“Coast to Coast”: New York. Summer, 1980.

And here we go again.

i. New York, New York, 42nd Street.

New York was great. That basically fits, and describes the place.

We got to JFK after an exceptionally boring Laker flight across the Atlantic. The first thing I did was phone Michael 1, so we could get something arranged for our first night – and she said we could stay as long as we wished; she reiterated this when she saw us, too, so we ended up accepting the offer – we hadn’t intended to.

Leaving JFK on the bus, and thus to a subway… Where do we go? No subway map – go and find one: green red yellow blue spaghetti thrown across an outline of Manhattan, impossible to trace or follow. How to get from here to there via… local and express trains, excepted stops… jump on and pray.

We were dumped at 59th St and had to walk the remaining twelve blocks. The subway itself was great, the carriages totally covered in psychedelic graffiti like something from Apocalypse Now. I thought it was beautiful, making an artwork (however illegal) out of bland tin and steel – tempering and personalising the technology surround the people. I thought it was superb, a revolution against the depersonalisation of city life (urban angst), and I thought it looked good, too. It just freaked G – he was stunned and shocked…

Walking the twelve blocks from 50th to 72nd along Lexington Avenue felt really amazing: christ, we’re really here. It was hot and we were going to a safe sanctuary (imagine arriving and THEN trying to find somewhere to stay. Shit!) and we were feeling fine. On most of Manhattan you can’t get lost – it is a giant chessboard, nice and neat and orderly – up and down and across. Very simple. So we reached 72nd E easily – straight along Lexington – and then across 3rd Ave. The jobsworth doorman was very dubious – he phoned Michael 1 to check – but he reluctantly let us in. She has got a nice flat – and we didn’t mind the cats much…

By now it was maybe six, maybe seven in the evening. Michael had to go away for a couple of days – she left us the keys and went. We had a beer, two, and then hit New York nightlife. Down 1st Avenue – find some food (yes! Our first American hamburger!) – and wander to a bar. I am not quite sure where we went exactly, but we walked around a lot, looking at everything (my scientifically trained eye?).

We walked down to maybe 30th, perhaps not as far as that; down 2nd Avenue, and Lexington, then across to 5th and Broadway. Past Grand Central, the Empire State Building, the Rockefeller Centre. Times Sq area. Lots of coffee: we would stop, looking, have a coffee.

In one cafe, down past Broadway, they were having a crisis: the unintelligible black cook – no one could understand him, none of the people working there – had stopped cooking to serve up front; the white kid (from college, he told us) was trying to keep control and get the cook cooking again; these waiters stood around, doing nothing except drinking coffee, smoking, and talking to us, whilst the young guy was frantically serving, taking money, and fighting off the mad black cook. G and I thought this was very amusing, we stayed for ages (endless coffee refills – we drank a lot of coffee!). The white guy kept taking all the phones off the hook – and the black cook put them back. The white guy, with a long backlog of orders, stopped taking any more takeaway orders, and then the black guy (mumbling all the time in this amazing nonsensical English) would take the orders that the white guy had refused. It was a real madhouse, and these waiters just sitting drinking coffee and watching… It was so funny. I really wish I had had my camera – the whole situation was an amazing series of photographs.

When we walked back – past an enormous number of down and outs, sleeping in doorways, on stairs, anywhere – it was late, about 3am (it was a 24 hour coffee house). The streets we walked down were pretty empty, apart from drug addicts (who hassled us a little, but not much) in a square at about 5th Avenue and Broadway2, and the odd person walking around. It felt very safe. By the time we got back, it was 4am – we’d been going for over 24 hours. There were still whores outside the “pubs” – upmarket bars – on Lexington.

Image30

We got up at midday and tried to decide what to do. We had breakfast – brunch, I suppose – another hamburger! – bought some film – and went to the Guggenheim. Very good – lots of Van Gogh, Picasso and so on. In our divine ignorance, this was the only museum we went to in New York. But then we weren’t there for the culture.

