Welcome to the Modern World

Scavenging through the artifacts of the Fifties and the attitudes of the Sixties are the brave new children of today. Like the beats and the hippies before them, they have something to tell you.

April 1, 1981

A CORNUCOPIA OF THE MODERN WORLD: Chris Stein of Blondie in the peaked hat. Then, clockwise, Scott B, Lydia Lunch, Ann Magnuson, Jimmy de Sana, Nancy Arlen, Nick Marden’s jacket, Beth B, Marcus Leatherdale. Photo: Chris von Wangenheim

“LOUD FAST RULES.” There’s a lot of stuff written on the back of Nick Marden’s black leather jacket, but those three words stand out. I recognized the STIMULATORS, the DAMNED, and EVEN WORSE, Nick’s own group, but with LOUD FAST RULES I had to admit confusion. Was he demanding rules that were loud and fast? Was Loud Fast some nascent rock group that had hitherto escaped my attention? No, Nick said, not at all. That was just his way of saying that anything faster and with more beat comes out on top. The names of the bands change every time he repaints his jacket, but LOUD FAST RULES stays the same. It sums up his musical philosophy.
The jacket had just gotten its seventh painting, so everything was fresh and white. The black lightning bolt across Nick’s cheekbone was obviously a recent application as well. He flashed me a smile and started talking about his band.
Nick plays bass. He came to New York two years ago from California, and after he’d been here a while he formed a group with the guitarist from the Mau Maus and the drummer from the Blenders. But he and the guitarist had different ideas, so before they actually played in public Nick split. Then he got together with a couple of other guys and they played at Tier 3, where the downtown intelligentsia used to hang out.
The gig was a success, miraculously, and so far the band has played six dates together. But the most they’ve gotten for a night’s work is thirteen dollars apiece, from a frat house in Pennsylvania, and even that they haven’t been paid yet.
Right now they’re trying to decide whether to tough it out. Nick is at least momentarily optimistic. “With a name like that,” he said, “how can we go wrong? It’s going to be even worse in the Eighties, no doubt about it.” He grinned.
The Beatles’ second album was on the stereo. A chill came through the walls: there hadn’t been any heat in this Lower East Side tenement for days.
Originally Nick had intended to come to New York only for the summer, but once he got here he lost all desire to go back to California. “Living out there with the trees and the birds is real nice,” he said, “but it’s living out there with the trees and the birds.”
To Nick, “out there” means the Carmel Valley, where he was brought up by his mother, Pauline Baez (older sister of Joan Baez and Mimi Fariña). Nick had a pretty interesting childhood—Bob Dylan once sang him to sleep, and when he was seven years old he thought the guy who set his guitar on fire at the Monterey Pop Festival was really neat—but being a teenager in the Carmel Valley he found kind of dull. He went to Carmel High (“appropriately named”) and spent most of his time trying to think of something to do. He and the other kids would drive around a lot, smoking and drinking and doing drugs, and when they weren’t doing that they would hang out in the little park in the center of town, carving up benches. The cops thought they were punk kids and gave them a hard time. School was a drag, so Nick quit a couple of months before he was supposed to graduate. Later he tried to take an equivalency test but ended up vomiting instead.
Now, at age twenty, playing bass in a punk band in New York, he seems the victim of cultural confusion. Maybe it’s because he grew up watching the Vietnam War on TV while his mother and most of his aunts and uncles were out protesting against it. Maybe there’s some other reason. But he wears black pegged pants and a spike haircut, and he keeps a sign saying LOVE ANIMALS DON’T EAT THEM on his kitchen stove. He’s against the draft but admits to a fascination with guns, uniforms, and war. His mother and his aunts used to get upset about the Nazi regalia, but they’d always encouraged him to do what he wanted, and besides, they figured he was just a kid.
“I like the uniforms and everything,” he told me. “The concept of killing somebody never really clicked.”
What is the appeal of the uniforms?
“I don’t have the slightest idea.”

 

LET’S BEGIN BY DEFINING SOME TERMS.
Punk: Alienated youth, circa 1977. Nihilistic world view attuned to declining urban environment of England and industrial Northeast America. Rage amid ruins.
New Wave: Generic term that is applied to variety of post-punk phenomena (U.S. only). Originally coined to describe the “new wave” of British rock that wasn’t getting airplay because American disc jockeys associated it with punk, i.e. violence. Now used increasingly as a label for avant-garde efforts in film, video, painting, sculpture, and fashion. Includes a number of substyles and cultural permutations that are variations on a theme.
Retrograde: The theme. What happens when a whole planet starts moving backward. “I feel that retrograde is like walking down the street and then all of a sudden looking back over your shoulder,” says art writer Jeffrey Hogrefe. Pertinent question: Why would anybody do that? Possible answers: (a) When the view ahead is repellent; (b) when something over your shoulder beckons seductively; (c) both of the above.
The Seventies were a bad time to be young because nobody could agree on what was hip. Something is hip—as opposed to chic or merely trendy—if it is embraced by disaffected young people and a vast range of fringe groups, including blacks, homosexuals, artists, intellectuals, and the very, very rich. Such phenomena appear necessary for self-definition and group mental health, but in the Seventies there was no consensus. Glitter rock quickly proved ridiculous, David Bowie notwithstanding. The Allman Brothers helped put Jimmy Carter in the White House, but you won’t find any of them there now. Est was certainly popular, but too many people made fun of it. Jogging and health clubs were simply too improvement-oriented. The no-nukes people couldn’t stop reminiscing about their peace marches. Roller skates … real estate… Animal House … it was all too much. The Seventies were a crap shoot: anything could make it, even the Bee Gees.
In mid-decade, in different quarters of Manhattan, certain key blocs in the hip constituency began to address the problem independently. Blacks and homosexuals came up with disco; alienated young people invented punk rock in a Bowery dive called CBGB, shipped it off to England with the Ramones, and watched it come back in a blaze of media with the Sex Pistols. The differences couldn’t have been more striking: punk was violence, anarchy, nihilism, brutal realism; disco was fantasy, liberation, hedonistic abandon, total release. That disco was essentially mechanical and soulless seemed of little importance at the time. It was the perfect entertainment mode for narcissistic America.
While disco was taking over the country, punk was wrestling with the problem of how to shock in a permissive society. Sid Vicious finally succeeded two years ago when he woke up with his girlfriend’s blood-soaked corpse in the bathroom, assaulted Patti Smith’s brother with a beer bottle, and then died of an overdose at a party in his honor—all within a four-month period. No one quite knew what to say: it was a rock ’n’ roll first. Punk was swiftly interred. New Wave took its place.

