The 1977 Blackout: Part 3

35 years ago today, the lights went out in New York City.

Below are excerpts from the book about the blackout night of July 13, 1977 (see previous posts for more) along with some video clips. Enjoy your air-conditioning.

By the time Johnny Thunders had gotten off the flight from London at Kennedy Airport on the night of July 13th, the entire city was without electricity. Generators kept utility lights burning inside the terminal; outside beyond the line of cabs, the night was pitch black. There was no skyline. There was no telling what was going on downtown; if the musicians in the clubs were making do with unplugged guitars and candlelight, if the streets were illuminated only by headlights and revolving cop-car beacons.

The Heartbreakers had had a hit single in England with “Chinese Rocks,” and they’d finished an album, which needed remixing and an American distributor.

But right now, he needed a fix.

## #

Casanova Fly and Disco Wiz had set up their sound system earlier in the evening at 183rd Street Park. They were prepared for a battle, and if they were outgunned, they wouldn’t be outsmarted. The Master Plan Crew—basically one kid, DJ Eddie, with no skills and a bunch of weak-ass disco records—had challenged them many times, and they’d finally agreed. Eddie had big Cerwin-Vega speakers and a serious amp. But he didn’t know the science of funk.

Caz and Wiz let him go first while they fiddled with their own gear — essentially Caz’s home stereo system — on the opposite side of the park, hooking it up to an extension cord they’d wired into the lamppost. As night fell, it was still near 90 degrees and sticky. Wiz was worried about their amp blowing in the heat. The crowd was getting thicker. People brought coolers with forty-ounce bottles of malt liquor; you could smell the acrid scent of dust being smoked.

When it was Caz’s turn, he slapped the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache” on the turntable and let it rip. The conga beats richocheted around the park, everybody in the park shouted their approval, and Caz knew that Eddie was finished. He cued up his second record for the one-two punch: Pleasure’s “Let’s Dance.” “Let’s make it fuh-fuh-fuh-fuh-fuh-fuh-fuh-FUNKY!!” the singer chanted over a churning wah-wah riff. Then the drums crashed in, and the horns, and the kids who came with Caz and Wiz were going bananas.

And then the beats started slooooooooooooooowing down, until they stopped dead.

Time stretched out. The streetlight they were plugged into went dark; then the other working streetlights around the park perimeter cut out, one by one.

“What the fuck did we just do?!,” Wiz yelled. You could barely see your hand; there was no moon.

The crowd in the park muttered and laughed, shouted, looked around. There were no lights in any of the apartment buildings.

Some asked the time; a guy with a glow-in-the-dark watch said it was 9:40. Then someone else yelled: “Hit the stores!”

Others repeated the cry.

People started running towards the shopping strips on Jerome Avenue, West Tremont Avenue, Grand Concourse. One group decided to start the looting with Caz’s soundsystem. Caz and Wiz both pointed handguns at the people they had just been playing records for.

“Go THAT way, motherfuckers!!” instructed Caz, pointing out of the park.

Caz asked Wiz to get some friends to pack up their gear, then dashed off, saying there was something he had to get. As Wiz tells it in his book It’s Just Begun, Caz was back 15 minutes later with a single item: A Clubman Two mixer that he’d been eying at a nearby shop for quite a while.

# # #

In Long Island City, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, David Byrne, Jerry Harrison, and some friends were barbecuing hot dogs and hamburgers on the roof of Frantz and Weymouth’s loft building, 9-01 44th Drive, at the corner of Vernon Boulevard, right off the East River. They were taking a night off from recording their album; a cool breeze was wafting in off the water. Frantz was looking out at the Manhattan skyline when the lights uptown suddenly cut out, then the lights of midtown; in a few moments, lower Manhattan went dark, too. In their neighborhood, strangely, the electricity stayed on. So they all finished dinner.

The subways were out, but Soho News photographer Allen Tannenbaum was able to grab a PATH train to New Jersey in the wee hours of the morning, and shot the unplugged skyline against the breaking dawn.

Roberta Bayley, who occasionally worked the door at CBGBs, was afraid to leave her apartment on St. Marks that night. But the next day she met up with John Holstrom and headed over to Chris Stein and Debbie Harry’s apartment on 17th Street, where Iggy Pop, just back from Germany, played them tracks from Lust For Life, which he’d just finished recording, with David Bowie as producer, at a studio near the Berlin Wall. “He sees the stars come out tonight/He sees the city’s ripped backsides,” Iggy sang on “The Passenger,” his voice pulsing through the living room speakers. “All of it was made for you and me.”

In Queens, my friends and I had been smoking pot in the center of Cunningham Park when the streetlights ringing the circular field flickered out in rapid sequence, like the arcade lights on an amusement park ride. We walked around the neighborhood, stopped in to see Leroy and grab some bialys at Turnpike Bagels, and tried (and failed) to scam some free beers along the strip of bars on Union Turnpike near Utopia Parkway. The bars were full of cops, who, as far as I could tell, were treating the blackout as a night off. Fresh Meadows was a middle-class neighborhood; there was no trouble at all. The next morning, Union Turnpike was deserted, the traffic lights colorless. I walked down the middle of the street, feeling like Charlton Heston in The Omega Man.

