Explore Rock and Roll New York City

City Travel, Cultural Travel, New York City — By on February 9, 2012 at 12:00 pm
By Rachel Khona
Special to Lost Girls 

Joey Ramone PlaceWhen most people think about rock stars, the first place that comes to mind is the Sunset Strip in L.A. Or perhaps the “Swinging” London of the Sixties.

But if you really want a whiff of rock music’s dirty history, it would remiss to leave the Big Apple out of the equation. Before Carrie Bradshaw and Mayor Giuliani, when the cab drivers were still scared to go past 2nd avenue, New York was rock’s playground.

The music erupting out of New York in the sixties and seventies not only formed an integral part of New York’s history, but altered the cultural and musical landscape worldwide. Yet most tourists milling about the streets of Manhattan with its trendy boutiques, coffee shops, and star-studded restaurants have little idea of the stories that lie beneath. One of the best ways to discover New York’s much storied rock and roll history is to walk around the city, pounding the same pavement that many rock stars treaded in times past. So put on your Converse or Doc Martens and get ready to channel your inner rock star. Here are seven of New York’s best known rock landmarks.

tenement  building led zeppelinThe physical incarnation of Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti Album Cover

Tenement Building; 96 and 98 St. Mark’s Place

The critics may have panned them, but Led Zeppelin is undoubtedly one of the most influential and ground-breaking bands of all time. Known as the forbearers of hard rock, they also incorporated everything from blues, to folk, to country, and even reggae. Their sixth album, Physical Graffiti was no different.

The album cover features a photograph of a New York City tenement building specifically chosen for its symmetrical details and lack of obstruction by other objects. The front of the album shows the building photographed in the day while the back shows the same building at night. But all was not perfect. In order to fit onto a square album cover, the fourth floor had to be cropped out. A top railing had to be erased as well. But the work paid off, as the cover was nominated in 1976 for Best Recording Package. When you’re done posing for pics in front of the building, grab a cup of tea at the café located at street level aptly titled “Physical Graffi-Tea”.

The scene for New York Dolls first album cover

Gem Spa; 131 East 2nd street

This East Village institution has been around since the 1920s, but it wasn’t until 1957 when it received its current name, Gem Spa. It quickly became known as a hippie hangout in the 1950s, famed for its extensive underground and foreign newspapers and magazines.

While celebrated figures like Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsburg were known to patronize Gem Spa, its rock cred comes from being associated with the New York Dolls. The glam/punk outfit was photographed outside Gem Spa for the back cover of their self-titled first album. With Dolls’ teased hair, heavy makeup, and skintight clothing, they both endeared and alienated people. Nonetheless, they did serve as a major influence on many bands in various genres from punk rock to hair metal. They also helped spawn the punk rock movement in New York and were an active part of the seventies rock scene.

Pose for your own version of the album cover outside and then go inside and order an egg cream. Gem Spa is also became well-known for its egg creams, a beverage made neither of egg nor cream. Egg creams are actually concocted from chocolate syrup, milk, and seltzer water.

cbgb clubSite of the most famous rock club in New York

CBGB’s; 315 Bowery

Standing for “Country Bluegrass Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gourmandizers”, (it’s full name was CBGB & OMFUG), this little club ironically became known as the epicenter for the American punk and New Wave movements. Not only did the Ramones get their start here, Blondie, The Talking Heads, and Patti Smith all played here as well. In later years, CBGB’s would become more closely associated with the hardcore movement, seeing bands like the Cro-Mags, Bad Brains, and Gorilla Biscuits take to its stage and wreak havoc.

Unfortunately a 2005 rent dispute between the late owner Hilly Krystal and the Bowery Residents Committee caused Krystal to close the club breaking the hearts of rockers worldwide. After CBGB’s shuttered its doors, menswear designer and lover of all things rock, John Varvatos announced a store would be opened in the sacred spot. Promising to stay true to the spirit of CBGB’s, much of the graffiti covering the toilets has remained along with the original playbills that decorate the walls. Sneak back to the “Extra Place” a secret alley where the musicians hung out between sets and lived up to the phrase “sex, drugs, and rock n roll”. These days the alley is home to places like taco joint Oaxaca and clothing store Montana Knox, with plans of it being turned into a pedestrian mall.

