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Monday, May 3, 2010

‘Music From the Streets of New York’

Tony Fletcher’s look at the vitality of live performance

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Bruce Springsteen recently played the Super Bowl; Patti Smith did a fashion show; The Rolling Stones re-released Exile On MainSt. at prices ranging from fairly reasonable to slightly fair to awfully expensive. All of this comes from artists who were once edgy, countercultural performers. Tony Fletcher’s All Hopped Up and Ready to Go: Music From the Streets of New York, 1927-77 (W.W. Norton) reminds us what living music is all about. It also suggests that some once-cool rock icons need to get another life once their performances have run out of vitality.

But the most intriguing power of this bright and fascinating book is the realization that popular music history, for the most part, is founded on recordings and not on street-corner performers who are often written out of the story altogether. Is it possible that playing live, and on the street, results in a counter-popular-music canon? Sometimes these singers and their songs make it to the world of recording, and their street days become a back story. Fletcher makes the case for an alternative history of popular music based on live performance.

On April 16, 1962, just after the release of his debut album, Bob Dylan introduced a new song in the basement of Gerde’s Folk City, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” It “was met by stunned silence.” Then and there, live, the whole world of pop music changed. Dylan’s next few albums transformed the process of making records, with studio sessions conducted as though in a small basement with nobody in charge—or on the corner with everyone’s friends in charge, behaving as they would in the streets and small clubs of New York. This is how the six-minute “Like a Rolling Stone” got recorded, breaking all the rules of narrative and length for singles. There were co-conspirators present and a real audience.

Fletcher documents all this, and much more, on the Greenwich Village scene of the early 1960s where the starting point for many recording artists began in spontaneous, live music. “The only pop culture that seemed not to have an impact on the Village scene was rock ’n’ roll. A music that had changed the entire national status quo in the mid-1950s,” Fletcher writes, “seemed somehow to have met a blockade at the metaphorical gates of Greenwich Village.” They played folk music instead “and given the see-through vapidity…as heard through prepackaged Philadelphia teen idols, the young Village intelligentsia had every reason to believe that folk music was in fact the true rebel yell.”

Live music was a community of players that ultimately gained international prominence because these rebels stuck to their acoustic guitars, banjos and early American songs. Eventually, they recreated pop music altogether. However, the most essential element here is that the line had been held primarily through live music, not records.

Fletcher perceives music as cultural history. His research is impeccable and adds up to an understanding of how urgent it is for critics and historians to listen beyond records to hear how powerful music is when it wafts in through your window and not out of your radio, plugged into a system that pre-selects. Fletcher expands the accepted version of how music becomes popular.

From the first crooners to the initial rappers, with punk in between and jazz all around, All Hopped Up clearly demonstrates the importance of music first heard on the streets of New York. From this comes a realization: Listen to what is coming from your neighbor’s basement and avoid halftime at the Super Bowl. The elders need to get out of the way. They take up too much sonic space. They have too much product. They are not live anymore. That they once were is the story, but all stories require proper endings and not necessarily sequels. What’s next can be heard on your block, Fletcher might say, and, indeed, does say regarding New York. Get out of the new way if you cannot lend a hand.

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