NYC Going Out Guide Spring/Summer 1981
Music around town featuring PiL, The Clash and Noise Fest
Once I started my first job in Manhattan, weekend evenings were exhilarating and daunting. I didn’t know anybody in town save for my middle-aged work colleagues and Jeff, the ageless and eccentric building super. No need to ask: none of them shared my taste in music. I was dying to go out and investigate first-hand the music scene I’d followed from afar during college. Feeling unrealistically flush from my Railway Age paychecks, I set out on my own.
A few nights stand out, including one where luckily I didn’t make it to the show.
In May, I toyed with the idea of seeing Public Image Ltd at the Ritz nightclub. One year before, I’d been present as the post-Sex Pistols musical vehicle of John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon bewitched a rowdy Detroit audience at an old roller rink; Keith Levene’s abstract guitar squalls twisted around Jah Wobble’s pulsating reggae bass lines as Lydon’s vocal incantations gathered like ominous storm clouds, and then burst open. But twelve months later, the group had evolved — or devolved — into a pure concept: an expression of Lydon’s boundless contempt for his audience’s expectations.
The Ritz was a cavernous dance hall on East 11th Street. U2 and Depeche Mode both made their American debuts there around the same time as this 1981 Public Image Limited appearance. Billed as a “video performance” rather than a concert, however, this PiL show surely promised to be different. The video aspect was ironic in that the Ritz, like most of the other “new music” clubs that followed in the wake of long-running CBGB and doomed Max’s Kansas City, had recently begun screening music videos in between band performances.
Slightly more democratic than trendier spots such as the Mudd Club, The Ritz sold tickets in advance and more important, there was no exclusionary door policy. Pay the price and you were in, whether you were a “Bridge & Tunnel” interloper or certified “slum & loft” downtown hipster.
A sudden thunderstorm and a pre-payday shortage of funds prevented me from joining the early evening line for PiL tickets. Ultimately this worked to my advantage because the show sparked a riot. Lydon and his compatriots cavorted in silhouette behind the club’s 30-foot wide video screen, baiting the crowd until they responded in kind with hurled bottles, eventually storming the stage and pulling down the screen. If rock and roll was now bankrupt, as John Lydon regularly insisted to interviewers, he proved his point at the Ritz by painting himself into a corner. His only escape was a return to making slightly more conventional rock records, i.e. selling out.
Reading tabloid articles in the aftermath of that historic rout turned out to be more than enough. But The Clash’s proposed seven-night stand at Bond’s International Casino in Times Square, just a couple weeks later, was a different matter. I’d caught the Detroit stops on every preceding Clash tour and there was no way I would miss my favorite band when they hit my new home turf.
True to form, the group had recently released a sprawling, foolishly ambitious three-record set titled Sandinista! The name was a tribute to the left-wing revolution in El Salvador that was currently giving Ronald Reagan a serious case of indigestion. Politics aside, to my ears the diversely influenced songs on the album succeeded more often than not.
Even disco — the bete noir of every punk-rock true believer — was seamlessly woven into The Clash’s newly cosmopolitan style. On a track called “The Magnificent Seven,” the English rockers appropriated the rhythmic rhymes of rap, the latest musical insurgency to rise from the uptown city streets. And New York City returned the compliment: on WBLS-FM, the reigning Urban Contemporary (read: Black) station, a funky instrumental remix called “Magnificent Dance” could be heard in heavy rotation. After a few stagnant years, America’s musical melting pot was bubbling again. In New York City, anyway.
Naturally I wasn’t the only person hotly anticipating these concerts. But the band members themselves must’ve been surprised at the ensuing melee and melodrama. I expected a mob scene when I showed up at Bond’s, a former department store converted into a disco, with my ticket in hand. The presence of mounted police and blue barricades was initially reassuring. All in a Saturday night’s work for the NYPD, I figured, but the subsequent arrival of fire trucks with sirens blaring suggested something extraordinary was afoot. Indeed I never made it in; the show had been oversold, double the club’s capacity according to the next day’s news reports, so the Fire Department shut it down. Sticking to their guns, The Clash hurriedly called a press conference the next day and extended their stay at Bond’s for another seven nights.
Finally shuffling into the vast ballroom on the following Thursday I wasn’t disappointed. Balancing their recent material with the urgent anthems of their punk past, as far as I was concerned The Clash ascended a new peak that night. “Guns of Brixton,” in particular, came across like a promise delivered rather than an implied threat. But I sensed impatience in the audience, bordering on intolerance. Not for the Clash themselves, who were irresistibly charismatic performers to the end, but for the direction they sought to push their followers. At one point, I cringed when the assembled ignoramuses booed the saintly Beat poet Allen Ginsberg as he joined The Clash onstage. Naturally, free-verse beatitudes and clanging punk guitars are not everyone’s cup of tea. Still, the crowd’s close-mindedness was cause for concern. I kept waiting to hear somebody call for “Whipping Post” or “Free Bird.”