Roller skates…real estate…”Animal House”…the Seventies were a crap shoot: anything could make it, even the Bee Gees.

A lot of people never noticed, but New Wave was fundamentally different. It carried a whiff of violence, but it was revolutionary in neither style nor content. It substituted art for rage and irony for nihilism, and it never offered anything approaching a world view. Instead, it became a catchphrase for a hundred different bands with a dozen different sounds—the cleverly commercial power pop of Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello; the camp cabaret of Devo and the B-52s; the ska revival of the Specials; the carefully preserved rockabilly of Dave Edmunds; the jazz funk of the Lounge Lizards and James Chance; the experimental “No Wave” of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks; and the holdout punk sound of Stiv Bators and the Dead Kennedys.
Only from the outside do they all look alike—just as, to the uninitiated in 1967, Moby Grape seemed indistinguishable from the Velvet Underground. All these bands do have some things in common, however.
Fundamental to their approach has been the rejection of a fat and irrelevant rock establishment (Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney, the Eagles) and an obsession with the pre-hippie pop-culture past. From the Ramones to the B-52s to the Lounge Lizards, the emphasis has been on mining that past and reinventing it in dramatic new ways—on ripping it apart and putting it back together again, the way it should have been or might have been or could have been. Particular attention has been paid to any form previously considered unhip—pop singles, surf rock, cocktail jazz. Interpreted as fashion, this same impulse comes out as beehive hairdos, shocking-pink pedal pushers, skinny ties, butch haircuts for women, Gene Vincent ducktails for men. There are at least as many looks as there are types of bands, but their common denominator is a bristling, aggressive, hard-edged appeal.
Nervous energy abounds. Blondie’s icy cool is about as relaxed as you get; groups like the Feelies and the Fleshtones and the Selecter all quiver on the edge of hysteria. Like their audiences, they’re polarized and extreme, celebrating differences rather than similarities and always going for the outer limits. But if they are polarized, they are also conflicted. For at the core of this new sensibility is ambivalence—ambivalence toward sex, toward race, toward politics, technology, the past, the future. It is an ambivalence implicit in the notion of moving forward and back at the same time.
One subject these people are particularly ambivalent about is the hippie movement. In many ways their subculture mirrors the fabled counterculture of the Sixties: a grass-roots youth movement centered on rock bands, with its own fashions and graphics, developing this time out of New York and London and spreading to cities, suburbs, and college towns all across the free world. The result: In Vancouver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tucson, Houston, New Orleans, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Boston, Liverpool, Birmingham—wherever there’s a club that lets bands play their own music or a fanzine that generates excitement or a hip record store that serves as a hangout—the new rock culture springs up. The difference: This time they don’t want to be a movement. “We’re into cult cultures,” explains New York Rocker’s Greg McLean, who keeps tabs on all of them, “as opposed to one giant mass culture like Woodstock.”
Even so, a lot of today’s young people will tell you that they identify with hippies, that they admire the hippies’ rebelliousness and view themselves as inheritors of the same bohemian tradition. But they are not hippies, and they know it. They are living in a time when horizons are being boxed in, when optimism has given way to paranoia. And they are acting not on the impulse to be free but on the impulse to pull back, to turn back the clock, to revert to known forms. They are reacting not just against the fatuousness of the rock establishment and the mechanical hedonism of disco but, by implication, against all the narcissistic pretensions of Seventies America—against everything the Sixties led to. They are perhaps America’s first reactionary bohemians. The more intelligent among them have a fine sense of irony; the rest bear watching closely.
This is not to suggest that they have right-wing politics: most of them are too ambivalent for that. It’s just that the only way to make a statement these days is to be reactionary. It’s not their fault; it’s the world they were born in. At least they’ve hit upon a new way to be hip—not by rejecting what’s square but by perverting it, by searching it out and wallowing in it and stretching it until there’s nothing left but a couple of sick laughs.
Incidentally, most of these people don’t really care for the term New Wave, and a good many of them hate punk as well. Of course a lot of them, being artists, resent labels of any sort; but the adjective of choice among those who will stomach one at all seems to be modern.
To be modern is to be hard-edged, distant, coolly aggressive; to celebrate the synthetic and the artificial; to reject softness and easy intimacy and fuzzy-headed visions of what life has to offer; to feel the pull of polarization in every fiber. Without quite realizing it, modern youth has set a big task for itself.
Modern youth is showing America how to tighten its sphincter—and like it.

