cover image The Downtown Pop Underground

The Downtown Pop Underground

Kembrew McLeod. Abrams, $27 (352p) ISBN 978-1-4197-3252-2

In this astute cultural history, McLeod, a communications professor at University of Iowa, documents the remarkable artistic ferment in lower Manhattan during the 1960s and ’70s. Even as white flight and a collapsing industrial base pushed the city toward ruin, McLeod writes, the chaotic depopulation opened creative spaces for bohemians and long-marginalized social groups. Fueled by a newly assertive LGBTQ community and the broader counterculture, experimental artists reconfigured popular genres and older avant-garde traditions with stunning results. Highlighting transformative artists—Andy Warhol, Hibiscus, Harry Koutoukas, Ed Sanders, and others—and their intertwined milieus, McLeod provides a panoramic scan of a revolutionary era. Assiduously tracing the ebb and flow of influence and individuals among theater (La MaMa’s founder Ellen Stewart), music (John Cage), and film (Shirley Clarke, who co-founded the Film-Makers Cooperative), McLeod depicts a freedom birthed by a DIY aesthetic, technological advance, and cheap rents. He pays tribute to CBGB and the musicians who performed there (Patti Smith, Blondie, and New York Dolls among them), and the most illuminating sections document an Off-Off Broadway where outré figures such as Hibiscus, Stewart, and Jackie Curtis challenged gender norms and performance traditions in ways that resonate through pop culture today. This is a fascinating look at a long-gone New York City art scene. (Oct.)