Power was restored citywide that evening, Friday July 14th. Most of us New Yorkers picked up our lives as we had left them. But quite a few kids across the Bronx and elsewhere were wiring up brand-new sound systems—determined, now that they had the gear, to learn how to DJ.

The 1977 Blackout: Part 2

Tomorrow is the 35th anniversary of the 1977 NYC blackout. I write about it in Love Goes To Buildings On Fire. Here’s another excerpt.

The newspapers, which had gone to press with their Thursday morning editions, scurried to pull together supplements. The New York Times dug out some old propane lamps left over from the ’65 blackout and sent runners over to the Holy Cross Rectory on West 42nd to scare up candles; as the newsroom still had plenty of manual typewriters, editors and writers kept right on typing. Outside the Daily News building on 42nd Street, a film crew was shooting Superman with diesel generators; after some pleading, the News borrowed some lights from them and ran wires up to their seventh-floor editorial offices.

Up on 77th Street and Lexington Avenue, power mysteriously returned to music writer Paul Nelson’s apartment and other buildings on his block after just a few hours. He and Lester Bangs, who had hiked uptown, listened to new The Sex Pistols’ single “Anarchy In The U.K,” over and over. Then they went up to the roof and watched the buildings burn uptown and across the river.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band had been at the Record Plant on 44th Street when the power went out. They muttered curses, but were relieved to have the night off. Springsteen and Jon Landau left the studio and walked, the city lights extinguished around them. They barely noticed: they were deep in conversation about the record that was now, finally, after all the post-Born To Run legal wrangling, getting made.

Down the block from Record Plant, at Sardi’s, David Murray had been eating dinner with Ntozake Shange—his new wife—and some friends. Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, an experimental poetry-theater piece that premiered at Studio Rivbea and remarkably wound up being produced at the Booth Theater, had been nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play this year, though it lost to Michael Cristofer’s The Shadow Box. Still, the couple was on top of the world. They’d had met last year, fallen in love, and were married on July 7 – 7/7/77 – in Berkeley, California, Murray’s home turf. Back in New York, dining in the restaurant where Brock Pemberton had conceived the Tonys back in 1946 in tribute to his late wife, Antoinette, they were getting ready to leave for a honeymoon in Hawaii. The couple made their way through the dark, left the restaurant and wandered downtown, sated.

Meredith Monk had been watching Annie Hall at a midtown theater with a friend when the film sputtered to a halt. They headed back towards her loft in Tribeca. Elsewhere downtown, Voidoids guitarist Robert Quine, dominatrix Anya Phillips and Lou Reed’s future wife Sylvia Morales played Monopoly by candlelight.

35 Years Ago This Week: The 1977 NYC Blackout

When the power goes out in New York City, all bets are off.

I’ve lived through 3 major blackouts here. The first, in 1965, I was certain I had personally caused. This was because I’d fiddled with the rabbit ears antennae on the top of our black & white TV when my dad had expressly told me never to touch them. I was four.

The most recent, in 2003, was uncomfortably hot, and occurred after I’d made the unfortunate decision to park my car in one of those vertical garages (in Murray Hill near the old SPIN offices, where I worked at the time) that relied on electric elevators to move the vehicles. I got the car back 24 hours later, but had made the best of it, staying up all night with friends on the roof of their illegal Stuy Town sublet. (RIP – the apartment, I mean.)

Yet the strangest and most intense one was on July 13, 1977. I write about it in Love Goes To Buildings On Fire, and this Friday marks the blackout’s 35th anniversary.

I’ll be posting excerpts from that section of the book during the course of the week. To begin, a flashback on the radio broadcasts, which were the main information source during the course of things.

Here’s an aircheck from WABC Music Radio 770 AM:

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And here’s an excerpt from the book:

Battery-powered radios were the only information source, and people gathered around them. WNEW-FM came back on the air around eleven. Scott Muni had walked from the station’s studios on Fifth Avenue was broadcasting from the station’s transmitter site in the Empire State Building. “I have a small microphone here, and, uh, a small turntable,” he said, in the same consoling, foghorn baritone that talked down the gun-toting, hostage-taking Deadhead Ray “Cat” Olsen on the air two years earlier. “Just a little set-up where we are able to talk to yuh and tell yuh we are back on the air after many hours of absence. Not due to anything else other than another historical event for New York City that’ll be written about and talked about and motion pictures made about. Albums. And no doubt there’ll be a song—someone right now is writing the song, or already has written it.”

“If you would like,” he added, “I think it might be a nice idea to tell some of your friends, since we are sort of a family, if you would talk to your friends, give ‘em a call, since telephones are working, and say ‘WNEW is back on the air.’”

When the lights went out, the disruption was a testament to just how much was going on in New York City at night. At Ceasar’s Retreat in midtown, porn star Annie Sprinkle was in the middle of a blow-job-for-hire. At CBGBs, The Shirts were on a bill with the Romantics; Hilly cancelled the show, so guitarist Artie Lamonica and bassist Bob Rapiocco hung around and drank his beer by candlelight. The cast of Beatlemania led a singalong with acoustic guitars up at the Winter Garden in Times Square; a harpist for the Canadian Ballet plucked out the notes to “Dancing In The Dark” up at the Met. On the side blocks off Christopher Street, naked men in workboots fucked against parked cars.