Downtown pop underground New York City and the literary punks, renegade artists, DIY filmmakers, mad playwrights, and rock 'n' roll glitter queens who revolutionized culture

Kembrew McLeod, 1970-

Book - 2018

The 1960s to early 1970s was a pivotal time for American culture, and New York City was ground zero for seismic shifts in music, theater, art, and filmmaking. 'The Downtown Pop Underground' takes a kaleidoscopic tour of Manhattan during this era and shows how deeply interconnected all the alternative worlds and personalities were that flourished in the basement theaters, dive bars, concert halls, and dingy tenements within one square mile of each other. Author Kembrew McLeod links the artists, writers, and performers who created change, and while some of them didn't become everyday names, others, like Patti Smith, Andy Warhol, and Debbie Harry, did become icons. Ambitious in scope and scale, the book is fueled by the actual v...oices of many of the key characters who broke down the entrenched divisions between high and low, gay and straight, and art and commerce?and changed the cultural landscape of not just the city but the world.

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2nd Floor 974.71/McLeod Checked In
2nd Floor 974.71/McLeod Checked In
New York : Abrams Press [2018]
Main Author
Kembrew McLeod, 1970- (author)
Physical Description
361 pages : illustrations, map ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Introduction
  • Part 1. Setting the Scenes (1958-1967)
  • Chapter 1. Harry Koutoukas Arrives in the Village
  • Chapter 2. Shirley Clarke's Downtown Connections
  • Chapter 3. Andy Warhol Goes Pop
  • Chapter 4. Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, and the Pop Generation
  • Chapter 5. Ed Sanders Incites an Indie Media Revolution
  • Chapter 6. Ellen Stewart Is La MaMa
  • Chapter 7. Hibiscus and Family Grow Underground Roots
  • Chapter 8. Preserving the Downtown Landscape for Artists
  • Chapter 9. Off-Off Broadway Oddities
  • Chapter 10. Underground Film's Bizarre Cast of Characters
  • Chapter 11. Multimedia Experiments at the Factory
  • Part 2. Action! (1964-1971)
  • Chapter 12. Chaos at the Cino
  • Chapter 13. Camping in Church and at Sea
  • Chapter 14. Migrating East
  • Chapter 15. Lower East Side Rock and Radicalism
  • Chapter 16. La MaMa Gets Ridiculous
  • Chapter 17. Jackie Curtis Takes Center Stage
  • Chapter 18. Madness at Max's and the Factory
  • Chapter 19. Darkness Descends on the East Village
  • Chapter 20. From the Margins to the Mainstream and Back Again
  • Chapter 21. Femmes Fatales
  • Chapter 22. Underground Video Ushers In a New Media Age
  • Part 3. The Twisted Road to Punk (1970-1976)
  • Chapter 23. An American Family Bends Reality
  • Chapter 24. Pork, Glam, and Audiotape
  • Chapter 25. Literary Rockers
  • Chapter 26. Hibiscus Heads Home
  • Chapter 27. Mercer's Mixes It Up
  • Chapter 28. DIY TV
  • Chapter 29. The Lights Dim on Off-Off-Broadway
  • Chapter 30. Punk Rock's Freaky Roots
  • Chapter 31. New York Rock Explodes
  • Chapter 32. Suburban Subversives
  • Chapter 33. Inventing "Punk"
  • Coda
  • Author's Notes on Research, Interviews, and Acknowledgment
  • Works Cited and Consulted
  • Notes
  • Index
Review by New York Times Review

IN EARLY 1989, an East German government report identified punk as the top problem among the country's youth. And the thing is - as Tim Mohr points out in burning DOWN THE HAUS: Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall (Algonquin, $28.95) - the study was more prescient than the authorities realized. By the end of that year, the barrier between East and West Germany had been eradicated, and as much as America likes to credit Ronald Reagan's "Tear down this wall" speech for the historic development, Mohr points to another social force that set the wheels in motion. By the fall of 1989, he writes, "the groundwork laid by punks and other activists influenced by the punk mentality was becoming a magical, spontaneous, mass uprising." A number of new books remind us of the revolutionary power of music - of its ability to transform movements, imaginations and individuals in ways that can radically alter how we think about politics and creativity. Though today's algorithm-centric playlists may not seem the richest source for cultural upheaval, these stories illustrate how, from Liverpool to the Bronx, musicians have consistently found their own ways out of societal dead ends. The stakes are highest in Mohr's riveting and inspiring history of punk's hard-fought struggle in East Germany. The music journalist, translator and former Berlin club D. J. traces the movement to one individual - a Punk Zero, so to speak - named Britta Bergman who spied a photo of the Sex Pistols in her sister's collection of West German teen magazines in 1977, heard the band's "Pretty Vacant" on Radio Luxembourg, hacked off her hair and adopted the name "Major." With minimal knowledge of the action in London or New York, she and her friends keyed into punk's "Do ft Yourself" worldview - ripping and painting slogans