When a cultural zeitgeist really gets swinging it subsumes folks who would be inclined to contribute like artistic quicksand. That much was for certain with the punk explosion in the second half of the 1970s in New York.
As Edmund White wrote in City Boy: “I was lucky to live in New York when it was dangerous and edgy and cheap enough to play host to young, penniless artists. That was the era of ‘coffee shops’ as they were defined in New York—cheap restaurants open round the clock where you could eat for less than it would cost to cook at home. That was the era of ripped jeans and dirty T-shirts, when the kind of people who are impressed by material signs of success were not the people you wanted to know.”
One of those young penniless artists dragged into a cultural movement that shaped the world was Patti Smith. As she told Mojo Magazine, “I was young, but I felt our cultural voice was in jeopardy and needed an infusion of new people and ideas. I didn’t feel like I was the one. I didn’t consider myself a musician in any way, but I was a poet and performer, and I did feel that I understood where we were at, what we’d been given and where we should go, and if I could voice it, perhaps it could inspire the next generation.”
The magnet that pulled her towards this viewpoint was being held by Television. In 1974, they found themselves on stage at the and a young performance poet, artist and full-time journalist in the form of Patti Smith sat in the audience. She had trundled along to some little-known club slowly gaining traction called CBGB. As a signifier of the arty intent of the band, a wall of televisions would be stacked behind them, each displaying different channels, except for one, tastefully off-centre that showed something akin to David Lynch-esque CCTV footage of the CBGB itself. Patti Smith’s piece would be titled: “Television: Escapees from Heaven.”
The punk heralding piece for The Soho Weekly begins: “Somewhere in the fifties Billy Lee Riley was slicking brill creme and boys all over the U.S.A. were resting Les Pauls on their hip and scrubbing them like sex. It eats thru the Chez Vous Ballroom, 13 Floor Elevator, Love, Velvet Underground and the Yardbirds Live in Persia. It permeates backseats, waterfronts, the local poolhall, traintracks, just anywhere that rains adolescents. And for the past six weeks it peaked after midnight every Sunday on the bowerie in a dark little soho bar called C.B.G.B. Lousy P.A., long nervous dogs running, random women smoking French cigarettes and mostly boys on the prowl hanging by a thread waiting for Television to tune up.”
The opening stanza is a punk encapsulation that captures it from the ground floor. This unadorned view is as close as you can get to the spirit of the sweety, stinking CBGB without wristband access to a time machine. And thereafter, she etches one of the most proto-punk statements within the piece reads: “Confused sexual energy makes young guys so desirable; their careless way of dressing; their strange way of walking; filled with so much longing. Just relentlessly adolescent.” Bearing in mind this at a time when they only had the New York Dolls and the Ramones for company, this youthful spirit was pretty much the Promethean punk force.
Less than a year later, that young journalist who was once fired for asking Eric Clapton ‘What are your six favourite colours?’ was on stage with Television blazing through a rendition of their definitive anthem. “I remember when I first heard that” is a rare sentence in music, but the showering half notes of ‘Marquee Moon’ is a celestial sonic rain you are unlikely to forget. This scratchy matchup is a perfect insight to what the brimming scene was all about.