Tuesday, 13 September 2016

New York Rocker - Gary Valentine


Gary Valentine was the bass player in Blondie but it's forgiveable if anyone doesn't know that because at the time all the attention, of course, was upon Debbie Harry. He played with them from 1975 until 1977 and was responsible for writing the Blondie songs X-Offender and (quite possibly their best song) I'm Always Touched By Your Presence, Dear. On leaving Blondie, he formed his own band called The Know before going on to play for Iggy Pop. He's nowadays an established writer with a number of books to his name, focussing upon the esoteric and the mystical.
All well and good but why might this make for a good memoir? Well, it's because of the period and the place that he writes about, that being New York City from the early to late 1970s.

In the film Taxi Driver, Robert DeNiro's Travis Bickle character famously declares: "All the animals come out at night - whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Some day a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets." Indeed, a rain did eventually come but in the unexpected form of 'gentrification', arguably heralded by NYC mayor Rudi Giuliani's 'zero tolerance' policies. New York is nowadays undoubtedly a much safer city but something has been lost in the process and it's this 'something' that Gary Valentine writes about in his book New York Rocker.

He makes for a good guide as he takes us by the hand and leads us through the streets of Lower Manhattan, through the degeneracy, the grime, the decadence, the art, the beauty, the poverty and the poetry. There's nothing poetic about poverty, of course, but poetry can be born from it and much better poetry than that born from cloistered privilege, I would argue. This is where Gary Valentine comes in.

At the age of 18 he had read Baudelaire's Flowers Of Evil and it may well have been this that enabled him to recognise the beauty of Richard Hell in torn clothes, spiky hair and safety pins. It would have enabled him to know who Tom Verlaine had named himself after and who Patti Smith was referring to when she chanted "Go Rimbaud".
New York was the cradle of Punk. There's no debate to be had about that is there? In Gary Valentine's eyes it began with the New York Dolls who themselves had been informed by (among others) Iggy Pop. They were the proof positive that you didn't have to be Eric Clapton to play guitar; rather, you just needed balls. And in their eye-liner, lipstick, platform shoes, mascara, nail polish and bouffant hair the Dolls had balls-a-plenty.
They were the green light for others to go for it including most famously - via Malcolm McLaren - the Sex Pistols. It was New York City, however, that provided the conditions for the disparate elements of the nascent Punk scene to converge, with a decrepit and run-down bar by the name of CBGB on the Lower East Side being the epicentre.

Gary Valentine joins the dots and paints a vivid picture of all the groups, the individuals and the circumstances that led to the creation of a world-wide phenomenon - and by that I mean Punk, not Blondie - as seen through his eyes and personal experiences.
The New York Dolls, Wayne County, Suicide, Dead Boys, Ramones, Patti Smith, Television, Heartbreakers, Talking Heads, and of course, Blondie. They're all here though just as much attention and importance is paid to the venues, the streets and the countless non-music business related individuals than it is to the bands.

Interestingly, Gary cites the arrival of the Dictators and the Dead Boys as the first sign of the end of the New York Punk scene; the shades of Rimbaud being eliminated by right-wing sensibilities and the sole aim of getting fucked up and acting stupid. The second nail in the coffin is the departure of Richard Hell from the Heartbreakers, signifying the end of the 'art rock' union that had started with Patti Smith and Television. The final nail being the arrival of skinhead crowds from the suburbs and beach towns, turning gigs into mob violence to a 4/4 beat and turning Rimbaud into Rambo.
For Gary, this is where the New York scene ends and his interest in it drops though not before acknowledging that what had started in the Bowery amidst desperation and poverty had now gone world-wide.

I tend to agree with Gary's analysis to a point. By 1979 Punk was indeed a dieing star though still with a huge swathe of people orbiting around it. From its initial explosion, a thousand sparks and streamers had been shot into the sky and these were still descending, acting as seeds from which fresh fruit would be born. For sure, Punk had attracted moronic behaviour and mindless violence but that was just one aspect of its multi-faceted presence. For many, Punk was still a vision of creativity and potential.

As any first-hand witness should, Gary brings to the table a wealth of anecdotes, many of which are highly amusing. He describes going to watch a play called Women Behind Bars in which his girlfriend was starring alongside Divine. The drawback being that his girlfriend is naked on stage and is raped by Divine with a broom handle twice nightly to a packed house. Four times with matinees. Within a few weeks practically everyone he knows has seen his girlfriend naked. Twice.
He highlights the song Final Solution by Pere Ubu as being 'one of the classics of the time' - and I think he might be right. He regales us with a tale of Johnny Ramone chasing Malcolm McLaren out of a Ramones gig, brandishing his guitar like an axe. He tells us of making a faux pas by introducing McLaren to a friend as Malcolm McDowell. He tells us the song Ask The Angels by Patti Smith is about qualludes - though I'm not sure if that's really true. He informs us of Debbie Harry's penchant for the drug angel dust, of her large collection of French S&M magazines, and how - according to Timothy Leary - she was once a member of Leary's acid community at Castalia in the Sixties.
He lets us know the line "Are we not men?" by Devo is taken from the 1930s film of HG Wells' novel The Island Of Doctor Moreau. I didn't know that. He likens touring with Iggy Pop to being in the rock'n'roll Wild Bunch - as in the Sam Peckinpah film. He damns Captain Sensible for spitting at his girlfriend during a radio interview (and so he should) and suggests the Damned are another nail in Punk's coffin. And he tells us of his meeting with Duran Duran where one of them was into body building and 'smart drugs' - vitamins and non-narcotic concoctions which supposedly increased intelligence. 'I don't know if they worked,' he remarks with a typical dry wit.

New York Rocker is an entertaining and informative read, worth the effort alone for the insights into Iggy Pop's touring habits and states of mind. How is Iggy still alive? The ending of the book isn't very satisfactory, however, as it cuts off suddenly with Gary being kicked out of the Blondie reunion of 1997; leaving him broke, living in a bedsit in London and to keep warm, hunting for firewood on Hampstead Heath.
His circumstances have changed since then by the sound of it but even if he's still not nowadays rich materially, he's rich in experiences of the kind that are never going to happen again. Experiences of the kind that for all the money in the world, you couldn't buy. The process of gentrification sealing the coffin for good and ensuring that such circumstances can never be repeated.
John Serpico  

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