In his famous 1976 essay, “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” Tom Wolfe first put forth the now widely accepted idea that the counterculture of the 1960s had been perverted in the ’70s by formerly progressive-minded baby boomers when they realized that genuine social change wasn’t as important to them as personal peace-of-mind.
Wolfe, however, didn’t address the nascent punk and new wave movements, which proved that no matter how narcissistic the boomers had become in general, a sizable portion continued to reject American-style materialism and embrace the underground as represented by unconventional pop music, drugs and transgressive literature. The main difference was that this generation of slightly younger boomers weren’t as sentimental as the original flower children were.
The continuity of the idea is shown in two exhibitions opening Tokyo this month — one dedicated to John Lennon, who, perhaps more than any other rock star, defined the social and political terms of ’60s counterculture; and the other to Joe Strummer, who, as the frontman of The Clash, helped re-assert the primacy of rock as a cultural tool for change.
“John Lennon in New York City” is an intimate photographic account of the former Beatle’s life during the ’70s, which he spent in New York, a city that in the ’60s had taken a back seat to both California, where the counterculture had decamped, and England, which embraced it more avidly, mainly through the agency of The Beatles themselves.
“There was an openness in New York that was left over from the ’60s,” says Bob Gruen — who shot all the photos in the exhibition — over the phone from his studio in Manhattan. “I don’t think a lot of young people were expecting to get jobs or make a lot of money in the early ’70s. But you could still play in a rock band. It was something to do, a way to hang out rather than an ambition. These days people are more focused — you get a guitar and a manager and you have a career.”
After The Beatles broke up in 1970, Lennon was deeply disillusioned with his celebrity but he still wanted to make music. The same year, he and Yoko Ono each made their own solo album with the same title, “Plastic Ono Band.” Lennon’s contained the most daring and personal music of his career, while Ono’s was more thoughtfully experimental and would eventually help solidify her reputation as a seminal influence on the coming new wave. New York seemed the natural place for them to live.
“At the time, for example, Andy Warhol was not the big icon that he’s revered as today,” Gruen recalls. “He was just a crazy artist. There were a lot of people like that in New York and John was drawn to it. There was that famous quote of his: If he had lived during the Roman Empire then he would have moved to Rome. He thought New York was the center of the creative world, and he had to be where the most creating was going on.”
In 1971, when Lennon and Ono, who herself used to live in New York when she was starting out as a visual and conceptual artist, moved to a small apartment in Greenwich Village, Gruen was helping to invent the art of rock photography. Lennon, who was always self-consciously forward-thinking (in contrast to Paul McCartney, who retired to a farm), felt immediately at home and started playing with local hard rockers Elephant’s Memory, through whom Gruen met the former Beatle and his wife in 1972. He eventually became a close friend and confidant.
The exhibition, which includes more than 100 photos, many of which are so well-known as to be iconic, covers every aspect of Lennon’s life in the ’70s, from concerts and drunken recording sessions to intimate at-home moments and his late ’70s stint as a full-time dad and househusband. More significantly, one can see in the background New York becoming the center of the universe in a new way. The downtown art community and the aforementioned bands who never thought they had “commercial potential” were driving the punk and new wave scene at places like the Mercer Arts Center, the Mudd Club and CBGB’s.
“When he arrived in New York, John went to see everything,” Gruen recalls. “But after Sean was born he turned off the radio and canceled his subscription to Billboard. I’d visit him and he always wanted to know what was going on, where the New York Dolls or Blondie were playing, or who was coming to town. But he didn’t want to go out.”
Gruen was right in the middle of this scene, often straddling the chasm that separated the mainstream from the cutting edge. He would photograph a major act at Madison Square Garden and then grab a cab to go downtown and catch some new band playing in a Bowery dive.
“It wasn’t until 1980, when he started working on ‘Double Fantasy,’ that John started paying closer attention to new music. I’d give him videotapes of The Clash, The Boomtown Rats, The Sex Pistols. To him it wasn’t really that different from his early days, when he was performing with The Beatles in Hamburg — young bands playing their hearts out, drinking a lot, beating up on each other. He wanted to know what was going on, but to him it was the same thing he had gone through, and he didn’t necessarily want to go through it again.