New York has a lot of ghettos – not necessarily slums, but areas of racial unity – and we went to most of them, except Harlem. We didn’t make it up there – we kept meaning to go on an organised tour of the area, but never made it. A pity.

Chinatown we got to know very well. It was the cheapest place we came across our whole trip. Very cheap jeans, cheap general shops, cheap film (I bought five rolls on our first day there – it saw me all the way across), and exceptionally cheap food. The Chinese restaurant served delicious, huge helpings for less than £1, so we ate in Chinatown a lot. It was very good – I had lots of things I hadn’t eaten before.

Chinatown, New York, July 1980.

Each of these areas – Chinatown, Little Italy, SoHo, Greenwich Village, East Village – fit together in the southern part of the island, and we would wander from one to another – by mistake – and suddenly feel a whole change in atmosphere as we crossed the boundary. We did an awful lot of walking around – taking pictures and feeling vibes (man).

A lot of time, understandably, was spent in Greenwich Village, right from our second evening. Having bought the Village Voice, we found out it was the first Only Ones US appearance, and thought it would be fun (as well as cool…) to see it. The gig itself was out on Long Island, but the club ran a shuttle bus to and from Manhattan, from somewhere like E 13th St. Which is just by the Village, so we walked around there before going for the bus. It all seemed very posy, fake and expensive – lots of pretend French restaurants, Roman cafes, and Greek tavernas. Then, quite suddenly, we hit the real Village bars and shops, not at all touristy. We went to find the bus, only to be told that the Only Ones had pulled out. We then found CBGBs, just around the corner, where Patti Smith et al played; we wandered in, but there was nothing much happening and no one we wanted to hear. We then found this really good pub-like bar. We were now in the East Village, east of 3rd Ave. It was really chatty and friendly, and we stayed talking to lots of people. It became a regular haunt of ours, and we spent a lot of time there.

East Village (?), New York, July 1980.

That first night, we got talking to guy from the mid wild West Side. He talked a lot, about various things, and I think he was actually quite lonely. He was also trying to impress us. He said he’d been on the run because he jumped bail on a drugs rap (he said he had sold 3,000 tabs of acid – to the FBI!), and he was working to pay off money he owed to the friends who had put up the bail money in the first place. He struck me as being a loser – easily categorised as such – and of course he soon got onto sex. “I’m bisexual myself,” he said, meaning he was totally queer. We’d suspected this – he had started talking to G (his boyish good looks seem only to attract middle aged poofs – no women!), but it was pretty boring. I wandered off to play the juke box or something. This guy was also on drugs, saying he could get us whatever we wanted. G (surprise!) was a bit interested in this offer, the guy handed him some speed – on top of all the booze we’d been drinking. He was a sort of ex-hippy (old hippies don’t die – they just get caught on drugs raps), and he kept going on about “not taking acid just for the colours, man, I mean, I found god through acid, man, it puts me on a higher level of consciousness…” Which amused me, since G had told me he takes acid just for the pretty colours, and stuff the pseudo religious claptrap.

I just got bored by the guy – who became more and more gay – but he asked us back for a smoke. His apartment was actually one room, with just a tv for decoration, plugged in to the light switch. This struck me as being significant: this fucking ex-hippy on a higher plain of consciousness whose sole possession is… a tv. Symptomatic of American culture – the hangover of the 60s revolution hooked on tv. Anyway, G smoked, and we watched tv. I got pretty bored – and the guy was being prattish (man) so at a convenient breathing space I made an excuse (“we have to leave before the rain starts”) and G – bored (if stoned) as myself picked up on it, and we left. The guy had been going to get G some acid for another night, but he didn’t turn up at the agreed time; he was probably bluffing.

