A City in Crisis: How the Collision of Poetry and Punk Defined 1970’s New York City

October 7, 2020

 

            In his 2015 New York Times article, “Why Can’t We Stop Talking about New York in the Late 1970s?”, Edmund White questions why modern creatives have a romanticized view of 1970’s New York City. Perhaps, it’s because the cultural world was smaller, rent was cheaper, Jasper Johns still painted in his East Houston street studio, Susan Sontag published Illness as Metaphor and people happily stood in line for hours for the chance to mingle with the famous at Studio 54. The city was a kind of “love among the ruins.” But it was also in social decay and staring down the barrel of bankruptcy. Deindustrialization and post-war optimism led white New Yorkers out of the city and into the suburbs leaving the city to rot. The Bronx was burning, unemployment was high, the homeless cramped the streets, buildings were vandalized, graffiti covered the subways, gangs traversed the streets, murder rates were rising, porn films ran in Time Square Theaters, and the AIDS epidemic was about to sweep the globe. When tourists visited New York City in the summer of 1975, they could expect to be handed a pamphlet by city police with the words, “Welcome to Fear City”[1] in black capital letters. “Do Not Walk” “Stay off the streets after 6pm” and “Safeguard your handbag” were some of the survival guide’s listed instructions. And, yet, despite the bleak reality of the city, writers, artists, and filmmakers fled downtown to live and work in vacant loft spaces where cheap rent meant not having to worry about securing stable employment. What is most notable about the cover of the “Welcome to Fear City” pamphlet is a sketched image of a skull draped in a black hood. This image not only signaled the potential fatal outcomes for tourists who failed to comply with safety precautions but the skull would become a symbol for a burgeoning subculture of underground artists and rock misfits: punk. 

 

            Today, New York City during COVID-19 harkens back to the uncertainty of the 1970s. The subways may not be covered with graffiti but they are mostly empty as commuters are encouraged to work from home to reduce the spread of the virus. Like tourists in the 1970s were encouraged to stay off the streets after 6pm, residents were issued a city-wide curfew in early June to reduce an uptick in violence in connection to social unrest following the death of George Floyd. The city saw the “White flight” of people fleeing the city from panic over crime in the 1970’s and in the spring of 2020 Manhattan experienced a similar mass exodus of young and rich people fleeing the city to surrounding suburbs and cities in a panic over infection. It is likely that rent and land prices will go down, but will artists, like those of the 1970s, remain in New York? Will their work reflect the consequences and ultra-polarization of our times? In order to envision a modern Manhattan where art, literature, theatre and other creative industries continue to be the epicenter of the city, we must understand the artistic urgency that came from living in White’s bleak 1970s New York City. I believe that understanding rock poet Patti Smith and her role in the emergence of the New York Punk movement can help us.

 

            She has been called the “high priestess of Punk”, “Punk’s Godmother” “the keeper of phlegm” and the “Punk Poet Laureate” but Patti Smith contests these sobriquets, revealing in a 2015 interview with BBC: “I was not really a punk, and my band was never really a punk band.” Smith’s rejection of being punk is a radical act and in many ways, the very definition of punk. Born on the North Side of Chicago in 1946 and raised primarily in New Jersey, Smith expressed early signs of a girl challenging convention and asserting her individuality. In her 2010 memoir, Just Kids, she recalls her mother’s insistence that she recite the child’s prayer nightly, Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep and admits she longed to edit the prayer with her own poetry. Perhaps, it was decades later on “Gloria”[3] from her 1975 classic punk album Horses where she’d finally restyled the prayer with the song’s opening lyrics: Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine. Dismantling expectations had long been a part of Smith’s adolescent spirit. “Some of us are born rebellious”, she writes, “I remember passing shopwindows with my mother and asking why people didn’t just kick them in. She explained that there were unspoken rules of social behavior, and that’s the way we coexist as people."

 

            After an unwanted pregnancy at nineteen years old, Smith dropped out of college, gave her baby up for adoption and moved to New York City in 1967 to be an artist. She’d lost her job as a waitress three hours into her shift at a restaurant and at one point worked as a cashier at FAO Schwartz but Smith found the most consistent employment working in bookstores. Her last job before becoming a famous rocker full time would be at the Strand Bookstore on 7th and Broadway.  Today, artists continue to work side jobs that offer them little passion but afford them time to pursue their creative pursuits. For example, comedians work during the day so they can perform stand-up at night and actors work in the evening so they can audition during the day. Luckily for Smith, one of her jobs was related to her passion for writing: a job reading poetry at bars.

