Village People and other tales

Richard Lutz remember his early innocence in New York’s Greenwich Village.

It was an old theatre, crummy, damp, a firetrap, tired, paint peeling, fabric ripped or torn. Somewhere in the East Village in Lower Manhattan. Pay your buck or two and inside, half hidden by the smoke and gauze of pot, a ragged group of ragged crazies stalked a stage with its shabby curtain drawn back, all high as an elephant’s eye. It was The Fugs, probably the first of New York’s underground bands, pre-punk, pre-Velvet Underground, pre-most things not on the radio, not on the commercial radar.

There was a hazy dazey drummer and a raging hoarse singer. Lying on the stage floor was beatnik cum activist Tuli Kupferberg, looking for all the world like a leering satyr, jangling along on a stick of jangly bells. The music was pre-psychedelic, coarse and hard with a heavy hypnotic electric drive to it. They were singing their anthem: Slum Goddess from the Lower East Side.

The crowd was all over the place. In the aisles, sitting in the aisles, lying in the aisles, sitting on the backs of the theatre stall chairs, leaning against walls in the back. Lurching on to the stage. Lurching off the stage. They might as well have been standing on their heads for all I knew.

I had wandered into the theatre with Steve F, both of us all of sixteen. It was another of our weekend forays under the river from Brooklyn into lower Manhattan to Greenwich Village. Village life. East Village life. West Village life. Lower East side life. That night with The Fugs we listened to what turned out to be cult classics, raw, raucous,  loud and electric.   And very acerbic and funny. Once in a while now, decades later, I’ll hear them late at night on the radio: the aforementioned love song Slum Goddess or I Feel Like Homemade Shit, or Dirty Old Man or the angry Kill for Peace (or the one you sang at 4am) I Couldn’t Get High.

Steve F and I lurched out of the ratty theatre and into the night. A line of Hell’s Angels were leaning on their bikes. Around us swirled the Village.

We picked out way past the heavies on their Harleys. And we went home. Back to Brooklyn. Someone  had scrawled “Frodo Lives” on a dirty yellow pillar in the seedy subway station. Who was Frodo?  ust who were The Fugs that seemed to creep out of the crevices of the  floors of the seedy theatre? What was this about? As Dylan would have sung: “You don’t know what’s happening, do you Mr Jones…”

Coming from Brooklyn as a kid, a teenager, going to Manhattan via the night subway, meant going to The Village , as it was known. It was accessible, not too far away, fairly safe but tinged with the unknowns of the city. It was different. It was perfect for a bunch of restless innocents who wanted to disappear into the night. But not TOO far into the night.

Getting into the clubs and bars could be difficult. And getting a drink, when you were 15 or 16 (and looked 14) was just plain damned impossible. Bar owners in The Village (or the East Village or anywhere downtown) were pretty strict. And even though we all had our crummy badly photocopied fake IDs, they usually didn’t pass muster.

I had my eyes opened unexpectedly, Fug-like at times. One night I stumbled into a Thelonious Monk solo when he was playing a club. I probably passed security   because the guy at the door couldn’t give a toss who got in or not. Monk was imperious. He sat like a black sphinx behind his piano on a raised dias. He was wreathed in a swirl of smoke. He wore a fez and his face never changed as he produced, for me, unknown melodic and jagged music.  Once in a while he would grunt, either out of satisfaction, dissatisfaction or maybe  because his huge frame just didn’t fit right on his piano still. Who knew, anyway?

He was a  musical giant and I realised, despite my young years, that  this was different. It wasn’t the usual stuff  that I listened to on the AM stations. It was different, allright. Monk was different. I was In The City and in The Village. And it was different.

Monk (left) opened my ears to jazz though it finally took a friend whose father was in the record industry to really open me up. Free albums were always were around and the names were all new to me: Yusef Lateef, Mongo Santamaria, Chico Hamilton, Eddie Harris, Donald Byrd, Joe Henderson.

But The Village offered a lot of other diversions too. Once while on Bleecker Street, we saw a  creepy looking guy with straggly hair and a goatee beckoning us into a basement club. He was dressed, I remember, in a furry striped costume that made him look like a bee. He carried a cane and wore a top hat. He had a leer on his face as he tried to draw in the night crowd.  Years later, I realised it was Frank Zappa trying to fill seats for the early struggling Mothers of Invention. Inside the club, his band was playing what turned out to be their venomous song about the Watts riots: Trouble Coming Every Day.

