It was one of the worst eras New York City ever experienced. Crime was rampant, jobs and the middle class were fleeing the city every day, the economy was tanking, pimps and prostitutes owned whole neighborhoods, those that weren’t ruled by the pushers. There were blackouts, transit, garbage, and teacher strikes; even the Federal Government, who would know something about mismanagement, declared New York “ungovernable”. It was perceived as wallowing in garbage, and sloth, a welfare state gone mad, and no less than the non-elected President of the United States told the city to “drop dead”. Of course he really didn’t say that, though it made a hell of a headline for the New York Daily News; what he did say was that no funds from the Federal Government were to be spent on bailing out the city from its current mess; you got into it, you get out of it was the attitude from Washington, and you couldn’t really blame them.
It was so bad, that visitors arriving at the two major Airports, were greeted by people wearing death masks handing out pamphlets that proclaimed: “Welcome to Fear City”. The pamphlets were a guide for the uninitiated coming to town. It listed neighborhoods to avoid (and there were plenty), things to avoid doing, and the best times of day to take in some attractions (most always broad daylight). It warned against going to Central Park at night as muggers were everywhere (and they were), and Times Square with its pickpockets, scams, and hookers. It advised against walking anywhere near the miles and miles of deteriorated empty tenements, and rubble-strewn blocks that made up most of the South Bronx, parts of Harlem and Brooklyn as well. It went on and on. You couldn’t blame any visitor from say, Toledo, for hunkering down in their hotel room and just ordering room service for the duration of their stay.
The largest city in America was failing miserably and the whole world was watching.
On October 12, 1977, the Los Angeles Dodgers were in town to play the New York Yankees for Game Two of the World Series at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Announcing the game were Howard Cosell and Keith Jackson. A bit into the game smoke became visible over the familiar confines of the historic park; an empty, abandoned school building had caught fire and was blazing away. There wasn’t a fireman for miles, the usual practice when there was such an event in a poor part of the city. The cameras following the game would periodically scan the skyline to watch the flames, which kept on getting bigger and wider; the building was doomed. The fire lit up the sky over the South Bronx, smoke drifted into the stadium, and the fear began to spread….if no is going to put this out…what is to stop it from spreading through the surrounding neighborhood? And then, at least in legend, Cosell said, in his usual laconic fashion:
“Well Ladies and Gentlemen…..the Bronx is burning.”
Now remember this was a World Series game being broadcast across the globe, and everyone with a television set got a first-hand look at a city literally coming apart at its seams. Finally, the sirens of a fire engine were heard, and everyone breathed a little easier.
It was no surprise to anyone when a study, undertaken because of this event, found that the FDNY (and the NYPD) didn’t respond to emergencies in certain neighborhoods as quickly as they did in others – namely poor ethnic neighborhoods vs. white affluent ones. And also remember this was after the Knapp Commission on Police Corruption (think Serpico), which gave New York’s Finest a whopping black eye.
The shame of the city continued.
Now with all that, throw in The Son of Sam blasting away at random and at will, and the atrocities at Willowbrook, the state-supported institution for minors with mental disabilities, and you pretty much have completed the picture of a place that if you weren’t born there, you would be fucking nuts to come and visit.
Ah, but if you were born there, there was another reality happening……………
At this very same time, you were in on the ground floor of a musical movement that would shape the industry for years to come, and no, I am not talking about Disco. New York City in the ’70s and early ’80s was ground zero for the emerging and exciting Punk movement, and its music was the perfect, expected, and natural reaction to the insanity that was happening every day in that town. The movement had its cathedrals of sound, names now that evoke a tear, a yearning, and a heightened pulse rate. Names written large and indelibly on the history of pop music in America. Names like the Mudd Club (unbelievably named after Dr. Mudd who gave medical assistance to Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth); a small storefront in what would come to be known as Tribeca (Triangle below Canal); it gave life to what are now well-known names. But as we stood in the smoke-filled small room, drinking beer from a can, wearing the standard outfit of tight blue jeans and leather jacket, Marlboro in hand; as we stood and watched these wonderful, exciting, sexy, stunning bands we knew they were what we needed at that very moment; but we didn’t know they would become world-famous as The Talking Heads, Blondie, or The Ramones. A hot dog at Dave’s Luncheonette after the show completed the night perfectly. Over at CBGBs, the same vibe was happening as we drank in Patti Smith and avoided the bathrooms (which were a horror). Or Max’s Kansas City, where we screamed for Lou Reed or David Bowie. Was there anyone that spoke for a New Yorkers sensibility quite like Lou Reed? Lord do we need him now.
And I will never forget one particular night at Hurrahs, a rare uptown club when I stood a few feet away from Mick Jagger, and Roger Daltry, both lost in the crowd that was buzzing and jerking to the beat of the B-52s.
That kind of thing just doesn’t happen anymore.
And there was more to come. Like Mink Deville at the Lone Star on Fifth Avenue. One of our favorites, Willy DeVille, the band’s creator, bummed a light off of me in the men’s room…ah…brushes with greatness. Miss Willy every day.
But a few years later I and the entire city would be blown away when The Clash (still in my opinion the greatest band ever) played eighteen concerts at Bond’s on Broadway. Eighteen. Every one sold out. We went to a show there that started at midnight and finished up around 3AM (screw work the next day – this was The Clash after all). We stood at the very bottom of the stage and looked up at Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Topper Headon make history. I had never felt such energy before at a concert. Because of where we stood, right next to the amps, I couldn’t hear for a week after that morning, but I couldn’t care less; it was worth it to be a part of the most perfect concert I had ever seen before or since. I would never listen to rock the same way again.
That was New York at just the right time. In a flash, it was over. As it was supposed to be.
Now I know I was lucky. I was white; I came from a good home, with a loving family and lived in a relatively safe neighborhood, one that the FDNY would probably come to. A lot of people were not that lucky; they didn’t get the chance to see this other side of the city, the alternative underside.
And I was lucky because I witnessed this spark of musical creativity in spite of the cesspool it sprang from, or maybe because of it. All those clubs are gone now, either they are condos or dorms for NYU, but for someone who dearly loved that city, they provided a counterpoint to all the sadness around us.
When I think of that time, those clubs, those bands, that music, they are what I remember most.
It’s nice to have been there when it all happened.
“This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco,
This ain’t no fooling around
This ain’t no Mudd Club or CBGB
I ain’t got time for that now”
-Live During Wartime- The Talking Heads