on their clothes, forming bands with no musical training or ability - and were immediately perceived as a direct threat to the Communist government. "Major and her friends were being political by having fun," writes Mohr. "To think differently, to speak out or to stand out was to be political." One of the powerful insights of "Burning Down the Haus" comes through in Mohr's explanation of what punk represented in a country with no unemployment or homelessness, but instead a choking lack of control over individual choices and destiny. "The social conditions for punk in Britain didn't exist in East Germany," Mohr writes. Rather than having "No Future," for East German youth the problem was "Too Much Future." The book chronicles, with cinematic detail, the commitment and defiance required of East German punks as they were forced to navigate constant police harassment and repression. The subculture was given support and safe haven by the country's more progressive churches, whose interests converged with the punks over issues like environmentalism and antinuclear proliferation. "When 1 am troubled, 1 sit in church and lament quietly," a minister named Gerhard Cyrus said. "These young people here lament loudly." Even as the punks were monitored and targeted by higher and higher levels of the Stasi ("The concerted action against punk in 1983 and 1984 far exceeded that undertaken against any other opposition group since the installation of dictator Erich Honecker in 1971"), the movement continued to grow - largely because the authorities didn't comprehend that suppressing the obvious manifestations of punk protest only gave its message more power and impact. Punks represented "active constant opposition any time they appeared in public," Mohr writes, also noting that "punk wasn't music or clothing or novelty haircuts, it was revolution from below, it was creating your own reality." East German punk eventually made inroads on the other side of the Berlin Wall, and with like-minded groups in Poland and Eastern Europe. In addition to its role as a catalyst in bringing down the wall, Mohr argues that its legacy lives on in modern-day Berlin. "What's important isn't the locations that survived but the spirit that survived," he writes, "a hyper-political spirit that continues to imbue the city with the ethos of East Berlin punk." The roots of punk, of course, can be traced far beyond the Sex Pistols and the Ramones. Kembrew McLeod's the DOWNTOWN POP UNDERGROUND (Abrams, $27) looks at the various figures and forces that started bubbling up in the early 1960s, later filtered through Andy Warhol's Factory and eventually exploded around the globe from a home base of CBGB. McLeod, a professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa, begins this tale with the experimental theater of collectives like Caffe Cino and the Living Theater. "You took pieces of cable and then swear it was a magic wand, and it became a magic wand!" Paul Foster says of Ellen Stewart's La MaMa. "Nobody told us that it could not be done, so we just did it." Through eight downtown rainmakers - some famous (Patti Smith and Debbie Harry) and some less so (the actor Hibiscus of the Cockettes, the video artist Shirley Clarke, who was "laying the groundwork for a new media age") - McLeod examines the ways in which the nascent creative worlds were deeply intertwined. "Everything was one, the music and theater and art," Hibiscus's mother, Ann Harris, says. "Everybody was interested in everybody then, and it was beautiful." Part of Warhol's genius was attempting to bring all of this energy, and all of this chaos, under one roof. The Factory, Bibbe Hansen says, "had drag queens and queers, children, street hustlers, rough trade, dropouts, runaways, drug dealers, psychiatric basket cases and society bad girls." Sterling Morrison of the Velvet Underground even asserts that the groundbreaking band didn't look at themselves as musicians. "We considered ourselves part of the underground film community," he says. "We had no real connection to rock 'n' roll as far as we were concerned." McLeod's approach is dense and scholarly (complete with neighborhood maps), though his tone sometimes turns a little too dry given the anarchic material. As time goes on, though, more and more boldfaced names edge into the picture - early roles for Robert De Niro and Tim Robbins, Elton John and David Bowie sniffing around for ideas - and it becomes clear that this underground couldn't stay downtown forever. Meanwhile, in 1960s Detroit, another foundational element of punk was being born, and this one had a more overtly political intent. Wayne Kramer's the hard stuff (Da Capo, $28) opens with a quick recap of the 1967 Belle Isle police riot, at which an outdoor performance by Kramer's band, the MC5, turned into mayhem, ft forever radicalized the guitarist, and the MC5 - short for "Motor City 5," though at first they had only four players - would become one of the pioneers in the marriage of rock and revolution. (The group is currently on the ballot for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, its