The musical smorgasbord of New York City was not an all-you-can-eat bargain. After layout out serious cash for tickets to The Clash, my discretionary income was limited; even CBGB charged $8–10 at the door on weekends and served $4 beers. Combing the listings and ads in The Soho News, weekly downtown competitor of The Village Voice, I discovered one-off events in tiny bars, lofts and informal spaces in the tangled network of streets below 14th. A couple of bucks for a night of free jazz or quasi-musical performance art seemed like a bargain.
A passer-by might reasonably have wondered what the hell was going on. Dozens of people filtered out of a generic industrial building, milled around in the street for half an hour, and then drifted back inside. Repeat. Of course there were no passers-by; on weekend nights, the western fringes of Soho, home of printers and trade publishers like my employer, were deserted.
I’d passed by this place before, during the week, on my way to have a vodka-infused working lunch with my boss at the Ear Inn, a homey bar on Spring Street. Across the street, a sign in the big picture window identified the empty ground floor showroom as an art gallery called White Columns. If there was art hanging on the walls, I never noticed.
On the evening in question, I was drawn to my work neighborhood by an enticing Xeroxed handbill. I wound up attending multiple nights.
Tuesday June 16: Dog Eat Dog, Off Beach, Avant Squares
Wednesday June 17: UT, Mark Cunningham, Don King & Dantas Lins, Avoidance Behavior
Thursday June 18: Rhys Chatham, Sonic Youth, Smoking Section, Chinese Puzzle
Friday June 19: Y Pants, Dark Day, Ad Hoc Rock
Saturday June 20: Glenn Branca, Rudolph Grey, Jeffrey Lohn, John Rehberger
Sunday June 21: Jules Baptiste Red Decade, Khmer Rouge, IMA
Monday June 22: Mofungo, The Problem, EQ’D
Tuesday June 22: NNB, The Primitives, Borbetomagus
Wednesday June 23: Built On Guilt, Glorious Strangers, Radio Firefight
White Columns 325 Spring Street
But the top-billed performance on Saturday the 20th was the one that transformed my notion of what qualified as music, and noise. At first notice, the evening’s entertainment was flat-out insane: half-a-dozen electric guitarists lined up like a firing squad, extracting a wall of sound from their amplifiers, each player strumming and scraping the same chord for ten minutes at a stretch, with a single rigid drummer keeping time.
Glenn Branca led the group; in the following decades he earned a reputation as an avant-garde composer by making high-volume BLAT not at all dissimilar to what I heard in 1981. At Noise Fest, he conducted his ensemble by fanatically waving his battered Fender like a baton. Or weapon. Halfway through the set I recognized Branca from the East Village. I’d regularly spotted this rangy guy striding around the St. Marks Place vicinity; usually swilling from a 16 ounce can of Colt 45, accompanied by a band of severe-looking yet oddly attractive women — artistic types. Between these rapt followers and his radical approach to making, er, music, he resembled a cult leader.
While Branca played that Saturday night I stood transfixed as warm waves of raw high-volume sound wafted out across the stuffy, smoke-filled room. The effect was cleansing, and after the initial shock, transporting. Listening was an intimate physical experience, brutally sensual, the actual notes (signal) and their amplified echo (noise) merging into one dense roar, connecting my ears, brain and guts on an internal circuit rarely plumbed by music. Above all else the Branca performance felt precise, controlled, deliberate: a far cry from the chaotic, cathartic release of punk rock.
I bought a lukewarm Heineken from the genial blond stringbean who more or less seemed to be running the show as well as the makeshift concession stand. He turned out to be Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. The prototype of that now-legendary band had played earlier at the Noise Fest, with Thurston, Kim Gordon and Anne DeMarinis on keyboards; future Sonic Youth mainstay Lee Ranaldo performed Saturday night as part of Glenn Branca’s guitar army. Sonic Youth and I would encounter each other again, crucially, just a few months down the road.
Otherwise on that pivotal night, the ringing in my ears and my lingering Midwestern reticence precluded any outreach to the kindred spirits in attendance. But the social ice began to melt away for me at the Noise Fest. As intimidating and crazy as the bill of fare appeared on the surface, I was encouraged by the fact that other people heard this cacophony as liberating instead of obnoxious. Nobody here fostered any illusions about mass popularity or acceptance. In our obscure corner of the city, as long as somebody listened, well, anything seemed possible.