and the Mudd Club both closed in 1983. The following year Emily Listfield published her novel It Was Gonna Be Like Paris:

Note the past perfect tense and the wistful sentiment of the title, reflecting nostalgically upon what might have been, not what was.

Is it a coincidence that 1984 also made a best-seller of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights Big City, in which Robert Longo’s suited “Men in the Cities” slum it in bohemian clubs?

That year was also the terminal date the Grey Gallery placed on the scene in its 2006 exhibition, The Downtown Show: 1974-1984.

It is only after a scene fades that nostalgia can take complete hold, no longer having to compete with reality. Instead, nostalgia relies on carefully curated memory.

Writers like Stewart Meyer, friend and onetime chauffeur for junkie laureate William S. Burroughs, and Stephen Paul Cohen reveled in the dirt and drugs of Alphabet City in their novels The Lotus Crew (1984) and Heartless (1986), as did Sarah Schulman in After Delores (1998). (Alphabet City was also the title of a 1984 Amos Poe film about a drug dealer.)

Arthur Nersesian’s The Fuck Up was initially self-published in 1992 under the aptly named imprint Hey Day Publications (with some very nice German Expressionist woodcut style illustrations by Kim Kowalski as chapter headings), . . .

. . . but was later reprinted by Akashic Books, which describes its contents as:

No simple tale of psychopathic yuppie greed, The Fuck-Up is a thriller with a literary soul set in the pre-chic Lower East Side. The narrative follows a nameless hero from the girlfriend who kicks him out for a most minor infidelity, . . . As he makes this emotional and socioeconomic odyssey through New York’s colorful if uncaring landscape, rarely with more than enough change for a cup of coffee at a Blimpie, he becomes embroiled in affairs and relationships built on mutual deceit and predicated on misinformation. The result is a descent into the world of the truly fucked up, a semi-delirious and amnesiac wandering that finds an end not in some predictable and cuddly redemption but in the solace of shared disillusion.

This novel is a, sometimes literal, crawl through the muck. It embraces a third kind of nostalgia, nostalgie de la boue (literally, nostalgia for the mud), which, as Tom Wolfe explains, “tends to be a favorite motif whenever a great many new faces and a lot of new money enter Society.” By the late ’80s, “a great many new faces and a lot of new money” were entering the East Village, so much that “The SOHO Effect” became the official title and model for the artists reviving abandoned, “bad” neighborhoods only to be priced out and forced to move on by gentrification pattern of urban development.

Now nothing’s left but the memories. But which memory will ultimately define this particular place and time for posterity? Will it be corporations’ nostalgic reconstructions, urban preservationists’ nostalgic reflections or novelists’ nostalgic wallowing in the mud?

But as Johnny Thunders, who helped define the East Village scene with the New York Dolls and, later, as the leader of the Heartbreakers, warned:

* Moss goes on to claim that, perhaps more than CBGB, he mourns the loss of stoops where building occupants hung out, interacting with their neighbors and passersby. I would counter that air conditioning probably had a far bigger impact on people staying indoors during the summer than the loss of stoops.