|Ruth Polsky at Danceteria|
When the members of New Order arrived in New York for their first North American gigs in 1980, they were greeted by a booking agent, a drug supplier, a tour guide and their own personal chef — all of whom were the same woman.
The Brits were just one of dozens of new wave and post-punk acts imported across the Atlantic by New Yorker Ruth Polsky. During her tenure as a talent booker at seminal Manhattan nightclubs Hurrah on West 62nd Street (1979 to 1982) and Danceteria on West 21st Street (1982 to 1986), she was the first to take chances on then-unknown bands such as Simple Minds, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Smiths, the Psychedelic Furs and many more. With disco and rock still dominant in the charts, Polsky had a rare ear for fresh sounds, and took chances in bringing them to the United States before most other club bookers would dare.
She also became den mother for the acts, especially in their greener days. “When we first came, we were missing thick-cut, British-style chips,” ex-New Order bassist Peter Hook tells The Post. “Ruth went out and bought all the stuff you needed, and made us some with the meal she cooked for us. That’s how nice she was.”
Dessert, however, was a little more exotic: “Afterwards, she cut out 10 lines of cocaine,” says Hook. “I didn’t have a clue what to do and I ended up sneezing or something, and blowing the lot off into the air, Woody Allen-style!”
But what Polsky did went far beyond hospitality. Twenty years on from the British Invasion of the 1960s, Polsky’s club bookings sparked a new generation of music Anglophiles. Sadly, she wouldn’t live to see the underground bands she championed hit the mainstream, and she remains a forgotten but crucial figure in New York City’s music history.
Born in 1954, Polsky grew up in Toms River, NJ, as one of four siblings. Obsessed with music from a young age, she majored in English at Clark University in Massachusetts, writing a column for the school paper and even interviewing a young Bruce Springsteen. After graduating in 1976, she landed a job writing for The Aquarian. She moved to London in the late ’70s, reporting on the exploding punk scene for the New Jersey-based alt-weekly publication, gaining firsthand experience of the new generation of British talent.
|Peter Hook (left), Gillian Gilbert, Rob Gretton and Ruth Polsky|
By the time she returned to the US and became a talent booker at Hurrah, her contact list and knowledge were unparalleled. Polsky cut a striking figure on the club scene. With her signature short, dark hair, and a wardrobe that mixed a hippy sensibility with ’80s chic, she was a ball of energy, darting around town until dawn.
She’d even bring the good times home with her, often holding Gertrude Stein-esque dinner parties in her Houston Street apartment, where numerous hip bands would imbibe and socialize — or not, as the case could be.
“I remember being at a party at her place in 1983 when the Smiths were in town,” says Parker Dulany of Certain General, a New York-based post-punk band that Polsky managed. “Morrissey was in Ruth’s bedroom the whole time. Every so often, a hand would come out of the door, it would wiggle, someone would bring him a drink, and he’d go back inside the bedroom. He wouldn’t come out — like Marie Antoinette! He was such a prima donna!”
For the musicians who decided to brave the dangerous streets of 1980s New York, Polsky was also a shepherd and a guide.
“Ruth was a tough girl,” says Smiths bassist Andy Rourke. “After our gig at the Danceteria in 1983, me and Mike [Joyce, the band’s drummer] were walking back to her place. We heard gunshots and ambulances — we were s–tting ourselves. But Ruth said, ‘No, don’t worry, that’s nothing!’ ”
Some people didn’t strike Polsky’s fancy quite as much. While at Danceteria, she crossed paths with a pre-fame Madonna, who was then working coat check.
“Ruth said she was always a bitch, and not a nice person!” says her younger brother Bruce, with a laugh.
Polsky wasn’t afraid to mix work with pleasure, and it was sometimes to her disadvantage. In his new memoir “Substance: Inside New Order,” Hook admits to having a tumultuous affair with Polsky.
