Harlem River Drive-By Truckers

Twice a week I ride from the Upper East Side to Washington Heights, passing Crack Is Wack Playground on the left and Randall’s Island on the right as FDR Drive turns into Harlem River Drive. And twice a week I ride back. As I go north in the morning, the urban-tough cityscape of El Barrio is to my left. There’s a rose in Spanish Harlem, I suspect it’s a yellow rose you’ll have to search around for, and if you don't know your way you probably should be careful where you look.

And no doubt East Harlem (or Spanish Harlem, or El Barrio) was as tough or tougher in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Situated parallel to Harlem proper, New York's original Spanish-speaking neighborhood became one of the great admixtures of Latino and African-American culture, more culturally miscegenated than East L.A. if newer and arguably less artistically bountiful than New Orleans (although with salsa and tons of hip-hop to its credit, it’s an argument worth having).

I'm surprised to note that only after World War I did Latinos (primarily from Puerto Rico) begin to populate East Harlem, ultimately displacing the Italian enclave along the river. It wasn’t until the early to mid 70s that Afro-Cuban rhythms similar to those adopted in the previous century by New Orleans artists like Jelly Roll Morton (who imbued jazz with its own peculiar Spanish sensibility) became incorporated into a new, wholly Hispanic pop form. Only salsa turned the tables, pulling jazz (often of the cheesy variety) and top-40 song structure into a musical gumbo of Afro-Cuban derivation.

Something other than the same old clavé must have come before salsa and after the music of Cuba and Puerto Rico arrived to Manhattan. Part of this intermediary story is boogaloo, which began to suck R&B and Louis Jordan-style jump blues ska-like into the Latin groove. By the early 70s so much more was going on in semipopular music, and it’s impossible to believe that some of these influences didn’t creep the few blocks over to 110th and 3rd. I’m positing a secret history of salsa whose epicenter I just discovered in an album (and band, I guess) called Harlem River Drive.

Let me hedge my argument by emphasizing that I’m making this secret history up—I’m not going to pretend there is a musicological defense. More than that, how many forty year-old albums are there out there that I’ve never heard or even heard of and that are actually worth hearing? Very few, so this is a party I'm way way late to. In February I picked up a copy of the Village Voice on York Avenue and paged through “The 50 Most New York Albums Ever”. There at number 7, sandwiched in between the first Velvet Underground album and Horses, was Harlem River Drive. Never heard of it and figured that the current Voice staff who curated this list were just being downtown-cool (Gil Scott-Heron’s Pieces of a Man, at #2, I knew to be a hit-plus-filler dodge).

Yet I tracked down Harlem River Drive on CD (a 2010 Stateside/EMI reissue that goes for over $100 these days ) mostly just to say I told you so. One listen quickly turned into a dozen until I became convinced I’d been drawn by that Voice article to the La Brea Tar Pits of East Harlem musical heritage.

Point of reference: Harlem River Drive sounds nothing like salsa. Which says so much about the secret El Barrio musical polyglot I want to believe in circa 1971, when the album was released, especially since salsa mainstay extraordinaire Eddie Palmieri and his slightly lesser brother Charlie were among the future stars of Latino pop and 70s jazz who made up the pre- and almost anti-salsa “band”. “Band” intentionally in quotations. Did they ever play live? Who commissioned this record? And most importantly, why?

Harlem River Drive does sound like: Dr. John’s Gris-Gris, “Spill the Wine” (in a limited way, early War was doing something similar from the West Coast), What’s Going On (especially lyrically), Bill Withers, and In A Silent Way. Plus, and now I’m stretching big time and reflecting on my own personal experience in a taxi going up to Washington Heights, some kind of Latino Kraftwerk, shouting out to their neighborhood as they avoid the potholes and scan the graffiti on the East River ride. Available for download (and, at a tougher price-point, 180-gram vinyl, so I must be right), you need to explain to me what salsa would be like with more electric Miles and fewer brass tuttis. Something like this I bet.