We left his bedsit at about 3.30am, in pouring rain: a vicious thunderstorm raged. The evening temperature was about 96F, and it was 102F or 103F almost every day, and horribly humid – hence the storm. We hid in yet another cafe, had coffee and doughnuts, and chatted whilst we waited for the rain to slacken. We ended up taking a taxi rather than walk through Central Park, got back around 4.30am.

The next day – well, G had an enormous speed/dope/booze hangover, and was rather incapacitated (at least mentally), so after brunch it struck me that it would be a good day to go up the Empire State Building, if only to find out what happened if someone (such as G) puked up at the top (can you imagine the speed of it as it hit the ground, the pedestrians splattered by high speed puke). He didn’t, but it was an amazing view – the lattice of blocks of skyscrapers (just like the towers we used to make with building bricks). Just what you would expect – so you can use your imagination. Still, very impressive.

Midtown from the Empire State Building, New York, July 1980.

View south from the Empire State Building, New York, July 1980.

That evening, we were given two tickets to see Heart play at Radio City Music Hall. The tickets came from someone in Michael’s office who dealt with rock publicity; we were meant to meet up, but couldn’t arrange it. Although we didn’t really want to see the band (Heart?!!), we had been told the hall was a really amazing place that we just had to see – so we did. The place was huge – a clichéd aircraft hangar – far bigger than the Rainbow or Hammersmith Odeon. It was covered in a layer of gold, and had tinsel everywhere – a monument to kitsch 1930s deco, just as the Rainbow had been (but far in excess of that). The gig itself was pretty abysmal, I had to stop myself dozing off despite the excessively high volume and noise. The audience was rich, trendy middle class teenagers – despicable in their adulation of Heart!

We left before the encore – we couldn’t take much more (like Foreigner and Kansas, ad infinitum) and walked the twenty or so blocks back, checking out some of the singles bars which the taxi driver had shown us. They all seemed a bit up market for us – like expensive – but we thought we might try them out on Saturday…

The next day, we took the Staten Island ferry. To Staten Island. We wanted to get a view of the skyscrapers around Wall St. The World Trade Centre is pretty amazing, and it towers over everything. The view from the ferry is impressive – forests of really tall buildings – just like all the films. Then we went to Chinatown – by now evening – and explored for somewhere to eat. There are streets and streets of really cheap places, and we hit upon one place that was superb.

World Trade Centre, New York, July 1980.  World Trade Centre, New York, July 1980  World Trade Centre, New York, July 1980

 New York skyline from Staten Island ferry, July 1980.  Passenger on the Staten Island ferry, New York, July 1980. He said he was an ex-convict, newly out of Sing-Sing prison

 New York skyline, July 1980.

And then back to our little bar in the East Village: G had agreed to meet that guy to see if he had been able to get some acid, but he didn’t show up (I assume he’d been bullshitting). We got into conversation with a middle aged (early 40s?) woman, and then her husband and step-daughter turned up. The daughter, who we got on very well with, lived in London; her parents had split up when they’d been working in Hollywood; her father was a script-writer, and had moved to Greenwich Village to write a novel (all dreadfully trendy). Madelaine – the sixteen year old blonde (with big tits…) went to South Hampstead – we had some mutual acquaintances. She used to live in Hampstead, but now lived in Watford (she didn’t like that much!). Her father was really great, and kept buying rounds of drinks, so we stayed for ages – until closing time, in fact (3am-ish). We talked a lot – Madelaine had been a typical spoilt brat Californian child, done almost everything by the age of twelve (we both reckoned she was a virgin, though…), seen it all. For which we took the piss out of her. She was very nice though – pity it was G she fancied. Which was rather irrelevant since she was going back to London the next day. I think G has looked her up in London. We walked her home and chatted more on her doorstep, so by the time we started walking back it was after 4am. The walk of about seventy blocks took about two hours…

So we woke up at about 3pm. In the evening, we hit the singles bars, a singularly middle class American tradition. Surprise, surprise, we didn’t pick up. We’re not quite sure how we didn’t pick up, since it was meant to be incredibly easy. But we didn’t. we even walked into a brothel – by mistake – and were a trifle pissed off by the whole adventure.

