Lucid Culture


In Memoriam: Central Park Summerstage

Oldtimers will tell you about the time they saw Springsteen here in 1974. Back then the concerts were held on the 72nd St. playfield. The sound was so loud that Eastsiders would routinely call the cops and complain.


Another generation will tell you triumphantly how their college buddy can be seen in the crowd on the cover of that awful Simon & Garfunkel album recorded here in the early 80s. Chances are that even if they don’t like the band, they bought the album as a vicarious souvenir. Willie Nile’s blazing 1981 set here was also recorded and released several years later on cd.


In the 90s, corporate creepiness settled in, with the Summerstage series’ pompous producers subjecting crowds to a litany of commercial announcements before every show. But it was still a destination that just about every New York music fan made it to at least a couple of times a year. The Master Musicians of Jajouka, immortalized by Brian Jones on their 1968 cult album, played their first-ever US show here on an unseasonably cold, drizzly afternoon. Reggae fans still speak in awe of the Ernie Ranglin/Monty Alexander show here in the late 90s. Whatever pretentious vibe the producers gave off, there can be no disputing their legacy of imaginative, eclectic and occasionally transcendent shows.


It wasn’t 9/11 that changed things so drastically, although that doubtlessly contributed to the series’ rapid decline. Ecstasy was the culprit. Although this had traditionally been a music series with the occasional dance performance or poetry reading, in 2000 they started booking non-musical acts where dj’s would plug in their equipment and blast computer-simulated percussive noise. After a couple of highly publicized overdoses, a labyrinth of wire fences that doubled as holding pens was built. Prospective concertgoers would have to cool their heels there, packed in tightly for sometimes for hours on end before being allowed to finally enter the concert space. There were ways to beat the system: you could show up precisely at showtime, or wait for a rainy day when the turnout would be predictably light, but if you wanted to see a popular act, you either had to show up a half-hour before the gates opened, or, most likely, you simply wouldn’t get in. Not that you’d want to; the early zeros were a wasteland of boring, trendy indie rock, the occasional NPR-style world music act du jour, and of course the non-music events that all the druggies went to.


This afternoon I decided to check to see how viable Summerstage is this year and the bad news is that it’s not. It’s over, folks. I got there at five on the nose. The back bleachers, which are now reserved seating for corporate sponsors, were completely full (by the way, don’t forget that this is your tax dollars going to pay for free shows for corporate bigwigs and their spawn, most of whom could afford their own private show by whoever’s playing here). The standing-room area was visibly about half-full. And the rent-a-pigs who do security here weren’t letting anybody in. There was a line 500 deep, virtually all well-dressed white people. A little incongruous, since it was  Ivory Coast reggae act Tiken Jah Fakoly who was scheduled to play next. And then it hit me: the Ivoirians were hip to this. They stayed home.


If this had been the 70s, the hippies would have bumrushed the stage. If it was the 80s the punks and hip-hop kids and West Indians would have done the same thing. Was it the Reagan era that changed things, that turned the crowd completely docile, oblivious to the fact that they were being treated like cattle? No. It was the crowd itself. As recently as a few years ago, people came here because it was free, quite possibly because they couldn’t afford to plunk down, say, $60 to see Monty Alexander at the Blue Note, or $35 for the Master Musicians of Jajouka at Town Hall, or if they liked David Poe but didn’t feel like shelling out for the $10 cover plus a two-drink minimum at stuffy, overcrowded old Fez.


Those people aren’t coming to New York anymore because they can’t afford to. It’s a new paradigm and a new crowd, suburbanites from across the nation who’ve never experienced the great times New Yorkers could have here til recently.  If you remember those days, hold onto those memories because you won’t be making any more of them.


[postscript: there is a happy ending. Lucid Culture published its first review of a Summerstage show the following year, followed by others, and there was never any problem getting in. While it’s still a good idea to show up early, the ridiculous lines – at least when the gates open – seem to be a thing of the past, as are the Nazi security gauntlet and labyrinth of wire fences that made it next to impossible to see shows here during 2006-07]

June 17, 2007 - Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Rant


  1. Hell, the David Poe shows at the Fez were some of the best nights I ever had — and 10 bucks at “stuffy, overcrowded” Fez sure beats 20 at uptight Joe’s Pub or unseated at the Bowery Ballroom. But he’s more popular now than he was back then.

    The corporate giveaways and commercials are there for a simple reason — they pay for it. Yeah, there’s a modicum of tax dollars at work here, but Summerstage has always begged for money to cover their costs.

    Now, more than ever, corporate interests have taken up the slack. And, aside from American Airlines’ logo being on the banner, it’s not like Halliburton is putting on the events: it’s alcohol companies (who always attach to summer concerts) Gibson Guitars and, of course, Starbucks.

    Should NY have a flourishing, free summer music and arts program? Absolutely.

    But the reality is that lots of people refuse to pay for music anymore, whether they’re downloading free tracks from myspace or conveniently avoiding the tip jar at some stuffy, overcrowded LES club.

