A City Loses Its Voice

The Village Voice was The Map to The Kingdom of Outsiders

The Village Voice

We can recount the life and death of The Village Voice, names and dates and headlines mournfully recited, as if they were inscribed on a tombstone. But this is well covered elsewhere. For me, the legacy of the Voice is not in what we know, but in what we feel.

I am far more interested in establishing this: In the days before the plurality of the Internet and the instant accessibility of all cultural artifacts, alternative weekly newspapers and college radio were our talking drum. They took the rumors of revolution in art, music, and politics and made them available for examination. These were the Farmer’s Markets where we picked the future when it was still ripe.

I wrote for the Village Voice regularly between 1981 and 1984, starting when I was just 19. The legendary Robert Christgau was seeking someone who was a little younger than the music journalism establishment, and who could write about artists that the other critics weren’t covering at the time: hardcore punk and metal, the Lower East Side noise bands, the artsier British groups who were considered too fey for the relatively parochial rock critic mainstream. Christgau was immensely encouraging, actually sweet, and it was an enormous honor to work for him and for The Voice. But this is not what I am here to talk about. I am hear to talk about this:

The Village Voice gave us the Map to the Kingdom of Outsiders.

Friends, where were you when you began to search for the Kingdom of Outsiders?

Were you staring at a glowing Zenith in dull Babylon and the opening of WOR’s Million Dollar Movie promised a Manhattan full of lite-brite magic and wide Checker Cabs speeding under streetlight moons? Or were you under the low-skies of Eastern Ohio where long roads split loamy, living farmland and dead steeltown, and you were killing time at the 7-Eleven when you caught a glimpse of thick eyeliner around almond male eyes on the cover of CREEM?

Or was the low winter sun weakly pissing light on suburban streets in Lake Forrest, and Lance Loud flipped his hair and half-smiled with his lips just a little apart, and you felt something inside of you that you had never felt before? Or maybe it was “What Do I Get” hissing through a scratchy radio signal on the left-end of the dial, barely heard as your sister and her friends chatted about Dynasty?

Or was it when you and a college-bound pal a grade ahead of you held a Mateus-and-Lipton Soup sleepover just so you could see the Dolls on Midnight Special? Or perhaps it was that afternoon between Social Studies and Algebra, in a screeching, sibilant butter-colored middle school hallway, when and you caught a glimpse on a t-shirt of the profile of perfect Fallen to Earth Bowie, hair the color of rust and fire?

And you knew, you knew (first gradually, then constantly, then obsessively) that anywhere was better than here. You knew that somewhere out there lay a great city, shimmering with golden lights and stinking with sin, waiting for you.

We were bifurcated souls: Our fingers and the dull but functional parts of our brains prepared for SATS or The Mikado or the Haftorah. But in our minds we were putting on make-up in shambolic bathrooms in a magical night-land called Downtown. In our minds, we were tuning guitars in narrow East Village apartments (we had never been to one, but since we had read Orwell’s Down And Out in Paris and London, we thought we knew what one might look like). In our minds we were pounding our fists on tables in imaginary cafés on perfect snowy Sullivan Street days, arguing with turtlenecked women and terribly thin, beautiful boys about Baader Meinhof and George McGovern. Heck, we might even discover what all those words in Fear of Flying actually meant.

We knew we belonged in a land called Anywhere But Here. All we needed was a map.  

The Village Voice was the map to the Kingdom of Outsiders.

The Village Voice, which died last week a few weeks short of its 63rd birthday, was the Field Guide to Finding Us. It filled our head with ideas and it made us angry and inspired. It told us where we would find the strangest foods and the most sinister bands. It helped us to find the noise, ideas and art that would allow us to draw, in electric chalk, cheap liquor, latex and leather, our souls; And the sparkle and splatter of these newly-drawn souls would fill sidewalks and subway stairways, downtown galleries and Avenue C cellars, aisle-wide West Village restaurants and narrow movie houses full of Wenders and Ray.

The Village Voice gave us Our City.