“Once we were walking in Central Park and some kid yelled, ‘Hey, when are you going to get The Beatles back together?’ And he yelled back, ‘Hey, when are you going back to high school?’ “
Lennon’s murder on Dec. 8, 1980, at the age of 40 capped the ’70s in a horribly tragic way, but his image was already set in stone. It was less Lennon’s genius and acquired liberal politics than his vulgar working-class antagonism toward hypocrites that endeared him to younger musicians and fans who, by the time punk had reared its spiky head in the late ’70s, were already disillusioned with the “Me Decade” and what the ’60s had come to represent.
Gruen recalls that one of the reasons he himself was accepted by the normally suspicious English punks is that he was a friend of Lennon’s. At an early Clash concert in England, Gruen and pioneering rock journalist Lester Bangs observed Joe Strummer berate the old order from the stage, beginning with the Queen and ending with The Stones and The Beatles. “But John Lennon rules!” the singer proclaimed.
Despite their outspoken iconoclasm, Lennon and Strummer had less in common than one might think. Lennon was a genuine Liverpool punk in the 1950s, albeit one with conventional ambitions, while Strummer, born John Graham Mellor, had a decidedly middle-class upbringing. He went to boarding school and had to reinvent himself as a punk. In essence, Lennon helped create the legacy of the ’60s through his own experience and passed it down to Strummer, who used it to shape his own experience.
As shown in “Joe Strummer: Past, Present & Future,” an exhibition dedicated to Strummer’s life that opened in London in September and moves to Tokyo this month, the late punk godfather embraced the emergent rock lifestyle in much the same way and at the same time that the kids of New York were doing in the early ’70s. The idea was not to make money, but to simply have something to do. Strummer busked on the streets with an acoustic guitar and then formed a crude pub-rock band called The 101ers, named after a building at 101 Walterton Road in West London where he and the band squatted.
“One thing you have to remember was that Joe didn’t start making music until he was 21,” says Gordon McHarg, the curator of the exhibition from his home in West London, which is right around the corner from the site of Strummer’s old squat (it was torn down in 1976). “He wasn’t a teen genius with a guitar.”
He was, essentially, a young man trying to find meaning in the world after slumming around Britain for a few years. West London was affordable for artists without means, and they invariably soaked up the immigrant culture of the neighborhood. The area was home to the city’s growing West Indian community and was redolent with the sights, smells, tastes and sounds of the Caribbean, including reggae and ska.
The 101ers played old-time rhythm and blues. According to McHarg, it wasn’t until The Sex Pistols actually opened for them at a gig that Strummer got the idea for The Clash. One can see the transition from rockabilly hellcat to art punk (a subtle distinction, to be sure) in the photographs by Julian Yewdall, who lived at 101 Walterton and was a member of the 101ers for a while. He also photographed The Clash in its early years.
McHarg is quick to point out that the exhibit is more literary than visual. “There’s not a lot of stuff that hangs on the wall,” he says. There is, however, a lot of reading material, including journal entries, handwritten lyrics and poetry, and letters — “even fan mail from Japan.”
The scope of the exhibition takes in Strummer’s career beyond The Clash, including his subsequent stints as a member of The Pogues, and his late ’90s embrace of the kind of world music that was being played in West London when he was first learning to be a musician.
McHarg finds it appropriate that Japan will be the second stop for the exhibit and that, in fact, it will enjoy a longer run here than it did in West London, where it was conceived to commemorate the 30th anniversary of The 101ers first gig and raise money for a community housing association. Strummer, he says, had great affection for Japan, as evidenced by the fact that he played here almost annually in the half-decade or so before he died of a heart attack in Dec. 22, 2002, at the age of 50.
Gruen, who also knew Strummer intimately and himself lived in Harajuku for almost a year in 1979, concurs. “Joe liked Japan because the Japanese fans didn’t hold him to his old material,” he says. “They showed more appreciation for his growth as an artist. In America it was just ‘Play the hits!’ “
And what about John Lennon, who came here as a tourist and whose widow, after all, is Japanese? “The last time I talked to him he was planning on doing a world tour to support ‘Double Fantasy,’ ” Gruen recalls, “and we discussed where we’d go shopping in Japan. He was really looking forward to going back.”
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