Thursday, May 10, 2018

Q&A with the authors of the 'Rock & Roll Explorer Guide to New York City'

Longtime friends Mike Katz and Crispin Kott, both obsessive music fans and history buffs (and at least one is a self-described failed drummer), channeled their love of rock & roll and NYC into a new book titled "Rock and Roll Explorer Guide to New York City."

The book, via publisher Globe Pequot, provides a five-borough look "at how bands came together, scenes developed and classic songs were written."

I asked Katz and Kott a few questions via email about the book and what readers can expect...

How did the idea for this book come about?

Katz: We’ve known each other for 25 years and share a deep fascination not only with music, but with its history. We also share an appreciation for the cultural uniqueness of New York and all the incredible artists who have lived and worked here over time. Beyond that we’ve spent years walking the streets and learning the terrain of this town.

We were kicking around a few nebulous ideas for trying to tell the story of New York Rock & Roll when we attended a reunion of the Velvet Underground at the New York Public Library in December 2009.

Lou Reed and his bandmates all talked about their various adventures throughout the city, and it hit us that this might be a way in. Examine history geographically, street by street and neighborhood by neighborhood, like a travel guide. It took us a while longer to settle on a specific format, and how best to organize the narratives of several key artists, but we believe we’ve come up with something that’s informational yet fun to read.

How did you decide what NOT to include? There isn’t any shortage of NYC music history and trivia. (For example: The site of GG Allin’s last show is now a Duane Reade on Avenue B.)

Kott: We actually had that GG Allin death site on Avenue B in an early draft of the manuscript but we ultimately felt it was too grim to include. Not that there isn’t plenty of grimness in the book.

Early on we decided that with the exception of places that were both well known and historically significant, we didn’t want to include anyone’s current home address. We expanded that to include former residences that were still the homes of family members. That came up quite a few times, actually. But we didn’t want anyone bothering musicians or their families at home, so we left those out.

And we shared with our editors and publisher a goal of not putting out a book that was cumbersome or unwieldy, so that sometimes meant weighing the cultural significance of one location against another to see which to keep and which to cut. We also knew that by doing this we risked people just like us saying we’d made the wrong choices sometimes, but if we kept everything in there you’d have to carry the book around in a wheelbarrow.

Katz: From the outset we knew we wanted to create something portable and affordable that people could carry in their backpacks and read on the subway. We weren’t interested in producing something heavy and encyclopedic that sat on a shelf. It had to be interactive and encourage readers to get out and explore; to go where their heroes had gone. That dictated policing our own obsessive tendencies.

Every era and every artist presents its own set of rabbit holes to get lost in. We had to make sure we had enough primary information to satisfy the casual fan, and yet provide a quality selection of deeper details for the superfans. Some artists demand it, like Dylan or the Velvet Underground, certainly.

Covering all the pertinent eras, and there were more than we bargained for, was another challenge. So much of the music that laid the groundwork for the rock era was made in New York, too, and we felt we had to provide that context. New York has long been a major hub of the music industry, but we chose to focus primarily on the performers. We do tell the stories of certain key entrepreneurs, songwriters, and producers, though, too.

We had to make plenty of hard choices, and frequently called and messaged each other at all hours to work through many conundrums. We joke that all the stuff we didn’t use will go in the deluxe slipcased edition!

The East Village receives ample coverage in the book. Obviously there’s CBGB and the Fillmore East. What are a few of the under-the-radar places (or historical tidbits — like Nico lived at 101 Avenue A!) that people may not be aware of?

Kott: My favorite find in the East Village was the location of the former Kiwi Club, which was a regular hangout of a lot of the people associated with the early CBGB scene. And the Dead Boys lived in squalor above the place, too. I spoke to Legs McNeil and James Marshall, and both gave me great detail about what the place was like, but it took more digging to track down the actual address. It’s possible longtime East Village residents remember the place, but I was a kid when all that was happening so I’d have never known.

Katz: One of the things that people may not be aware of is how many identities some of these venues had. The Fillmore East, for example, aside from its roots as a Yiddish theater, has been known in the rock era as the Village Theater, the Villageast, and The Saint, in addition to the Fillmore.

You’re both music fans. What was your favorite discovery about the NYC music scene while researching the book?

Katz: Staying in the East Village, I really enjoyed researching the Fugs, and how central they were to developing the unique countercultural atmosphere of the area. They were serious troublemakers dedicated to pushing the buttons of a conservative society, but in the form of a band. And they faced real peril. They were repeatedly harassed, arrested, and threatened by the authorities, as well as terrorists. People are often unaware of how dangerous the ’60s could be.

Kott: I don’t know that it’s a discovery as much as a confirmation of what I already suspected, but the more layers we peeled back, the more we found a city that was a lot more connected than people give it credit for. I don’t know if there’s anywhere else in the world where so many different genres could come together and intermingle the way they have in New York City.

When you say “punk” to someone, they might have a narrow idea of what that means. But look at those first wave groups that came out of CBGB: Talking Heads, Blondie, Television, Ramones, Suicide, Mink DeVille — the list goes on and on, and none of them sounded the same. They all came from different places and had different influences, and most of them were open to not only hearing what was going on beyond the Bowery, but also bringing different elements of that into their music.

How do you think this current time period in NYC music might be remembered years from now for a future Explorer Guide?

Kott: I hope it carries on and we get to revise the book every so often forever to include artists that won’t make their mark for another five or 10 years. With Lizzy Goodman’s excellent "Meet Me in the Bathroom," people can experience an early aughts scene that grew around bands like the Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs and wonder if something like that could ever happen again in this city. Whether there’s another total cultural shift through rock & roll that comes out of New York City, I don’t know. But there will always be new exciting artists here. The new Parquet Courts record is out in a couple of weeks, and I can’t wait.

Katz: One of the underlying subtexts of our book is the perpetual struggle to find places for music to be heard and for musicians to live. New York gets more expensive and less accessible for young artists every day, yet somehow it soldiers on. There are a plethora of great music venues throughout the five boroughs that cater to virtually every musical genre. Some will close and others will take their place.

While it’s easy to be cynical and grim I remain hopeful that New York will remain central to contemporary music in our country. It has to be, our population is too interesting and diverse to accept anything less.


The publication date is June 1, but the book is already available in some shops, such as the Strand (see below) and online. The official launch takes place June 3 out at Rough Trade in Williamsburg. Follow @rrexplorernyc for updates as well as some archival rock pics from NYC.

[Photo from the Strand on Tuesday]


Anonymous said...

Nice! Love the idea and will go check out the book. Better hurry before just about everything formerly cool in this city has turned into a Duane Reade, so to speak. I dig what these guys are on about but I cannot get myself to agree with them re: the current state of NYC music. I know there's technically bands out there doing a thing but to me this place just feels distinctly anti-rock and roll these days.

Aaron said...

I was at that last GG Allin show at the old Gas Station. I feared for my life more that day than I did on 9/11, when I was at my desk across the street from the towers! Best $7 I ever spent on a show...

elizabethmdonovan said...

Trying to decide if I should or should not frequent what will now be called the GG Duane Reade.