Last week, I wrote about the year 1980. Today, I want to write about just one month: December 1980.
In December 1980, I was 18 and three-quarters years old; when you are that age, these fractions still seemed to matter). I was a sophomore at NYU, and I was living in the Weinstein Center for Student Living, on University Place between 8th and Waverly.
I cannot say enough about what a creative and fertile place for self discovery Weinstein was; in many ways, it felt like the center of the Universe, IN the center of the Universe. It was a time when NYU only had three dorms, and Weinstein was the “weird” or “cool” or “punk rock” one, full of geeky and brilliant and arrogant and creative and adventurous children, all newly free. We were all discovering the amazing Shabby Utopia that was Manhattan ’80; we were all discovering the people who would finally laugh at the same jokes and like all the same bands and films we did. Weinstein was a place of infinite wit and discovery, both wildly immature and inviting maturity far beyond the age of its’ residents. It was intellectual salon, rock club, whorehouse, cinematheque, drug den, land of the first-time free and brave-enough to walk home from Avenue A at a quarter to 4 in the morning.
(NYU was a little different then. Today, I understand it’s a place you go to if you can’t get into Harvard; back then, it was a place you went to if you couldn’t get into Fordham. I mean, that’s a little harsh, but only a little. And the East Village, whose borders were only two or three blocks from Weinstein, was an infinitely different landscape then, as can be recalled from the little mnemonic we dutifully recited at that time: Avenue A – Adventurous! B- Brave! C- Crazy; D – Dead; FDR: Found Dead in River.)
I know all dorm experiences share many commonalities: they are places of self-invention, sexual and emotional discovery/abandon/shame, and the first flowerings of (frequently false) freedom; but there was, truly, something unique about Weinstein. It was the art school within the art school, the film school within the film school, the haven of punk rock and night adventure within the haven of punk rock and night adventure, the nexus of libidinous experimentation within the nexus of libidinous experimentation. In other words, it was a mini-Manhattan within the environs of greater Manhattan, only with a cafeteria and a safety net.
In December of 1980, I was a columnist for the amazing, pioneering Trouser Press magazine, and I was just beginning to write for other publications, including the UK Weekly Sounds, the Village Voice, and the Daily News. Also, I was hosting an interview show on WNYU called MusicView (Noise the Show, the WNYU show I would come to be identified with, was still six months away).
Which is all to say I lived and breathed music. I went out to see live music three to six nights a week, and did the rounds of about half a dozen record stores at least twice a week. As December cracked open, the events I was most immediately excited about were the imminent American debuts of the Ruts D.C. (arriving in the U.S. five a little under five months after the death of Ruts’ vocalist Malcolm Owen, which I wrote about last week) and the Skids, the gorgeous Scottish punk band who were incorporating Celtic breadth and depth into the landscape of musically adept punk rock. Both would be playing multiple night stints at Hurrah.
On December 6, I went to the Gramercy Park hotel, which was then a reasonably clean but ragged-at-the-edges hotel that housed visiting British bands, but only those with enough label support to keep them out of the Times Square and Madison Square semi-S.R.O’s where British bands usually stayed (in a future column, I intend to fully explain the hierarchy of Manhattan band hotels circa 1980). I was there to interview U2, who were in New York for the very first time. In fact, I would be interviewing them twice: once for Trouser Press – I found the group intriguing, so the magazine had agreed to let me do a small single-page feature – and once for WNYU. I had heard a few of their early singles and been very intrigued by their sound, which seemed to mix the dynamics of the Skids with the minimalism of Joy Division and PiL, but who had a vocalist who had the sweet, soaring pomp of Midge Ure, plus there was something hanging over the whole enterprise that had the dynamics of classic rock. Seriously, that’s exactly what I thought when I was walking up to the Gramercy to interview – wait, do two interviews – with the band.
I can detail this curious adventure elsewhere; let’s just say that the afternoon ended with Bono and the Edge playing a four-song set in the room they shared for me and my friend Mike Dugan. Just for me and Mike Dugan. Also, the fact that I was the first American to interview U2 was not, at the time, the noteworthy fact it later became.
Back to Weinstein Dorm. The locus of all social life in Weinstein was the front desk, located immediately to the left of the main doors on University Place. It wasn’t actually a desk, really more of a room with two open sides, fronted by a chest-high wall. Behind this low wall was a board which connected to intercom buzzers in all the rooms, and a high chair on which sat the desk clerk, somewhat imperiously, somewhat apologetically. There was also a small, gorgeously archaic black-and-white TV with bunny-ears that was perched on the desk, visible only to the desk clerk and anyone leaning a little bit over the front partition. It was all colored gruesomely industrial maroon and cream/beige.
