From Boho to Soho


Make text smaller Make text larger




We all know that the bohemian neighborhood, where hipsters and artistes are ogled by the requisite busloads of bourgeois voyeurs, was not created when The New York Times discovered Bedford Ave. a couple of months ago. It didn't start with the hipster colonization of the Lower East Side in the 90s, or in Soho in the 80s, or at the punk clubs, or the hippie East Village, or in the abstract expressionists' Cedar Tavern or the beatniks' Greenwich Village. All those boho locales?and the similar ones in cities around the world?have a direct lineage back to the cabarets and cafes of 19th-century Paris, where the poets mixed with the poseurs, the flaneurs with the voyeurs, and the La Boheme lifestyle that's still the model for arty poverty was first valorized. It's no accident that Television and Patti Smith evoked Verlaine and Rimbaud. (Some of the original bohemians pushed the lineage much further back, to the student drinking societies of the medieval cities, but let's not go there today.)


The history of bohemia is in fact familiar to most of us, and its successive loci, from the Left Bank and Montmartre through the Jazz Age to the present, have been very well documented. But Bernard Gendron, a philosophy prof at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has an agenda beyond just retelling boho history in his new book with the cool title Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club (University of Chicago Press, 388 pages, $20). Gendron wants to examine the ways that successive bohemias have been the sites where what used to be called High and Low culture met and interacted in the modern era, ultimately producing our postmodern age where the very terms High and Low can seem so obsolete. He's specifically interested in the ways that hipsters and esthetes have interacted with and appropriated popular musics, from the "vulgar" cabaret songs of Paris through swing and bebop to the New York punk rock/new wave/no wave of the 1970s. How did bebop and the Beatles and Patti Smith all come to be esteemed as "art"? What role have the bohos played in creating our current culture, where High and Low have actually changed places in prestige and influence, so that popular music and pop culture generally have so trumped the old highbrow art forms in what scholars call "cultural capital"?


It's an intriguing if not brand-new line of inquiry. Being a scholar, Gendron thinks and argues it all through much more clearly than have some previous wayward and gasbaggy attempts at developing similar theories by pseudo-scholars like Greil Marcus. Then, too, if you're not all that interested in the thesis, you can fall back and just read this book as another handy and lively primer on boho history.


Gendron focuses on five points in the bohemian timeline to show how the interactions of high and popular culture changed. At first, it was the esthetes glomming onto popular/mass/folk arts and using them for their own ends. Classic examples include Picasso's discovery of African masks and Cocteau's passionate embrace of African-American jazz. Later, Gendron contends, the balance of power shifted. Formerly "low" forms of expression no longer passively waited for the arty types to appropriate and thus legitimize them. Postwar bebop was the first time that what began as a popular art form aggressively asserted itself as high, indeed avant-garde, culture. By the time of the Mudd Club, art, rock and poetry were inextricably commingled in the coolest, most interesting and prestigious cultural movement of its day.


Although we tend to think that the eradication of the old High/Low hierarchy is recent, Gendron argues that the seeds of this postmodernism were present at the very start of the modern era in mid-1800s France, where the revolutionizing work of the early modernists (Baudelaire, Flaubert, Corbet, et al.) serendipitously came along at the same time as an explosive growth in French mass culture. It took some time for the new esthetes and the new pop culture to interact. The first bohemian cafes, generally accepted to have appeared in the 1840s, were enclaves of high, albeit outre and antiestablishment, art. Despite all the flagrant and scandalous antics of the Jeunes-France movement, the Societe des Buveurs d'Eau (Society of Water Drinkers) and the like, these early bohos were as standoffish about mass culture as their stuffy adversaries in the academy and salons.


By the 1870s, though, groups of young poets like the Club des Hydropathes were aching to reach a wider audience beyond their own closed circles. On the Left Bank, something rather like poetry slams, with longhaired poets leaping on tables to drunkenly proclaim their work to shocked and titillated cafe patrons, were early forays of the esthetes into the arena of public performance. This impulse flowered with the arty colonization of working-class Montmartre, and its cafes and cabarets, in the 1880s. At clubs like the Chat Noir, poets banged out their appropriations of working-class street songs on the house piano, creating la chanson a Montmartre, effectively the art-rock of its day. Drawing ever larger crowds, the arty types (and the happy club owners making big bucks off them) dove headlong into formerly despised forms of commercial entertainment, culminating in full-fledged and wildly successful cabaret and music hall extravaganzas at legendary hotspots like the Moulin Rouge. The enormous popular success of these High/Low mergings even prompted a kind of punk-rock backlash, with angry young poets giving themselves marvelously punky names like the Jemenfoutistes (the I-Don't-Give-a-Fuck-ists). And you thought the Sick F*cks were onto something new.


