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Talking Heads at the Dr. Pepper Central Park Music Festival, August 27, 1980
there's good points and bad points.
When I took the Metro-North train from Stamford, CT into Manhattan to go see Talking Heads on a Wednesday in late August of 1980, I wasn’t expecting anything except the four people who put out Fear of Music, which had come out the previous year. I walked up Park Avenue, turned left at 57th Street, entered Central Park and walked over to Wollman Rink. This location was, as the name hints at, a skating rink that in the summer was turned into a concert venue. It originally started as the Schaefer Music Festival back in the 60’s1, and you may already be aware of this locale depending on your personal frame of historical musical reference; for example, it is the place where Bruce Springsteen opened for Anne Murray in 19742.
The queue for concerts at Wollman formed in a chute between two metal railings - one was park fencing, and the other was similar piping that created a pathway, like a line at Coney Island. The entrance for the concerts was the entrance for when it was actually used as a skating rink in the summer, a stone staircase that went down several flights to rink level. Someone always had a radio or a boombox. It was mostly shaded by overhanging trees so you didn’t get too much sun and if it rained lightly you were mostly okay. But you had to be okay with rain if you went to shows at Wollman because there was literally nowhere to hide. I once brought a tarp to use as a shelter and all that happened was that I ripped the corner when there was a line surge, which usually happened an hour or two before doors when someone invariably showed up and tried to cut in the front, and that’s when everyone packed up their shit and compacted the line to try to prevent that from continuing to happen. It’s a long fucking time to wait only to have a couple jabronis show up at 3:30pm and think they can just join the line wherever they find a gap.
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I had been sitting on the ground waiting for a couple of hours when we heard what was definitely the start of soundcheck and not just the roadies getting set up. I decided it was a good time to take a bathroom break, because the facilities that were made available to the folks who camped out all day waiting to get in was a Central Park “comfort station” on the overlook to Wollman Rink, the area that was known as the balcony. For $3, instead of the ground-level $5, you could sit on wooden bleachers and enjoy the concert. It was where I had sat the first time I saw a show at Wollman Rink, when my Jewish Center Teen Day Camp took us on an outing to see a concert. It happened to be the Bee Gees, which at the time was kind of a big deal. It was not my jam but I did pay close attention to everything and filed it away for future notice.
“I’ll be back, watch my spot,” I told the people sitting on either side of the line from me. People were reading or reclining on their bags and napping, or standing around chit-chatting. Mostly we answered the interminable inquiries from tourists walking by:
“What are you doing?” “We’re waiting to get into the concert.” “What time is the concert?” “8pm” “How long have you been here?” “We got here at 10 (or 8, or 11, or whatever time it was).” expression of shock appears
It could be a very long day if you had the energy to answer these endless inquiries from tourists. And yes, it was always tourists. Any New Yorker walking by was on their way somewhere and either already knew or didn’t care, so they minded their business and kept walking.
I’m not sure if the balcony was legitimately open for the use of line denizens / tourists or if we just didn’t ask and walked in because it was open. Probably a combination of both. I attended to the call of nature and walked over to the edge of the overhang where a small group of excited people were watching soundcheck. There was a woman standing there wearing a shirt from the Heatwave Festival, which was held in Canada just a few days earlier. It had been advertised as a new wave Woodstock kind of thing and given the lineup (see below) I had tried to get permission to go, which I was given -- until I asked my mom where my passport was. My dad said “yes” assuming it was, like, somewhere in upstate New York, not that I was going to be crossing a border. I’m not sure why that element of it was bothersome given that he’d already told me I could go to a festival, but I decided not to push it and risk losing privileges already extended.
There were a lot of people onstage, far more than the four people who were the members of Talking Heads. I listened as the woman in the Heatwave shirt explained that Talking Heads were now ten people, including Adrian Belew, Nona Hendryx, and Bernie Worrell, and that they sounded “unbelievable” but “very different.” All of that became clear when they checked “Take Me To The River” and it was closer to Memphis than the Lower East Side. It was so much to process at once and the people watching had a variety of reactions - shock, awe, delight, and disgust (remember, we’re only a year out from Disco Demolition, and a lot of dumb people equated obvious rhythm and/or black people with disco back then). I was trying very hard to not explode that ADRIAN BELEW PLAYED WITH DAVID BOWIE and, you know, be cool. Then I listened to the start of “Life During Wartime” before hurrying back. People will watch your space but only for so long, you know? And if there was a line surge I might be able to get my spot again but I might not.
Luckily the situation was just as I left it. “What’s going on,” asked one of my neighbors. “Who’s soundchecking.” This was my time to shine. I had information. “Well, apparently, Talking Heads have expanded their lineup.”
Now I had everyone’s attention. I literally did not know anything more than I had eavesdropped on, but that was more than everyone else had. When I got to the Adrian Belew part, some guy said, “Oh, he played with Zappa” while six of us snapped “AND BOWIE.” The secret club handshake. The six of us were now instant friends.
