Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-Garde

"Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club is highly imaginative and stimulating reading. Bernard Gendron offers detailed perspectives on very different aspects of music and culture, suggesting new ways of thinking about the entire history of popular music in the twentieth century."—Scott DeVeaux, author of The Birth of Bebop


An excerpt from
Between Montmartre
and the Mudd Club

Popular Music and the Avant-Garde
by Bernard Gendron

The First Wave

Origins of the First Wave: The CBGB Scene (1974-75)

A dank dive with a notorious bathroom in the seedy Bowery, CBGB's was an altogether unlikely site for a major cultural movement. If it had not been for the physical collapse in August 1973 of the Mercer Art Center, home to the New York Dolls and other alternative bands, CBGB's would probably not have left any trace on the city's cultural history. The various art organizations that had occupied the Mercer, like the Kitchen, had no trouble relocating. But unrecorded rock bands found themselves without options in a nightclub scene geared mainly to showcasing nationally recognized recorded acts.

As legend has it, the era of the New York new wave was initiated in March 1974 when the unsigned band Television convinced Hilly Kristal, owner of CBGB's, to let them play in his venue. Kristal had never conceived of his bar as a center of an avant-garde scene. His traditional and unimaginative objectives were clearly expressed in the decoding of the acronym that made up the full name of the club, "CBGB-OMFUG," which translated as "Country, Bluegrass, Blues, and Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers." Opening only a few months after Mercer's collapse, CBGB's appeared soon enough to exploit the empty cultural space left by Mercer without having had the time to settle into its originally conceived "roots" format.

A number of other groups followed Television's entry into CBGB's. The Ramones debuted in August 1974 as did Blondie. But it was the Patti Smith Group, with an already acquired notoriety in local art and rock circles, that really set the CBGB scene in motion when they paired up with Television on a two-month residency in the spring of 1975. The Talking Heads' debut two months later completed what was to be the nucleus of the new wave in its first incarnation, though at this time the scene was still nameless. The local rock critic establishment—at the Village Voice and New York Times—was slow to respond to the goings-on at CBGB's and not enthusiastic when it first did. During the length of the first wave, the brunt of local support came from the alternative press, initially the SoHo Weekly News and later the fanzines Punk and New York Rocker.

The writers' initial vagueness reflected the vagueness of the original CBGB scene. But even after a year or so, when the scene coalesced and the individual groups took on a distinctive configuration, there were no stylistic or attitudinal commonalities that welded it into one. How could one stylistic rubric encompass the Ramones' "dumbed-down" lyrics and speeded-up garage-band riffs, Patti Smith's snarling streetwise poetry, the Talking Heads' spastic sounds and faux preppy lyrics, Television's meandering improvisations, and Blondie's retro girl-group posturings? Yet almost without exception, rock writers, even when expressing confusion, acted as if there was an aesthetic homogeneity underlying these oppositions, or as if the CBGB scene constituted a united musical field.

Whatever can be said about the musical diversity at CBGB's, there was clearly a unified discursive field—a discursive formation—that materialized around it and gave it the unity it might otherwise have lacked. This is not to deny that individual writings about the new wave differed considerably in the theories enunciated, the rhetoric, the biases, and the stylistic idiosyncrasies. Even those critics who liked the CBGB scene differed in which groups they chose to promote or disparage. Nonetheless, if we put all these writings together, we discover certain dominant structures, foci, and tensions. This is not surprising, since the writings on the new wave grew out of the discourses on punk elaborated in the early 1970s in conjunction with the canonizing discourses on the Velvet Underground and their followers. Within discourse CBGB's was constructed as a united musical field driven by the opposition of art and pop, a unity in opposition, in the manner of the Velvet Underground. This was evident not only in attempts to situate each group in the general scheme, but also in debates about which label ("underground" or "punk" or "new wave") best fit the CBGB scene. In the remainder of this chapter, I discuss these art/pop discursive constructs insofar as they impacted on group identities and label choices.

The Players: Patti Smith

Patti Smith was both of and not of the first wave, an originator and intermediary more than a full-fledged participant. A poet who later came to rock 'n' roll, she never shed the identify of a poet who does rock 'n' roll, an artist who explicitly combines poetry and rock 'n' roll. She went from reading poetry at St. Mark's Place in early 1971, to opening as a poet for Teenage Lust and other rock bands in the heyday of the Mercer Art Center (1972), to forming a performance duo with guitarist Lenny Kaye (1973), the producer of the punk-retro album Nuggets, and finally with him to forming a rock band, the Patti Smith Group (1974).

