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.”
Boogeymen are everywhere these days, if you believe the conservatives’ Perpetual Paranoia Machine. A few years ago, WorldNetDaily and the American Family Association warned that Barney the Dinosaur was trying to “surreptitiously indoctrinate young children into [homosexuals'] lifestyle.” Then, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly warned that “secular progressives” were waging a “War on Christmas” and pressing the “legalization of narcotics, euthanasia, abortion at will [and] gay marriage.” Now, schools are busy banning books for their “filthy” messages, while Fox and Friends warns that SpongeBob is leading a sinister plot to convert kids to Al Gore’s eco-crusade.
Welcome to America at the edge of insanity, where even the most innocuous items are now considered diabolical threats to the culture.
Exceptions like “Slaughterhouse Five” aside, the products that generate the most manufactured outrage and hysteria today tend to be new — puppets, celebrities’ vanity tomes, cartoons and other detritus in our cultural waste dump. However, it stands to reason that if the same Perpetual Paranoia Machine applied its standards of manufactured outrage across the board, it would end up targeting many of the most long-standing “American” symbols for elimination.
Pondering which of those symbols is an important thought experiment — it locates our relative position on the psychological map, telling us just how extreme our sociopathy is at this moment of chaos. So without further ado, here are the top 10 most universally “American” symbols that would be labeled as seditious, unpatriotic anti-American agitprop if they had been first introduced today.
10. The Collected Works of Dr. Seuss
For most of the last half-century, being a kid meant reading and loving the collected works of Theodor Seuss Geisel — aka Dr. Seuss. Think back to your earliest years, and you are likely to recall Geisel’s legendary catalog. His works are as integral to American childhood as fireworks on July 4 — and thankfully, Geisel published his books before the advent of Fox News. For if this New Deal liberal had published them today, they would likely be burned in televised Tea Party rallies.
For example, 1957′s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” — which criticizes the commercialization of the holiday season — would be held up by Bill O’Reilly as an example of the vicious War on Christmas. Likewise, 1971′s “The Lorax,” which is a parable about the downsides of hyper-industrialization and environmental degradation, would be at least as viciously denigrated as Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth.” And had 1984′s “The Butter Battle Book” been introduced during the “War on Terror,” it would have gotten Dr. Seuss put on a no-fly list and labeled a seditious, al-Qaida-loving traitor.
9. The Golden Rule
Treat others as you would want them to treat you. This idea, which undergirds the concept of human rights, is as old as organized religion, and is a proud basis for America’s dominant Judeo-Christian traditions. In the Old Testament, scripture says to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” while New Testament says “Do to others as you would have them do to you” — and we teach this to kids at the earliest age.
But had someone published these words for the first time today, that person would seem like a radical left-wing ideologue. After all, America is a country whose definition of “class warfare” is making the rich pay the same tax rates as everyone else. It is a nation that gets angry at leaders who suggest redistributing some of the wealth.
In the context of that me-first-screw-everyone-else culture, and in the context of drone warfare, rendition, torture, warrantless wiretapping, Wall Street predation and budget cuts to social services, the Golden Rule would be vilified as a Marxist idiom — and its proponents would, at best, be depicted as coffeehouse communists who refuse to live in the real world. More likely, they’d be attacked as unpatriotically justifying blowback against the United States for our military actions across the world.
8. The South Carolina State Flag
Though you wouldn’t know it from the every-presidential-campaign-year brouhaha over the flying of the Confederate stars and bars, South Carolina’s state flag happens to be a crescent moon flying over a palm tree. This design is rooted in pure, chest-thumpingly proud Americana, having something to do with the Revolutionary War, the Stamp Act and a military official named William Moultrie. But had it been a new design proposed today, South Carolina would likely be accused by conservatives of trying to create a terrorist cell in the heart of Dixie.
Take a look at South Carolina’s flag next to, say, Saudi Arabian iconography and you see that it’s a flag that could easily double up as the national symbol of an Islamic country in a Middle Eastern desert. The crescent moon, of course, is an Islamic symbol already featured on many Muslim nations’ flags, and the palm tree has long been a symbol of an oasis in a Sahara-like desert.
No doubt, South Carolinians would vehemently deny the charge that its flag suggests any kind of tolerance for Muslims. This is a state that seems totally psyched about its long heritage of bigotry — a state that continues to fly symbols of slavery on its public grounds. But there’s little doubt that outfits like WorldNetDaily would make the same Islamophobic claims about the South Carolina flag that it’s made about other public symbols.
7. The Statue of Liberty
As any elementary school trip to New York City teaches, the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of warmly welcoming the world’s refugees to America. Indeed, Lady Liberty is so synonymous with a pro-immigration stand, she is the home of a famous plaque memorializing the 1883 poem, “The New Colossus,” which says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Yet, had this statue been first erected today with the same message, it would generate an orgiastic anti-immigrant protest that would make last year’s Park51 pandemonium look tame. With talk of building walls at the border and with mass deportations of undocumented workers on the rise, this age of xenophobia would have zero tolerance for any kind of state-sanctioned sculpture enthusiastically welcoming the world’s “wretched refuse” and “the homeless, tempest-tost.”
6. Labor Day
Try to imagine an America without Labor Day. Then, try to imagine a modern-day president of the United States signing a bill creating a national holiday to honor unions — and try to imagine that bill being seen as a necessary election-year compromise.
