Alan Betrock, 1950-2000
In the spring of 1975, more than a year before the release of the Ramones’ debut album, Alan Betrock founded the magazine New York Rocker. In doing so, he changed American popular culture forever.
The Queens native was already a leading collector and discographer of ’60s rock, and the past publisher of the mimeographed fanzine Jamz and the collector-oriented The Rock Marketplace. But New York Rocker was the visionary move, the product of Betrock’s realization that the music rising from a run-down Bowery bar deserved its own magazine—one with its own style of photography and graphic design, one that would blend a fan’s enthusiasm with an educated critical eye.
Through the pages of New York Rocker, Alan Betrock defined the new rock and roll. His covers made stars of Patti Smith, Blondie, Television, and Talking Heads before they’d even crossed the Hudson. He was a brilliant conceptualist who created board-game centerfolds (“How to Become a New York Rock Star”) and imaginary 45 rpm picture sleeves for “singles we’d like to see.” He opened NYR‘s pages to future fashion legends Anna Sui and Steven Meisel, photographers Stephanie Chernikowski and Roberta Bailey, and artist Duncan Hannah, among many others.
After 11 groundbreaking issues, Alan left New York Rocker in late 1977. Beginning in 1979, his Shake Records issued the first sides by Marshall Crenshaw and the dB’s; later (non-Shake) Betrock productions included Richard Hell’s Destiny Street and the Smithereens’ Beauty and Sadness. Meanwhile, he quietly amassed one of the country’s definitive collections of ’60s American pop memorabilia—yet never used what he knew and owned to achieve wealth, influence, or position. Instead, the Betrock archives became the source of a dozen self-published Shake Books, including Hitsville: The 100 Greatest Rock ‘N’ Roll Magazines (1954-1968) and Pin-Up Mania: The Golden Age of Men’s Magazines (1950-1967). These solitary labors of love seemed to secretly inform the mainstream: Betrock’s 1982 book, Girl Groups: The Story of a Sound, paved the way for Leader of the Pack on Broadway just as New York Rocker had once set Blondie on the road to “Heart of Glass.”
He died April 9, of cancer, at age 49. “For those of us collectors who cultivate the human being-ography,” said his friend and fan Lenny Kaye, “Alan Betrock was the rarest and most treasured of collectibles.” —Andy Schwartz
The writer was publisher and editor of New York Rocker from 1978 to 1983. Thanks to Lenny Kaye, Glen Morrow, and Jay Schwartz.
The French Connection
Karen Akers arrives at the Oak Room podium like a racehorse rounding into the final stretch. She sings with a thoroughbred’s grace and rippling muscularity, and she’d win the sweepstakes, too, if all that mattered were her crooning and how she looked doing it. After all, she epitomizes a type of mid-20th-century cabaret grandeur. With her immaculate brass-penny-colored hair and her columnar black dress and those high chic-bones, she’s the well-brought-up but adventurous American at finishing school abroad who learns to twitter atop bistro pianos. She’s the last of a type: the society singer.
Yes, Akers, who’s appearing through April 21, has been and should be a superb entertainer—in at least three languages. But during a show called “Haunted Heart” that explores the tug between two (literal and psychological) locales, her insistence on delivering so much of the program in French, or about France, is de trop. The reasons behind the temptation are clear. Not only did Josephine Baker prove what a little knowledge of French(men) does for a girl, but Akers’s society-singing predecessors confirmed it. In addition, she has lived in Paris.
It would be enough to raise her slightly nasal contralto on Baker’s signature tune, “J’ai Deux Amours”; Edith Piaf’s defiant “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”; and the amusingly existential “Sympathique,” in which a bored woman explains that nothing interests her but smoking. By the time Akers has also showered patrons with “Paris in the Rain,” “Paris Is a Lonely Town,” and four other moody items that concentrate on France, she runs the risk of slipping into upper-class affectation.
The few times Akers—who hasn’t sung in an intimate Manhattan room since Rainbow & Stars closed—modernizes her repertoire, she’s completely effective. Because she’s intelligent and sensitive, because she understands the emotions lying under smart words, she connects with Randy Newman’s “Feels Like Home” and Jason Robert Brown’s stunning “Stars and the Moon,” a three-and-a-half-minute reconstruction of Now, Voyager, wherein the sophisticated lady makes the wrong choice. Maybe all Akers needs is to bid the ancien régime a fond adieu. —David Finkle
In Like a Lamb
“Save your applause for the end of the show,” sang Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan last week at the Knitting Factory, the in-joke being that a more fitting response to Bazan’s serious tone would be gazing at one’s shoes. Bazan—also on electric guitar and backed up by two duty-bearers on bass and drums—did deliver aching introspection and measured, gloomy riffs. But the set never lagged because Pedro the Lion’s songs, particularly those off their latest disc, Winners Never Quit, aren’t limited in volume or perspective; Bazan turned out pounded chords and fictional narratives as exquisitely as biographical dirges.
And the crowd clapped accordingly, particularly for songs from Pedro’s previous full-length It’s Hard to Find a Friend. Newer, unrecognized numbers were met with the attentive silence of a loyal crowd, some no doubt taken with Bazan’s faith in Christ—a topic caught in the broad sweep of his sung storytelling. Manifest in passionate description, not grave instruction, the moral undercurrents gave the songs their drama.
Bazan’s vocals were alternately couched in diffuse bass and soft drum taps or driven by frenetic kit pounding and his cutting, minimalist guitar leads. The really rockin’ songs were most riveting, especially “A Mind of Her Own,” in which Bazan plays husband to an alienated wife he thinks is “going to squeal” (about what, we don’t know). “Don’t you walk away from me. . . . You’re not calling anyone,” he railed, ratcheting his voice up with each impotent word until it was sublimated into a clattering one-chord guitar climax. The sheer effort that Bazan seemed to exert drawing his syrupy voice from deep within his chest limned a narrative all its own, the personal struggle his lyrics merely imply. —Nick Catucci