These People Are Saving the History of New York’s Downtown Scene


Timothy Young is the curator of modern books and manuscripts at Yale’s Beinecke Library, a 1963 Gordon Bunshaft building that houses a Gutenberg Bible as well as the papers of Gertrude Stein, Langston Hughes, Edith Wharton, and, now, Lance Loud, lead singer for a band that once opened for the Ramones.

The Beinecke acquired the archives of Loud, and his family, after a chance meeting. Young had already secured the archives of Danny Fields, manager of the Ramones: a cornucopia of notes, cassettes, and most of all snapshots of daily life in the worlds of rock and punk. Fields introduced Young to Michele Loud, a New York artist whose claim to fame involved playing herself on An American Family, the 1973 series that was the earliest precursor of reality TV.

Being an archivist, and one interested particularly in the avant-garde and modern social movements, Young asked Loud the obvious question: Where are your archives?

Michele Loud, not being a professional archivist, gave him the natural answer: In the garage. Where do you think they are?

So it goes now at the once “text based” institution of historical preservation. Says Glenn Horowitz, the rare-books and manuscripts dealer who brokered the sale of the Loud archives, “The figure of the author as Colossus of Rhodes — the Saul Bellow of the 1950s — is gone.” Bellow is indeed gone, although his archives have remained peacefully at the University of Chicago, where he spent much of his life. The archives of the Loud family made a longer journey.

PBS’s twelve-part series followed the Loud clan — Bill, Pat, Lance, Kevin, Grant, Delilah, and Michele — as they lived their daily upper-middle-class lives in Santa Barbara, California. Over its run, An American Family would document Bill and Pat’s separation and Lance’s coming out as gay. The program was a sensation.

Post-stardom, the various family members continued to dart in and out of the public eye. Lance, regarded since the original series as something of an LGBT icon, would go on to work as a writer for The Advocate, Details, Creem, and Interview. Pat published two books, the memoir A Woman’s Story and a remembrance of Lance (who died in 2001), Lance Out Loud.

The family promptly made the circuit of television talk shows, complaining all the while, as the New York Times pointed out in Lance Loud’s obituary, about how they were portrayed. A few years and a few producers later, we had The Real World. Après the Louds, le déluge.

All this may not quite explain to the layman why the family’s collected papers have landed in the Beinecke’s collection. “Archive is a slippery term,” says Arthur Fournier, a rare-books dealer and agent who represented hip-hop publicist Bill Adler, counterculture magazine the East Village Eye, and outsider-art historian John MacGregor. “How do you use these words now? Is there even a metric?”

In the case of the Louds, the archives consist of some 37 boxes of mixed media — letters, manuscripts, photos, videos, audiotapes. There are session recordings of the Mumps, Lance’s band. There are family movies and personal pictures. In this the Loud archives are typical. Some are better cataloged, like Adler’s (Beastie Boys: boxes 8 and 9, except for material related to performances with Run-D.M.C., filed with the Run-D.M.C. oeuvre in box 12). There are personal things and professional things and everything in between.

That academia should have developed an interest in the cultural artifacts of our own age makes sense. As Young sees it, the contemporary emphasis on areas like women’s studies, LGBTQ studies, and various branches of American studies demands a new body of research materials. The Beinecke’s acquisitions — the Loud letters, the Danny Fields archive, the work of the late comedy writer Tom Davis and that of Danceteria impresario and AIDS activist Jim Fouratt — fill that need.

Whereas archivists may once have regarded themselves as keepers of the flame, now they are trying to figure out, in real time, what will turn into history. During the Occupy Wall Street movement, for instance, Columbia scholars would sweep Zuccotti Park every evening for archival flotsam. “The shift has been gradual,” Young says, “but from the outside it probably looks sudden and tectonic.”

The bonus to the legitimate academic value of the contemporary archives is that they also bring archivists and researchers closer to the contemporary version of the sacred: the cool. The new archives are not just about the work, but about the scene, and they are filled with stuff that gives you a thrill in a way that, say, old first editions don’t (except to bitter-ender bibliophiles). A first-edition Ulysses is just an object, Horowitz says, “but a bunch of audiotapes made in the back room of Max’s Kansas City in 1966? That’s a different experience.”

For Young, the through-line in the story of the new archives is that, in one way or another, all these individuals wrote. Danny Fields was a journalist and diarist; Lance Loud a music writer; his mother wrote memoirs. So at a minimum, in other words, the archives contain actual written material. “I always ask, are they working out problems of thought and rhetoric in their work?” Young says.

