As a chronicler of New York’s underside and forgotten histories, Luc Sante walked straight out of the pages of Joe Mitchell, A.J. Liebling, the photos of Weegee and the films of Nicholas Ray. Before publishing the book that raised his profile, Low Life (1991), he hung out in all the right places, listening to Lenny Kaye talk at Village Oldies; taking in the good, bad and ugly at CBGB; and combing the shelves of The Strand (where he worked for years). In his new book, Maybe the People Would Be the Times, he tells his own story through a collection of essays, profiles and memoir compiled over the years. Eric Davidson spoke with Luc Sante for PKM
Luc Sante is expert at constructing stories that are mind-bogglingly researched without getting bogged down in numb numbering. He appears as a keen spectator, walking and living around the streets he describes, just another one of the subjects who populate his stories.
His breakout book was Low Life, an epic history of the tawdrier edges of lower Manhattan on the cusp of the 20th century. Published in 1991, it arrived surreptitiously into the burgeoning cultural revisionism of the dark days 1970s NYC. The city fathers themselves had painted the ‘80s as a “comeback,” and a nostalgic myth of “cool old New York” was germinating. Low Life was a much-needed reminder of the long history of dangerous drunkenness and rapscallion artwork in the City that found its latterday expression in the new wave of music and arts that sprung from the Lower East Side in the ‘70s.
Low Life made Sante’s name, and he has since continued to recount the histories of the unfairly ostracized of The Big City, be it New York, Paris, or now Sante’s own personal urbanity in his latest book, Maybe the People Would Be the Times (Verse Chorus Press). It’s a catalog of mostly previously published essays from across the last three decades, plus mini-biographies and poeticized snapshots of “officially” disregarded artists and art forms that deftly morphs into a quasi-autobiography.
As Sante dashes off in one line in the book, the childhood sections of most biographies are often rote or dull. He doesn’t even get around to mentioning his parents or childhood until about 90 pages in, well after describing seeing Patti Smith perform or stumbling onto the birth of hip hop. Sante essentially frames his own life between those inspired late teenage days to the forced reflection of his forties, as his life takes him from loft-hopping wannabe bohemian, to the CBGB scene, to Strand employee, and through the No Wave days – along the way becoming a major chronicler of what the irony-drenched ‘90s dubbed “hidden history,” but we increasingly call influence.
His is a unique voice, someone who survived the drugs and AIDS-decimated blocks of the New York City of that fabled time, and whose recognition of the decimation knows its unapologetic roots as well as anyone. But rather than focus on the usual leather-clad suspects (though many of them, whom he hung out with, make appearances), Sante is drawn to the ephemeral detritus of forgotten regional magazines, zines, Fotonovelas, crime scene photos, tabloids, guerilla shutterbugs, and brief-stint clubs that help form our gritty visions of late-70s/early ‘80s lower Manhattan as much as a Johnny Thunders album or Basquiat gallery show. And in an era where books about bad old New York are becoming a genre unto themselves, Sante’s poetic descriptions and man-on-the-street viewpoints are some of the most refreshingly redolent you’ll read.
No doubt Sante’s shaded recollections of long lost clubs, record stores, and gay bars are a fresh bounty of emotion for those who were there; and for the younger set too, wanting of details of that grimly glamorous era. By the end, though, it’s apparent Maybe the People… is definitely not a nostalgia trip. Sante’s form of reportage is to keep seemingly arcane art and artists alive by their refraction into the future.
A story of a car crashing into and collapsing a tenement house is a subtle simile to 9/11. The incensed anger of artist/activist, David Wojnarowicz, towards society’s diminution of AIDS mirrors the anger many now have toward Trump’s response to Covid-19. While making just one fleeting mention, given this book’s release date, Trump floats in and out of it as a spectre of backward conservative evils that don’t seem to have subsided.
It is not until the very end that Sante lets loose with personal demons we could heretofore only guess at. In the stream-of-consciousness final chapter, he throws up a litany of the drug-addled, bottomed-out, and back up again stories you’d normally get from a traditional autobiography. Like the 300 pages before it, though, it remains a debate about importance, recognition, and whether we need either, while clearly showing Sante harnessed that debate to get through some tough times. Finally, he gladly equates himself with a tossed newspaper on the street – something that once offered information, got thrown out, and came back as inspirational art. Not unlike the New York City of Maybe the People Would Be the Times.