“She wanted a long-term relationship, [to] settle down and have kids, but I treated her really badly,” the bassist bluntly tells The Post. “I was such a typical young male. I would be on the lookout for pretty girls, and if I couldn’t find any, I’d find Ruth at the end of the night. I broke her heart on several occasions.”
As well as her prominent role in the careers of both New Order (who will play Radio City Music Hall in their current line-up in April) and the Smiths, Polsky guided Certain General to huge success in France and was looking to build their profile domestically. On Sept. 7, 1986, she had booked the band to play a record-release show and AIDS benefit at the Limelight in Chelsea, when tragedy struck.
Dulany had arranged to meet Polsky outside the venue. But he forgot his guitar and after going back to get it, finally arrived at the Limelight a few minutes late. When he got there, he saw carnage. A livery car had run a red light, hitting a yellow cab in the intersection at West 20th Street and Sixth Avenue. The cab had spun out of control, and was now propped up on the wall of the Limelight.
“It looked like a Scorsese movie,” says Dulany of the scene. “There was glass and s–t everywhere. The cops were just getting there. I heard someone saying there was a girl underneath the cab.”
Suspecting it might be Polsky but unable to ascertain the victim’s identity, Dulany and his friends went inside the Limelight and began searching for Polsky. “It wasn’t like her to be late, so I started racing around the club, grabbing every short girl with dark hair to see if it was her.”
Even though there was no sign of Polsky, a frantic Dulany and Certain General still played their set. Afterward, Dulany began walking home to his East Village apartment, using every phone booth on the way to call her apartment. He stopped at a bar to gather his thoughts, and sat down next to Alan Vega — singer in proto-punk duo Suicide, who had heard about the incident, and was also a friend of Polsky’s. “I said, ‘I’m out of my mind with worry.’ Alan said, ‘Yeah I know, I heard it might be Ruth.’”
The next morning, Dulany was summoned by Polsky’s business partners to identify a body. When he got to the morgue, he immediately recognized who it was.
|The band Certain General on a train to London as Ruth explains articles about the group in the British press.|
“They hadn’t cleaned her up yet, and I could see something on Ruth’s face; it was either oil, or some kind of skid mark,” recalls Dulany. “She seemed so much smaller. I started swooning, pushed my way out of the office, and slammed a door so hard that it shattered. It was possibly the worst experience I’ve ever had. A lot of my friends say that if I hadn’t forgotten my guitar, either Ruth would be alive, or we’d both be dead.”
In Toms River, police told Polsky’s family in person. “My dad collapsed on the lawn,” Bruce says. “He never really recovered from that. I think Ruthie was his favorite child.”
Polsky was just 31 when she died. Reports of the incident were published in New York City newspapers and Billboard published a small obituary.
At the funeral in Toms River, a busload of New York City musicians and industry people turned out to pay their respects. “It was so crowded, and there was a pile of bouquets sent from people who couldn’t be there,” says Dulany. “They were from Spandau Ballet, Simple Minds, Eurythmics, all the bands you could think of.” New Order would play a full tribute show for her at the Roxy in December 1986, with proceeds going to the family.
Sadly, Polsky died just as the alternative music scene she championed was starting to break through. In 1987, Echo and the Bunnymen and New Order co-headlined an American arena tour — the latter even scoring a Billboard Top 40 hit with “True Faith.” The Psychedelic Furs were also peaking with singles such as “Heartbreak Beat” and “Pretty in Pink.”
Her loss to the music world was huge, but to Dulany, the personal loss was far greater. Although Certain General still perform, he admits he became rudderless after Polsky died.
“To this day, it really bothers me that she died working for me,” he says. “She was my believer, so when she died, part of me died. I never had a dad, never had a big sister, but she was both.”
Phull, Hardeep. "The forgotten New Yorker who changed the '80s music scene." New York Post. February 07, 2017. Accessed February 12, 2017. http://nypost.com/2017/02/07/the-forgotten-new-yorker-who-changed-the-80s-music-scene/.