I recently bumped into this piece in The New York Times Style Magazine from a few years ago which chronicles a day in the life of New York City in the early 80s through the memories of dozens of well-known NY artists (of all stripes), gallerists, club owners, and activists.
Kim Gordon, musician
When I first moved to the city, there was a garbage strike. I was hustling. I had a horrible graveyard shift at a coffee shop, one of the only places to eat in Chelsea, open 24 hours — super crickets, deserted. I worked part-time for gallerist Annina Nosei. She and Larry Gagosian had this space, it was a condo loft in a building on West Broadway. [By 1 a.m.] I’d be somewhere like [the TriBeCa No Wave club] Tier 3, seeing [the electronic Berlin band] Malaria!, and then walking over to Dave’s Luncheonette. A lot of the alternative spaces — Franklin Furnace, A-Space — had music, too. Hearing hip-hop on the street, minimalist new music, free jazz — it all added to this fabric that was a landscape.
I was kind of tomboyish, but also pretty poor. I had glasses, so I put these flip-up sunglass visors on them. But I didn’t feel super cool or anything. The people who were chic, the downtowners, pretty much just wore black — that could instantly give you a look. Our first goal [as Sonic Youth] was getting a gig at CBGB. Then it was getting a good time slot at CBGB, so you weren’t on last and weren’t on first. CB’s wasn’t the best sound; it was such a long and narrow space that if it was crowded you couldn’t really see anything, unless you were standing on the side of the stage, and then you just heard the stage sound. Sometimes it could just be too blasting. It wasn’t actually the best place to hear or see bands, but it was always exciting. Then later, it became about getting a gig at Danceteria, Mudd Club — they were all little milestone achievements.
Darryl McDaniels, musician and member of Run-DMC
I lived on the quiet end of Hollis, Queens. The whole neighborhood was a lower-middle class suburban area. Every parent, every grown-up was your mother and father. It was like a village, y’know? You couldn’t do nothing stupid or bad because your friend’s mother was your mother, too.
The first single we ever made [was in 1983]: “Sucker M.C.’s” was the B-side of “It’s Like That.” “It’s Like That” was a record that was talking about all of the things that was going on in communities, society and also the world. It’s basically the most conscious, relatable record. And then we said, “We gotta do the real hip-hop that we’re actually doing at the block parties and at the house parties and at the park parties.” So we decided to make it all beat — no music, just me and Run [Joseph Simmons, another founding member of Run-DMC] doing the real hardcore, just rhyming on this record. That was “Sucker M.C.’s.”
I was still living at home. I was just out of high school. I was preparing that summer to start my first semester at St. John’s University. We recorded at a studio called Greene Street Recording Studio on Greene Street between Houston and Prince. I will never forget the day, because I didn’t tell my mother and father that I was going to make a record. I just left the house on a Sunday, went to make the record. And I got in trouble because I didn’t get home until like 1 or 2 in the morning. When me and Run would go to each other’s houses and rap together, we would go into the attic. And when my mother asked me where I was at, I just said, “Oh, I was in the attic.”
Ann Magnuson, actress and performance artist
My days changed depending on what show I was putting on, what sort of rehearsal schedule I had and how late I’d been up the night before, though I had a rule for myself: Always be back before sunrise. My primary motive back then was to put on a show, and anything that slowed me down from that had to be curtailed. By 1981, I was no longer the manager at [the East Village performance space] Club 57, but I still helped out and performed there a lot. The Ladies Auxiliary of the Lower East Side — sort of a punk rock version of my mother’s Junior League group, which I started with some other girls from the East Village — hosted several events at the club. We had a prom, a debutante ball, a ladies’ wrestling night. In 1981, I suggested a bacchanal — a night of pagan merriment as spring was coming. So in April we held the Rites of Spring Fertility Bacchanal. We made an altar to a llama, and everyone dressed in kind of Greco-Roman outfits — I wore a toga with sequins. Wendy Wild made magic mushroom punch. We also created a percussive orchestra that was all pots and pans and a lot of racket, and that was the debut of the band Pulsallama. It was really like a combination of living theater and installation art, very communal. That’s what happened at Club 57 a lot: We told people, “This is the theme. Come be a part of it.” The doors would open and things would get going by 10, and by midnight it would be raging. In the mornings, usually around 11 a.m., I’d go to one of the coffee shops around the corner on Avenue A. Odessa was one, and Leshko’s was the other. People divided themselves into camps based on which one they favored — I liked Odessa better, but I’d go to both. That’s where you’d run into people, share breakfast.
Al Sharpton, activist
People say that Manhattan was dirty and dangerous in the early ’80s, and I just have to laugh. Do you even think about what it was like in Brooklyn? I mean, that’s when Brooklyn was Brooklyn, not some extension of the West Village or a place with good coffee. Things were 50 times as bad in Brooklyn as they were in Manhattan. In 1981, I had just gotten back from six months on the road with James Brown. Everyone writes that I was his tour manager, but that’s not what it was. He had always been like a surrogate father to me, and when his manager quit midway through the tour, he called me to come and just make sure people weren’t ripping him off at the venues every night. He needed someone he trusted. Everyone associates me with Jesse Jackson, but actually James Brown is the person I consider most like a mentor. The whole reason I was able to raise money for my causes was because of him. His name opened every door for me.
It was the tale of two cities back then, and I was in my late 20s, trying to get the message out, running the National Youth Movement out of an office in St. Mary’s Hospital in Bed-Stuy. The whole thing finally fell into place in May of that year when I went on Tom Snyder’s show on NBC. He was like the Jimmy Fallon or Trevor Noah of that era. His show was on at 1 a.m., after Johnny Carson. Not only did Mr. Brown come on with me, but Muhammad Ali did, too. It was the three of us. It changed everything. It made the general public aware that people were dying in Brooklyn, in Harlem, in the Bronx. James Brown and Ali — because of them, I basically became a made guy.