The Downtown Pop Underground: New York City and the literary punks, renegade artists, DIY filmmakers, mad playwrights, and rock ‘n’ roll glitter queens who revolutionized culture.
by Kembrew McLeod
(Abrams October 2018)
The 1960s to early ’70s was a pivotal time for American culture, and New York City was ground zero for some seismic shifts in music, theater, art, and filmmaking. In THE DOWNTOWN POP UNDERGROUND, cultural historian Kembrew McLeod takes the reader on a kaleidoscopic tour of the city, telling the story of the interconnections between the alternative music, theater, film, video, writing, fashion and art worlds that flowered in downtown New York. McLeod uses accounts of these artistic cross-pollinations to reveal an alternative history of recent pop culture.
Through interviews with the famous (Debbie Harry, Yoko Ono, Lily Tomlin) to lesser-known-but-essential offbeat artists, rule-breaking poets, gonzo filmmakers, rock and roll drag queens, McLeod shows how these outsiders reshaped the larger culture, and from downtown New York made waves on an international scale. Ambitious in scope and scale, the book is fueled by the actual voices of many of the pivotal characters who broke down the entrenched cultural divisions between high and low, gay and straight, and art and commerce—and whose impact is still largely felt today. The book also features many never-before-seen photos of this glamorous and dynamic time.
“McLeod has created a vivid history of the art underground—the epics staged in tiny storefronts, the glittering drag queens, the outré films, experimental music, and rabid poetry—that filtered up into the mainstream and cracked it open in the 1960s and ’70s. I’ve read many books on this era, and this is the first to show the interconnections between all the arts and artists that created what now seems an almost mythic bohemia.”
—Cynthia Carr, author of Fire in the Belly
“McLeod’s deft and generous book tells of a constellation of avant-garde squatters, divas, and dissidents who reinvented the world—a story which comes to seem more improbable the more meticulously he records it. Through a panoply of witnessing voices, he channels a recent past so familiar we risk taking it for granted.”
—Jonathan Lethem, author of The Fortress of Solitude
“Downtown New York in the latter half of twentieth century was so much more than a Warhol print and a CBGB-OMFUG T-shirt. McLeod tracked down more than 100 denizens of that freaky bohemian milieu to tell the stories most people don’t know. The Downtown Pop Underground breathes new fire into a familiar history and is a must-read for anyone who wants to know how American bohemia really happened.”
—Ann Powers, critic, NPR Music
“The Downtown Pop Underground honors those who were at the forefront of a movement that transformed our understandings of sexuality and artistic freedom.”
“I love this book. It’s filled with insight about a very important group of artists making blueprints for the avant-garde. They were so far ahead of the mainstream curve that they created new shapes out of the curve, revealing cracks in the yoke of custom and convention. McLeod has done us all a favor by focusing on the lives of these fabulous futurists and oddball observers who looked at life and showed us that reality is absurdity dressed in a three-piece suit.”
“Kembrew McLeod manages a Herculean task: mapping the vast spider web of intersecting trajectories in pre-careerist downtown New York. He makes it plain how much of the action occurred in theater, and how much of the culture we owe to gay men and women.”
—Luc Sante, author of Low Life and The Other Paris
Kembrew McLeod is a Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa. He has published and produced several books and documentaries about music and popular culture, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Slate, Salon, SPIN, MOJO and Rolling Stone. Kembrew’s documentary Copyright Criminals aired on PBS’s Emmy Award-winning Independent Lens series, his 2007 book FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION® (University of Minnesota Press 2007) received an American Library Association book award, and his 2014 book PRANKSTERS (NYU Press 2014) received a “Best of the Best Books You Should Know About” designation from the American Association of University Presses. He recently was awarded a National Endowment of the Humanities Public Scholar Fellowship to support THE POP UNDERGROUND, and is based in Iowa City.