fourth time being nominated.) Kramer recalls that when he was first expressing his desire to pursue music as a career, his mother cautioned him that it would mean working all night and being around alcohol, drugs and loose women. "The things she warned me about sounded great to me," he writes. In fact, "The Hard Stuff" chronicles Kramer's life of addiction and crime far more than it does his music making. Though the MC5 started with a clear sense of purpose and strength - "The most important thing was our solidarity and unity; that we were together in mind, body and spirit" - ultimately its blend of uncompromising sonics, radical politics and excessive chemical habits proved unsustainable, and the group blew apart in a familiar mix of bitterness and legal troubles. Kramer breezes past historic moments (the MC5 were the only band to perform at the 1968 Democratic convention, which he notes only in passing) in favor of detailed accounts of criminal capers, of increasing seriousness, to pay for his habit, and his stints in jail. The stories can't help being voyeuristically dramatic, but his forthrightness falls short of revelation, or even serious self-reflection. In the end, Kramer is an unlikely survivor, saved by finding a new function for his music - working with prisoners through his "Jail Guitar Doors" foundation - and with the adoption of his young son. While punk was coalescing, another musical and cultural uprising was brewing in the streets of New York. But where McLeod documents the scene downtown, Vikki Tobak's CONTACT HIGH (Clarkson Potter, $40) turns its sights uptown and beyond. The book collects the work of the most important photographers documenting hip-hop over the years and offers the stories behind some of the genre's most iconic images. Shots of the earliest days at clubs and parties in the Bronx are almost startling in their intimacy. The photographer Ricky Flores notes that he sought to present a contrast to the "Bronx Is Burning" image of the time. Such historic sessions as the first shoots with Jay-Z and with Kanye West, or an early photo of Eazy-E on a skateboard, wearing a bulletproof vest, reveal stars trying to figure out how to present themselves. Unforgettable pictures of RunDMC and Ttipac Shakur, though, are incontrovertible evidence of hip-hop's bold visual statement matching its musical power. "Contact High" also serves as a love letter to old-school photography on film, by including the contact sheets from which each larger image was selected. The shots not chosen are often surprising - most notably, the outtakes for Barron Claiborne's immortal deadpan shot of the Notorious B.I.G., the "King of New York," wearing a crown, which show the rapper smiling and laughing. The photographer Ray Lego describes the effect, speaking of his shots of Kid Cudi: "It was more like watching a film unfold with each frame related to the next." The collection illustrates the maturing of an artistic, and commercial, community, tracing the steps from impromptu, candid snaps to more styled setups (sometimes literally: Eminem in a "Clockwork Orange" costume, 01' Dirty Bastard imitating Janet Jackson's famous Rolling Stone cover), and from pure street fashion to the high style of Puff Daddy and the Family. A journalist and curator, Tobak has assembled a celebration of both the musicians and those who documented them, who captured this historic era by heeding the words of the photographer Lisa Leone: "Feel the energy. Don't just click away; really see." Only a few musicians could genuinely be thought of in a category of their own. In help! The Beatles, Duke Ellington, and the Magic of Collaboration (Norton, $27.95) Thomas Brothers takes on two of those titans. Brothers, a professor of music at Duke whose "Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism" was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, argues for the creative similarities between Ellington's orchestra and the Fab Four: "They each brought a composer's vision to the dynamics of collaboration." His larger point is that while Ellington was presented as the embodiment of the solitary genius, the orchestra's songs were often built from ideas initiated by such great soloists as Bubber Miley and Juan Tizol, or from creative partners like the brilliant composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn. (When Strayhorn died, Ellington eulogized him as "my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head and his in mine.") Brothers concludes that the Duke's "most fruitful method actually resembles a moviemaking model that is much less centralized." In contrast, the Beatles have always been considered the paragon of creative cooperation, the defining model of a band. By establishing early on that all songs by John Lennon and Paul McCartney would be attributed to both, Brothers writes, "collaboration was not only visible and audible, it was inscribed." By embracing outside influences, from the Beach Boys to Indian music, and utilizing a structure that encouraged rather than dissuaded teamwork, the Beatles