 

THE FOLLOWING AD appeared in the nightclub sections of both The Village Voice and the Soho News on Wednesday, November 5, last year:

VICTORY

WELCOME TO SOHO OUR NANCY & RON

New York, New York, Nov. 4— Mudd Club using special operatives has received advanced word of Nancy and Ron’s glorious victory and is now assembling artists for a tickertape parade down White Street. Mudd youth…is ready and anxious to serve the new regime. On the eve of victory Dr. Mudd addressed the nation’s youth in a speech, parts of which are excerpted here:

“A new spirit has arrived from the west. It is sweeping over the land with hurricane force and will unite American youth in a seething cauldron of energy…. Stand in formation behind your new leader. Unite in a blood brotherhood with roots in our Holy American soil. Reject all un-American influence.

…There will be amnesty for all youth who reject the corrupt devices of the foreign devils. Turn in your punk accessories: studded bracelets, choke collars, spandex, S&M devices and drugs. No questions will be asked….”

“Dr. Mudd” is the pseudonym of Steve Mass, a thirty-seven-year-old businessman with a head for art and a somewhat macabre sense of humor. As proprietor of the Mudd Club, the modern dance establishment on otherwise deserted White Street, Mass has become a key figure in the lower-Manhattan demimonde. Since New York is a mecca for disturbed and creative youth from all over, that means he’s central to the current definition of what’s hip.

They’ve hit on a new way to be hip—not by rejecting what’s square but by perverting it, by searching it out and wallowing in it.

At first there were no punk-rock dance clubs because punk rockers were too constricted to dance. Out of sheer frustration they invented the Pogo: packed into incredibly noisy clubs so tightly that they could move only up and down, they began to do so at an absolutely furious rate. That was four years ago. The current spate of New Wave dance clubs in most big cities dates from 1978, when Blondie scored a major disco hit with “Heart of Glass” and the New York disco Hurrah switched to the new music.
The Mudd Club opened that October and in six months became, without any advertising or even a sign over the door, the kind of place that people block the street trying to get into. Those who succeeded (many didn’t) entered a dizzying nightscape of Felliniesque intensity: A high-ceilinged room with walls you could barely see b ut knew you didn’t want to touch, reverberating with sound from massive overhead speakers, alive with the rhythmic contortions of hundreds of tightly pressed bodies. Slender young men in black leather pants, surveying the floor with icy calm… a pack of stubble-headed boys in fatigues and open shirts, sloshing beer by the bar… guys in baggy pegged pants and floppy plaid shirts and girls in white bobby socks and pink angora sweaters and guys in formal evening wear and girls in frilly white dresses and guys in pegged black jeans with studded leather bracelets and girls with beehive hairdos and skin-tight crimson mini-skirts, all dancing in the flashing light while on the wall above their heads a projector beamed a vintage driver’s ed film showing happy family groups and carefree teenagers falling prey to the incautious moment that results in agony, decapitation, and death.
Mass himself is a balding, kind of dumpy-looking guy who wears flannel shirts with a pocketful of pens and pencils in front. A native of Macon, Georgia, who studied writing at the University of Iowa, he was drawn to New York by its poetry scene. Before he took over the premises on White Street, they had been part of a textile warehouse. He added the sound system and the bar, put a stage in one corner, and left everything else pretty much as it was.
The club’s name was as unlikely as its location. This was a time when the prevailing entertainment mode in New York was the luxurious disco fantasy environment: Studio 54, Flamingo, Régine’s. “The name had no meaning except to totally fly in the face of advertising good sense,” Mass explained to me. “It was simply to prove that if beauty is the hip fantasy at the time, by doing the exact opposite, by definition, you would be hip—without having any intelligence behind it at all.”
These days Mass is facing competition from a dozen or more clubs in Manhattan and countless more in the suburbs, so it is perhaps not surprising that the crowds outside the Mudd Club have gotten thinner now and on some nights are even nonexistent. Mass has responded by refurbishing the basement with an imitation marble floor and by planning other moves he’d rather not talk about: “It destroys the mystique for myself,” he said. Then he added, “Once something has become hip, it’s peaked and is on the verge of collapse. I’m trying to think—what would be hip now? Going to hockey games, maybe … but you can’t get tickets…”

 

MASS SAID THERE IS ONLY one night spot other than his own that he’d ever consider frequenting—aside from a Howard Johnson’s or something, “just to get away”—and that’s Club 57. Club 57 is actually the basement social hall of the Holy Cross Polish National Church on St. Marks Place, the East Village artery that was New York’s answer to Haight Street during the Summer of Love. At one time it was a normal Polish church basement. Then the church fathers decided to turn it into a cultural center for community youth.
The result was Club 57. From May 1979 to September 1980, Club 57 was run by Ann Magnuson, a onetime theater student who’d gravitated to New York from Charleston, West Virginia. Prevented by neighborhood complaints from booking rock bands, Magnuson concentrated on other diversions—a monster-movie club, screenings of early Warhol films and drive-in fare like Satan’s Cheerleaders, and a sort of “Dada cabaret” offering such theme entertainments as an Elvis Memorial Party, a Salute to Lawrence Welk, and an armchair tour of the Middle East called “Iran, Iraq, Iroll.” She also set up a self-styled “Ladies Auxiliary of the Lower East Side” that has covered-dish potluck suppers, keeps file cards on all the boys in the neighborhood, promotes debutante balls and ladies’-wrestling events, and occasionally puts out a magazine called Sheep. “It’s pure Junior League,” she told me. “What can I say?”
A perennial theme of Club 57 evenings has been American folk icons from the Fifties and early Sixties—TV dinners, for example. “That’s a pure slice of Americana,” Magnuson said, carefully patting her hair, which is strawberry blond and teased into a puff above her forehead. “That’s what we were bred on.” Magnuson was born in 1956— just in time to feel a special nostalgia for the Kennedy years, which, the Cuban missile crisis notwithstanding, she remembers as offering vision, security, and hope for the future. “Now I just think about being bombed every day,” she said. “Who wants to survive? I want to stand out in the street and get it full force. Our only hope is the space people. I really want them to come save us.”
Magnuson said that her Club 57 events were actually just like the parties she put on in her parents’ basement in West Virginia. “The whole name of the game was entertainment. If art ever happened, that was an accident.” Now, however, she feels she has just about exhausted the inspirational potential of her childhood. Recently she has begun turning to two other sources: psychedelia and Eastern Europe. Of psychedelia she said, “It’s very funny, but I would never adopt it as a life-style. It hurts your eyes.” Of fashion from Eastern Europe she said, “Somehow it got stuck in this indescribable time warp. But it’s also unassuming, understated, and perfect for winter. Plus, they still tease their hair.”

