Monday, October 23, 2017

Tales of Times Square: The Tapes

Author and musician Josh Alan Friedman was working for Screw magazine, covering the Times Square beat through the late 1970s and early 80s, when he wrote the cult classic Tales of Times Square.

Recently, he dug up the tapes he made from that time--interviews with the denizens of the old Deuce--and turned them into a podcast. Tales of Times Square: The Tapes takes you back in time through the voices of "strippers, old fighters, burly-Q men, peep show girls, hustlers, cops," and one man who ran the penny arcade at 42nd and 8th since 1939.

I asked Josh a few questions.

All photos via Josh Alan Friedman's blackcracker

You've had these tapes for decades. What inspired you to digitize and turn them into a podcast now?

Two years ago people started asking if I was involved with The Deuce going through on HBO. So I offered to contribute but they wouldn’t take our calls. My wife, Peggy, said, "What about all those cassettes you recorded back in Times Square?" Stacked on the wall among hundreds of others. I’d forgotten about them, just scratch tapes. But she told me to digitize them before they dissolved. I’d just finished my last album, working from Logic Pro on my home computer. So I was able to formulate a podcast. I’m still not sure what’s workable, but I’ve managed six episodes so far. It’s spinning off differently than Tales of Times Square, the book. Hindsight and the fate of these characters.

What will people find in the tapes that they can't get from the book?

It’s startling to hear the ghosts of old Broadway come back alive. Voices were different then, like Edward G. Robinson or Cagney, see. Unnerstand? That beautiful New Yorkese, the Damon Runyon lingo you might remember from Guys & Dolls.  

Tales of Times Square came out in ’86, after a decade spent covering the Square. It’s had four different editions and a cult following--some of these readers are giddy to finally hear the actual voices—as well as seeing their pictures on the podcast site,

Seedy old 1970s Times Square is enjoying a revival, especially through The Deuce. What do you think it is about that place that draws so much interest?

Right after the Times Square Redevelopment Corp. and the Shuberts finally condemned the theaters on 42nd street, they approached the great Broadway composer, Cy Coleman. They were rebuilding the New Amsterdam, the Lyric (Foxwoods), and The Selwyn (American Airlines Theater). They told Coleman they wanted to designate the whole street for musicals only, get people back on 42nd Street. Coleman said he had a great idea. Great, whaddya got? Pornography.

His hit musical, The Life, played the Ethel Barrymore in 1997. Pimps and hookers, all singing, all dancing. Right after they’d eliminated all of it from the street. A future episode of my podcast is with Cy, who we lost a while back.

Nostalgia is easy once the danger is gone. During the years I spent in Times Square, I felt the dying embers of Old Broadway, a century of show biz, which was invented there. I loved the old days. And I guess I also loved the incoming Live Nude Girls, the peeps and burlesque; the way it intersected and cross-faded with old Irish bars and delicatessens, the faded glamour and Joe Franklin’s office. High life and low life, side by side. Of course, some of it descended into utter depravity on the street. What I hoped for was a compromise. Dial back some of the depravity, but keep a red light district in Times Square. Even if just one block, say 42nd between 6th & 7th, keep just one block for the millions of us who require a little decadence to stay sane. The city can have 50,000 other blocks for corporate domination and chains. But no, they had to bulldoze everything, to get rid of the social ills. No more ghetto entertainment or sex or urban spontaneity. A whole culture eliminated.

Why do you think people today are so nostalgic for 1970s Times Square? Is it a response to something lacking in the present moment?

The grit, the grime, and the attitude have been wiped clean. Is it possible that some millennials are beginning to realize that this total corporate domination and soulless architecture has a downside? Like no more wild west--which is what Times Square was. Pornography is not sex--but Times Square sex was a lot more interactive than internet porn. Neon is more beautiful than Godzilla-sized computer graphics. (But even neon was considered ugly and crass in the 1940s, by an earlier generation that preferred incandescent light bulbs). I say skip the nostalgia and bring it all back.

Listen to the tapes here.


  1. Having been a merchant sailor repatriating often through ole New York, I can tell you how good for me was Slime Square ~ ah those were the daze. ~

  2. Old Times Square was always an adventure - sex, drugs, violence, everything... fondest memory was seeing Pink Floyd The Wall and after leaving the theater and walking in the rain along 42d street. I remember the Show Palace peep shows, live sex acts - I was about 16. What a trip. Also a friend was mugged at the Playland in '77 (geez, who wasn't mugged there?)

    Over the decades since the 70s I've seen it change into a Disneyesque caricature of life in America not specific to NY at all but instead a tribute to the bland corporate masters at hand, with only a tribute of bright lights to the past.

    It's easy to reminisce, but it was pretty bad back then - still I wish for a little bit of that NY soul back.

  3. It's lovely to hear about private collections and archives coming alive. I know they exist. There are things that become lost to the stream of consciousness of the calendar (like, for instance the 1980's New York Experience about which little seems to have been saved even in video or audio). When quite young I came to New York with my parents at least twice, still in the age of double-breasted suits on children. My mother and I explored what would have to have been Playland (with the fortune teller, the mechanical baseball game, the broken record booth, and the submarine periscope game where you torpedoed enemy ships). I thought it was on Broadway, so the Eighth Avenue arcade may have been it or something different. I can still remember the age of the city, strangely - the layers of paint on everything, and the sense that adults still ran the world - very comfortably for the young person I was.

    To experience Times Square now is to know that it has been successfully pitched in favor of a Las Vegas strip - deeply commercial and priced to match. It's not particularly pleasant to walk through. In the 80's the Deuce could be scary, but Broadway always had that little Carvel store, a little Walden's Bookstore, the giant Nathan's - places that still left you feel anchored and safe, assured that some things would go on. Luckily, I saved my last ticket stub to the Loew's State. Wish I had saved the Loew's.

  4. See an older Jeremiah post

  5. I played in Times Sq. My entire life. As a thirteen year old Yonkers kid running around with my buddy's messing with the working girls after WHL game at the Garden. We would walk up 8 th ave to the deuce. walk to 7 th and pick up the 1 train at 51 st and Bway for the ride back to South Yonkers.Its was like exploring a foreign land. I became a cop in the early 80s working in the MTS pct. I watched it go from the tough and gritty and out right dangerous adult playground, Controlled by organize crime. To the restoration of the of the sq and the deuce. New York has become a world class tourist destination. And the new Times Sq is a driving force behind this renaissance. The old SQ had character that corporate America could never reproduce or would want to. But in the end,the more things change the more they stay the same. Now you get proposition by ELMO and Barney instead hookers and drug dealers. I liked the ladder better.

  6. Thank you for this interview. I am a huge fan of Josh Alan Friedman. Interesting bit of trivia. Pee-wee, who he interviews, can be heard in US3's hip-hop hit from the 90s, Cantaloop.


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