On Sunday, we went to Central Park. As did everyone else. There were all sorts of people; very few of them were walking: roller skates predominated, then bikes and skateboards. There was lots of noise: black guys carrying large radio-cassette players, tuned to a disco station at full volume. There were several different disco stations, which together merged to form a composite apocalyptic disco tune. It could be a hit. There were lots of dogs and kids. The skaters – the good ones – were doing their own routines to whatever they were listening to; a lot of them had big headphones with a radio inside, to save carrying the radio as they moved – except it meant we couldn’t hear what they were dancing to.

Across the park – we returned there frequently afterwards to sunbathe (but not at night; I think the only people in park at night were the muggers, and a new gang called the Guardian Angels – who beat the muggers up…) – to Broadway, and the Lincoln Centre. This is like the South Bank Centre, a conglomeration of concert halls, exhibition halls, and theatres. Very impressive. There was an open air jazz concert going on, so we listened for a bit, and then walked the rest of the length of Broadway, from W72nd St down to the Village. At every square on Broadway – wherever it cuts the avenues and streets, there are triangular “squares” – we were offered dope or other drugs, and there were some very whorish women. But generally, Broadway was deserted. We walked through several distinct regions – a large number of Jewish businesses, an Indian section – and the atmosphere could change in a block. These weren’t ghettos in the way that Chinatown or Little Italy were – just a gathering of businesses. Mainly import/export businesses – lots of cheap camera shops. The whole of Broadway seemed very decrepit – dirty and run-down. Across Times Sq – the centre of the drugs trade and prostitution – and 42nd St; both were empty and derelict. More coffee in a Jewish falafel house: write some postcards, and then on down to the Village.

 Midtown, New York, July 1980.

There was a fair going on in the Village, and we wandered around, just looking. It is a great place. We found this superb record shop on Bleeker St, in the heart of the Village; it masqueraded as a second hand store, but flicking through the piles we kept coming across bootlegs – by everybody. The guy behind the desk saw our interest in “live recordings” and showed us a whole cupboard of them: there were about thirty Dylan bootlegs, twenty Patti Smith and twenty Springsteen – it was a gold mine. We browsed for ages, chatting to the man about them. We contemplated sending some home by post, cos we didn’t fancy carrying them with us all the way across. In the end we left it, since we either end up in San Francisco or New York, so we’d be bound to be able to pick some up somewhere – and by then we’d know how much we would be able to afford. They were dirt cheap – £6 for a double.

New York, July 1980. Flatiron Building, New York, July 1980.  View south down 8th Avenue, New York, July 1980. View south down 7th Avenue(?), New York, July 1980.

One day (I can’t remember which!), we went back to 42nd St to see a film of Bob Dylan: very rare, not seen in England – so G demanded we go. In fact, we saw an even rarer one, “Eat the Document”, since Dylan had refused to release the intended film. Shot on the 1965 tour of Europe, Eat the Document was very amusing. It had a lot of the gig at the Albert Hall, when he first went electric. The crowd reaction – shouts of “bloody awful” and “Judas” could be heard – was hilarious: people saying he’d be finished (hence the title of the film).

42nd St – hustlers hustle and pimps pimp the beat: it was quite an experience. In every doorway was someone selling something illegal, shouting out their wares: “dope speed hash grass heroin cocaine acid check it out check it out dope speed …” – like Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Sq amplified a hundred times. We were approached by hookers – “hey, want a date honey?” (“Do you take American Express travellers cheques?”) – people with drugs. It was unbelievable – not shocking as such, just incomprehensible. A bit freaky. The people selling were mainly black or Mexican. The West Side was largely a Mexican area: we walked through it, looking at all these amazing shops full of Mexican, Spanish and Puerto Rican produce. But it was also violent: we saw some kids set about a tramp. Nice place!

