‘Love Goes To Buildings On Fire: Five Years in New York that Changed Music Forever,’ by Rolling Stone contributor Will Hermes and available today, chronicles the period between 1973-1978 during which punk, hip-hop, salsa and other revolutionary forms of popular music were born or reinvented. In this exclusive excerpt, Hermes tells the stories of three era-defining musical beginnings: the collaboration of punk pioneers Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell, the early days of the New York Dolls and the legacy of jazz legend Sonny Rollins.
Tom Miller was tripping his balls off on LSD in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware. The next thing he knew, a week later, he was in New York City, crashing in a crappy East Village apartment with his old friend Richard Meyers. They were both 19 years old.
They’d met at Sanford, a boarding school for ne’er-do-wells and other types near Wilmington. Meyers was raised in Lexington, Kentucky, a town shadowed by the Lexington Narcotics Farm rehab facility, where William Burroughs and Sonny Rollins, among many others, had taken the cure. At 15, Meyers stole and wrecked a car; he was suspended from school and wound up at Sanford, but didn’t last long there. By late ’66, he headed to New York City. He was besotted with Dylan Thomas, and intent on being a poet.
Miller stayed in touch and eventually followed. “Will be coming up Friday for good,” Miller wrote to him in the summer of ’68, scrawling on loose leaf paper in ballpoint ink. “Had first acid trip on last Friday. Fucked me up and I know I found out some shit about everything.” In the center of the page is a smiling cartoon figure caught in a whirlpool. Miller added that he’d probably be broke, and hoped Meyers and his girlfriend wouldn’t mind him being around. He signed the missive, “Love, Tommy Poop.”
Soon enough, Miller had a room at the seedy Village Hotel on Bleecker Street. He also saw himself as a poet. He and Meyers were now in thrall to the French Decadents, Baudelaire and Lautréamont, Rimbaud and Verlaine, Bréton and the Surrealists. Meyers was already self-publishing a tiny poetry magazine, Genesis: Grasp. The final issue, completed in 1971, featured a mysterious woman named Theresa Stern. Her poetry was actually the collaborative work of Meyers and Miller, her photo a composite of the two young men in drag. They liked the female alter ego, who Meyers imagined as a Hoboken hooke; a Stern chapbook called Wanna Go Out? followed.
They also adopted individual aliases – Tom Miller became Tom Verlaine, in honor of the poet; Richard Meyers became Richard Hell, in honor of the locale and Rimbaud’s Une Saison en Enfer. Having enjoyed collaborative poetry, they turned their attention to music. Verlaine, who studied classical music and played sax in high school, worshipped Albert Ayler and John Coltrane. He’d begun playing guitar, further inspired by Hendrix, the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s John McLaughlin, and the Grateful Dead’s improv epic “Dark Star.” Shortly after he’d arrived in New York, he picked up a Fender Jazzmaster for ninety-five dollars up on 48th Street, and eventually persuaded Hell to buy a Danelectro bass at a pawnshop on Third Avenue.
Hell, who’d never studied music, was a fan of the Stooges. The two shared a love of the Velvet Underground, for the tight, mid-’60s British Invasion rock of the Stones, the Beatles, the Yardbirds, and the Who; and for the gnarly mid-to late-’60s American garage rock of bands like the Seeds and the Standells. Their taste for the latter had been stoked recently. Verlaine bought a box of old singles from a Hare Krishna kid in Washington Square, and also picked up the double-LP anthology titled Nuggets, released in the fall of ’72. A hard-boiled mix of the familiar and the forgotten, it was compiled by a rock critic, musician, and record-store clerk named Lenny Kaye, who called the music “punk-rock” in the liner notes. Like Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music – also curated by an erudite, record-collecting New Yorker – it caught the ears of many musicians. It was a between-acts staple on the sound system at Max’s, where Hell and Verlaine would sometimes hang out, nursing drinks and rubbernecking, trying to make the scene.
Eventually they formed a trio called the Neon Boys with their old pal Billy Ficca, who came up from Delaware to join them in the fall of ’72. They tried to recruit a second guitarist the way all local bands did, through an ad in the Voice. Theirs read: “Narcissistic rhythm guitarist wanted—minimal talent okay.” A Brooklyn player, Chris Stein, tried out, but didn’t like the material; according to Verlaine, he thought it too fast and uncommercial. A Queens kid named Douglas Colvin auditioned, but was too inept.
