The Group Image may be the reincarnation of the Manhattan Indians. It is as if they came back after three centuries, looked around, grumbled “You did everything but sink it,” and set to work getting the ecology straight again. They have an intuitive feeling for New York, as the Grateful Dead have for Haight-Ashbury, as the Hopi have for Taos. Somehow they thrive amid the soot of Second Avenue. Somehow they emerge intact from wheeling and dealing and hustling in the Establishment fortresses. The premium energy of New York is somehow combustible—with or without additives— in the Group Image engine.
The Group Image defies labels. It’s a tribe. It’s a multiple media orchestra. It’s an open-ended group with a penchant for anonymity that falls roughly between USCO and the Family Dog. “We’re living Marshall McLuhan,” a member explained. A nucleus of about twenty hardcore members contribute for the rent for a loft of Second Avenue, which serves as an energy center for Group Image projects ranging from posters to light shows to mass humming sessions. When two or more gather together and start to hum, they will probably be joined by twenty. The hum rises to a crescendo. The ceiling quivers and an enraged Chinese waiter runs up from the restaurant downstairs.
Sound unites the Group Image. Although only a few are experienced musicians, the tambourines, bells, and foot-stomping of the whole family are essential to the sound. “Music is a tool toward a new way of life,” one said.
They break most of the rules of the music game. “We don’t warm up. We don’t tune up. We don’t do anything like that. It’s just sort of a mass sound that starts to happen.” They don’t play in sets. When the music stops, the dance is over. A core musician plays until he gets tired and another takes his place.
Their ambition is to destroy stages everywhere and turn people onto themselves. They want to bring audience involvement to the final phase where the distinction between entertainment and audience dissolves, where the audience, in fact, entertains itself.
“We don’t want the audience to get into our thing; we want to help them get to their own thing. We’re a catalyst.”
There’s a feeling of “oneness” in the Group Image. They came together by accident or intuition. They are artists, dancers, musicians, high school dropouts, college graduates, a few kids, a few dogs, a cab driver. “We need more women though,” one complained.
The tribe usually gathers at their loft in the late evening. The Group Image is open to any obsessions and their projects are myriad. Silk-screened campaign posters—the Abolafia for President campaign, the Plant Your Seeds campaign—are spread out drying, while an assembly line turns out more. A case of bubble gum, an anonymous gift, lies open on a drafting table. A sign on the walls reads: “Come to Charlie’s Trial. Bring Flowers.” — Don McNeill’s Moving Through Here (1970)
R. Crumb for Gothic Blimp Works no. 8 (1969).
The hippies are unique in that they borrow freely from all the other cultures. They may buy groceries at the supermarket, bread at the kosher bakery, late night soda at the bodega. And, to the bewilderment of their neighbors, the hippies contribute a culture of their own to the scene. Starting with ominous dress and long hair, and extending to stores for books, beads, and psychedelic props, boutiques are opening in long-vacant storefronts—all on the same streets, alternating in the same apartments. The worlds continually overlap without touching.
Bohemia has flourished on the East Side. The rents are low, leases loose, the neighbors apathetic. You can furnish your apartment from the street Wednesday night, when furniture left over from an eviction is put out for the Thursday morning garbage pickup. You see a lot of sofas on Wednesday night—all without cushions. The cushions, portable and comfortable, are the first things to go.
The Far East is a neighborhood of newcomers, and the atmosphere is tense, dissatisfied, with an air of betrayal. Few people arrive on the East Side expecting the smell of urine in the hall, or a view of a backyard filled with garbage. Cover the windows, bolt the police lock, and forget you’re on the Lower East Side—unless you hear noises on the fire escape, or your toilet is down the hall, or you’re dying for a cigarette at 3 a.m.
“I feel safe until I get past the park,” a dark-haired girl said. “But the block between B and C is horrible. Then I walk fast.” Neighborhoods are judged at night. And night is the worst part of the Lower East Side. Night is when you lock the door and hold the fort. If you want to go anywhere, you’ll have a hard time. Cabs avoid the Lower East Side. The bus is infrequent. If hunger strikes, Second Avenue may be a long walk. If you live near Avenue D, you may settle for a trip to the bodega.
—From Don McNeill’s Moving Through Here (1970).