By Robert Christgau
January 9, 1978
It’s only natural for so much of the paranoid backbiting that afflicts English punk to be aimed at the Sex Pistols, who began the movement and who symbolize it not only to the outside world but to the punks themselves. Notorious antistars, dole-queue kids awash in record-biz money, nihilists who have made something of themselves, the Pistols are everything punks are supposed to be, and more—they live out the contradictions most punk musicians have barely begun to dream about. No wonder they’re resented: If we are to believe that punk’s future is up to the Pistols—and that is definitely the conventional wisdom—then their fall could well precipitate everyone else’s. But at least the Pistols, unlike almost everyone else, have someplace to fall from. What will be left for the others? Their picture in the papers, a self-produced record or two, perhaps a brief contract with a treacherous major, and the chance to watch a few posers make a career out of a defunct fad that once promised life.
What makes this scenario more bitter is that it proceeds from the star system punk challenges so belligerently. The English punks, with their proud, vitalizing concentration on the surface of things, rebel against rock royalty on the obvious ground that a pop elite cannot represent the populace. But they miss a subtler paradox: the apparent inability of most rebels to do without heroic images. When an idea turns into a movement as fast as punk did, chances are that some leadership figure is out there symbolizing away, and that if the symbol should fade or crumble the movement will find itself at a loss.
The loss would be a big one. Only 10 of the 20 bands I managed to catch in my nine days played genuine punk—vocals shouted over raw, high-speed guitar chords and an inflexible beat. But within that tiny sample, three or four bands—the Clash, X-Ray Spex, the Killjoys, and perhaps the Cortinas—put on hotter shows than any I’ve seen from the year’s newcomers at CBGB, where the infusions of energy have been provided by born-again old-timers like John Cale and Alex Chilton or improved vintage-1975 stars like Blondie and Richard Hell. . . .
But if punk were to do a quick fizzle because of the Pistols, it would be more than unfortunate. It would be unfair. Johnny Rotten is an inspiration and a media focus out of a flair for self-dramatization that is coextensive with his extremism. He is typical of nothing. No matter how much he is imitated (and he was imitated by a fast-moving cult well before Glen Matlock said fuck on television and started the avalanche), he will never be a punk prototype—not because he is monumentally talented, which is beside the point, but because he comes a lot closer to genuine nihilism than often happens in the world. If he should fail, his nihilism will be at the root of his failure. It will have turned people off the Sex Pistols, and hence (in our paranoid backbiters’ scenario) off punk in general. Yet no matter what you’ve seen on Weekend, most punks are not nihilists. Bored, cynical, destructive? Well, perhaps, at least in part. But all that’s been blown out of proportion, as well, and nihilism is a lot further on down the road.
In fact, one thing that has made English punk so attractive—both to well-wishers like me and to fulltime recruits—has been its idealism.
Despite all the anti-hippie feeling, it really is Haight ’67 that it most recalls—not in content, but in form. It’s a new counter-culture; the sense of ferment and burgeoning group identity more than compensates for the confused sectarian squabbling, although maybe I’d be harder to please if I’d been around when hopes were highest. And in a way, it is the tragic end of hippie—not the disintegration of a generation the punks were never part of in the first place, but the way longhaired guitar assholes have continued to preach their hypocritical go-with-the-flow—that has imbued punk idealism with its saving skepticism.
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photo: Fred W. McDarrah
January 10, 1977
And just when everything seemed to be going so nicely, too. You may have noticed the headline on the front of last week’s Village Voice: “Burt Reynolds Slain by Killer Bees.” That was the old Voice, quiet, sensitive to the needs of a local audience. Should much-heralded changes of management occur, you may expect sensationalism: “Burt Eaten Alive by Killer Bees,” or something of that sort.
Should you have but recently returned from a trip to Siberia, let me explain the reference to “much-heralded changes of management.” By this is meant the possibility that the newspaper that you are holding in your hands may be owned by Rupert Murdoch, the well-known Australian newspaper proprietor. You will also be excited to hear that The Voice, relict of the great days of alternative press and the nonconforming conscience, has recently been sought along with New York and New West
magazines, by the Washington Post Company. All week long people have been saying, in a challenging sort of way, “Well, so who would you like to see own The Voice?”
I would reply to these interrogators by referring to the way in which the Turks used to dispose of undesirable sultans. They would kill the poor fellow by slowly crushing his testicles between silken pillows. This is, more or less, my view of prospective ownership by the Washington Post Company. In New Guinea, on the other hand, they would take the unwanted chieftain out to the mountainside, stretch him out, and smash his testicles flat with a rock. This is roughly what could happen with the man Murdoch.
Suffice it to say that neither rock nor silken pillows (sexist images, I know) seems tremendously alluring. But that’s life—or rather, capitalism.
By Molly Haskell
September 18, 1978
We’ve been hearing a lot about the “new man”—he cries, he weeps, he admits to vulnerability and isn’t ashamed of his feelings. No longer obliged to tough it out in the style of a Hemingway hero, he plunges his arms into the muddy dishwaters of women’s concerns, so to speak—but without surrendering the qualities of strength and fortitude for which his sex is noted. He sounds like an ideal consort, a Ken cloned from the rib of the feminist Barbie Doll, but with sex appeal. I have yet to observe this fellow in the flesh, but he has been sighted in movies and if Hollywood has discovered him, can real life be far behind?
In a recent issue of the Times Arts & Leisure Section, a Harvard sociologist hailed three movie heroes as prototypes of the new ideal: Kris Kristofferson in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Alan Bates in An Unmarried Woman, Jon Voight in Coming Home. . . .
A shrewd blend of new packaging and reassuringly old-fashioned values, these fellows know that nothing turns a woman off faster than a male feminist. Like all converts, they’re embarrassing with the breast-beating, blubbering mea culpas, the eagerness to make reparation, not to mention the constant spotlight-stealing one-upsmanship gambit in the “We’ve got more to gain than you do” line. The male convert is a bore. Worse, he’s icky. A turn-off.
