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 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 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.

Remain in Light: Twice in a Lifetime

Talking Heads tried something new when recording their fourth album, Remain in Light. The band had been writing music to accompany David Byrne’s lyrics. Instead, they decided to follow an African mode, building songs from grooves developed while jamming. In particular, they looked to Fela’s music as a model, as evidenced by this later released bonus track:

This is how they came to record songs like “Once in a Lifetime”:

As Washington Post writer Allison Stewart points out, “It’s difficult to imagine white musicians today taking on a project so indebted to African music without being accused of cultural appropriation.”

However, Grammy Award-winning Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo harbored no such thoughts when she first heard the album as a student in Paris, “[Byrne] had a different take on it. He doesn’t try to copy anything. He goes to where the music [is] without asking questions if it’s right or wrong. That’s the way we should do things.”

And now Kidjo has paid Talking Heads the compliment of her take on their music, . . .

. . . covering the entire Remain in Light album.

And the heat goes on:

The N.S.V.I.P.s of Lodge 49

I was already getting sucked into the understated oddity of Lodge 49 when, about 12 minutes in, they featured a deep cut from Lee Hazlewood:

Although the song was from his album Cowboy in Sweden (the soundtrack of a Swedish TV show Hazlewood filmed while living there), the show’s characters could be described by the title of one of his earlier albums, The N.S.V.I.P.’s (Not . . . So . . . Very . . . Important . . . People):

What’s New for One May Be Old for Another, and Vice Versa

This week I attended Baltimore’s great indie bookstore Atomic Books‘ Book Club to discuss Simon Reynolds’s Retromania: Pop’s Addiction to Its Own Past. To varying degrees, we all found the book interesting, even if we each disagreed with various parts of it, maybe even found it more interesting because we sometimes disagreed since it made us think more about own own views and what they were based on. It was a fun discussion.

Reynolds’s basic argument, well, basic complaint is that popular music no longer surprises and has not done so for quite some time. This obviously led to people offering examples of music that had surprised them in the past, and recently. Our choices quickly revealed how much cultural context and the music we were previously exposed to shapes our responses.

First Rachel and then Benn offered Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation as something they initially rejected. Both said they first heard it as nothing but noise and could not understand why others whose taste they respected had recommended it to them.

A quite understandable reaction to an album with songs like “Eric’s Trip” . . .

. . . and “Kissability”:

However, they both later came to embrace it as the masterpiece it is and are now kind of surprised they ever found it alienating.

My initial response to the album was the exact opposite, though. I was a bit older than they were and had been into Sonic Youth for some time when Daydream Nation came out. I had blundered upon the band as a warm up when they were promoting their first album. I still consider that night as one of the defining performances of my life. That was noisy! Just to be clear, I mean that as a compliment. There’s something cathartic about getting tossed around on waves of loud distortion.

So to my ears, Daydream Nation was a veritable pop album compared to the glorious noise and feedback-filled albums that preceded it. I mean, songs like “Teenage Riot” . . .

. . . and “Total Trash” . . .

. . . actually had hooks buried beneath the thrashing guitars.

Daydream Nation seemed to find a balance, taming (just a bit) the chaos of their previous albums like Bad Moon RisingEVOL and Sister, and framing it within a far more approachable format. It totally made sense to me why that album was the band’s real breakthrough, even garnering them a major label deal. For me and many others, the album remains their peak.

Near the end of the evening, Rachel asked when was the last time something had struck us as really original. Only a few responded, but they all chose examples that came from the fringes (even if some of them, like Dan Deacon, later moved more towards the center, or the center moved more towards them). Again, I came from the opposite direction. I was very familiar with their edgier choices, but the majority of my big personal discoveries of the past decade have been pop. When you come from the edges, the pop mainstream can seem like new, original material.