Writings & Whatnot by Rob Hill
Strolling down 52nd Street between Fifth and Seventh Avenues, one notices the plate glass windows and steel frames of banks and hotels, the numerous revolving doors and loading docks. Though the signpost on the corner designates this as “Swing Street,” even the casual observer must note that there is nothing remotely swinging about this particular stretch of concrete and steel. Aside from the banks there are a few clothing shops, a FedEx store, a Sheraton Executive Conference Center, The Paley Center for Media, and a certain well-known coffeeshop whose origin can be traced to the northwest coast. The only thing within sight that seems even mildly historic is the 21 Club, a former speakeasy, with its balcony of cast iron lawn jockeys.
From the nineteen thirties to the fifties it was a different story. The streets were lined with Victorian brownstones ablaze with ghostly neon, thriving nightclubs with names like The Onyx, The Three Deuces, The Famous Door, the Downbeat, the Yacht Club, Jimmy Ryan’s, and, later, Birdland. On any given night one could drift from venue to venue, falling under the spell of such jazz legends as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Sidney Bechet, Lennie Tristano, Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins, and Lester Young, a pantheon of the greats. Bird’s tortured flights of freedom. Monk staggering over broken keys. Tristano’s tempered trapezoids. Dizzy’s musical puns. Every night up and down the block it all came pouring from the entrances.
As bebop gradually infiltrated mass consciousness, 52nd Street was its headquarters. This was serious music to be listened to, to be studied and understood. Never mind that corny dance jive of yesterday, the syncopated high hat seemed to proclaim, the real questions were being asked right here. Glenn Miller had been lost during the war and this was his replacement. And it spoke in a language better equipped to deal with postwar existential terror, a jagged dialogue of flatted fifths, not known for nothing as the Devil’s Interval. Blackclad femmes with cocaine eyes watching from the front tables. An audience of hornrims and goatees, nodding in rhythmic conspiracy. A few undercover narcotics agents towards the back attempting a low profile. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, and the room is smouldering. A tousle-haired trumpet player comes tottering off the bandstand in a heroin haze, beats a fast exit up the fire escape as a cigarette girl creates a diversion. But everyone listens.
By the mid-fifties the street was in decline. Many of the clubs had adapted into strip joints where the music decidedly took a backseat to the action. Rock ‘n’ roll was the new kid in town. Jazz was doomed to be usurped by rock, as youth discovered it didn’t want to analyze from its chair, it wanted to shake, rattle, and if possible, roll. And youth has in its possession the disposable income, so naturally it will be targeted by those whose business it is to dispose of it. Ma and pa still remember the Depression. They’re going to be much harder to separate from their savings. But their affluent offspring are ripe for the taking. So if it’s a simple beat and a curled lip the kids want, a simple beat and a curled lip is what they’ll get.
In 1959, Miles Davis made headlines after getting roughed up by a cop in front of Birdland for refusing to be pushed around. Miles’ name happened to be on the marquee but the cop was more concerned with the white woman at Miles’ side. A photo circulated showing the musician bleeding from a head wound as the police took him into custody. A decade later he was to corner rock music on his own turf and have his way with it on the infamous Bitches Brew album.
But by then the last jazz club had boarded its doors and the whole place sentenced to the bulldozer. Swing Street in any recognizable form disappeared without a trace. Its heyday can only be glimpsed in surviving photographs of the period, and as a fondly recreated set in Clint Eastwood’s tribute to Charlie Parker, Bird. Some shots of a washed-up Swing Street can be spotted in the film Sweet Smell of Success, as Lancaster and Curtis are leaving the 21 Club. The western end of the row is now affectionately known as “W.C. Handy’s Place,” though who in midtown today even remembers who W.C. Handy was?
He makes his entrance. Sxip Shirey, the mad impresario in the pinstriped suit. The great maestro of the maelstrom. An unholy alliance between Dr Caligari and Archimedes, between Svengali and Gyro Gearloose. Equal parts lion tamer, carnival barker, vaudeville buffoon, gypsy fortuneteller, madcap inventor, and serious composer. A table at his side contains a hodgepodge of junkyard toys transformed into musical instruments through some devious form of alchemy. Mutant harmonicas, dented music boxes, marbles spun in a bowl, dinner bells, bicycle chimes, a megaphone, pennywhistles duct-taped together. When piped through his assortment of pitchshifters and echo units the most docile of flutes becomes a catastrophic pipe organ, bellowing straight from the bowels of a demon.