The new movie hero is smart enough to appear supportive (we’ll get to that in a minute) without abasing himself on the altar of feminism. No stage door Johnnies, they all have status as independent, successful males—Bates, the widely exhibited painter; Voight, the paraplegic veteran turned war protester; Kristofferson, the rich owner of a cattle ranch; and Beatty, the affluent athlete [in Heaven Can Wait].
A point made in the Times article was that in each case the heroine leaves an emotional miser of a husband for a more responsive man, as if that were the only thing that mattered. What the writer neglected to mention is that the gain is by no means only spiritual. Each woman takes one or two giant steps forward, socially, economically, or aesthetically.
Bottle service: Dancing at Xenon (June 1978)
photo: Fred W. McDarrah
By Lester Bangs
April 30, 1979
“I don’t discriminate,” I used to laugh, “I’m prejudiced against everybody!” I thought it made for a nicely charismatic mix of Lenny Bruce freespleen and W.C. Fields misanthropy, conveniently ignoring Lenny’s delirious, nigh-psychopathic inability to resolve the contradictions between his idealism and his infantile, scatological exhibitionism, as well as the fact that W.C. Fields’s racism was as real and vile as—or more real and vile than—anybody else’s. But when I got to New York in 1976 I discovered that some kind of bridge had been crossed by a lot of the people I thought were my peers in this emergent Cretins’ Lib generation.
This was stuff even I had to recognize as utterly repellent. I first noticed it the first time I threw a party. The staff of Punk magazine came, as well as members of several of the hottest CBGB’s bands, and when I did what we always used to do at parties in Detroit—put on soul records so everybody could dance—I began to hear this: “What’re you playing all that nigger disco shit for, Lester?”
“That’s not nigger disco shit,” I snarled, “that’s Otis Redding, you assholes!” But they didn’t want to hear about it, and now I wonder if in any way I hadn’t dug my own grave, or at least helped contribute to their ugliness and the new schism between us. The music editor of this paper has theorized that one of the most important things about New Wave is how much of it is almost purely white music, and what a massive departure that represents from the almost universally blues-derived rock of the past. I don’t necessarily agree with that, it ignores the reggae influence running through music as diverse as that of the Clash, Pere Ubu, Public Image Ltd., and the Police, not to mention the Chuck Berry licks at the core of Steve Jones’s attack. But there is at least a grain of truth there—the Contortions’ James Brown/Albert Ayler spasms aside, most of the SoHo bands are as white as John Cage, and there’s an evolution of sound, rhythm, and stance running from the Velvets through the Stooges to the Ramones and their children that takes us farther and farther from the black-stud postures of Mick Jagger that Lou Reed and Iggy partake in but that Joey Ramone certainly doesn’t. I respect Joey for that, for having the courage to be himself, especially at the sacrifice of a whole passel of macho defenses. Joey is a white American kid from Forest Hills, and as such his cultural inputs have been white, from “The Jetsons” through Alice Cooper. But none of this cancels out the fact that most of the greatest, deepest music America has produced has been, when not entirely black, the product of miscegenation.
Gay Music Goes Straight
By Andrew Kopkind
February 12, 1979
Disco is the word. It is more than music, beyond a beat, deeper than the dancers and their dance. Disco names the sensibility of a generation, as jazz and rock—and silence—announced the sum of styles, attitudes, and intent of other ages. The mindless material of the new disco culture—its songs, steps, ballrooms, movies, drugs, and drag—are denounced and adored with equal exaggeration. But the consciousness that lies beneath the trendy tastes is a serious subject and can hardly be ignored: for it points precisely where popular culture is headed at the end of the American ’70s.
Disco is phenomenal—unpredicted and unpredictable, contradictory and controversial. It has spawned a $4 billion music industry, new genres in film and theatre, new radio stations, a new elite of promoters and producers, and a new attitude about the possibilities of party going. It has also sparked major conflicts. “Death to Disco” is written on SoHo walls and “Disco Sucks!” rises from the throats of beleaguered partisans of rock, punk, or jazz who find their cultural identity threatened by disco’s enormous commercial power.
Scenes from the disco wars erupt across the landscape. Gangs of rockers and hustlers (the dancing kind) fight furiously in the streets outside disco clubs in provincial cities. When Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart “goes disco” (with “Miss You” and “Do You Think I’m Sexy?” respectively), their cultural conversion is debated in hip salons as well as The New York Times. The rock critical establishment still treats disco music as an adolescent aberration, at best; many cultural commentators look on the whole sensibility as a metaphor for the end of humanism and the decline of the West. . . .
History hardly stops. Disco in the ’70s is in revolt against rock in the ’60s. It is the anti-thesis of the “natural” look, the real feelings, the seriousness, the confessions, the struggles, the sincerity, pretensions, and pain of the last generation. Disco is “unreal,” artificial, and exaggerated. It affirms the fantasies, fashions, gossip, frivolity, and fun of an evasive era. The ’60s were braless, lumpy, heavy, rough, and romantic; disco is stylish, sleek, smooth, contrived, and controlled. Disco places surface over substance, mood over meaning, action over thought. The ’60s were a mind trip (marijuana, acid): Disco is a body trip (Quaaludes, cocaine). The ’60s were cheap; disco is expensive. On a ’60s trip, you saw God in a grain of sand; on a disco trip, you see Jackie O. at Studio 54.
By Soledad Santiago
February 19, 1979
It’s 15 minutes to airtime at NewsCenter 4 on a Saturday night. Felipe Luciano, Emmy-award-winning journalist and former head of the Young Lord’s Party, is weekend co-anchor. Around him at least six clocks tick simultaneously, making tangible the rush of time as news pours in from around the world.
“Ten seconds . . . 10 seconds to the real thing,” says the stage manager, starting the countdown. Then Luciano begins. Twenty-seven monitors and two cameras are going at once.
