Once upon a time on the Bowery
Talking Heads, 1977
This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”
About one hour into “Freddy vs. Jason,” my repast of sour Skittles and a depth-charge-size drum of Diet Coke long consumed, I am forced to conclude that I am ashamed of myself for dropping $10 to sit here for this. The premise is compelling, in a jackknifed-semi sort of way: Freddy Krueger has dispatched Jason Voorhees on a mass-murdering errand to 1428 Elm Street in order to resuscitate memories of the now-forgotten Freddy, thereby allowing him (Freddy) reentry into the nightmares of the young. But other than enabling me new insight into Friedrich Engels’ core theory that quantity affects quality — the profoundly unselective Jason is the proletariat, while the fussier Freddy is deeply bourgeoisified — the film has all the charm of a machete to the clavicle. I will be seeing it again early next week.
Crammed within my bookcases and in unsteady Pisa towers around my apartment you will find Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Unconsoled,” “A Cynthia Ozick Reader,” Martin Amis’ “London Fields,” William Gaddis’ “A Frolic of His Own,” Joan Acocella’s “Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism,” novels and essays by Johns Gardner and Updike and Fowles and Richards Powers and Yates and Wright. I have many hundreds of books and could go on. About this I am not shy. I am, in fact, the sort of person who complains that the biggest plot gears in, say, Quentin Tarantino’s “True Romance” are “obvious” facsimiles of plot gears in Robert Stone’s 1974 National Book Award-winning masterpiece “Dog Soldiers” — and in pointing this out would in all likelihood refer to it as “Robert Stone’s 1974 National Book Award-winning masterpiece.” I am the sort of person who, while visiting Walt Disney World with his brother, his brother’s wife, and their 3-year-old daughter, will talk at length on the Monorail ride into the park about Stanley Elkin’s brilliant 1985 novel “The Magic Kingdom,” which as it happens —
“Can you maybe,” my brother interrupted, “not be, like, such an ass for a while?”
You know my type. Of course you do. But actually: You do not. My bookshelves may throw up great flying buttresses of erudition, but my compact discs and DVDs and videotapes, arranged in less conspicuous piles, conjure up a personality of altogether different dimensions. For instance, “Night of the Living Dead,” which I have seen no fewer than 20 times. Little in life has so riveted me as director Tobe Hooper’s commentary on “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” DVD. “The Shining” and “Evil Dead II” are films to which I repair whenever I feel the need for solace at its most instantaneous. I consider “Dawn of the Dead” and “Halloween” two of the greatest American motion pictures ever produced, and after a couple of drinks will go further than even that. I kind of liked “I Know What You Did Last Summer.”
That is not so bad, I imagine some readers are now thinking. Horror films are more or less legitimate these days. “Scream” and what have you. A little five minutes ago, but cool. Let us get this over with. The following music has been in my own private heavy rotation for as long as my memory reaches back: Anthrax’s “Among the Living,” S.O.D.’s “Speak English or Die,” Slayer’s “Reign in Blood,” Megadeth’s “Peace Sells … But Who’s Buying?” My “Nevermind” is Metallica’s “Ride the Lightning.” This species of music — sometimes called thrash metal, sometimes speed metal, usually obsessed with death and the occult — is regarded by most musically literate people as the aural equivalent of smallpox. Speed metal is transubstantiated human aggression played on three chords at 4,000 miles an hour by young men whose thoughts on every topic more or less provide the informal definition of “retarded.” Indeed, it is no surprise that scarier forms of speed metal dive ideologically headfirst into neo-fascism and white supremacy. Even Metallica’s “Master of Puppets,” commonly regarded as the “Eroica” of speed metal, sounds like what the Nazis would have blasted while invading Poland.
I do not know when or why I began to love speed metal. I just do. On top of that, I have never, to the best of my knowledge, heard a song by the Replacements or Hüsker Dü. The musical question that most bedevils me is not when R.E.M. or U2 or anyone else began to suck/got really good but rather that of why everything Metallica recorded after “… And Justice for All” is so tragically, inexplicably awful? It probably goes without saying that I sported a mullet well into the 1990s.
