I had the good luck to interview punk idol James Chance for an item that will appear in the NYP’s Bash Compactor this week about a gig he and the Contortions played at PS 1 Saturday. One of the interesting things about chatting with him is that he’s a favorite character from one of my most treasured books, “Please Kill Me.” So, inevitably, I guess, our conversation came around to his old gang, which he doesn’t really see that much anymore, and his bygone downtown. Like many people lately, he expressed a sense of shock at how foreign the present is.
When I got off the phone with him I felt more down than ever about the state of New York and images of glorified seed and decrepitude floated through my consciousness; shopping for Keds at ramshackle Ritchie’s on Avenue A when I was little, waiting on a long line to score on 13th Street during the day and watching films projected on the wall across from 2A late into the night.
I was pained by the disconnect between the monochromatic late 70’s, when I was born, and the hyper colorful present -- there seems to be no bridge between then and the now, except for guys like Chance, holed up in reliquaries with their memories, walking down streets that have become unrecognizable to them.
Chance is luckier than many of his friends and contemporaries though – Anya Phillips, Nolan and Thunders, Quine, Dee-Dee, the marble index is long and depressing; kids that went on playing in the street far too long: more afraid of growing old than dying. They never knew they were doomed until it was too late. I envision their last days of innocence and wince.
Johnny, probably the toughest of those motherfuckers -- a street kid from Queens -- played until the end; in those last croony Japanese gigs, backed up only by a sax and drums, he’s bug-eyed and green, almost too weak to stand. As he cried out softly and plaintively during a late version of “So Alone” with Lure… “Oh, God.”
Then my generation descended on the still darkened wreckage of East Village bohemia in the 90's -- sniffers mostly -- appropriating punk tastes and habits but taking money from our parents too, eyeing both camps suspiciously all the while and having it both ways. We gave our older bros a pound and paid them to cop for us but turned them down when they needed a warm place to stay. Could you blame us for keeping safe?
I should leave JC out of this, but we’re both fortunate. Anyway, he has a new track out, “Incorrigible,” remixed by post-punk stalwarts Liquid Liquid. Check it out.
Brave New York is an hour long free form riff that purports to be filmed from ‘88 to ’03 -- the footage was shot mostly within a few blocks’ radius of St. Marks. There is filler and some scenes fall flat, but there are also powerful images that embody the changing nabe from ’96-‘03.
The experience of watching the film parallels that of living in the East Village at the time; even though one knows what is going to happen (the hood is going to flip), the seeming constancy of familiar surroundings lulls you into complacency. In both cases, suddenly, the burden of specific images hips you to the fact that things have changed irrevocably. In the film it is watching a dimly lit exterior of an upscale modern restaurant and a pretty yuppie with high sandals walking down Avenue A. What should have been obvious becomes clear -- NY has passed you by. You better change or become an anachronism.
Street people have a high profile in the film and to the average contemporary Manhattan viewer the filmmaker’s sensibility is an outsider’s one. Glamour and glitz are only glanced at fleetingly with disdain and that’s probably the most nostalgic thing about the documentary.
“Off the pigs, this is a song about killing cops” Stza Crack, lead singer of anarcho-punk band, Leftover Crack, yelled to a legion of several hundred punks gathered for a concert in Tompkins square park late Sunday afternoon. The all-day concert, with a line-up also including thrash punkers Witch Hunt, and Stza's side project Starfucking Hipsters commemorated the 20th anniversary of the riots there. With his bellicose introduction, the lead singer launched into their pop-inflected anthem “One Dead Cop.” The crowd, mostly in there late teens went wild, crowd surfing, moshing and waving 40’s of malt liquor in the air while singing along to the chorus of “kill cops, kill cops.” Two boys in blue, NYPD's sole representatives near the stage area, stood leaning against a nearby-fence chatting placidly. As Chris Flash, publisher of the Shadow said on stage the week before, "these are not the same cops as 20 years ago."
Leftover Crack gave an energized, infectious performance with almost no barrier between the band and the audience. It reminded us that despite a flag burning, and the half-baked revolutionary rhetoric being spouted by activists that took the stage in between acts this event was, as a hip 40 something woman – by far one of the oldest in the crowd – described, “an exuberant party with a backdrop of political protest.”