PKM: After your last collection of essays, Kill All Your Darlings, how did you come to the idea of framing these essays into a kind of autobiography?
Luc Sante: It happened of its own accord. I was at first annoyed by the overlaps and repetitions in the pieces I was selecting, then realized it was an asset, not a defect, and began organizing it in a way that highlighted the personal. I knew that certain pieces had to be in there – “E. S. P.,” “Commerce,” “The Unknown Soldier,” and some blog items – and the collection was ultimately shaped around them. [Of the essays that have appeared elsewhere], they were in such far-flung publications that there’s no chance anyone would have read a majority of them beforehand. All of those that are included have some especially strong personal resonance. Jacques Rivette’s movies, for example, had as strong a formative impact on me as any of the music.
Three by Jacques Rivette – Criterion Channel Teaser:
PKM: Early on you mention the “Golden Groups” doo-wop comps on Relic. Where in the city would you have picked up those kind of comps back then?
Luc Sante: I spent a lot of time at Village Oldies when it was on Bleecker Street, and spent a lot of that time listening to Lenny Kaye when he worked behind the counter there – mostly him talking to other people, because I was very shy. But also, I had a low-level scam: my local Woolworth’s in New Jersey would sell grab-bags of ten 45s for a dollar, and I’d buy two or three, remove them from the shrink-wrap, and take them to Lenny and trade them for new records. He once turned me on to an amazing copy of John Wesley Harding that had been elaborately decorated in three colors of ballpoint pen by some speed freak. Sadly I lent it to someone who subsequently died, and never got it back.
The discourse at Village Oldies was great, and got me into vocal harmonizers, among other things. I also liked Free Being, on Second Avenue just below Gem Spa, and then in later years Sounds on St. Mark’s, Bleecker Bob’s strictly for Jamaican imports, and – maybe my favorite of them all – 99 on MacDougal Street, a record store and record label that briefly represented the exact meeting of my tastes with the zeitgeist.
PKM: In the chapter about early music mags, Go magazine, though basically a commercial music rag, included regional coverage and seemed very important to you. Did you ever meet founder Robin Leach and thank him?
Luc Sante: No, and I wouldn’t have if I did, because – as funny as it was on late-night TV – Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous was the cartoon distillation of everything I despised about the ‘80s.
PKM: Are you a pack rat? Have you held onto all the mags, records, and photos you talk about in the book?
Luc Sante: I have many things, for example the three issues of Crawdaddy I bought in 1968, but I also love to get rid of things. I run a tight ship. And so much of the early stuff is gone because my mother, who was both very religious and very ignorant, would regularly police my room, go through drawers, read notebooks, so that there were many papers and magazines I bought and read, but never brought home at all.
PKM: You mentioned seeing some shows at the short-lived Fillmore…
Luc Sante: I saw Pink Floyd, the Jefferson Airplane, and the Incredible String Band twice. Afterward I’d rush to get the last train back from Hoboken. I was a teenager, and tightly surveilled by my parents.
PKM: So you ended up at Columbia in the early ‘70s. Were you ever involved in any Vietnam protests?
Luc Sante: The major period of protests at Columbia – spring ’68 to spring ’72 – ended just before I got there. In my first week I attended a meeting of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), which turned out to be the meeting at which the Columbia chapter dissolved itself. But I attended many demonstrations when I was in high school in NYC, and some when I was in college, before the energy drained from the movement in the mid-‘70s. Nixon is the only president I ever saw in person, and I saw him twice: in 1960, when he was [vice president] running for president, and in 1973, at a protest against him on Seventh Avenue in Midtown.
PKM: In the book you say, of 1975, “Everybody gets a haircut that year, and no one can say exactly why.” What are some of your guesses?
Luc Sante: It was a buzz in the air. For me, I’d say it was half Bryan Ferry and half disgust at hippies.
