Stop #9: St. Marks on the Bowery
During the late 1960s, the Beats began moving over to the East Village and began to mix with some of the new New York School poets who were spending time on the other side of town. The East Village was also where the poetry scene started mixing with a new music scene and the genre of early Punk was being formed.
One way in particular that the new poets congregating in the East Village differed from their predecessors in the West Village was the focus on performance and theatricality. According to John Mellilo in his essay, “Secret Locations in the Lower East Side: Downtown Poetics 1960-1980” for Lost New York, “meaning became a process that was literally worked out—in the air, in the community, on the actual page, on the body. A swirling interdisciplinarity defined this era in New York as artists rejected any and all stable boundaries” (60).
One of the most important places in the history of early punk and the poetry that influenced it, as well as an important performance space for this new interdisciplinarity that Melillo speaks of, was St. Mark’s Church on the Bowery, at 131 East 10th Street. The Church started a Poetry Project, which continues today, that brought beats like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs over from the west side, as well as up and coming poets, musicians, and other pop artists like Andy Warhol.
This is where Patti Smith debuted her mix of poetry and music in 1971 when she opened for Gerard Melanga. The performance was a turning point in the connection between poetry and rock n’ roll. She read and sang her poems while Lenny Kaye played guitar behind her. It was the first incarnation of what would eventually become Patti Smith’s first album, Horses, which was released in 1975.
Philip Shaw, in his book Horses, explains how her music was new and different:
The idea of performing poetry to musical accompaniment is nothing new; it began with the Beats in the 1950s and was carried over, via Ginsberg and Dylan to the counter culture in the mid-1960s. But two things…(were) different. To begin with Smith intends to sing as well as read, and the backing is not free-jazz sax, or languid bongos, but an overdriven crudely thrashed guitar (8).
The Church continues to be a place for experimentation with art, poetry, and music. Several other punk artists performed their poetry here as well including members of the band Television.
Up Next: Two Cigarette Butts