Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Robert Christgau's New York

Commiserate with a gig-starved rock critic in D.C., walk through a Boston music conference without leaving Lansdowne Street, and you'll thank God you're a New York City boy/girl. There's just so much music here. The best of what's best about our burg is a simple function of not just size, but of the hegemony and heterogeneity size now insures. Because New York is America's art and media capital as well as an entertainment epicenter, musicians and music fans gravitate here and venues develop to serve them, attracting more musicians and more music fans. And because New York is a magnet for immigrants, the stylistic variety of its clubs and discos has no parallel.

What may be hard to absorb, however, is how recently this self-fulfilling prophecy revealed itself. New York has been a live-music center for as long as there's been pop, and in the '50s and '60s, it probably supported more folk and jazz clubs (certainly more affordable jazz clubs) than it does now. But back then rock places were almost nonexistent--there was nothing like the '90s explosion of name venues and local joints. So give props to two landmarks that got the cycle rolling. Both occupy the same spaces under the same owners as they always have, a heroic feat in a notoriously unstable business. And both remain excellent places to hear music.

Allan Pepper and Stanley Snadowsky's Bottom Line (15 West 4th Street, 228-6300) opened in 1974 as a living link to record-biz largess. A squarish rectangle with no bad seats and a layer of standing room at the bar, it was designed as a showcase--press tickets came with a two-drink tab and for as long as the pop mainstream had its headwaters in singer-songwriterdom, it prospered by accommodating promo priorities and AOR folk heroes. The initials of Hilly Kristal's CBGB (315 Bowery, 982-4052) signified country-bluegrass-blues, but soon the supremely tolerant Hilly had ceded his Bowery dive to the neighborhood riff-raff who were invented the Anti-AOR, punk rock--starting with Television and moving on to Patti Smith, Blondie, the Ramones, and a summer festival featuring such precedent setters as the Mumps, Milk & Cookies, and Talking Heads. Together the two spots established new standards of rock audio--the Bottom Line with a clear, balanced system, CBGB with one configured for mammoth feats of distortion and projection.

In the late '70s these two spots defined New York's live rock in sometimes exhilarating tandems--there were nights when you could catch Loudon Wainwright III on 4th Street and the Ramones a few blocks east, or Bryan Ferry and then a bill of Talking Heads and the Feelies. But though neither has been hep for years, they've still mounted as many good '90s shows as any other venue in town except Steve Weitzman's brilliantly booked Tramps (now closed) and Irving Plaza (17 Irving Place, 777-6800), the biz's postpunk link. In the past few years I've caught memorable performances by the aforementioned Wainwright, Victoria Williams, and the Holy Modal Rounders at one and even better ones by Sleater-Kinney, Pavement, and Fluffy further east--without suffering the physical demands so many newer clubs impose on their presumably fit young patrons. Although the tables are crowded at the Bottom Line, your ticket generally assures you a chair, a boon to anyone's back. CBGB is so deep and narrow the music is hard to focus on toward the door, but there's so much action that pushing up along the bar is always an option for the serious fan--who will also appreciate the raised seats in back, the ideal vantage from which to observe one of the many thousands of forgettable bands who are still making their pilgrimages.

Village Voice, Oct. 5, 1999