The idea of activists using Rock and Roll to spread revolutionary consciousness goes back to Sixties figures like John Sinclair, the Yippie “Minister of Information” for MC5 and NY folkie, David Peel, who’s birthday was actually celebrated after the concert. Last weekend while the kids careened around in the mosh pit the old radicals advertised the significance of the day with placards, flags and hawking copies of the Shadow, a decidedly retro zine dedicated to railing against the establishment.
The attitudes of Doreen and her four crusty friends, who drove down from Buffalo and were sleeping in the park, seemed to represent where the kids’ heads were. Although aware of a riot in ’88 caused by cops, who they expressed hatred for, they had come down to see Leftover Crack, not to protest anything. Getting wasted, unsurprisingly, was important. Although Doreen was high, “I just did a bag an hour ago,” she grinned; the rest of the crew was finding it disappointingly difficult to cop heroin. “I’ll take any drugs you can put in my hand,” one of them told me a little hopefully. “We missed it man, I wish we were here in ’88,” one of them piped in, the others grumbling in assent. "We missed it;" the clarion call of every generation since Woodstock.
During the earlier bands that the crowd wasn't familiar with, and in between sets the kids seemed aimless and uncomfortable. A decidedly un-punk looking photog snapping pictures of the audience was told by a short, pimply, tattooed girl with brightly died hair that her boyfriend was going to smash his camera if he didn’t stop taking photos of them. “I’m not afraid of your fucking boyfriend,” he hissed, while snapping a pic of her, and for a second we thought there might be some trouble, but the girl only scowled and slunk off.
The older activists stayed on the periphery of the show; like Richie, a green anarchist waving a huge black flag and Chris Flash who told me, his eyes gleaming, that he thought a huge crash would shut down “Yuppie businesses” and bring the rents back to where they in the late 80’s and 90’s. When I asked him how that would benefit the teenagers who had traveled here on a punk rock pilgrimage he sighed and admitted, “the damage is done.”
Tompkins Square Park riots has stirred me to think about how the East Village has changed since I grew up there in the eighties. The dilapidated bohemian idyll I remember is gone.
In 1986, when I was nine, my father, an ex-hippie, fled the rising rents of a cavernous Soho loft for a townhouse on 1st Ave and 10th Street. During those allegedly dark days of crime and decay we never feared for our safety. A harmless Italian-American alcoholic lived on our stoop cadging Salami sandwiches and five-dollar bills. I could walk up to my mom’s apartment in Stuyvesant Town alone, and was never bothered. I was, however, cautioned not to go east of Avenue A, into the dreaded heart of “Alphabet City.” I remember only one difficulty with the primarily working-class residents of the neighborhood. When my dad couldn't sleep because some teenagers were hanging around, talking loudly out front, he yelled from the third floor and told them to move down the block. The kids were visibly pissed off, but they acquiesced. This was hardly the mugging and mayhem that gentrification naysayers are routinely shouted down with.
Instead of asking the obnoxious young crowd to move, my old man should have given them high-fives, and the homeless guy on our stoop was worth more than an occasional five bucks. Once these so-called quality of life disturbances were policed out of existence, rents skyrocketed. Twenty years ago, my father paid $1,300 for the entire Tenth Street town house; adjusted for inflation that would equal $2,600 today.
Fedora wearing trust-fund hipsters now sit eating over-priced pork rolls and drinking Sapporo at Momofuku next door to my dad’s old townhouse. A friend with a poodle pays $2,100 a month to live in a 150 square foot rabbit warren on St. Marks and 1st Ave. She likes the East Village because she can "always get a soy latte." Studios in the ersatz modernist housing blocks that have cropped up from 13th street to East Houston routinely fetch over a million dollars.
Images of walking in another East Village that began dying in the late 90’s are still with me, however: Quentin Crisp, the expatriate British novelist, reposing languorously at a table in the Kiev, in ratty clothes and smudged make-up; Squatter punks with tall Mohawks sitting cross-legged on a St. Marks curb scrounging for change while one of their idols, Legs McNeil, founder of Punk Magazine steps over them haughtily; Puerto Rican teens banging together blocks of wood, at four in the morning, on 2nd and A, sinisterly yelling, “We got dope!” to tempt junkies into spending their last twenty dollars; The block of desolate vacant lots where bums warmed themselves at trashcan fires, between Mars bar to CBGB’s.