                                                                                                                                           

                                                                                                                                            The Bowery, mid-1970’s, (Leland Bobbe)

 

         Smith’s writing was influenced by lyric poets like Vachel Lindsay and Art Carney, and she’d listen to audio recordings of spoken word by Oscar Brown Jr. and the Beats poets. Like New York City, Smith felt her writing was becoming increasingly destabilized. She began to lean away from the stylings and formality of French prose she’d been taught and instead leaned into the bravado of Beat writers like Gregory Corso known for employing surreal word combinations like “werewolf bathtubs” and “forked clarinets”. She admits in Just Kids that she was “getting frustrated with writing; it wasn’t physical enough” and it was her roommate and sometime lover, Robert Mapplethorpe[4], who suggested she turn her writing physical through poetry readings and performances. It was a perfect storm for success and for an emerging movement that she didn’t know she was leading.

 

            At rock magazines Rolling Stone and Circus, Smith was able to rub elbows with rock artists she liked and wrote music critiques-modeling herself after 19th century art and literature critic, Baudelaire. She’d also begun to perform her poetry at the Poetry Project at St Mark’s Church where Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara were frequent performers. As the opening act for the rock band, New York Dolls, Smith was encouraged that in order to navigate unruly audiences and impress her mark of poetry on them, she was going to need to roughen up her appearance-wearing black snakeskin boots and acting more aggressively on stage: “I wanted to infuse the written word with the immediacy and frontal attack of rock and roll." At the end of every performance Smith performed her poem, “Piss Factory” about leaving her factory job for New York City. The last stanza reads:

 

And I'm gonna go, I'm gonna get out of here

I'm gonna get out of here, I'm gonna get on that train,

I'm gonna go on that train and go to New York City

I'm gonna be somebody, I'm gonna get on that train, go to New York City,

I'm gonna be so bad I'm gonna be a big star and I will never return,

Never return, no, never return, to burn out in this piss factory

And I will travel light.

Oh, watch me now.

 

            By the end of her last verse, Smith would find the audience finally on her side and today, “Piss Factory” is seen as a poem turned proto-punk anthem. One night all of the right people were in the audience. The following day, she was greeted with offers to publish a chapbook, rock magazines wanted to put her poetry in their pages and she was offered a record contract. But in true punk fashion, Smith rejected all of these offers, lamenting “It came, I felt, too easy”, so she kept her job working at a bookstore and cleaning bird cages, “I didn’t really believe I was destined to clean the cage, but I also knew it wasn’t right to take the contract.” 

 

          The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church[5] was not the only place where Smith fraternized with other artists. She and Robert Mapplethorpe, famous for his black and white photographs, lived at the Hotel Chelsea on West 23rd street between 7th and 8th avenue. The hotel housed writers like Jack Kerouac, Sam Shepard, and Dylan Thomas as well as musicians like Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Leonard Cohen. In Just Kids, Smith describes the hotel as an energetic and desperate haven. The artists came from all over-some were junkie poets, guitar-playing potheads, troubled filmmakers, French actors and intoxicated beauties dressed in Victorian dresses. The Hotel Chelsea served as a place where artists, who were nobodies to the outside world, could feel like somebody when passing through the hotel halls. Not only was Patti Smith exposed to rock music through her poetry readings and writing for Rolling Stone, she was a part of a rock collective at the Hotel Chelsea that laid the framework for what would become punk. It was not unusual for Smith to find herself in the same room as Janis Joplin, replete with a bottle of Southern Comfort, singing “Me and Bobby McGee” to Kris Kristofferson.

 

            The Hotel was not ideal. Smith and Mapplethorpe struggled to pay rent, frequently battled cases of head lice, and had developed chronic coughs from unreliable heating and the cold of winter. But it was a kind of meeting house for artists at a time when, despite social inequality in the city, artists from all rungs of the ladder could co-exist and create. It was under the roof of the Hotel Chelsea where the art we know and appreciate today was created but it was on the stage of CBGB where punk rock would erupt.