 

ONE SATURDAY A COUPLE OF WEEKS before Christmas, I found myself in the basement of Woolworth’s with photographer Jimmy de Sana. A native of Detroit who grew up in Palm Beach and Atlanta, de Sana is a soft-spoken young man who had three solo shows last year (in Chicago, Capri, and New York), took part in two group exhibitions, and published a book called Submission that shows a woman bound in a refrigerator, a man defecating into a bathtub, and another man roped across the roof of a car. De Sana gets many of his best ideas on shopping trips.

“I just think about being bombed every day,”she said. “Our only hope is the space people. I really want them to come save us.”

“I’ve actually gotten more ideas in Woolworth’s than anyplace,” he declared as we made our way through the narrow basement aisles piled head-high with merchandise. But as fellow shoppers crowded in, de Sana’s enthusiasm quickly waned. Finally he said, “I don’t know how much more of this I can take. Maybe we can find sporting goods.”
“I do like sporting clothes,” de Sana remarked as we made our way up to the street and across to Herman’s World of Sporting Goods. He was wearing black jeans, black leather boots, a black sleeveless T-shirt, and the top of a black-and-yellow jogging suit. “They’re so much more interesting than Brooks Brothers. I went through a whole period of wearing just Brooks Brothers, but I got so bored with it.” We paused at a section where swim goggles, Frisbees, and shin guards all lived side by side. “All these products made of plastic! It’s so attractive. And I think shin guards are real sexy. All that protection stuff…”
Later, at his art dealer’s apartment, we discussed de Sana’s work. His prime influences, he said, are fashion photography, television, and magazine advertisements. “I have a certain sexuality that’s not used in magazines normally,” he said, “although it’s between the lines.” I was staring at a photograph of a tongue that had apparently been pierced by an earring. “It’s like—misuse of products.
“Most of my ideas come from my daydreams and nightmares and stuff,” he continued. “Everyday situations that get out of hand. If anything, it’s watching TV and seeing the ads for really weird products—some of those kitchen things where they do all the slicing…”
He shuddered. “Products are addictive,” he declared. “I think America is really hooked.”

 

ON FIFTY-SEVENTH STREET and on West Broadway, the centers of New York’s uptown and downtown art establishments, respectively, people are talking about how the Eighties resemble the Sixties. Large parts of the art world, in fact, are beginning to awaken from the Seventies as if from a bad dream. The Seventies were when art grew confused and splintered off in a dozen different directions. Many artists abandoned the art object in favor of the art event. They began doing “concept art” and “performance art,” which could be anything from a poetry event to a dance happening to a “bodywork” in which the artist exposed his rear end. Art became anything the artist said it was. One artist stopped creating entirely and declared that her “energy” was her art. Having liberated themselves from the tyranny of the object, artists seemed to lose all perspective.
Recently, however, artists—young artists in particular—have begun making objects again, and finely crafted objects at that. Often these objects are accessible and entertaining, even exuberant, and they do not lack buyers. Indeed, there is an energy and excitement in New York art circles that hasn’t been felt in years, and it has a lot to do with the kinds of prices these and other art objects are bringing. But young artists aren’t necessarily limiting themselves to painting or sculpture; often they make films or do video or play in rock bands as well. Many are art-school graduates or dropouts who were so turned off by the pretentiousness and self-indulgence of the mid-Seventies art scene that they turned to rock as an alternative. The energy this cross-fertilization unleashed in music three years ago has now ricocheted back to hit the galleries.
Evidence of a common sensibility is apparent in the New Image movement, which revels in kitsch while performing elaborate send-ups of serious modern art. Jedd Garet, who not long ago gained instant notoriety with his faceless, sexless nudes of barrel-chested men in fluorescent pinks and greens and magentas, does deliberately “bad” paintings that make references to Picasso and De Chirico while celebrating a masculinity based on brute strength. Julian Schnabel has started painting on black velvet—the ultimate kitsch medium—and is so successful that he was featured in a New Yorker article on young artists who have collectors waiting in line. He is twenty-nine years old, and he had his first solo show two years ago.
A trend toward the use of cheesy textures, loud colors, and fake materials in extremely elegant sculptures was showcased a year and a half ago on Fifty-seventh Street in the Canal Street Show, named after the hardware-store artery many of the sculptors lived near. While their work was captivating uptown collectors, a group of anti-commercial underground artists known as Collaborative Projects attracted the attention of city authorities with its Real Estate Show in an abandoned building on the Lower East Side. The show was shut down in less than a week, but the Colab people, as they have come to be called, resurfaced last summer with another group exhibition in an abandoned Times Square massage parlor. This one was called the Times Square Show, and it was clearly designed to slap the art world around a little. It was bold, assaultive, and spectacularly raunchy, with spray-painted graffiti manifestos and rat sculptures festooned across a sink. Last fall Collaborative Projects opened an exhibition space on the Lower East Side, and in December it staged another group exhibition—this one against the pristine white walls of the decidedly non-abandoned Brooke Alexander Gallery on Fifty-seventh Street. Highlights of the show included John Ahearn’s exquisitely painted life casts of Hispanics, Stefan Eins’s crude line drawing “Fellatio,” and Richard Miller’s life-sized sculpture of Uncle Sam crawling on the floor, “A Giant Step Forward for a Generation of Kids That Never Grew Up.”
A couple of weeks before the Alexander show, Nancy Arlen, former drummer of the No Wave band Mars, had a solo exhibition at the Stefanotti gallery, just down the street. She and Robert Stefanotti were fastening her glittering, snakelike polyester sculptures to the wall the day before the opening, and she took a few moments off to talk about her work. “I just love the material,” she said, stroking one of the cool, smooth, molded objects. “It’s like a person to me.” She explained that she had discovered the hard plastic in art school, when she was looking for a new sculpture medium and noticed her hairbrush handle. A teacher sent her to the local polyester factory. “This stuff can be so tacky,” she continued. “You can get really cheesy effects really easily. I could make lots of cheap things that people would probably like but that wouldn’t have depth. I want depth. But I also want flash. I want the flash to have depth, I guess.”

