From Gem Spa to the World
New York Rocker and the Invention of Indie Rock
by Jesse Jarnow
Based on research for (but not excerpted from) BIG DAY COMING: YO LA TENGO AND THE RISE OF INDIE ROCK.
New York Rocker published 54 issues between 1976 and 1982. They had a small staff, no more than a half-dozen full-time at most. The peak of its circulation was around 35,000 copies a month. But as they say, it was incredibly influential. And more than being influential, it was just a great paper. And it still is, if you can find the back issues. The writing is excellent, the tone is smart and punchy, and it's also deadly serious. They covered national stuff really well but also managed to stay really hyper-local.
Especially as the paper went on, its correspondents weren't just fans active in their own cities and scenes, but also fans of a truly remarkable breed. In one issue, there's a photo of a Sex Pistols gig, and the photo credit is "Steven Morrissey," who ran the band's fan club. Another issue has scene reports from Cleveland credited to James Jarmusch. In 1981, they gave R.E.M. their first national press which allowed the band to trademark its name. Time and time again, they were on top of things, in a totally sincere, uncynical, and self-aware way. They charted what's now blurrily called American indie rock, but they also had a pretty major hand in inventing it.
It's a really dated name now, New York Rocker. In the critical world, both "New York" and "rock" have become dirty words in similar ways -- "New York," because of its transformation from a working class city to a place of privilege. And "rock" because it, as a genre, has been attached to privilege as well. There was a lab study that came out around the time I was preparing the original version of this article for presentation, from the University of Minnesota, that claims that listening to rock music makes white people racist. That kind of anecdotal and scientific evidence seems both common and accumulating these days. "New York Rocker" must sound doubly arcane, and even more monocultural when I note that it was staffed predominantly by white male critics (though also a sizable share of white female critics and photographers). And if you want to look at it that way, you could make any argument about privilege or whatever you want and probably be right. Still, none of that changes the fact that New York Rocker was vital.
But, the thing is, New York Rocker was probably a dated name almost instantly. The first issue was inspired by the very early CBGB scene and came out at almost exactly the same time as the first issue of Punk. Tom Verlaine was on the first cover. But unless you were trying to clarify that you weren't a mod, who would identify him or herself as a "rocker" back then? The Ramones, maybe. The Cramps. You could make a list, probably not more than a few dozen deep, and probably many of them would be in New York City.
For many, it was a term of reclamation in the face of arena rock and proto-disco and "Tubular Bells" and Jethro Tull -- and, for that matter, not that far removed from the Grease/Happy Days '50’s revival. All the leather jackets filing in and out of CBGBs might be mistaken for a continuation of greaser culture, with at least partial accuracy.
Alan Betrock, the New York Rocker's founder, was a New York rocker. He was born in 1950, grew up in Queens, and went to Queens College. He'd been waiting for this. New York Rockerwasn't the first zine he published. In 1971, he founded JAMZ. All capital. With a Z. The first issue featured the Flamin' Groovies and Iggy and the Stooges. In 1973, he founded Rock Marketplace, which was a forum for really serious record collecting minutia and discographies and stuff. That year, the New York Times did a piece on him which, as far as I can tell, was officially the first time they--or maybe anyone else in the major media--did a breathless trend piece on rock zines. He told them he was interested in "American Punk Rock," by which he meant obscure '60s and '70s garage rock singles. There was a small network of zines and collectors, including Phast Phreddie Paterson and Greg Shaw in L.A. and some others. Of course Betrock was in touch with them.
It really began as a way to document a very local scene. There were bands from New York, of course, like the Dolls and even KISS, who ended up on the playlist in the first issue, but Alan Betrock knew the history of music in New York. He knew about the Velvet Underground, sure, but he also knew about the Brill Building and Atlantic Records and the indie labels that thrived in the '50’s and '60’s in a neighborhood that was called Jukebox Row. So when CB’s opened in 1973, he was totally ready, and was one of the first half-dozen regulars, and--given his level of interest in rock music--one can only imagine it was totally mind-blowing. There were some more bands of genuine New Yorkers there, too, like The Ramones and The Fleshtones. And even with all the transplants, it was still a local phenomenon -- something where there used to be nothing.