were able to expand their range and burnish their image. All of which is certainly true enough, though hardly anything new. Books including Terry Teachout's 2013 biography of Ellington and David Hajdu's landmark Strayhorn study, "Lush Life," have documented the composer's liberal use of his band's musical ideas (often compensated, sometimes not), while an ever-growing library of Beatle tomes has frequently explored the Lennon-McCartney relationship (including Joshua Wolf Shenk's fascinating study of creative partnerships, "Powers of Two," which is conspicuously absent from Brothers's bibliography). The pairing of the Beatles and Ellington in "Help!" comes off as somewhat arbitrary despite an interesting quote from Lillian Ross, in The New Yorker, noting that "the Beatles, like Duke Ellington, are unclassifiable musicians." There are better questions to ask here: Why has jazz remained so dependent on the ideal of the leader-with-sidemen structure? Why has American rock 'n' roll been defined by individuals (Elvis, Dylan, Prince) while England has been led by bands (the Beatles, the Stones, the Who)? - but those are left unexplored. Sometimes the most revolutionary thing about music comes down to its ability to transform an individual. With his engaging memoir, let's go (so we can get back) (Dutton, $28), Wilco's Jeff Tweedy presents himself as someone - to quote the Velvet Underground and close this circle - whose life was saved by rock 'n' roll. He describes the feeling that came from learning to play guitar: "When I figured out how to do the standard da-da-dada Chuck Berry riff, it was like I'd split the atom." Tweedy has survived his own struggles with addiction, spurred by combinations of migraines and depression, and he doesn't shy away from that part of his story, noting early in the book that "nobody has the disposable income to splurge on a memoir by a moderately successful indie rock 'stalwart' if it's not going to deliver something pretty entertaining." But the most memorable sections of "Let's Go (So We Can Get Back)" - aside from the almost physical awe that Tweedy conveys in his love for his wife and sons - are his descriptions of the act of songwriting. "I write for myself first, pretending that the audience isn't even there and will never be there," he says. "I can expose shadow selves that I believe I should keep my eye on. I can admit things about myself without really having to take ownership of anything." As an architect of the "alt-country" movement that transitioned into a more experimental and modern group, Wilco has straddled multiple worlds, and Tweedy goes from being a kid at Black Flag and Replacements shows to later encounters with Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. "I feel like I'm part of some connective tissue between two worlds that don't really interact the same way anymore," he writes. "I feel like I might be a member of the last tribe that made it across the divide before time changed." Sometimes his language gets a little too self-consciously cutesy, but in the end - as with the punks and rappers and jazz players and rockers and all the musicians before and after him - the ability to put notes together to express something, to communicate, to make sense of the world, changes everything. "Anyone who makes stuff," Tweedy writes, "lucked out that they found an outlet for what most of the world has as a condition." ALAN LIGHT is the author of "Johnny Cash: The Life and Legacy of the Man in Black" and the co-host of "Debatable" on SiriusXM.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [July 11, 2019]
Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* In this excellent study of the artists, poets, musicians, playwrights, filmmakers, and countless nonconformists who settled in downtown Manhattan in the 1960s and early 1970s, McLeod offers up a fascinating slice of New York history during a turbulent and violent era while weaving together various strands of cultural life. Alternative theater, coffeehouse culture, and punks, among others, applied a do-it-yourself attitude to creating their own type of community. Patti Smith, Sam Shepard, Andy Warhol and the Factory crowd, and Debbie Harry are some of the famous artists McLeod profiles, along with the tales of such important venues as Caffe Cino, the Living Theatre, Judson Poets' Theatre, Eighth Street Bookshop, and La MaMa. But McLeod also recognizes the not-as-well-known experimental musicians, activists, writers, dancers, filmmakers, videographers, theatrical performers, and visual artists who contributed to the zeitgeist as adventurous residents of a floundering and decaying New York trying to keep their heads above water. By developing new modes of independent distribution, writes McLeod, these artists anticipated the ways that people now use social media and other online platforms. In the process, they helped transform popular culture on national and global scales. An important addition to the cultural history of New York and America.