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Eat to the Beat

Don’t let anybody tell you different: 1977 was not a good year. Not agood decade, not a good time for New York City. Remembering now, it’seasy to wax rhapsodic — the year gave us, after all, the firstimportant explosion of punk rock and hip-hop. If you weren’t there,through the pink-tinted prism of irony, even the clothes might lookcool. But in fact, 1977 was a shameful, embarrassing time to be alive.

This was the year that Saturday Night Fever — a decent filmabout a hopeless, pig-ignorant loser who fills his empty nights bydancing (badly) at a local disco — was criminally misread by millionsof people who made its well-portrayed but pathetic protagonist into ahero. Every douche bag in America who could buy a white suit or someheavily adulterated cocaine was suddenly empowered to show you his backfat and chest hair. It was the triumph of the Ron Jeremys. They wereeverywhere. This was theirtime. This was the year Studio 54opened, the first time in history when you might find yourself in thesame club as your parents, doing the same drug. People would soon bedancing, with a straight face, to the theme music from S.W.A.T. and Star Wars.Unlike in the ’60s, being young or different was considered lessdesirable than being in the same room as Liza Minnelli. It was the endof a long, dark period when it seemed that we’d all be doomed foreverto hear nothing but bloated stadium acts-turgid Rick Wakeman “operas”or the Allman Brothers Band’s “One Way Out”-or the terrifyingeasy-listening sounds of Loggins & Messina, hippies noodling awayon pedal steel guitars and mandolins.

And nowhere did the outlook look grimmer than in New York. I turned21 that summer, working in restaurants there while finishing myculinary degree. A smoking, moldering ruin, the city — administered byan ineffectual midget, strewn with trash, famously stalked at night bya predatory serial killer with a .44 handgun — was consideredungovernable. That the whole place went on a batshit looting rampagewhen the lights went out was hardly a surprise. Entire neighborhoodswere given over to organized gangs, feral junkies. The Lower East Sidewas a gigantic drug supermarket, its blocks and blocks of abandonedtenements riddled with the candlelit tunnels, steel-lined rooms, boobytraps, and shooting galleries of its many entrepreneurial retailers.

The music and the musicians who started playing and hanging out witheach other at CBGB were an appropriate reaction to the general feelingsof hopelessness, absurdity, futility, and disgust of living in New Yorkat the time. The irradiated spawn of tormented loners who had grown uplistening to the Stooges and the Velvets, wannabe poets, failedromantics — anyone with enough enthusiasm or anger to pick up aguitar, it seemed, converged on the only place that would have them.And briefly (and only for a lucky few), music was good again. When theas-New York-as-it-gets Ramones took the stage, they immediatelybanished all music that preceded it, dooming it to irrelevance. AtCBGB, the Voidoids’ incredible guitarist, Robert Quine, shredded hisFender over symbolist-inspired lyrics, making sounds never heard beforeor since. Talking Heads, Television, Dead Boys, the Heartbreakers,Patti Smith — for a brief moment, it looked like things might changefor the better. New York was the center of the world.

Unfortunately, no one noticed. Because chefs shared the same hoursand many of the same proclivities, my friends and I frequently foundourselves moving in the same circles as our heroes. Which is to say,many of us were doing heroin. Since most of our favorite musicians hadno money, we fed them for free in our restaurants in exchange fortickets. We copped from the same dealers and nodded out in the sameafter-hours clubs. There was a delightful sense of urgency to it all,as in: “Enjoy your favorite bands now.Before they die.” Few thought it would last. And that’s pretty much howit played out. We had fun for a while, then we all ended up dead or ina methadone program. There was no “movement” — all these artistsreally had in common was too little money, a general aspiration to saysomething, and a place they could all hang out. You could hardly findtwo bands more different in style and content than Talking Heads andthe Ramones. While conversations ranged from the intellectual to theproudly inarticulate, there was indeed common agreement on one idea:Things were pretty much fucked.

In the end, as influential as these bands were to eventually become,no one bought the records. Richard Hell’s “Blank Generation” did notbecome the defining rock anthem it should have. The Ramones went out ontour and pretty much stayed on tour. The bands that broke out, such asBlondie, only did so by morphing (“Heart of Glass” was a disco hit).The official face of “punk” became the Monkees-like industry creationthe Sex Pistols. They looked like an updated Bay City Rollers or aproto-‘N Sync. Same template. It was all about the clothes.

When I think back on those years, I remember, of course, all thegreat music-a true embarrassment of riches. But I also rememberpain-1977 smelled of burning candles in an abandoned building,fermenting garbage, uncollected in the street. The bitter, delicioustaste of heroin in the back of my throat. The bathroom of CBGB, awashin turds, glassine bags, condoms, and used works.

And Jethro Tull was still playing on the radio.

Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations can be seen on the Travel Channel.