Luciano is projected into living rooms around New York City every weekend. He is among the most visible of young Latinos who herald the arrival of a new breed—the Nuyorican. Technically Nuyoricans are second generation Puerto Ricans who have made New York their home. But to me, Nuyoricans cannot be defined by age or date of arrival. Nuyorican is a state of mind.
Many Latinos remember with pride the splash the Young Lords made across the front pages of the nation’s newspapers in the late ’60s. They remember Luciano as a brilliant public speaker who exhorted the young to rise up against the system. He once told a graduating class at East Harlem’s Ben Franklin High School: “You are not going to get it by getting people elected to Congress, by a good education, or by praying. The only way you are going to get it is by ripping it up. Seize the schools, seize the courts, seize the prisons where three quarters of our people are.” . . .
The successful Nuyorican is often cut off from his roots by the very nature of success, suspended in the time warp of a culture in transition, a culture of synthesis which is defining and asserting its values, attempting to allow tradition to survive assimilation. The dilemma of Nuyorican identity is not a racial but a class one. In the uncomfortable limbo between black and white, rich and poor, the Nuyorican pioneers a new identity.
The Nuyoricans walk a tightrope between yesterday and tomorrow, cherishing the positive in Puerto Rican culture while wrestling with its ingrained restraints that have no place in their new life; attracted by the personal freedom of an anonymous urban society yet repulsed by its indifference; aspiring to middle-class accoutrements yet shackled by the code of machismo which presupposes that the male in the family be the only wage earner.
Not all New York Puerto Ricans are Nuyoricans. Many stay in enclaves, never learning English and never touching the mainstream of New York life. The Nuyorican identity has emerged as the result of a series of choices, an individuality born of historical necessity.
Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane
By Deborah Jowitt
March 10, 1980
One of the many vital things about the dance upheaval of the ’60s was that choreographers began to think about perception and to goad (often with alarming literalness) audiences into seeing dance differently. I doubt if—pre-Judson—we would have known what to make of a piece like Blauvelt Mountain, made and performed by Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane. Now when we sit in the open, dimly lit space of ATL, looking at an uneven wall of cinder blocks and the figures of two men in black huddled in front of it, we are prepared for—well, perhaps, anything. . . . The theatre becomes an urban clearing in which some rite inexplicably vital to us all is taking place. We do not demand to understand the “meaning” of what they’re doing at every second or strain to hear a sotto voce conversation the way we might in a large proscenium theatre; we do not sigh over repetition or wonder if carrying bricks is dancing. We do delight in noticing that we can never see the “same” movement twice, that it is always changing either because of context or because of humanness. And we see the performers at close range—close to eyes, minds, hearts.
There is something immaculate about the rhythm of Jones and Zane together. In move-stop, move-stop sequence of beautifully chosen simple poses on the floor, they make their changes with such economy that you see no extra little preparations or adjustments. Suddenly they have moved. But not with shrillness or mechanical precision—with the power and control of big cats. Jones, with his long limbs and lithe body, is a master of flashing through space and yet seeming to caress the place he lands, as if he can invisibly grade down and refocus his own impetus.
One of the things that the two appear to be most interested in is the changing appearances of things that are superficially the same. Jones’s move-pose sequence is one thing when he performs it while Zane is running through another phrase, another thing when he performs it with Zane’s complementary floor sequence, another thing when the two separate in space, another when he is faster and tireder. And with each alteration, the movement becomes more interesting; by the end of the evening it could be famous.
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By Teresa Carpenter
November 5, 1980.
This article won the Pulitzer Prize and inspired the Bob Fosse film Star 80.
It is shortly past four in the afternoon and Hugh Hefner glides wordlessly into the library of his Playboy Mansion West. He is wearing pajamas and looking somber in green silk. The incongruous spectacle of a sybarite in mourning. To date, his public profession of grief has been contained in a press release: “The death of Dorothy Stratten comes as a shock to us all. . . . As Playboy’s Playmate of the Year with a film and television career of increasing importance, her professional future was a bright one. But equally sad to us is the fact that her loss takes from us all a very special member of the Playboy family.”
That’s all. A dispassionate eulogy from which one might conclude that Miss Stratten died in her sleep of pneumonia. One, certainly, which masked the turmoil her death created within the Organization. During the morning hours after Stratten was found nude in a West Los Angeles apartment, her face blasted away by 12-gauge buckshot, editors scrambled to pull her photos from the upcoming October issue. It could not be done. The issues were already run. So they pulled her ethereal blond image from the cover of the 1981 Playmate Calendar and promptly scrapped a Christmas promotion featuring her posed in the buff with Hefner. Other playmates, of course, have expired violently. Wilhelmina Rietveld took a massive overdose of barbiturates in 1973. Claudia Jennings, known as “Queen of the B-Movies,” was crushed to death last fall in her Volkswagen convertible. Both caused grief and chagrin to the self-serious “family” of playmates whose aura does not admit the possibility of shaving nicks and bladder infections, let alone death.
But the loss of Dorothy Stratten sent Hefner and his family into seclusion, at least from the press. For one thing, Playboy has been earnestly trying to avoid any bad national publicity that might threaten its application for a casino license in Atlantic City. But beyond that, Dorothy Stratten was a corporate treasure. She was not just any playmate but the “Eighties’ first Playmate of the Year” who, as Playboy trumpeted in June, was on her way to becoming “one of the few emerging film goddesses of the new decade.”
She gave rise to extravagant comparisons with Marilyn Monroe, although unlike Monroe, she was no cripple. She was delighted with her success and wanted more of it. Far from being brutalized by Hollywood, she was coddled by it. . . . “ Playboy has not really had a star,” says Stratten’s erstwhile agent David Wilder. “They thought she was going to be the biggest thing they ever had.”
No wonder Hefner grieves.
“The major reason that I’m . . . that we’re both sittin’ here,” says Hefner, “that I wanted to talk about it, is because there is still a great tendency . . . for this thing to fall into the classic cliche of ‘small-town girl comes to Playboy, comes to Hollywood, life in the fast lane, and that somehow was related to her death. And that is not what really happened. A very sick guy saw his meal ticket and his connection to power, whatever, etc. slipping away. And it was that that made him kill her.”
