“So you wanna be a rock and roll star…buy an electric guitar and learn how to play” Too much work for me. Plus, I’m not sure I could handle the whole male groupie thing; it could get tiring after a while. After all my time and money invested in records and CDs, my fate as a rock and roll fan/geek is pretty much sealed by now. Patti Smith can breathe a sigh of relief.
The allure of haunting the ‘hoods of my musical heroes remains. They span the continent, but New York, like it or not, shines the brightest right now spawning the likes of The Strokes and Interpol – darlings of the critical set. Trends come and go, but Lady Liberty always has something up her sleeve. Rock fans know this, of course, but where does one start? There’s a reason why it’s called the Big Apple.
Good walking shoes and street savvy will take you anywhere you want to go safely. New York isn’t that scary when you use common sense. Accommodation can be cheap, clean, and safe at the YMCA . I stayed at the West Side YMCA (5 63rd Street), steps away from Central Park and only a couple blocks from the Columbus Circle subway stop.
The subway is the best way for getting around town and the best bet for a stay of four days or more is the Metro card. For less than $20 (USD), it gets you on all buses and subways. I would have given my right arm for a “You are here” X to put on the subway map, but that’s part of the charm. You must walk around and pay attention. Don’t be shy – New Yorkers read the map, too. If you’re as lucky as I, you and your fellow passengers will be serenaded by a talented violin playing homeboy. Who needs the Lincoln Center?
Walking is the second best way for gawking at Gotham. Serendipity guided me to a lot of places of rock interest. Starting in my own “neighbourhood”, I explored Central Park. A quick stroll away was Strawberry Fields, the section of the acreage Yoko Ono dedicated to John Lennon’s memory. The tasteful garden orbits the “Imagine” mosaic on the ground. You won’t miss it as there’s always someone taking snapshots. The couple liked to stroll in this area of the park, which is close to the Dakota (W. 72nd Street). As you recall, this was where Lennon was shot and where Ono still resides. Fans discreetly take photos and pay quiet homage in front of this gorgeous building.
Pop music, that yummy sticky confection, got its birth in Tin Pan Alley. This was the area responsible for Gershwin, Hammerstein, and other show tune greats. None were axemen, but the Brill Building should be considered among the Holy Temples of rock music. Located at 1619 Broadway, the unassuming office building housed legendary songwriting teams like Gerry Goffin and Carole King (“Chains”); Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (“Walking In The Rain”); and Leiber and Stoller (“Jailhouse Rock”). Without these talented folks, there may not have been Elvis, The Beatles, or The Ramones. Trust me - it’s all right there in the liner notes.
Right next door to the Brill Building is the Colony Music Centre housing what appears to be the most comprehensive inventory of Broadway sheet music anywhere. The store set up shop in 1948 on 52nd Street, which at the time was known as Swing Street. Squeeze through the narrow aisles and you’ll find Beatles and other rock memorabilia locked behind glass cases. Look up and you’ll see the signed guitars of many of the genres’ greats. The store itself has an interesting vibe. As I discreetly wandered around, earnest theatrical hopefuls fingered the sheets looking for that key piece of music that would give them the elusive break - if you can make it here, indeed.
The Chelsea Hotel at 222 W. 23rd Street remains an authentic bohemian mecca worthy of visiting regardless of any rock notoriety. Sid and Nancy didn’t exactly camp out for the cheap rates. Their checking out was a bit unorthodox, but that’s rock and roll. The gorgeous façade merely hints at the eclectic lobby. Art work from the landmark’s various residents welcome you. It’s the sort of place where you’ll hear muted yet animated discussion on Kant rather than Cats.
Greenwich Village is crammed with cramped, dusty record shops. Since New York is the birth place for so many rock legends, first issues, rare 7-inches, and hard to find pressings grace the walls and bins of many stores. Highlights include Bleeker Street Records (239 Bleeker), Rockit Science, and Underground Records. You’ll pick your pocket clean of green in St. Mark’s Sounds (20 St. Mark’s Place) and Other Music (15 E. 4th St.). Joke all you want – you really are six degrees separated from Lou Reed and regrettably, a few more degrees from Joey Ramone. Dollar for dollar, prices match those in Toronto and more for collectibles. And remember, you’re in New York, so stay away from the ubiquitous chain stores.
