A Kinetic Documentary on the Punks + Poets of Lower Manhattan
A behind-the-curtain look at how we made our latest audio walk.
The year is 1967, and it’s a hot summer day. A 20-year-old woman arrives at Washington Square Park with a tiny suitcase. She’s tired from walking all day with no direction home and plops down on one of the park benches… Included in her few possessions are a poetry book by Rimbaud and a notebook… She never would have imagined that in just eight years, she would record her first album four blocks from here and be dubbed the poet laureate of punk. Her name is Patti Smith.
This excerpt comes from our Punks + Poets audio walk that begins in Washington Square Park and ends in Tompkins Square Park. The audio stories along the route trace the birth of punk music through the lens of the poets, photographers, painters and performers who defined early punk.
Audio has this special ability to sometimes make us forget where we are, allowing us to imagine we’re walking in another person’s shoes, being transported to a different location, or, especially in this case, time traveling through different decades. But what makes this type of audio storytelling so captivating?
Sarah Holtz, Gesso’s audio producer who wrote and produced Punks + Poets, reflects on the question. “Like any good documentary or movie soundtrack, these audio walks can make you feel like you’re time traveling. There’s something about walking the same streets as your favorite musician or writer while hearing about what they encountered there that makes me feel closer to that time. Other producers have remarked that audio is the most visual medium and I definitely agree with that. I’ve always felt like history with a capital H is this dry construct that reminds people of their least favorite textbook from school or a poorly curated museum, and the kinetic nature of these audio walks brings complicated stories to life in a more evocative way,” she says.
An article from The Atlantic shares insights from one study that found our brains respond especially well to audio storytelling that involves emotionally and intellectually stimulating content. This response is strengthened by the inclusion of personal stories that allow listeners to empathize with what they’re hearing and who they’re listening to. Paul Zak, the Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, describes the feeling of being transported into a story as a type of “neuro ballet” where listeners know they aren’t physically part of the story, yet their real-life behaviors are still influenced by what they’re listening to.
For Holtz, figuring out how to transport listeners to New York’s early punk scene involved reading a lot of music history books and listening to a lot of songs from the era. “I mined several books and songs for site-specific details, and then from there, I identified which characters are most compelling. Who might we want to follow around the streets of New York? For the punk walk, the first character was Patti Smith,” she says.
She continued to develop this idea as she was sitting on a park bench in Washington Square Park, thinking about what other artists had sat in the very spot where she was. She remembered reading about Smith’s first week in New York in Smith’s memoir, JUST KIDS. “I was thinking about what she must have felt the first time she was in Washington Square Park. The park looks different in some ways in 2020 compared to when she arrived in 1967, but so much has remained the same, from the arch to the buskers to the fact that it’s still a favorite spot for protesters. The protest chants are different today but the general energy remains. So, I thought that parallel might be transportive for listeners… Every artist who moves to New York has an origin story, so I figured Patti’s would be a good place to start.” (By the way, check out Holtz’s carefully curated Spotify playlists inspired by our audio walks.)
In addition to her own research, Holtz reflects on the inclusion of guest stories. “Incorporating interviews was one of my favorite parts. Books and internet articles are great, but there’s nothing like talking to someone who was there,” she says.
Our guest storytellers’ personal stories and research from the time period add an exciting extra layer to the retelling of New York’s early punk scene. As listeners walk through Greenwich Village and the East Village during the audio walk, they hear our original audio content interspersed with interview clips from Roberta Bayley, David Godlis, Alice Sparberg Alexiou, David Hershkovits, and Kembrew McLeod. Close your eyes and imagine you’re walking past the former site of CBGBs as Godlis tells you about his time photographing the scene there between 1976 and 1979.
“When I spoke to Roberta Bayley and David Godlis, who both spent so many nights at CBGBs, I interviewed them more biographically. I asked them about their life back then — where they ate, which bands were most exciting to them. When I spoke to scholars like Alice Sparberg Alexiou, who wrote a book about the Bowery, I focused on her research and asked her questions like, ‘Do you think New York punk was geographically determined?’ Interviews are always my favorite part of audio production because I believe they build a human connection between the listener and the story. People like Roberta and David become our proxies for the past.”
Using audio to time travel through history can illuminate different decades and their distinct themes. At Gesso, in addition to early punk in the East Village, our Hipsters + Holdouts audio walk through Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which Holtz also wrote and produced, takes a sociological look at hipsterism, style, commodification, and businesses that have persevered despite a rapidly changing landscape. Reflecting on this time period she says, “I loved reading about the Mekas brothers’ coming of age in Williamsburg and experimenting with film. I also enjoyed applying what I knew about creative placemaking to the prevalence of public art — mostly colorful murals — in the neighborhood. And the walk made me want to go to Rough Trade so badly!”
The stories of Williamsburg also illuminated the stories behind many iconic businesses that have stood the test of time such as Beacon’s Closet. “To me, thrift stores aren’t unique to Brooklyn, but the success of Beacon’s Closet does speak to Williamsburg’s values and aesthetic culture, which is fascinating.”
Whether it’s hearing the origin story behind a vintage clothing store or listening to songs of the past to better understand the worlds those songwriters inhabited, audio storytelling grants us the ability to escape the present and enter a different time in history, even if just for a few blissful moments.
Holtz describes creating the audio walk as a full circle moment, as she previously put together a show about early punk during her days as a college radio DJ. She reflects on what she hopes listeners will take away from the audio walk, “I wanted listeners to feel the heightened sense of possibility that the downtown avant-garde felt in the late 60s and early 70s, in spite of the city’s declining condition. I wanted to explore the meaning underlying people’s favorite songs and pique the curiosity of listeners who have never heard Television, or maybe have only heard Blondie’s greatest hits.” There was a heavy focus on the sensory to make the walk feel transportive, and questions such as “What did Mercer Street look like in 1973? What did the alley behind CBGBs smell like? What jazz records were punk songwriters listening to when they lived so close to the jazz lofts near the Bowery?” were important in making sure listeners felt as though they were back in New York walking the streets of Lower Manhattan alongside the punk legends themselves.
The Gesso app is a next-gen audio guide to the world. If you’re an audio producer, artist, or creative professional interested in working with us to create location-based audio experiences, get access to our Creator Tool to find out how we can start storytelling together.