The desk clerk was not a grave, dutiful fellow in a uniform who buzzed in guests and did light security. Oh, no. Rather, the Weinstein front desk clerk was the host and concierge of the whole extraordinary R-rated talk show/class-clown convention/whorehouse/drug dispensary/record-club/cinema discussion group that was the Weinstein Dorm. The desk clerk’s real job was to serve as a cross between Dick Cavett, the Emcee in Cabaret, and Siskel and Ebert. Since the desk clerk essentially sat at the nexus of all dorm life, and not only observed all social life in the dorm but was the primary dispenser of gossip, cultural recommendations, and spiritual and romantic advice, the position of front desk clerk at the Weinstein Front Desk was a much sought-after post; it was held by a few trusted undergrads and some recently graduated cineastes, and every single one of them was wise, friendly, and had their own area of expertise (film, music, trash culture, porn, gay life, each of these were covered, as if you were students in a master class). My real education at NYU came from the extraordinary men and women who worked behind the Weinstein Front Desk, and a pile of people reading this will heartily concur.
If we weren’t doing anything particular – studying, clubbing, listening to music, going through the awkward and embarrassing first groans of sexual discovery – many of us Weinstein residents were likely to be hanging around the front desk, listening to the desk clerk pontificate, gossip, lecture us on the similarities between Goddard and Win Wenders, or just do stand-up.
On the evening of December 8th, 1980, when word began to spread that something ghastly, unimaginable, incomprehensible had happened 63 blocks north of our dorm, there was an unspoken, organic migration to the front desk. I vaguely recall already being in the Weinstein lobby before the news broke; or perhaps a desk clerk had buzzed my room, telling me to get downstairs; or maybe I was coming in from a diner or date; I really don’t recall. I just remember being one of a few, than a few more, than one of many, many people clustered around the desk, and the tiny black and white TV.
I am quite sure we did not know how to process news so grave, so shocking, so shattering to our sense of generational stability. After the silence, after the awe, after the shock that shuddered us into stillness, I recall there being confusion regarding how to react, how to process. I will admit that my reaction slightly shames me now, but doesn’t surprise me: As an advocate and student of the cultural shift caused by punk, I wanted to treat the event with the obscene, obnoxious logic of contrarian. Fortunately, I kept (most) of this to myself, and allowed room for the emotions of others to expand and express.
With a third of a century passed since the event, I find myself most admiring of the reaction of Martha Quinn, who also lived in the dorm, was a friend, and was another habitué of the Front Desk Salon (I think she may have even worked as a desk clerk, too, but she would have to confirm that). Martha allowed herself to weep, allowed herself to lead a delegation up to the Dakota, allowed herself to feel the pain and sorrow that so many of the rest of us, in our youthful arrogance, could not access.
(For the record, I do not recall how Bill DeBlasio, the future mayor who was then President of the dorm, reacted; perhaps he can weigh in?)
The rest of the week passed in a bad dream-like haze of shock and gloom. The Ruts D.C. played a few days later, and it was a terrible weekend to play music in the city, no one really wanted to go out; but I felt something invigorating about seeing this band, who were also scarred by loss, yet who played rich, original, dark, and triumphant music.
I now recognize something else. The striking mortalities of 1980, the sad role call of loved musicians who died due to crime or misadventure, were a harbinger and an initial doorway to the greater, graver mortalities of the decade: these losses, and most notably the crime and generational injury of December 8, 1980, presaged the extraordinary defacement and desiccation of our loving, lovely downtown world by the indescribable tragedy of the AIDS plague. On that night, on December 8th, our generation of goofy, serio-comic, arrogant, playful, sexy, sex-craved, music-crazy inheritors to the many crowns of the Kingdom of Outsiders (for this is what Manhattan was, circa ’80), had the shock of impermanence and indisputable loss inserted into our cocky and frequently silly lives; at that moment, the unimaginable mortality toll of the rest of the decade, which was to claim the lives of some of the people in the lobby that very night (and impact all of us), was foreshadowed. The theme of hope and joy and lust and love and the magic of music, art, and film would remain resounding, but that night we learned that death would follow us close.