The East Village, as it is now known, is undergoing a renaissance. For good or ill, gentrification has hit bringing moneyed tenants and tourists. While this is good for business, the history gets façade-ed away. Bobby Pinn (AKA: Ron Colinear) runs Rock Junket, “NYC’s original rock and roll walking tour”. For $20 (USD) and two hours, he regales you with tales of legendary rock clubs, the last known residence of rocking residents, and trivia only a geek could love! Originally from Pennsylvania, Pinn followed his rock muse to the Big Apple, “I wasn’t going to see Keith Richards walking the streets of Philly!” The next thirteen years he lived the rock and roll life working for various large and small record companies. The East Village brims with history right before your eyes, you just wouldn’t know if Pinn didn’t point it out. The sites range from Joey Ramone’s last residence, St Mark’ Place; the site of the Fillmore East; the building used for Led Zeppelin’s album Physical Graffiti; Charlie Parker’s home, Gem Spa, where the New York Doll’s shot their first album cover; and Madonna’s first New York apartment. Pinn also points out the cool place to shop for clothes, music, food, and beer. Where rock history spreads across Manhattan, Rock Junket follows with tours planned for the West Village, Central Park, Harlem, and Union Square.
The punk rock pilgrimage must be made to CBGBs (315 Bowery). The venue is divided in two – the club and the gallery. At CB Gallery, you can down cold brew (I recommend Original Sin Cider) and purchase various t-shirts, stickers, and underwear. My acquisition of the LP sized messenger bag was my best ever purchase. At the bar next door, however, is where the real magic happens. The shadows mask the seedy nature of the club. Stickers and posters plaster the latest gigs all over the walls. Cracks inch across the vinyl seats. The band that blasted through the speakers that night hailed from Russia and received polite applause from the thin Sunday crowd. I expected no less, frankly. When the house lights went up, I quickly made my way to the stage. As I snapped away frames of film, I watched while these guys packed away like every rock band in the history of the club. The New York Dolls, the Voidoids, Blondie – before the fame when they had to tear down their own drums, talk to the sweaty fans, and drink the cheap beer. The lack of official memorial is memorial in itself - the continuance of young punk rock hopefuls.
The good, bad, ugly, and just plain weird in rock music has always been captured best on record – be it tape, vinyl or CD. Don’t believe me? Check out the WFMU Record Fair, but make a trip to the ATM first – despite what you see, they don’t take plastic. Running for about X years, the fair is one of a few fundraising endeavors for WFMU FM. Broadcasting from Jersey City, NJ, the freeform radio station supports itself solely on listener donations. Each year, it holds an on-air funding drive that brings in a bulk of their operating budget. In May and November, WFMU hosts a record fair that has become the largest of its kind on the East Coast, if not North America. Music and program director, Brian Turner says the event attracts vendors from around world. Collectors pay $20 for a weekend long pass or $5/day. Started in the basement of a church, the three day sale has grown to fill the Metropolitan Pavilion (125 W. 18th Street) and attracts about 2,000 people. Although vinyl doesn’t travel well by plane, my discipline wavered when I picked up some novel “gotta haves” – 60s Montreal’s psyche-punk band, The Haunted‘s LP I’m Just Gonna Blow My Little Mind to Bits, a 1956 release called Music to Break a Lease, and Katie Lee’s Songs of Couch and Consultation featuring such hits as “Shrinker Man”, “Repressed Hostility Blues”, and “Stay as Sick as You Are”. Original hits by the original stars, indeed!
After blowing the wad on music, cheap food is next on the list. And, like music, this is New York so steer clear of the Mc-chains; there’s tons of local eateries downtown. Gray’s Papaya (W. 8th St. and 6th Ave.) does franks, only franks and is a great deal. For $2.45 (USD), they serve up two dogs and papaya juice – a match made in heaven and the sweetest dog you’ll ever meet. When wandering through Greenwich Village, set your shopping down for tasty and filling Mexican at Flying Burritos (165 W. 4th St.). I enjoyed the vegetarian Sol Burrito with a frozen margarita. Great punk atmosphere and, in keeping with that ethos, they only take cash.
The clock ticks to 9 pm, you’re fed and watered and ready for live music. Pick up the Village Voice and prepare to be overwhelmed! In the summer free music abounds in festivals hosted at Central Park and South Street Seaport . Bands generally play multiple nights at multiple clubs in the area; notables are Bowery Ballroom, Mercury Lounge, CBGB’s, Continental, and The Rodeo Bar. Word of advice – get your tickets early as bigger name acts sell out fast regardless of how often they play. Checking Pollstar's New York City listing and buying your tickets on line or over the phone are your best bets. Having friends in town is another!
You many not run into Keith Richards, but veteran punk Richard Hell still walks the streets. Indeed, this is why John Lennon chose to settle here. New York’s electricity runs through your veins and keeps you completely aware. The ordinariness of its status makes your head swim. Like a narcotic, you simply need more of the experience.