Thanks to CD-R drives and iTunes playlists, people can, will, and do make their own compilations, which brings into question the idea of whether record companies should bother releasing them anymore. Yet if anything, the current moment is proving to be a boom time for comps, and not just because no-longer-obscure corners need tending by folks who care. It’s because the past has never been so moveable. Generation YouTube is used to being able to call up almost any piece of music history with a single query; once unimaginable combinations, from the R&B-plus-strings of the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby” to the mutant mash-ups of 2 Many DJ’s, are now taken for granted. We expect clashes of sensibility—that’s the norm.
But that variety of experience has long defined New York. “August Darnell told me if you walked down a street in the Bronx, you could hear different sorts of music coming out of different doorways,” says Kris Needs. “It’s kind of like that.” Darnell, a/k/a Kid Creole, is a downtown dance-music legend; Needs is a veteran British music journalist who spent several years in New York City, some of them working at Bleecker Bob’s. (Needs has his memories of the place, but is deferential to his former employer.) And the “it” Needs refers to is Watch the Closing Doors: A History of New York’s Musical Melting Pot, Vol. 1, 1945–59, a new double-CD compilation he put together for Year Zero that sets about creating a dream version of walking down that Bronx street, with stop-offs in Village coffeehouses (the Almanac Singers, the New Lost City Ramblers, Dave Van Ronk), experimental electronic-music labs (Raymond Scott), and downtown poetry readings (Allen Ginsberg). The first of a projected six-volume series, it’s the sonic equivalent of taking in two and a half hours’ worth of exhibits at the Met.
None of Closing Doors‘ connections seem labored. Needs clearly spent serious time tweaking both discs’ running order; they play seamlessly, a dream soundtrack of every book you ever read, or wanted to read, about postwar New York City. (“I’m glad you noticed,” he says when I compliment the sequencing.) Often, a compilation can accumulate tension by setting well-known material next to very obscure songs. Most of what’s on Closing Doors is generally well known. It opens with Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” one of the last century’s most ubiquitous pieces of music, for good reason: There’s never a bad time to hear this song. Following it with the lip-licking stripper-bump of Cozy Cole’s “Bad,” from 1959, is just as shrewd, telling us that we’re going to go high and low, to run the gamut, and we’re going to have a seriously good time doing it.
Only once—on John Cage’s “Indeterminacy (Part 2),” with 23 minutes of Cage reading over David Tudor’s fractured prepared piano—does one of Needs’s inclusions feel scholarly, and even that one is listenable when you don’t necessarily think you’d be in the mood. Coming at the end of disc one, it’s zappable, but it also fits beautifully after Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” an ideal meeting point of two thorny giants.
Both “Indeterminacy” and Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” which finishes the second disc (from an October 1955 recording made in San Francisco—a forgivable fudge, given the electricity of the reading), carry a crucial sense of event. That’s one of the things both pieces have in common with the rest of the songs—a communal sense of urgency, whatever the viewpoint, or doorway, or neighborhood. The folk selections are especially, and surprisingly, vibrant; then again, I come from an era in which “folk” is tainted by “solipsistic” and “confessional.” But the Almanacs and the Ramblers and Van Ronk had a lot more than themselves on their minds, and their performances have as much jolt as Dizzy Gillespie’s Latin-jazz bombshell “Manetca.”
“I’ve been fascinated with New York since the mid-’60s, and any biography about New York, I would read,” Needs says from his home in London. Closing Doors is actually his second major compilation for Year Zero—last year’s well-received Dirty Water: The Birth of Punk Attitude preceded it, and mapped out a similarly broad, ex-post-facto terrain. For Closing Doors, Needs also penned a thick CD booklet—72 pages. “I didn’t mean to write that much,” he says with a laugh. “It then became as important as the music, because it explained why. It had to be; otherwise, it would just look like a nice old compilation.”
Did he listen to any nice old compilations in order to prepare this one? “The only existing New York compilations taught me what not to do, which was restrict it to one particular area of music,” he says. “Every time you get [a New York–themed set], it’ll be a disco compilation, or a hip-hop compilation, or even a compilation of Spanish Harlem ballads. I haven’t seen one that’s got, on the same CD, Pete Seeger and Louis Armstrong.”
Needs’s point is clear—New York is so panoramic it deserves a broad overview. He’s gotten plenty of help in figuring out what to include, both on Vol. 1 and the five others he has planned (one per decade, from the ’60s to the ’00s). In addition to Darnell, Needs’s advisers include Suicide’s Martin Rev—who, Needs points out, learned piano from blind bebop legend Lennie Tristano, exactly the kind of sideways-yet-just-right connection this set thrives on—and Craig Leon, producer of the first Ramones and Blondie albums. “We’re taking it where it goes,” he says, “kind of like how the music was created in the first place.”