    I don’t know about shows in the 1970s and 1980s, but my recollection is that Summerstage was always packed and the cops were always dicks and we had fun anyway. Summerstage hosted one of the greatest double bills ever, over 10 years ago: Sonic Youth and Sun Ra.

    Comment by Splendo | June 19, 2007 | Reply

  2. The root of the problem is budget cuts in tandem with corporations spewing bucks like an open fire hydrant. The more the corporations give, the easier it is to veto the entire Summerstage budget.And then the suits from the outlying, out-of-state collar counties own it. And their kids can program it. Fall Out Boy at Summerstage? In our lifetime? Bet on it.

    Same thing is happening all over NYC. Did you know that there’s a Washington Square “conservancy” trying to take the park private?

    Comment by delarue | June 19, 2007 | Reply

  3. […] is a lovely lovely post of Delarue’s over at Lucid Culture…  about Central Park’s Summerstage… […]

    Pingback by Summerstage: a gentle amble… « Marisacat | June 26, 2007 | Reply

  4. Wow… Sad post about Soundstage.

    Squeezing the life out of soundstage, squeezing the middle/lower income folks out of apt space- its all part of the same ugly ball of wax.

    Like so much else in this city: Corporatized, homogenized, and indicative of the welcome mat rolled out to the rich only, while the rest of us get priced out. And the perpetual-springbreak people roll in and roll out, to enjoy our bar dominated streets, and perhaps, the new and devolved SoundStage. (Bars and the big box/chains are the only businesses left that can afford the obscene rents, so they mestastisize across our cityscape. I dislike looking at entire stretches of blocks now, recalling what was, seeing what is – product of soulless capitalism run amok.)

    This afternoon/evening is the protest at Cooper Union, btw, against the new rent raises. The Bloomberg-appointed board will be there, with the ragtag protesting crowd in attendance, booing them all the way. I went last year, and will go again today, possibly, although my work schedule conflicts.

    Hey, at least its fun, and there are likeminded people who raise a ruckus re this fiefdom outrage in NYC, 21 century style.

    Battle cry: Home Rule (rent guidelines made by city, not state) must rule again. Take it out of the state!

    MET Council

    (MET Council is a very good tenants org – Ive used them in past with good results. Know the paper’s editor, neighborhood guy)

    Comment by NYCee | June 26, 2007 | Reply

  5. I’ll stop by on my way home from work NYCee – it’s only a few blocks away.
    Indeed it is sad. I’ve been chased out of two neighborhoods over the last 13 years by gentrification [the EV and the LES]. In another couple I’ll probably be chased out of South Williamsburg as well. I miss the community gardens, the sleepy locals & even the gutter punks in the summer.

    Comment by lucidculture | June 26, 2007 | Reply

  6. Oh good. Great.

    Here is another thing, sent to me by a pal who attended the June 10 DC protest with me. Her friend organizes these musical events/Jazz for peace (profits to peace groups). This is the last one of this series. You might want to check it out after you attend the tenants rally for a bit, because it is a hop, not even a skip away – On Bowery/Bleecker St. I am working but will try to squeeze in if I can. My friend said the last one was fantastic. There is a charge to get in, $8, but it goes to peace peeps.

    Here is the emailed info from JAZZ Means Peace:

    “This is the final week of the six week “JAZZ MEANS PEACE” series. We would really love to go out with a bang and we hope you can make a special effort to come out and thereby strengthen the chances of doing another series in the Fall. It can’t happen without your support.

    This week we feature another talented young saxophonist John Ellis.

    One of the most exciting tenor saxophone players on the current jazz scene, he can be heard around town
    with his own group as well as a sideman with a numberof excellent ensembles. Originally from North Carolina he comes to New York by way of New Orleans.
    Here in the Big Apple he has connected with the city’s finest jazz musicians. He has also been around the globe, performing in Asia, Europe as well as Africa on a State Department tour. As both a composer and a musician, Ellis is part of a fresh vanguard of jazz players carrying the music forward to a new generation of jazz fans.

    The Peace Organization we are honoring this week is that great group from Brooklyn, BROOKLYN PARENTS FOR
    PEACE. They have been around since 1984 and have been\ at the forefront of every effort in opposition to U.S.
    militarism in NYC. From nuclear non proliferation, the 1980s wars in Central America, the Arab Israeli conflict, the first Gulf War, and now the wars in
    Afghanistan and Iraq, Brooklyn Parents For Peace has always understood the underlying connections between
    social and economic justice issues and war. Whether they are organizing demonstrations or cultural and
    educational forums they have distinguished themselves as one of this city’s richest resources.

    JAZZ MEANS PEACE is a weekly jazz series dedicated to building a permanent alternative peace culture by supporting Peace Organizations and celebrating
    America’s unique classical musical art form JAZZ.

    Tuesday June 26th, John Ellis Quartet, honoring BROOKLYN PARENTS FOR PEACE

    Bowery Poetry Club, 308 Bowery@ Bleecker st., 8pm-10pm
    $8 cover + 1 drink
    info: 718-843-0515

    Comment by NYCee | June 26, 2007 | Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.