The “very sick guy” is Paul Snider, Dorothy Stratten’s husband, the man who became her mentor. He is the one who plucked her from a Dairy Queen in Vancouver, British Columbia, and pushed her into the path of Playboy during the Great Playmate Hunt in 1978. Later, as she moved out of his class, he became a millstone, and Stratten’s prickliest problem was not coping with celebrity but discarding a husband she had outgrown. When Paul Snider balked at being discarded, he became her nemesis.
Burned out in the South Bronx, 1978
photo: Sylvia Plachy
The Men Who Are Burning New York
By Joe Conason & Jack Newfield
June 2, 1980
Arson breaks up families, frightens away investment and jobs, and deprives the poor of housing. Every arsonist is potentially a mass murderer. Those subversives who hire others to torch occupied buildings—like those who move the envelopes of fine white powder—are the first vultures of late capitalism.
It was more than two years ago that we first stumbled upon this city’s biggest arson ring of landlords, lawyers, brokers, and insurance adjusters.
In the winter of 1978, the South Bronx was already a moonscape with abandoned, charcoaled shards. The cops who worked in the 41st Precinct no longer called their station “Fort Apache.” They called it “The Little House on the Prairie,” because there were so few surviving buildings or families in the area.
In the winter of 1978 the burning of the Bronx had moved north into neighborhoods called Morris Heights, Morrisania, Tremont, Highbridge, Kingsbridge, and Fordham. Whenever there was a suspicious fire and the homeless tenants were Hispanic or black, the media would call the area the South Bronx. But it was really other communities, and other police precincts.
For several days that winter we walked around these dying blocks with a cop named Joe Dean, who was then assigned to the Bronx arson task force in the 48th Precinct. We met not only the most recent victims of arson, but those who feared they would become tomorrow’s refugees.
We saw tenants and small shopkeepers plead for protection, saying the building next to them had burned the night before, and that their house would be next. But because of budget cuts, neither the police or the fire marshals or the district attorney’s office had the manpower to watch a building through the night.
Each day Joe Dean had to explain this to poor people who sensed they would soon be burned out for the second or third time in their lives. And Joe Dean felt powerless to do anything about it.
Within a week we saw the tenants of 201 Marcy Place, 1126 Kelly Street, and 1403 Grand Concourse turned into urban boat people by arson. And soon Dean was so frustrated by the suffering he saw—and could not stop—that he asked to be transferred to more risky plain-clothes work in Times Square.
Eventually, we discovered a pattern to the burning of the Bronx, and later of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. Over the last five years, 250 buildings, all owned by one interlocking network of landlords—and all insured for large amounts—have had fires.
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Mabou Mines Plays Out Nuclear War
By Erika Munk
November 12, 1980
A conversation between two colleagues, overheard the day after the election: A—”Depressed?” B—”Very. Abortion, welfare, energy, business running everything . . . what’s going to happen?” A—”I mostly worry about war.” B—”Jesus. I don’t let myself think about it. I have kids.”
Joanne Akalaitis let herself think about it, and has made Dead End Kids, a play with Mabou Mines on nuclear development, nuclear power, and nuclear death. The piece is poetic, sensuous, bitterly funny, a collage of surprises. It is also filled with agitation and what I supposed Edward Teller would consider propaganda. A brave, astonishing event.
What’s brave is that it takes on our worst fears about the future—the ones barely faced in private, rarely in art, abstractly in social science, never in theatre. And what’s astonishing is that Mabou Mines—a group praised and damned for many things, but never yet for its politics—has merged uncompromising experimental theatricality with outfront didactic intent.
It’s about time. Theatre no longer addresses our inner lives with any intensity, and ignores that outside world which, finally, controls us. Reagan seemed to take over mainstream showbiz before he won the election; probably producers didn’t vote for him—they just anticipated his taste while too afflicted with Zeitgeist to challenge his message. And those few remnants of the avant-garde which haven’t died of artistic or financial exhaustion seem to perform less and less about less and less. (Chaikin’s Exiles and Refugees was a moving, though gentle, exception.)
As for political theatre, Bread and Puppet preaches Christian pacifism in the hills, defends the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in the city, and ignores the contradiction, while lesser groups use old techniques—agitprop skits, allegorical pageants, naturalistic problems plays (a dwindling genre except among minority groups), Brechtish derivations—to deal with subjects which may not always be simple, but which are bearable to contemplate. Nuclear war is not bearable.
I asked Joanne Akalaitis how the play came about. . . . She mentioned a Theatre Communications Group Conference, set up specifically to get theatre workers in touch with thinkers from the sciences. “I heard Richard Falk and Sheldon Wolin and other guys say that the probability is there’ll be some sort of ‘small’ nuclear war within five years, and a wider one within ten, and then all the theatre people kept talking away about next season’s Shakespeare.”
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By Walter Kendrick
October 21, 1981
A local wit once told me that New Haven was the American capital of two isms; literary criticism and transvestism. As a Yale grad student, I saw daily proof of the first, but the second was a puzzle. America’s top transvestites, I was told, flocked to New Haven to stay at a certain motor inn and eat at a certain diner. Why, then, hadn’t I ever seen any?
“That’s easy,” my witty friend replied. “If you’re a really successful transvestite, of course you don’t look like one.”
The same might be said of literary critics: the better they are, the less they look like themselves. The finest critics of the past—Dryden, Johnson, Coleridge, Arnold, Eliot—demand to be read as artists; their commentary comes detached from, and sometimes even overwhelms, the “creative” work it comments on. No one complains: those great men wrote plays and poems as well as criticism, and besides they’re dead. But how do you respond to a crew of hard-core academics who flaunt their criticism as if it were creation?
