We know from film and records that New York City was and, in some cases, is the music capital of the world. All the big record labels were located here, and composers were located in 'song factories' from Tin Pan Alley in the Flatiron district to the Brill building on the west side of Manhattan. Leonard Bernstein was inspired by the area to the extent that he composed 'West Side Story'. The Gershwin brothers did the same years earlier on Tin Pan Alley with, 'Rhapsody In Blue'. New York City is an immigrant city, the late great lyricist Hal David was born in Brooklyn, and growing up in a city so diverse with cultures from all over the world I too was inspired to create music with inspirations drawn from my environment.
In this piece, I want to tell you about the New York that I grew up in and how at that time the music was just a subway ride away. I was quite young when my musical education began, my mother had a record by Ray Charles titled 'What'd I Say' and it was recorded in New York at Atlantic Records. I site this album as my first real musical experience because when I was old enough to be allowed to play it, I did for hours a day. We know how Ray Charles sang and used gospel music as a reference for his music, but what isn't in the liner notes is that Ray was given the tune, 'Mess Around', by Atlantic founder and Turkish immigrant Ahmet Ertegun. It seems normal now that a Turk immigrant and a southern singer would collaborate musically, but it wasn't always like that. I remember listening to Ray Charles and feeling swept away by his vocal tone and church inspired melodies, and felt in some way released from my neighbourhood on the lower east side of Manhattan.
When I was old enough to understand music, and began my journey trying to play it, I looked around for inspiration like generations before me. I found that I liked different types of music for one reason or another and that led me all over New York City to find it. One instance that is kinda cool is when I stood outside the Lone Star Cafe on 13th street and watched James Brown bring the house down. I was too young to actually go inside, but back then the Lone Star Cafe had windows you could see into. On the short walk home, my friends and I were talking excitedly about what we saw. Man, James Brown in the flesh, through a window, but still I saw it.
And it stuck with me. I think early inspirations like young love form the way we see the world, and from there the scene in NYC was just heating up.
New York City is an immigrant city, the late great lyricist Hal David was born in Brooklyn, and growing up in a city so diverse with cultures from all over the world I too was inspired to create music with inspirations drawn from my environment.
There was a club named 'Max's Kansas City', and all the early punk bands played there, along with CBGB's, which I'll get to. Max's was pretty small by club standards and it was a venue, but it was also a hangout for musicians like The New York Dolls, The Ramones and Richard Hell. One evening I snuck out and went. I was, again too young to be let in and I didn't have fake ID yet so I improvised. I took model glue, like the stuff you put little model airplanes together with and smeared some on my upper lip and chin. Then I snipped off some of my shaggy hair and affixed it to the glue on my face. Genius, I thought at the time, but looking back I must have looked like a Hobbit. Luck, though, was on my side. When I made my way onto Park Avenue South where Max's was located, a fight was in full effect. I passed it on the street and approached the door. The bouncer was busy pushing people away from the place and just gave me a cursory glance as I lifted my hand in a kind of, "Hey man, crazy night…", thing and slipped in.
Music back in the late 70's was kind of like today, where there were the 'stadium bands', like Coldplay today, that pack 'em in and top the charts, but were homogenized crap, and there was the real bands like the Dolls and the Dead Boys and of course, The Ramones. This was where they hung out to see Talking Heads try out new material and there was a sense of community. Guys in bands of this ilk had no desire to be big or even make a record, and that made it even more real to me. If you didn't want to be part of the machine, then by proxy, you were against it. That night I actually saw Joey Ramone, on his way to the bathrooms. They just didn't give a fuck and it showed. I liked that and still do.
At CBGB, they put on matinees for kids 16 and over, but with enough crazy shit going on there, it didn't really matter. CBGB stands for, Country, Bluegrass and Blues, and in earlier times it might have been just that. But we all know it as the joint on the 'Bowery'. Back then, the Bowery was home to bums and junkies and in some cases killers. It wasn't the place it is now with a Whole Foods and museums and million dollar apartments. It was nasty and dirty and dangerous. A guy named Mackie, who played with FLC for a couple of years was a drummer in a band called The Cro-Mags. They were fronted by John Joseph, who to this day, in my opinion, was one of the best front men in music. He was smart, funny and crazy all wrapped into one guy, obviously, we later became good friends. The music was called 'hardcore', and not unlike the dance music that bears the same name, on the most part, it was annoying. But there were diamonds in there and the Cro-Mags were up there with the Bad Brains from Washington D.C. and the Dead Kennedy's and Suicidal Tendencies from the west coast.
There was a club named 'Max's Kansas City', and all the early punk bands played there, along with CBGB's, which I'll get to. Max's was pretty small by club standards and it was a venue, but it was also a hangout for musicians like The New York Dolls, The Ramones and Richard Hell.
But at almost the same time there was the Zulu Nation. In my day… damn, I'm getting' old, gangs were more prevalent in NYC. The Ballbusters were the terror of all the kids that went to Music and Art High School, and the Latin Kings ran quite a few neighbourhoods. The Zulu Nation gang from Harlem was led by a guy call Afrika Bambatta and with that came what we now call hip hop. The Zulu Nation, for good or ill, were very respected on the streets and when the song 'Planet Rock' started to get airplay on NY radio, we were all transfixed by the electro rhythm. Up in Harlem there were street parties that were powered by rigging up the P.A. system to street lamps. These were the best of times, people travelled to distant boroughs like Queens and the Bronx to be part of these parties. I was among them, and I saw Melle Mel do his thing and Cool Herc rock the place using 2 turntables and some rock and disco records. This sounds like commonplace today, but these guys were experimenting with devices made to play music, not create it.
As hip hop is now akin to professional wrestling, so is New York City. It's safe to walk the streets at night; you can meander through Times Square without incident. So when the east village of Manhattan got gentrified, all the young broke-ass musicians needed to live somewhere. That was Brooklyn, more precisely, Williamsburg.
It wasn't as full on as some other places in Brooklyn; it was just over the Williamsburg Bridge and one stop on the subway from Manhattan, and a lot cheaper to live. Over the years it has gained notoriety like Seattle did with grunge, but now it was guitar based bands again who used the influences of New York City to create what is called 'Indie'. Just like Seattle, Williamsburg ran its course and is now what we New Yorkers call the 'east, east village'.
As of today, the world is smaller and we can hear music from all over it with a click on our PC's, but one thing still remains, New York City. And New York City is still the great melting pot, the island next to the United States, with its own flavour and pulse. I relish in its diversity and can find any kind of music I want to hear, from Jimmy's Bronx Cafe for salsa to Arlene's Grocery for some rock, and The Blue Note for jazz. I was raised in New York City and I know them streets like the back of my hand, and with that hand I salute the city and thank her for what she has given me.
Huey and the New Yorkers’ new album Say It To My Face is relased on the 29th October.
Check out the band here www.hueyandthenewyorkers.com
Follow him on Twitter- @hueymorgan
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