To this day I’m startled when people talk about my work exclusively in terms of “seedy underbelly” or “marginal obscure.” I’m a leveler. None of what I write about is beneath notice.
PKM: By that time, you are zigzagging through the burgeoning lower Manhattan music scene. It was interesting to me the way you mention Television – usually regarded as the first of the new original bands to play CBGB – and not another band specifically until Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, who would be considered one of the earliest No Wave bands, and in a way, an end point of the original CBGB scene.
Luc Sante: Well, I was not going to discuss CBGB for the whole length of the piece, so I used representative acts for different portions of my music-chasing life. I was led to CBGB by Patti Smith, whom I saw many times before CBGB was a thing, and then throughout her career there until her retirement. I saw the Ramones many times, and Blondie, Talking Heads – I saw their second appearance there, in the summer of ’75. I spent more than one New Year’s Eve at CBGB. I saw X-Ray Spex at CBGB, and the B-52s. Then I saw the B-52s a month or so later at the opening of the Mudd Club, which is for me when the CBGB story effectively ended, since new options in musical entertainment were presenting themselves.
CBGB was very exciting in 1975 and ’76, but by ’77 it was beginning to pall. I wanted new sounds, and I was bored with rock ‘n’ roll past a certain point. By the way, accounts of CBGB never mention the often agonizingly bad glam acts from who knows where that were invariably second-billed every night in the early years. The only band names I seem to have retained are Sniper and Kid Twist – the latter because a few years later I became aware that NYC had at different times two famous gangsters who used that name.
PKM: How did Nicholas Ray and Television get connected? Did Nick Ray hang around CBGB? I don’t recall hearing that, though I know Jim Jarmusch studied with him.
Luc Sante: In a word: Cinemabilia. That was the movie-themed bookstore run by Terry Ork, who was the first to record Television; and both Richards – Lloyd and Hell – worked there. I assume Nick went to CBs once. Jim studied with him, and he was a PA on Lightning Over Water, the Ray-Wenders collaboration.
PKM: Can you tell me about Jarmusch’s band, Del Byzanteens, that your wrote a few lyrics for?
Luc Sante: They were better live than on record, in my possibly minority opinion. I didn’t play an instrument, although I did try impro-singing with them in rehearsals a couple of times, which failed miserably because I was far too self-conscious.
The Del-Byzanteens My World Is Empty:
PKM: I’m also from northern Ohio like Jarmusch, and you have a funny line in the book about the L.E.S. scene – “the enormous number of people from Northeast Ohio.” I feel like that train still runs today. Who are a few that pop right off your head?
Luc Sante: Well, I was married to a woman from Akron for fifteen years, so yeah, I spent a lot of time in northeast Ohio. But before that, one of the first people I met at Columbia was Phil Kline – linchpin of the Del-Byzanteens and now an important composer – and through him his best friend from high school, Jarmusch, who transferred to Columbia. Jim’s high school girlfriend, the jewelry designer Barb Klar, lived in Cleveland then and sent Jim all the Pere Ubu singles as they came out; and then Barb moved to NYC with her best friend, Cynthia Sley of the Bush Tetras.
August ’76, I started working at the Strand, the Cramps moved to town, and at the bookstore I met Miriam Linna, then the band’s drummer as well as president of the Pere Ubu Fan Club, and Lux Interior. Lux took me under his wing, and invited me to the apartment in Yorkville he shared with Ivy – who was at work that night, so I never got to meet her – and a jukebox and ten million records. He played me many ‘50s/’60s novelty records and the Sex Pistols, whom I hadn’t heard yet even though I knew of them. You couldn’t exactly hear them on the radio. I thought it would be the start of an enduring friendship, but Lux quit the Strand within a week, instantly became famous, and I never saw him again.
Soon after that, Adele Bertei and Bradly Field arrived from Cleveland to work at the store and join in the creation of No Wave; and then, just after I’d quit the Strand, Tim Wright. Aside from the deceased Lux, Bradly, and Tim, I’m still friends with all those people. There really is something about northeast Ohio.