The problem is that these days, so many people have written something. In an era when every real housewife has a memoir, every comedian has a sassy essay collection, and Lauren Conrad’s output rivals that of Joyce Carol Oates — all of which is to say nothing of James Franco — where does one draw the line?

The business of selling archives is notoriously discreet. The sums paid for the biggest, like the $15 million to $20 million shelled out for Bob Dylan’s by the University of Tulsa (a deal also brokered by Horowitz), are well publicized. Others, less so. The going rate for those in the lower ranks of celebrity is, brokers say, in the low to mid six-figure range. If you are able to unburden yourself of your papers and artifacts, they might provide a nice old-age supplement, though probably not a retirement. For those of moderate fame who amassed archives by living rather than saving, it’s a boon.

While institutions like Young’s have been willing to open up their wallets, it’s not clear that selling archives to those who will preserve them best is a profit-maximizing approach. When Mark Twain, the most famous author of his day and a celebrity by any metric, died in 1910, there was no university waiting to accept his papers. They went to auction and were separated — which, as it turns out, might well be the way to get the most money out of one’s archives. A single playing card signed by Jim Morrison reportedly went for $11,000. There is money to be made from memorabilia that rich collectors can use to conjure their youth.

For those who have bothered to build up an archive worth keeping, however, just who will keep it and how is a sensitive point. Fournier says that when brokering avant-garde composer Arthur Russell’s estate sale to the New York Public Library, “We asked ourselves, will it be an environment in which, hundreds of years from now, this will be considered alongside Cole Porter?”

The Adler archive is another case in point. An avid record collector and burgeoning writer, he began picking up PR materials in the Michigan record store where he worked in order to learn about the musicians coming through town: “I thought, let me hang on to the bio that ABC Records sent, so that I can appear less ignorant — or at least, better informed.”

By the time “Rapper’s Delight,” the song that took hip-hop to the airwaves, broke in the fall of ’79, Adler already understood the genre would be important, but his collection of ephemera — flyers, posters, press releases — was personal. “I probably would have started to hold on to materials anyway,” he says. “But as a phenomenon, it didn’t strike me as coming out of left field.”

Word got out and Adler’s collection became a resource for writers and cultural historians. In 2011, the Bill Adler hip-hop archive was acquired by Cornell. “When Bill was first doing that, in the 1980s,” says Fournier, who brokered the deal, “I don’t think you could have found a museum to take it, let alone treat it with such seriousness.”

The usefulness of having some record of the culture around rap, rock, and punk is clearly beyond dispute. Yet exactly how much of a record is worth saving is very much an open question in the archive world. Beneath the surface — and even though, as industries go, the cultural-memory business is a polite one — there is a conflict between the new archivists, who want to retain the materials of people like Adler and Fields, and those who turn up their noses.

Says Thomas Lannon, a curator at the New York Public Library, “There has been and there will be an activist strain of archives that believes things are important by virtue of their involvement in a movement. The other school feels that some things are worth saving, and have enduring value, and that it’s not their job to pick up litter.”

What was once viewed with skepticism, like the Timothy Leary archives at the NYPL, in hindsight becomes an obvious acquisition. “I always think there’s a certain visionary quality to people who have the wisdom to save the archives of an era,” says Fournier. “And there’s often a certain honesty to those materials.”

The natural impulse in talking about archives is to see the interest in preserving one’s own legacy as an outgrowth of celebrity culture. If someone’s stuff is worth saving, why not mine? And there’s something to that. What made the Louds special was the voyeuristic access they gave viewers to their lives, and the work they produced was enabled by that celebrity.

But there’s also something selfless in the best archives. The process of selling one’s estate is scary in the same way a time capsule is scary: It reminds us that there will come a time when we’ll be dead, and we’re not very good at acknowledging death. The concept of the archive is inherently cozy with mortality. You have to settle in with the idea that you will disappear.

In the end, the most useful archives may be those of people who are able to disappear into their surroundings. So it seems with Fields, who would not comment for this article — nor for many others. A recent Guardian profile, for instance, likewise couldn’t entice Fields to speak, and while it quoted many of his friends attesting to the fact that there were “so many Danny stories,” none of them were told to the writer — except one, which turned out unsuitable for print.

That seems appropriate. There is no shortage of people who collect a great deal of material about themselves. What makes the Adler or Fields archives stand out is that these were people who collected a great deal about the movements they were part of and helped shape. Their effort was to catalog not what they were doing, but what was going on around them. As Horowitz observes of the Louds, Fields, and Fouratt, “They had saved everything. Does that make them prescient — or just pack rats?” The answer is both.