I’ve recently read or watched two items that involve the punk scene (or should I say punk-rock scene? I’m not sure.) in New York City in the mid-1970s: The book City On Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg and Spike Lee’s movie Summer Of Sam.
City On Fire is a long book, almost 1000 dense pages. The nexus of the plot is the murder of a young woman in a New York park on New Year’s Eve 1977. The book describes in great detail the lives and relationships of the people who were involved in one way or another with the murdered woman. It jumps back and forth in time from the early sixties to the start of the 21st Century while also jumping back and forth between characters. Many of the characters are punks participating in the New York City scene that apparently started in the mid-1970s. I cannot speak from experience about any aspect of punk. During that time period I was moving in the opposite direction; exploring bluegrass, country, and mountain music. So while the punks in this novel were moving away from the musical (pop) mainstream and finding punk, I was moving away from the mainstream and finding bluegrass. Given what I learned from the book and movie, I’m glad I moved in that direction.
City On Fire also covers the massive and complete blackout in New York City in the summer of 1977. Some of the book’s climactic events happen during the night of the blackout.
The movie Summer of Sam uses the background of the Son Of Sam serial killings to depict life in New York when David Berkowitz was on his killing spree. It focuses on the punk scene and on life in the city’s Italian neighborhoods. City On Fire presents more of a political and artistic picture of punk as a search for a sort of anarchistic freedom. Summer Of Sam, in contrast, focuses a lot on the sexual goings-on within the punk and club scenes.
I’m not sure I would recommend watching the movie or reading the book. I was often irritated at the book’s author for jumping around so much. I kept wanting him to stick to the plot line in which I was engrossed. Eventually, I just wanted him to wrap things up and tell me what happened to all the characters whom except, I think, for one, were strung out on drugs or alcohol. They were all drinking excessively, strung out, shooting heroin, dropping pills, sometimes doing it all in one day. I did not think it was possible for a person to use as many drugs and as much alcohol as some of the characters.
Watching the movie left me feeling like I had besmirched my soul.