TRUE ROCK AND ROLL TALES: Exploring The Ugly Side of New York In The 80’s
by Ted Cantu

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - It’s fun to immerse yourself in pop culture classics like Hunter S Thompson, William Burroughs and Bukowski and then somehow con yourself that you have lived their lives. It’s another thing to go way off the map and change your immediate surrounds with unfamiliar faces, places and danger. In my earlier days I seemed to thrive on that and in 1988 that meant New York City. Today the Big Apple is somewhat cleaned up and Disneyfied but back in the late 80’s things weren’t so smooth and if you weren’t careful you could end up dead or close to it.

The summer of 1988 started out hot. How could it not be? The whole city of NYC was made out of concrete and the cement had a way of trapping that heat and then slowly throughout the night letting it ease back up into the atmosphere. Somewhere between 4 AM and  6 AM one would swear that it was almost peaceful. There was a stillness in the air and it was actually quiet near Central Park aside from the lone junkie or crazy people screaming out into the darkness. Sometimes you would hear the scratching paw prints of live rats running down the gutter searching for garbage to eat.

Another thing about New York back then was that everything smelled like urine. Even in the winter time only then it wasn’t quite as noticeable. That was because bums and street people would piss in the doorways making the everyday life experience unbearable. But what other city could possibly surpass New York? It was the mecca of art, culture and rock music. That was what drew me there. Before the age of the web you couldn’t just push a button and expose yourself to new music and environments. You had to go on a whim, collect information out of magazines and free periodicals and go with your gut.  In the age of SOHO and the eccentric art capital I had to also go with my gut.

Every night wasn’t quite so quiet. Sometimes you needed to shake things up and fill it up with some noise. My pals and I were pretty good at doing that. We decided to head out to CBGB’s and go listen to some music. There wasn’t much of a plan and we really didn’t know how we were going to go down there. We were poor college students at the time and my buddy Joel had a thing about drugs. He loved them and wouldn’t leave the apartment without getting high. My other pal Tim was already getting into some vodka. Already the night was feeling dangerous.

Our apartment, or at least the one we were staying in, was in the upper 80’s near Central Park. It was a small studio place and the piano took up most of the space. The deal was we could all stay there for free pretty much and just pay for our meals. I never thought about cooking in that place because it was always hot up there and we didn’t use the AC because Joel didn’t want to rack up some huge bill for his dad. See,  that was the thing, the apartment belonged to his sister and the old man paid all the bills. His sister was off in Europe on some music tour. She was a student at Julliard. That meant that while she was gone this place was our HQ and our flop house until she returned.

I slugged down some beer and a few swigs of vodka which was starting to kick in. I had a light buzzing sound in my ears while we walked down Broadway at night. I could see the metal grate light up below my feet while the subway trains raced below my feet. I could smell the warm disgusting air that had a mixed aroma of sweat, depression and sadness. Maybe it was the American working spirit or maybe I was starting to get too reflective and wasted. We ducked into a video arcade on Broadway right past the old Ed Sullivan Theater. There were no doors to get in and I thought the place looked very familiar. I looked up and saw the six framed pictures of celebrities. They had autographed their own portraits and I knew immediately who they were. These pictures were the original cast members of Saturday Night Live. I could see Gilda Radner, John Belushi and Garrett Morris. This was very surreal and the sound of the pinball machines and mechanical score counters were getting to be loud. This only made my heart race and heightened my anxiety. On top of that the fluorescent lighting was starting to get to me and I wanted to get out in the dark street and get moving.

 I opted to leave and my two friends reluctantly agreed. Joel said we could hop on the subway and that it would put us closer to where the legendary music club was. All I knew was that CBGB’s was somewhere near the Bowery. But I had no idea at the time how to get down there for myself.

