An inside look at the glamour and grunge of thriving music scene in the 1970s and ’80s

Punk and poet Patti Smith embracing photographer Robert Mapplethorpe at hot spot Max’s Kansas City in 1978. The Rolling Stones relaxing with drinks – a bottle for Keith Richards – at DJ-driven Danceteria in 1980. The Ramones and Richard Hell performing at punk playground CBGB in 1977.

New York City was a hive of artistic endeavors in the 1970s and ’80s that buzzed throughout its vibrant nightlife where celebrities, glitterati and hopefuls performed and played at chic clubs and Downtown dives where decadence and drugs were plentiful. And photographer Allan Tannenbaum was there to chronicle it all. ‘There was a lot of creative energy,’ he told ‘It was glowing.’

A New Jersey native, Tannenbaum said he wasn’t crazy about the city in the 1960s. ‘It was ugly and dirty. In the ’70s, it wasn’t much better. It was very gritty.’

It was a stormy decade for the Big Apple, which at one point was on the brink of bankruptcy. Services were slashed and crime soared. Nonetheless, artists saw opportunity and in SoHo, former factories were turned into lofts and spaces to paint, sculpt and host experimental performances from dance to theater. ‘It was just an amazing community,’ he recalled of SoHo. ‘The city itself was pretty wild.’ Inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Tannenbaum drove with a friend across the country from New Jersey to San Francisco in 1964. He recalled: ‘That was one of my first big adventures.’

He lived in the counterculture and music haven on and off for about four years while he finished his degree at Rutgers University. It was also where he picked up a camera and learned how to use it. ‘One of the first concerts I photographed was Jimi Hendrix at Winterland in 1968,’ he said, referring to the famous San Francisco venue where many musicians and bands, including the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin, performed. By 1969, he was back in New Jersey and teaching photography and filmmaking at Rutgers, where he had earned a bachelor’s degree in art. In 1972, he moved to New York City and although he was living in Brooklyn, he said: ‘I gravitated to SoHo because of my interest in art.’

After some manufacturing left Manhattan, small factories below Houston Street and around Broadway were vacant. The area, Tannenbaum explained in his essay about the 1970s, was once called Hell’s Hundred Acres ‘because of all the fires that occurred in these run-down buildings.’ Eager for tenants, landlords ‘began to rent floors to artists hungry for space to do their work’ starting in the 1960s, he wrote.

‘Where artists go, galleries follow, and they in turn are followed by bars and restaurants to serve artists and gallery-goers. A few boutiques opened and the slow rebirth of the cast-iron district was underway.’

And while creativity was flourishing all over the city, SoHo, he wrote, was the ‘New Bohemia.’ Tannenbaum was at one of the neighborhood’s spots, Broome Street Bar, when he noticed a publication called SoHo Weekly News amid a pile of newspapers on top of the cigarette machine. Not long after, he had an interview with Michael Goldstein, the free paper’s publisher.

Goldstein looked through Tannenbaum’s portfolio and stopped at his image of Jimi Hendrix. The publisher once had been the rock star’s publicist and so Goldstein gave him an assignment: $5 to shoot the Avant Garde Festival, an annual experimental music event, at Grand Central Terminal. Up until that point, Tannenbaum had drove a taxi and tended bar to make a living in the city. ‘And I walked out of his office and said yes,’ he recalled, adding that he knew it was his break into photography.

The assignment would turn into a staff position and he was put on the paper’s masthead. Tannenbaum made $40 a week and his rent was $90 a month at that time, he said. But crucially, he said, he retained copyright over his photographs. From 1973 until the SoHo News shuttered in 1982, Tannenbaum had access to the city’s political, art, nightlife and music scenes. He told ‘The whole world opened up for me.’ Rock music was experiencing a rebirth in a city that was financially reeling. ‘Dirty, dangerous, and destitute,’ is how Tannenbaum described New York City in his essay. ‘It seemed as if the entire infrastructure was in decay.

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