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in Filmmaking
on Dec 9, 2007

I stopped by Other Music this weekend and discovered on the racks photographer Paula Court’s book, New York Noise: Art and Music from the New York Underground 1978-88. I first moved to New York during those years and became Programming Director at The Kitchen during the tail-end of that span, and for me the book, full of striking, energetic portraits of NYC’s key downtown art players, was not just a nostalgic blast-from-the-past but also a welcome confirmation that, yes, there was something special and perhaps unrepeatable about that scene and its casual cross-pollination.

The Times Online has an article and photo gallery on the book, and this excerpt of David Byrne’s comments is a great summation of the times:

“During that time I lived in about five different places – Lower East Side, Upper West Side, East Village, NoLita. Never got to call any one place home. New York was a scary and legendary place – and downtown was like a Bohemian living museum, which was pretty thrilling for an aspiring artist and musician.

“Legends walked the streets – well, from a skewed boho POV. It was all very new and exciting, at least for me – and it was incredibly funky, the sleaze and poverty were everywhere. There were more beggars and homeless than on the streets of Mumbai, and that’s saying something. The cheapest hookers in town were on Chrystie Street, where Talking Heads once shared a loft. Now there’s a Whole Foods and luxury condos on the corner.

“I’m not complaining or nostalgic for the bad old days – some things are genuinely better – I feel no nostalgia for the old Times Square, for example. What might have gotten lost was that one could incubate one’s work inside the supportive bubble of a close and sometimes desperate community. Now that period of incubation is incredibly short, the chicks are thrown out of the nest immediately.

“There was a nice rubbing together between disciplines during the latter part of that time – borders were definitely fuzzy, which was inspiring. Sometimes there were collaborations – but even when there weren’t there was an awareness of what was going on outside your own field, which is healthy. But it took its toll – look at the tiny numbers who survived to have an ongoing creative life and career – a few handfuls, that’s it! Maybe that is all that ever survives and flourishes in any generation, but it seems harsh. I think some of the artists have fared better in the long run than the majority of the musicians.”

The book contains a couple dozen short essays like Byrne’s and then Paula’s black-and-white portraits and performance shots of artists like Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Arto Lindsay, John Zorn, Ethyl Eichelberger, Robert Longo, Beth and Scott B, Amos Poe, Madonna, the Squat Theater, Glenn Branca, Fab Five Freddy, David Cale, George Clinton, Robert Ashley, Howard Brookner (pictured with Brad Gooch on Thanksgiving Day, 1979), William Burroughs, Lou Reed, Michael Stipe and so many more. If you were in New York in those years — and even if you weren’t but are just interested in the roots of the NYC scene — then I really recommend it. (Also, the preceding series of New York Noise CDs are equally great.)

P.S.: A number of pictures in the book document the making of The Kitchen Presents: Two Moon July, an hour-long special produced by the organization right around the time I started my first job there as Development Associate. Thanks to YouTube, I found this trailer for the show, which I’m almost hesitant to post due to the awkwardly misguided voiceover that was someone’s idea of how to market experimental art to the masses.

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