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The year was 1977, and the first generation of New York City punk and alternative bands had moved on to larger venues and the international touring circuit. The thrash of hardcore was still a few years down the pike. Yet the storied music venues of Manhattan were alive and aloud with excited, underage patrons.
They passed their days at Stuyvesant High School. They came from the High School of Performing Arts and Murrow. They went to Friends Seminary, Walden and Dalton, and to Brooklyn Friends, too. Some were dropouts and runaways; some were even from the suburbs. Almost all of them were under 18.
Over the next four years, they spent their nights creating their own rock scene, playing aggressive, witty, sophisticated and intense pop and punk for fellow teenagers in places like CBGB, Max’s Kansas City, Hurrah and TR3. These weren’t the all-ages shows that would become commonplace in the city a few years later. This was a unique moment in the city’s musical history that changed the lives of many of the artists and audience members who were there, though their stories have gone largely untold. Imagine an upbeat “Lord of the Flies,” styled by Manic Panic and Trash & Vaudeville.
Their ranks included Eric Hoffert, who did four hours of homework from Bronx Science each weekday, then practiced his guitar for four hours; weekends belonged to his band, the Speedies. Arthur Brennan, a 16-year-old from Groton, Conn., who regularly hitchhiked 20 miles to the only newsstand where he could buy magazines that covered new music; he renamed himself Darvon Staggard and ran away to New York City to join a band. And Kate Schellenbach, a ninth grader at Stuyvesant who had heard a rumor that groups her age were playing the most famous music clubs in the world, just blocks from where she lived.
In September 1979, Schellenbach was 13 and starting high school in an outfit assembled to express her interest in new wave music: overdyed painters’ pants from Unique Clothing Warehouse, white go-go boots from Reminiscence in the West Village, a bowling shirt and an Elvis Costello pin.
“I remember going into the girls’ bathroom,” she said cheerfully, speaking via video chat, “and this girl, Nancy Hall, who was the coolest, was sitting on the sink.” Nancy suggested that Kate go see a band playing at CBGB later that week called the Student Teachers. The arty pop combo included a female rhythm section featuring some kids from Friends Seminary and, somewhat improbably, the rather distant Mamaroneck High School.
“If I hadn’t seen the Student Teachers that fateful night, I might never have been a drummer,” said Schellenbach, who helped found the Beastie Boys in 1981 and went on to form Luscious Jackson. “Seeing Laura Davis play drums, seeing Lori Reese play bass and how exciting the whole scene was, everything about it made me think, ‘Oh, maybe this is something I can do,’” she added. “These people were still in high school — it seemed attainable.”
The timing was perfect: This was the first generation to grow up with punk as the status quo, not the exceptional rebellion. “Part of the call of history was that you weren’t supposed to just listen and take it in, you were supposed to listen to the conversation and form a band yourself,” the Student Teachers’ keyboardist, Bill Arning, now a prominent gallery owner and curator, said via video chat. “Of course you were supposed to form a band; it didn’t even seem like it was an ‘out there’ idea.”
The key groups in the movement were the glam bubble gum Speedies, a high-concept bunch of overachieving teens (plus two very slightly older members) who “wanted to be the fusion of the Beatles, the Sex Pistols and the Bay City Rollers,” according to the founding guitarist Gregory Crewdson; the Student Teachers, who played art pop with elegiac touches reminiscent of Roxy Music and the Velvet Underground; the Blessed, who were the first, sloppiest and most fashionable group on the scene; and the mega poppy mod group the Colors, who like the Speedies were enamored with bubble-gum music and were mentored by Blondie’s drummer, Clem Burke. (Other bands on the edges of the movement included the Stimulators and Miller Miller Miller & Sloan.)
If the core bands in the teen punk scene had anything in common, it was an affection for big choruses, flashy, colorful clothes and a near-arrogant certainty that the empowerment promised by punk rock was now theirs to inherit.
“We didn’t know any better,” said Nicholas Petti, who, in 1977 at age 13, started calling himself Nick Berlin and became a co-founder of the Blessed. He spoke to The Times via video chat just before attending the funeral for another founding member of the band, Howie Pyro. Last month at the Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan, Pyro’s inheritors, including D Generation, Theo Kogan of the Lunachicks and Brian Fallon of the Gaslight Anthem, paid tribute to the New York mainstay with a memorial show.
“We thought this was how you lived. We would watch John Waters movies and, yes, of course we would understand they were actors, but we thought, this is what you are supposed to do,” Petti said from his home in Fort Bragg, Calif., where he works as the head of the Culinary Arts Management program at Mendocino College. “This is your life, this isn’t how you dress up, this is all of it,” he added. “We wanted to be a three-ring circus. When we played an early show and a late show at Max’s, we would bring two complete changes of clothes for each set. This certainly isn’t how we would have expressed it at the time, but it was living life as a performance art piece.”
