It’s Not A New Phenomenon: An Interview with Ben Nadler
I met Ben Nadler when we were studying at City College of New York’s MFA program. He seemed like a bit over-the-top in his punk outfits sometimes, but quickly I saw that he was over-the-top in a lot ways. He had a much deeper and wide-ranging reading background than almost anyone I had met in my age-range, and he also had an insane amount of interesting life experiences. He participated in the 2004 Republican National Convention protests, eventually becoming one of those held in the “Guantanamo on the Hudson” lockups. In a writing workshop we took together, he wrote very real and involving stories about the squatter scene he was involved with for a time. I’m sure that he wouldn’t like me typing these things, but I think they are important because it explains how someone could be so bold to write a book with a title like Punk in NYC’s Lower East Side, 1981-1991.
The book takes on a lot of different topics: punk rock, the Lower East Side, the 80s, Reagan, gentrification, the Tompkins Square Riots, Holocaust trauma, World War II military campaigns and tactics—the list goes on. The scope is wide, and yet the text itself is fairly short and to-the-point. No bullshit.
Ben and I were both teaching at CCNY as he wrote this, and I would often see him in the office he shared with half a dozen other adjunct lecturers, in a trance or in a headache, or both, sorting through massive interviews he did with people active in the Lower East Side activist and music scenes during the 1980s, along with zines and other archival materials, including a thorough love for the punk music of the era. The way this book quickly recaps the important points of the era is impressive, almost as impressive as the fact that it doesn’t feel like anything or anyone is being done too much an injustice with this brevity. The spotlight is mainly on the band Reagan Youth and their frontman Dave Insurgent, but for a second it almost feels like this flying saucer, checking out what it wants from the era, or really whatever era it wants. The prose does it justice, but doesn’t do too much to pull you away from the events and the feeling of the history being described.
Ben answered some of my questions, which are below.
What was the process of writing PUNK IN NYC’S LOWER EAST SIDE like? How long did it take?
I did the original research as an academic project for H. Veeser’s graduate biography seminar at CCNY. The project was narrower in focus, primarily just about Dave Insurgent and Reagan Youth. So I had the support and structure of the class, and I had the deadline of the end of the semester. And I just sort of did it.
I knew I wanted to do more with it, but an article for a magazine seemed exploitative, and a self-published zine seemed insufficient for the scale, and also whenever I do anything good I just put it in a drawer and don’t do anything with.
So it wasn’t until a year later that I got in touch with Joe Biel at Microcosm, and he encouraged me to expand the scope a bit, so he could publish it as the inaugural volume in the Scene History series. The goal is basically a series somewhere between J. Gerlach’s Simple History series on Microcosm, and the 33⅓ series that Bloomsbury does.
Soon after, I checked out for a bit and went to live in a tent in the woods in Southeastern Colorado for the summer. My friend Blaine (a former LES squatter) lived in a cabin about a half mile down the hill from my tent, so I would go down in the morning and charge my laptop. I typed at table in the woods Blaine had made, and I had about three and a half hours of battery life for the day. The interviews were on a battery powered MP3 player, and I brought a zip lock bag of batteries into the woods, so that worked out. When the computer died I’d go hang out with Blaine, and drink beer and smoke weed and listen to Hank III and pick vegetables for dinner or whatever. It was usually too cloudy in the afternoon for a second charge.
How many different people did you talk to? How did you decide what oral history you would use in the book?
I probably talked to about 20 people altogether, though only about half of the exchanges were in-depth and on the record interviews.
A lot of what I was trying to do was learn more about things I’d heard about largely as legends, through punk oral tradition. So recording these stories as oral history made sense.
Can you give an example of punk oral tradition? It could even be something from this book.
I spent a lot of time with NYC Food Not Bombs in like 2002-2004. So sitting in Tompkins Square Park every week, there would always be some older crusties telling stories. The riots, were of course a big one. “This park used to be crazy, before the police kicked everyone out ten years ago…” The defense against the squat evictions in 1995 was kind of mythical, especially to my friends who were trying to hold onto KFC at the time, which was I guess the last big squat opened on the LES (it’s condos and yuppie stores now). Because we were serving food in Tompkins, people always mentioned the story of the guy that murdered his girlfriend in ’89, made her body into a soup, and fed it to homeless people in Tompkins. That was always a weird joke; “Is there human meat in this food?”
One example of a punk legend I heard all different places is of a kid hopping the Tropicana Express (freight train carrying orange juice from Florida to up north) with just a handle of vodka, and living on screwdrivers the whole way. But I told this to my dad and his buddy, who both worked for a freight line back in the day, and they said the story didn’t make sense, especially because the train carries concentrate, not actual juice.
The whole Dave Insurgent story I had heard as kind of myth.
But this project wasn’t strictly about printing, or repeating, or glorifying these things. It was more about me going back as an older person and seeing: What was real? What was important? What was bullshit? I mean, besides the punk sources, I dug into immigration records, newspaper archives, stuff like that. Of course, those types of sources are never indisputable either.
What other primary sources were really helpful?
