Introduction to The Downtown Pop Underground
The 1960s and 1970s produced seismic shifts in American popular culture that can now be felt on a global scale. One major epicenter was downtown New York City, where the inhabitants of a roughly one-square-mile area of Lower Manhattan changed the way we think about music, art, performance, and human sexuality. These events were set in motion by a tight-knit creative community that made sparks fly as they brushed against each other. Expressing themselves without much thought about career development or sound business plans, they did it collectively in the spirit of fun and adventure.
The escapades of these experimental musicians, writers, activists, dancers, film-and video-makers, theatrical performers, and visual artists were set against a backdrop of social decay. New York’s economy was decimated by a wave of white flight to the suburbs, starting in the 1950s, and its old industrial base also declined as manufacturers abandoned the city’s crowded factory lofts and inadequate transportation systems, favoring the West Coast’s tax breaks and better infrastructure. Postwar optimism gave way to rot in many downtown neighborhoods, which were disproportionately affected by deindustrialization. By the early 1970s, New York was in the midst of one of its most violent periods, with 1,691 murders and over 20,000 assaults in 1972 alone.
The rise in poverty and crime was devastating for those who remained, but at the same time the downtown became a magnet for artists and other outsiders. Together, they escaped into music, art, film, theater, and other fantastical worlds—their creativity enabled by inexpensive rents that lifted the burden of securing steady employment. “It was much, much cheaper,” recalled underground filmmaker and Village Voice critic Jonas Mekas, a Lithuanian immigrant who came to America after World War II. “Between ’53 and ’57, I lived downtown on 95 Orchard Street,” he said, “and I paid fourteen dollars and ninety-five cents a month, for one floor. That was how cheap it was. During the same period, the same space uptown would be maybe seventy-five dollars, which made a big difference.”
Andy Warhol’s longtime residence on East Seventy-Fifth Street, in the tonier Upper East Side, stood in sharp contrast to the decrepit downtown environs where he socialized. Manhattan’s midtown, sandwiched between these two zones, was the nation’s center of cultural power in the decades after World War II. Along with the Broadway theater district, it hosted all three national radio and television broadcasting networks (CBS, NBC, and ABC), as well as major book, newspaper, and magazine publishers. They presented images of Eisenhower-era idealism and a conformist culture—skin-deep representations that would soon be punctured by this book’s protagonists.
The peak period of mass media’s influence coincided with an explosion of localized independent media. This was enabled by several technological breakthroughs: audiocassette recorders, portable movie and video cameras, and public access cable television. The older medium of print also felt a jolt thanks to the mimeograph machine, a relatively cheap duplicator that was later supplanted by photocopiers and home printers. Mimeo made possible the instant publication of zines that writers distributed in the streets and at indie bookstores, underground cinemas, and do-it-yourself (DIY) performance spaces. Alternative newspapers such as the Village Voice and East Village Other also fostered community connections and encouraged new forms of expression to flourish, as did the free-form New York City radio station WBAI.
The fact that midtown and downtown were just a few subway stops away from each other sparked a dialogue. Unlike other avant-garde scenes that existed outside New York City, the downtown area’s close proximity to the nation’s media capital helped circulate cutting-edge ideas and innovations. Underground culture and popular culture have traditionally been viewed as diametrically opposed to each other, but the boundaries dividing the two are often blurry. Rather than living in different universes, they developed a mutually constitutive relationship that was transformative—a point underscored by this book’s title.
The Downtown Pop Underground examines the intersecting lives of those who played major roles in the downtown arts scenes, creating a whole that was far greater than the sum of its parts. By surveying the social networks they were a part of, we can get a clearer view of how these artists worked across mediums and collaborated with their neighbors.
As a key connector figure, Andy Warhol circulated not only through uptown art circles, but also within the underground film, poetry, theater, and music scenes. He is joined here by an ensemble cast of seven other main characters: H. M. Koutoukas, an outré playwright with a kaleidoscopic way with words; bohemian dancer Shirley Clarke, who evolved into a headstrong indie filmmaker and early video pioneer; Patti Smith, a punk-poet with roots in the underground theater movement known as Off-Off-Broadway; the trashy bleach-blonde Debbie Harry, who imploded the boundaries between pop and punk; Ed Sanders, a mimeo publisher, potty-mouthed poet, and frontman of the Fugs; DIY theater impresario Ellen Stewart, who cultivated an extended family of theater folks; and Hibiscus, the gender-fluid performer and founder of the psychedelic drag troupes the Cockettes and Angels of Light.
