If You Can Make It There: Five Legendary New York City Music Locales

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Chelsea Hotel 3 (1)
(The Chelsea Hotel)

“53rd & 3rd! Standing on the street! 53rd & 3rd! Trying to turn a trick!” barked the Ramones on their 1976 song named after a notorious New York intersection. In the 1960s and into the early 1970s, that area was rundown, seedy, and forbidding: largely abandoned during the day but a hot spot for junkies and male prostitutes at night. Reportedly, Dee Dee Ramone (a.k.a. Douglas Glenn Colvin) had worked the corner 53rd & 3rd as a rentboy before joining the Ramones and writing the song based on his own experiences. Doing so, he made it one of the most famous intersections in punk.

If you find your way to 53rd & 3rd today, you’ll find a very different neighborhood than the one Dee Dee frequented. There’s a Duane Reade across from a TD Bank, both of which are surrounded by gleaming glass-and-concrete office buildings. Office drones and sundry commuters crowd the sidewalks during working hours. It resembles hundreds of other anonymous corners in New York. You could be almost anywhere.

New York is one of those cities where every block has history. Something significant has happened on each street corner, yet the disparity between 53rd & 3rd as it is today and the intersection as it was 40 years ago illustrates how loosely the city holds on to its own past. Buildings are often razed, venues shuttered, hotels remodeled, yet even if these physical landmarks fade, the ideas they inspired still reverberate in pop culture.

Below are five historic addresses in New York City, which collectively represent several decades in pop songwriting, along with hundreds of artists and thousands of songs.

Brill Building (1619 Broadway)
Ellie Greenwich owes her career as a pop songwriter to an incredibly fortuitous case of mistaken identity. In 1962, the 21 year old was auditioning a few of her own songs for Trio Music, one of more than 100 music businesses located in the Brill Building. Jerry Leiber happened to be walking by and mistook her for another songwriter who worked down the hall: Carole King. Greenwich had to correct him, but she did so nervously: Along with his partner Mike Stoller, Leiber had written some of the biggest hits of the rock era, including “Hound Dog,” “Stand By Me,” and “Jailhouse Rock.” Even after he learned her identity, Leiber invited Greenwich back to Trio. In the next few years she would pen some of the greatest hits of the decade, including the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep Mountain High.”

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Greenwich, Leiber, and King could only have intersected at the Brill Building, an unassuming Art Deco office building not far from the cluster of famous Broadway theaters. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was the center of the pop music world, housing businesses devoted to the writing, publishing, plugging, licensing, recording, and promoting of pop songs. Stories are told of aspiring young songwriters who would simply knock on every door until someone bought the tunes they were shilling.

Especially in an era when we expect performers to write their own songs, the commercial nature of the Brill Building might seem crass, but the music made there is anything but. In his 2005 book Always Magic In The Air: The Bomp And Brilliance Of The Brill Building Era, pop historian Ken Emerson writes, “Expressing the optimism and outrage of the early civil rights movement, [the Brill Building catalog] amalgamated black, white, and Latino sounds before multiculturalism became a concept, much less a cliché, and integrated audiences before America desegregated its schools. It helped create a youth market – teenagers were a new breed of human being and a brand-new consumer category – and trafficked in teen idols from whom Justin Timberlake and the Simpson sisters directly descend.”

Today, the Brill Building may be synonymous with sugary, sophisticated pop songs, but the structure itself stands half-empty, with only a few businesses remaining. Among them, however, is St. Nicholas Music Inc., which licenses a song written in the Brill by Johnny Marks: “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Café Wha? (115 MacDougal Street)
Robert Zimmerman wasted no time. By then calling himself Bob Dylan, after the drunken Welsh poet, the Minnesota native arrived by bus in Manhattan on a snowy day in January 1961. As legend has it, he was onstage at the Café Wha? that very afternoon.

Café Wha? was one of a handful of coffeehouses and taverns in Greenwich Village – most along MacDougal and Fourth streets – that served as safehavens for folkies, hipsters, and outcasts. Earnest young men and women toted their acoustic guitars down the steep steps to the basement caves, vowing to reclaim folk music from the clean-cut, cardigan-clad straights like The Kingston Trio. Acts like Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk, and Richard and Mimi Fariña cut their teeth on the cramped stages of these clubs, many of which – including the Wha? – are still in operation today.

“The place was a subterranean cavern, liquorless, ill lit, low ceiling, like a wide dining hall with chairs and tables – opened at noon, closed at four in the morning. Somebody had told me to go there and ask for a singer named Freddy Neil who ran the daytime show at the Wha?” Dylan writes in Chronicles: Volume One. After a brief audition, Neil let Dylan play harmonica with him. “I was ecstatic. At least it was a place to stay out of the cold.”

Accounts vary about the nature of Dylan’s role at the Wha? Some say he convinced owner Manny Roth (yes, David Lee’s uncle) to let him play a few songs by himself. Others claim he shared the stage with the likes of Mark Spoelstra and Karen Dalton. If Dylan himself is to be believed – which is always a tenuous proposition – he never played his own set there, but merely accompanied Neil on harmonica. However it went down, it was his first regular gig in the city.


