It's always a rare and special feeling to explore the collection of an informed enthusiast. I got that feeling in a completely different context, tripping over hoarded shards of Roman antiquities at the John Soanes Museum. I also felt it, exploring David Byrne's Music Library at the Southbank Centre. I went there with a musical friend who harboured a similar sense of awe with that place. We sat together at a round table with our respective stacks of specialist music books, carefully flipping over pages in silence. We agreed that it was absolutely imperative that we return, but unfortunately we never managed to go again.
There was a particular emphasis on the fact that these were David Byrne's, the books he used as research for his musical publications. My friend and I jabbed each other when we found his Todo Mondo bookplates or else little handwritten notes in the margins. It was a varied collection, encompassing books about world music, recording technology and the psychological effects of music. I could see that we had a different approach to music but I still took delight in the slightest overlaps with treasures in collection: Literally, The Faber Book of Pop, Revolution in the Head, Musicophilia and a few others. In any case, I gravitated towards the books that featured grainy high contrast photographs of the New York underground.
I spent an awful lot of time with this one book, reading personal accounts of what it was like to live in New York City between 1977 and 1979. Each anecdote covered similar kinds of details, the idea of moving into a huge, run down old factory in a dubious part of town. The extremely low cost of living was always cited, particularly in light of the gentrification that would follow. The typical names were featured as you'd expect, stories of wild nights with Blondie, Richard Hell and Television and the reader was made to feel as if they'd really missed it all. It was all over and there was no way we could make up for that dreadful cosmic loss.
It was a familiar device in musical storytelling, that overwhelming sense that you missed this important scene. It was used extensively throughout the BBC6 Music's tribute to Larry Levan, Legends on the Dancefloor. It was an unusual piece in that it included lengthy and seemingly unedited interviews, fond anecdotes from DJs and club attendees. The interview subjects described the physicality of the place, what it was like to walk through the entrance and to walk up the stairs. They described the array of juices and drugs, the queues and the films they projected. It's an intensely visual piece that I very much enjoyed, but saying that, I was filled with those familiar New York scene sentiments: you couldn't understand what it was like if you weren't there.
Some veterans do not to say this so explicitly, but occasionally you can catch the sentiment on film, when they gesticulate wildly towards an abandoned club. Perhaps our sense of exclusion is generated by the vibrancy of their personal account. Whether it is the punks or the disco dancers, there appears to be a consistent hoard of people who manage to recall their scene with a profound level of detail that extends far beyond the antics of just one night, it goes towards the significance of the space itself. It suggests that many of them were paying attention, mutually appreciating the significance of that place and moment.
I have often smirked at those jibes that I missed out on whatever went down in New York. Whenever I'd come across one of those statements, I'd think that I never would have been able to fit in anyway, it simply wasn't my place. I can see now how it can be seemingly impossible to convey the importance of a physical place at one specific time. I realise now, since I am constantly dolling out anecdotes of growing up in an intensely musical household, jamming and discussing music with people who genuinely cared in the same way I did. I can say that no one else would understand the nature of our in-house music, but I would never mean for it to be a swipe at anyone. It's just a statement of truth: no one could ever know what it was like, except for us.