Graded on a Curve:
Luke Haines,
New York in the ‘70s

Luke Haines is your classic English eccentric. Following the disbanding of his Britpop band The Auteurs and between a stint with Black Box Recorder, the notoriously irascible Haines has released numerous songs about musicians, artists and miscellaneous, and a series of concept albums. One, released in 1996 under the name Baader-Meinhof, brilliantly chronicles the history of the infamous German terrorist group, while another takes a headlock on British professional wrestling (2011’s remarkable 9 1/2 Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s & Early ’80s.) The man’s interests are Catholic, to say the least.

But the Haines concept LP with the broadest audience appeal is undoubtedly 2014’s New York in the ‘70s. On it Haines expresses his love for the NYC punk, literary and art scenes, and over the course of the album he name drops everyone from Suicide’s Alan Vega, the New York Dolls, the Ramones, Lou Reed, William Burroughs, Jim Carroll, Richard Hell, and I may have missed some. Conspicuous by their absence are Patti Smith (no big loss), Andy Warhol, Jayne County, Debbie Harry, Television, and the Talking Heads.

The LP opens with the slow “Alan Vega Says” (a tribute to Lou Reed’s “Candy Says” and “Lisa Says,” most likely). Haines is a one-man band on New York in the ‘70s, and on this one he uses keyboards and guitar to chronicle Vega’s days in the Chelsea Hotel. Vegas name drops Sharon Tate, Marilyn, and Elvis, and the song’s key line is “Alan Vegas says it’s going to be a great hit/If Alan says so it probably is.” And the following track, the bottom heavy and fuzzed-out “Drone” is a straight-up tribute to Vegas’ band Suicide and its unique sound.

The title track—which features a repetitive guitar riff, one spazzed-out synthesizer, and glam vocals—is a slow and simple tribute to a period we’ll never see the likes of again. When Haines isn’t repeating the title over and over again he tosses off lines like “American days become American nights/We’re going to have fun with the scary transvestites, oh!” and “Everybody’s gay or bisexual/A man called Jim getting experimental.” On the fast-paced “Jim Carroll” Haines goes downtown with the poet, rocker, and junkie who penned The Basketball Diaries and the super-bummer “People Who Died,” and over the course of the song Haines has Carroll say things like “Coke is just meth dressed up in drag” and “They put a man up in space/And I can’t even score in St. Mark’s Place.”

“Tricks n Kicks n Drag” is a heavy-duty, synthesizer and guitar rocker on which Haines repeats the lines, “Tricks, tricks everybody’s turning tricks/To make the bucks, the bucks, just to buy the drugs/Because the kicks from the drugs bought from turning tricks/Make the tricks, the tricks, seem a little bit better.” “Bills Bunker” is about William Burroughs’ Lower East side abode, a heavily fortified 19th Century former YMCA locker room. “I’ve been on a mission inside old Bill’s veins since 1955, 1955/Injections and guns, we are the drugs/That flow throw the veins of Bill’s bunker,” sings Haines in one particularly poetic passage.

“Doll’s Forever” begins with Haines ticking off the names of NYC’s immortal trash glam band before singing, “There’s one truth everyone knows/Who would want to be a Doll?” Well lots of people actually, that is until you consider they made no waves outside of New York City and London and even less money. And several members made drug and alcohol wrecks of themselves while they were at it. The message of “New York City Breakdown is simple enough—if you’re going to have a nervous breakdown have it in New York City because New York City is the Big Apple of nervous breakdowns. It includes the lines “I’m having a screaming fit/On stage in a stinking pit/Dragging a crazy chick named Connie around by her hair.” And, he goes on to say, like a good product pitch person, “Satisfaction guaranteed!”

“Lou Reed Lou Reed” is a rhythmic number undone by Haines’ too frequent repetition of the title, but the one stanza that is isn’t a repetition is nice: “A’ Rock’n’Roll is on/Like the Do Run Run/Like the Do-Wop Wop/Hands waiting to cop/Who’s the suicide blonde/With the Iron Cross?” The late rock and roll animal with the world’s most radical pre-punk hairdo would either be proud or vicious to be eulogized; it was always hard to know with the unpredictable prick. I have no idea what the dub-heavy, synth-dominated “U.K. Punk” is doing on an album about New York City, unless it be an arcane tribute to Sid Vicious. And the same goes for Sun Ra, who hailed from space, not the United Kingdom.

Also out of place is “Cerne Abbas Man,” the mysterious English hill figure and fertility symbol who comes walking into Manhattan. What I do understand is the very cool way Haines repeats the phrase, “Mythic motherfucking rock and roll” and the references to Johnny Thunders and Richard Hell. I suppose everybody wants to have the biggest balls on the block, and the Cernes Abbas Giant’s are bigger than Godzilla’s. Closer “NY Stars” is a lovely tribute to New York City as both the world’s best place to make your name and to the stars enumerated previously. The song pays special attention to the members of the Ramones, and ends with a refrain of the lines “Alan Vegas says” followed by the beautiful lines, “the endless sea/the emerald sea of rock and roll.”

New York in the ‘70s isn’t my favorite of Haines’ solo work—I much prefer 2011’s idiosyncratic 9 1/2 Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s & Early ’80s, 2016’s Smash the System, and 1996’s one-off concept album Baader Meinhof, which was in effect a Haines solo album released under another name. But NY in the ‘70s certainly wins on audience appeal and is an ideal place for beginners to explore Haines’ idiosyncratic genius.

Legends walked the streets of the Lower East Side in the 1970s, and both magic and junk were always just around the corner. If you weren’t on the make, creating great art, shooting smack—or all three—you had no business being there. Is that the shade of Jim Carroll on the look-out for the man in St. Mark’s Place? The ghost of William Burroughs walking the Lower East Side with his sword cane? You would have to ask Alan Vega. When he says something, he’s always right.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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