 

            In 1973, few people dared to travel below 14th street or to the Bowery but it if meant going see the New York Dolls or Patti Smith perform at CBGB, it was worth the risk. In Steven Blush’s book, New York Rock: From the Rise of the Velvet Underground to the Fall of CBGB, rock n’ roll photographer, Bob Gruen, underlines the seediness of 1970’s Lower East Side- a contrasting view from the NYU student-friendly campus that exists today. “Just getting to CBGB you had a sense of accomplishment. It was a dangerous place and people felt like survivors." The space was founded in 1973 by Hilly Kristal who had originally intended for it to be a venue for the music the name CBGB stands for: Country, Bluegrass and Blues[6]. It was located on the ground floor of a decrepit Bowery flophouse where hundreds of alcoholics freed from jail or institutions lived. According to Kristal, the drippings from the exterior were as likely to be wine as urine as water. Though it faced competition with its more glam rock counterpart, Max’s Kansas City, early acts like the New York Dolls, Television and Patti Smith and later bands like The Ramones, Mink Deville and The Heartbreakers helped solidify CBGB as the punk performance club of Manhattan. In Just Kids, Smith remembers that despite the venue smelling like beer and piss, CBGB was instrumental in transforming the downtown art scene because “it was the ideal place to sound a clarion call. It was a club on the street of the downtrodden that drew a strange breed who welcomed artists yet unsung." Like Smith, who had merged her poetry readings into rock performance, CBGB bridged the gap between the underground rock scene and the burgeoning generation of punk.

 

 

 Patti Smith, CBGB, NYC, New Year’s Eve, 1977               

 

 

            In the mid-1970s, punk[7] sounded like freedom in a city caught in the grip of fear. The movement was born in response to the aftermath of the 1960s, the growing recession of the 1970’s and hippie escapism. Because everyone lived in cheap apartments and survived on food stamps in New York City, punk’s minimalistic aesthetic of dressing in cheap jeans and t-shirts epitomized the subculture’s rejection of commercialization and the establishment. In New York Rock, publicist Mitch Schneider suggests downtown punk and its music sounded like the city, “tightly wound” and “really urgent”. The essence of punk rockers was their rejection of conformity- none of them played their instruments terrifically well but they at least knew how to hold their guitar. They allowed their ambition to outweigh their discipline and, like Smith, played without record deals and made inconsistent money. In New York Rock, Scott Kempner of The Dictators describes the 1970’s punk as “misunderstood, a victim” and punk musician Gilda Gash describes punks as “social cripples” who were “sad, angry, damaged misfit kids that were not pretty or cool-women like myself who were not beautiful or Playboy Bunnies or models…" It was because of Patti Smith’s Dylanesque poetic sensibility that punk began to separate from rock. Punk became a sound and culture for those who didn’t quite fit in.

 

            “Mass movements are always so unhip” explains Legs McNeil, cofounder of Punk Magazine, in his book with Gillian McCain, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. “That’s what was so great about punk. It was an anti-movement…Hip can never be a movement." No one embodied or led a better anti-movement like Patti Smith who would eventually relent, signing a record deal with Arista Records, and go onto release her classic punk anthem, “Because the Night”. In 1977, a young sound engineer named Jimmy Iovine was working with Smith on her third LP, Easter, and suggested she listen to a demo of a song written by another artist Iovine had frequently worked with, Bruce Springsteen. The demo cassette read “Because the Night” and after resisting Iovine’s pleas, Smith finally listened and said, “It’s one of those darn hit songs.”

 

            In a 2018 interview with Billboard Magazine, Iovine, Smith and longtime collaborator, Lenny Kaye, reminisced about the song that made punk history. Springsteen struggled to write verses for the song and knew it was not right for his album but Iovine felt that for Smith, the song could be a hit. Smith was faced with the artistic dilemma of singing a song that she hadn’t written but knew it would become popular on the radio. She finished the verses, recorded and released the song in 1978. It was a hit, rising to #13 in the US and #5 in the UK. 