Sxip Shirey has been a fixture on the New York avant-garde music scene since the glory days of Coney Island, where he entertained the rubes at Steeplechase Park. As a dashing young snake oil peddler, Sxip offered the gathering crowds a mysterious elixir which for mere pennies would cure both halitosis and impotence. He befriended the local fire eaters and stiltwalkers, and palled around with Gummo and Chico Marx before they struck it big. Some claim to have been present at afterhours jam sessions featuring Chico on piano and Sxip on a secondhand accordion. Some have even suggested Sxip had a hand in originating Chico’s signature shoot-the-keys trick. He performed for such luminaries as Roosevelt and Freud while sultry gangster’s molls watched from the wings. At night he slept behind the carousel and dreamt of bigger things.
Sxip firmly aligned himself with Nikola Tesla during the great debate between alternating and direct current. On catching wind of Edison’s infernal plot to electrocute an elephant and therefore demonstrate the alleged danger of Tesla’s alternating current, Sxip rushed down to the boardwalk just in time to witness the poor creature collapse in a sizzling heap. He had been too late to stop it. Glowering, he cursed Edison soundly and ever since has harbored a disdain for the electric lightbulb. To this day he prefers candlelight.
During the twenties Sxip visited Berlin to absorb the thriving cabaret scene. He stayed in the same hotel as Christopher Isherwood and in fact makes a small appearance in the novel Goodbye to Berlin. He once notably performed a birthday toast to Marlene Dietrich at the Wintergarten. In return she gave him his first ocarina, which he still cherishes. Although Sxip felt at home in the decadent Weimar Republic among the flappers, transvestites, and dope fiends, he was convinced by an apprehensive Fritz Lang that the political situation was getting out of hand. He soon returned by steamship to America.
Sxip settled in Hollywood in the early fifties to compose soundtracks to various science fiction films. Some of his scores include instrumentation commonly assumed to be the theremin (predating Bernard Herrmann’s landmark use of one in The Day the Earth Stood Still), but which are actually conventional horns recorded with varispeed techniques. Though proud of his work in film, Sxip left Hollywood embittered by the assembly line mentality of the studio system which he felt devalued the artist. Nor did he like what the California sun did to his complexion. However, his lengthy correspondence with electronic pioneer Raymond Scott dating to this period is due to be published next year by Oscillator Books.
Surprisingly, Sxip mostly sat out the sixties. One would assume his often eccentric and irreverent stylings would fit in seamlessly with the psychedelic aesthetics of the time period. But Sxip took that decade to lay down his tools and do some serious soul searching. He traveled extensively in Eastern Europe and became fascinated with the Balkan and klezmer cultures he encountered there. On returning to New York he drew on these influences to form the Luminescent Orchestrii, a popular attraction on the Lower East Side with their unique brand of Romanian gypsy punk.
Which brings us back to today, with Sxip in the role of master of ceremonies for the strange and wonderful Evelyn Evelyn sisters at the Lucille Lortel Theater deep in the groin of the Village. He entertains the crowd with tales of sharing a toilet seat with Bertolt Brecht and displays his talents at silhouette puppetry. Then he lifts an instrument from his wunderkammer and erupts into another tune. He is an urban witchdoctor, dancing on footpedals and conjuring locomotives out of the stage and jet engines out of the baffles. Images of whirling carousels and gold teeth fill the theater, of bellydancers and swordswallowers, of vapor trails and teakettles and lids of steamer trunks slamming. And with his blessing he sends us back out into the streets of New York, a little better prepared for what we will find there.
The great electric worm burrows beneath the East River in the direction of the city. Morning commuters try their damndest to avoid eye contact with each other, hiding behind newspapers, novels, makeup kits, and eyelids. An ageless woman wrapped in a blanket tosses pistachio shells on the floor underneath her seat. Three separate people are wearing eyepatches, unrelated. A mustachioed businessman stands with his crotch as conspicuously close as possible to the face of a seated girl who closes her eyes and wishes herself elsewhere.
The door at the far end of the subway car slides open and the roar of the tunnel comes whooshing in. A character has arrived. He wears a shimmering spacesuit with antennae on his head and carries a gleaming saxophone made from an unearthly metal. The genetic result of George Clinton of Parliament-Funkadelic mating with a Teletubby. He pushes back his cape and speaks.
“People of Earth, I have come bearing a message and the message is this.”
Then he presses the instrument to his lips and unleashes a cascade of cacophony. It sounds like a madman driving a jeep through a cheese grater. Those unprotected by earbuds or headphones hastily cover their ears. Those with some kind of prop quickly bury themselves deeper in it. At the other end of the car, two resourceful young commuters escape through the emergency door into the successive car. After nearly a minute of this, the unendurable squawking mercifully lets up and the interloper announces, “Now, if all of you will contribute some money I will promise to stop playing.”
Hands dart into change purses and wallets, prayers there is enough change to send this wandering space mutant back to the planet from which he came.
