return to the scene of the crime
little steven’s underground garage festival
randall’s island, nyc, 14 august 2004
I am still recovering.
Do you remember what it was like when you went to your first punk rock show – and it almost doesn’t matter whether it was in 1978 or 1982 or 1992, because it’s still about that moment when you walk in the door and everyone looks like you – or rather, you don’t look different than anyone else for the first time in your life? That feeling of inclusion and solidarity and homecoming. You felt comfortable, you felt at ease, and the music kicked ass.
That’s a good start at describing what it was like at Randall’s Island this past weekend. I don’t know that that was what Steve Van Zandt was trying to create, I think he was just pissed off at the current state of the War On Suck Ass Music and wanted to take a stand. But, believe it or not (depending on what side of this you fall on) Stevie knows a thing or two about solidarity and inclusion and brotherhood/sisterhood formed through music, because the E Street Band is pretty much about all of that.
When we got up to the x80 stop at 125th Street and my friend S. exclaimed, “Look at all the freaks!” she meant it in the best, most self-referential way possible. She meant it as: “Look, it’s a bunch of people just like us!” It was ripped jeans and Converse and leather and every t-shirt imaginable. Everyone was in what looked good or what was comfortable or both. In our party, the weather had mandated giving up on skirts and fishnets (although S. did soldier on with that motif; then again, she always looks better than everyone) and feather boas and glittery makeup. It sucked, you know? I mean, how many times in my life have I had to decide what I was going to wear to see the New York Dolls??
I’d printed out multiple copies of the last-minute timetable – when bands are getting exactly two songs, the timetable *does* matter – and then promptly forgotten them in a friend’s hotel room. For two songs, though, it doesn’t matter if the band sucks, by the time you get out of the crowd to go get a beer, the next one is on anyway. For those of the MTV generation, it must’ve been great. For those of us who don’t have ADD, two songs sucked.
The run of bands from 10am until 4pm went this two-song-per-band route. We arrived around 2:30 – I would have liked to get there earlier but, I mean, 12 hours of this? And I have to survive through the Dolls *and* the Stooges? Not likely. That meant we missed the Star Spangles and the Boss Martians from Seattle (funny that they had the real Boss, B.S. himself, introduce them) and Jeff Connolly’s Lyres (amongst others, those were the losses on our personal taste scale). We arrived to see a band called the Woggles, who were pleasant but forgettable, and walked up to the stage just as the Chocolate Watchband made their debut. The revolving stage appeared to be out of commission (Stevie mentioned later that it broke after the 10th band) but the promised go-go dancers were deployed to great effect.
The MC’s were Martin Lewis (this English guy that no one knew who he was – I’m sure you’ll all write in now and tell me, do me a favor, put it in a comment), and Kim Fowley. Now, the novelty of having Kim Fowley in our vicinity wore off after the second set change we had to witness. By the end of the night, it was clear that the novelty had worn off of everyone pretty fast. No matter where we stood in the crowd, the volume and tone of our snarky remarks to Kim’s attempt at stage patter made us friends very quickly. However, the best comment all night had to be just before the Stooges were about to hit the stage, and there is a slight delay, and Kim is going on and on and on and on, a gentleman in front of us yells, “Climb back in your coffin already!” (He did look pretty scary even without him being Kim Fowley.)
By 4pm, we’ve evolved into the bands rating a 10 minute set, preceded by the Chesterfield Kings, once again introduced by Mr. Springsteen (who stood at the side of the stage to check out the Kings as well as the first of the 4pm acts, the Mooney Suzuki. He is interrupted halfway through by none other than Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators, with whom he has a lengthy and animated exchange. Oh, to be a fly on that wall). The Fuzztones, the band that opened for EVERYONE in New York at one time, or so it seemed. The Paybacks from Detroit (who we liked until the lead singer felt the need to talk at us during many set breaks later in the day). The Pete Best Band – okay, most of my party were thrilled, to tell you the truth, I could care less. Yes, he played with the Beatles in Hamburg. What’s he done since then?? Whatever.
