This is a history of music to be found in basements, backrooms, and sites no longer existent.
The Downtown Scene
Music is inescapable in this city.
Every day, music can be heard out in the streets, in the parks, or in the subway stations. It can be that guy playing the piano by the Arch, or the eclectic performers down in Union Square station. Whether we take notice of it or not, it surrounds us. Yet, what also makes New York so captivating is the way that the music of the past continues to breathe through the city streets. At once, this music is both invisible and very much present. Today, it is hard to ignore the once vibrant folk scene that took place in Greenwich Village, or the legacy of punk to be found in the Lower East Side. Through cafés, backrooms, and clubs, this music becomes anchored into the city and its history.
Before arriving at NYU, I was (and continue to be) obsessed with the musical histories of my favorite artists. I’d read biographies on The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Smiths, and others endlessly. Through these readings I would discover different worlds that would become embedded in the music. Through the Velvet Underground, I would read about Andy Warhol and the strangeness of his Factory with its plethora of unique figures. From Patti Smith’s writings, I read about the madness of the ’70s in places like Max’s Kansas City and CBGB. Within these kinds of texts, there would be descriptions of sites like Café Society, Café Wha?, and the Village Vanguard that would become imbued with magic in my head. Together, these disparate worlds painted my vision of New York City as a kaleidoscopic landscape of music. To me, this is a city with a special kind of energy that bleeds into its artists, feeding into the music they created.
You can explore the city and its music through this story map.
Walking around the city, one can be oblivious to the histories to be found in various spaces and buildings. This is a city that continuously builds upon its past and its history. Many of the sites I learned about in books do not exist anymore in the physical sense, but neither do the musical scenes that developed within them. You could be eating in the deli where Max’s Kansas City used to be, and not even know that this was where Warhol and the glam crowd hung out. You could be shopping in the John Varvatos on the Bowery and not even notice that it used to be CBGB.
Yet, there is excitement in realizing that where you stand was once a hotbed of artistic activity. Thinking about the space that was Café Society, I try to think about the power in Billie Holiday’s performances of “Strange Fruit,” and the way that the club’s owner, Barney Josephson, made sure the whole room was quiet so as to give their undivided attention. All you can do is reconstruct these scenes, and imagine the luminous figures that walked these sidewalks and filled the cafés and clubs.
It isn’t lost on me that these things are still going on. Scenes are still developing throughout the city. There will always be music that grows in another space that will become significant in its own right. This isn’t a longing for a past. It is just me trying to fill in the images I have created in my head about New York. These are places in which sounds lived, even if momentarily. Places that fostered musical legacies which have outlasted their physicality, living on through other means. However, it will always be awe-inspiring to think that just a few blocks down the road, Bob Dylan began his career singing on some small stage in a café. These are the kinds of ghosts that linger throughout this city making their presence felt despite their invisibility. This is a history of music to be found in basements, backrooms, and sites no longer existent.
Below is a playlist of music I think represents these places. Take it as a musical guide to the sounds that shaped the downtown scenes of the past. Listen as you visit these sites and try to reconstruct them for yourself. Better yet, create your own and make a personal journey across a musical landscape that occupies your imagination.
“Cafe Wha? History.” CafeWha.com. Accessed April 2018. http://cafewha.com/About.
“CBGB: The Unique History.” CBGB.com. Accessed April 2018. http://www.cbgb.com/about.
Egan, Bob. “Gerde’s Folk City – PopSpots.” PopSpotsNYC.com. Accessed April 2018. http://www.popspotsnyc.com/gerdes_folk_city/.
Josephson, Barney and Terry Trilling-Josephson. Cafe Society: The wrong place for the Right people. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2009.
“Max’s Kansas City: Where Fashion, Art, and Music Came Together.” MaxsKansasCity.com. Accessed April 2018. http://classic.maxskansascity.com/index2.php.
Singer, Roberta. “The Village Vanguard.” Hidden New York: A Guide to Places that Matter. Edited by Marci Reaven and Steven Zeitlin. New Brunswick: Rivergate Books, 2006. 184-195.
“Village Vanguard: History.” VillageVanguard.com. Accessed April 2018. https://www.villagevanguard.com/history.