This story originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Spin.
Don’t let anybody tell you different: 1977 was not a good year. Not a good decade, not a good time for New York City. Remembering now, it’s easy to wax rhapsodic–the year gave us, after all, the first important explosion of punk rock and hip-hop. If you weren’t there,through the pink-tinted prism of irony, even the clothes might look cool. But in fact, 1977 was a shameful, embarrassing time to be alive.
This was the year that Saturday Night Fever –a decent film about a hopeless, pig-ignorant loser who fills his empty nights by dancing (badly) at a local disco–was criminally misread by millions of people who made its well-portrayed but pathetic protagonist into a hero. Every douche bag in America who could buy a white suit or some heavily adulterated cocaine was suddenly empowered to show you his back fat and chest hair. It was the triumph of the Ron Jeremys. They were everywhere. This was their time. This was the year Studio 54 opened, the first time in history when you might find yourself in the same club as your parents, doing the same drug. People would soon be dancing, 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 less desirable than being in the same room as Liza Minnelli. It was the end of a long, dark period when it seemed that we’d all be doomed forever to hear nothing but bloated stadium acts-turgid Rick Wakeman “operas”or the Allman Brothers Band’s “One Way Out”-or the terrifying easy-listening sounds of Loggins & Messina, hippies noodling away on pedal steel guitars and mandolins.
And nowhere did the outlook look grimmer than in New York. I turned 21 that summer, working in restaurants there while finishing my culinary degree. A smoking, moldering ruin, the city–administered by an ineffectual midget, strewn with trash, famously stalked at night by a predatory serial killer with a .44 handgun–was considered ungovernable. That the whole place went on a batshit looting rampage when the lights went out was hardly a surprise. Entire neighborhoods were given over to organized gangs, feral junkies. The Lower East Side was a gigantic drug supermarket, its blocks and blocks of abandoned tenements 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 with each other at CBGB were an appropriate reaction to the general feelings of hopelessness, absurdity, futility, and disgust of living in New York at the time. The irradiated spawn of tormented loners who had grown up listening to the Stooges and the Velvets, wannabe poets, failed romantics–anyone with enough enthusiasm or anger to pick up a guitar, it seemed, converged on the only place that would have them. And briefly (and only for a lucky few), music was good again. When the as-New York-as-it-gets Ramones took the stage, they immediately banished all music that preceded it, dooming it to irrelevance. At CBGB, the Voidoids’ incredible guitarist, Robert Quine, shredded hisFender over symbolist-inspired lyrics, making sounds never heard before or since. Talking Heads, Television, Dead Boys, the Heartbreakers, Patti Smith–for a brief moment, it looked like things might change for the better. New York was the center of the world.
Unfortunately, no one noticed. Because chefs shared the same hours and many of the same proclivities, my friends and I frequently found ourselves moving in the same circles as our heroes. Which is to say,many of us were doing heroin. Since most of our favorite musicians had no money, we fed them for free in our restaurants in exchange for tickets. We copped from the same dealers and nodded out in the same after-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 how it played out. We had fun for a while, then we all ended up dead or in a methadone program. There was no “movement”–all these artists really had in common was too little money, a general aspiration to say something, and a place they could all hang out. You could hardly find two bands more different in style and content than Talking Heads and the Ramones. While conversations ranged from the intellectual to the proudly 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 not become the defining rock anthem it should have. The Ramones went out on tour and pretty much stayed on tour. The bands that broke out, such as Blondie, only did so by morphing (“Heart of Glass” was a disco hit). The official face of “punk” became the Monkees-like industry creation the Sex Pistols. They looked like an updated Bay City Rollers or a proto-‘N Sync. Same template. It was all about the clothes.
When I think back on those years, I remember, of course, all the great music–a true embarrassment of riches. But I also remember pain–1977 smelled of burning candles in an abandoned building, fermenting garbage, uncollected in the street. The bitter, delicious taste of heroin in the back of my throat. The bathroom of CBGB, a washin turds, glassine bags, condoms, and used works.
And Jethro Tull was still playing on the radio.