So, when Alan Betrock launched New York Rocker in February 1976, it was as this guileless exponent of something that he saw both as intensely local, as well as existing outside of New York's power center.
Though a lot of the bands they covered would get signed pretty quickly, New York Rocker was absolutely about fandom and wanting to know as much about music as possible. The first issues were fanzines, straight up. There were popularity polls, a map of lower Manhattan with arrows pointing to the bands' lofts and apartments (by the artist Duncan Hannah), pictures of musicians' pets, reprinted song lyrics. They didn't have aspirations of being New York's Rolling Stone. And when Rolling Stone itself moved to town in '77--in a way--New York Rockerbecame even more local.
For Betrock and the writers that started to gather around him, writing was just one of the many ways they could engage with music. Pretty quickly, for example, Betrock was producing demos for Blondie. He moved New York Rockerinto a tiny office at 166 5th Avenue, by the Flat Iron Building. Tiny room, wall-to-wall posters, floor to ceiling back-issues, no windows. There was even an elevator operator. They got more pro as they went along and built up to a circulation of around 10,000 copies an issue, which were a little bit less than monthly. He published 11 issues in 2 years.
By that point, there were other places that covered non-mainstream rock, and they had already been when the paper started. Creem in Michigan. Robert Christgau at the Village Voice. Local competition came from Trouser Press, though they described themselves as "America's Only British Rock Magazine," which must have seemed like a challenge to a paper with "New York" in the title. What made New York Rocker different was Betrock's enthusiasm. Which isn't to accuse anybody else of mundanity, just to point out how the paper turned into a magnet for really, really committed fans.
Among the early writers were Cramps drummer Miriam Linna and Zantees singer Billy Miller, who founded their own magazine, Kicks, that picked up on the discographical fervor and took it to anthropological new levels, which they're still doing with their label, Norton Records. And Betrock started corresponding with a band from North Carolina called Sneakers, whose guitarist and songwriter Chris Stamey had started his own label, Car Records, one of the first indies of the modern era, when he realized you could just pay a pressing plant to have records made. Stamey transferred to NYU and became part of the New York music world. His band, the dB's, followed him up pretty soon thereafter. Lester Bangs contributed too. Ditto David Fricke and plenty of others whose names (and writing) continue to circulate.
As the paper spread, more and more young fans started writing in. Which is exactly when--and probably why-- Betrock decided to quit. He was done. The word had clearly spread. This could have been the end the paper.
Devo on the December 1979 cover
But one of the new writers was Andy Schwartz, who befriended Alan. Andy was from New York but went to school in Minneapolis and worked at Oarfolkjokeopus, a record store there. When he heard about the paper's closing, he convinced his parents to help him buy it, took over, hired a few people, and moved the office downstairs. And that's when it became something else entirely, way more than a fanzine, and--really--way more than a rock magazine, for that matter.
He started with issue #12 and put the Clash on the cover, who were the first non-New York act to be featured there. He regularized production, advertisers, and distribution. The spiritual center of the paper's distribution radius was Gem Spa, the newsstand at the corner of St. Mark's Place and 2nd Avenue which served great egg creams, not too far from CBGB, where Johnny Thunders and Dee Dee Ramone would repair for their post-heroin sugar rushes. The egg creams are still great.