If you’re a run-of-the-mill lit. professor, teaching remedial English in a one-horse burg like Oshkosh or New York City, you mutter something nasty about New Haven. Not since the early ’50s has the mention of that unprepossessing town (or its principal university) evoked such knee-jerk outrage from academic critics who have the good fortune to be employed elsewhere. Thirty years ago the tsk-tsks went to Cleanth Brooks, W.K. Wimsatt, and the other avatars of New Criticism. They wrote unconventional, unsettling books; they wrote them with, for, and about each other; and they revolutionized the reading and teaching of literature all over America.
Now in the hinterlands it’s fashionable to deplore a new gang of Yalies who are shaking up academe with an even more profound revolution than their precursors’. Next time you meet a provincial lit. professor, try dropping the name of Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey Hartman, Paul De Man, or Harold Bloom. Chances are his eyebrows will rise, the corners of his mouth will turn down, and he’ll ask something judicious about the “value” of what they do.
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Ty Fly flipping as Ken Swift and friends look on (May 1981)
photo: © Martha Cooper
By Sally Banes
April 22, 1981
“Spy, he’s called the man with the thousand moves, he had a girl and he taught her how to break. She did it good. She looked like a guy.”
“Spy, man, in ’78—he was breaking at Mom and Pop’s on Katona Avenue in the Bronx; he did his footwork so fast you could hardly see his feet.”
“I saw Spy doing something wild in a garage where all the old-timers used to break. They had a priest judging a contest, and Spy was doing some kind of Indian dance. All of a sudden, he threw himself in the air, his hat flew up, he spun on his back, and the hat landed right on his chest. And everyone said, ‘That was luck.’ So he did it once more for the priest, and the hat landed right on his chest. If I didn’t see it, I would never have believed it.”
The heroes of these legends are the Break Kids, the B Boys, the Puerto Rican and black teenagers who invent and endlessly elaborate this exquisite, heady blend of dancing, acrobatics, and martial spectacle. Like other forms of ghetto street culture—graffiti, verbal dueling, rapping—breaking is a public arena for the flamboyant triumph of virility, wit, and skill. In short, of style. Breaking is a way of using your body to inscribe your identity on streets and trains, in parks and high school gyms. It is a physical version of two favorite modes of street rhetoric, the taunt and the boast. It is a celebration of the flexibility and budding sexuality of the gaudy male adolescent body. It is a subjunctive expression of bodily states, testing things that might be or are not, contrasting masculine vitality with its range of opposites: women, babies, animals; illness and death. It is a way of claiming territory and status, for yourself and for your group, your crew. But most of all, breaking is a competitive display of physical and imaginative virtuosity, a codified dance form cum warfare that cracks open to flaunt personal inventiveness.
For the current generation of B Boys, it doesn’t really matter that the Breakdown is an old name in Afro-American dance for both rapid, complex footwork and a competitive format. Or that a break in jazz means a soloist’s improvised bridge between melodies. For the B Boys, the history of breaking started six or seven years ago, maybe in the Bronx, maybe in Harlem. It started with the Zulus. Or with Charlie Rock. Or with Joe, from the Casanovas, from the Bronx, who taught it to Charlie Rock. “Breaking means going crazy on the floor. It means making a style for yourself.” In Manhattan, kids call it rocking. A dancer in the center of a ring of onlookers drops to the floor, circles around his own axis with a flurry of slashing steps, then spins, flips, gesticulates, and poses in a flood of rhythmic motion and fleeting imagery that prompts the next guy to top him. To burn him, as the B Boys put it.
Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Contemporary Art Scene
By Roberta Smith
March 23, 1982
OPEC isn’t the only world community with an oil glut these days. To anyone walking through Soho this week, the sense of overproduction is overwhelming. Maybe artists with waiting lists should have their paintbrushes taken away for a while. David Salle, certainly one of the best artists of his generation, is distracting us from this fact with an endless three-ring show at Castelli South and Mary Boones East and West. Surprisingly short on really good paintings, it seems more a statement of territoriality than anything else. I don’t even mind the lapses in quality—it’s interesting to see an artist as good as Salle push at his ideas and not be afraid to flounder. But I do mind the scale of presentation, which verges on the corporate. Discretion isn’t only the better part of valor.
Of course, where production figures in, shows which don’t make any mistakes can be even more boring. Jean-Michel Basquiat first made his name as the graffiti artist-poet Samo, whose observations about the state of the world have amused and provoked New Yorkers, at least downtown ones, for the last few years. I always thought Samo was some frustrated older artist who hadn’t made it in the system and was taking his revenge with his exceptional graphic and verbal skill. Wrong, or at least partly wrong.
Basquiat is only 22 years old and, having turned from masonry to canvas surfaces, he seems to be having little trouble joining the system. But in a way I was right: Basquiat has absorbed every trick in contemporary painting’s book at an astoundingly early age. He’s so precocious he’s practically old before his time and his sensibility seems very European, also in an old vein. In a word, it turns out that graffiti art can have the hell domesticated out of it. This art seems made for a museum—it has the same imitative primitiveness that I associate with Art Brut, the same roughed-up perfection that comes from savvy imitation.
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Learning to Live With AID
By Stephen Harvey
December 21, 1982
During the summer of last year, I started having a weird siege of immobilizing complaints, which would recede as suddenly and mysteriously as they arrived—agonizing stomach viruses, flus and fevers, an eye infection that made me look and feel like Quasimodo. Then sometime in October, I noticed a lump about the size of a kidney bean in my left shoulder, next to my neck. “It’s only a cyst,” murmured one friend. “You’re just a hypochondriac,” exclaimed another. But I realized somehow that it was a gland, and Bad News, so I repaired to my doctor, who scrutinized it with the weary care of one who’d seen a bit too much of this kind of trouble recently. Twenty tubes of blood, a few X-rays, and much poking and prodding later, the results proved inconclusive. I undoubtedly had been exposed to something called toxoplasmosis, a virus you usually get from eating raw meat or petting infected kittens. (Just ask Martina Navratilova.) My mother’s response to this news was typically temperate. “Kill the cat!” she screamed, referring to my life’s companion of the last seven years. But my doctor demurred. Keep on the lookout for other swollen glands, he said, and get back in touch should you notice anything amiss.
