Beatles or Stones?

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Haven’t seen Not Fade Away yet, but I’m super interested in this just-released attempt at capturing the garage band movement of the 1960s, although the initial reviews are not great, so I guess it won’t be creating a new franchise for Sopranos creator David Chase.

Immediately after Beat Street, I tried to launch my own garage band movie, and even had a great script titled The Runaways. I have a habit of walking away from energy centers at peek levels, and could have had a successful career as a professional hip hop journalist, but, instead, right after Beat Street and my book Hip Hop came out, and inspired by my new South Bronx friends, I decided to return to the music of my roots. In both cases (garage, hip hop), huge creative vibes were unleashed initially by kids age 14-16, with no one else involved, except our inspirations, which, in my case, initially emanated from England mostly (although Amsterdam had a scene just as good as Liverpool’s or London’s). Yes, it was the Beatles who made me want to pick up a guitar, but when I finally got that guitar, it was Rolling Stones songs I actually performed on stage with the Knight Riders. I was still in junior high when I saw their first performance at a sock hop at the end of the school year. I had no idea a bunch of kids my age could engineer such a mind-blowing rock sound. They only played one or maybe two songs, but I was changed forever. I didn’t recognize the song at the time, but later discovered it was Get Off My Cloud, although it could just as easily have been Gloria, the chords are similar and that now famous garage rock anthem from Them and Van Morrison was actually picked up by a local band in my town before the Shadows of Knight covered it. Within a year I was playing bass in the Knight Riders.

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So when I talk about the 1960s garage band movement, I lived it, not as a star, but as a teenager struggling to take on a new cultural identity against intense resistance, mostly from my own father. They call it a “generation gap” today, but it was really a generation war.

Although I’d later learn to embrace non-violence, that wasn’t the way it started, and if you read my first short story (East Village), which is free on smashwords (and now illustrated with my art from the period), you can get inside my 16-year-old mind, and it was certainly chock full of violence, the love of which may have been initially planted by the mainstream media. Many teens of the era, me included, had to run away in order to become ourselves. And those adventures often led to big cities, like New York, where some freaky movies and weird shit always went down. After some of those adventures, we became jaded, cynical, old souls pretty quick.

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My next short story, also on smashwords, and also recently updated with photos and illos from the period, covers my climactic battle with my parents, which occurred in 1967. The cover photo (left), taken by Bugsy, reveals my regular uniform at the time: black double-breasted leather jacket, jeans and long-sleeve white shirt. I think every black kid in my high school coveted that jacket, and some even warned me never to leave it in my locker unguarded. The fact it was double-breasted is what made it so distinctive. If you want to experience the raw emotions unleashed during the era, you will find them here, although it will cost 99 cents, as I need to get something back from all this art I’ve created. The next one, however, is free.

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My final short story in this trilogy from the 1960s, is a dispatch I wrote while hiding out from the Vietnam War in Stockholm, Sweden, where I had a wonderful apartment and gorgeous girlfriend (left), and a brief gig as an extra in a film (Joe Hill), but still felt strangely empty upon being separated from my beloved homeland for such a long stretch. This was near the zenith of my nihilistic tendencies, and the story lapses back into the black humor of East Village, a much needed relief from the trauma of The Steam Tunnels.

Hopefully I’ll soon post my original garage band script that bounced around Hollywood for over a decade. I almost got a low-budget version done through High Times, and even had a cast assembled and a $100,000 budget drawn up, but then the funding fell through. The main thing about this post though is if there are any people out there interested in 1966-9, you might want to check out these three eBooks because they were written during the period. In other words, it’s the real deal. Us hippies were a lot tougher than you think.