A lot of the primary print source research was zines, because zines were where people were self-documenting the scene at the time. The ABC No Rio zine library is wonderful, and was my main research location. That being said, their collection really picks up in the late 80s/ early 90s, so they didn’t have everything I needed. The folks at Maximumrocknroll actually sent me a couple early scans from their archives.
One book I relied on a lot was Resistance: A Radical Social and Political History of the Lower East Side, an excellent source book edited by Clayton Patterson.
What do you make of how the best known punk scenes are almost always from California or New York? Do you think a lot of that has to do with their proximity to popular media and major technology power centers? Do you see some contradiction in this fact coupled with the anti-authoritarian, anti-pop tendencies of punk?
Originally, I think the best known scenes were in New York and London, not New York and California. I’m a New York chauvinist, but London has such a deep punk and counter-culture history. But yeah, in the 80s, California had a lot of punk and hardcore, for sure.
New York and Los Angeles are still the two largest cities, and largest corporate media centers, in the country. And there’s no doubt, counter-culture is consumed as soon as it’s created. It’s faster now than back then, but it’s not a new phenomenon. The Marxist theorist Herbert Marcuse wrote about this in the 60s, way before punk. He saw that capitalism could instantly commodify new culture as new products, so even if something looks rebellious, it actually inevitably ends up feeding consumerism and increasing social control.
I guess the answer to your question can be found on Crass’s The Feeding of the 5,000: “Yes that’s right, punk is dead/ It’s just another cheap product for the consumers head./[…] Punk became a fashion just like hippy used to be…”
The central focus of this history you create is Dave Insurgent, the leader of the band Reagan Youth. You mention him as a victim of 2nd-Generation Holocaust Trauma. Can you define and describe generational Holocaust trauma a bit?
Well, there has been a lot of research into the children of Holocaust survivors, who often seem to display signs of PTSD, even when they haven’t directly suffered that type of trauma. Different researchers have come to different conclusions about how prevalent this is or is not. And I think the dominant theory is not that you “inherit” it innately or something, but that your traumatized parents raise you in such a manner that you “learn” or internalize their trauma.
This idea of inherited trauma is not specific to the children of Holocaust survivors, it happens all over this fucked up world, but the Holocaust was such a mass trauma that it’s a situation where you see this replicated again and again as a pattern.
But I’m not that interested in pathologizing or diagnosing. I’m just generally cognizant of the fact that a lot of people on this planet have suffered a lot of trauma. A lot of pain. And that pain doesn’t just go away. It keeps hurting people, over and over again. People are living under generations of trauma, that just festers and cycles and crushes them. And it often never gets dealt with, so it just continues.
What about how it afflicted Dave Insurgent?
I can’t speak too much to Dave Insurgent’s personal psychology. But the fact that the son of two Holocaust survivors spent almost half of his life publicly and ritualistically interacting with Nazi imagery certainly means something.
And I think that this is at the core of what punk was about: cutting through the veil and the hypocrisy and the bullshit, and just trying to acknowledge all the sublimated pain and violence, and face it head on. Sometimes effectively, sometimes not. Later, Riot Grrl articulated this more, and really tried to address all the unspoken trauma that girls (and boys, for that matter) suffer from sexual abuse in the home, and elsewhere.
Have you gotten any reactions from people who were around during the time of scene?
The most common reaction when I was talking to people was, “Wow, we didn’t know anyone cared about this stuff.” One or two people were skeptical about my intentions, and afraid I was writing something very exploitative. For the most part though, once people saw that I was making a weird earnest punk thing, not trying to do something profitable or sensational, they opened up. People were generally happy to have these stories told. Now that the project is finished and published, people seem pretty happy with the outcome. Paul Cripple from Reagan Youth seems to dig it, which is important because so much of it is his story.
What projects are you currently working on?
My next release is going to be collaborative chapbook with the artist Alyssa Berg called Line & Hook. That is pretty much finished, and is going to come out on Perfect Wave, sometime in the next few months. It’s a limited edition book of full-color poetry comics, with beautiful hand painted covers.
I am currently revising my second novel. It is about street vendors in Manhattan, but is also about the tradition of Hassidic storytelling. There is some gangster shit in there too. The manuscript contains no mention of punk rock. There has been some interest in publication, and more details will be forthcoming.
Alyssa Berg is amazing. How’d you meet her? She has this way of seeming nonchalant but you know there’s a lot going on in her work. Do you know what I mean?
Alyssa is amazing!
I have known Alyssa for years and years. I don’t recall when I met her specifically, but we were part of the same circle of friends in New York in the early/mid-2000s. So many great, creative people. Will Crofoot was a big part of that; he lives in Cambodia now, but he’s involved in Pefect Wave stuff. Maia Ibar, who is a painter and musician in southern France was another link.
Alyssa is an incredibly hard worker. Often, artists–especially ones working in lo-fi mediums like drawing, comics, collage–who consciously make things that are tactile, emotional, “messy”, and connect on a very personal level, don’t get the credit they deserve for the skill of their work. Because they make it seem casual, or simple, or innocent. But it’s not easy to achieve those qualities, while still achieving other goals in a piece as well; it takes an immense amount of planning, revision, and compositional strategy. It’s one of those things where, the better they are at it, the easier it looks.