The Bridge Cafe gets its name from being located in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. In one form or another the wood-frame building has been serving drinks since 1794. First as a grocery, then as a “disorderly house,” which was a polite way of referring to a brothel, then as a series of taverns and watering holes. The interior still retains a twenties’ speakeasy atmosphere. It is one of several bars in Manhattan that lays claim to the title of “New York’s Oldest Drinking Establishment.” And it is reportedly haunted by the ghost of Gallus Mag, the notorious bouncer who kept a jar of severed ears she’d bitten off some of the more unruly patrons.
An old man hunches over a corner table beside a family of tourists, chatting at them over his steak dinner with a little too much aggression than the setting calls for. The young daughter performs ballet pirouettes for her own amusement, often using the far wall to brake her momentum. Sepia photos of old New York threaten to drop from their mountings. The old coot watches the girl with a little too much interest. Police have been summoned for less instigation than the glint in his eye. The mother looks concerned. The father hastily signals for the check. The daughter is lost in her twirls. They escape to the safety of South Seaport and the salty old lech returns his attention to his steak, stabbing it with glee. Somehow he suits the cafe’s decor perfectly. He may well have occupied that table since the days of bootleggers and bathtub gin, a river pirate with gold teeth and a knife tucked in his boot.
Outside the cobblestone streets are slick with rain. They seemingly haven’t changed much since the days when Herman Melville strode them in search of a ship leaving port. Nearby is the location of the mansion George Washington lived in while he was President and New York the temporary Capitol. The mansion no longer stands, as it was stepped on by one of the Brooklyn Bridge pilings. As I understand it, there is a plaque commemorating the site, though it is blocked off by a construction fence and no longer accessible to the public. Some wish to have the plaque moved to a more visible location, but so far their request has been ignored on grounds that the plaque should mark the exact spot regardless of whether anyone can see it or not. Until that situation gets sorted, those longing for a whiff of Washington’s spectral presence will have to make due with the Fraunces Tavern, where the former general did much of his presidential carousing.
[Oil painting by Janet Ternoff]
“This is the last stop,” calls out the train operator in a tone not to be trifled with. But myself and a light sprinkling of curiosity seekers remain seated. We know better and will not be daunted. She calls out again but we sit firmly in silent protest. An amiable college student approaches her to ask if he might be allowed to remain aboard as the train loops back to make its return trip uptown. But she’s not having it. He can very well take his puppy eyes and pleading tone and get the hell off her train. And that goes for the rest of us too. A standoff. Then an orange-vested worker comes to the rescue. He pokes his head through the doors and urges her to let us ride the loop. The train operator shrugs and steps back into her compartment. A moment later the train jolts to life. The stubborn passengers smile to themselves, a bloodless battle won. Collectively yet independently we keep watch out the right side windows, seized with a giddy anticipation that we are soon to witness something rare.
The subway station located beneath New York’s City Hall first opened in 1904 and was abandoned in 1945. The powers that be determined the station didn’t receive enough traffic to pull its own weight. A pity because its elegance put all other stations to shame. This was the dinstinguished gentleman’s means of travel—brass chandeliers, stained glass skylights, tiled archways, brass fixtures. Everything but a grand piano. A Roman bathhouse of a station, by all accounts.
One intrepid young adventurer has his point-n-click readied. How he intends to get a decent shot of anything but his own reflection in the grimy window is beyond me, but who am I to discourage? The train slows as it heads into a curve and we are rewarded with our first glimpse of the forgotten station. From the perspective on board the train it is impossible to glimpse much of the station’s rumored splendor. The chandeliers and skylights are above the range of sight. The dusty platform itself, illuminated by the murky glow of a series of lightbulbs that look straight from Edison’s workbench, could pass as the lair of some unknown breed of subterranean prowler. A flight of stairs lead up into mystery. There are no visible footprints in the dust.
And then it is over. The train passes through several yards of darkened tunnel then emerges in the brightly-lit Brooklyn Bridge station, poised for its uptown run. We stagger out as though from a sinister carnival ride into the daylight, emotions stirred by what we have seen. Or did we see it? The kid with the camera is fidgeting with the playback mechanism, eager for evidence that it wasn’t some sort of fleeting hallucination. He managed to capture a blurred image of a green tiled sign that can just be discerned to read “City Hall.” It was there after all.
To be honest, the City Hall station is far from forgotten. Photos are in abundance all over the Internet. To the train operators who pass through it everyday as part of their route it is just another tedious part of the workday, much like an elevator or a water cooler or the gated entrance to a parking ramp. If anything, a nuisance to attract goggle-eyed history buffs with their cameras and persistence. To those of us with limited access, though, it remains an urban Atlantis, its existence spoken of in hushed reverence like a closely guarded secret.
[Postcard from Forgotten NY]