The Downtown Pop Underground is an extended love letter to a time when truly anything was possible and anyone with an idea could become a celebrated creative type.
Kembrew McLeod’s The Downtown Pop Underground reads like an arty six degrees of separation, each individual tangentially related to one another in the extreme. By placing his focus primarily on a handful of particularly influential and well-connected individuals, McLeod is able to create a narrative through line from the post-war years ruled by the Beats through to the ‘60s peaceniks and Off-Off-Broadway types pushing the creative envelope, all the way up to the downtown underground’s natural evolutionary apex in the form of punk rock. From here, the underground had nowhere else to go, finding itself increasingly co-opted by corporate America and seeing the commodification of lifestyles originally birthed out of sheer necessity rather than any sort of conscious effort to incur financial gain.
What McLeod’s in-depth look at the so-called downtown pop underground shows is that, from the 1950s through the 1970s, it really was a fairly close-knit artistic community. Whether it be in the form of Andy Warhol’s Factory and its myriad creative offshoots into not only art, but music and film, or the revolutionary work undertaken by Ellen Stewart and the founding of the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, each seemingly individualistic art form shows a great deal of overlap with one another. As McLeod points out, punk icon Patti Smith had roots in the experimental theatre world, while also dabbling in poetry, something also undertaken by Ed Sanders of the Fugs and Peace Eye Bookstore fame.
These connections become more and more pronounced as like-minded individuals begin flocking to the Village and its surroundings to take part in the cultural and artistic happenings that would soon create seismic shifts within the popular culture. But at the time, each was simply searching for the best way to express their creative impulses, whether it be in the form of experimental theatre (Stewart and H.M. Koutoukas), film (Shirley Clarke), publishing (Sanders and his popularization of the mimeographed zines which spread to all areas of the artistic world), music (Smith, Debbie Harry, Sanders), and even gender fluidity within an increasingly tolerant, albeit insular, Village culture (Hibiscus).
But what is perhaps most striking is just how accessible these people were. In one story in particular, Stewart is approached on the street by the playwright Harold Pinter following the revelation that Stewart and company were putting on one of Pinter’s plays without paying any sort of royalties (something they admittedly had no idea they were supposed to be doing at the time). Rather than tearing Stewart down and refusing her company’s chance at staging his work, Pinter instead granted her full permission to stage any and all of his plays for as long as she liked, much to the dismay of his manager, with whom he was accompanied, no doubt in hopes of seeing some sort of litigation extravaganza.
As the decades roll one into the next, it is Andy Warhol who appears seemingly everywhere – right up until he was almost murdered by Valerie Solanas – while well-known cultural icons like Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, the Ramones and countless others could be seen hanging out at the neighborhood bars and coffee shops. And while it is certainly still possible to see celebrities within a public context, there is no longer the freedom and ease of rapport that seemed to dominate such interactions at the time. Without the burden of social media and a constant stream of information and content, people could engage on a much more personal, much more significant level.
Ultimately, The Downtown Pop Underground is an extended love letter to a time when truly anything was possible and anyone with an idea could become a celebrated creative type. The repercussions of this approach, once it hit the mainstream, was the democratization of art in all its forms and thus the lessening of its significance due to the sheer glut of content being produced. Relying on neither nostalgia nor rose-colored glasses, McLeod is quick to point out the New York of these decades was an often miserable and dangerous place to live, hence the affordable living conditions in which many of these artists were subsequently able to thrive. Half a century later, we can simply look back longingly on a past that seems almost quaint by comparison.