These interconnected individuals were nodes within a circuit that linked them to national and international mass-media outlets. Jacked into a system that amplified the downtown underground’s subversive signals, their whispered messages could eventually be heard loud and clear. Of course, dozens of other downtown figures also broke new ground and had widespread influence—far more than could be catalogued in a ten-volume magnum opus, let alone this one book. A comprehensive history of this milieu is a fool’s errand, so I accepted some constraints.
While sorting through stacks of archival research and over a million transcribed words from my interviews, I gravitated to those individuals who straddled multiple mediums and art forms. This book’s primary themes—experimentation, hybridity, and border-crossing—are embodied by Warhol, Koutoukas, Clarke, Smith, Harry, Sanders, Stewart, and Hibiscus. My focus on these eight people and their social networks limited The Downtown Pop Underground’s scope, but trading encyclopedic expansiveness for a comprehensible narrative has advantages. A close attention to detail provides nuance that other histories sometimes bury in generalities—and when viewed collectively, these personal experiences shed light on more universal dynamics that drive culture, creativity, and connectivity.
This book is organized into three parts, beginning in the late 1950s with Off-Off-Broadway and concluding in the mid-1970s during the rise of punk rock. Along the way, it ricochets back and forth between Pop Art, pop music, avant-garde rock, contemporary dance, Happenings, alternative newspapers, underground film, public access television, gay liberation, antiwar activism, street poetry, urban planning, and even early reality television—all of which are intertwined in one way or the other. Part One (“Setting the Scenes”) shows how downtown artists crossed paths and fed off each other, while Part Two (“Action!”) is full of the sort of conflict that marked the Vietnam War and Civil Rights eras. In Part Three (“The Twisted Road to Punk”), that vortex of energy was channeled into a new scene that included many familiar faces from earlier in the book.
The Downtown Pop Underground tracks the movement of these starring and supporting players through time, and also through space. The first chapter opens during the late 1950s in Greenwich Village, a place that attracted oddballs looking for a place to fit in—whether they were peace freaks, artists, homosexuals, or all of the above. That neighborhood has a long bohemian history that stretches back at least to the nineteenth century, and by the 1940s and 1950s it was home to several notable Beat writers, jazz musicians, and visual artists. The West Village, particularly Christopher Street and Sheridan Square, created spaces for gay men to openly experiment and develop new sexual identities.
This was certainly true of the pioneering Off-Off-Broadway theater venue Caffe Cino—located on Cornelia, a one-block-long street that terminates to the north at West Fourth Street. One block to the right of that intersection is Washington Square Park, a central gathering spot for New York’s folk and Beat scenes in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The area surrounding the park was filled with coffeehouses, particularly on MacDougal Street, a staging ground that launched Bob Dylan into the pop culture stratosphere and provided a home for more unorthodox folk artists like the Holy Modal Rounders.
On the south side of Washington Square is Judson Memorial Church, less than a five-minute walk from the Cino. It mixed radical art, politics, and performance by hosting experimental music composer and theorist John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham, painter Robert Rauschenberg, and so many others. These artists used the church’s space to expand the possibilities of mixed media, chance strategies, and nonlinear narrative—all of which dramatically altered the direction of twentieth-century dance, theater, visual art, and musical composition. Judson, along with Caffe Cino and Café La MaMa, also welcomed a large theatrical family that included George Harris III, later known as Hibiscus.
The dividing line between downtown and the rest of Manhattan is Fourteenth Street, where the Living Theatre was housed in an old four-story department store building on the corner of Sixth Avenue, ten blocks north of Judson. Shirley Clarke adapted her first feature film, 1961’s The Connection, from the Living Theatre’s 1959 production of that play, which was a downtown hit. In 1965, Clarke began living and working at the Chelsea Hotel—about nine blocks north of the Living Theatre, on West Twenty-Third Street and Seventh Avenue. A kind of downtown annex, this residential hotel housed many artists and bohemians through the years: poet Allen Ginsberg, philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, singer Janis Joplin, couturier Charles James, and playwrights Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Sam Shepard, to name but a few of the dozens of prominent figures who lived there at one time.