The first history of Hip Hop

Long out-of-print and with copies selling for upwards of $500, the original hip hop history written by the first journalist to document the scene is now available. When the book first appeared in 1984, here’s what some of the press had to say:

“…extremely well-written…”

Rock&Roll Confidential, #16/September 1984: HOME XEROXING PROSPECTS…Hip Hop by Steven Hager is an intelligent, vividly illustrated and extremely well-written account of the rise of hiphop culture. It begins at the beginning, that is to say, with James Brown and details the destructive policies of New York planner Robert Moses that created the South Bronx in the first place. By the end of the book you’ll feel close enough to many of the graffiti writers, breakers, djs and rappers that they’ll seem like old friends. —Dave Marsh

“…sets the record straight…sorted out fact from fiction…”

Paper Magazine: Steven Hager’s Hip Hop attempts to set the record straight on the endlessly argued questions of who did what first where. On the case for years, interviewing anyone and everyone, Hager (who also came up with the idea of Beat Street) has sorted out fact from fiction and written as “true” a story as we’re likely to get. — David Hershkovits

“…the best and most reliable history…”

Penthouse October 1984: Within a few months time the Hollywood films Breakin’ and Beat Street were huge summer hits. A half-dozen books on break dancing are on the market, not to mention more movies and instructional aids. In Hip Hop,  the best and most reliable history of the break-rap-graffiti subculture, author Steven Hager reveals that break dancing actually started around 1973 amid the urban devastation of New York’s South Bronx and had all but disappeared by 1978, supplanted by newer dances like the “freak” (ritualized dry-humping) and robotic “electric boogie,” What saved breaking from disappearing into the limbo of great lost dances? Mostly the growing popularity of disk jockeys like Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash, who encouraged competitive dancers at club and community-center functions.—Robert Palmer

“…thrilling intricate story…”

Artforum: Did Keith Haring’s use of found frames make his work something other than graffiti, which defines its own field? Did the Funky Four + 1s “That’s the joint” and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” speak separate languages? Such questions don’t come up in this fine book; Hager is stronger on sociology than art, more acute on the secret history of the scene than on its spectacular emergence. The prehistory was really secret: budding graffiti writers seeking the new Bronx Kilroys, would-be DJs looking for the right party to crash, cops chasing guerrilla artists, turntable wizards stripping the labels from their records to out-fox the competition. Hager makes it all a thrilling, intricate story, all set against the heroic opposition between master-builder Robert Moses, destroyer of the Bronx, and Afrika Bambaataa, tribune of a new culture built on the ruins of the old. But Hager loses his tale once it becomes public, as perhaps it has lost itself. His claim that hip hop “has the potential to infiltrate and subvert the mass media, energizing them with a fresh supply of symbols, myths, and values” doesn’t define hip hop: it defines America’s ability to recuperate the idea of subversion itself. Still, Hager talked to the right people—better yet, they talked to him.—Greil Marcus

“…thorough job of research…”

Pulse: New York City always seems to be at the cutting edge of trends in pop culture. Recently, breakdancing, hip-hop and rap records, and, to a lesser degree graffiti art have broken out of their Gotham origins, gotten picked up by the media and—as a result—have become important movements in ’80s pop culture. Steven Hager’s Hip Hop is a fast reading history of how these movements started—and developed —that focuses on the many personalities that made it happen. Hugo Martinez and Keith Haring, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash—from street-gang origins to recognition by serious art and music critics—they all come alive here in Hip Hop. This is a quick read—you can knock it off in an evening—but don’t get the idea that Hip Hop is one of those quickie exploitation jobs cranked out to cash in on current fads. Hager—whose original newspaper article inspired the film Beat Street—has done a thorough job of research, tracked down many obscure artists, breakers, and DJs for some cool interviews, and tied everything together in beautiful style.

“…Hager is an ace reporter…”

Village Voice  January 14, 1986: Hager offers a good helping of relevant data, bringing us through the two phases of graffiti’s art world acceptance, pinpointing crucial journalistic moments (though not his own Voice profile of Afrika Bambaataa, which is where Beat Street began), and devoting an epilogue to the fallout from the biggest of all hip hop’s breakthroughs—the crassly out-of-context  appearance of the Rock Steady breakers in the crassly pop-populist Flashdance. But Hager is an ace reporter, not a critic or social historian. —Robert Christgau

“…for those who wonder how it all started…”

The Palm Beach Post October 26, 1984: Most of us have probably seen enough break dancing to last us several lifetimes. For those who still wonder how it all started, a new book has come out called Hip Hop by Steven Hager, who tells us, among other things, that the graffiti sprouted on subways and walls were started by a young Greek named Taki, who put his first tag on an ice-cream truck in 1970.

