City Primeval. New York. Berlin. Prague. Curated by Robert Carrithers and Louis Armand (Literaria Pragensia Books/ Univerzita Karlova)
You may, or may not, see this book in shops. If you do, buy it. Most of the readers here will want to read the New York section. So don’t hesitate.
But I’m s’posed to be a critic or something and The Barman wants to know: how many McGarretts? In spite of the several things which annoy the hell out of me, "City Primeval" rates a mighty Three McGarretts. Yep: 100 percent..
Why so high, Grand-dad?
Well, the concept alone is mighty. And it could’ve been seriously terrible. But "City Primeval" is one of those unique, slanted historiography things which are invaluable to any music/ culture enthusiast. Sure, the book could’ve done with a decent editor, and sure some of the people writing here don’t usually write so it’s not the smoothest.
But that’s not the point, at all, and in fact is part of the charm. Reading "City Primeval" doesn’t just give us a bit more context, but part of the "ah-HA!" understanding which so many outsiders to any florid scene lack.
So we’re introduced to a series of overlapping and meshing scenes (some connections are spurious, but I’ll leave that to you to figure out) which imply a kind of world-underground a la Richard Neville’s "Play Power. Exploring the International Underground" (Cape, 1970), when they really require (well, required at the time, I guess) an essay like Tom Wolfe’s "There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmm)…" (Esquire, 1963).
However, this is what we’ve got; a mark of ‘City Primeval’’s success is that I want to read more of every scene, and dig out records mostly (and unsurprisingly) not in my collection.
New York is up first and, rather than rehashing all the old CBGBs and Max’s stuff, we find ourselves looking at Club 57, and the Mudd Club. Both of which we’ve mostly heard a bit about but not really known or understood. We read some personal reminiscences, a few glimpses of a career, find ourselves reading between the lines - I’ve never been to Berlin, much less Prague, so I do a lot of this.
Marcia Resnick’s photographs are interesting. There’s an interview with the Fuzztones. There’s "The New Punk Girl, NYC 1979" by Victor Bockris; this is indispensable, as is Jex Harshman (a glorious name) whose article "Knowing Nico" is rather sweet. Penny Arcade’s two pages are a better, more real introduction to the NYC scenes than Louis Armand’s three (I read too much of Armand’s style of writing in the early 1980s. Awful. A blizzard of references and assertions which conceal stuff which is simply wrong; leaps of logic which are more like leaps into a wall. Once you spot a few totally wrong opinions stated as fact you lose faith.)
Just quickly, never start a book by reading the introduction. I used to do that as a kid before I realised the damn things referred to too much that was in the book to make any sense, so I started reading the book first. Then I might have a bash at the intro. Hell, I tell this to people who buy my books: Skip the Intro. Read the book.
Anyway, it doesn’t matter because the rest of "City Primeval" is a bonanza. Nick Zedd sums up NYC, but he may as well be summing up the many scenes remembered in this book: "As a transit station, NYC used to be a good place to experiment and discover new ways of living, but the vile destruction of history and culture has resulted in a hostile environment for free thinkers, truth seekers and innovators who have never belonged to the privileged class that dominates and controls all institutions."
"City Primeval" is almost worth the price of admission just for Zedd’s single page of bile. It’s beautiful. There’s more, lots more, on the NYC culture and you’re in for a treat; but I’ll just add that the NYC section ends with an article by honorary Aussie Mark Steiner, who spends his days shuffling between Europe, the Bug Apple and Melbourne. Mad as a brush, of course, but he wields a hypnotic guitar and if you don’t see him in your gig guide, call the bugger and drag him down here.
Hell, Mark is an old romantic softy, he makes buying a T-shirt (with a list of thuggery prices offered by the original Purple Gang on the back) in NY seem engaging … speaking of which; “The cashier was furious, banging the phone against the wall, as if he didn’t see me come in. ‘Goddammit! Try to call 911 and it’s fuckin’ busy! Fuckin’ typical!".
Yeah, Noo Yawk. Ya gotta luv it, L-U-V.
Moving further …
Some of you will recognise some perhaps inevitable names here: there’s an interview with Lydia Lunch, talking about Rowland S. Howard and the Birthday Party, Crime and the City Solution, Christoph Dreher (of Die Haut) and the like.
Certainly no venture into modern Berlin culture can ignore folk like Einsturzende Neubauten, nor Prague with the Plastic People of the Universe. Of course you will see a swathe of names you’re not familiar with. At this point "City Primeval" becomes an anthology of artists which command investigation; the familiar surrounded by an equally tempting array of talent. Ian Wright describes "The Night I Screamed Louder than Alan Vega" (a Suicide gig in Berlin), Julia Murakami describes her first day in Berlin (a frustrating interlude with the police), and there’s an interview with expat Aussie Bruno Adams (1963-2009) - "Once Upon A Time" (Melb) and "Fatal Shore" (Berlin) - and there’s a short piece by expat Aussie Chris Hughes. Expat Aussies litter Berlin, apparently.
But I’m only showing you these to get your attention. Without giving too much away, the sheer variance and diversity of quality art and cultural warp here is its main attraction. Place yourself in a grim, drear town where the artistic types find each other. Forgotten in crumbling, abandoned buildings owned by careless rich people, rules bend, snap, break and transform into new norms as new cultures form, expand and naturally taking over until the culture runs (naturally) out of nutrients.
The sheer effervescence of the human creative spirit, often in numbing or impoverished circumstances, is enough to give the bleakest of souls hope. Certainly this hasn’t been the first or last time we’ve seen this - British music-hall springs to mind, as does Rebetiko - and ‘City Primeval’ is inspirational.
Reflecting on my own past, I recall scenes I knew and visited but could not truthfully describe myself as a part of; for example, the Beulah Road mob, 205, even the Chicken Inn.
After reading "City Primeval" I really do wish someone would document those scenes.
Get it here. Apparently it ain’t on Book Depository, so you may have to order it through your local culture emporium, or perhaps the FB page.