New York Punk, Out of Retirement
Rockers from the downtown scene of the 1970s and ’80s are keeping the flame alive, and their gray-haired fans are happy to party like it’s 1979.
Friday night on the Lower East Side, and Janis Shaw was being carded. It was autumn, so darkness was arriving sooner and sooner each night. This rock show started early, 7 p.m., and the sun had already set.
In the shadows, Janis can look like a teenager, the same teenager who frequented clubs like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City back in their 1970s heyday. She’s petite, dressed in a black leather jacket, her hair spiked and dyed platinum. But she’s no kid.
This was her 60th birthday, and she and her gray-haired friends had been stopped by the Arlene’s Grocery bouncer — a guy at least three decades younger — who was demanding to see ID. Janis wasn’t even carrying a purse, so she could dance unencumbered. That is, if she could get past the door.
Her friend Anne Husick was carrying her bass guitar, since she was playing that Friday. “But no ID,” said Ms. Husick, who also works as a booker at the nearby SideWalk Cafe. “I have some gray hair I can show you.” The manager — who looked so young he might have trouble growing a beard — came out to tell them he would make an exception, but in the future, they’d need to bring ID.
They headed to the bar, where they met up with Janis’s husband, Kevin Shaw, the bassist for another band playing that night, the Hipp Pipps.
“We used to get in at Max’s when we were 15, no problem,” said Mr. Shaw, who is tall and lanky and obviously not 15 anymore. He has wrinkles, white hair, arthritis, scoliosis and the hearing loss of a 63-year-old who has experienced some hard living. He and Janis met in their early 20s at Max’s when she was playing in the Crayolas and he was in the BMTs, both bands part of the 1970s downtown New York scene.
They were at Arlene’s with several dozen fellow veterans, those who never quite made the big time. There was a guy in the corner who used to play with Johnny Thunders, and a woman who used to sing backup for Ronnie Spector. There were those whose record contracts had long expired, and those who never landed a contract. They all hugged and kissed as they met one another yet again in the comfort of a dark club.
Many of their friends and contemporaries fell victim years ago to drugs and hard living: Thunders and several of his fellow New York Dolls, two of the Cramps, most of the Ramones, Stiv Bators from the Dead Boys and a legion of the undiscovered. But they were here that night to celebrate that they’re still kicking.
In the last few years it has become a tribal ritual, every week or two, to see old friends play. Some have wandered back from the suburbs or from retirement to the old neighborhood to join a new scene, a community that’s risen out of the ashes and bones of the old one.
These survivors are here to keep the wolf from the door — to socialize, to dance and drink. But mostly they are here to rock.
And they are not alone. Musicians from back in the day — in acts old and new like Manitoba NYC, Bush Tetras, Exit 99, Lenny Kaye, New York Junk, the Phil Gammage Quartet, Gass Wild, Cheetah Chrome, the Skelecasters, The Fleshtones and Walter Lure and the Waldos — are gigging like there’s no tomorrow. They’re as punk as it gets — with nothing to prove, no chance of selling out and a special brand of nihilism that can only come with old age.
The Rousers, Max’s alumni who have been playing since 1977, took the stage at Arlene’s in their black shirts and sharkskin suits as the crowd thundered. Their newer song lyrics and titles — “Back in the [expletive] Day” and “Old Man Band” — poke fun of the fact that they are relics. But they are amazingly tight and rock incredibly hard, with an edge that has only seemed to sharpen with time. Some say they are in their prime.
As they launched into a furious rendition of a recent favorite from 2009, “Kickin’” — the mirror ball spinning overhead, Tom Milmore’s guitar howling as he balanced at the front of the stage, the singer and bass player, Bill Dickson, cursing and singing in equal measure — the audience cut loose. Ms. Shaw — purseless — grooved near the front of the stage. The show’s MC, Steve Krebs, a club promoter and singer with the Skelecasters, kicked his legs out along to the music with his German girlfriend, Simone Zimmermann.
Among the 80-strong crowd, people held iPhones to document the moment. Since, frankly, it could be the last moment. Some in the crowd were concerned for the health of the band’s hard-driving drummer, Sal Cappi, whose exertion was a bit alarming.
Earlier that week, Mr. Cappi, 62, was reminiscing about decades playing in New York and on the road. “These are some of the best musicians in the country right here,” he said of the old New York scenesters. Even though he plays a vintage 1966 set of sparkly red Ludwigs, he said, “I’m still learning new stuff, new tricks.”
Back in the day, the Rousers were pulling in $1,000 a show at nightclubs like Hurrah. They had roadies, and girlfriends in different towns. In 1979 they were offered an EP deal with Epic Records, home to the Clash, but their manager turned it down. “He told them we wanted a full album or nothing,” Mr. Milmore said, shaking his head. “We didn’t even know about it until years later.”
They persevered. Madonna, around the time she left her alternative band, Emmy and the Emmys, opened for them as a solo act at Max’s, right before it closed in 1981. That year they released a single, produced by MC5’s Wayne Kramer. It got good press, including a write up from this paper, which called it “psychedelic rockabilly,” but it got no traction.
“Things happen for a reason,” Mr. Cappi said. “It wasn’t meant to be. That life, that rock ’n’ roll life, is a life of heavy partying. So being famous might have led to my early demise.”