 

AW: I’ve been invited to the White House about five times. I think the greatest thing would be if they actually invited everybody to the White House every night.

RON: Have an open invitation?

AW: No, they’d just take 500 people a night. Everybody would just love this country, because it’s so thrilling to go there. It really is. I went to Ford’s White House and Rockefeller’s Vice-President house. Rockefeller took us upstairs to see that great Max Ernst bed. Do you draw?

RON: I used to.

AW: It’s easy to be an artist. I’ll teach you how. Don’t you want to be a famous painter? It’s really easy.

RON: I imagine it might be if you know the right people.

—Andy Warhol and Ronald Reagan Jr. in Interview (November 1980)

 

RICHARD BOCH IS A PAINTER who’s better known as the doorman at some of New York’s hipper clubs. For two years he was at the Mudd Club; then, last fall, he moved to the newly reopened Peppermint Lounge, birthplace of the Twist. After years in the history books, the Peppermint Lounge was revived at its original location by Jim Fouratt, the sometime gay liberationist who turned Hurrah into the first rock disco and then created Danceteria, a popular dance club that closed last October after state liquor agents burst in and took twenty-seven employees prisoner. Fouratt has left the Peppermint Lounge now, after a dispute with the owners, but his original idea was to make a place where uptown and downtown could meet—where the kind of people who produce art could mix with the kind of people who consume it. For that, he needed someone at the door who knew the downtown crowd, was okay with the uptown crowd, and could keep out the bridge-and-tunnel people (as the denizens of New York’s less-than-fashionable outer boroughs are known).
Boch’s real occupation, then, is sidewalk social Darwinist. It is a job category that was developed at Studio 54, where sleekly Italianate young men with the countenances of well-groomed attack dogs were employed to keep the crowds at bay. In the ritual of social humiliation that followed, Mr. and Mrs. Teaneck, New Jersey, customarily found themselves left out in the cold for hours while gay boys and people who arrived in limousines were waved inside without delay. The Mudd Club was the first place to try this kind of thing on the rock crowd, after Mass discovered that leading scene-makers were finding themselves unable to elbow their way through the mob gathered at the door.
Boch was hired for the sensible reason that he knew most of the people Mass wanted inside. Those he didn’t know he quickly learned to recognize. But he wasn’t hired simply to usher the right people in; his job was also to keep the slack-jawed barbarians—your basic rock ’n’ roll fans—out. Otherwise they would have simply taken over, as they have done at so many other clubs. Boch continues the same policy today. “I go by their attitude,” he says, “and what kind of energy they have. Basically I just try to stay away from people who are, you know, assholes. Sometimes being sensitive is a hindrance—but being an artist, it allows me to write off all the bad things as food for social comment.”

 

SOONER OR LATER, A LOT OF THE PEOPLE who do get past the door of the Peppermint Lounge find themselves in front of Marcus Leatherdale’s camera. In the three years since he came to New York from San Francisco, Leatherdale has gained a reputation as a chronicler of the urban hip. A slender young man with the features of a panther and a fashion sense that runs to black leather, he is himself the epitome of the modern individual: cool, hard-edged, self-assured, and detached. The single most striking characteristic of his photographs (which have adorned the walls at both Danceteria and Club 57) is that they present wildly unusual-looking individuals as objects in a grid.
“You don’t have to be a banana to be a still life,” Leatherdale said as we flipped through prints in his Lower East Side loft. “I think you can do it with people also. There has to be a little compassion to show the human element, but look at this portrait—he’s like a human vase. It’s more that way now than ever before: people run around being their own little art objects on a conceptual basis. I think it’s being done on a mass level. But to be intriguing, you’ve got to have some kind of sexual—ooze. Even if you’re asexual.”
Marcus’s own sexuality is pretty much on hold for the moment. “I’m really getting tired of kicks for kicks’ sake,” he said. “I have sex if someone else is really interested, but I almost never make the effort. So I basically just don’t have sex with people. I’d just as soon jack off as have these half-assed relationships that people have. It’s just as meaningful.
“No responsibility, no commitment, everything for the moment, rely on no one but yourself—I don’t think it’s natural. And the biggest mistake of all is to let anyone know you’re in love with them. Then they feel cornered. There’s just no room for romance in the modern world.” He smiled a grim smile. “It’s as cold and as hard as the graphics.”