Another time, I simply remember an old looking beat type of guy languidly strolling away from me with a banged up guitar case. He had on a black leather jacket, decorated with metal studs like the Angels outside the Fugs concert. Embroidered on the back were the words Scorpio Rising. I never forgot that glimpse of the underground for some reason. It remained stapled in my memory bank. And it stayed with me. For decades.

And then, in the 1990’s, years and years later, I watched a movie by the subterranean film maker Kenneth Anger. And there was that figure with the Scorpio Rising leather jacket languidly ambling away from the camera in the night streets of Greenwich Village. It was Anger. Just like I had seen as a young teenager in the mid-sixties. Just as I had framed it in my mind years before. I had pre-imagined it.

Positively West 4th

The Village, by the way, may have had the allure of something romantic or fun. It may have been full of posh townhouses and rick folks’ brownstones. But in those days it was still distinctly grubby. Garbage was crammed in little dark side alleys, the shops were dim and cheap, the clubs were minimal, smokey and tiny. Junkies sold bad dope. People were starting to die from needles and hard drugs.

In the dives, you sat, if you sat, at minuscule tables with overpriced drinks and served by churlish slack waiters and waitresses who were really singers, actors, artists wanting a buck or two because they couldn’t get money for their real work. And life must have been tough to crack.

I was in a record ship once on MacDougall Street thumbing through the more arcane music – not too fussed about The Beatles, The Kinks, The Beach Boys. I found myself in the folk section, unknown territory to me. I pulled out an album with a picture of a big brawny cowboy with a huge stetson and an old guitar. The singer was a western singer called Patrick Sky. There was an appreciative grunt next to me. “That’s me,” he said.

I looked at him. He was huge. “Yep, it’s me.” It was Patrick Sky, standing next to me.  I didn’t buy the album. Even though he was next to me. And later I wondered if Sky (and it was him) kind of hung around Village record stores checking out if anyone was buying his stuff. Maybe some kid from Brooklyn, for instance, checking out a world he was slowly exploring.

10 thoughts on “Village People and other tales

  1. I’m reading an autobiography of Alan Ginsberg just now, so right in that same groove. As for the Fugs: a long time since I heard ‘Do you like boobs a lot?’ and ‘Trying to forge the deep deep river of shit’…

  2. Went to the Village many times and Listened to the Fugs and Booker T. Zappa and Curtis Mayfield. Donovan and Major Lance.

  3. Ah, the Fugs. Not well known in England but known by ME because:

    I left school, shy and lacking confidence (a callow youth, as the novelists have it). I went to Barcelona where my father had recently been posted. My father sent me round to see the son of a colleague, slightly older than me, but who had long hair and ‘liked pop music’. (A dodgy thing for a Spanish youth in Franco’s Spain

    I arrived to find him and a couple of mates plus girlfriends. They were friendly enough but I spoke no Spanish and they hardly any English. Having ascertained that I didn’t smoke pot, didn’t play guitar (or any musical instruments) and didn’t have a girlfriend my host asked me if I could help translate something and put on an album by The Fugs

  4. Our crowd were regulars at Café Wha….

    I remember seeing Richard Pryor there, his first gig. Mind blowing for a white boy from Flatbush. Despite, or even maybe because of, the $5 rum and cokes served to 14 year olds.

    I think we also went to Café Au Go Go a lot. I remember seeing Jefferson Airplane there, probably 1967, equally mind blowing.

    ….We wore long wool winter coats we bought on the Bowery. Aviator shades we bought at the Army/Navy surplus on 2nd avenue.

  5. Oh RK those were eye-opening days crawling the Village, hanging at the Wha, the Airplane at the a-go-go and the shows at the old Village Theatre, (Richard you left out the smell of piss), before it became the Fillmore East. It was a magical path for young innocents

  6. Who wasn’t around those few blocks back then who was worth a shit in music, comedy, etc? … Dylan, McGuinn, Phil Ochs, Carlin, Lenny Bruce (arrested at Au Go Go), Baez, Joni Mitchell, Mama Cass, John Sebastian …. on and on … we tried to find Dylan at the Gaslight and some other little joints one night but couldn’t …. read the Wikipedia article on The Bitter End for a pretty comprehensive (and amazing) list … I saw a few years ago Electric Lady studios is still around over on West Fourth

  7. The first time I saw The Fugs, it was on a triple-bill with the Velvet Underground (with Nico) and the Grateful Dead (with Pigpen). The second and last time was in Cambridge. My high school band was kicked out of a battle-of-the-bands once for playing “I Couldn’t Get High”.

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