While New York tries to clean up from Hurricane Irene’s devastation—newspaper boxes almost tipped over!—it seems appropriate to review two New York-centric entries in Continuum Books’ 33 1/3 series: Marquee Moon by Bryan Waterman and Some Girls by Cyrus R.K. Patell. The two NYU professors conceived of their books as loosely paired, one looking at the classic debut album by Television and the other examining the arguably last good album by the Rolling Stones.
The levels of New York-ness in the books mirrors those of the artists profiled. Television was very much a product of a New York that pulled together high and low art, socialites and drag queens, poets and cavemen in a distinctly urban environment. Even then, it was wishful thinking and downtown myopia to believe that albums by Television and their CBGB’s contemporaries would translate to the rest of a country that was listening to ELO, Billy Joel and Kiss, and Waterman documents that moment well. Marquee Moon is largely a cultural history of CBGB’s and the community that made it cool, which means that it is revelatory at times and mundane at others when Television plays another week-long stint at the club.
Years later, I ran into Fred Smith during his time as bass player with the Fleshtones, and I commented that the album sounded like the product of a band that was thrilled by what it was accomplishing. He said, “We were never that good again,” and that’s something you don’t get from Waterman—a sense of the band’s delicate balance between genius and garage. Listening to the title track now, you can hear Tom Verlaine catch a fret in its epic guitar solo, and drummer Billy Ficca misses a cymbal crash, but both escaped my notice for more than 30 years because the band sounds enraptured with itself throughout Marquee Moon, amused and amazed by what they’re accomplishing as they’re playing.
The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls is a Manhattan album in the sense that Mick Jagger’s clearly influenced by living there, but the book is less of a New York book because by 1977, the Stones were citizens of the world, and had already had misadventures in England, France and Canada, where the Prime Minister’s wife partied like a celebutante after the band’s show at Toronto’s El Mocambo. New York was just one more port of call for the band, so while the punk and disco in the air affected the album’s sound and the city’s aggressive decay shaped the lyrics, the Some Girls album is about the band, not the city.
The unifying figure who doesn’t play a significant role in either book is Andy Warhol. The drag queens and underground theater stars in Warhol’s orbit added some of CBGB’s initial decadent glam while Warhol himself was partying with genuine stars along with Jagger and Bianca at Studio 54. Both books are fascinating—Marquee Moon, more so for me—but the New York book to write to connect Waterman and Patell’s is one tracing the movement from Warhol’s self-made parody/imitation of the celebrity milieu of wealth and class to his arrival in the real deal. The hows and whys of that movement helps to explain how one band that loved garage rock ended up with a cult audience while another became rich enough to own a small country if it wanted one.