Robin Williams, first punk on American TV

photo by Michael Dressler, 1979
photo by Michael Dressler, 1979

Adolescence, of course, is rife with cravings and disappointments. At the age of 16, I had little idea how satisfaction of those cravings could result in profound disappointment. In 1984, on a family trip to San Francisco, I wrangled a buck or so from my father in order to purchase a cookie from the Blue Chip Cookie Company, just north of Ghiradelli Square. When I emerged with cookie in hand, my Dad reported, “Robin Williams just walked by.”

“Wait, huh?” I gasped. “Yeah,” my Dad said. “Just walked by with his kid on his shoulders.” It was a Sunday night, in one of the most tourist-y parts of the City, and Robin Williams just walked by. I scanned the heads of the crowd to the east of us. No sign of Mr. Williams. I bit angrily into the worst cookie ever.

Let’s figure Greil Marcus is right, and embrace the notion that punk’s virtue resides in its power to negate all that came before, and thereby wrested new possibilities from history. Williams’ Mork, then, was TV’s first punk on this side of the Atlantic. If The Sex Pistols disrupted the order of things with “Anarchy in the UK” and a few choice curses with Bill Grundy, Williams’ Mork on Happy Days (and after) — and Williams the stand-up comedian — represented so much more. Not the Pistols’ return of the repressed, of course, but a decimation of repression altogether. Williams’ capacity for “improvisatory theater of one,” as he noted in an interview with Terri Gross, tore asunder the form of stand-up comedy, and nearly sent David Letterman back to Indiana, as he reports in this touching segment.

Under Williams’ comic genius, narrative gave way to hyperlinked clips, character-to-character-to-character, and heralded my favorite features of the 80s: remote control television, MtV, jump-cut editing, and day-glo attire. Who can forget Williams as Mork with egg in hand, tossing it in the air and, with profound compassion and hope, commanding, “Fly, be free!” His comedy did the same. It was compassionate, and absolutely rife with hope and possibility. Williams’ work affirmed so much, and helped make adolescence much more bearable.

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review from Clash-de-camp, punk and the grey lady

zxHappy, happy June, to you!  The birds outside own the soundscape while I’m typing, but their love calls and dog alerts will give way to a chorus of lawnmowers in just a few hours. A few of you have checked-in anew this week, so it’s great to have you catching the latest news at K-SAT. Certainly the big reviews of Stealing by The Baker, long-time frontline roadie for The Clash, was a nice way to wrap up May (Louder Than War on top, and Daily Swarm on the bottom). I do hope you will share this item with your loved ones and punk comrades from back in the day. Many thanks to The Baker for finding the time to put this review together, and for the kind words about the book.

image -- LTW headline

swarm image

Lots of folks have passed on the word (nearly 500 and counting @ LTW), but do consider leaving a bit of feedback for The Baker at the bottom of either article. Your encouragement is what keeps us wordsmiths going.

In other punk media news, John Holmstrom’s The Best of Punk Magazine is holding steady in amazon sales since its December release, and drawing many favorable reviews.

punk collection

I’m not sure why folks give him flack for trying to pay the rent on a project that didn’t do so back in the day. At $20 for over 300 pages of spirited prose and photos, it’s a fine, fine collection–do let me know, though, if you think otherwise.

One of the key joys of working on the book was spending time talking with key figures from the NYC punk scene, folks close to The Clash, and others, and I can’t offer enough thanks for how generous they were with their time. To show my generosity, though, I want to share some of things I learned while doing research for the book that appeal to a wider audience, and to the writers among you in particular who might be working on your own punk-post-punk chronicles.

As noted in Stealing All Transmissions, Holmstrom and PUNK’s “resident punk” Legs McNeil, and the folks at Trouser Press, Soho Weekly News, and The Village Voice played key roles in setting the stage for The Clash to play The Palladium (3000 seats), rather than The Bottom Line (400 seats), on their first three visits to NYC. The New York Times, too, must be included in this conversation. John Rockwell, who’s about as well credentialed as they come (Harvard, U. of Munich, UC Berkeley)  joined the Times in 1972 as their classical music critic, took on popular music duties and, in this late 30s, apparently in jacket-and-tie, was hanging out at CBGB, The Palladium, and elsewhere, and spreading the gospel via “The Grey Lady,” as the Times was then known.

John Rockwell SO3346

And he was there earlier than most. At the end of 1977, in “Pop Music: Of Women, Country and the Punks” (Dec 25, p. 66), he opens his list of highlights, alas, with accolades for Fleetwood Mac, whom he regards as “popular and wonderful.” (Among the critics he wasn’t alone in this regard–check out the 1977 Pazz & Jop Critics Poll from The Village Voice.) Then, at #8 on the list, alongside the photo montage of soulmates Johnny Rotten and Crystal Gayle, he writes, “This was also the year that saw the beginnings of what may be the next British rock invasion–this time of punk rock. In 1975 and 1976 our attention was seized by the American punks, but not particularly new happened on that front here this year. Instead, we saw the first American performances of artists like the Damned, the Jam, Eddie and the Hot Rods and Elvis Costello–and, if nothing untoward happens, the Sex Pistols will make their American debut before the year is out. And after them will come the Clash, the Vibrators, and many more.”

A-ha! It was Rockwell who put the voodoo on The Pistols! Rockwell, and Robert Palmer among others, chimed in on punk with some regularity and open minds. William Safire, perhaps not too surprisingly, found punk didn’t suit his tastes. In the late 70s, especially, Rockwell was on the scene, and he regularly mentioned punk releases and happenings in his “Pop Life” column.

Like their indy colleagues, Times reporters covered the side projects of their colleagues in radio. Shortly after the demise of the “Elvis to Elvis” format at WPIX-FM, Andy Edelstein penned “How Mass Appeal Makes Rock” (May 18, 1980, p. LI13), which showcased Mass Appeal, the Long Island quartet with guitarists DJ Jane Hamburger (below) and Linda Dering.

mass appeal -- jane h -- 1979

(Here’s the full pic at the photographer’s site.) Edelstein notes, “The band’s music is raw, rough-edged but highly danceable, reflecting the influences of such adventurous English bands as the Gang of Four, the Clash, and the Slits–groups whose records Miss Hamburger played on her show before she resigned in March, when the station adopted a stricter format.” Hamburger submitted her resignation in order to join her friends at the last Clash show at the Palladium. Edelstein gives props to Hamburger’s weekly show on Hofstra University’s WVHC-FM, on which she continued to play a key role in bringing the music of The Clash to tri-state listeners.

Thanks for checking out the rather lengthy post! Have a rock-steady week, and check back on Wednesday for more underheralded post-punk gems!

Here’s a couple of fun tracks by the Slits, and GO4 at Hurrah’s, where Jane and Meg Griffin spun their big-beat mix.