Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The fuse blows: Luc Sante on NYC

April 1977: a crowd outside CBGB
Luc Sante's "Maybe the People Would Be the Times," an expressionistic, urgent, affectionate remembrance of New York City in the mid-1970s for VICE magazine and Noisey's new music issue, reminds me again of why he is one of my favorite writers about New York City. With his characteristic blend of anthropological detail, scene knowledge, and deeply felt personal experience, Sante evokes the heady nowness of the street rock and poetry energies of the city in an epochal age.

Check out this passage about dancing in lofts below 14th Street, marvel, and then read the whole piece. "This is music that gives us seven-league boots to walk the streets in, loping 20-block miles faster than taxis, or else we dance in somebody's bare loft decorated with foil-sided insulation panels, with clamp lights scattered on the floor pointing up the walls, a single pole-mounted fan moving the air around the 1,500-square-foot oven, the turntable hooked up to a guitar amp and the music's echo redoubled by the cavernous echo of bricks and mortar."
We dance to reggae, and we dance to soul, or disco, or R&B. Marvin Gaye's "I Want You" and "Got to Give It Up," the Floaters' "Float On," Chic's "Le Freak," James Brown for days but especially right now "Papa Don't Take No Mess," and it's also the inaugural year of Funkadelic's anthem, "One Nation Under a Groove." Someday they will swap out Francis Scott Key's Bavarian drinking song for this stepping march that gathers all the strands—it's a chance to dance our way out of our constrictions, on a national scale. The song already seems to be under way when the needle hits the groove, and it might as well never end, since we keep taking the needle back to the start when it starts edging near the run out. It's a whole circus parade of sounds and effects: brass band, clowns, aerialists, prancing horses, confetti showers, giant papier-mâché monster heads. It will teach you how to dance if you don't know how. You let your ass fall into the central bounce path carved out by the bass and the handclaps, and then the rest of your body can align with whatever you want for however long you want: the half-tempo crooner, the squeaking synth, the chuckling guitar monologue, the drum fills, the whistles, the calls and interjections by what sounds like two dozen different voices. It's maybe on the sixth reprise that those of us who aren't completely fucked up start to notice that the floorboards are visibly moving up and down on the one, and this is no joke when you're talking about century-old joists and beams. We start to edge toward the walls, where long tables are covered with empty bottles and cans. From there the crowd looks like one body with 400 limbs. The air, redolent of sweat and spilled beer and tobacco and cannabis and unnameable musks, is maybe a third of the way toward transmuting into a solid. Somebody screams along with the falsetto wail that turns into "You can dance away." Just then the fuse blows.
A great companion read with "Maybe the People would be the Times" is the elegiac "My Lost City" which Sante wrote for The New York Review of Books in 2003, bookends on euphoria and loss.

The above photo and others in Sante's essay are from Meryl Meisler's terrific Paradise & Purgatory: SASSY ’70s Suburbia & The City.

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