Before Richard Goldstein became the Village Voice’s first rock critic, this Bronx-born teenager explored the city’s downtown by attending Off-Broadway shows and attending folk hootenannies in Washington Square Park and in Greenwich Village coffeehouses.
MacDougal Street intersected with the park on its south side, creating a critical mass that included Wendy Clarke, the daughter of Shirley Clarke, who was another regular at Washington Square Park. “It was such a mixture of gay and straight and black and white,” she said. “You talked to anybody and everybody, and there was a lot of hanging out on the street. I loved walking around the Village, barefoot.” Back when Debbie Harry began catching the bus from New Jersey to wander the streets of Greenwich Village, Chris Stein (her eventual boyfriend and Blondie cofounder) was taking the subway to hang out in the area. “I used to come in from Brooklyn a lot,” said Stein, who would not meet Harry until 1973. “It was an interesting time, right after the Beatles came along. We used to play Washington Square, just hanging out there playing banjo and finger-picking stuff. We went to the clubs there to see groups, all that folk stuff.” When the city passed an ordinance banning musical performances in the park, the folk crowd pushed back hard. “There was the New York Mirror headline, 3,000 beatniks riot in village, on the front page,” recalled Village Voice critic Richard Goldstein. “That was for the right to sing in the square, and we won. So that became a huge gathering place, huge.”
From Chapter 4 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Folk was also the music of the moment, and the best place to read about it was the Village Voice. Writers for that neighborhood paper had a connection to the downtown arts scenes that was far more intimate than, say, reporters from larger media organizations like the New York Times. Coverage from independent media outlets such as the Voice—and, later, the East Village Other and SoHo Weekly News—generated momentum and publicity for these scenes that allowed them to grow. It was a mutually constitutive relationship. Michael Smith and Richard Goldstein (who became the Voice’s theater and rock critics) shaped their respective scenes through their writing, and the same was true of the paper’s coverage of the folk phenomenon. The Bronx-born Goldstein first discovered the Village Voice in the late 1950s after listening to the independent Pacifica radio station, WBAI, which also cultivated the downtown’s underground scenes. Reading the Voice, he learned about the folk music that was happening in coffeehouses and at Washington Square Park, and began taking the subway down there with friends. “The club that we went to the most was Gerde’s Folk City in the Village, off MacDougal Street,” Goldstein said. “Gerde’s Folk City was one of the places that had these open mic events that we called hootenannies. That’s where I saw Dylan first.” The Gaslight was another coffeehouse that Dylan frequented, a basement venue that could squeeze in about 125 people. The older Italians who lived on the upper floors complained about the noise that wafted up from below, and they retaliated by throwing things down the airshaft. “So instead of clapping, if people liked a performance they were supposed to snap their fingers,” folk musician Dave Van Ronk explained. “Of course, along with solving the noise problem, that also had some beatnik cachet.”
When Ed Sanders signed the lease for his Peace Eye Bookstore in late 1964, at 383 East Tenth Street, Beat hero Tuli Kupferberg was already living next door, above the Lifschutz Wholesale Egg Store. They first met in 1962 outside the Charles Theatre on Avenue B, where Jonas Mekas screened underground films and Kupferberg was selling copies of his magazine Birth to the audience. Sanders let Kupferberg publish a poem in Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts and the two attended poetry readings at Café Le Metro, where Andy Warhol and Gerard Malanga mixed with literary heavyweights like Allen Ginsberg. After these readings, everyone congregated at a dance bar on St. Mark’s Place called the Dom—formerly a Polish wedding and social hall—where Sanders suggested to Kupferberg that they should form a band. Sanders suggested various band names such as the Yodeling Socialists and the Freaks, but it was Kupferberg who came up with the Fugs—fug was a term that writer Norman Mailer had used as a euphemism for fuck in his novel The Naked and Dead. With a name secured, their next order of business was to write songs. Sanders had been setting William Blake poems to music since his days of sitting in Washington Square Park as an NYU student, and he was more a poet than a rocker. “I don’t think I took the Fugs seriously as music. I just liked the scene, but I didn’t really listen to it as music,” said Village Voice rock critic Richard Goldstein. “But the idea of Blake’s ‘Ah! Sun-flower! / weary of time’ as a rock song was amazingly unusual.”
From Chapter 15 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore