Borders Blur In New Histories of New York/New Jersey Music

New York Rock: From the Rise of the Velvet Underground to the Fall of CBGB
By Steven Blush
St. Martin’s Press
496 pp., $24.99

Steven Blush has done something truly impressive and exacting here — distill the essence and core of the rock scene in the country’s largest city over four decades into an insanely detailed oral history. Here, there are firsthand reflections and remembrances of a more than staggering 1,500 musicians, club owners, record-company people, journalists and scenesters.

The result is not for every reader, and at times comes off encyclopedic in nature. But in the text here, the filth of the bathroom at CBGB, the grime of musicians' heroin shooting galleries, and the sweat of the bodies of maniacally dancing audience members fairly pounce off the pages.

Blush, a journalist and filmmaker whose works have concentrated on hardcore and metal music, leaves no genre unturned here in his narrative excavation, including even a chapter on “Hoboken Proto-Alt” music. And each one is chronicled in sections The Rise, The Scene, The Music, and The Fall.

Brief careers of all the familiar Empire State bands are covered here: the Velvet Underground/Lou Reed, the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, New York Dolls, Sonic Youth, Living Colour and the Beastie Boys. But Blush goes deep with mini-bios on hundreds of other obscure bands with colorful names like the Sick Fucks, the New York N——-s, The Gynecologists, Toilet Boys, Cycle Sluts from Hell, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black.

Meanwhile, the litany of clubs on whose stages they trod get vivid portrayals in their own right; many of them suffered when the state raised the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 in 1985. As the title indicates, the book ends with the closing of the venerable “birthplace of punk,” CBGB, in 2006 and, as if on cue, the death of founder, owner and guiding light Hilly Kristal a year later.

By that time, Kristal’s original rent of $700 had ballooned to $23,000, and gentrification of the Bowery and Lower East Side meant he was making more money selling T-shirts to tourists and the curious than he was on cover charges and bar tabs.

“New York was bankrupt, dirty, violent, drug-infested, sex-obsessed — delightful!” reflected avant-garde musician Lydia Lunch in 2008, discussing a much earlier time and vibrant scene that is the heart of this book. “In spite of all that, we were laughing, because you laugh or you die.”

BOSS: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band — The Illustrated History
By Gillian G. Gaar
Voyageur Press,
 208 pp., $35

While Bruce’s new autobiography, Born to Run, is the Springsteen publishing star of the year, this nifty coffee-table tome makes a great companion. Gaar, a seasoned music journo who has written books about the Doors and Nirvana and a history of women in rock, pretty much sticks to factual journalism here, with a compact but complete rat-a-tat-tat rundown of Springsteen’s life and music, heavy on anecdotes and information on concert performances.

While hardcore fans might not find a lot of new information here, trivia nuggets are aplenty: how Bruce paid a total of $18 for his first acoustic folk guitar; how his band Earth was filmed in a concert sequence for a softcore porn film that was never released — and lip-syncing to another band’s music to boot!

Gaar also notes how the Boss might pop up onstage with anybody, anywhere, at any time, from James Brown and the Rolling Stones to John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band. That latter act’s biggest claim to fame was providing a very Springsteen-like soundtrack (“On the Dark Side”) for the movie Eddie and the Cruisers.

Throughout, the book is lavishly crammed – like the best kind of “illustrated histories” of musicians – with ultra-cool rare photos and memorabilia. BOSS will appeal to both the casual and the more dedicated Springsteen fans, and Gaar skillfully weaves the whole story together.