Chelsea Hotel (222 W. 23rd Street)
There’s a story for every room at the Chelsea Hotel. Every hallway has seen its share of debauchery. Even the elevators hold history. It was in one of the building’s ancient Otises that Janis Joplin met Leonard Cohen, who agreed to be her Kristofferson for the night. What happened next inspired one of his most beloved songs, “Chelsea Hotel No. 2.”

Built in 1884, the twelve-story building has become synonymous with rock-and-roll excess and bohemian eccentricity, inspiring creativity as well as self-destruction among several generations of actors, writers, painters, musicians, critics, poets, and hangers-on. “There’s a famous creative energy that pervades the Chelsea,” former resident Ed Hamilton wrote in his 2007 book, Legends Of The Chelsea Hotel: Living The Artist’s And Outlaws In New York’s Rebel Mecca. “You feel it when you walk through the door, and you never cease to feel it for as long as you live here. Its demands are a lot to live with, and it can come over time to be perceived as a negative energy.”

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In 1953 Dylan Thomas drank himself to death at the Chelsea. A little more than a decade later, his acolyte and namesake Bob Dylan penned “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” there. In 1969 Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe moved into the smallest, cheapest room while he recovered from a nasty bout of the clap. James Brown bunked here. So did Jimi Hendrix, Nico, and Madonna.

Dee Dee Ramone kicked junk at the Chelsea. Sid Vicious murdered his girlfriend Nancy Spungen in Room #100, which became so popular among grim-minded tourists that management closed the room off completely. That was only one of many fantastical tragedies at the hotel: Edie Sedgwick famously set herself on fire while gluing on false eyelashes, nearly dying in the blaze.

Today, the Chelsea is a victim of the heated New York real estate market, changing hands three times in seven years. With only a few residents left, the building is in the midst of long-running renovations that have stripped away most of the historic fixtures and robbed the place of its louche charm. It is currently closed to the public, with uncertain plans to reopen in 2015.

The Factory (originally 231 East 47th Street)
From the early 1960s until his death in 1987 – much longer than the fifteen minutes he famously prophesied for everyone – Andy Warhol stood at the center of the New York art world, not only making art but making others make art. One of the most notorious projects to come out of Warhol’s Factory was a multimedia project called the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which mixed excruciatingly loud music with film loops and dance performances. Providing the droning riffs and confrontational lyrics was a band called The Velvet Underground, featuring a young singer-songwriter named Lou Reed.

The locus of this art movement was Warhol’s Factory, a menagerie of painters, poets, drag queens, musicians, filmmakers, and assorted hangers-on. Originally housed on the fifth floor of a midtown building – where rents were astoundingly cheap – the Factory was just what its name implied: a site where art could be purposefully and pointedly mass-produced. It was a manufacturing operation for which the Velvets were the house band.

Early musical projects like the Exploding Plastic Inevitable would exert considerable influence on Reed as a musician and songwriter, not only providing him with a sound but also a subject matter that would define his work with the Velvets and especially as a solo artist. He became the poet laureate of New York’s gutter culture, commemorating every species of street hustler in songs like “Waiting For My Man” and “Walk On The Wild Side.” This was a side of New York that was rarely portrayed in popular culture, yet Reed, like his mentor Warhol and his artist contemporaries, made it sound vibrant, even soulful.

Sadly, the original Factory no longer exists. The building on 47th Street was sold in 1968 and torn down, after which Warhol would move his headquarter three times in 20 years. Today the site is home to a parking garage.

CBGB (315 Bowery)
The restrooms were notorious. Rumored to be the worst in New York, the lavatories at CBGB lacked doors on the stalls. In some cases they also lacked stalls. Every centimeter of wall, counter, and toilet space had been stickered, spraypainted, spit-caked, and shit-stained to create a geographic strata of graffiti. It smelled of piss and worse.

If a bathroom could sing or play an instrument, well … it would have one up on many of the musicians who stepped up to the cramped stage at CBGB to deliver big blasts of punk rock: riot-gear guitars, shouted vocals, boundless energy, aggression approaching violence. As Will Hermes writes in Love Goes To Buildings On Fire: Five Years In New York That Changed Music Forever, “the aesthetic [at CBGB] seemed less about escaping the nastiness of the city than reveling in it, amping it up to a cinematic scale, drawing a narrative in which artists could wage heroic battle.” There was purpose and deliberation in the anarchy: extreme noise for extreme times, music as a weapon in that heroic battle.

Hilly Kristal bought the bar in 1969 for $20,000 and soon christened it CBGB, short for Country Bluegrass Blues. Below that: OMFUG. Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers. In less than a decade it had grown from just another dive bar into ground zero for the punk movement. Suicide and Patti Smith got their starts there, as did the Ramones, Richard Hell, and even brainy acts like Television and Talking Heads.

Eight years after it closed its doors (and decades since its last gasp of relevance), there is a tendency among punks and their progeny to romanticize and commercialize CBGB. The annual CBGB Music Festival features hundreds of bands playing stages around New York – including Times Square and the Barkley Center. In 2013, just months before the release of an ill-conceived feature film that bore the disdain of nearly every film and music critic, the venue’s infamous restroom was painstakingly re-created at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was only punk if you broke protocol and used it for its original purpose.

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