By January, I had indeed found more lumps—in the groin, armpits, the back of my head, a new array in my neck and shoulders. So it was back to my doctor, who frowned and then arranged for me to see a lymph specialist at a major medical center. This physician (who has been an invaluable help in preparing this piece but would prefer not to be mentioned by name) commenced by blandly asking some blunt questions about my sex life. So I told him. (I’m not going to tell you, not in detail anyway, except to say that by the somewhat skewed yardstick of gay life in this city, I thought I fell somewhere in the middle between reclusive and rambunctious.) He was trying to determine whether I constituted another statistic in his ever-more-voluminous files—the healthy, youngish gay man mysteriously stricken with what has recently been labeled Acquired Immune Deficiency.
The manifestations of this syndrome ranged from minor malaise to lethal pulmonary infections, to a rampant cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma, he informed me, and profligate sex seemed to have something to do with it. For Kaposi’s sufferers in particular, the pattern seemed to be an average of about 100 sexual contacts per year, with some clocking in at three times that. This information came as a curious relief at the time, since in the face of such athleticism I felt like the Belle of Amherst; Emily Dickinson certainly never had to worry about KS, so maybe I’d be immune—you should pardon the expression—too. Nevertheless, it was time for more poking, more blood extracted.
Gay Pride march on Christopher Street, site of the Stonewall uprising (June 1982)
photo: Fred W. McDarrah
Nodding Out in the East Village
By Guy Trebay
June 22, 1982
The brands of heroin most actively hawked Wednesday afternoon, June 9, 1982, on 3rd Street east of Avenue C were Red Tape and Yellow Tape and Buddha: open-faced boys on street corners approached cars, solicitous merchants selling glassine packets containing a “trip for your dollar that will make you holler.” For a certain extra sum, the sellers might direct a shopper to any of several derelict buildings where one could, in relative safety, mix with water, cook and strain and administer one’s drugs. Two of these shooting galleries, very heavily trafficked, are in the block of 3rd Street between avenues C and D—or were that week. Walking their slow, gravity-defying walk, the 3rd Street dope fiends stopped mid-block last Wednesday, slightly confused, possibly transfixed by an unexpected vision.
Tranquil between two tenements, on land that was long ago an orchard, grows Mrs. Olean For’s garden, a proper, formal, gated refuge, at its entrance a bower of tea roses, full-headed, fresh pink, trained in an old-fashioned arch. The junkies stood outside the gate, staring in and nodding. Drowsily in the summer breeze, the blossoms nodded back.
Walking in this neighborhood with a friend some weeks ago, I found many gardens. The East Village, on 9th Street at Avenue D, on 8th Street farther west, in lots tucked up between tenements and fenced off from the debris, is alive with produce: lettuce leaves, collared from the sun and rats, grow in one plot beneath a stuffed sock-monkey effigy. On a stake in another patch, a plastic hobby horse is impaled: he snorts mid-air over a plot of beans. A sign nearby warns, “People Who Bother The Dogs—They Are Watching You.” Giant vegetables, ripe as dreams, recede in formal perspective toward a sunny horizon in a mural painted on the building wall.
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By Jeff Weinstein
June 24, 1984
It’s a plague, he told me, it’s my worst nightmare come true (he forgot about war). Do you still have sex, I asked him, are you still looking for a lover? I couldn’t tell his answer by his eyes, and hoped he’d be careful.
How can you be “careful” with a disease that’s diffused its communication so cunningly that sexual behavior and identity themselves become the germs? And look what we do, personifying a disease by calling it cunning: that’s medieval, pathetic.
I walk by the St. Mark’s Baths twice a day, to and from work. For years I played an engaging game, trying to predict who on the street would turn abruptly toward those metal doors. The clues? A gym bag; a too rapid, too determined gait; a homing pigeon smile. I never went in; my longish steady relationship made me a door-voyeur. But last year I gave up the guessing game. And last month I noticed something I now consider a great danger. In spite of my rational knowledge that virulent humors and mal-arias don’t exist, my body veers automatically away from those doors.
Have I become a prude? Do my mental lips curl when “promiscuous” passes through them? Yes, they do, just a little. I have no idea whether or not this is new. I’m not going to enter the debate over whether the San Francisco Department of Health should have pressured the baths to close. I know the arguments pro and con, but I’m not sure readers who have never seen the baths, never used the baths, could know how to make up their minds.
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By Cynthia Heimel
September 14, 1982
Dear Problem Lady,
Could you say a few words about thrift-store etiquette? I have a very close friend with whom I often go to second-hand shops and yard sales, and relations between us are becoming strained. She has taken to jumping out of the car at yard sales before I can turn the engine off. Do you think it’s fair for her to claim a lace hanky we both have our hands on just because she discovered the shop? (She already has enough to blow two noses on and I let her have a silk camisole I saw first last week just because she was depressed.) Don’t tell me to shop by myself. I need someone with me to keep me from buying any more bed jackets.
And what, pray tell, about the time you actually stuck out your foot and tripped this friend of yours simply because you caught sight of a large stack of fiestaware? What about the time when she let you have that utterly stunning green gabardine jacket simply because she is such a nice person, even though it looked much better on her? (She is, after all, taller than you are, and can carry padded shoulders much more gracefully.) And what about the time in Coudersport, Pennsylvania, when you pointed out the window and said, “My God! There goes your ex-husband!” while you clandestinely pocketed that teal cashmere sweater? If that isn’t subterfuge, what is?
Not that I know you, of course, I am only speculating hypothetically.
As it is in love and war, anything goes in the thrift store. After all, half the fun is in constructing elaborate maneuvers to outwit each other.