I consider myself, in most ways, deeply fortunate to count as friends so many literate, intelligent men and women. Except when it comes to talking about music and film. Just about all of my friends regard my love of heavy metal and horror films with a tolerant frustration that leaves me feeling a bit like I should be living under a bridge and tormenting passing goats. When one friend of mine, a book editor, told me with excitement he was editing the memoir of one Shane McGowan, I nodded with what I hoped was appropriate wonder.
He regarded me with sudden scrutiny. “You have no idea who Shane McGowan is, do you?” Sure, I said. “Who is he?” You know, I said. “The lead singer of the Pogues?” Right, I said. He sighed. “I forgot. Your taste in music sucks.”
I reject this judgment on numerous grounds. First, while I do not usually quote Nora Ephron movies, I accept as true what Carrie Fisher’s character says in “When Harry Met Sally …”: “Everybody thinks they have good taste and a sense of humor, but they couldn’t possibly all have good taste.” But I do not actually regard any of the above as representative of bad taste — that is, when it comes to my taste. My pleas for egalitarianism go strangely quiet if I happen to be out with a young woman who tells me she loves John Grisham (“Check, please”) or Nicholas Sparks (“Check, please”) or Nora Roberts (“CHECK!”). Walking through an airport and having a peep at what average Americans are reading feels like some massive Tet offensive upon my entire sensibility.
Elitism was invented to make the world safe for creative excellence. I believe that, and feel safe within my book snobbery because reading is hardly a way to score social touchdowns. Elitism becomes misguided when it is used for wormy self-congratulation. Take Indie Rock Snobs. (Please.) No tribe this side of the Hindu Kush is more dismissive than these people — which makes the preponderance of Indie Rock Snobs in my life so finally exhausting. To be in one’s late 20s in a Really Big City is basically to surround oneself with such creatures. Dating, especially, becomes a kind of elaborate mental origami in which one folds oneself up in order to hide one’s ignorance and protect one’s attachments:
“Did you hear the Breeders are getting back together?”
“What’s your favorite Bikini Kill album?”
“Gosh. They’re all so good.”
It’s a conundrum as old as fossil fuel: In exchange for an initial connection, you leave out everything about yourself you fear may put that connection at risk. All you have done, of course, is guarantee that the eventual disclosure of your true predilections will be that much more damaging.
But how much worse to actually have to listen to indie rock! Many times I have been at a party — the guests nicely turned out, everyone masking wine-and-Brie breath with Certs and beer, a light cirrostratus of cannabis smoke hanging in the air — when, suddenly, things simply move past the possibilities of jazz or the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack and someone throws on an Air or Guided by Voices album. I try to like this music. I do. I even own some of it. It sits there in my CD collection like the young-adult equivalent of those never-read National Geographics my parents used to put out on the coffee table. Part of me wants to — and sometimes even does — canvas the room: Do you really like this stuff? Really? Then why don’t I?
“Well what do you listen to?” some woman (it is always a woman) will say.
Do I tell her? Sometimes, yes, I do — and then cry out: “I am not an animal! I am a speed metal fan!”
Of course I am not a total cretin, musically. I hold the uncontroversial opinion that the Beatles are the greatest group of all time period forever, and a long relationship with a violinist gradually led to an appreciation of music written centuries before the invention of the whammy bar. I am definitely a “Classical Thunder” sort of fellow, however. Mozart, no matter how colossal his genius, moves me about as much as Steve Winwood. The more bombastic the better: Mussorgsky, Wagner, Holst and Beethoven at their most relentless. I once tried to impress a knowledgeable, classical-music-loving friend by telling him that my favorite “symphonic work” was Ottorino Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome.”
“Moronic schlock,” he replied, giving me the faint comfort that even when I attempt to be tasteful I am most attracted to the stuff that leads actual connoisseurs to pinch shut their noses.
Movies are on one hand a far simpler matter and on the other much, much more complicated. They are simpler because I like and admire plenty of movies commonly accepted as good. They are more complicated because of what the films you like reveal about you. If you tell someone you are digging an old Cannibal Corpse or Flotsam and Jetsam album, she is likely to laugh, but if you tell someone one of your favorite films is “The Hills Have Eyes,” she is likely to file a restraining order. No matter how many foreign films I see at the Angelika, no matter how many documentaries I quite happily rent, I am forced to admit that no films engage me more than those that feature brain-eating zombies and indestructible, teenager-slashing killers. In other words, “Citizen Kane” is an amazingly innovative film and well worth repeated viewing, but it would have been a lot better with a few sequences featuring half-naked women being chased through a forest by C.H.U.D.
