The East Village According to Anthony Pappalardo, Rocker Turned Subculture Historian

Screen shot 2011-09-23 at 5.09.20 PMRay LeMoine

Last night, Anthony Pappalardo celebrated the publication of “Live…Suburbia!” at Nike’s Bowery Stadium. The book of photos and essays, co-authored with Max G. Morton, documents post-1960s youth subcultures, from the Kiss Army to the hardcore punk and skateboarding scenes that Mr. Pappalardo, 36, became a part of while growing up north of Boston. (Mr. Pappalardo, whose first book was “Radio Silence: A Selected Visual History of American Hardcore Music,” toured the world during the 1990s playing with bands like Ten Yard Fight and In My Eyes.) In the book, Mr. Pappalardo documents his own transition from suburbanite to Manhattanite. Over e-mail, we asked him how the East Village, which he considers a mecca for suburban dreamers, shaped that transformation, and how the neighborhood itself has transformed since he first came here to attend shows at clubs that are now long gone.

What did the East Village represent to you when you were growing up in the suburbs?
Nothing I could buy at a suburban strip mall was appealing to me anymore. According to suburban legend, everything I wanted was readily available in New York City. The catch was that I was about 14 years old and didn’t know anyone with a driver’s license. My high school years were spent skateboarding and going to hardcore shows all over New England, but there was a danger and inconvenience about getting to New York that prevented most kids from going to a CBGBs matinee. Your car might get broken into, the drive was “far” – about 4 hours – and as the 90s approached the violence at shows was getting legendary.

Still, there was a bus you could take from Boston to New York for cheap that left at 7 a.m. and departed NYC at 7 p.m. And my entire trip was centered on the East Village.

New York had legendary record stores on every block. I’d take pit stops at different vegetarian restaurants and cafes in between digging through crates for rare used records and imports, only to return to the bus dizzy from the culture shock and sore from walking for a full day. There was nothing like getting home and putting on a 7″ vinyl single that you got in the East Village.

I could take a bus and go to the Alleged Gallery and see paintings by Mark Gonzales or other people involved in the scenes I worshiped. Art being made by punks, skateboarders and graffiti artists and being respected in real galleries in New York changed my perspective on everything. Back in Boston my doodles were just “a Basquiat rip-off” to the crusty professors who hadn’t been to a gallery in 10 years, but in New York that type of art was taken seriously.

Describe the East Village as it was when you first started coming here.
One time in the 90s I saw a flyer for a Killing Time show at Coney Island High [a club on St. Marks Place] for that night. I was in New York for ten minutes and had already found out one of my favorite bands was playing blocks from where I was staying. Every girl I saw seemed to dress like Chloe Sevigny and most guys wore shoes or boots, not sneakers – everything was older and cooler. I was used to girls in sweatpants and scrunchies or bloated frat boys with dirty baseball hats farting on me as I walked by.

Even the graffiti around me was more legitimate. If you walked St. Marks, went to Michael and Zoe’s [Bakery & Café, at the address that now belongs to Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar] or paced by CBGB you’d probably see someone that was a celebrity in your mind, or better yet a folk hero. Whether it was a member of the Cro-Mags or a professional skateboarder smoking a cigarette in front of a coffee shop, there were people that I knew in my head for years lurking around just being people, not celebrities. And everyone smoked.

What’s different about the neighborhood today?
I was at Hi-Fi recently, just trying to imagine where the stage was when it was Brownies. It felt so much more claustrophobic and narrow then. I remember driving to New York City on a Tuesday night with a friend to see Blake Schwarzenbach, the former leader of Berkeley punk legends Jawbreaker, play with his new band Jets to Brazil. Few had heard their demos that were floating around. The only way to hear them was to go see them. The first people we saw after paying to get in were Walter Schreifels and Sam Siegler who together probably played in every straight-edge band on Revelation Records, like Gorilla Biscuits and Youth of Today, and represented a good percentage of my record collection. This wasn’t going to happen anywhere else in the world and if it did, it wouldn’t be as cool.

Now all the music venues have turned into bars and restaurants. What is completely different now is the confused identity of New York. We used to be New Yorkers. Now we’re hipsters. Basically anyone not wearing khakis is a “hipster” by definition and a lot of the things that really defined culture have been lost. If you saw a kid in a leather jacket with Chuck Taylors, he was a punk. If you rode a skateboard, you were a skateboarder. A track suit and gold chain – rapper. Now all those things have been amalgamated into one “subculture” which is really just a marketing term.

There’s always going to be a Max Fish that is predominantly a bar for a certain scene. But the crossover of subcultures is so dizzying that it’s made a lot of art and music disposable.

Is the East Village just an extension of the suburbs now?
I don’t really know how to answer this… but when I recall walking home to 14th and C past stoops filled with parents minding their children in sustainable clothing talking about Wilco albums and how they miss the Wire, I’m pretty sure I’m in suburbia.