I cannot stress enough how this was all happening in a time where information moved slowly. It was 1980. The only way we were going to hear anything about what happened to a “new wave” festival in Canada was if we knew someone who had been there. If it was covered in the music press, well, we’d all have to wait for the next issue of Rolling Stone or CREEM to find out, which meant anything from a week to a month out. Ostensibly some DJ could have attended or knew someone who did, but again this was 1981 and mainstream radio was barely playing Talking Heads and most of the DJs acted like it was an affront to their dignity to have to do so. There were fan networks, but they were print ‘zines or you met people at concerts and exchanged phone numbers. You knew who was in the band when you got to the concert and the band walked onstage. I’m not going to stomp my feet and declare that it was “better,” it just was how it was. Despite the thousands of hours of live Bob Dylan available to anyone who would lift one finger to look for it, there are still people who attend his live performances in 2023 and are shocked and affronted that he does not sound like he did in 1968. So I’m not sure it honestly makes that much difference.
I spent much of my July and August of 1980 sitting in that exact spot in the queue for Wollman Rink. I knew it existed because I had come here the previous year to see the Patti Smith Group. I had found out about that from an ad on the radio, and I did the thing where you called the radio station because I missed the fine print because my reception was bad. It wasn’t until I went to Korvettes3 to buy tickets that I realized it was an entire concert series. I scanned the listing and saw so many bands I would have killed or died to see -- The B52s were opening for Talking Heads, Blondie, the Ramones -- but I didn’t even try because I had to leap through hoops of fire to be allowed to go see Patti Smith.
This year, they both got their own headlining spots in a week where Monday was Talking Heads, Wednesday was the B52s, and Saturday was the Pretenders. (I need to point out that Roxy Music was on the Friday night and I wasn’t going to push my luck by trying to add a fourth concert in a week I was going to three and looking back on it now I obviously should have gone to see Roxy Music but I was sixteen years old and it’s not like this was Roxy with Eno or even Roxy in the early 70s, cut me a break please, I literally could not go see everything I wanted to see.) THIS DID NOT SUCK. Tickets cost FIVE DOLLARS. (Even with inflation that’s about $20.) This is why in 1980 I watched for the announcement of the concert series and took the train into the city, walked up to Korvettes somewhere in the East 50’s, and bought tickets to like 12 of the shows that year. I had a part-time job which went to full-time in the summer and even with putting 75% of my weekly pay away towards college I still had enough money to be able to afford all of this. I could not understand how this was at all possible and how everyone in the world was not going to these concerts.
I do not know, at all, how I managed to convince my parents to let me just take the train into the city by myself to go to these shows. I know I outright lied a bunch of times and told them I was going with friends / friends would be meeting me there / “Remember Marilyn from Girl Scout camp, she lives in New Jersey, she likes this band”. I wasn’t worried about being on my own at any point, ever. I was incredibly diligent, but honestly, I was walking out of the park when everyone else did, and then I walked straight down Fifth Avenue to 42nd Street, took a left at the library and headed down to Grand Central. I always walked up Park Avenue on the way there because you could cut through the Pan Am Building and save a few blocks on the walk, and then I could go into the Waldorf and use the bathrooms, because in 1980 you were not using the bathrooms at Grand Central4.
I also want to note that at no point did my parents blink an eye when I said I needed to go into the city early for an 8pm concert. I don’t know if they quite understood that I was sitting in Central Park the entire time but no one ever asked what I was going to be doing in the 8 hours between taking the train and the start of the concert. I may have conveyed this information in a straightforward enough tone that they just assumed it was what people did (they didn’t figure out that most people didn’t go to multiple shows on a tour until after I had moved out of the house, luckily none of my siblings followed in those particular footsteps). I appreciate, also, that my parents did try to give us basic life navigation skills which included the knowledge of how to handle oneself in a large city. Dad grew up in Brooklyn, Mom grew up in Chicago. And honestly, I was more frightened of going to the bathroom in my high school than I was of going into New York City by myself.
I didn’t know anybody else who liked the music I liked and even if I could convince my friends to come with me they were not coming into the city hours in advance to get a good spot to see the Ramones, Ian Hunter, Todd Rundgren, Peter Gabriel, or Joe Jackson. I even bought a ticket to see Al DiMeola because the people in high school who were considered elite music fans talked about him all the time and I kept trying to like music I did not like in the hopes that I would be perhaps considered slightly less weird and my everyday existence would be slightly more tolerable. It did not help, but I am always glad for an opportunity to see music I am unfamiliar with, because as I tell younger folks, “Finding out what you don’t like is just as important as finding out what you do like.” I never had problems talking to random people I had just met (for the most part still don’t) and by the end of the summer I was a regular who knew the other regulars and the security guys and the ticket-takers and the people who handed out the free buttons and the people who worked concessions.
