East Village People
A musician’s biography charts a diverse and sprawling scene
Hold On to Your Dreams:
Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-1992
by Tim Lawrence
Duke University Press
$23.95 List Price
Every art has its day, and so maybe does every city and every neighborhood. Lower Manhattan—Greenwich Village, SoHo, the East Village, and the Lower East Side—saw an explosion of poetry and painting, music and dance, over much of the past century. But from the early ’60s to the ’90s, the performing arts flourished. They flourished in myriad genres, music especially, and devotees of one aspect of the scene—whether conceptual performance art, minimalist composition, experimental dance and theater, punk rock, or disco—were sometimes only dimly aware of the others. Yet everyone who was there knew well, and historians since have acknowledged, that something striking was happening.
So much so that downtown came to define a shared aesthetic, as well as a shared network of social relations. Uptown represented the establishment: middlebrow at the midtown theaters and concert halls, academic at the universities and conservatories. Downtown was open, loose, experimental, where cheap rents and an atmosphere of permissiveness encouraged experimentation, where painstakingly accrued technique was less important than originality and adventure. Tim Lawrence’s new book mentions downtown in its subtitle without bothering to identify what city it’s referring to, and it doesn’t need to.
The entirety of the lower-Manhattan arts scene awaits its definitive chronicler, or even an honorable first effort at such a chronicle. A comprehensive study would entail an enormous amount of work, as well as an author with an enormous breadth and depth of knowledge of and critical acumen about all the various,