The Blessed (pronounced as two syllables) were the band that Arthur Brennan ran away from Groton to join; after two weeks the money he had saved from his paper route ran out, and when private detectives came to retrieve him, he was happy to leave his new identity as Darvon Staggard behind. “After the first night, it’s really not that much fun sleeping at the all-night Blimpies on 6th Avenue,” Brennan, now a public-school teacher in Los Angeles, said via video chat. “But it was such a sense of relief to meet people who were like you. In your own hometown, you’d be considered a loser-slash-weirdo. We were kids learning how to act in a crazy, artsy adult world.”
The author Jonathan Lethem, who wrote about his affection for the Speedies and Miller Miller Miller & Sloan in “The Fortress of Solitude,” noted that childhood was different in New York at that time. “The city was chaotic, in a way, but it was really easy for us to operate,” he said in a video chat. “You couldn’t convince a taxi driver to go back to Brooklyn if your life depended on it, but you could always walk over the bridge! I do feel that we essentially owned the city, that we were the actual ones it belonged to at the time.”
Jill Cunniff, a scene patron who later founded Luscious Jackson with Schellenbach and Gabby Glaser, said the city seemed like a nonstop event. “Night was freedom,” she said, “and it felt like we were really safe. If you were a parent, you might think the opposite — those kids are going out to nightclubs, they are only 13, that’s so dangerous. No. My daytime at I.S. 70 was really dangerous,” she added, referring to her public middle school. “My nighttime was safe.”
How did the scene keep going? None of the well-traveled downtown venues — CBGB, Max’s Kansas City, TR3 or Studio 10 — regularly checked IDs, the musicians recalled, and they said the ones uptown, like Hurrah and Trax, only loosely enforced age-based alcohol restrictions. (The legal drinking age in the city was 18 until late 1982.) In fact, the CBGB owner Hilly Kristal and Peter Crowley, who managed and booked Max’s, seemed to welcome the wave of underage New Yorkers eager to discover music.
“Kids, generally, like to drink,” said Crowley, laughing via phone. “But we tried our best to make sure people were safe — though I did wear a badge that said, ‘I am not your mother.’”
But was the safety an illusion? “For a long time, I looked at this period of my life nostalgically and sentimentally,” the author Christopher Sorrentino said in an email. “Only recently have I begun to recognize how vulnerable we all were, how many risks we were exposed to with absolutely no one to apply the brakes. This goes double for the girls, who at 15 or 16 often had ‘relationships’ with men in their late 20s and early 30s.”
Laura Albert, who was in the scene from age 13 and later achieved fame (and notoriety) writing under the nom de plume JT LeRoy, agreed. “Access still came with a price, especially for girls and queer boys,” she wrote in an as-yet-unpublished memoir. “That said, there was a sense of possibility, age was not a barrier, I was a teen in foster care but I still had access to the musicians I admired, calling them on pay phones and interviewing them for fanzines.”
By 1980, the teen punk scene was simultaneously evolving and dissolving as its members grew up and moved on. Some of its participants went on to play prominent roles in the local hardcore punk movement: Hoffert and Crewdson of the Speedies produced the first Beastie Boys demo, and the Stimulators became a foundational band of the local hardcore punk scene. Others went to college or took jobs that required leaving their dalliance with late nights at Max’s Kansas City and shopping for brothel creepers on St. Marks Place in the rearview mirror.
“As cool as I thought the scene was, I realized I just didn’t want to be here. I wanted to be in college,” Laura Davis-Chanin, the Student Teachers’ drummer, said via video chat. “That was a big thing for me, given the incredible, shocking, thrilling world of rock ’n’ roll that I was a part of.”
While the punk scene that preceded this moment has been exceptionally well documented, far less has been written about the teens who ran the night as the ’70s gave way to the ’80s. None of the groups were signed by major record labels and only one of the bands, the Colors, released an LP within the initial span of its career. (The Speedies put out an archival collection in 2007, largely to take advantage of the use of one of their songs, “Let Me Take Your Foto,” in a Hewlett-Packard ad campaign).
With only spottily distributed independent 45s to spread the word outside the five boroughs, what was a potent local scene never gained a national or international profile. But several of its members have had notable careers inside and out of the arts world. Crewdson, the Speedies’ guitarist, is an acclaimed tableau photographer; Hoffert, his bandmate, became a data technology pioneer who helped develop the QuickTime media player and is now the senior vice president of video technology at Xandr; Allen Hurkin-Torres played in the Speedies, too, and is a former New York State Supreme Court justice.
“There was a magical empowerment from what we did that has carried us through life,” Hoffert said via video chat. “The photography Gregory has done, my work in digital media, is directly related to that.”
Schellenbach had a similar outlook: “It spawned so many cool things — art, authors, hip-hop. A magical time in New York City!”
Eli Attie, who began going to Max’s before he had even hit puberty, became a speechwriter for Al Gore, then a writer and producer on “The West Wing” and “Billions.” “It made me unafraid,” he said of the scene. “It made me realize your life can be anything you want. If you want to know these people, if you want to experience this music, even if it seems out of reach or not allowed, you can just do it. You can write your own story.”