On 42nd St we saw a knife fight – the end of a knife fight, as the police arrived, guns and all, and broke up the crowd. The cops had people up against the wall; I had my camera, but decided discretion wouldn’t get me knifed. I can’t imagine all these dope sellers would be willing to have their picture taken by some white honky bastard… Pity I haven’t the guts to take pictures like that (but perhaps if I did, I’d have not guts at all!).

New York, July 1980.

We went back to that bar in the Village a couple of times. One sticks out in my mind. We were sitting quietly chatting when someone came by and struck up a conversation. Within five minutes, this guy was asking us, “What do you guys think of New York girls?” He was actually rather interesting, but gay, and trying to chat up G (there was clearly something about G – it made life very annoying, and somewhat boring). “I’m bisexual”, said the guy – oh, really? Still, we didn’t care, since he was buying the drinks. I was eyeing up two girls on a neighbouring table, one of whom was wearing a “Specials” t-shirt with an English policewoman on it. I had this opening line worked out about the importance of the image on the t-shirt. But I didn’t really feel like leaving G on his own with this guy who was trying to chat him up – we’d been talking for about an hour when one of the girls – the one I fancied – went tot the toilet, and I started a conversation as she walked past. Both the girls joined our table, at which point the gay guy left, telling G not to turn queer because it would fuck his mind. Gerry hadn’t noticed the girls before, and was surprised by their arrival. I got on very well with the girl I fancied, but G hadn’t sussed the situation at all: he kept talking about all these gay guys trying to pick him up, which didn’t do the trick at all… In fact, the other girl got up and left – taking her friend with her. I was very annoyed. They’d just been in England, playing with a ska band on tour with the Specials.

After they left, this guy in punk-poseur clothes – leather jacket, leather trousers, poseur dark glasses, the lot – he had lots of badges: “Go Nuclear”, “Nuke the Whales” and various other punk things – and his girlfriend sat down at our table. He too was a musician (as well as an egomaniac) – bassplayer for a band called the Telephones, he said. Of course we got into a discussion about music; I asked if he was in a punk band – he looked so punk – and he went into a tirade against punk. I asked what kind of music he did play – “rock and roll, man, Rolling Stones…” I hit back saying that the Stones in the sixties were the punks of their time, and how he didn’t really understand English punk/new wave. He hadn’t a clue and was talking bullshit – and being rather drunk by now, I was telling him this. G was worried he get nasty – he looked pretty mean – but after a bit, maybe forty five minutes, when I’d got him in a real corner, his girlfriend tipped a pitcher of beer over G. We were a bit stunned, but they immediately ran away – totally blowing their cool. The barman came over and apologised, saying the girl was a loony and using – and he gave us free drinks for the rest of the evening.

I went to another gig in New York. G wasn’t interested, so I set off alone to a club called Trax on W72nd – across Central Park from Michael’s – to see Bob Fripp and the League of Gentlemen, with Barry Andrews (the keyboard player from XTC) and an unknown rhythm section – a female bass player and an off-beat, “chunky” drummer. Fripp was superb – easily the most virtuoso rock guitarist I’ve heard. The band were good – simple bass lines (but the drumming annoyed me: it didn’t drive at all, and upset the balance of the music), with a great interplay between Fripp and Andrews. Fripp was a bit posy – “this is modern dance music,” he kept saying, “so why aren’t you dancing?” – but he was very very good.

And there you have New York – with added spice, like all the down and outs, the inner city decay, the cheap west side slums – an incredible city, like London pumped up a lot. And the skyscrapers weren’t oppressive.

1. Michael was a nickname; I have been told, but I really can’t remember what Michael’s real name is. She says she has always been called Michael – it stuck as a child, apparently. She still lives in the same apartment.

2. It can’t have been 5th and Broadway – that would make it about Madison Square Park, at 23rd.

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