Most likely, you can’t imagine this, even though this is exactly what happened in 1894 when President Grover Cleveland signed such a measure as a peace offering after he deployed federal troops to violently crush the Pullman strikes. You can’t imagine this, because a president today wouldn’t merely be lambasted for considering such a national holiday — he’d probably be impeached for treason in a nation that now euphorically celebrates ever more vicious attacks on organized labor and makes political folk heroes out of union-busting governors.
Labor Day today, of course, involves national festivities that (outside of the day’s union events) all but avoid mentioning organized labor. If the holiday is celebrated at all, it is celebrated as the last gasp of summer fun — and nothing more. But the history of the holiday, though buried and willfully ignored, reminds us of just how impossible it would be to legislate such a quintessentially American day in the 21st century.
5. “This Land Is My Land” and “We Are the World”
Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” is one of those iconic summer camp jingles regularly bellowed out by kids roasting marshmallows around the fire. It teaches children those universal lessons about sharing and inclusion. Which is why it would be excoriated as a subliminal plot against capitalism had it first come out today.
Think about it: Had Guthrie first released his ditty in 2011, rather than in 1945, it would surely become the top target of the arch-conservative private-property-rights movement in America. Guthrie would be promptly accused of being a land “redistributionist” looking to wage a Marxist holy war on the very concept of ownership. The protest signs at his record label’s offices — which would inevitably become bumper stickers — would be red-white-and-blue-themed placards, reading: “This Land is My Land, NOT Your Land.”
4. Bert and Ernie
America has never been a particularly gay-friendly nation, so it’s a miracle that Bert and Ernie were ever allowed on television in the first place. But they’ve been there consistently since 1969.
And yet, had the Children’s Television Workshop waited a few years more to introduce the pair to America’s kids, they probably would have faced a much more hostile reception. Modern-day America is a nation whose leading right-wing Christian groups now insist that anti-bullying laws promote homosexuality among children. Can you imagine what that same right-wing Christian movement would do to a child-focused puppet show about two adult men cohabiting in the same bedroom? Of course, Bert and Ernie are clearly depicted as sleeping in separate beds (and, let’s face it, they’re puppets who, as the show’s creators themselves have pointed out, are about as asexual as you can get), but that would hardly tamp down the anti-gay hysteria.
3. The Weekend
The epic struggle for a 40-hour work week in America culminated in the late 1930s with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Effectively, this legislatively cemented the contemporary concept known as the American Weekend.
Today, though, such a law probably could never be passed. With corporations dominating our politics so completely, and with the United States now in a race-to-the-bottom competition with slave-labor countries, the notion of a weekend — had it not already existed — would likely be cited by lobbyists and by Rupert Murdoch’s attack machine as yet another ultraliberal scheme to help lazy layabout workers live a life of undue luxury. Just as the indigent have been criticized as “welfare queens,” so too would proponents of two-days-a-week of off-time be hammered as “weekend queens.”
2. The First Amendment
The constitutional right to freely express one’s opinion and to freely worship one’s own religion — our First Amendment distinguishes our founding Constitution from so many other nations’. But had we not been lucky enough to get it on the books back in the 18th century, it’s hard to imagine it being legislated into law today.
During the so-called War on Terror, we’ve seen citizens arrested and jailed for daring to stage public protests, media-backed mobs try to prevent Islamic cultural centers from being erected, presidential candidates insist that communities can outlaw places of worship, and a president target an American citizen for assassination (without charge) for the “crime” of speech. Likewise, as corporate media conglomerates have risen to prominence, we’ve seen political messages censored off the publicly owned airwaves.
In this cauldron, had a group of legislators proposed a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a right to freedom of speech and freedom of religion where one did not yet exist, those same forces would undoubtedly align those lawmakers, accusing them of making common cause with terrorists.
1. The Holy Bible
Often touted as the catechism for right-wing religious politics, the Holy Bible is the ultimate American bestseller, appearing everywhere in our country. It’s in our churches, our bookstores, our libraries and our motel desk drawers. But had the Good Book first been published today, it’s hard to imagine it not being the target of a censorship campaign by Fox News, which would bill it as a new and dangerous Communist Manifesto.
You see, when you actually read the Bible (rather than making selective political reference to it as so many often do), you find that it is filled with passages echoing progressive liberation theology, from “the meek shall inherit the earth” to its diatribes against usury. Additionally, one of its central characters seems to have anti-capitalist tendencies. As reported by the Washington Post’s Gregory Paul:
Jesus is no free marketeer. Improving one’s earthly financial circumstances is not nearly as critical as preparing for the end times that will arrive at any minute. He does offer substantial encouragement for the poor, and warns the wealthy that they are in grave danger of blowing their prospects of reaching paradise, as per the metaphor of a rich person entering heaven being as difficult as a camel passing through the eye of the needle…
To understand just how non-capitalistic Christianity is supposed to be we turn to the first chapter after the gospels, Acts, which describes the events of the early church. Chapters 2 and 4 state that all “the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need … No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had … There were no needy persons among them. From time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.”
Now folks, that’s outright socialism of the type described millennia later by Marx — who likely got the general idea from the gospels.
Paul is exactly right — and only because the Bible is a few thousand years removed from its first publication run is it allowed to remain immune from the wrath of the Right Wing Hate Machine.
David Sirota is a senior writer for the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.More David Sirota.
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.