“…formidable job of reporting…”

Knight-Ridder News Service March 30, 1985: Hip Hop takes its title from the street term for the entire urban subculture of rap music, break dancing, and graffiti art. The book comes packaged as if it were a bit of fluff intended to capitalize on the break dancing craze. The text, however, is a formidable job of reporting. Hager, a former reporter for the New York Daily News, tracked down many of rap’s most elusive figures, like the South Bronx disk jockeys who played the first rap records on turntables set up on street corners, and the earliest rappers, whose performances were given a parties and on inner-city playgrounds. The result is a description of a vibrant subculture.—Ken Tucker

“…fine investigative report…”

Voice of Youth Advocates: New York journalist Hager, who followed the hip hop scene for years before mass appeal set in, does a fine investigative report here. His sources: the horse’s mouth. The book is full of quotes of original New York hip hoppers he has interviewed: graffiti artists such as Futura 2000 who began “writing” on subway trains and now commands thousands of dollars in commissions, deejays such as Grandmixer DST who reveals here the secrets of his “scratchin'” technique, rappers who record their staccato rhymes now but whose tradition extends back to prisoners composing rhyming fables called toasts, and break dancers in hit films who began as street gang warriors. Their voices give Hager’s account authenticity.—Cathi Edgerton

“…explains how hip hop happened…”

The Boston Herald December 9, 1984: Hip Hop was written by Steven Hager, a longtime reporter on the musical and artistic subculture that’s rocked the world after busting out of New York’s slums. This serious but not heavy-handed guide explains how hip hop happened and what it’s all about.

“…it’s impressive…”

New York Daily News: Steven Hager’s Hip Hop isn’t a definitive study but, considering how hard it is to get information on the street culture of the South Bronx (few written sources, many reluctant or self-serving informants), it’s impressive.—David Hinckley

“…hits home with little-known facts…”

Billboard Sept. 15, 1984: Hager hits home with some little-known facts: that blacks were performing a form of break dancing in the mid-70s and at some point abandoned it, to be revived by Latin males, that graffiti artists often collect in “gangs” to study each other’s technique and avoid police while utilizing their favorite canvasses, New York City subway cars, and that a Bronx DJ named Kool Herc played a crucial role in the development of hip-hop music. —Nelson George

“…excellent book…”

KLIAT January 1985: This fascinating book is not a how-to manual, but a discussion of the evolution of Hip Hop, that subculture of dance, art and music that started in the South Bronx. He doesn’t romanticize Hip Hop, but he doesn’t treat it condescendingly either. An excellent book Hip Hop is worth owning. —F.L.

“…the best read on the subject…”

East Village Eye: Steven Hager’s new book Hip Hop is certainly the best read to be found on the subject. Hager was the first major writer to pick up on the movement, and he remains the best. His book encompasses the entire spectrum. —James Marshall

“…messy, ego-obsessed scrawls…”

New Musical Express September 22, 1984: There seems to be an inability to ridicule the more ridiculous aspects (like the graffiti artist who arrived at a rival’s house with a shooter threatening to use it unless he changed his pen-name). He also shares the age-old white critic’s fallibility of reading more importance than is necessary into black man’s art—most of the illustrations herein show street graffiti to be messy ego-obsessed scrawls. —Gavin Martin

“…obsolete as last month’s Magic Marker….”

Heavy Metal Feb/March, 1985: The walk from the South Bronx to the Lower East Side is long, and Hip Hop is like the view from a Greyhound bus. Encompassing break dancing, rapping, scratching, and street fashion, spanning from the present day New York back into the beyond, Hip Hop is a lot to digest. Even worse, the bleached-out black-and-white pages lack the visual beauty of their subject. Writer Steven Hager has renovated his Soho News and Village Voice articles to dissertation length, and even tacked on a glossary and bibliography that will, if we know Hip Hop, be obsolete as last month’s Magic Marker. —SM

“…formidable job of reporting…”