Smith was said to have brought "rock 'n' roll rhythms to poetry," thereby having "reversed the process" initiated by Bob Dylan, who gets "credit for introducing poetry to rock 'n' roll." This brand of explicit art/pop synthesis, in which the art and pop components maintain an easily differentiable presence, was not at all typical of the CBGB scene. Though the founders of Television, Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell, were poets before they became rockers, the music of Television was never perceived as the marriage of poetry and rock. And, of course, the Talking Heads, as former visual art students, did not present themselves as combining rock with the visual arts. This is not to say that the poetry and art backgrounds of these musicians did not contribute to the construction and marketing of their images and the aura of "art" that surrounded their work. But the fact remains that the art and pop components in the rest of the CBGB music scene were not so easily differentiable and separable as they were in the Patti Smith aesthetic.

Such was the intermediate character of Smith's aesthetic that as easily looked back to Dylan, or more recently to Springsteen, as it looked forward to the Ramones and Blondie. She was perhaps not sufficiently understated in her "artiness" for the CBGB scene and was already too established to benefit from inclusion in it and definition by it. Her press coverage thus made little reference to her connections with CBGB's. Not surprisingly, in the first canonizations of the new music, Smith was relegated to the role of "godmother" of punk, paralleling Lou Reed's "godfather" role, a precursor rather than participant.

In the narrative of the CBGB scene, Patti Smith is more important for what she gave to the scene than what she got from it, and in what she gave, more important in providing exposure and audience than in shaping the aesthetics. For it is the Patti Smith Group, with their already established reputation, who transformed CBGB's into a cultural venue to be contended with during their two-month joint residency there in spring 1975 with Television. More significantly, they brought in a "following drawn from the art fringes," an "art-rock crowd," who quickly "cemented" a permanent relationship with the bedraggled "rock & roll crowd" already ensconced at CBGB's.

Television: Verlaine versus Hell

In 1974, in the first review of any CBGB band, the SoHo Weekly News described Television as "loud, out of tune," and with "absolutely no musical or socially redeeming characteristics." Less than a year later, SoHo Weekly News reported that "since their last stand at CBGB's, Television have improved considerably, tightening up their sounds and consolidating their influences into a powerfully cohesive entity." Meanwhile, the two coleaders of Television, Tom Verlaine (formerly Tom Miller) and Richard Hell (formerly Richard Myers), were developing opposite aesthetic personas, which as it turned out fit neatly in the binary template of art and pop. Verlaine would occupy the art end of the spectrum and Hell the pop end—an opposition that, as it intensified, led to Hell's departure from the band.

In their self-descriptions, however, Verlaine and Hell each positioned himself on the art/pop boundary. Hell stressed the influence on him "by the twisted French aestheticism of the late 19th century like Rimbaud, Verlaine, Huysmans, Baudelaire." He even gave an artistic spin to his torn shirt and cropped hair look, soon to be imported to England as the emblem of punk. "There were some artists that I admired who looked like that. Rimbaud looked like that. Artaud looked like that. And it also looked like the kid in 400 Blows, the Truffaut movie." Verlaine, more the musician, "started composing on the piano when I was in the fifth grade." But then he "heard John Coltrane, . . . got a saxophone," and later became "a huge fan of Albert Ayler," the free jazz saxophonist with whom he continued to identify throughout his career. On the pop side, both Hell and Verlaine were inspired by the "sort of American punk of the late Sixties that was made by the groups on Lenny Kaye's Nuggets Album, like the Standells, the Shadows of Knight, the Seeds." According to Hell, Television was emphatically not "in the tradition of the late Sixties worship of guitar playing, exquisite jams and precious music."

But as the band developed, Hell and Verlaine found themselves, not happily, on the opposing ends of the art/pop spectrum. While Verlaine was already experienced with the guitar and worked unrelentingly on his skills, Hell was a neophyte on bass and sought to turn that into a virtue. "What I wanted to convey," said Hell, was "that anyone can go out and pick out a bass," which he admitted was "a completely different attitude toward performance" than Verlaine's. "To me, it's a total catharsis, physically and mentally," whereas for Verlaine "it's just mental." Hell "used to go really wild on stage," which he recalled irritated Verlaine, who "said he didn't want people to be distracted when he was singing." Verlaine's focus, on the other hand, was "how do I get this song to sound better?" He stated that his "whole orientation was towards music and performance rather than getting the photographs right." He "got bored" with those three-minute songs "real quick and got more into the improvisational stuff." Hell, who "really liked the Ramones" for their "short, hard, compelling and driving music," recalled that Verlaine "thought they were beneath contempt."