The Neon Boys never found a second guitarist, but in April they decided to record some demos anyway, Hell playing bass and Verlaine playing both lead and rhythm. The six songs, including Hell’s “Love Comes in Spurts” and Verlaine’s “Hot Dog,” were harsh and high-strung, in the spirit of Nuggets. Demos cut, they disbanded. Verlaine knocked around as a solo act with his Jazzmaster. Hell went back to the life of a writer, as he imagined it, living in a girlfriend’s apartment overlooking the St. Mark’s Church cemetery, working in a $16-a-week furnished room on East Tenth Street, where he would set up every day with a bottle of cheap wine and unspool words until he’d filled one single-spaced page. Before the end of the year he’d finished a short novel of surreal, horny, grim metafiction involving two young men, Caspar Skull and Arthur Black, that bore some resemblance to Hell and Verlaine. He titled it The Voidoid.
Since last summer, the Mercer Arts Center, a theater complex at 240 Mercer Street, between Third and Bleecker, had become the New York Dolls’ live-performance home. It was started in 1970 by the theatrical producer and off-Broadway pioneer Gene Frankel, who set up shop on two floors of the crumbling Broadway Central Hotel building with his partner Seymour C. Kaback – an engineering consultant who was the silent partner in another multiroom venue around the corner on Bleecker Street, Art D’Lugoff’s Village Gate (where Bob Dylan wrote “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” in an apartment in the club’s basement). The Mercer was primarily a theater space. It made its mark in ’71 with a revival of the ’65 Broadway production of One Flew over the Cuckoo‘s Nest, a play whose theme of inmates taking over the asylum seemed fitting for the place. Another early hit was Tubstrip, which was advertised as a “new play with all male cast . . . better than a trip to the baths.”
The site itself had a storied past in the city’s arts world. In the fall of 1850, the opera singer Jenny Lind – “the Swedish Nightingale” – had a historic fifteen-show run, arranged by her manager, P. T. Barnum, at Tripler Hall in the Lafarge House Hotel, which occupied the same foot-print as the Mercer. In the 1860s it was the Winter Garden theater, hosting a legendary hundred-performance run of Hamlet with the renowned thespian Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth (whose assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 made Edwin’s life very difficult; he subsequently required a police escort to get through the hotel lobby to his dressing room so that he wouldn’t be assaulted).
The Winter Garden burned down in 1869, and the hotel expanded, eventually renaming itself the Broadway Central. It saw lots of action. The Wall Street shyster and playboy James Fisk was shot dead on the grand stairway in 1872 by a jealous suitor over the affections of a show-girl. In the Gay ’90s, Diamond Jim Brady partied hard in the hotel’s restaurants. A bit later, one of the hotel’s eateries – Trotsky’s Kosher Restaurant – was allegedly a fave of a Russian visitor of the same name, the gentleman known, pre-Revolution, as Lev Bronstein.
For their venue, Frankel and Kaback divided two floors in the Broadway Central (then functioning more or less as a welfare residence called the University Hotel) into seven small theaters. The Dolls usually played on the second floor in either the Oscar Wilde cabaret or – as they had for the New Year’s Eve gig – the slightly larger O’Casey, which had tiered seating for three hundred or so people. They’d grown a good-sized following, and word was out; at one show, as legend has it, the seventy-one-year-old actress Marlene Dietrich – a fan of drag balls back in Weimar-era Berlin – turned up with some friends one night to check them out.
But it had been a nightmarish few months for the Dolls. In November, their drummer, Billy Murcia, died during their debut British tour after mixing champagne and Mandrax (the British brand name for methaqualone, the popular sedative/aphrodisiac/date-rape drug sold in the United States as Quaalude). The “friends” who attempted to revive the unconscious Murcia – killing time between gigs without his band-mates – heaved him into a filled bathtub and poured black coffee down his throat, quite possibly drowning him, and proving once again that serious drug users should study basic EMS.
Murcia’s replacement, Jerry Nolan, joined the band just weeks before the New Year’s gig. He was a fairly seasoned musician – he played with Queen Elizabeth, among other local acts. But his debut with the Dolls, the early show at the Mercer on December 19th, was a debacle of missed cues. Doubly unfortunate, it was in front of a room full of bizzers looking to sign the band. “That night we blew it fucking big,” said Syl Sylvain. “Every major record company passed on us.”
At the late show, however, after Ahmet Ertegun and the other industry folks left, the band played an awesome set. “Dolls are the new Rolling Stones,” Patrick Carr typed breathlessly for his column in the Voice. “Dolls are the best New York City band in a decade.”
