In the early Sixties, Bob Dylan emerged from New York's folk scene and redefined rock & roll. But by 1967, Dylan had moved upstate to Woodstock, and no other iconic figure had risen to take his place. New York found itself in the uncharacteristic position of not being the epicenter of cultural change. Developments in San Francisco were viewed, as ever, with suspicion. Still, the city was one of the cauldrons of the profound change sweeping America at that time. "It was a period when a lot of 'new' took place," says Bob Neuwirth, a musician, painter and filmmaker, as well as a close associate of Dylan's during that time. "Painting changed. Folk music changed. Rock & roll changed. It was a typical New York cultural shifting of the ground beneath you."
If New York did not have as well-defined a scene as Summer of Love hot spots such as San Francisco and London, it had a great deal more going for it. One factor was the avant-garde movement that centered on Andy Warhol and his studio, the Factory. Warhol became a vortex around which hustlers, glamorous society girls and artistic subversives like the Velvet Underground all spun. A conceptual genius. Warhol saw the Velvets as the musical expression of his own desire to blur all distinctions between fine art and commercialism, between the coarsest source material and high artistic achievement. Warhol produced The Velvet Underground & Nico, which came out in March 1967 and provided a dark counterpoint to the wide-eyed utopiantsm of the Summer of Love. Even its cover — a Warhol-designed peeloff banana skin with a phallic pink banana underneath — was a swipe at hippie softheadedness: a parody of the recent fad of smoking banana peels to get high.
The Velvets' music, however, was dead earnest — stark portrayals of the junkies, sexual adventurers and slumming socialites who populated the New York demimonde in which the band moved. The Velvets' shows, as part of the performance-art circus Warhol called the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, were roaring sonic assaults aided by band associate Gerard Malanga, who brandished a whip onstage, and the grainy vérité films by Warhol and director Paul Morrissey that were projected onto the group and its audience. "Andy pulled me aside and said. 'Whatever you do, don't let people clean it up. Don't change the lyrics. Keep it exactly as it sounds — raw,'" Lou Reed recalls about Warhol's role in producing those groundbreaking songs. "We'd be recording live, and he would sit there. The engineer would say, 'We want to change . . . ' and Andy would say, 'Oh, no, it's great.' And because he was Andy Warhol, it stayed that way."
The Velvets' John Cale respected Sgt. Pepper as "a theatrical statement," but had no use for Haight-Ashbury. "We were pretty much appalled by what was going on on the West Coast," he says. "The hippie scene was not for us. They were scruffy, dirty people." The feeling was mutual. When the Velvets played the Fillmore in San Francisco, their performance inspired a passionate denunciation in The San Francisco Chronicle by critic Ralph J. Gleason (who would co-found Rolling Stone). The Velvets and their cohorts, Gleason declared, were "all very campy and very Greenwich Village sick."
But New York had its share of utopian-minded Bohemians and artists. Just as in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, young people fleeing their families and the straight life flocked to the area formerly known as the Lower East Side and dubbed it the East Village due to its proximity to Greenwich Village. "On the Lower East Side, rents were still very affordable," says poet, activist and songwriter Ed Sanders, who was in the anarchic folk-rock band the Fugs. "An apartment that would cost half a million dollars now, you could rent for thirty or forty dollars a month. Because all these kids were arriving from all over America, this interconnected set of communal apartments sprang up." Sanders — who had been on the cover of Life magazine in February as a symbol of the country's emerging new youth subculture ("Right around February, the pejorative changed from 'dirty beatnik' to 'dirty hippie,'" he says) — ran the Peace Eye Bookstore on Avenue A, which became a crash pad. "I used to call it 'Mattress Meadow,' it was so full of people," says Sanders, who eventually had to throw the freeloaders out when his landlord discovered they were giving tightrope-walking lessons in the backyard. "I didn't really know who they were. One of the rules was that nobody had a past, and nobody pried. They lived by this Zen idea — 'Be here now' — that the Beats taught, and it changed the neighborhood drastically."
New York felt like a much smaller town then. Outside the Wall Street and midtown business districts, buildings were human-scale. It was a city that was not exclusively for the rich. The World Trade Center did not. exist. So Ho was an industrial zone that became an artists' haven as manufacturing companies left the city. Large, cheap — and illegal — sublets attracted the likes of singer-songwriter Eric Andersen, who, at twenty-four, was a veteran of the city's folk scene. "I had a loft on Spring Street, with a greasy spoon below that I think is a Prada store now," Andersen says. "Jackie Kennedy popped by to visit the printing factory upstairs that did art books. And this friend of William Burroughs lived on the top floor. He played sax, so he'd go up on the roof, and you'd hear this beautiful sax-playing at night."
Such lyricism was easier to find in the city then, and people came to New York to dream. "When you wander around an empty city at night, it looks like everything is possible," says Bob Pass, who was — and still is — a radio host at WBAI, a local progressive listener-supported station. "It's the overwhelming, frightened crowd that you have to walk among during the day that makes everything seem locked up."
Fass' free-form, midnight-to-5 A.M. show, Radio Unnameable, became a must-stop for guests who included Dylan, Abbie Hoffman, Arlo Guthrie and Phil Ochs. Pass brought a playful social consciousness to New York's political scene. He used his show to help organize the city's Easter Sunday Be-In in March 1967, an event in Central Park attended by 10,000 celebrants. Pass would improvise and encourage his listeners to gather at midnight at JFK Airport for an impromptu Fly-In (3,000 people showed up on one of the year's coldest nights).
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