Patti Smith also spent time in the Chelsea after moving to New York in 1967, not long after fellow Jersey girl and future Blondie singer Debbie Harry settled on the Lower East Side. Much of the pop music Harry and Smith listened to as adolescents was a product of record companies and song publishers that were located in the midtown area. The music industry was concentrated around the Brill Building at 1619 Broadway, which was packed with songwriters who pitched their musical products to hit-seeking record labels. Midtown was also Manhattan’s primary entertainment district, where popular and highbrow fare could be enjoyed in Broadway theaters, Radio City Music Hall, and Carnegie Hall. Additionally, the area had several large movie palaces, such as the Bryant Theatre on Forty-Second Street.
Midtown was home to the original location of Warhol’s studio, the Factory, which was known for its silver spray-painted decor, electric atmosphere, and eclectic cross-pollination of people and scenes. The studio’s name was inspired by the artist’s assembly line–like production of silkscreened prints and, a bit later, underground films and music. Unlike many critics of mass culture during that time, Warhol didn’t draw distinctions between the downtown’s “purer” kinds of artistic expression and the “commercial” products pumped out of these midtown office buildings. This flattening of cultural distinctions helped usher in a new postmodern aesthetic.
Warhol lived uptown and worked in midtown, but his heart was very much tied to the downtown’s arts scenes. In 1967, he moved the Factory to 33 Union Square, between East Seventeenth and Eighteenth Streets in Manhattan. Across Union Square Park was a restaurant and bar named Max’s Kansas City, one of Warhol’s regular haunts even before the move. Max’s became a key destination where radical politics, painting, poetry, rock ’n’ roll, and Off-Off-Broadway theater crossed paths, and the downtown’s center of gravity continued shifting eastward as the 1960s progressed.
People moved away from Greenwich Village to the much cheaper Lower East Side, which nurtured everything from avant-garde poetry to the radical Puerto Rican nationalist organization the Young Lords. It was also where poet and indie mimeo publisher Ed Sanders opened his Peace Eye Bookstore, where he used to crank out printed matter on his mimeo machine and rehearse with his irreverent underground rock band the Fugs. Peace Eye was located between Avenues B and C, on East Tenth Street, in what was later known as Alphabet City—where the cost of living was lower, but life was harder. By the mid-1960s, parts of the Lower East Side were renamed the East Village by developers hoping to rebrand the neighborhood’s sketchy image, but the streets could still be dangerous.
Ellen Stewart’s Café La MaMa was located in the East Village and, like Caffe Cino, was among the first to uproot theater from its midtown home. With seemingly unlimited energy, she charmed the Ford Foundation and shook other money trees to sustain her growing theatrical empire. Stewart was an exemplar of self-invention, a black woman with zero theater experience whose distinctive accent was somewhere between truth and put-on, depending on who she was speaking to. La MaMa cultivated innovative performative styles that eventually injected new life into Broadway theater, as when its star director Tom O’Horgan turned Hair into a pop culture phenomenon in 1968.
A short walk from La MaMa’s East Fourth Street location was the Mercer Arts Center, where underground theater, glam rock, video art, and performance art briefly intersected in the early 1970s. After part of the building collapsed in 1973, the music scene that developed at Mercer’s shifted to Club 82, a basement disco and proto-punk venue located on East Fourth Street, right next to La MaMa. Just around the corner was CBGB, a large bar at 315 Bowery where many of the scene’s key players finally put down roots.
Punk absorbed energy from Off-Off-Broadway, which had been one of the downtown’s primal cultural forces since the late 1950s. Underground theater broke down the barriers between performer and audience with provocative low-budget shows in DIY venues, activities that later became associated with punk. In addition to sharing several social connections, punk and Off-Off-Broadway theater made magic by appropriating found materials and makeshift spaces—much like Andy Warhol’s silkscreened prints and indie films, Ed Sanders’s mimeo publications, Shirley Clarke’s film and video experiments, Debbie Harry’s trashy camp pastiches, Patti Smith’s independently released musical debut, Ellen Stewart’s basement theater, H. M. Koutoukas’s paper cup telephone props, and Hibiscus’s glittering homemade productions staged by his loving family.
Collectively, they blurred several entrenched dichotomies: art and commerce, high and low culture, corporate and independent media, center and margin. The residents of Lower Manhattan may have been subterranean, but their position deep inside America’s media capital enabled them to reshape the larger culture by causing the underground to go pop.