In the April 19th issue of The Village Voice, an item in the “Scenes” column noted that heroin, sniffed (“no needles, please”), was staging a comeback at parties in the Hollywood Hills, where people would “go downtown” with a snort, then “go uptown” with a wake-up toot of coke.
“You can bet that if it catches on out there,” it read, “it will sweep its way through New York press parties by mid-summer.”
The rioters at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in ’69 were, by and large, not closet cases; they were warriors, and drag queens like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. (for “Pay It No Mind”) Johnson were on the front line. Richard Hell remembered James “Sweet Evening Breeze” Herndon, the real-life cross-dresser immortalized in Carson McCullers’s Suttree, who cut a striking figure on the streets of Lexington. In Hell’s new home, Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis, and Holly Woodlawn – variously cast by Warhol in films such as Women in Revolt and Flesh – were celebrities. Queen Elizabeth’s front man-woman Wayne County was mixing drag with crude garage rock, and Reed appeared in full drag on the back cover of Transformer. Now the Dolls, who played their first proper show in a Times Square welfare hotel with Curtis as a support act, were ramping up their own cross-dressing. Boys with long hair were no longer shocking, at least in New York. But add lipstick, panty hose, and high heels . . . people noticed. What, after all, was more badass and transgressive than a New York tranny?
The Dolls were émigrés in Manhattan. Sylvain Mizrahi began his musical career playing a toy oud in Cairo. His father was a banker there until 1956, when the Suez Crisis made Egypt an impossible place to be Jewish. The family moved to France, then to Buffalo, New York, and wound up in Queens, where Mizrahi got kicked out of Newtown High School for, as he put it, “lookin’ like a fruitcake – because I was wearing bell-bottoms and had long hair.”
He and his Queens pal Billy Murcia soon formed the Pox (with the inevitable “Catch the Pox!” gig flyers), playing their first gig at Crawdaddy’s, a club in the West Fifties owned by the R&B legend Lloyd Price. The Pox played tough, hard rock á la the early Who. It wasn’t hippie music, but something newer and older, with a sensibility the Dolls would inherit.
But not for a few years. When the Pox failed to take off, Mizrahi and Murcia turned their attention to the schmata trade. With help from Billy’s Colombian mom, they set up a business – Truth and Soul Fashions – manufacturing trippy South American-style sweaters and tie-dyed bikinis upstate in Woodstock. They sold wholesale to various shops; one customer was a young designer named Betsey Johnson. In ’69, the men drove over to Bethel on the other side of the Catskill Mountains to sell their goods at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, which had been relocated out of town at the last minute. Restless hustlers, they soon pawned their designs to a large-scale manufacturer in Brooklyn, took the money to Europe, and blew it on hash, clothes, and musical gear.
Back home, they hooked up with the art school dropout Arthur Kane, a quiet, blond, extremely tall Irish kid from the Bronx, and Johnny Genzale, an Italian baseball obsessive and sartorial cockatoo from Queens who, like Mizrahi, had been kicked out of Newtown High School. The lead singer, David Johansen, was a troublemaker from Staten Island who had gotten expelled from Catholic school. “They just realized I was not the right person for them,” he told me decades later in a café on Twentieth Street, exploding in a phlegmy laugh. “Because they couldn’t break my spirit. They don’t try to break everyone’s spirit – only the people with spirit.”
Johansen had been in San Francisco, mostly hanging around the Fillmore West; he worshipped Janis Joplin and pictured himself as her onstage, wailing hot-wired blues. When he wound up back home, he shifted his studies to the Fillmore East on Second Avenue, played with a few half-assed bands, got involved with the fringe theater scene. He hooked up with the Warhol actress Diane Poluski, a few years his senior, who introduced him to the inner circle at Max’s. After a visit to the band’s Upper West Side rehearsal space, located in the back of a bike shop, the twenty-one-year-old singer signed on.
The Dolls took their name from the New York Doll Hospital, a toy repair shop across the street from a midtown boutique Mizrahi had worked in. Ditching his last name, he became simply Sylvain Sylvain; Genzale became Johnny Thunders. The Dolls played dives, gobbled up drugs, and loved playing dress-up, their fashion sense inspired in equal parts by the Max’s drag queens and Detroit glam rockers like Alice Cooper and the Stooges, in stacked heels, blouses, and makeup. They played simultaneously brute and campy rock ‘n’ roll that owed plenty to those bands – Thunders spewing metallic riffs, alternately squealing and spitting power chords, over Johansen’s sashaying street-punk hollers.
