Think of punk, and you immediately imagine safety-pinned leather and ratty clothing and young men playing propulsive, guitar-driven songs that clock in under two minutes. Kembrew McLeod’s The Downtown Pop Underground:New York City and the Literary Punks, Renegade Artists, DIY Filmmakers, Mad Playwrights, and Rock 'n' Roll Glitter Queens Who Revolutionized Culture (2018)upends and complicates that stereotype. Tracing the development of downtown New York punk back to the DIY ethos of off-off-Broadway, coffeehouse culture, and the catalyzing influence of Warhol, McLeod opens up the downtown scene to position women and the influence of gay culture more prominently into punk’s antecedents.
“A lot of histories of the 1950s and ’60s avant-garde movements have focused on men,” McLeod explains. “Even punk has been told as a story of angry, mostly white boys. My book tries to show that punk was more complicated and inclusive of gay men and women and of trans people. I wanted to tell the story of punk by focusing on two women, Patti Smith and Debbie Harry, along with the Ramones and Richard Hell.”
McLeod’s book highlights the contributions of gay figures such as Hibiscus, founder of the Cockettes, the gay theater collective, as well as such icons as Divine, Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis, and Lance Loud, family member in the historic PBS reality TV show An American Family. McLeod relishes a critic’s review of Candy Darling’s off-off-Broadway debut (she shared the stage with a young Robert De Niro); the New York Times’ theater critic, McLeod writes, “commented without irony…‘hers was the first female impersonation of a female impersonator that I have ever seen.’ ”
“When we think about revolution, we usually think politics,” McLeod suggests. “But a revolution can happen within the culture itself. And culture can influence the world. For example, the revolutionary acts of gay people being themselves in the 1960s have ended up reshaping our culture today.”
As McLeod explains, underground scenes have existed in all major cities for “the last two centuries.” But New York City had something that was missing, say, in the more dispersed population of San Francisco or the car culture of Los Angeles. “New York City had the density. The people I interviewed talked time and again about rounding the corner and running into someone and being invited to attend or perform in some event. And,” McLeod explains, “downtown rents were so cheap that, as one of my interview subjects explains, he could work a quarter of the time to pay rent and have all the rest of the time for experimenting with art.”
And the media capital of America, with its TV networks, national magazines, and publishers in midtown Manhattan, was located a few subway stops from downtown. McLeod mentions a section of the book describing a 5-minute CBS segment in 1965 on the underground, introduced by Walter Cronkite, in which Andy Warhol and other underground artists are interviewed—a segment which includes the Velvet Underground playing, two years prior to the release of their first album. “Midtown producers had their ears pitched to downtown culture,” McLeod notes, “and took it national.”
Warhol serves as one key figure in McLeod’s book (which does a great job of introducing less well-known characters such as Ellen Stewart, who founded La MaMa), partly because of his Zelig-like ability to be everywhere. “Warhol was a key connector figure,” McLeod states. “Just as punk has become characterized in a false, one-dimensional manner, Warhol, too, exists in a one-dimensional way in the popular imagination: the Campbell’s soup can guy. Warhol has a huge canon of underground films. He forged connections to the downtown poetry scenes and to multimedia performance.”
Punk, too, proved more complicated. “The Ramones’ stance and imagery were clearly ironic. They came from working-class backgrounds and wore leather jackets—all of which presents a rough punk image. But,” McLeod adds, “these ‘brothers’ were all about theater and artifice and Warhol-ian irony in the way they presented themselves.”
J.W. Bonner teaches writing and humanities at Asheville School in Asheville, North Carolina, and he writes regularly for Kirkus Reviews.