The zombie/slasher theme is important, for I find “horror” films such as “The Exorcist” or, Satan preserve us, “The Sixth Sense” laughably obtuse in “scare” terms. Neither demonic possession nor ghosts frighten me because demons and ghosts do not exist. Faceless men wearing fright masks and wielding weaponized ski poles and lawnmower blades might not literally exist, but they certainly could. Brain-eating zombies are frightening because dead bodies and, more to the point, death itself is the single most terrifying subject matter we have.
This love of horror films has stranded me in some discomforting social terrain. I am, for whatever reason, powerless to say anything other than exactly what I am thinking while within 30 feet of a movie theater. I have no idea how many first dates have become only dates when I looked up at the illuminated white marquee and said, “‘Jeepers Creepers’ looks pretty good,” or “How about ‘Urban Legends: The Final Cut’?” I imagine the number is not small. My appreciation for these films, I have found, affects young urban women quite a bit differently than my love of speed metal, which is mostly regarded as mysterious and pathetic. Slasher films make them angry — or rather Angry, the rehearsal-honed and indoctrinated rage in which innumerable cultural grudges eddy and swirl. I have been called by these young urban women a misogynist and childish and sick. I have been looked upon with saddened, surprised eyes and been told, “But I thought you were –”
“I know,” I have said in return. “I know.” I try to tell them that I really am a peaceable sort. That cruelty in every form appalls me. That horror films — the best ones, at least — are always about something else. The fraudulent safety of the suburbs, for instance, or the savagery animating high-school popularity. I try to explain that “I Spit on Your Grave,” the notorious, notoriously graphic 1978 gang-rape film starring Buster Keaton’s granddaughter, actually has quite a lot happening in it, morally. I try to steer them toward Duke University professor Carol J. Clover’s seminal “Men, Women and Chainsaws,” still the best thing ever written about horror films, which advances the claim that by compelling male viewers into positions of primeval empathy with the final, prototypical “survivor” figure in horror films, almost always a young woman, they actually force the issue of transgender identification far more than any Alice Walker novel.
No one listens, of course. The young women walk away, my friends just shake their heads, and I wonder if perhaps my “bad taste” is just a reaction to something I either cannot or am unwilling to pin down. I am from a small town in the rural Midwest, twice removed from the coastal megalopolis dream machines that whip-spin culture across the North American landmass. It could be that my love of peerless literature was forged due to a desire to remove myself from what I thought to be the unliterary environment in which I grew up, and my love of horror films and speed metal, which intensified in my early 20s, after I’d moved to New York, is related to a similarly reactive inclination. Which would of course make my motives as repulsive as those of the Indie Rock Snobs I loathe.
It has also left me, at least culturally, very lonely. I attend movies alone, play my music low, step away from nonbook conversations, and generally cherish the objects of my blockheaded love in holy privacy. Some time ago, near the end of a mostly inconclusive date, the young woman accompanying me pulled me into a bar and planted me on a stool, claiming the joint had a great jukebox. She was beautiful and hip-seeming, and so I sat there with a face-lift-taut smile, watching her make her selections, anticipating a doleful blast of the Cure or God knows what else.
As she walked back over to me, however, what filled the bar’s Monday-night emptiness but the feedback guitar pluck (lifted from the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine”) of Def Leppard’s “Photograph”? The lovely young woman apologetically bared her teeth, not quite smiling. “I love Def Leppard,” she said with a testing uncertainty I knew all too well. Of that night I was and remain certain of one thing. This was love.
Tom Bissell spent five months living in Vietnam in 2004. "The Father of All Things," an account of his first journey to Vietnam with his father, a veteran of the Vietnam War, will be published by Pantheon early next year. A portion of the book recently appeared in "Best American Travel Writing 2005."More Tom Bissell.
Talking Heads, 1977
This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”
Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.
This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”
No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.
Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.
This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.
Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.
“The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.
Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.
Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.
Dictators, Bowery 1976
Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.
Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!
Bowery view, 1977
The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.
Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.
Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.
Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”
Legs McNeil, 1977
Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.
Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.
Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.
Tommy Ramone, 1977
Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.
Bowery 4am, 1977
End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.