I spent my formative years of invention and discovery speeding and screaming through New York City, following the compass of my heart and the map provided by The Village Voice. We danced in Chuck Taylors through shuttered, shattered Soho streets clutching 45s by the Undertones and the Fall and stopping for an egg cream; we were an effeminate gang in tight black jeans rushing to catch the crumbling AA train at Columbus Circle in order to get back to the dorm before dawn; feigning poverty and tatters, we sat up all night smoking Merits in the supersexual light/darkness of West Side Piers floating over the moon-capped Hudson, grinning at glowing boys and contemplating James Chance and the Wooster Group; we saw punk rock angels staggering down 3rd Avenue illuminated by the cool red light of Variety Photoplays.

We were finally Us.

It was unthinkable not to pick up The Voice and scan the ads for Hurrah, Maxwells, Danceteria, TR3, The Peppermint Lounge, The Thalia, the Bleecker Street Cinema, Theater 80 St Marks, Dance Theater Workshop, PS 122, King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut and plan your night, the next day, the next night, the next week, your life in The Kingdom of Outsiders.

And lest we forget, The Village Voice was also the first alternative city weekly. The First. This is huge. These alternative weeklies, these objects that folded in half like a tabloid newspaper and left blue and ash-colored smudges of newsprint on your hands and which had Nick Cave or Doug Sahm or Laurie Anderson or Ann Magnuson or John Waters or Elizabeth Holtzman on the cover, were absolutely essential to life in the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, and even a little beyond. They were the Mother Road for arts, entertainment, and politics; and when you came to a new town, you would reflexively pick up one of these to get some idea of the heartbeat that would make you feel at home and help you find other Seekers of the Strange, Sexy, Loud, Artsy, and Beautiful, no matter where you were. You would open up Creative Loafing, The LA Weekly and The Chicago Reader, The Boston Phoenix and New Orleans’ Gambit, The Aquarian Weekly and Durham’s Indy Week, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, The Stranger in Seattle and The Flagpole in Athens, The New Times and The Reader in Los Angeles, The Soho Weekly News in NYC (which I actually preferred to The Voice, but that’s another story), The SF Weekly and Philadelphia’s City Paper and The SF Weekly, The Georgia Straight in gray, heavenly Vancouver and The City Paper in humid Columbia, South Carolina, etcetera

And you would know that there was other people here just like you.

Today we live in a land with so many maps, that we are map-less. Because the Outsider Lands are available at just at the touch of a track pad, many people think the Kingdom no longer exists. When there is no mystery, is there no sexy? When there is no obscurity, is there no outsider?

But the Outsider belongs to the Heart. Nothing will change that. Anywhere some child sees Johnny Weir on TV and thinks, I am not alone, I could be him one day, the Kingdom of Outsiders is waiting for them. Anywhere someone hears Taylor Swift or Adam Levine and thinks, The music they constantly play says nothing to me about my life, the Kingdom of Outsiders is waiting for them. Any place someone thinks, Everywhere I turn I see bigotry and ignorance, but my mind is full of strange, long words and the magic of every possible love, the Kingdom of Outsiders is waiting for them.

I am sorry that these future Princesses, Princes and They-cinces in The Kingdom of Outsiders will not have a map like we did, like The Village Voice. But every time someone thinks, and thinks hard, “I am born in the suburbs, but I am from the City,” they will find the map, in whatever form they need to find it.

Regardless of my many, uh, accomplishments, 35 years after my last piece appeared in the Voice I still think of myself as, “Someone who wrote for The Village Voice.” This is, certainly, because I knew the power of that legacy, the power of being one of the people who, in some very small way, helped draw the map that would lead others to The Kingdom of Outsiders.

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Tim Sommer

Tim Sommer is a musician, record producer, former Atlantic Records A&R representative, WNYU DJ, MTV News correspondent, VH1 VJ, and founding member of the band Hugo Largo. He is the author of Only Wanna Be with You: The Inside Story of Hootie & the Blowfish and has written for publications such as Trouser Press, the Observer and The Village Voice. Learn more at Tim Sommer Writing.

2 thoughts on “A City Loses Its Voice

  • September 4, 2018 at 4:15 pm

    Tim: a great read from a legendary newscaster of that time-as you were in the thick of it only as far out there for us Outsiders’ taste. Thanks for this soulful bunch of words to return to-bookmark: true us mop-its WE WERE RAISED BY THE V V- here u conjure the feeling of Wednesday’s-“Is it out yet excitement: and so much more to ponder!”-SLF


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