Harlem shuffle: The Prohibition-era Cotton Club has moved from Harlem and is now at Upper West Side (Corbis)
Even the most avid music devourer could live in New York City for years and never come close to uncovering all of its historically important treasures. In East Village’s Alphabet City, for example, one could grab a drink at Niagara and be unaware that in its unlit and seldom-used back room a plaque hangs in remembrance of its previous incarnation — A7, the birthplace of New York’s hardcore scene. It is also easy to miss the fact that it was a former hangout for punk pioneers like Bad Brains and Black Flag. A7 only existed from 1981 until 1984 but it certainly made its mark.
Outside Niagara is a vibrant mural of Joe Strummer, a sure sign the nostalgic rock tour of Manhattan starts here. Only steps away is 23 St. Mark’s Place, a building once occupied by Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable club and house band, The Velvet Underground. About half a mile north they, plus scores more rock gods, frequented the now-defunct Max’s Kansas City, the former headquarters of the glam-rock scene.
For more ghosts of the Village past, see the former site of CBGB’s at 315 Bowery, where acts like Blondie and the Ramones solidified the venue’s cachet as the heart and soul of New York’s punk and new wave scene. It closed in 2006 and was converted into a not-so rock ’n’ roll designer shop, but some of its character — graffiti-covered walls, playbills, and stickers — has been preserved by the new owner and can still be seen inside.
Go west for a sample of Bob Dylan’s New York at Greenwich Village’s Cafe Wha?, where he made his Manhattan debut, or across the street at the Gaslight Cafe, where 1960s’ coffee drinkers snapped their fingers in the wee hours to applaud the folk legend. From there it is just a minute’s walk to the ever-active Blue Note Jazz Club, made world famous by artists such as Ray Charles and Dizzy Gillespie.
Back east at Avenue A, frills-free venues ready to carry the torch are alive and well. That’s partly thanks to musician Jesse Malin — formerly of Heart Attack, an old-school A7 regular — who has opened up a string of joints, including Niagara, to help preserve the spirit of the area’s grungier past. His latest nightlife venture is Berlin, a basement bar filled with night warriors and live music. Village venues crucial to the current scene of both new and popular acts include Rockwood Music Hall, Pianos, Arlene’s Grocery, Bowery Ballroom, and Mercury Lounge — the latter of which buoyed The Strokes 16 years ago.
You can’t go to the Big Apple without a wander through the neon lights and past the theatres of Midtown. Plenty of heydays are celebrated here, too. On 28th Street, for example, an unapparent sidewalk plaque commemorates Tin Pan Alley, where the American music industry essentially began about a century ago. The Copacabana — at its prime in the ’40s on East 60th — and the Cotton Club, formerly a jazzy Harlem haunt during the Prohibition era, have been reincarnated in Midtown and the Upper West Side, respectively, for modern audiences.
The best bets for vintage vibes are Saturdays post-midnight at the Copa for Latin music or swing dance on Mondays at the Cotton Club. And the marquee lights from disco den Studio 54, now a non-profit theatre company, can still be marvelled at on 54th Street.
So while you’re finding your way to the past — be it through a Joey Ramone Place street sign or an inconspicuous dive bar on Avenue A — don’t forget to look around. You never know where and when you’ll stumble upon another clue to Gotham’s bygone eras.
● I’m Waiting for the Man The Velvet Underground
● One Way or Another Blondie
● Automatic Stop The Strokes
● I Wanna Be Sedated Ramones
● Rise Above Black Flag
● The Times They Are A-Changin’ Bob Dylan
Off the beat track: surprising cities whose sounds are in tune with the big boys
Kelly Rae Smith
Music lovers from the UK who are familiar with America’s rich history of everything from blues to country to rock ’n’ roll will already have their sights set on the usual suspects — Nashville, New Orleans, Detroit, Memphis, New York City, Chicago — when planning a trip. But don’t miss out on these other cities that have risen up as musical forces to be reckoned with.
Sleater-Kinney perform at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom Photograph:Getty Images
The Pacific Northwest is ripe with worthwhile music scenes that have shone progressively bright for the past couple of decades, and the hipster haven of Portland, Oregon, with its plethora of farm-to-fork restaurants, food carts, craft breweries and urban wineries, is among the area’s must-visits. Here, artists like M. Ward, the Decemberists and Elliott Smith came of age, and now acts including piano-driven Lost Lander, singer-songwriter Natasha Kmeto and indie rockers Radiation City are among Portland’s new wave of promising gems. When you’re out and about, check out Crystal Ballroom, Holocene, or Revolution Hall for the big gigs, or immerse yourself via intimate venues, including downtown’s Mississippi Studios, with its great burgers and eccentric line-up of rock bands, DJs, and comedians. Or try the beautiful, log cabin-like Doug Fir Lounge, serving up everything from electro pop and R&B to meatloaf and martinis.
In Austin, don’t deny yourself from grabbing grub from a to-die-for taco truck, swimming with the locals at Barton Springs, or feasting your ears on all its music scene has to offer. The Texas capital is home to South by Southwest (SXSW), a music, film, and interactive conference-festival that helped put the city on the musical map of the USA. That also happened by way of Austin City Limits, the longest-running music programme in television history. And then there’s the energetic downtown scene, where names such as Spoon, Okkervil River and Explosions in the Sky cut their teeth. Nowadays, local acts like indie-pop band Wild Child and Sweet Spirit, an energetic synth-rock outfit, are leading the way. You can look out for them at spots like Stubb’s BBQ, where everyone from Muddy Waters to Johnny Cash has played for their supper. Dig into the legendary barbecue and don’t miss the gospel brunch if you’re there on a Sunday. On 6th Street, the Parish is said to have the best sound in the city, while farther east the gold wallpapered Hotel Vegas is the perfect watering hole to gaze at taxidermy and catch local and regional rock.
But the latest rising star is charming Charleston, nestled on South Carolina’s pristine coast. A picturesque city at every turn — live oaks draped with Spanish moss, antebellum mansions in pastel hues, boat-filled harbours that sparkle in the Southern sun — Charleston has a thriving music scene. Band of Horses (BoH) and Shovels & Rope call the Holy City home, and they mean to contribute to it: BoH frontman Ben Bridwell has recorded with local acts on the rise, such as alt-country band SUSTO, indie-rockers Brave Baby, and piano-pop artist David Higgins, while Shovels & Rope regularly join forces with hometown cronies, Americana duo the InLaws.
See the downtown scene in all its glory at the kitschy Royal American, where indie rock, garage punk, and homemade beef jerky reign. Call an Uber cab for off-the-beaten-track hotspots such as the bohemian Pour House on James Island (soul and blues, anyone?), West Ashley’s Tin Roof (rock ’n’ roll and a helluva hotdog menu), or the Sparrow at Park Circle, known for punk and metal shows as well as its killer pinball machines.
Of course, missing out on Memphis and the other music city staples would be a sin, but at least you have a buffet of choice — it’s the American way.