A glimpse into one of New York City’s greatest underground cultural epochs.
While much has been written about Greenwich Village and the folk music movement of the 1960s, the parallel and explosive elements of New York’s larger underground cultural revolution have been comparatively neglected, along with its offspring: the 1970s renaissance that rippled through the seedier downtown boroughs. McLeod (Communications Studies/Univ. of Iowa; Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World, 2014, etc.) aims to showcase those myriad underground scenes, encapsulating two decades of evolution in this concise historical montage. Impressively, the author transforms an encyclopedic trove of factoids and compresses it into a tight, appealingly written chronicle. “While sorting through stacks of archival research and over a million transcribed words from my interviews,” writes the author, “I gravitated to those who straddle multiple mediums and art forms.” McLeod pries open the intersected scenes of the most pivotal players: “Andy Warhol, a key connector figure,” along with playwright H.M. Koutoukas, indie filmmaker Shirley Clarke, punk-poet Patti Smith, “trashy bleach-blonde” Debbie Harry, free speech icon and Fugs frontman Ed Sanders, “DIY theater impresario Ellen Stewart,” and “the gender-fluid performer” Hibiscus. Listing his primary focus as “experimentation, hybridity, and border-crossing,” McLeod’s mission was to examine this group of artists and their broad social networks and downtown environs (complete with maps), detailing the coalescence of the underground as its influence bled into the greater landscape of mainstream culture. In this literal who’s who of scenesters, McLeod highlights dozens of both well-known and obscure artists, including John Cage, the Ramones, Nico, Paul Morrissey, Andrei Codrescu, Paul Krassner, and many more. Other terrain includes the birth of punk, the burgeoning indie press, the germination of hip-hop, and the avant-garde film movement and off-off-Broadway along with the landmarks of this epicenter—Caffe Cino, Cafè La MaMa, the Chelsea Hotel, Max’s Kansas City, CBGB, etc.
A vivid, electric tale certain to evoke nostalgia for underground veterans and spark interest for newcomers. A good complement to Will Hermes’ Love Goes to Buildings on Fire.