--June Sawyers Copyright 2018 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In this astute cultural history, McLeod, a communications professor at University of Iowa, documents the remarkable artistic ferment in lower Manhattan during the 1960s and '70s. Even as white flight and a collapsing industrial base pushed the city toward ruin, McLeod writes, the chaotic depopulation opened creative spaces for bohemians and long-marginalized social groups. Fueled by a newly assertive LGBTQ community and the broader counterculture, experimental artists reconfigured popular genres and older avant-garde traditions with stunning results. Highlighting transformative artists-Andy Warhol, Hibiscus, Harry Koutoukas, Ed Sanders, and others-and their intertwined milieus, McLeod provides a panoramic scan of a revolutionary era. Assiduously tracing the ebb and flow of influence and individuals among theater (La MaMa's founder Ellen Stewart), music (John Cage), and film (Shirley Clarke, who co-founded the Film-Makers Cooperative), McLeod depicts a freedom birthed by a DIY aesthetic, technological advance, and cheap rents. He pays tribute to CBGB and the musicians who performed there (Patti Smith, Blondie, and New York Dolls among them), and the most illuminating sections document an Off-Off Broadway where outrAc figures such as Hibiscus, Stewart, and Jackie Curtis challenged gender norms and performance traditions in ways that resonate through pop culture today. This is a fascinating look at a long-gone New York City art scene. (Oct.) c Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Review by Library Journal Review

Countless stories of singers, actors, and writers moving to New York City to find success are interwoven into the fabric of America. The creativity bursting from the city's out-of-the-way places, however, is even more fascinating than Broadway or the Guggenheim. These are the places that would become the growing medium for whole new artistic forms. The scope of this book from McLeod (communications studies, Univ. of Iowa; Pranksters) is, at first, broad, examining varied but intertwining artistic movements from the mid-20th century, primarily in Manhattan neighborhoods such as Greenwich Village, SoHo, and the East Village. It then takes readers from the mid-1950s to well into the 1970s, covering developments in art, folk, rock and classical music, poetry and writing, journalism, theater, performance art, and more, along with icons such as Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, and David Johansen. The author covers plenty of ground smoothly and organically, immersing readers in this exciting period. VERDICT For those interested in 20th-century American art, music, and literary history.-Brett Rohlwing, Milwaukee P.L. © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A glimpse into one of New York City's greatest underground cultural epochs.While much has been written about Greenwich Village and the folk music movement of the 1960s, the parallel and explosive elements of New York's larger underground cultural revolution have been comparatively neglected, along with its offspring: the 1970s renaissance that rippled through the seedier downtown boroughs. McLeod (Communications Studies/Univ. of Iowa; Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World, 2014, etc.) aims to showcase those myriad underground scenes, encapsulating two decades of evolution in this concise historical montage. Impressively, the author transforms an encyclopedic trove of factoids and compresses it into a tight, appealingly written chronicle. "While sorting through stacks of archival research and over a million transcribed words from my interviews," writes the author, "I gravitated to those who straddle multiple mediums and art forms." McLeod pries open the intersected scenes of the most pivotal players: "Andy Warhol, a key connector figure," along with playwright H.M. Koutoukas, indie filmmaker Shirley Clarke, punk-poet Patti Smith, "trashy bleach-blonde" Debbie Harry, free speech icon and Fugs frontman Ed Sanders, "DIY theater impresario Ellen Stewart," and "the gender-fluid performer" Hibiscus. Listing his primary focus as "experimentation, hybridity, and border-crossing," McLeod's mission was to examine this group of artists and their broad social networks and downtown environs (complete with maps), detailing the coalescence of the underground as its influence bled into the greater landscape of mainstream culture. In this literal who's who of scenesters, McLeod highlights dozens of both well-known and obscure artists, including John Cage, the Ramones, Nico, Paul Morrissey, Andrei Codrescu, Paul Krassner, and many more. Other terrain includes the birth of punk, the burgeoning indie press, the germination of hip-hop, and the avant-garde film movement and off-off-Broadway along with the landmarks of this epicenterCaffe Cino, Caf La MaMa, the Chelsea Hotel, Max's Kansas City, CBGB, etc.A vivid, electric tale certain to evoke nostalgia for underground veterans and spark interest for newcomers. A good complement to Will Hermes' Love Goes to Buildings on Fire. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.