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One for the Road

Swells in NYC
Steven Wells , June 24th, 2008 00:00

In which Swells, the shorn rider, casts his mind back to mid 80s NYC and dreams of Pele, Africans in KKK approved shirts, Billy Bragg and Johnny Rotten getting attacked by giant emus, while punching Will Self. Right in the ithyphallic and obdurate cock.

Swells in New York

When I first visited Manhattan with Billy Bragg in 1984 the streets swarmed with muggers, druggies, and drug-dealers. A taxi-driver showed us his gleaming silver pistol and boasted he’d shot a robber less than a week ago. “Where?” I asked. “In the Bronx,” he said. “Ooh, painful” said Bragg and I at the same time. We couldn’t help ourselves. When we arrived at our destination"a chic guest house in the heart of Greenwich Village"the door was opened by a tall, shaven-headed man wearing a cut-off T-shirt, Daisy Dukes, orange flip fops and a huge moustache. “Hi, I’m Gaylord,” he said. I was naïve, spotty, arrogant and terrified"and in love with a city that sweated mythology. All you had to do was stand still and let New York fuck your brains out. “Pastrami on rye, hold the mayo!” I yelled gleefully as I watched a desperate druggy punch a proto-yuppie the fuck in the head and grab his brief case. “Hello America, lost any good wars recently?” I chortled in front of crowds of dead-eyed Alphabet City bohemians who were singularly unimpressed with my socialist-surrealist poetry, but genuinely and openly appalled by my use of the word “toilet”. “It’s in there”, said one grandson of Kerouac, “and it really is a toilet.” And"fuck me"it was.

Nowadays, post mayor Giuliani’s big clean up, New York is no longer the crazy manic street preacher infested mugging capital of the New American Empire. The African fake handbag sellers (one of them wearing a T-shirt reading ’AMERICA IS FULL” on one side and “THE BORDERS"IT’S CLOSING TIME” on the other) who line the hoardings that protect Ground Zero from the hordes of gawping XXXXL T-shirt wearing born-again Christian mid-Westerners, lack the menace of the speed whispering “cokecrackweed” drug pirates of yesteryear.

Something died when they cleaned this city up. But then again in 1984 I heard the same thing from nostalgists pining for 1977 when Gotham went soccer crazy over the New York Cosmos whose superstar roster (including Pele) speed-shagged it’s way through the disco-dolly-bird hordes at Studio 54 while Son of Sam stalked the streets, and gangs of the oppressed, the poverty stricken and the downright fucking greedy went on a mass looting spree during the big blackout. And nobody locked their doors. No, wait. Everybody locked their doors and snorted coke of whore’s cocks and wore deely-boppers and rollerskates and waved sparklers at Ramones gigs at GBGB’s. And you could get these massive fuck-off foot-tall chicken liver sandwiches at the Chinese/Polish deli on something and wotsit, with pickles, for three bucks and still have enough change left over for a game of shove ha’penny with the tramps in Washington Square park. Eee, It were grand.

Last weekend, after exiting the Metropolitan Museums of Art’s new superhero exhibition (where I learn that the Incredible Hulk is a green metaphor for turgid adolescent cock - who knew?) I spend the rest of the afternoon trawling Greenwich Village’s tattooed punk muppet studded streets looking for turgid adolescent cock and/or comic shops that might just possibly have a copy of the comic book Our Army At War #224. It contains the story considered by some to be the apogee of war comic art, Easy’s First Tiger, written and drawn by Russ Heath (who was just one of the massively more talented comic artists from whom thieving New York art bastard Roy Lichtenstein took inspiration).

I don’t find a copy but I do find plenty of evidence that the soccer shirt has all but replaced all other forms of sportswear in the smarter parts of Manhattan, and that sanitised circa 1974 Christopher Street rent-boy chic lingers on among the global alt.rock tourist diaspora.

Also, hyper-caffeinated nearly to the point of distraction (Greenwich Village has several “mom’n’pop” coffee shops that sell espresso so strong mom’n’pop should be doing time) I find myself wondering if the middle-aged and presumably bladder control challenged J. Rotten (whose ferrety teenage face leers out from so many of the T-shirts for sale in the plethora of NY punk boutiques) might deplore the lack of public toilets in Manhattan were he, like me, out for a day’s shopping and sight-seeing with the wife and sister-in-law.

More to the point, what must Richard Hell - the New York punk original from whom the Sex Pistols stole all their groovy rent boy trappings - feel when he walks past punk boutique Search and Destroy on Saint Marks Place and sees it full of Sex Pistols clobber. (Hell still lives in the East Village). Probably pretty much the same way Russ Heath felt when he saw Lichtenstein’s dumbed down pastiche of his art (what British comics artist Dave Gibbons described as “flat, uncomprehending tracings of quite sophisticated images.”)

Lichtenstein: creator or copycat

More Lichtenstein

Kicked in the gut, one would imagine. It should have been him - Richard Hell - on the third series of I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, wearing a bucket full of emu food atop a crash helmet, being pecked by pissed-off and hungry giant emus (easily the greatest punk rock TV moment ever). Trapped in a demento-Disneyfied post-modern Frankenstein’s monster version of the subculture he helped invent, Richard Hell sums up New York’s relationship to London. NYC is the big lumbering Blaster - it does all the sweaty, hard work but doesn’t have the brains to wipe its own ass. London is the cheeky wee Master sat atop its brawny shoulders, doing the thinking and taking all the credit.

Every decade or so London undoes the harness, clambers down, steals all New York’s shit and then sells it back to him for a massive profit. It’s not a healthy relationship, but it’s obviously the way God planned it, the way He wants it to be.

I never did get that copy of Russ Heath’s Easy’s First Tiger. They’re hard to find. Comics fans - being for the most part morbidly obsessed with the ithyphallicly distended concatenation of obdurate minerality that is the American superhero - have little for time war comics, classic or otherwise. The fools.

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