When I climbed out of the Subway tunnel we were on some dark street I didn’t recognize. We weren’t even at a well light cross street. My inner gut told me to turn around and when I did I saw this hunched over street person running up the road towards me. It was like out of a movie his arms hung below his knees and he was clipping along at a pretty rapid pace. He ran towards me like a wounded animal. He looked like he was half man and half beast. I wanted to run but he was almost at our feet when I held up my hand to signal for him to stop. As he got closer and out of the shadows I could see he had big open sores all over his face, arms, and hands which were reaching out towards me. He started talking and he wanted some change.  Money.  Anything.

I freaking panicked and reached into my jeans and grabbed whatever change I could find. I didn’t have a lot but I remember I had some quarters, dimes and nickels. I didn’t even count it. I just reached in and pulled it out and he stretched out his hands and then I could see he had sores all over his mouth and his hair was really ratty. He got more horrifying as he came under the street light and instead of handing the money over to him I sort of tossed it at him in the air. He caught some of it but most of the change landed on the street. “Here, just take all of it… I gotta go… bye !!”. And with that me and my pals hoofed it out of there as fast as we could. We ran to the end of the block where there was more signs of life like cabs, people, and neon signs. When I turned back and looked over my shoulder the odd individual had disappeared back into the darkness and there was no sign of him anywhere.

We were in the Bowery now. This was the famous home of the drunks, broken hearted and broken spirited people of the 1940’s. I think the history even goes back before then. I knew about the stories of flop houses but I had just witnessed something darker. We made another beer run, this time 40 ouncers, and proceeded to find safety behind a gated brownstone stoop. I felt safer here and this way I could see anyone come at us from the left, the right and straight ahead up the street. Nothing seemed out of order and the cops didn’t even notice us. They were busy driving through the street looking at other drivers. I almost began to feel comfortable. We got malt liquor and this stuff was going to work on my nerves fast. After the first two bottles I couldn’t even feel my feet and was getting pretty zoned out. We shared a bunch of laughs and were eager to get into CBGB’s but showtime was still a ways off yet.

That’s when it happened. This milk truck riddled with bullet holes proceeded to drive up near our stoop and it was punctured from top to bottom. It was like a whole machine gun was used on the entire side of it and it was mesmerizing. The driver leaned out the window and started barking at us.

“Hey you guys!  Are any of you interested in buying this fucking milk truck?”

What did he say? Buy a milk truck? With bullet holes sprayed all over it? The thought never occurred to me to own such a vehicle. And for all I knew the milk man could have been tied up by his hands and feet and gagged. Maybe he was tossed in the back praying for his life. The guy talking to us was sweaty and I could see that from where I was sitting. He had big eyes like Don Knotts and was wearing a hat. Good lord. Was he wearing the milk mans hat? What the hell was he doing driving a stolen milk truck sprayed with bullet holes all over it?

I spoke up because my friends were too tongue tied, “No that’s okay… I wouldn’t know what to do with it” I answered. “ Aw come on!” the driver said, “I can let you have this thing really cheap, I can let you have it for a song.” And he just sort of sat there and looked over at me. There was tension there and he wasn’t going to leave then he cleared his throat and began to speak, “Well, if you know anyone who wants this thing tell him I am in the neighborhood and I need to get rid of it. I’m selling this thing really cheap.” So I took my time answering and taking in all of the weirdness of the moment, “No problem” I said and with that the driver carefully glanced over his shoulder and turned on his left blinker and slowly moved out back onto the road.

 Down the street a prostitute was yelling her head off at some kids. They were grabbing her dress and making fun of her in front of a party store.  She couldn’t fight all of them at once and there were at least five of them.  I didn’t think anything was going to happen with that situation. I could also hear someone blasting Guns N Roses, “Welcome to the Jungle” out of their car half a block away. Some other guy was selling pot across the street. The cops of course just kept driving by all of this madness so we figured it was business as usual. After about a half hour I began to forget what just happened. It was  like a bad dream and we went back to drinking again and carrying on like a bunch of hooligans – which we were.

