Monday, April 16, 2012

A Very Short Memoir of New York In the Sixties

In the fall of 1966, after bumming around Europe for a year-and-a-half, mostly with my old college roommate, Tony Riggs, I felt it was time for another sniff of the ‘States, so I returned to New York and rented a little flat on Sullivan Street in the West Village. 

These days, with the cost of real-estate in Manhattan being what it is, that building is probably inhabited almost exclusively by Wall Street bond traders and the sons and daughters of Arab Oil Sheikhs.
Back then, it was packed with young, single people, all equally as poor as I was, and all equally engaged in the youthful pursuits of the time. (If no one else knows what I’m talking about, I’m dead certain that Tim Hallinan does. So, if you’re clueless, write and ask him.)
Lots of folks erroneously think of the sixties in New York as marked by youth obsessed with sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.

This is mostly due to misinformation generated by Hair, a musical now largely forgotten, but responsible, at the time, for giving all of us a bad rap.
In actuality, the sixties in New York was a time when we, in the West Village, used to spend a lot of our time sitting around discussing Schopenhauer, Spengler’s Decline of the West and the writings of Marcel Proust.

 Barring the occasional and obligatory protest, of course.
Ask Hallinan. He’ll tell you.
But I digress.
I was far more sociable in those days than I am now, and as soon as I’d bought a bed (which for some weeks was to be my only piece of furniture) I set about looking-up old friends.
One of them was a fellow by the name of Mike Marcus. And, although I could be mistaken on this, I think he was the guy who introduced me to Paula Unger.
Paula, I soon learned, owned a guitar and often lugged it around with her. This, fact, initially caused me some concern, because there was another fellow I knew who did the same thing. But he couldn’t really play the damned thing, couldn’t sing worth a damn and never wrote a piece of music in his life. And, although no one ever asked him to play, he always did it anyway.
Paula, I was relieved to discover, was different. She actually had a gift. And I loved listening to her.
But then, the wanderlust hit me again, and I left New York, never to return. Europe led to South America, South America to Australia.
Years went by.
Flash forward to 2012.
I was visiting Mike in his home on the West Coast of Florida, and he showed me a copy of a demo that Paula had cut, after I’d left the ‘States, in the hope of selling a few of her songs.
It was vinyl, an LP, he had nothing he could play it on, and it was in a pretty dreadful state.
But Tony, the aforementioned old roommate is possessed of a good deal of audio equipment and he knows how to use it. So I borrowed the disk and sent it to his home in Maryland.
He cleaned it up as best he could, transferred it to digital, spent a lot of time editing out the pops and clicks, and sent the files to me via the internet.
And thus it was that I got a chance to hear Paula Unger’s youthful voice again after an interval of more than four decades.
Paula lives in San Francisco now and, as I write this, has no idea that I've put two of those songs up on the internet.
And this post is her Wakeup Call.
Good on ya, Paula!
Leighton - Monday


  1. Are you a great friend or what! Just imagine the look on her face. And the songs are terrific.

    Thanks for bringing back the memories, not of Paula, but of the times.

    Times that are gone forever for one very simple reason: Legislation that essentially did away with NYC rent stabilization and drove out so much of the young, creative energy that made Manhattan neighborhoods--like the East and West Villages--unique. Nevermore.

    1. Jeff,
      Ya know, that's something I never thought of?
      That rent stabilization thing.
      So that's what happened!
      Thanks for the input.
      Nevermore indeed.
      Very sad!

  2. What a great idea! I hope you share her reactions!

    1. Hi Stan,
      Since you asked, here's an extract from an email Paula sent me:

      Wow! I am in a total tizzy. Love the piece. Love what you’ve done with the YouTube posts where you tell the story so simply and sweetly. I think I’ll be walking around with a grin on my face for at least a few days.

      Thank you so much for this wonderful experience. It’s not often we get to travel back in time in such a lovely way.

  3. Great piece Leighton. But I'm confused - what were these youthful pursuits speak of, and why is Tim the expert?

    1. Hi Dan,
      We...well, I say, ask Tim.

  4. What a lovely voice Paula Unger has! It is unfortunate that the masses didn't get to appreciate her. I could only open "Window". On "Gentle Breeze" there was just that black screen and the spinning thing that is supposed to indicate it is loading. The loading was never accomplished.

    My children can't believe I didn't go to Woodstock. They don't understand that my friends and I were the first members of our families to attend college. They don't understand that we managed it on loans and three jobs. I think they missed out on something by not having to pool change on Friday afternoons so everyone could get a cup of coffee before heading off to one of those jobs. We didn't engage in too many of thoe "youthful pursuits because we were too strapped for cash. This does not mean we didn't socialize or that we didn't have fun, but it was different.

    The 60's were different and I wouldn't want to go back. It was the decade of assassinations and each one left a hole too big to fill. I missed being able to vote in 1968 but it wasn't the election we all dreamed of anyway. On the east coast, we went to bed believing that Bobby Kennedy was the sure fire candidate and we woke up to learn he was dead. I hope God protects this country from another time like the 60's.

    If Hallinan was living in California in 1968, he had a front row seat for the dissolution of the American dream as envisioned by the first wave of the baby boomers. Bit I don't think I want to ask him about it.

    1. Beth,
      I haven't had the same trouble you did with "Gentle Breeze". But, if the link doesn't do it for you, try copying the URL and pasting that in to your browser. It's worth the trouble, I promise you.

      Ah, working one's way through college!
      Now that's another whole story.
      I never really "felt" poor in NYC.
      But in college...

      I don't think kids do that anymore either. Full-time study and a full time job at the same time.

      My other old college roomate is a university professor these days. And he claims that the academic standards were lowered at the time of the war in Viet Nam because many professors wanted to help keep their kids in school and thereby avoid the draft. (I guess the girls got a free ride.) It's his opinion that the standards never went up again and that, at most institutions of higher-learning in the United States, it's actually easy to get an undergraduate degree today than it was in the early sixties.

    2. I don't think students can work their way through school because tuition is so high. Even state universities can cost about $30,000.00 plus books.

      I think your friend is correct in his opinion that it is easier to get into college and to get a degree than it was in our day. I think,in part, it has become thought of as a right rather than a privilege earned through effort. Admissions standards were lowered over the course of time because the seats have to be filled. A university is a money pit.

      All schools aren't created equal. A degree from an Ivy League school is worth it's weight in alumni contacts. My kids collectively have spent many weekends in Ivy League dorms visiting friends. Their consensus of opinion is that kids at the Ivies are no smarter than kids at any other school. The only group they find to be above the norm are the students at MIT. Except for the kids who are legacies, students who get into the top rank schools are more driven and I know more than a few cases where that was not a good thing.

      An undergraduate degree today is the equivalent of yesteryear's high school diploma. The smart kids today learn a trade and then get a degree in business.

  5. You are a really good guy. I mean, even better than we already knew.

  6. Brought back memories of a time when students were charged .25 cents for the host/hostess to buy "refreshments" for a party.

  7. Charlotte,
    Ah, yes, that too.
    Thank you for that little reminder.

  8. I always knew my aunt was a special gal, and oh how I loved her stories of NYC and the havoc she caused!

    Proud niece of Paula Unger,

    Debbie Britz Ivany

  9. Havoc, Debbie?
    Oh, yes, there was some of that too.
    But I didn't think it was for a niece's ears.