But throughout the country--and even the world--there were dozens of tiny scenes popping off, like the one around New York Rocker. Some of them probably even predated New York Rocker. But Rocker became one of the first truly connective forces between record stores, and college radio stations and clubs, and musicians themselves. Oarfolkjokeopus, where Schwartz had worked, produced Twin/Tone Records, and--almost directly--The Replacements and Husker Du. The paper had readers in Athens, Georgia, who went on to found R.E.M.. They had readers in Maryland and Detroit, as Rocker found out when they got a box of the first Half Japanese single with customized copies for the whole staff. Another pair of brothers in New Zealand--David and Hamish Kilgour, who went on to found The Clean--poured over every issue they could find. From the west coast, Calvin Johnson checked in. "My impression of New York is of a city full of old hippies with short hair," he would write in the letters section. Less than a year later, he would help assemble the first issue of the Subterranean Pop fanzine, and shortly thereafter found Beat Happening and his own influential K Records.
The bands they covered, predominantly, operated outside the bounds of the rock music as it had come to be understood in the United States, and the publication's office became a vital hub in this network that started to emerge for which New York Rocker virtually became an avatar.
Two bands practiced there at night in the back part of the room where they kept the stacks of back issues. One band was called Information, which had Chris Nelson, one of Andy's friends from Minneapolis. Chris also ran the zine NO, which--if you care about such things--might have given "No wave" its name when Andy kept making fun of the "NO wave" bands they covered, especially while on the phone to other music journalists, spreading the meme. NO was literally more than a fanzine. For their final issue, they dropped uncollated pages into envelopes along with items like a piece of pizza and random pills. The other band who practiced in the Rocker office was the dB's, who were almost the opposite of Information and made really meticulous power pop, but--like Information--they were obsessive fans. They set up a four-track in the office and recorded there.
Another one of the new hires was Glenn Morrow, who sold ads, and played in bands too. Morrow lived in Hoboken, where he'd gotten a cheap apartment while he was an NYU student. Pretty soon after he started working at Rocker, he noticed a new bar opening up around the corner from his spot and befriended one of the owners. The bar was called Maxwell's and they bought some ads in the paper. One of its owners--Steve Fallon--asked Morrow to help book some shows. So he brought over some Rocker favorites, including the dB's, the Fleshtones, and others, and established a connection between the paper and Hoboken.
People also lived on the office couch. One resident was Peter Holsapple, of the dB's. Another was Byron Coley, who showed up at the office one morning and didn't leave. Schwartz paid him $5 a day to do errands. Betrock still kept a desk at the office, and behind that desk was a complete set of Crawdaddy, Paul Williams' first rock zine, and Coley would stay up all night making an annotated back issue index on file cards. Occasionally he'd disappear to the west coast for a few months, where he would continue a similar existence on the couch at the punk label Slash. Another new arrival was Ira Kaplan, who'd started as a 20-year old columnist at Soho Weekly News. There was photography editor Laura Levine too, who became a close confidant of R.E.M., and the source of some of the era's most iconic photographs. The office was a heady place.
New York Rocker and its writers were never trying to be anything but rock fans covering rock music. Unlike, say, Rolling Stone, their territory was pretty clearly stated by the title of the publication. Almost none of the writers, probably, would claim any other kind of music as more authentic than another. They were curious and self-aware. More to the point, they weren't dealing with rock in the abstract, but in the real life continuity of its culture, in which a great deal of its writers were active participants, and that culture, I'd argue, is as indigenous as any other American genre, middle class as it may be.
Robert Christgau called it all "Amerindie" to differentiate it from what was going on in the UK (though the term he created was not inspired by this particular cultural battle). Still, this was not coincidentally is also exactly the period in which the term "rockist" briefly came into vogue in England. There's a pretty tangled history between New York Rocker and British music, but it culminated in this one issue in the summer of 1981 where they put the dB's, Half Japanese, the Dead Kennedys, and Mission of Burma on the cover, and began to really involve themselves in a conversation about why major labels were licensing British buzz bands and not all the great American acts that were struggling to get heard. "Anglophilia" they called one editorial, and a few months later, they ran a list of critics at national publications who dealt in American independent music. There weren't many on the list. Maybe 10 or so.