The block dedicated to a punk rock legend

Joey Ramone Place; Corner of East 2nd street and Bowery

Despite limited success on the commercial front, the Ramones are still considered one of the greatest bands of all time and the godfathers of punk rock. Rejecting the over-produced music that surrounded them in the 70s, the Ramones opted for a rougher, louder, and faster style that not only gave birth to a new musical movement but to a whole new subculture.

After Joey Ramone passed away from lymphoma in 2007, punk rockers everywhere mourned his passing. As a tribute to the punk legend, New York City officially renamed the block of East 2nd Street between Bowery and 2nd Avenue “Joey Ramone Place”. It’s the same block where Joey Ramone once lived with bassist Dee Dee Ramone and coincidentally around the corner from CBGB’s. The sign bearing the name “Joey Ramone Place” is one of the most stolen signs in all of New York, with die-hard fans eager to have a piece of their idol and a piece of music history. In response, the city decided to raise the sign from the normal 14 feet above street level to 20 feet above to deter theft. Drummer Marky Ramone later remarked that he thought Joey Ramone would have appreciated the fact that his sign was the most stolen.

Where Bob Dylan performed first in NYC

Café Wha? 115 MacDougal Street

This legendary café was Bob Dylan’s first stop upon arriving in New York. Dylan had left life behind in his native Minnesota for New York in the hopes of playing with his idol Woody Guthrie. He did eventually find Guthrie who was hospitalized for Huntington disease and who continued to influence Dylan as he struggled to break into the music business.

After getting the OK to perform by Café Wha? owner at-the-time Manny Roth, (who coincidentally is David Lee Roth’s uncle), Dylan took to the stage performing a series of Woody Guthrie songs. He came back frequently playing his harmonica and belting out tunes. Along with Dylan, Café Wha? has also seen the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Jimi Hendrix, and Peter, Paul, and Mary on its stage. These days you can catch a variety of different musical styles performed by their house bands at this historic music venue.

A few blocks away at corner of Jones and West 4th street you can see where Bob Dylan and then-girlfriend Suze Rotolo were photographed for Dylan’s second album The Freewheeling Bob Dylan.

Jimi Hendrix’s studio

Electric Lady Studios; 52 W 8th St

Originally planned as a music club, Jimi Hendrix and his manager Michael Jeffrey soon decided the space would be better off as a recording studio. In its previous incarnation, it had been Generation Club, a favorite rock venue of Hendrix. When it closed, the duo decided to buy the club. Hendrix was always looking for the perfect studio and they could charge large fees for recording at the studio, bringing in a pretty profit and serving as a hangout for his friends.

The studio was designed with Hendrix in mind, with round windows and a psychedelic theme to bring out the best of Hendrix’s musical talents. He did much to popularize the use of electric guitars influencing not just rock bands but hip hop artists with his heavy sound. Unfortunately the guitar god would only spend four weeks there during the final phases of construction. He soon left for London to perform at the Isle of Wight festival and died a few weeks later.

The studio still serves as a working recording studio and has seen everyone from Carly Simon, to The Clash, and Guns N Roses to modern day artists like Rihanna and Christina Aguilera record.

John and Yoko’s Humble NYC Abode

105 Bank Street

Before shacking up at The Dakota, John Lennon and Yoko Ono rented this small unassuming two-bedroom apartment from Lovin’ Spoonful drummer Joe Butler in 1971.

The Beatles had fought, made up, married, re-married, made their mark and conquered the world with their catchy pop-rock, but by 1970 the band had broken up and their final album Let It Be had hit the shelves. Lennon’s second solo album Imagine had just been released in 1971 and was doing relatively well on the charts. Lennon became increasingly politically active, with the tracks “Imagine”, “Give Peace a Chance”, and “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” becoming popular anti-war anthems.

The apartment in the still not-so-gentrified West Village and near the Hudson River allowed Lennon to keep a low profile. But not from the U.S. authorities. An effort to deport Lennon by the Nixon administration ensued due to Lennon’s anti-war stance. This resulted in their building coming under constant FBI surveillance. When their apartment was robbed, the duo knew it was time to go. They left and moved in the more secure Dakota in 1973 where he lived out his last fateful days.


Rachel Khona is a writer and sometimes performer living in Brooklyn. She has written forCosmopolitanInkedAmerican Way, Ask Men and Your Tango among others. She has also been interviewed for radio shows “Broadminded” and “Los Originales”, as well as How About We’s Date Report.  In her spare time, she like sliding down rainbows, red wine, Axl Rose, and chasing imaginary squirrels. For more, please visit her website www.rachelkhona.com


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