From this position I could see, “The Bunker” and that is 222 Bowery, the one time home of William Burroughs, (one of the original Beat poets who wrote Naked Lunch). He was a well known heroin addict and madman. Now we were rubbing elbows with the kinds of pop culture idols that most people only read about. The madness that they delved in was all around us. We were waist deep in it.  What the hell were we doing here anyways? I mean, on one hand it was cool but on the other hand we could get fucking killed… people do you know. It doesn’t take much when you’re careless. I was just glad I had two friends around me that sort of knew what they were doing. I had no idea how we were going to get home and the night was turning out to last forever. We were living in a circus and for all I know we could have been the main stars of it. Or were we the audience?

I heard, “Rock and Roll Never Forgets” – oh man, was that Bob Seger? I should know this shit because I am from Michigan, not that I pay attention to the previous generation’s music that much, but this lacked punk spirit. I could hear this music coming out of a parked car half a block away.  I think I was starting to get a buzz kill. My mind is getting foggy and I am in a dream. Man, I am in a dream right? All of a sudden I feel like this is the 1970’s again. And it is but we are in the wrong genre of music. This is most definitely a buzzkill. I want to yell at the guy up the road to turn this crap off but I what if he flips out and pulls out a gun. I got adrenaline running through my body and mind and am capable of just about anything. But I don’t want to get killed. This malt liquor is making my mind race and I am in New York so my spirits are high… and I am high too and then….  Son of a bitch, is that the same guy coming back around the corner?

Time slowed down and I made eye contact with the crazy psychopath in the bullet ridden milk truck. I swear this can’t be happening but yet it is. It was like time went into slow motion and it was a bad dream and yes, once again, this bullet ridden milk truck pulls up alongside the curb again. This time he got out of his driver’s seat and walked around near the front hood of the truck. He was really nervous this time and seemed to be more panicked than ever and said, “Between the three of ya how much fucking money do you guys got? I’ll take whatever you have in your pockets”. My buddy Joel was the more sensible out of our group and held up both hands over his head, “No no no, we don’t want it. No thank you. Just go….” And the guy stood there, “I’m not fucking around you guys. You want this truck you can have it. I need to get rid of this thing right now so I can get the hell out of here.” That’s when I noticed he had like a buck knife sticking out of his belt loop. I could see the handle of it and then I also noticed the wild stare in his eyes. This guy was cranked up on something. He was high as a kite.

Joel stood his ground and the crazy milkman driver guy got back into his truck and this time he spun his wheels like he was pissed. We watched him reach the street light and then he gunned it around the corner. And I said, “Okay, let’s get the fuck out of here before he comes back again….”

 

“A VISUAL ASSAULT: REM Dissected Scene By Scene

The bottom video was shot in 1989 and is the closest thing I could find to what the original show opener was like in 1987. This was a departure for REM as much as it was for the audience. Just when you thought you knew the band they changed on you in a new and exciting way. It would take some time to recognize them once again. In the case of, “Document” the album had to grow on me. I noticed this sort of thing happening with the Smiths too.

There was one sequence in the video, not shown in this edition, when the words – “Want” and “Need” come on screen. The words flipped interchangeably and morphed into a strobe that said, “Need Weed” and I remember the crowd going a bit wild over that. This was Ann Arbor after all. There is some talk about the set list being accurate. I do not believe, “Orange Crush” or “Pop Song 89” was performed in 1987. Those songs were released after REM went to Warner Brothers. “Document” was the last album created under the I.R.S. Records label.

There is another version of, “The One I Love” done on the live tour. Stipe starts out with a slow intro and for a minute I thought the whole song would be done slow. It then kicks into the tempo we all know. The stage was also bathed in an eerie red light. How this song got perceived as a love song I’ll never know. It was about a sick love obsession.

Over the years I hear the young kids go, “Oh who cares about that stuff, REM was long before my time.” Trust me, you wish you were there. This show was nothing but historic.

 
 
 
   
REM in 1987 and the Birth of Alternative Radio in Ann Arbor, Michigan - Crisler Arena >>>>

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