As a teenager, I was desperate to be a part of something bigger than the small town where I grew up. I expressed that desire in the most obvious way I knew how: by sewing Ramones patches onto my backpack and watching every documentary I could find on CBGB. The legendary punk club, which sat at the intersection of Bowery and Bleecker Street in New York City, became, in the 1970s, the incubator of that era’s American punk and New Wave movements, playing host and home to bands like Blondie, Television, Talking Heads, Iggy and the Stooges, and my beloved Ramones. I tend to romanticize all that went on at CBGB because I couldn’t be there (not having been born yet sucks, you guys), but thanks to the work of two self-described “punk girls” who were, I can now mentally transport myself to the front row of an early Go-Go’s gig.
From 1975 to 1980, Pat Ivers and Emily Armstrong schlepped heavy video equipment into the dingy punk clubs of Soho and the Lower East Side on a mission to record and preserve the musical magic that was happening in New York at the time. But after a big chunk of their footage was seized in a 1980 police raid of the unlicensed nightclub Danceteria, they put down their cameras for good.
Luckily for everyone, the bulk of what Pat and Emily shot during those five years has been sitting in boxes in their New York City apartments for the past 30-odd years. They aired some videos from their archive on their short-lived cable TV show Nightclubbing in the ’80s and have been screening parts of it at museums and film festivals since the early ’90s, and now, a whole new generation can see for ourselves what the scene in New York was really like, notwithstanding any Hollywood fantasies: Over 300 hours of tape shot by Pat and Emily has been digitally restored by New York University’s Fales Library and preserved as the Downtown Archive. It’s all available to watch there for free; you just have to make an appointment.
In the meantime, we got our hands on some choice bits, which we get to share with you today. I also got a chance to speak to Emily and Pat about their collection (and somehow managed to hold back from asking them what Johnny Ramone smelled like from the front row—you’re welcome/I’m sorry), and it was almost as good as being there.
Pylon performing in 1980. All videos shot by Pat Ivers and Emily Armstrong, courtesy of the Downtown Collection.
BRODIE: How old were you when you started hanging out on the Lower East Side and becoming part of the scene? Do you remember the first time you went to Danceteria and CBGB?
PAT IVERS: I was 21 and going into my senior year in college when I first saw Patti Smith perform with a band in 1974. Emily, Patti, and I had all lived on the same block in ’72, ’73. We hadn’t met yet, but I knew who Patti was because she did poetry readings across the street at a church. I was excited when she got a band—when I saw her perform, I knew a new scene was forming, and I wanted in.
EMILY ARMSTRONG: I first went to CBGB in 1976, when I was 24. I had already lived in the East Village for five years, and before that, I came into the city regularly, since I grew up on Long Island and had easy access to NYC. In high school, I was already going to downtown clubs like Cafe Wha? and Cafe au Go Go. I had fallen in love with live music.
What did you want to do with your lives then? Were you interested in film?
PAT: I knew I wanted to work in TV, and that the advent of lightweight video equipment would be my way in. I dropped out of college for a year, lived on a commune that had an audio production facility for artists, and traveled through Asia, so I was ready to focus on something when I went back to finish my education. I got an internship at a public-access program. That’s where I met Emily in 1976. I took her to CBGB, and she totally got it. The next year, we started shooting, and then continued for years. We kept the tapes all these years because we loved making them.
EMILY: After my college internship at Manhattan Cable Television, I was hired there as the public-access coordinator. I loved my job. I met with people who wanted their own cable shows, and my first question was always “What’s your concept?” There were Boy Scouts, pornographers, Yippies, and priests, psychics and astrologers, schools and chefs. No censorship was allowed—if someone got a slot, they just made a show and put it on the air.
[Pat and I] both loved live music and going out, so we immediately hit it off when she started working there. We’re best friends to this day. She’s my downstairs neighbor and the godmother to my kids. I knew that Pat had already taped some bands and that she worked in the production department at MCTV. When she asked me if I wanted to tape some bands with her, specifically the Dead Boys, I thought, Yeah, I would love that! The Portapack [a portable video camera system] revolutionized television—you could shoot video anywhere, and it was way cheaper than film. While people were gushing over the media revolution in books and at academic conferences, she and I were taking it to CBGB.
How did you feel walking into these venues with a video camera?
PAT: Powerful. I couldn’t play an instrument, but I loved music—it was a real passion. With a camera in my hand, no one could confuse me for a groupie. I was working on my own creative process.
What was it like the first time you shot a show?
EMILY: I’m sure I was nervous about our first shoot together, but Pat had shot bands before, and having been on remote shoots of community boards at MCTV, I knew how to pack, set up, and shoot with the camera. So I felt we were able to come into it pretty professionally. We had the keys to MCTV, so for a while we just snuck the cable company’s equipment out at night. Pat directed our first Dead Boys shoot, and I still remember the moment I first saw and heard it, shot really closely and personally in black and white, with amazing sound. It was a rush.
Younger people—like me!—often romanticize a lot of the cool elements of the decades we didn’t live through, especially the music scenes. I can imagine it wasn’t all parties with Keith Haring, though: What were those years actually like? Were the people around you well known outside of the scene yet?
EMILY: Well, we did go to a lot of parties with Keith Haring! [Laughs] In 1980, we were hired to design a “video lounge” for the opening of Danceteria. It was the first time video was featured at a nightclub; they called us “video DJs” The video lounge had its own floor, independent sound system and a bar. Keith Haring and David Wojnarowicz were our busboys.
That year was so much fun. I was friends with coat-check girls who were also photographers, bartenders who were musicians and poets, and all sorts of film and video makers, painters, and writers. Everybody was making art and digging everybody else’s art. But by 1981, I was pretty much out of the scene. Up to then it had stayed small—people weren’t well known yet. For a long time, downtown clubs were close enough that you could see a band at Mudd, share a cab with some buddies and catch another band at CBGB, and end the night at Max’s Kansas City. When we hung at CBGB in the late ’70s, it was clearly a small crowd, but by 1980 when we worked at Danceteria, it had gottten big enough that [the legendary doorman] Haoui Montaug named the crowd “the Fab 500.” Then musicians like Blondie, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, and the Ramones became really famous. After that it exploded.
PAT: We were poor, and there was a huge recession going on in the country, but you could survive on very little, and our luxury expectations were nonexistent. Materialism wasn’t our thing. We walked everywhere, ate at home a lot, and drank cheap beer. There were lots of drugs on the scene, but you picked your poison. I steered clear of the people who were into heroin. Some overdid it, and luckily not all of them died. Same with alcohol. My happiest moments these days are when I see pals from that time who are now blissfully sober and alive. But we lost some good ones—some to drugs and alcohol, and, later, so many more to AIDS. That was a heartbreaking time. Keith [Haring, who passed away of AIDS-related complications in 1990] was a busboy at Danceteria, and what a sweetheart and genius he was. Those qualities usually don’t go hand in hand, but with him they did. There were so many incredible artists and musicians we lost to the plague. It still hurts to even talk about it.