I wish I could give you a detailed account of the Talking Heads show, but the only thing I remember is dancing my ass off on top of my folding chair, along with everyone else in the place. I had a good spot towards the front and remember turning around and seeing all of Wollman Rink getting down. It was not quite as vivid as it was for the B52’s, where it was literally every person in the place jumping up and down, even all the way up in the balcony bleachers, where the scalpers would go sit with the tickets they couldn’t sell, and we caught them dancing around just like we did. (They still suck. Fuck them.) I had never seen Talking Heads live so I had nothing to compare it to, but it was definitely looser and more fun than I expected. I don’t know why I thought the band who sang “Psychokiller” wouldn’t be fun. David Byrne introduced the band halfway throught - I remember him saying something like “We’re a little different now” but thanks to the magic of those guys who were sneaking their tape recorders into shows I know it was “We’re not like we used to be any more,” as he introduced the new lineup.
The reason for this trip down memory lane was me trying to remember how many times I had seen Talking Heads (at least two, maybe four times) while waiting for the Q&A to start after the IMAX premiere of Stop Making Sense last week at the Toronto International Film Festival, with all four members of Talking Heads in attendance together, at the same time, in the same place, a thing that has not happened for decades. I saw the Stop Making Sense tour at the New Haven Coliseum; as someone who did not own a car and required my parents’ permission to use one of their spare ones (no i’m not bitter) it was the best option for me that particular year, even if it remains one of the worst venues I have ever been to with the most over-the-top and violent security I have ever dealt with aside from the shed in Hartford, which I do not think is a coincidence! The remastered SMS is an absolutely stunning piece of work. It is a joy to experience again and if you never got to see it, go go go. The sound is loud and immersive and multi-dimensional in the best ways -- Jerry Harrison commented that he thought that given the advances in technology from the last time they reworked the film, that they should take full advantage of it, and they absolutely did. (Tina Weymouth thanked him for doing such a good job, it was adorable.)
I wish Spike Lee had been…. marginally more prepared, or that they had given the interview to someone who was. It was fine, just not great, and given this was literally the first time the four of them have been together in decades, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that we get someone who isn’t borrowing from Chris Farley’s interviewing style or whose main contribution was appending the term “great” or “love” in front of every mention of someone who contributed to the film or the process. Maybe this is what they could get everyone to agree to. He was great when he was discussing filmmaking, but he tried to imply that the film borrowed from Prince’s Sign O’ The Times (when referencing the logline that SMS is ‘the greatest concert film ever’ which i am also not sure about) until someone from the audience yelled 1987 when he asked when it came out.
The film is different than anything that had come before it in the concert film genre, because Talking Heads were different than anything that had come before. They gave Jonathan Demme carte blanche and he loved the band, saw multiple shows, and had the luxury of being able to have his team map out every single song in advance, as the band related Monday night. I don’t know that I agree that it is the best concert film of all time because in my opinion, it wasn’t meant to convey an audience’s perspective of the performance, but it was about capturing and interpreting the performance through Demme’s lens. It doesn’t mean it isn’t amazing, but I always chafe at unconditional superlatives. It is phenomenal for sure.
I recommend the big screen, in-person experience if you are able to swing it. It is not the same as seeing it on your laptop, as David Byrne himself noted. I appreciated Spike Lee’s shoutout to midnight showings at the 8th Street Playhouse, ground zero for these kinds of things back in the day (the best was the double feature of The Kids Are Alright and Rock and Roll High School, although rumor had it that they had to discontinue that pairing because people were getting rowdy and damaging seats). I wish Talking Heads would go out and play together but I’m less militant about insisting that people who have decided they don’t want to do that anymore do it anyway to make their fans happy. Stop Making Sense is almost as good as seeing them if you can go see it in large format with great sound and the proper volume levels. The audience in Livonia cheered and danced and I still got that little frisson of pride during the “this ain’t no Mudd Club/or CBGB” line that I used to get when I’d hear “Life During Wartime” and know that I knew what those places were.
1980 was the last year for the concerts at Wollman Rink; it moved over to the West Side, on a pier between the Circle Line and the USS Intrepid, and only lasted a few more years before ceasing to exist. It was a terrible location for shows in just about every way: too far west, nothing nearby, incredibly dirty from the river and the West Side Highway, and basically a concrete slab with some chairs on it, a bunch of porta-potties, and a stage at one end that baked in the sun all day. But I did take advantage of the incredibly affordable tickets and saw three nights of the Clash, Elvis, Squeeze, the Go-Gos and the Specials, Ian Hunter, Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul, Adam Ant (who took advantage of the location to arrive on a pirate ship), Culture Club, and is the only time I ever saw Frank Zappa, in one of those “this is someone I should see perform live even though it’s not my particular brand of tea” moments. I could afford to do this even though I was a broke college student. There’s nowhere that will ever happen again.
Hilly Krystal was one of its founders, along with OG promoter Ron Delsner. RIP
You can guess how that worked out.
They were a discount department store, below Macy’s but above Caldor’s, and I understand that means you have to be of a certain age for this to mean anything, but in current parlance it’s probably closer to Kohl’s or Penny’s.
This is what my mother did every time she took us into the city, telling us “just act like you belong here” and so that’s what I did.