In March 1975 Hell left Television and cofounded a new band, the Heartbreakers, with Johnny Thunders, formerly of the New York Dolls, whose "fuck art, let's rock" attitude seemed more congenial to Hell's aesthetics. But only a year later, Hell left the Heartbreakers, again because of an art/pop tension, which in this case situated him at the art end of the spectrum. Hell remembered: "It was just that the music was too brutish for me. It was clear that it wasn't gonna have any kinda musical ambition except to stomp out rock & roll which I liked, but I wanted to be able to extend it more." He formed the new group Richard Hell and the Voidoids, whose continued commitment to "short, hard, compelling and driving music," according to a reviewer, proved quite consistent with Hell's poetic sensitivity and Robert Quine's highly proficient guitar chops. "The Voidoids suggest an uneasy compromise between jazzy lucidity and a tone-deaf thickheadedness that lends everything they do a dizzy mobility." Thus, the art/pop tension reappeared in Hell's own groups.

Meanwhile, under Verlaine's exclusive leadership, Television moved toward the art end of the CBGB art/pop spectrum, hardly maintaining that oppositional dynamic with pop exhibited by the other bands in that scene. Taking a cue from his nom de plume, reviewers turned to the mythology of French symbolism in trying to get a fix on Verlaine's aesthetic persona. He was described as the pure artist, "pallid and gaunt," with a "strain of genius," who "fus[ed] an attractive symbolist disordering-of-all-the-senses aesthetic with a rich musicality and austere personal style." Conveying "a suggestive thoughtfulness," he "lack[ed] the brashness" to "overwhelm through a more overtly violent rock and roll." This "genuine auteur," who "had sprung up in the precious soil between the cracks in the concrete," did not quite seem to belong in the rock 'n' roll world. "Verlaine is too sensitive for this crummy Bowery bar," and "Television is a little too ambiguous and yes, a little too uncommercial as well." From mid-1975 on there was endless speculation, even confusion, on what was distinctive about Television's fine musicianship, and how this fit in with the rest of the CBGB scene. "Television is not a band that is easily pigeon-holed." By 1976 Television had ceded center stage at CBGB's to the Ramones and the Talking Heads, whose play with art and pop was more ebullient and focused.

The Ramones

The Ramones, who began to accrue critical attention by mid-1975, were the first in the CBGB underground to acquire a distinctive and strongly etched profile. They were consistently positioned in discourse on the pop end of the CBGB spectrum, which was reflected in the recurrent predictions that of all the CBGB underground bands, they had the best chance of breaking into the pop charts.

From the beginning, the discourses over the Ramones employed the full panoply of concepts associated with the punk aesthetics previously developed by the Creem-Bomp circles—assaultiveness, minimalism, rank amateurism—even before "punk" became a label of preference for the CBGB scene. Their music was typically characterized as "loud, hard and relentless," as "furious, blasting rock 'n' roll" that is "intent upon piercing a hole in the ozone layer." At their "fierce, assaultive best," they were like the "wild bunch" of the Peckinpah movie, "a beautiful self-destroying machine," leaving "nothing behind them but scorched earth"—"a perilously overheated chopper," ready to "go up in flames."

These overwrought descriptions give only one side of the story. Whatever was shocking about the Ramones' music, and it was never terribly shocking, was neutralized by their charm and humor. A British critic found them "simultaneously so funny, such a cartoon vision of rock 'n' roll and so genuinely tight and powerful that they're just bound to enchant anyone who fell in love with rock 'n' roll for the right reasons." For Lisa Robinson, the Hit Parader critic, a Ramones performance is "funny" and "couldn't be cuter." "All their songs sound exactly the same, each one is under two minutes long, they start out each number with a shouted 'one-two-three-four,' and then rush ahead at breakneck speed. Then they just stop suddenly." Another woman critic noted that the "dangerous exteriors" of these "pseudo-delinquents" conceal a "shamefully near-perfect etiquette." The Ramones' supposed "assaultiveness" seems to have been more a matter of male perception.

