Another New York
Gary Valentine was one of the original members of Blondie. He now writes for [or has written for] the TLS, Independent on Sunday and Mojo. This is surprising, as if his book New York Rocker: my life in the Blank Generation with Blondie, Iggy Pop and others, 1974-1981 [Sidgwick & Jackson, £10.99] shows anything it's that he can't write. Judging by the exploits he writes about [more on this later] it may be the drugs that got to him and addled his brain; more likely he was so busy bragging and namedropping that the actual business of stringing words together got kind of pushed to one side.
Valentine clearly was in at the beginning of both Blondie and New York punk, but he seems to have a lot of chips on his shoulder and axes to grind. The biggest, and most understandable, chip is to do with the fact that he left [or got fired from, depending on whose version you believe] Blondie just before the big time hit. Others would include a hatred of all things to do with British punk, most of the Manhattan punk scene - particularly Tom Verlaine, the other members of Television, and Patti Smith, and, pretty quickly, Chris Stein and Debbie Harry.
If the book is worth reading [and I'm not sure it is] it's because the earlier part of the book is full of grimy detail about life in Manhattan in the mid-70s: sub-rented apartments, grimy streets, down-at-heel venues and the gradual emergence of the New York music scene, including Talking Heads, Suicide, Wayne County, the New York Dolls and many others. It's gossipy, intimate and very real. The pre-yuppified East Village is here in all its sordid glory, and when Valentine sticks to describing things and forgets his personal opinions and sexual or drug-taking exploits it's a good read. I've had Television and Patti Smith back on the stereo as a result.
But all too soon we realise Valentine is just an old-fashioned sexist rocker. He doesn't actually want any new music [let alone British punk with attitude], he wants Blondie as purveyors of retro-pop, and delights in skinny ties and secondhand suits as a suitable image for the band. Oh, and he wants sex and drugs; and he wants to tell us all about them, too. Despite the pretence in the book at somehow being 'past' and 'over' all that - perhaps even 'above' it nowadays - we get the full sordid groupie, casual sex and cocaine-snorting experience. It transpires after Blondie there is little to tell apart from this. An unheard of band ['The Know'], a tour with Iggy Pop at the bottom of his career curve, and a brief Blondie re-union are all poor Gary Valentine has experienced since the 70s, it seems. But he stretches this out to over a hundred pages, and ends the book with a few more digs at his old musical accomplices.
Valentine is desperate to be famous. I'm even worried about writing this review incase it encourages him [though it doesn't seem he needs much encouragement]. If you like badly written tales of rock'n'roll exploits, authored by a sexist, conservative, ignorant American, then this book is for you. Me? Well, the secondhand bookshop beckons.
A different take on New York features in Twin Towers Remembered [Princeton Architectural Press, $19.95] which isn't as you might surmise simply a record of Sept 11th last year. Although I'm sure that disastrous day was the catalyst for this publication, it's a much bigger project which gathers photographs taken over the last 25 years by Camilo José Vergara. His work is mainly to do with documenting urban ghettos, and in many of these photographs the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre are simply a background mark on the skyline, a vertical presence overlooking decay and industrialisation, occasionally the natural world at the edge of the city.
It's difficult to really take in the work here as photography. The book is not much bigger than postcard size, so the photos often read as snapshots. I confess, too, to finding documentary photography difficult to read as art. What does, in the end, constitute a good photograph if the subject or content is the prime concern and dominates our experience and response to it? Were all these photos taken with the twin towers deliberately within the frame, or are we to concentrate on the ducks at the river's edge, the car scrapheap, the people walking the street or the abandoned decaying ferry boats? What does urban decay have to do with Wall Street and high-rise financial centres? And do these photos actually make any socio-economic comment?
Obviously, in many photos the twin towers are the primary focus. There are astonishing photos - though at this scale of reproduction the detail is obscured - of the towers being built: scaffolding and cranes creating an industrial cathedral as flocks of birds fly by. Surrounding skyscrapers are dwarfed. Later, other more abstract photos which I like a lot, offer us differing stone and steel & glass building textures set against one another, the tessellation of contemporary New York. Later on there are some rather fey photos of children sniffing the flowers in the plaza at the towers' base, and a tricksy shot of the towers reflected in a church window.
Then there are a whole number of photos where the artist has gone back to the site of earlier shots and re-taken a photograph to illustrate the absence on the skyline. Comparing and contrasting is interesting, not just for the absence, but for the whole set of changes in the city shown. And, of course, there is a small section showing the towers on fire, though these are photographs later in the day: there are no planes hitting skyscrapers or people running down the street, just smoke hanging over the city and, later, flowers, candles and other homemade memorials to the dead and missing.
I wanted something to remember September 11th by: it's one of the four events and days of my life so far that I will most remember [the other three are the fall of the Berlin Wall, Live Aid, and the birth of my daughter]. I'm not sure, however, this is quite it, nor, to be fair, if it wants to be. This book kind of skirts the issue whilst drawing on it for theme and, no doubt, sales potential. It's implicitly there, of course, and as you can tell, despite my questions and unease its an interesting book that's beautifully designed and printed. Ultimately though, after a few weeks here, being repeatedly looked at, flicked through and engaged with, I'm still not sure what to make of it, whether to leave it in the toilet as a picture book, file it with the art books or put it with the New York tourist guides. It's certainly worth a look though, wherever I end up putting it.
© Rupert Loydell, 2002 2002