 

BETH AND SCOTT B USE THEIR FRIENDS, too, but not in static poses. The Bs make films—B Movies, they’re called—that thrust the people they know into elaborate fantasies involving sexual repression, mental hygiene, and the various guises of authority. They are the most celebrated of a number of lower-Manhattan filmmakers who work with sync-sound super-8mm film, a spaghetti-thin medium that was developed in the late Sixties for home-movie use. Their next films—which are being shot in more expensive (and more versatile) 16mm, thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts—will deal with corporate feudalism and religious dictatorship.
The Bs are young art-school dropouts from the Midwest who met in New York four years ago and adopted their surname when they got married. They’ve made five movies to date, ranging in length from fifteen to ninety minutes; to finance them, Scott did construction work while Beth worked as a typesetter and as a receptionist in a massage parlor.
Their most controversial film is undoubtedly the twenty-five-minute Black Box, which was greeted with shock and revulsion when it was shown at Max’s Kansas City. One viewer got so upset that he rushed to the bathroom and vomited. Bob Mason, a young artist with the Colab group, plays a youth who ignores his girlfriend’s advances and goes out for a pack of cigarettes. As soon as he hits the street he’s overpowered by a gang of thugs, thrown into the trunk of a car, and driven to a place where, for no apparent reason, he is tortured by Lydia Lunch. First he’s punched around a little; then he’s bound hand and foot and hung upside down; and finally he’s stripped naked and forced to crawl into a black box, where, unable to stand up or stretch out, he’s bombarded with flashing lights and a cacophony of hideous sounds. After a while the action simply stops; the implication is that it will go on forever.
The black box was in fact modeled after “the refrigerator,” a five-foot cube with heating and cooling elements capable of extreme temperatures. According to Amnesty International, such devices are manufactured in Houston for use in Latin American dictatorships. The Bs told me they chose Mason as their victim for two reasons: first, because he’s tall, blond, and all-American, and they wanted to say that this kind of thing could happen to anybody; and second, because he’s a quiet, somewhat passive type, and they wanted to show what can happen to people who are passive about their lives.
A couple of months ago, as research for their upcoming religious film, Beth and Scott put on a skirt and a suit, respectively, and went to Lynchburg, Virginia, to attend a ministers’ conference presided over by the Reverend Jerry Falwell, head of the Moral Majority. The theme of the conference was “America: Too Young to Die.” The idea being propounded was that America’s decline is the result of God’s wrath and that our only hope is to stamp out the cancers that are strangling our society—abortion, homosexuality, women’s rights. Until that is done, the righteous community of clean-living, God-fearing Americans cannot live in peace.

“There’s no room for romance in the modern world.” He smiled a grim smile. “It’s as cold and as hard as the graphics.”

The Bs returned from Lynchburg profoundly shaken—even, you might say, a little paranoid. “The more I think about it, the closer it gets to the Nazis,” Scott declared. “I mean, Nazism is based on the dictatorship of the majority.”

 

IT WAS EASY TO SPOT LYDIA Lunch: she was the only person in the restaurant with a ring through her nose. She also had hennaed hair, a nasal whine, and a manner that oozed contempt except when met with indifference. At twenty-one, the redoubtable Miss Lunch (real name unknown) is already something of a legend in New York modern circles: founder of the ground-breaking No Wave combo Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, now disbanded; actress in the B Movies Black Box and The Offenders, lead singer of the rock band Eight Eyed Spy and the blues band Devil Dogs; solo recording artist whose one album, Queen of Siam, is already out of print due to contractual squabbles between ZE Records and its distributor. Her next step: Take Hollywood by storm.
Music, Lunch explained, was never her main interest, just a convenient means of projecting herself into the public eye. Her main interest is major-budget motion pictures. She would particularly like to work with Roman Polanski. She’s also writing a semi-autobiographical novel of “very brutal pornography” that she hopes to have made into a movie. (“I hate to read,” she said. “Therefore, if I like to read this, it must be really good.”) And just in case none of the above works out, she’s planning to form a psychedelic rock band.
Lunch’s favorite subject turned out to be reality. As we talked, however, it became increasingly clear that reality is something she considers more or less synonymous with brutality. That’s what she likes about her book, and that’s what she likes about Black Box, too. “I can imagine that happening,” she said, “especially to a person like Bob Mason. If that’s not a face to beat…
“Basically, though, I think it’s better to let men torture themselves, because they do such a good job of it. What I like is tormented women. I like beauty, and women are beautiful when they suffer. That agony—it makes your heart go out to them.
“Of course, that’s just one thing; I also like kittens, pets, toys…and I wanna be married and have a house in the country. In fact, I have been married, and I’m gonna be married again in a few weeks—and I’m always looking for a third. I like to collect ’em, I guess.”
As I sipped a glass of ice tea, Lunch shared her thoughts on a variety of other topics, including her favorite, reality.
On what motivates her: “Basically, I just want to slap people in the face and try—try—to wake them up. That’s why performing is so great. It’s like spitting right in their eye and knowing they’re blind to it.”
On communism: “Basically, I believe in communism—but only if I’m the head communist.”
On hippies: “A lot of times I feel like I’m a hippie. I don’t like dirtiness, though. Obviously I missed the Sixties myself, because in ’69 I was ten years old. But Charles Manson came out of the Sixties, and that was a slap in the face of America. That was reality—the cleansing hand of reality.”
On her folks back home in Orlando, Florida: “They think I’m a comedian. They also think I’m a con artist. They wonder how I get away with the things I get away with. Sometimes I wonder that myself, to tell the truth.”