Paris arty types went through similar paroxysms of appropriation in the 1910s and 20s when they discovered jazz and Negritude in general. Satie, Poulenc and Milhaud composed jazz-influenced music, Picasso mutated the forms of African masks in Les Demoiselles, Josephine Baker was made a French superstar and jamming with "authentic" black jazz men imported from America became such a craze at Parisian clubs like Le Boeuf sur le Toit that to this day "the expression 'faire le boeuf' is used to mean 'have a jam session.'"


Here again, the popular art form played the passive role in this relationship with boho artistes. But the balance of power shifted after World War II, Gendron argues, with the emergence of bebop. When it first appeared as a revolt against the by-then clapped-out swing music, bop was resisted by the old guard (the "moldy figs"), the highbrow critics and the general press. Ironically, it was bebop's revitalization of the New York jazz club scene in the late 40s that eventually won over the Down Beat critics and the popular press. Although bop's limited commercial and critical success lasted only a couple of years, Gendron contends its self-assertion and then wide acceptance as a bona fide avant-garde art form hugely influenced the way American highbrows finally came to canonize all of jazz as an authentic indigenous art in the 1950s?an esteem it maintains, if only as an historical artifact, to this day.


Gendron then moves to the curious way the Beatles went from being sniffed at as a bizarre teenybopper phenomenon to being heralded as high art. Of course, to do this they had to abandon their teen fans and move on to more "adult" and "serious" music under the influences of Bob Dylan, George Martin and LSD. Still, it's another milepost in Gendron's thesis, as a once vilified and "vulgar" music asserted itself and became universally accepted as both a commercial juggernaut and the defining cultural expression of its epoch.


Which leads Gendron to the Mudd Club. His last few chapters lay out a nice, concise history of punk and new wave and their aftermath. Not incidentally, he reminds the Malcolm McLaren-philes still among us that the term "punk rock" was coined in Greg Shaw's fanzine Who Put the Bomp in 1971, where it was used for what we now call 60s garage rock. Gendron gives perhaps too much credit to the writing of the Shaws and Lester Bangses and Dave Marshes for having spurred the birth of punk rock itself; I'd argue the bands get a little more credit than the critics. Still, he's absolutely correct in siting the birth of punk in America, and specifically in the early-70s New York City of Television and the Ramones and CBGB, rather than in the Sex Pistols' mid-70s London, as so many Brits and Britophiles still want to insist. ("New wave" can legitimately be claimed by the British, and they can have it.)


Gendron goes over familiar ground in discussing how art and pop came together in Television, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, James Chance, even the Ramones. As the downtown music scene spread out both geographically and demographically in the late 70s and early 80s, it moved from the principally reactionary stance of the Ramones into both avant-garde art circles (Sonic Youth, say) and commercial viability (Blondie, B-52s, etc.). Old distinctions were blurred: the scene was rife with poet-rockers, painter-rockers, hybrids of rock and symphonic minimalism like the works of Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca, ironist meta-musical statements like the Lounge Lizards. The Mudd Club, founded in '78 as a "disco for punks," developed into a nexus of everything that was hip and arty and fashionable, an anti-Studio 54 where punk rock and Bowie and Warhol converged to be ogled by a new generation of flaneurs and voyeurs. A punk esthetic spread to performance, to the visual arts, to film, to literature.


In the 80s, across many genres and media, the coolest art showed punk influences. What the Lenny Kayes and Joey Ramones had started as a reductionist reaction to the bloated arena rock of the early 70s grew up to be a monster that devoured the art world. Rock 'n' roll, which had begun as lowbrow teenage music, had risen to highbrow dominance. It was a far cry from those early Parisian bohos assaying lower-class street songs, but the family lineage, as Gendron makes quite clear, is direct.


That may sound like a bit much to claim for punk?and maybe in glossing Gendron's last few chapters I'm exaggerating his message. Also, as Gendron concedes in a coda, much has changed since the early 1980s. The downtown scene is long dead, no one speaks of rock as a dominant cultural force anymore and to a large extent all those art forms and commercial influences that came together downtown back then have since retreated to their own corners. It would be interesting for others to continue his explorations into the present?the Soho art boom and bust, the diaspora to Chelsea and Brooklyn, the rise of hiphop and rap as the next populist music movement to metastasize into an all-pervasive cultural force?and see how that all affects his thesis. I think his basic premises would hold up well.


Make text smaller Make text larger

Comments