My dearly beloved D4 from New Zealand only got two songs – we’d learn later that they were starting to hurry people up due to fears of the hurricane breaking – and then the Romantics came onstage and we decided that this would be a fine time to go get food. They were followed by the Dictators, who opened with a spritely version of “New York New York”. Honestly, they were great in this context, and none other than Top Ten, Scott Kempner, was back onstage with them. Nancy Sinatra followed, accompanied by a horn section (including La Bamba), Clem Burke on drums, and three other guys no one knew. She sang a couple of songs from her upcoming album, one song by Morrissey and the other by Thurston Moore. It was amusing in the extreme watching the go-go dancers try to figure out what to do during the latter number.
Big Star – okay, I fuckin LOVE Big Star, but my feet hurt and I think they were placed wrong in terms of energy and pacing. They were followed by none other than Bo Diddley, and the crowd just adored him. Camera phones were held aloft in great number when he walked onstage. He was followed by the Raveonettes, who were supposed to get a 20 minute set, but cut it down to two songs due to weather (or so we’re told).
At this point, we are one band from the New York Dolls. The Pretty Things, who I would have enjoyed seeing, and who were supposed to get a 25 minute set – well, you know, they claimed that they were cutting their set down, but the last number was a song called “L.S.D.” that I swear was at least 25 minutes long. And to be fair, they were preceding the Dolls.
“There could be Pete, Keith and Mick on that stage right now and I would not care, they would be in the way of the Dolls,” I complained.
“You are so lying,” I am informed.
“Hmmm… no, not really. I have seen them, I have not seen the Dolls.”
We decide that the crowd really is very loosely packed and that we need to be closer. There was no way we’d get to the stage but we could improve our position immensely, which we did. The stage is ready – the screen flashes THE NEW YORK DOLLS – Clem Burke gives an impassioned introduction which is unfortunately premature as they are not ready – and then the band walks out, we hear David’s voice dedicating the set to Arthur Kane – and then before I know it, they are on that stage and my heart is pounding so very very very fast.
You know, I have seen David and I have seen Syl and I have seen JT, and I got to see the Heartbreakers, and I have seen David and Syl and Johnny onstage together, but it was not the same, because of so many factors, drugs and attitude and past baggage. And now it is so many years later, and I am older and they are older and most of them are gone now.
It was like being 15, like remembering what it was like to know that rock and roll will save your life, it is promise and redemption and, again, INCLUSION, it is being in a crowd who is singing the harmonies to “Trash”, it is life and spirit and hope. Watching it almost 30 years later, all the days in between when Johnny was fucked up and no one came to see Syl and Jerry Nolan became a stockbroker and David almost made it big but with the wrong fucking audience, goddamn MTV and that freaking Animals medley, and they either turned their back on the Dolls and that time and that music or conversely clung to it with a desperation that was depressing to watch. So you didn’t, or you did and wished you hadn’t.
And now, with only two of their number left, with mortality facing them, finally they can embrace it with not just the inexperienced joy of youth but with the blessing and passing of years and the lines on their faces, and the lines on our faces too. Because I am not a 19 year old Strokes fan there to see a band that I read about, I am 40 and this band was one of my first, very forbidden, undiscovered loves, no one, repeat, NO ONE in my high school knew about the New York Dolls. They were mine. They were the band that I would play dress up and sing in front of the mirror to.
It would have been a good thing if I had written down the setlist, wouldn’t it, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. S. had her Palm Pilot and was trying to record and I know someone there had to be recording (please, hailing all deities). I couldn’t write and I didn’t want to think, I just wanted to FEEL it, I wanted to live every single second so hard that it hurt. Because I never thought this would happen – it isn’t even that I waited for it to happen because I never believed that it would.
And then it was over, and we are hugging each other fiercely, and no one is looking at us strangely, at all. Because even if they don’t really get it they do understand, because they are here, and they are standing in a muddy field for hours and hours with a hurricane threatening because they understand, too.
