New York's rock and roll history

It has been on the rock map since the1960s.Richard James Havis revisits some of Manhattan's iconic venues

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 January, 2013, 9:51am

Manhattan venues such as CBGB, the Fillmore East, and Max's Kansas City have become part of the fabric of rock'n'roll mythology. CBGB is famous for being the launch pad of American punk in the 1970s, when it helped bands as diverse as Blondie, Talking Heads and The Ramones to become stars. The Fillmore East hosted gigs by Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and many of the rock greats back in the late-1960s, while Max's was the stomping ground of influential art-rock band The Velvet Underground.

With this exemplary rock history in mind, visitors to Manhattan may be surprised by the lack of an active rock scene on the island today. Most of the rock clubs have closed, driven out by the high rents caused by gentrification. New venues have opened up across the East River in Brooklyn, and musicians, who once used to live cheaply in the East Village, have followed them across the Brooklyn Bridge.

But although rock'n'roll seems to have deserted the island, visitors with an interest in rock music can have an enjoyable time walking among the ghosts of musical Manhattan's venerable past. Some institutions such as CBGB have disappeared, victims of property developers or greedy landlords. Other landmarks like St Marks Place, which was home to hippies and then punks, are still around in a diminished form, trading on their past glory.

A good place to start a rock history tour of Manhattan is the storefront formerly known as CBGB (315 The Bowery). This New York legend, which opened in 1973 and shut down after a protracted battle with its landlords in 2006, is now a John Varvatos clothing store. The venue is known as the birthplace of American punk rock, although it achieved mainstream fame because of the graffitied and grime-encrusted interior walls, and a popular line of T-shirts launched by its entrepreneurial owner, the late Hilly Kristal.

Godlis, who goes by that singular moniker, was the long-time photographer of the CBGB scene, and took many iconic pictures of bands such as The Ramones. He says the club took off in the mid-1970s because there was nowhere else in New York that would let new bands perform original material.

"There wasn't a circuit for bands doing their own songs," Godlis remembers. "That's why they all went to CBGB. There were a lot of interesting bands playing there, like Television, Patti Smith, Blondie and Talking Heads. Hilly Kristal would always allow people to play if they had something new and different. He had a great sound system, and it was in a relatively unpopulated area that was cool to come down to."

Walk north along the Bowery for three blocks, and turn right down East 6th Street to reach the former location of the Fillmore East (105 2nd Avenue). This was once the go-to place for New York's hippy culture. The Fillmore was opened in 1968 by entrepreneur Bill Graham as an east coast sister venue to the famed Fillmore in San Francisco.

Legends such as Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon and the Grateful Dead performed here. The Fillmore, which was originally a Yiddish theatre, shut in 1971 and the ground floor is now a bank; it's memorialised by a colourful pole on the pavement. (The name was briefly revived in the 2000s for the venue that's now called Irving Plaza.)

Rock fan and vintage art and clothing specialist Zygfryd "Ziggy" Dabrowski remembers seeing a relatively unknown Rod Stewart at the Fillmore in the late-1960s, when he was fronting guitarist Jeff Beck's band. "The Fillmore was the place to go back then and I went there quite a lot" he says. "It was a hardcore hippy scene. You'd see hippies who looked like kings and hippy girls who looked like goddesses."

Two blocks north, 2nd Avenue intersects with St Marks Place, a street of shops and eateries that was central to the city's hippy and punk scenes. It's still a lively street which, like London's Carnaby Street, trades on is pop-culture history. St Marks once contained the Dom (19-25 St Marks Place), a club where pop artist Andy Warhol presented his wild The Exploding Plastic Inevitable show.

St Marks has always attracted rock musicians, says Godlis, who has lived in St Marks off and on for the past 25 years. "Hippies lived here in the 1960s, but by the early 1970s they had started to take too many drugs, so the neighbourhood went to hell," he says. "So rents became cheap. The drug scene had left a lot of unsafe empty spaces which were ripe for people who were hoping to make their way in New York for a cheap rate." That's when the nascent punk musicians moved in. "You needed to be smart enough to get around in a safe way in a less-than-safe space," Godlis adds.

Carry on walking up 2nd Avenue, then turn left down 14th Street until you reach Union Square - about a 15-minute walk. Max's Kansas City used to be nearby, at 213 Park Avenue South. Max's was an arty but grungy rock club that's best known for The Velvet Underground live album recorded there. "I am dancing to the Velvet Underground upstairs at Max's. Even today, four decades later, that phrase fills me with wonder, and the same sense of prophecy unfolding that I felt then," critic and musician Lenny Kaye wrote in 2010.

Take the uptown N subway from Union Square, get off at Herald Square, and walk one block west down 33rd Street to find Madison Square Garden. The Garden is perhaps New York's most famous venue, and is still a good place to see a band. It was the location for concerts from two classic rock films, the Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter, filmed in 1969, and Led Zeppelin's concert film The Song Remains the Same, filmed in 1973. Dabrowski remembers being at the Stones' show.

"The Garden was the biggest place in New York to see a rock show. Only the best people played there," he says. "I didn't spot myself in the film until four year later. I noticed myself in the crowd when the Stones played Jumpin' Jack Flash - I wasn't rocking out like a hardcore guy, I was just bobbin' my head."

Nowadays there is no one influential venue or overarching rock scene in New York. Instead, there are a lot of "micro-scenes", as Godlis puts it. Some, like Dabrowski, miss the time when Manhattan rocked harder: "It was a real scene at those places then," he says. "Today, nobody even looks like a rocker any more - people even go to concerts dressed in J. Crew. That sucks."