PKM: I have to mention the recent reprint of Adele Bertei’s amazing biography, Peter and the Wolves (Smog Veil), about living and working with Peter Laughner, one of the increasingly important northeast Ohio adopted sons around that mid-70s NYC scene. A general assessment seems to be that, while Laughner had many friends in NYC, he was thought of locally as something of an interloper. And then the proud Clevelander in me reminds those who’d hold that assessment that Rocket from the Tombs were around before the Ramones.
Luc Sante: Well, not having known him, I’m loath to psychoanalyze, but I think the feeling in NYC about Laughner is that he wasn’t happy being himself and really wanted to be Tom Verlaine. I think that’s why he was seen as an interloper. If he’d just been himself and played his own songs – many of which were exceptional – the feeling would surely have been different.
August ’76, I started working at the Strand, the Cramps moved to town, and at the bookstore I met Miriam Linna, then the band’s drummer as well as president of the Pere Ubu Fan Club, and Lux Interior.
PKM: In one essay, you talk of walking home in the pre-dawn hours, and the solitude of that act back then in NYC. But is there a story you recall of leaving some club very late and having a run-in?
Luc Sante: Never once had a run-in, or anything close to one. The streets were empty. A couple of my friends did once get harassed in Little Italy on their way home from Tier 3, but that was exceptional. It all depended on where you went, what you looked like, and how you comported yourself. If you were a suburbanite in fancy clothes in the theater district at night, you were a much better prospect than a skinny inconspicuous twerp in raggedy clothes south of 14th Street and west of Avenue B, or C depending on the year.
In 1977, I was having drinks in Morningside Heights with my friend Darryl Pinckney, who is African-American, and we decided to spend the entire night walking through Harlem. We had a great time, talked to many people, got invited into people’s apartments to smoke reefer, went home happy at dawn. In 1987, we repeated the experiment. It was the height of crack, though, and things were very different. Everywhere we went people called out “5-0” – the only reason they could figure why a black guy and a white guy would be strolling through Harlem at 3 a.m. And we got cursed out, got bottles thrown at us, and cut the experiment short. In every way, the ’80s were worse than the ’70s.
PKM: When did you discover your knack and love for researching the City?
Luc Sante: The seeds were planted in my high-school years when I’d cut class and wander, fascinated especially by the industrial parts of Manhattan. Then in college, Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York was a major cult item among my friends. Low Life was born out of a twinned impulse to record the early life of the tenements in which I lived, and to chase down Asbury’s tall tales and correct them – which latter proved impossible because so many of them were made up out of whole cloth by 19th-century hack journalists.
PKM: What did you think of The Gangs of New York movie?
Luc Sante: I worked on it – “historical consultant” – and it was the best gig ever. I love and admire Martin Scorsese. And Daniel Day-Lewis was brilliant, Dante Ferretti’s sets were brilliant, there were a thousand amazing details. I have mixed feelings about the finished product, but between Disney and Harvey Weinstein it didn’t stand much of a chance.
PKM: You mention a zine you once made. Was it music-related? And have you ever thought about compiling or posting them?
Luc Sante: It was called Stranded, and it originally arose from a unionization struggle at the Strand. It was open to anyone willing to contribute. I’d design the cover and a bunch of us would collate. There was some music stuff in it, but it wasn’t what you’d call music-oriented. It’s a charming period item, with some collector interest (Basquiat! Acker!), but most of it hasn’t stood the test of time.
PKM: Within Maybe the People…, you seem to avoid going into much detail about what you did to simply pay the bills. Do you mind detailing any jobs you had around that ‘70s punk period?
Luc Sante: I went to work after college at a law firm as a process server, but then it turned out I couldn’t be a process server because I wasn’t a U.S. citizen, so instead I went to work at the Strand, ’76-’79. Then I lived for about six months selling rare books and literary magazines that I’d squirreled away while at the Strand. Then nine months as assistant. – read: secretary and gofer – to a photographer who specialized in author portraits. Then to the New York Review of Books: a year in the mailroom and three years as assistant to Barbara Epstein. I quit on my thirtieth birthday and vowed I’d never have a full-time job again, and I’ve kept my word.
PKM: Cheers! You briefly mention the Squat Theater. Can you tell us about that place?