 

TUESDAY, AUGUST 5, WAS THE DAY George Scott did not show up for his photo session.
The bassist in Lunch’s group Eight Eyed Spy and also in an instrumental quartet called the Raybeats, Scott had become known as one of the most remarkable and innovative performers on the New York scene in the five years since his arrival from Florida. Eight Eyed Spy (named after the four Germans who checked out Pearl Harbor for the Japanese) had just finished a successful American tour. The Raybeats, meanwhile, were just about to enter the recording studio, and on the afternoon of August 5 they were supposed to have their pictures taken. George, however, was nowhere to be found. A friend, getting no response from pounding on his door, finally crawled in through the living-room window. He found George squatting motionless on the floor, a syringe in his left hand, a spoon and an empty glassine envelope on the table beside him. He’d been dead about nine hours.
Heroin, largely forgotten in hip circles since the early Seventies, had made a dramatic reappearance in the nine months before Scott’s death. Suddenly, in place of the inferior brown Mexican that had been commonplace since the Turkish opium ban of 1972, there was a flood of high-quality beige stuff from Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. This new heroin was four to five times as pure as the old Mexican, and it was cheap, too. Coke dealers began to carry it, and on East Eighth Street, in the junkie zone of the Lower East Side, people started standing in line to slip their money under a door. Downtown musicians and artists began to dabble in it, and uptown businessmen and professionals and socialites as well.
The effects were being felt downtown well before August 5. As band members got into it, they became less involved in what they were playing and where; where to cop and how good the stuff was became much more interesting topics. Fans and hangers-on quickly figured out that smack was the new cool thing to do. People started experimenting: a dime bag every couple of weeks, maybe as a reward after a heavy dose of work. Then they wanted to start shooting so they could really get wrecked, and maybe also so they could know what it feels like to plunge a needle into your arm.
None of them were going to get addicted; none of them were going to die, either, but every time the quality shot up a few of them did. That’s what happened to George Scott: he wasn’t an addict, he hadn’t shot up in months, and the scene had changed while he’d been gone. But there was always that chance, the possibility it can seem so cool to flout. And anyway, rock ’n’ roll has always liked to flirt with death: “Die young, stay pretty,” as they sing on the Blondie album.
Not that everybody agrees, of course; some see group suicide for what it is. “It’s a good introduction to the Reagan regime, anyway,” the Bs lamented. “It’ll save him a lot of work.”

 

FROM A MERCHANDISING POINT OF VIEW, the only problem with modern rock ’n’ roll is that not enough people buy it. The major American record corporations—Warner Bros, and the CBS labels, particularly—have had success with a number of modern bands: Blondie can now be considered a supergroup, and Talking Heads, Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello, the Pretenders, the Police, the B-52s, Devo, and the Clash are all profit-generating outfits. But the airwaves and the sales charts are still dominated by those long-familiar names—Kenny Rogers, Barbra Streisand, the Eagles—that the modern sound was supposed to sweep away.
No one was counting on the intransigence of FM rock radio, which in every major city except Boston has proved impervious to assault. Not only has disco’s spectacular radio success gone unrepeated; for the first time since Alan Freed, the best music of a generation is going largely unheard.
Given these circumstances, plus the general downturn in record sales over the past two years, it’s hardly surprising that a number of New Wave labels that made splashy debuts a couple of years ago have been experiencing contractions of late. One of the more successful outfits is Britain’s Stiff Records, which distributes some of its issues through CBS and the rest through import channels. And yet Stiff’s top acts (Ian Dury, Rachel Sweet, Lena Lovich) reportedly sell a consistent seventy thousand copies—enough to indicate a loyal audience but not to provide much profit for a major corporation.
Modern young people, however, have not waited for the mass-culture seal of approval. Hip record stores, taking their cue from the British, are forming their own record labels and going through independent distributors. A lot of groups are pressing their own records or are getting deals in England and coming back as imports. Many bands undertake extensive national club tours without cutting a record at all. College radio stations are playing what big-city commercial stations will not touch. And it’s not unheard-of for a one-man record company to sell forty thousand copies of an album—as Slash did with the X LP Los Angeles, which ended up at the top of the Los Angeles Times’s 1980 ten-best list.
Local scenes keep springing up, each one a little different. New York’s is heavily art-influenced, as is Toronto’s. Austin and Vancouver are punk strongholds. Athens, Georgia, birthplace of the B-52s, has given rise to a new generation of dance bands like Pylon and the Method Actors. San Francisco generates a lot of political outrage: “You will jog for the master race/And always wear the happy face,” sings Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys in “California Uber Alles,” the single from their Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables LP. Biafra polled almost 4 percent of the vote in the city’s 1979 mayoral election.

It was brave noise. It was magic from those who’ve found themselves on the underside of the American Dream, stuck like flies.

One of the most bizarre cult cultures is unquestionably L.A.’s. “It’s a very strange mutation,” admits Bob Biggs, the thirty-four-year-old president of Slash Records. “The most hard-core scene in the least likely environment.” Young Angelenos have developed a reputation for extreme violence and self-destructiveness in a subcult that sprang up in Hollywood, shifted to Chinatown for a while, and has now mushroomed into the suburbs. A crowd outside the Whisky turns riotous after somebody hurls a bottle at a cop car; punk surfers assault the waves with swastikas painted on their boards; packs of teenagers in black leather and chains roam the shopping centers at night, smashing windows in what was supposed to be a paradise of suburban consumerism. Many are the children of broken homes, left on their own for years by alcoholic or drug-addicted parents who used the television set as a baby-sitter, mixing alcohol and speed at an age when their minds ought to be on algebra and geography. “They’re really wild-looking,” says producer-director Penelope Spheeris, who captured L.A.’s leading punk bands in a new film called The Decline of Western Civilization. “It’s pretty wild the way they think, too. There’s tremendous shock value in the whole thing.”
Meanwhile, over in England, the latest development is a neo-psychedelic sound— not the peace-and-love acid rock of the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead but a much darker permutation, Charles Manson inhabiting Jim Morrison’s soul, riveting and spooky. Ironically, the scene is centered in Liverpool. A London band called the Psychedelic Furs tours with a light show and spouts sinister nonsense lyrics; the leading Liverpool band, Echo and the Bunnymen, makes music that is frightening both in its intensity and in its implications. On the cover of their debut album, Crocodiles, they appear as pathetic wastrels stumbling aimlessly through a stark, lurid forest. “Won’t you come on down to my,” they bleat inside, “Won’t you come on down to my/Won’t you come on down to my/Res-cue.” The message could hardly be clearer.