Nobody accused the Ramones of being inept or subscribing to an aesthetic of rank amateurism. But they were, by all accounts, a limited band who knew how to work within their limits, their posture being "do what you can do, and only what you can do. Your guitar player can't play lead? Well, fuck lead. Your singer can't carry a tune? Fuck tunes. Your drummer can't play slow tempos? Fuck slow. Your bass player can't riff? Fuck riffs." But this was seen as a virtue rather than limitation. The Ramones were, in the eyes of almost all critics, the ultimate and paradigmatic minimalists. No one seemed as adept at "stripping rock 'n' roll down to the bare essentials," at "cutting rock right down to the basic ingredient" and "rebuilding from there." "Each tune is built upon a few chopping, grinding chords, heavily churned out," while the rhythm section devotes itself exclusively to "capturing the three best riffs in rock and utilizing them over and over again." The Ramones' greatest virtue, it appeared, was to do without the "unnecessary icing that unduly sweetens the pie." In the Ramones' music, "the bare bones of rock and roll are delivered directly in the simplest manner with all the ugly fat stripped away. . . . Art lives in the bones of structure."

In the promotional jargon for the CBGB underground, no term captured more neatly the productive dissonance of art and pop than did "minimalism." On the pop side, "minimalism" implied simplicity and adherence without ornamentation to a basic universal rock framework, which in turn implied accessibility, familiarity, and eminent commerciability. It is for this reason that the Ramones, as the purest embodiments of CBGB minimalism, were widely viewed as the band with the greatest commercial potential. The Ramones were signed to a recording contract and released their first album one year earlier than any other band originating at CBGB's. On the other hand, "minimalism" is clearly an art term betokening a certain self-conscious approach to musical materials—a certain conceptuality, certain views about history and tradition, even a certain detachment. As a rock aesthetic, "minimalism" required a certain "aging" of rock 'n' roll and its fans and a sophisticated apparatus of rock criticism to identify it. John Holmstrom, the editor of Punk, "always thought the Ramones had a special class and intelligence, a simplicity that took sophistication to appreciate." Their "twenty minute set in those days" was "very artistic and so well executed that I had a hard time figuring out if they were really punks in leather jackets who would kill you for looking the wrong way or if they were just posing. . . . Once I met them I realized that they fell somewhere in between." According to Chris Frantz of the Talking Heads, the Ramones "were extremely arch in a musical way . . . they cared about making an artistic statement. To me, that was the essence of the Ramones." The Ramones, in their purist minimalism, could be viewed more abstractly "not just [as] a band," but as "a real good idea." "I mean, conceptually they're beautiful, poised with mathematical elegance on the line between pop art and popular schlock. From your aesthete's point of view, the Ramones sound has the ruthless efficiency of a Warhol portrait."

Certainly, the Ramones took an "anti-art" posture, such as their virulent anti-virtuosity, their dumbed-down lyrics ("Beat on the brat with a baseball bat," "I don't wanna go down to the basement"), and in general their refusal of "meaning." "They aren't worried about being genuinely creative," observed a British critic, "and if you told them that they provided a unique insight into anything they'd probably piss on your shoes, and you'd deserve it too." But as we know only too well, highly emphatic anti-art is often riddled with art. At any rate, the Ramones' anti-virtuosity was simply the other side of their minimalist aesthetic. And their exhibition of an "earnest dumbness of an adolescent pop" more redolent of a bygone era, before an audience of artists and other sophisticates, could only take on the allure of satire and irony. Of course, irony was a never-absent component of the CBGB aesthetic.

The Ramones versus the Talking Heads

As the image of CBGB aesthetics sharpened, the Talking Heads and the Ramones became the perfect foils for each other, each defined by the public in opposition to the other, the highbrows from art school versus the lowbrow dropouts from Queens, the quintessential new wavers versus the paradigmatic punks. Many who supported one of these groups tended to show contempt toward the other. Alan Vega of Suicide, who "never liked the Talking Heads," complained that they were so "studied" and Byrne's moves "were all plotted." "He didn't make any twitchy gestures without something in his head saying, 'Make a twitchy gesture now.'" Whereas John Rockwell, highly enamored with the Talking Heads, tended to be dismissive at best of the Ramones, whose sets, though "pleasingly amusing" upon first hearing, became "simply crude" upon repeated exposure. Of course, "only if you have a penchant for Mad magazine-type humor" can "this stuff" seem "both funny and cute."

On the other hand, Rockwell, from the beginning, considered the Talking Heads to be the "class of the field among unrecorded New York bands." Their unabashed artiness was a virtue rather than a vice for Rockwell, who later became a chief proponent of art/pop fusion. "The Talking Heads is a stimulating instance," he reported approvingly, of "how the art world has had an effect on local rock." He opened his review of the Heads' first album with a disquisition on the relation of art and pop. "Ever since the Beatles' 'Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' album of 1967, people have been wondering about the relationship between rock-and-roll and art music." Against those rock fans who respond with "disdain to the idea that their innocent entertainment be burdened with elitist associations," he clearly sided with those "who believe that some rock is art and that all rock can be considered in artistic terms." For him, the music of the Talking Heads is the paradigm of a rock "art form" that demands interpretation in "artistic terms." Their album "is as provocative a focal point for discussion of rock as art as any that could be found."