This was also around the time that there was an almost decisive split between the strains of American indie rock and British indie rock. Definitely, Joy Division and other glumsters could be heard in American music -- an only partially secret influence on R.E.M., for one. But there were some real reasons for the differences. For one, British indie labels had a far smaller territory to cover with their wares, making the spread of the culture that much easier. They also had a well-established rock press that had evolved pretty gracefully from '60’s pop to punk and beyond, including a nationally read independent record chart.
But New York Rockercovered all kinds of music in 1981 and 1982, and definitely not just rock. Other covers had Bow Wow Wow, Prince, the Go Gos, jazz guitarist James Blood Ulmer, and a pairing of Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth and Grandmaster Flash, many of them shot by Laura Levine. Another new correspondent came from the hardcore scene in New England, named Gerard Cosloy, who ran his own zine, Conflict, that he'd started when he was 15. He was just as interested in American music, and in his first live review decried "sub-par Limey punk bands." He fit right in.
Around this time, many members of the publication's staff had started to move to Hoboken. Robert Palmer joked in the Times that the paper should change its name to Hoboken Rocker, and certainly they were at least partially responsible for the spread of the wave of Hoboken (and near-Hoboken bands) like the Feelies and the dB's and the Bongos. Combined with the arrival of hip-hop from the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, the staff's migration can be read as a sign of the City's imminent decentralization, the beginning of its slow rise to prosperity and the transformation into what it is now, global and prosperous. New York Rocker might have been a dated name in 1976, but by 1982, the idea of naming a new publication with that name was outright silly.
In a way, the kind of rock that New York Rocker championed became marginalized in New York, especially at clubs like Danceteria, which was the scene Madonna came out of and where Afrika Bambaataa would spin. They paid rock bands well, but--it turned out--people weren't really interested in hearing them, and bands like Mission of Burma would generally clear the room, while people waited around for the next DJ. This isn't a complaint in the slightest, but the class and race makeups of New York changed in all kinds of ways through the '80’s, as they did in pop music as a whole, which subsequently very much changed rock's relationship with pop music and popular culture.
The paper folded suddenly in November 1982. It had been breaking even until one month it hadn't and Schwartz couldn't keep it running any more.
The staff would spread throughout the music industry, both local and national. Ira Kaplan and managing editor Michael Hill booked a series of concerts the next years at Gerde's Folk City called Music For Dozens, which featured the first New York appearances by the Replacements and the Violent Femmes, among others, before Hill went on to a job in A&R at Warner Brothers and Kaplan co-founded Yo La Tengo. Byron Coley eventually moved to Boston and co-founded the great zine Forced Exposure, which still exists as an amazing distribution company, before becoming an editor at Spin. Another contributor, Richard Grabel became a high-powered music industry lawyer, almost a decade later helping to shepherd Sonic Youth to Geffen, as well as many other bands. Gerard Cosloy went on to operate Homestead Records, the seminal mid-'80s indie label and later helped found Matador. Another writer, David Bither, now runs Nonesuch. On and on down the masthead of various back issues, staffers became lifers.
I'm not sure there are any lessons to be taken from the history of New York Rocker, other than what you might get by reading the paper itself. Most musicians I've ever met wouldn't identify themselves as a rocker or folksinger or anything. Maybe not even as musician. "Rocker," I'd like to point out, is a word that has its own vibrant and generally positive meanings in subcultures around the world. I'm thinking of Jamaican music and African pop music especially. "New York," meanwhile, is still here. It's a city big enough to have helped create indie rock, but also--as I understand--help destroy it. As a New Yorker--and, I guess, a rocker--I can only hope there's more it can do that it hasn't done yet.
Full sources and notes and other New York Rockerhistory can be found in Jesse Jarnow's book Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock, published in June and available in stores via Gotham Books and through bigdaycoming.net. But also another enormous 'thank you' to Dave Rick for the generous loan of his NYR collection. Jesse Jarnow tweets at @bourgwick.
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