Dworkin at an anti-porn demo (Oct. 1982)
photo: Bettye Lane
Censorship in the Name of Feminism
By Lisa Duggan
October 16, 1984
[Andrea] Dworkin and [Catharine] MacKinnon didn’t plan to write a new municipal law against pornography. In the fall of 1983, they were teaching a class at the University of Minnesota, presenting and developing their analysis of the role of pornography in the oppression of women. Each woman is known for her advocacy of one of the more extreme forms of anti-pornography feminism—the belief that sexually explicit images that subordinate or degrade women are singularly dangerous, more dangerous than nonsexual images of gross violence against women, more dangerous than advertising images of housewives as dingbats obsessed with getting men’s shirt collars clean. In fact, Dworkin and MacKinnon argue that pornography is at the root of virtually every form of exploitation and discrimination known to woman. Given these views, it’s not surprising that they would turn eventually to censorship—not censorship of violent and misogynistic images generally, but only of the sexually explicit images that cultural reactionaries have tried to outlaw for more than a century.
Dworkin and MacKinnon were invited to testify at a public hearing on a new zoning law (Minneapolis’s “adult business” zoning law had been stricken in the courts also). When they appeared, they testified against the zoning strategy and offered a surprising new idea instead. Dworkin railed at the City Council, calling its members “cats and dogs” for tolerating pornography; MacKinnon suggested a civil rights approach to eliminate, rather than merely regulate, pornography. City officials must have enjoyed the verbal abuse—they hired the women to write a new law and to conduct public hearings on its merits.
In Minneapolis, Dworkin/MacKinnon were an effective duo. Dworkin, a remarkably effective public speaker, whipped up emotion with sensational rhetoric. At one rally, she encouraged her followers to “swallow the vomit you feel at the thought of dealing with the city council and get this law in place. See that the silence of women is over, that we’re not down on our backs with our legs spread anymore.” In contrast, MacKinnon, a professor of law, offered legalistic, seemingly rational, solutions to the sense of panic and doom evoked by Dworkin. In such a charged atmosphere, amid public demonstrations by anti-porn feminists—one young woman later set herself on fire to protest pornography—the law passed. It was vetoed by the mayor on constitutional grounds.
Indianapolis, though, is not Minneapolis. When Mayor Hudnut heard of the Dworkin/MacKinnon bill at a Republican conference, he didn’t think of it as a measure to promote feminism, but as a weapon in the war on smut. He recruited City Councilmember Beulah Coughenour—an activist in the Stop ERA movement—to introduce the law locally. . . . Coughenour had been considered a minor figure in Indianapolis politics, but she displayed unexpected skill in overseeing the passage of the anti-porn bill. How else could she have gotten radical feminist Catharine MacKinnon and right-wing preacher Greg Dixon to work together, to pass legislation she sponsored, without ever running into one another?
By Marc Cooper
November 27, 1984
MANAGUA—A few days after Ronald Reagan was reelected President of the United States, I was sitting at breakfast with a group of Nicaraguan and Argentine cultural workers in a small hotel kitchen a few blocks from the Juventud Sandinista headquarters. The discussion this morning was the same as every morning that week: Would there be an invasion? I was arguing that direct American military intervention would be “politically difficult, illogical.” Others at the table rebutted that rationality had little to do with U.S. policy.
And then at exactly 9:25 a.m., somewhere between the eggs and plantains, and the pros and cons, the sky bellowed, the windows rattled, and our table shook as a supersonic boom reverberated off the lush hills of the Nicaraguan countryside. For the third morning in a row, and for the fifth time in 10 days, at precisely the same hour, a U.S. SR-71 Blackbird spy plane had broken the sound barrier over Nicaraguan national air space. Our conversations stopped cold. You could almost touch the tension and the indignation in the kitchen. The morning newspaper reports of State Department denials of invasion plans had been abruptly and rudely contradicted by the Pentagon’s booming overflight.
Twenty-five-year old Maria Estér, her olive green militia uniform clashing with her sleek, black-faced Seiko watch, was visibly shaken. “I wish Reagan would just get it over with and send in the Marines. We are ready to fight them,” she pronounced in near-perfect English, a product, like her watch, of an adolescence spent in San Francisco. “This is the worst it has ever been. Worse even than last year after Grenada. Last night in my neighborhood we were making plans on where to hide our children.” . . .
The Nicaraguans were taking the threats seriously. Seriously enough to significantly endanger the already faltering national economy. Two days after Reagan’s election, agriculture minister Jaime Wheelock recalled 12,000 student volunteers who were ready to go to the northern part of the country to pick the coffee crop that is worth a full third of the country’s meager $400 million import income. After a reportedly anguished marathon meeting of the Sandinista leadership, a haggard, red-eyed Wheelock announced to the students, “It’s better that the coffee falls instead of our country.” The students, he said, would be asked to cancel their harvesting plans and instead would be organized to defend Managua.
Simmons with Run-D.M.C. (April 1985)
photo: James Hamilton
Eddie-Murphying the Flak Catchers
By Nelson George
April 30, 1985
The offices of Rush Productions are two cramped little rooms on Broadway in the 20s, which on any given afternoon are filled by the loud voices of black men and women. They are mostly young, real street and real anxious. On this day in January a graffiti artist sits in one corner of the outer room with hopes of painting an album cover. Over on a beat-up couch is a girl in striped pants and Run-D.M.C. T-shirt waiting for her old man, one of the 22 street-oriented acts managed by Russell Simmons’s Rush Productions, to find out when his next gig is. Three young dudes dressed in the B-boy style—untied Adidas sneakers, jeans, sheepskin coats, and Gazelles—are leaning against a wall looking and eyeing the girl waiting on the rapper. The token white is Bill Adler, a former Daily News reporter who is the company’s full-time PR man. Behind him, shifting through papers and cradling a phone on her shoulder, is Heidi Smith, once Russell’s lone overworked office staffer and now one of several overworked office staffers.
