My Little Underground


The underground may be dead, replaced by innumerable pocket-worlds nurtured by niche marketing and the Internet. The old vertical clash of high and low has flipped sideways into a vast horizontal plain of isolated scenes. Yet even as today’s post-bohemians float inside our own networked ego-spheres, the social phenomenon roughly traceable from William Blake to Kurt Cobain still retains a certain power. Like medieval theologians pondering the 1st-century A.D. Judea, we study long-gone countercultures for glimmers of insight into What Is, What Should Be, and most poignantly, What Might Have Been. The mystic poets and mendicant artists of other ages have become our new priests and nuns, memories of a religion in which no one still believes, yet wishes they could.

Some of us like our angels with dirty faces; witness the lovingly reproduced artifacts of Up Is Up But So Is Down: New York’s Downtown Literary Scene, 1974–1992, a comprehensive compendium of below–14th Street literary productions by everyone from Laurie Anderson to Nick Zedd, focusing on the output of small magazines of the era like Koff, Bomb, and Between C and D. “As a child my favorite books had been about women who entered the convent,” Tama Janowitz writes in 1986’s Modern Saint 271, which would become the first chapter of her collection Slaves of New York, in the voice of a boho prostitute character. “They were giving themselves up to a higher cause. But there are no convents for Jewish girls.”

Lynne Tillman, in transcribed conversation with Gerard Malanga, offers an extension of the thesis: “Punk is such a Catholic movement.” Amen to that. The era’s literature is filled with confessions of sin, abject transgressions, lapses of faith, and the morbidity of flesh. All the sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll recorded here may be a fuck-you-dad reaction to the high-minded hopefulness of their ’60s predecessors—Thurston Moore remarks that the moment “defined itself by trashing Led Zep, Pink Floyd et al.”—but as much as punks hated hippies, their common romanticism proves them more alike than not. Cynicism is just optimism turned on its head, replacing a belief in the perfectability of humankind with a certitude that everything sucks. Janowitz styled her “saints” after Kerouac’s, no longer on the road but stuck in shit-hole apartments in drop-dead New York, and Richard Kostelanetz exhorts readers to “find epiphanies anywhere, even in garbage cans.” The road to excess may lead to the palace of wisdom, even if in 1979 you’d get mugged en route.

The predominant mode is diaristic reportage, frequently semi-fictionalized. The scene generated first-rate raconteurs—Dennis Cooper, Eileen Myles, Cookie Mueller, and David Wojnarowicz, to name only some of the best-known included here—whose stories meld dry satire with heart-churningly desperate transmissions of damaged humanity. (So many of the writers in Up in Up are past contributors to The Village Voice—as is the book’s editor, music writer Brandon Stosuy—the tome could almost serve as tombstone for this paper’s literary heyday.) But these writers aren’t just letting it blurt. There’s a formal elegance and inventiveness to many works, epitomized by Holly Anderson’s marvelously concrete “Color Stories,” told inside hand-drawn grids, each letter rub-transferred into its own square, like incomplete individuals filed inside tenement apartments.

With downtown now sprouting glass-curtained high-rises, the era chronicled in Up Is Up may seem like an evolutionary cul-de-sac. But as Stosuy rightly notes, the mythology of New York’s do-it-yourself ethos spread to the suburban and small-city hinterlands, sparking the zine revolution and its later online iterations. In the 1980s, issues of Between C and D were printed out individually via dot matrix onto side-holed computer paper, then sold in plastic baggies like street drugs. The relative difficulty of getting the word out has been superseded by the near-universal privilege of blogging.

The trash-pickers, drug fiends, and unsuccored polysexual sensualists of Up Is Up
embraced the darker side of the bohemian legacy, but some of their Left Coast contemporaries chose instead to extend Summer of Love optimism into the high-tech age by embracing libertarian entrepreneurship, as chronicled in Fred Turner’s info-packed academic study From Counterculture to Cyberculture. Turner focuses on the career of Stewart Brand, a former Ken Kesey collaborator who started the Whole Earth Catalog, which, as the author notes, “bridged cybernetics and the back-to-the-land movement” by spreading the gospel of Buckminster Fuller and Norbert Weiner, melding hands-on pragmatism with lofty earth-changing goals. “We are as gods and might as well get good at it,” Brand wrote in one Catalog intro. In the 1980s, Brand translated this vision into new media with the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), a pioneering online forum that incubated future dot-communists and Wired editors. Turner notes the earthy roots of terms like “virtual community” and “electronic frontier,” which first appeared there, along with early arguments for the ethics of open-source technology; offline, Brand later refined his utopian social engineering with the high-powered boomtime Global Business Network. So by the 1990s, the idea of revolution had morphed from a political goal to a corporate strategy. On the East Coast, the underground expired, but out West, it simply apotheosized into the mainstream itself.