 

      According to U2’s Bono, the song’s presence on the radio made punk bands and audiences feel that the radio was “a place for outsiders, like our kind of people had gatecrashed a party the mainstream rarely throws for us. Patti’s voice was no longer crying for the wilderness. The wilderness was the only place to be '' and yet, Smith still received push-back from the punk world. They called her a sell-out for making a hit record but in Patti’s eyes it was fair. “I didn’t do my first record for it to be played in a closet." Despite the punk underground’s upset with her mainstream success, Smith shattered glass ceilings and challenged the status quo. She was one of the first women on the radio singing about lust, charting in the top 10 which usually only left one room for a female artist and controversially posing in an inside out tank-top on her album cover exposing her axillary hair. The most punk aspect of “Because the Night'' was not that it sounded unlike anything played on the radio but it sounded unlike anything coming out of CBGB. The song signaled an almost post-Punk feeling. Smith first performed the song live alongside Springsteen at CBGB on her 31st Birthday on December 30th 1977 and it later became a hit in 1978. Gilda Radner’s parody of Smith on an episode of Saturday Night Live in 1979 while exposing hair beneath her white tank top solidified that Smith had become a culture juggernaut in both the punk and pop world. After successfully fusing together her beatnik poetry with her rock musicality and creating the path for other punk artists to follow suit, Smith moved out of New York City to Detroit in 1979 to start a family with her rocker guitarist husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith.

 

            Today, we are in the midst of a global health crisis with Coronavirus and the unrelenting pandemic of racism. Americans are left disillusioned with the leaders of their country and contemplating one of the most important presidential elections this November.  As of June, 30th, 17, 655 people have died in New York City after testing positive for COVID-19. Droves of the young and wealthy have fled New York City for safety and now, apartments are available for rent at an all-time high. As I walk down the streets of my neighborhood in Inwood, at the corner of Dyckman street and Broadway-what is often called the Little Dominican Republic-boarded up restaurants show colorful graffiti, multi-colored hands in fists demanding equality and justice and murals of George Floyd’s face against the backdrop of letters that read: I can’t breathe.

 

            It’s hard to know when and what kind of art will emerge in response to the precarity of our time in the age of COVID-19 but the street art in my neighborhood is evidence that when a city is in crisis-artists of New York create work that reflects the times and informs the culture. Patti Smith and New York punk artists sent out warning signs to the rest of America that they rejected conformity, corporatism and conservatism through their fashion, literature, music, spoken-word and visual art. Already we are seeing art reflect our times in the rejection of racism through the works of Black writers. We see this in the poetry of Terrance Hayes’ and his writing “Emmet till the end of time” in publications like the New Yorker, or the literary and visual quilt depicting Black Lives Matter protests in the pages of Crisis Magazine with Kiese Laymon writing “I can’t tell if it’s the end of times or beginning of that mourning we’ve been praying for.”

 

            Edmund White asks why modern artists have a romanticized view of 1970’s New York City. I believe it’s because when times are desperate and our future hangs in the balance, we look to our past as proof that art prevails. We look to artists to tell our stories and the beauty in art is that it demands us to engage with, to connect to and to understand the changing times we live in. The wealthy and middle class fled New York City in the 1970s during the fiscal crisis and again, today during the pandemic but I believe many artists will choose to stay. Writers, musicians, actors, painters, and filmmakers will continue to create in spite of our polarizing circumstances to prove that they reject the establishment and they aren’t sell outs--to prove there is still a little punk left in New York.

 

 

Update: As of 10.7.2020, the numbers of lives lost in New York City due to complications from COVID-19 is 23,866.

 

***

 

[1] The pamphlet was called “Welcome to Fear City: A Survival Guide for Visitors to the City of New York”. According to Jeremiah Moss, author of Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost It’s Soul, the pamphlets were created and distributed in response to Mayor Abe Beame’s plan to lay off thousands of firefighters, police and other law enforcement.

 

[2] According to the PBS documentary Blackout about the blackout of 1977, nearly 820,00 people fled New York City for the suburbs in search of employment.

 

[3] The lyrics in “Gloria” are pulled from a poem Smith wrote five years earlier called “Oath”-about rejecting religion after leaving the Jehovah’s Witness faith.

 

[4] Mapplethorpe and Smith lived together from 1967 to 1972. He is best known for his black and white photography, still-life images and, gay erotica compositions. The cover of Smith’s 1975 album Horses was photographed by Mapplethorpe as well. He died from complications from HIV/AIDS in 1989 in New York City.

 

[5] The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Place was founded in 1966 by poet Paul Blackburn. Before Smith brought punk to the stage, it was home to the Beats, the Black Mountain poets and the New York School.

 

[6] The full name was CBGB and OMFUG (Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers). CBGB closed in 2006 due to city gentrification.

 

[7] There are many people who claim to have coined the term “punk”. In Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, Legs McNeil, co-founder of Punk Magazine claims to have named the magazine before the subculture of punk knew it was “punk”-suggesting his rock magazine helped the movement to identify itself.

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