I stick my head in the other room, seeking Russell. Instead, sitting behind Russell’s desk and in front of the bright orange-and-red mural that says “RUSH” the size of a subway car graffiti, I find the king of rap himself, Kurtis Blow. . . . I’m supposed to be accompanying Russell and Kurtis Blow’s producer, Robert “Rocky” Ford, to a meeting with Cannon Films about a rap movie. After urging me again to consider writing his life story, Kurtis tells me they are over at this putrid Chinese restaurant that Russell loves because they make screwdrivers strong, the way he likes them. I run into them in the street. “Yo home piss,” says Russell. “You ready to serve these Israelis or what?” Rocky and I laugh and just look at him. This is the man The Wall Street Journal calls “the mogul of rap”?
At 27, an age when most of his black business contemporaries have designer suit tags branded into their breastbones, Russell promotes street music and makes no apologies. The staccato, crashing drums, the gritty, uncompromised words about life in Kochtown, and the downplaying of melody that mark the music of Blow, Whodini, Run-D.M.C., LL Kool J, and the other acts he manages are his lifeblood. He loves all this loud, obnoxious aural graffiti. As far as I can tell—and I’ve known Russell about six years worth of headaches, triumphs, and late-night phone calls—he never intends to do anything else but make street records, chain smoke, talk fast, and uninhibit the inhibited. . . .
You could call Russell a “mogul.” It is to some degree an apt description, since he certainly has a deep economic stake in rap’s present and future. But “mogul” also suggests someone who dominates an industry, and Russell, for all his influence, is at the mercy of many elements he does not control. Unlike the big tickets of pop culture—your George Lucas, Michael Jackson, Grant Tinker level mogul—Russell doesn’t have the financial clout or emotional distance to manipulate. You see, Russell really is his audience. He lives the B-boy life, and the values are found in his records. Unlike Afrika Bambaataa or Russell’s brother Joey, a/k/a Run of Run-D.M.C., who are part of a vanguard of rap innovators, Russell is one of the few products of the rap generation to become an important businessman. He doesn’t battle other rappers or spinners for record sales. Instead he engages wily, older businessmen in treacherous battles for survival.
Nationalism of Fools
By Stanley Crouch
October 29, 1985
There again were the black suits and red ties, the bodyguards in blue uniforms, the women in white, the aloof cast of the eyes and the earthly manner: the Nation of Islam. Twenty-five years ago it was Malcolm X’s show, though he could never have filled Madison Square Garden. On October 7, 25,000 people turned out to hear Louis Farrakhan.
They queued up outside—the poor and the young, the unemployed and the gang members, the middle-class Negroes. They were anxious to get in and hear someone attack the people they felt were responsible for their positions in the burgeoning illiterate mass; or they were there out of curiosity, intent on hearing for themselves what Farrakhan was about. Many came because they were happy to support a black man the “white-controlled” media unanimously hated. Or because Mayor Koch had called Farrakhan “the devil,” usurping the Muslims’ term for the white enemy—if Koch hated him, he might be lovable, an understandable reaction given the long-standing antipathy between the mayor and New York’s black community. I also think many were there, especially the young, because they had never been to a mass black rally to hear a speaker who didn’t appear to care what white people thought of him, a man who seemed to think their ears were more important than those of Caucasians.
The atmosphere at Madison Square Garden was unusual. Though the speeches started two and a half hours late, the audience was patient, partly out of respect and partly out of awareness that the Fruit of Islam doesn’t play. A fool and his seat would soon have parted. I overheard one young black man saying that he would look at the Muslims with their neatness and their discipline, their sense of confidence and their disdain for white privilege, and understand their appeal: “They look like the last thing they ever think about is kissing some white boody.” After repeatedly telling a blond female photographer that she couldn’t sit in the aisle, one of the FOI said, to the joy of the black people listening, “Miss, I asked you three times to please not sit in the aisle. Now you will either get your behind over or you will get your behind out.” And there was something else. As one woman put it, “Well, what can you say? Nobody looks better than a black man in a uniform. Look at all those handsome black men. I know I wouldn’t want to be in the Nation, but I wouldn’t mind if they lived on my block. I bet there wouldn’t be any mugging and dope dealing and all of that.” From the outside, at least, Farrakhan’s group projects a vision of restraint and morality. It’s about smoothing things out, upholding the family, respecting the woman, doing an honest day’s work, avoiding dissipation, and defining the difference between the path of the righteous and the way of the wicked.
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Hiphopping Toward Poststructuralism
By Greg Tate
If you can’t dazzle them with your brilliance then baffle them with your bullshit. —Afro-American folk wisdom
In a war against symbols which have been wrongly titled, only the letter can fight. —Ramm-El-Zee
Word, word. Word up: Thelonious X. Thrashfunk sez, yo Greg, black people need our own Roland Barthes, man. Black deconstruction in America? I’m way ahead of the brother, or so I think when I tell him about my dream magazine: I Signify—The Journal of Afro-American Semiotics. We talking a black Barthesian variation on Jet, itself the forerunner of black poststructuralist activity, given its synchronic mythification and diachronic deconstruction (“Soul singer James Brown pulled up to court in Baltimore in a limousine and wearing a full-length fur coat, but convinced a federal magistrate he is too poor to pay creditors $170,000. Brown testified that although he performs regularly, he has no money. . . . U.S. Magistrate Frederick N. Smalkin agreed. ‘It appears Mr. Brown’s financial and legal advisors have surrounded him with a network of corporations and trusts that serves as a moat to defend him from the incursion of creditors,’ Smalkin said”), not to mention its contribution to the black tradition of the encyclopedic narrative (cf. Ellison, Reed, Delany, Clinton, and Ramm-El-Zee).
Merely conceiving a poststructuralist version of this deuteronomic tribal scroll is enough to make me feel like a one-man Harlem Renaissance—at least until Thelonious asks if I’m hip to Henry Louis Gates Jr., blood up at Yale (Cornell by the time you read this) who guest-edited two issues of Black American Literature Forum on the subject of semiotics and the signifyin’ monkey. Turns out I vaguely recall hearing about an appearance the brother made at a Howard University Third World Writers’ Conference a few years back. Rumor has it Gates shook up the joint talking about the relationship of structuralism to Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery: folk wanted to know what all this formalism had to do with the struggle.