What kinds of books/authors influenced you in writing this book?
I really like that some long running punk zines, specifically issues of Cometbus and Scam, have looked back and given a more historical view on punk, so they were a big influence.
Fly has always done a great job of documenting punk stories through interviews in Peops, so her zines were influential. She was also really helpful personally with my project, in terms of both sharing her own experience and connecting me to others. She’s a great person.
Two oral history collections that cover some of the same ground as my zine are American Hardcore: A Tribal History by Steven Blush and Anarchist Voices by Paul Avrich.
One proper history book I was influenced by was Joe Flood’s The Fires, which does a great job of exploring the destructive factors at work in the South Bronx in the 1970s. The way he weaves things together is very effective.
What are the best books you’ve read this year?
It’s hard to say “best.” I probably read about 150 books a year, and I generally have mixed feelings about the ones I’m engaged with. A few that come to mind:
Fiction: Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter. This is a hell of a novel, from the 60s. Just raw and pure. I’m not sure why it’s not more of an American classic. NYRB did a reissue a few years ago. They resurrect so much great stuff.
Nonfiction: The Black Count by Tom Reiss. This is sort of a pop history biography of General Dumas, who was the father of Alexandre Dumas, père, and was a mixed-race, Haitian-born hero of the French Revolution. This is interesting in of itself, but it goes way further, and provides a fascinating look at the constantly shifting way race and identity were viewed in 18th and 19th century France.
Books published in the past year: Hill William by Scott McClanahan. Speaking about art that deals with trauma and abuse…
What kind of music do you listen to while you write?
My general go to music when I’m working at home is old country, folk, and blues. Simple, nourishing stuff. I love Townes Van Zandt, all that old outlaw stuff. I also really love bands that are right on the line between country or blues and punk. Like Dead Moon, Gun Club, Hank III.
Sometimes I need more complexly nourishing stuff, especially when writing through the night. John Coltrane is always good. Different versions of Schubert’s Winterreisse cycle. My girlfriend has been playing Maria Callas in the apartment a lot recently.
But outside of what is personally emotionally satisfying, I often feel the need to put on music that fits what I’m writing about. When I did the Punk in NYC’s LES project, I was relistening to a lot of Reagan Youth, Cro Mags, Urgent Fury. There’s one or two No Thanks tracks on youtube I kept playing. By that same token, when I’m writing fiction, I often play stuff closer to the character’s mindset. For instance, when I write crime fiction, I sometimes bust out my old Mobb Deep CDs.
You were in an MFA program with me at CCNY. What do you think of MFA programs?
I think it was useful for me. I met a lot of great people, and I did a lot of good work. But I already knew who I was as a writer, and what I wanted to work on. So it was just support for what I wanted to do anyway. I think people who go into a program without yet knowing who they are as writers or what they want to write, or worse, don’t even know if they really want to write, just tend to flounder and waste their time (and other people’s time).
It should also be acknowledged that an MFA is a teaching credential as much as anything else. From my third semester on, my teaching check was covering my tuition (I had a day job as well to cover rent). I got teaching experience there which has led to other opportunities. But if a person is interested in writing but not teaching, or if their program doesn’t offer teaching opportunities, it might not be worth it.
Macho dickheads (like me when I drink sometimes) contrast the MFA experience to the good old days, when men like Hemingway just got life experience instead of going to school. But “life experience” generally meant war. And if anyone reading this is deciding between grad school or war, I would say go to school. You will do less damage to yourself and others.
Do you like teaching? What sorts of courses do you teach?
I do like teaching. The university adjunct system is very exploitative of our labor, so I probably won’t be teaching in this capacity for too much longer. But I truly love interacting with my students, especially the older, nontraditional students.
I teach writing courses. Creative writing, technical writing, journal writing, composition, etc. Last Spring, I did an elective on radical print culture in NYC, covering 100 years, from like 1910s Anarchist newspapers, to 50s and 60s mimeographed poetry, to 90s punk and riot grrl zines. That was an interesting experience.
Why do you write?
For me, the two main options are writing or drinking. I try to choose writing.
Because soon, the money will roll right in.
But for real, writing is communicative. It’s not subjective, it’s intersubjective. I want to connect with a reader, and share with them. Reading completes the process of writing. If I’m not effectively communicating something to a reader, than I have failed in my task as a writer. And publishing, while maybe an undesired foray into the world of commerce, is the way to facilitate people reading my work.
I’ve always loved doing zines, because you can copy something, and hand it directly to a person. I guess some people get them from a blog or something. But publishing with an established entity extends your reach past that.
But publishing is a means to share writing, for me. It’s not about racking up publishing credits, to get my name out there or build a brand. This isn’t a video game, where I’m competing to have my name at the top of the high score screen.
Andrew Duncan Worthington is the author of the novel Walls (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2014). He is founding editor of Keep This Bag Away From Children and lives in New York.