Feeling a bit goofy from my cousin’s wedding, my son and I emerged around midnight from the D.J. din of the banquet hall on Fifth and 10th. Vodka and sodas had me pretty well lit, and he-well, so far, just soda for him. It was the 16-year-old’s first time in New York City, which used to be my town, the town I was born and raised hell in, until I moved to L.A. a quarter-century ago and became a dad. Though it was late, the spring night was full of promise, and I figured I’d show him around my old stomping grounds.
South of Washington Square, the park’s trees feathery in first bloom, there was a five-story walk-up where, at an age not much more advanced than my son’s, I occupied one of the world’s narrowest apartments. I pointed up at the window where my neighbor was Alex Chilton, lead singer for the Box Tops. “You know,” I said, humming: “Gimme a ticket for an airplane …. ” The boy shrugged, unimpressed. In L.A., he goes to school with bigger stars.
Heading west on Bleecker Street, I said, “Here’s where Bob Dylan used to play.” The kid doesn’t care much for Dylan. Across the street was the Café Au Go Go, where Lenny Bruce was busted. He doesn’t know from Lenny Bruce. Walking back up MacDougal, the Café Wha? was where Hendrix used to play. My son likes Hendrix, but of the Café Wha? only a question mark remains. A few steps further brought us to a doorway where a friend of mine used to live. Guessing that an upstairs front apartment on MacDougal would be abandoned only if the owner died-and the name was still there on the mailbox-I thumbed the button. A surprised but familiar voice invited us up.
That apartment-dweller smell wafted through the opened door: cooking, old clothes, cockroaches, kitty litter and pot. The kitchen table heaped with dope also held a row of prescription bottles. My old friend looked old and unwell. He didn’t ask us to sit down because there was only one chair, and he was about to sit in it and eat his dinner out of the pan that was smoking on the stove. We hadn’t seen one another for a few decades since the tumultuous times when we stood together on the front lines of the countercultural wars. He’d dug in for the long haul. I’d gone to Hollywood, to fight other battles.
“Good to see ya,” my old comrade said, and we stood looking at one another across an unutterable divide. My boy was politely scanning a virtually intact 60’s-era crash pad, complete with mattress on the floor and evidence of the outlaw life strewn everywhere. Any moment “the pigs” would come through the door and take us all downtown. “You can crash here anytime you want,” said my friend to my son. “Thank you,” the boy replied, with all the enthusiasm he could summon. “Good to see ya,” my old friend said again, and we gave each other a hug before we split.
“I’m glad we let him go back to his dinner,” the boy said gently, and I felt ashamed. I was acting like a tour guide on a sightseeing trip into my own past. What was I trying to show him? What was I really looking for? Whatever it was, it was too late to stop now.
Rambling east along Eighth Street, we came upon five guys in an acoustically perfect doorway, performing “Blue Moon” a cappella. I stopped to drink in the quintessential New York moment. “It’s doo-wop,” I explained to my son, snapping my fingers to the rhythm. “I know what it is,” he said, shifting restlessly beside me. “C’mon, Dad, let’s go.” “Wait just a minute,” I said, and we stood there on sidewalk arguing absurdly over doo-wop’s pivotal role in the universe. I finally relented, letting him lead on while I silently fretted over his future without a proper grounding in doo-wop.
The street opened wide at Astor Place, where I once twirled that big cube sculpture, argued Marx and Melville with N.Y.U. classmates, ran riot with the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, tripped goggle-eyed on numerous cross-town acid experiments, shepherded nameless young girls to my East Village pad and once stood in tears transfixed by Ornette Coleman, or somebody who looked and sounded a whole lot like him, blowing his sax at 3 a.m. silhouetted against the sky atop a Bowery rooftop on a balmy spring night like this one. I was unsure what meaning any of that would have to the boy who strode coolly beside me-not even sure what it meant to me anymore-so I omitted mentioning all but the cube, which, along with everything else except for the spring night, was missing.
CBGB’s stood stalwart, however, and we breezed right by the doorkeepers and took seats by the stage. I bought two beers and illegally handed one to the boy. He took a manly swig and looked around appraisingly. The same smelly dump I remembered from when Hilly Kristal first opened it: It was here my bar-band buddies and I played on the same bill as some guys calling themselves the Ramones. Onstage now was a very earnest bar band with a bald, pot-bellied lead singer playing earnest rock. The guy was about my age. I have more hair, remain at fighting trim and can be smug about it. But it might as well have been me up there ….
“They suck, Dad,” was the boy’s critique. He plays drums with his own band and stocks his iPod with early punk. He’s steeped in CBGB’s legend and lore. The New York Dolls, Johnny Thunders and the rest that sparked here, flared up and flamed out brilliantly. The overripe geezers onstage and the listless crowd around us offered no hint of that time or place. My son drained his beer, stood up and said, “Let’s get out of here, man.”
O.K., man. We headed up the Bowery and across St. Mark’s Place, past Gem Spa, past the storefront where I once ran the White Panther office, skirting Tompkins Square Park, where I used to hang with the all-day conga fanatics, up Avenue B past my very first apartment, detouring into a crazy upstairs joint where no one asked for ID. We had some more beers, my son and I, ogled some girls, and I heard him say the music they were spinning was cool. But it was about 2 in the morning, and he was yawning. I was blotto.
On the way back to our rather elegant townhouse crash pad on 18th Street, I only fell down once. My son laughed, and I laughed, too. But when I looked up, as he helped me to my feet, I caught a wild green flash of Manhattan freshly blooming, the way it looks when you’re seeing it for the first time. Is that what I’ve been looking for? I wondered as we headed up First Avenue, and the young man at my side was saying, “You know, Dad, I think I want to live here someday.” Yes, I thought. Yes, of course you do.