Luc Sante: The Squat was the home and performance space – on W. 23rd, just down from the Chelsea Hotel – of a semi-commune of dissident Hungarian theater people, who had lived and worked all over Europe before coming to NYC. Among them were Eszter Balint and her parents – Eszter of Stranger Than Paradise and now her own lovely music. The group would put on immersive plays that often involved sensational fourth-wall bustings, as well as music and vaudeville. The theater was also a hangout, and by and by became a music venue. I associate it with the all-too-brief jazz-punk moment, a sort of populist extension of the AACM and Ornette’s harmolodic universe.
PKM: Any off-the-top-of-your-head memories of Klaus Nomi and/or Cookie Mueller, who make brief appearances in your book?
Luc Sante: I met Klaus when he showed up at a party I was throwing, and he told me at the door, not knowing who I was, that he was a friend of Luc. How could I resist that? Cookie was just more alive – more in the moment, more alert to the joke, more attuned to ambient emotions – than anyone I’ve ever met.
PKM: You mention you were of working class stock. What were your feelings about running with what I assume were a preponderance of trust fund kids in the L.E.S. scene?
Luc Sante: It didn’t get talked about. In fact, it was uncool in many precincts for rich people to flaunt their wealth. The only cars you’d see on Nantucket, for example, were station wagons with busted shocks and ancient Volvos with rust spots. I didn’t realize in some cases until many years later who the rich kids were downtown. And that was a good thing, because class has historically been a trigger for me, and at that age I hadn’t developed a sufficient sense of dramatic irony.
PKM: Your description of that infamous Public Image show at the Ritz that turned into a riot, I think you imply it made the audience seem silly or not in on the art joke. Was there a kind of entitled privilege within even lower-tiered rock’n’roll at that point? Is that what you meant by the “imminent end of rock ‘n’ roll?”
Luc Sante: Of course there was. All you had to do to see it was to follow Sid Vicious around town, which wasn’t hard. Wherever you’d go, he’d be there, invariably incoherent or passed out, and get treated like royalty. But by “the imminent end of rock ‘n’ roll,” I mean an end to the three-chord reduction of Chuck Berryisms that the music always defaulted to. It was great for a year or two, but by ’78 I was itching for something else.
The most overlooked aspects of life are as significant as the workings of wealth and power, things that bore me silly.
PKM: You envisioned back in the early ‘80s that someday we’ll switch out “One Nation Under a Groove” as our national anthem. We’re not as close to that as we thought we’d be by now, eh?
Luc Sante: Guess not. Feels much farther away than it did then – for me chiefly because I didn’t have a background elsewhere in the country, and had no idea of the scale of racism, hatred, and greed.
PKM: What are some early memories you have of Trump? And were you one who believed he could win the Presidency, despite New Yorkers understanding of him as a con man?
Luc Sante: He was an embarrassing media presence. New York City has never been low on those, of course. He was just one cartoon character among the many who lived on Page 8 of the New York Post. It would never have occurred to me that he’d actually hold public office, let alone the eagle throne.
PKM: In a section about found photos of lynchings, you state, “The cruelty is the point.” Interesting to read that in light of the last four years.
Luc Sante: Thanks. It was so intended.
PKM: In the essay about Weegee you state: “But the inability of his contemporaries to gauge the true worth of his output was due to a sort of typecasting, as well as to the enduring Victorian idea that nothing could be considered beautiful without also being uplifting.” Did you feel that sort of criticism when you started to get published? Even being far from the Victorian era, the early ‘80s were a conservative time.
Luc Sante: In the ’80s I wrote for a lot of magazines, but never got any feedback except from my friends. That changed after my first book, but to this day I’m startled when people talk about my work exclusively in terms of “seedy underbelly” or “marginal obscure.” I’m a leveler. None of what I write about is beneath notice. The most overlooked aspects of life are as significant as the workings of wealth and power, things that bore me silly.
PKM: Finally, in the George Simenon essay, you say of his memoirs, “There is a difference: the written ones pursue his story from different angles, while the dictées are rants.” Is Maybe the People Would Be the Times a different angles piece, or a rant?
Luc Sante: No, it’s not a rant.