Strangers in New York

I had known New York long before we arrived. Chelsea Hotel, CBGB, The Bowery. I spun the names around my mouth, tasting their sounds, the potency of the vowels. Would the magic still be there, somehow marked on the walls or whispered in the stairways?

Drawn to the defiance of early punk music, mid-70s Manhattan had been my dingy fantasyland where everyone seemed interesting. Punk personified the outsider, the “lumpen hippie,” as the poet John Sinclair once said, who lingered by the roadside after Woodstock ended, and the flower crowns lay scattered around the premises. When the rich kids drove home, got a job, a group of social undesirables—the poor, gay and insane—stuck around the cheap clubs and drag bars of the Lower East Side. Their sound was slow at first, immersed in the jagged reverb of The Velvet Underground, then faster, unapologetic, satirical.

Was there still time to tear down the stars and build your own universe in a cheap part of town? Our hopes were high. The days before the trip I envisioned the bright light of Venus melting into the Manhattan skyline like a multidimensional stage light. The Television song from which this imagery arose refers to Venus de Milo, not the planet, but I hadn’t paid the lyrics enough attention.

It was early August and the nights were warm, unfolding softly into a clear space where the usual doubts and inhibitions seemed to disintegrate. Gloria, Kimberly and I stood on the balcony on the sixtieth floor. The humid air had a rhythm of its own, which gained momentum as darkness reached its peak and set fire to a thousand lights across Manhattan. Johnny and Frank brought us each a beer from the fridge. We had met them in a Midtown bar a few hours before. Johnny worked in a warehouse. Frank was unemployed, living at home, and I later found out he had a burgeoning affection for heroin. He showed us his record collection, systematically flicking through neo-punk and hardcore albums. I barely knew the bands. What about the old ones? I asked him. The first ones? He answered without looking at me. It’s not the same scene anymore, he said.

Later, standing close, Frank leaned against the balcony rail and, with arms folded, pointed out different buildings in the darkness. There was the Empire State Building. Brooklyn Bridge. His old school. Where had the towers been? I asked him, naively. Where had he been when it happened? He saw the smoke from the school yard, he said. The air was black. Once he got home, the towers were gone and the streets covered in ashes. It was an eerie sight, because everything was so still and calm, like the city had been put to sleep. He told the story hunched over, with a voice so subdued and simultaneously coherent, as if he wanted to be asked the question but not talk about it.

There was something infinitely sad about that view. It was made of glass, transparent, like it didn’t exist—not as I knew it. My perspective was pieced together from echoes of a distant era I knew little about. The atmosphere described in all those songs had been badly lit, broken and poetic with moments of intense ecstasy glimmering through the haze. This was different: so clean and somehow cracked, like a perfect smile resting on the wobbly bone of a broken neck. Frank had somehow fallen outside of our dream.

We were ignorant visitors in someone else’s reality, because in many ways it freed us from our own. The guise of the visitor is appealing because it’s unstable, vague, interchangeable, a blank identity, and music is a million places where we go. And we went there often, dreaming it was the real thing.

“I move in this here atmosphere, where anything’s allowed,” Patti Smith sings in Gloria: In Excelsis Deo. Traversing the same dark streets, clubs and stages as all those black-clad boys in bands, she broke free from whatever stifling normalcy she had been conditioned for. That, in the end, was all we wished for.

We left the apartment after midnight. Streets empty, the skyscrapers wore the sky above. They crowded ghost-like around us, broad-shouldered and twinkle-eyed, brighter than the stars. We saw past them, into the void, where another rhythm was generating.

This article was originally published in issue 22 of Oh Comely, accompanied by a playlist of 22 punk songs that inspired the piece.