There was no way in hell I was going to be that close for the Strokes, being on the island was closer than I ever wanted to be, but also, I thought this would finally be the chance I could give them. I was going to be feeling charitable after seeing the Dolls and knowing that Iggy and the Stooges were next. A friend sent me a mp3 of them covering “Clampdown” a few months ago (without telling me who the band was) and it was honestly pretty good. So I went into this with an open mind.
Strike one was that they took longer than ANYONE to come out onstage; they took so long that it prompted someone to yell, “You better fucking rock you assholes, you’re holding up the Stooges.”
Finally, they come out onstage. H. gets a good look at Julian and exclaims, “Oh my god, I ran into him when I was on my way to the bathroom earlier.” He looks pissed off. He dives into the crowd, which was a reasonable gesture, and it was cute seeing all the cameraphones in his face, but then he did nothing with it. You do that for reaction or for energy, I couldn’t figure out what the fuck was going on. They played reasonably well from a mechanical performance perspective but there was no passion or fire or even anything resembling zeal. Julian kept getting pissed off that there was no crowd reaction – well, fucker, you don’t just get it, you EARN it. You got a 4 star introduction from Stevie and you got the plum set – now go out there and take no prisoners.
Instead, Julian just whined a lot. Honestly, I will not ever listen to anyone trying to sell me on this band ever again. Done. Over.
So now we make our way back up into the crowd, cautiously, because we rightly assume that a Stooges crowd is gonna be rowdy (even though at this point it’s been 11 fucking hours that this thing has been going on and if anyone has any mosh left in them, well, right on, really). And then Iggy gallops onstage and I realize that Watt is up there with them (we were worried he had a tour conflict) and BOOM! CRASH! BANG! HOLY SHIT! It’s the fucking STOOGES.
Yeah, it’s the same setlist they’ve been doing for over a year now. You know what? It doesn’t matter, because it feels like you’ve never heard it before. It is big and loud and obnoxious and oh so very beautiful, it is what all the music we heard today goes back to. Even more than with the Dolls, everyone is singing along to every fucking word, loudly and with gusto. They rock, so very very righteously.
Iggy is trying hard to get into the crowd, but the security guys won’t let him. He gets pissed off. During “Real Cool Time” he insists on the usual crowd participation level, swearing at the security guards to let the fans up onstage. The first guy gets up and proceeds to hug Iggy tightly. Fans continue to clamber onstage. People watching the show from the side of the stage start running out to join in the festivities: several go-go dancers, at least one Fuzztone, and we’re pretty sure one of the Mooney Suzuki (who, after the stage was cleared, climbed up on the go-go dancer’s platform and danced for the rest of the Stooges’ set with the girls). Bob Gruen is standing stage center, taking pictures, as Iggy and a cast of thousands proceed to create a white riot on Randall’s Island. I got a text message in the middle of it all from the boyfriend, stuck at a family event, asking how things were going. “anarchy here” is how I responded.
And then, suddenly, it was all over, and we turned back into pumpkins and made our way back into Manhattan for some late night Chinese food, ignoring the exhortations to head over to Manitoba’s (the place is just *not* that big). Our feet hurt and we were wet and bedraggled and tired; now I’m just sorry I didn’t stay up all night.
Props to Stevie and his people. This thing could have been one enormous debacle; I don’t know what it was like backstage but out front the thing ran great. I might have preferred the show to be held in the stadium there (it was in a field nearby) simply because you could go sit somewhere if your feet hurt or if you were tired; the only choices here was sit on mud or sit on wet muddy grass. Food concessions left a little to be desired. I appreciated the light security that confiscated S.’s umbrella but allowed me to get my hip flask in. The crowd was fantastic; if there were any real assholes, we didn’t run into *one*. (The whiney little girl who got her boyfriend to stop the guy pogoing in front of them – stay home, go to a Dave Matthews concert or something.) Ticket price – fantastic. Sponsorship – it’s DONUTS. Who has a problem with *donuts*??? (Except – where were the fucking donuts???? Free latte samples galore, but nothing to get your sugar buzz on with.) Transportation on/off the island was also more efficient than one would have expected.
My only complaint: Where was the MC5 in all of this???
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