 

Eighteen-year-old John Lennon fan to emergency telephone social worker: “He just changed my beliefs, my whole value system!”

Social worker: “What are your beliefs now?”

Lennon fan: “I don’t know! I’m just dead inside.”

—WNBC-TV News, New York (December 17, 1980)

 

ON A SNOWY NIGHT IN EARLY JANUARY I went to a recording studio in the Garment District to meet Chris Stein, the thirty-one-year-old leader of Blondie. We settled into armchairs in one of the studio’s womblike basement rooms. We began talking about the recent past and the immediate future.
“When Lennon was killed, I realized how fucked-up and horrible the Seventies really were,” Stein declared. “A whole generation, giving up and succumbing to mediocrity. The people at Woodstock should have caused some changes, should have been leaders for the young people now, who are totally out in the woods. But I feel like everybody my age has given up.”
I thought: Modern youth is saying to the Woodstock generation, “Face reality. Face your failure to change the world.’’And maybe also: “Face the fact that your sudden snap to the right is not a rejection of narcissism but only a firmer embrace—that it’s nothing more than the liberation from liberation itself.”
I thought: Modern youth isn’t trying to build a better world; it’s just trying to survive in this one.
I thought: Modern youth has no dream. It’s empty inside. It’s as cold and as hard as the graphics.
Stein was saying, “That oneness of purpose is what’s lacking. Those big gatherings of the Sixties had a positive effect. I think the fact that people don’t get together is part of what makes them feel bad. Just because it happened in the Sixties, people shy away from it. But I’m always having people coming up and saying, ‘Gee, I was only eleven at Woodstock. I wish I could have been there.’ ”
I decided that the only possible relationship of the Sixties to the Eighties is that of a bad joke to its butt.

 

PEOPLE WHO LISTEN TO RADIO stations playing Top 40, rock, or soul have no doubt noticed an unexpected new Blondie song called “Rapture.” It starts off conventionally enough, if with an unusual syncopation; but midway through, Deborah Harry suddenly starts chanting about the man from Mars: “You try to run/But he’s got a gun/So he shoots you dead/And he eats your head.”
The music is irresistible, but the idea is startling: Deborah Harry, icy-hard blond bitch-goddess of the modern sound, in an unexpected encounter with the new babel that is coming out of Harlem and the South Bronx. Blondie has discovered rapping.
Rap is something that developed unnoticed in social clubs and youth centers in New York’s burned-out districts, where downtown youth seldom ventures. Rap is participatory disco: while a deejay spins records, a group of emcees puts out a layer of jive patter on top. It began simply, with deejays talking over the music; gradually it became an art form, with unwritten rules and secret codes and performers who have hit records. It’s closely related to Jamaican dub and descended from the jive talk and scat that were popular with black jazz singers in the Thirties. It comes from the same culture that spawned the subway graffiti that rides the rails of underground New York. Rapping and graffiti are both reminders that New York is predominantly a Third World city. They are postcards from America’s new permanent underclass.
Blondie discovered rapping two years ago, when Frederick Brathwaite, a subway writer and rap artist better known as Fred, took Chris and Debbie uptown. They were struck by the way rapping “breaks down the music,” makes it personal. “ ‘Rapture,’ ” Stein said, “was a conscious effort to do something contemporary.”
Only recently has it been deemed contemporary for young whites to think about what young blacks are doing. In the last year or two there have been some changes—the ska revival mixing white Englishmen and black West Indians in the “two-tone” movement, Talking Heads and Brian Eno experimenting with complex African polyrhythms. But now the pace has begun to quicken. Black funk stars are processing their hair and producing rock records and demonstrating a gutsiness that disco never had. New black and Latin acts like the Bus Boys and Kid Creole and the Coconuts are causing a stir. “If what interests you is the street,” says Michael Zilkha, whose ZE label gave us James Chance and now Kid Creole, “it’s much better to go uptown than downtown.”
Uptown and downtown merged recently when the Harlem rap group Funky Four + 1 More appeared at the Rock Lounge, the designer-modern club on West Broadway that’s owned by disco magnate Howard Stein. The white kids who were present looked brittle, as if they needed a tutorial in hip-shaking. The black kids looked as if they were ready to give them one. Snake music poured out of the sound system—sinuous, suggestive, strangely magical. Unseen forces entered people’s bodies and made them move almost despite themselves.
The Funky Four + 1 More lined up behind the mics onstage and worked. They had smooth, innocent faces and bemused grins that said they were happy to be there. They told people to clap their hands and say “Yeah!” and people did it. They came out with an a cappella version of “Rock Around the Clock.” They clapped their hands and cried, “Everybody say ‘Sex.’… Everybody say ‘Sex is good.’… Everybody say ‘Sex is fun.’… Everybody say ‘Funky Four Plus One.’” There was nothing in the place that didn’t move.
It was a voodoo response to reality. It was magic from the survivors in the zone of wild dogs and charred masonry, magic from those who’ve found themselves on the underside of the American Dream, stuck like flies. It was brave noise from the victims, passed on to other victims while outside, in the cold January night, America paused to retool. ◆

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