More than anything, it was the explicit overturning of rock performance styles and the obviously ironic use of the clichës of middle-class life that established the Talking Heads as a premier art-rock band. The band "is composed of four very neat-looking individuals whom any parent would introduce in polite company without a trace of nervousness." The Talking Heads offered "a fragile middle finger" to bands with "anonymous sidemen playing power-house back-up through a Luftwaffe of amplifiers." They were a welcome alternative to the "notion that power and glory can be found through efficient organization around the sexiest available male." "If Jonathan Richman [of the Modern Lovers] plays the kid who ate his snot, David [Byrne] plays the kid who held his farts in. He doesn't move like any rock star ever." And what was one to make of the quirky lyrics, "leaden with homilies" and "hyperventilated clichës," delivered "with the same fervor the Who always reserved for 'My Generation'"?

The Talking Heads' art identity was further highlighted by their being paired in CBGB programs and tours with those emphatic lowbrows, the Ramones. The art/pop contrast between the two groups was amusingly accentuated during their European tour. The Talking Heads would get up early to go to the museums, to the surprise of the local booking agent, who was accustomed to rockers "who can't get up before four and then have horrible trouble with their bowel movements." The Ramones "hated Europe," reported their manager, and "didn't like the idea that people didn't speak English." "They hated the food and just looked for hamburgers everywhere." Meanwhile, "the Talking Heads talked to everybody in French," which made the Ramones "pissed."

But, just like the Ramones, the Talking Heads displayed more art/pop complexities than originally met the eye. Aesthetically, they were closer to the Ramones, and a better fit, than any other CBGB group, a point accentuated by Tommy Ramone. "Whenever we had to find someone to play with us, we'd use the Talking Heads. Even though the Ramones played hard and raunchy, conceptually there were a lot of similarities: the minimalism." "We were so unique at the time that they were the first ones who played with us who actually fit." Indeed, minimalism, with doses of irony and parody, became the recognized aesthetic trademark of the Talking Heads as well as of the Ramones. The Talking Heads were perceived as closer to the Ramones than, say, Bruce Springsteen, who otherwise shared the latter's "primitive matters and meters" and "spirit of rat-breath oblivion." But whereas "Springsteen's music brims over with Spectoresque studio trimmings," the Heads, like the Ramones, "are stripped to the chassis. Their unvarnished arrangements rattle bones. No pickles, no garnish." To this reviewer, the Talking Heads "meet the first and last criterion of the [rock] art form, which is that the music should be as hot and monotonous as a marathon fuck." Put this way, the opposition between the Talking Heads and the Ramones had perhaps much more to do with style than aesthetics, the "loopiness" of the former perfectly "complementing" the "monomaniacal tightness" of the latter.

There is much to be said for the pop aspect of the Talking Heads. By all accounts, they were the best dance band at CBGB's and the only one whose rhythms were rooted in African American music. Lenny Kaye said the dance factor "was a great reference" for the Talking Heads, "especially since 'dance music' had a totally different connotation for avant-garde rockers in those days. That element of blackness shouldn't be underestimated." Though David Byrne took pleasure in the fact that "writers seemed to like us very quickly," he found it to be a drawback to being "dubbed as being intellectual." "We don't think we're smarties, we just don't enjoy being stupid either. We don't get into ball scratching. . . . The term art-rock annoys me." Of course, he admitted, the Talking Heads were "very self-aware" about their mode of presentation, which could to some appear "very contrived." But there was no alternative, since "the days of naive, primitive rock bands are gone."

The discourses on the Talking Heads and Ramones, taken collectively, thus became the verbal equivalent of a gestalt-switching mechanism. These two groups were sometimes portrayed both as diametrically opposed to each other, and yet with the slightest discursive shift, appeared suddenly to be completely in harmony with each other aesthetically. Discourses that viewed them both or singly as art switched quickly into viewing them as pop. None of these images were really contradictory, or only contradictory, since the discourses of art and pop, though always in tension, were always on the verge of collapsing into each other. The Talking Heads and the Ramones represented most starkly the two-headed aesthetic that was gradually being applied to the whole New York underground scene.


Copyright notice: ©2002 Excerpted from pages 249-59 of Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-Garde by Bernard Gendron, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2002 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of University of Chicago Press.

Bernard Gendron
Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-Garde
©2002, 398 pages, 12 halftones
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