Quentin Crisp is long dead, and the grubby Kiev, which served cheap blintzes 24 hours a day, is a gaudy Korean restaurant. The squats have been razed for Co-ops, The drug trade has gone underground. Massive glass and steel buildings went up over the vacant lots off the Bowery. CBGB has closed and been replaced with a boutique that sells $400 Alligator skin Converse. Only Mars Bar stands, a bizarre anachronism, with its graffiti covered walls and no television set, offering a tantalizing glimpse of a bygone era.
Now the East Village belongs to my friend with the poodle. Most of my cohorts have moved at least as far as Brooklyn. The shabby clubs, bars and drug dealing spots that served as our backdrop have been glossed over with sleek, over-hyped Investment banker haunts like Willis’s. Three years ago, after my landlord died and his spoiled kids inherited my building, I left for Midtown’s Tudor City and I miss the convenience of my old apartment. But as I walked past a PR event that spilled out of the Bowery Hotel recently – a gaggle of paparazzi snapping off pictures at Page Six aspirants -- I thought, “the yuppies can have it.”
"This song is for the condominiums that are coming to ruin this place!” Kevin Drew front man of Broken Social Scene, the twelve-piece Canadian collective, was introducing one of their sprawling chamber pop anthems to a large, colorful, crowd that had packed in tightly on Stillwell Avenue in Coney Island for the 8th annual Siren Festival Saturday. Drew was worried that this, his band’s first appearance at Siren would be their last because of the recently approved plans to develop the boardwalk with luxury high rises.
The concert-goers, mostly hipsters under twenty, were more into downing vodka straight from the bottle, 40’s of malt liquor and smoking weed than fretting about gentrification. When Drew told the crowd that he and his band hailed from Toronto, a city that was also losing interesting neighborhoods to excessive construction, a voice from the mob yelled back “Where the fuck’s Toronto?” Although there is a strong corporate presence at Siren, with the usual PR swag and merch tents set-up, security was relatively lax and the underage revelers weren’t bothered.
The throngs seemed much smaller and more laid-back than last year when the Siren audience numbered 100,000. “This and ‘04 were the best ones,” said Matt Gross, 27, from Cobble Hill, who blogs at musicslut.com and is a DJ. Highlights of the fifteen-band bill included Midwest purveyors of fuzz-drenched lo-fi pop, New Times Vikings, and the obscure nu-rave duo, Helio Sequence, who had an initially unenthusiastic, wilting (it was 95 degrees) crowd dancing and cheering by the end of their set.
The night belonged to headliners Broken Social Scene though. Their lead female vocalist, Feist, is now a crossover star and can’t tour with them anymore, so the band had a wide-eyed blonde fan, sing the melodic favorite “Almost Crimes.” In the electric, infectious moment every successful festival has one of, the swarm of sweat-drenched hipsters sung along en masse with the amateur.
The throng wasn’t entirely made up of Williamsburg kids with white Ray-bans, tattoos and skinny jeans. There were hirsute carnies and nine to five types represented too. One preppy, twenty-something said she was from “a faraway land called Manhattan,” describing herself as an “East Village yuppie.” She thought the proposed plan to develop Coney sounded like a good idea. “It’s kind of too crazy out here.”
Gross, for one, wasn’t worried that Siren will be going anywhere, “It’s the center of the NY summer concert calendar and it makes a lot of money for the Voice, if they pave over Coney Island it will just move to another neighborhood, all of Brooklyn is going to be condominiums in four years anyway,” the blogger, who grew up blocks away from Coney, told us, sounding defeated.
But as Broken Social Scene were hitting the last notes of their finale, a taut, wild-looking man in nothing but French Connection briefs climbed up a chain-link fence and vaulted into the VIP area. Kevin Drew seemingly pleased that the boardwalk’s historically raucous ethos wasn’t dead yet ended with an encomium, “Despite everything, you still remain an original city.”