“Personality Crisis” was their defining song, summing up a zeitgeist where who you were on the street, in the club, and in the bedroom was infinitely, confusingly mutable. “You’re a prima ballerina on a spring afternoon,” sang Johansen. “Change into the wolfman, you’re howlin’ at the moon—OWOOOOOOOOO!”
One of their earliest gigs was at the cowboy-themed bathhouse Man’s Country, located in the basement of 55 Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights. During one set, Johansen pulled a prop saddle off the wall and put it on Arthur Kane’s back and rode him around a bit. The first night, the band were all dosed on MDA. “I think I was selling it at the time,” recalled Sylvain. “There was no audience, because all the guys stayed in their cubicles having sex. We weren’t sure how to dress for the bathhouse, so the first night we went feminine; I wore hot pants. They didn’t seem to appreciate the femme look, although we had a lot of fun on the MDA. The next night we came back in leather and chains and got more interest – everyone came out of their little cubicles to watch us.”
Few venues supported live music by rock acts playing original material; you pretty much had to be a cover band recycling the ’60s. So the Dolls threw rent parties at their loft at 119 Chrystie Street, two dollars a head. When they heard the Mercer was booking bands, they went on a reconnaissance mission.
“They walked us all through the rooms and everything,” Sylvain said. “You had to go through this one place, sort of like a cabaret, and the group Suicide were playing there. I don’t know if they were doing their soundcheck or their first performance of the evening – there were like two people in the audience, black tablecloths on the table. And they scared the shit out of me. Marty Rev would glue together all this stuff to make these synthesizers, and Alan Vega was onstage in this wig looking like this kind of – I don’t know how to describe him. He was wearing these glasses, like radiation glasses. I was like ‘Oh my God, do we have to play here?“
But it was definitely a step up from the baths, so they did, with a residency that gave them the Oscar Wilde Room every Tuesday. They played there for seventeen weeks straight. Lou Reed turned up. Alice Cooper. And one night, David Bowie, the 25-year-old British superstar, producer of Reed’s Transformer. Bowie grilled the band about their clothing sources.
On March 20th, the New York Dolls signed a two-album deal with Mercury and got a $25,000 advance. Their debut, The New York Dolls, was released on July 27th.
And on August 3rd at around 5:00 p.m., the Broadway Central Hotel building, with the Mercer Arts Center in it, collapsed. Rescue workers dug through the rubble with shovels and picks; twenty pine coffins were sent down to the site. Many people were carried out. Four people died.
Eric Emerson and the Magic Tramps, a glam-rock band who also called the Mercer home, were rehearsing in the building when it came down. At first they thought it was an earthquake; they grabbed whatever instruments they could, and made it out. A Long Island band, Mushroom, had been rehearsing in another room; they made it out as well. Alan Vega was walking down the street and could see the Blue Room, where Suicide had just played. “There was just a stage sitting there, with no building around it,” he said.
Until the following spring, New York’s rock scene was essentially homeless. In the interim, the semi-famous Dolls would travel to L.A., where Thunders would taste the heroin those Voice columnists had written about back in April while hanging around Hollywood with Iggy Pop, one of his heroes.
Thunders was 19. It was his first time. He liked it a lot.
* * *
On certain days, if the sun was out and you cocked your head just so, you could still hear Sonny Rollins searching for a sound on the Williamsburg Bridge. Or at least you could imagine it. Rollins became a fixture up there in the early ’60s, when he’d grown sick of the liquor-and-dope-fueled jazz club scene. He took a hiatus from gigging, and as he didn’t want to disturb the neighbors in his Grand Street apartment on the Lower East Side, he hit on the idea to practice on the bridge. Out over the water, he’d parry with the sound of tugboat foghorns, weave around the steel-on-steel clatter of the BMT subway trains when they surfaced between boroughs, echo the hum and grind of the automobiles. He’d play for eight, twelve, fifteen hours at a stretch, the criss-crossing lines of girders and cables suggesting a physical geometry for his fast-changing melodic lines.
He bothered no one. After all, only fools even walked under the Williamsburg Bridge. The damn thing was so decrepit, it rained a steady shower of rust on the sidewalk below.
From the Book ‘Love Goes To Buildings On Fire‘ by Will Hermes, Copyright © 2011 by Will Hermes, Published by Faber and Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC