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New York’s Alright – if you Like Rock and Roll

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Let’s face it.  New York City is not the great city it once was. Anyone who has lived there longer than 10 years can tell you that.  And they will.  Dean Rispler shows us how it’s done.

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It’s sort of a pastime amongst New Yorkers to complain about how cool things once were and how everyone new in town ruined it.  Of course it is still an awesome place. But, being a native New Yorker, I must rattle off why things started to suck and how the deliciously seedy rock and roll scene has faded.

Let me present my short rockcentric history of NYC.  In the ’70s, New York was a shit hole.  A glorious one, but a shit hole nonetheless. There were abandoned buildings everywhere. The now highly desired neighborhoods of the East Village, Alphabet City and the Lower East Side were surrounded by crumbling, decaying buildings and streets covered with bums, broken bottles, beer cans and canine excrement.  There were dealers on every corner.  Every now and then it wasn’t unusual for the cops to find a dead body mistaken for a sleeping drunk on the Bowery. People had left New York in droves.  It was dangerous, dirty and unlivable. But, because of this, artists and musicians started to move in.  The rent was unbelievably cheap and, as far as I can see, highly artistic young people like danger.  It excites and stimulates them. Plus, if they were into drugs, they could find those quite easily. So in essence the Lower East Side of Manhattan was full of indigent creative types cohabiting with junkies, drunks and homosexuals and, in the best instances, combinations of those four.

Naturally such wondrously fertile conditions fostered creative genius. Now if you happen not so much to listen to rock as live under one, and have heard neared of The Ramones, Television, The Talking Heads, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Blondie, The Dictators, The Dead Boys, etc., I order you to buy all their records right now.  But for the moment I’m prepared to assume that you, highly cultured reader that you are, know about this prodigiously significant explosion of music that burst out of my fine city between 1974 and 1982.

Fast forward to the 1990s.  New York has a new fiesty mayor, Rudolph Guiliani, and a plethora of wealthy people from out of town who would just love for the city to become more family oriented and safe.  The real estate moguls realize this and rents shoot sky high.  Within a few years a roach infested studio on 1st Ave. and 2nd St. that once cost $650 per month was now $1200.  Plus the areas previously known as Alphabet City and the Lower East Side were now referred to (due to real estate marketing) as the East Village.  Musicians, artists and junkies are pretty allergic to rent hikes, so they left the area. It almost meant the end of rock history.

Still, during the ’90s, there were some rock clubs still around.  CBGB’s was still open. Coney Island High, Continental and Brownie’s all had bands playing every night. And some of the East Village was alright.  But the combination of the new influx of yuppie douche bags and Guiliani’s new Quality Of Life initiative started to harsh our vibes. Smoking bans and then a clampdown on dancing grated badly and our new respectable neighbors started to complain about the noise. Why did the tedious oiks choose to live above a noisy bar? Bastards. Many venues closed.  Or, in the case of Brownie’s and Continental, gave up on live music and just became a bar.

Fast forward again – this time to the present day.  Amongst the masses of the congenitally uncool stockbrokers, daytraders, lawyers, Bob and Vicky from Accounting and Heather and Tim from Human Resources, there is only a handful of venues in Manhattan that are alright.  I would find myself at Cake Shop on Ludlow, Mercury Lounge on Houston St. and possibly Lit on 2nd Ave. And that maybe 6 or 8 times per year.  But that’s it for the smaller rock spots in Manhattan.  Most shows are now over the river in Brooklyn and they mainly centre in the now infamous Williamsburg area.
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Not that I love everything about Williamsburg. It’s become a sort of university town without a university. It’s overrun by nerdy hipsters who take all their fashion advice from Vice Magazine and American Apparel advertisements.  Most of the live venues cater to the tastes of the hipsters whose ‘here today, gone later that evening’ choice of what’s hot is almost as unappealing as their ironic and one-size-too-small ‘World’s Best Grandma’ iron-on t-shirts.  My complaints aside, I am grateful for clubs such as Trash Bar on Grand Street, which is the only club in the whole city that still feels like it’s the late ’80s.  Take that anyway you wish, but it’s a real rock and roll club. The kind where you can find patrons doing the illegal or even the unspeakable in the bathroom. And a stage where you can hear bands play loud.  The Cameo Gallery hidden inside the back of the very cute Lovin’ Cup Cafe on North 6th Street is also a welcoming presence in Williamsburg.  It has a nice loose vibe not unlike the better seedy clubs of America’s midwest – it feels as if you’re in your high school buddy’s basement drinking beer and watching friends play their three best chords.  Even as I get older, I still like that vibe.
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The rawest club in Williamsburg by far a dilapidated former social club for Central Americans. Called Don Pedro’s, it sits on the border of Williamsburg and the grittier neighbouring area of Bushwick.  This club has become one of the coolest places to see new bands.  It’s pretty spacious and it has a downstairs area where you can escape the music and partake in some illegal activities, but consider yourself lucky if the bathrooms aren’t out of order.

Brooklyn’s Union Hall is strangely quaint. Walk inside and it feels like a library. Admittedly a rather loud one. As you reach the back you’ll find ball courts for bocce, an Italian game that resembles bowling-meets-croquet. Kind of weird to find it in a bar, but it seems to be a hit amongst the patrons. Past the courts are stairs leading down to a cozy little venue that fits maybe about 150 people. But enough about the venues, let’s get to the bands.

The most rockin’ group in NYC has just two members.  The husband and wife known as The Naked Heroes have been shaking this godforsaken city for only a couple of years now and they are way ahead of the pack of jerk offs who call themselves bands.  Under the bombast of smashing drums and screaming guitars made by this duo, there are some great songs.  And that’s what sets them apart from hundreds of other outfits. The first time you hear the tracks 99 Diamond, Manager On Duty or Take A Knee you’ll be singing along with them.  Guitarist and lead vocalist, George Michael Jackson, never lets the audience forget that they are present for a real concert experience.  He is not afraid to jump into the crowd and force them to dance and sing along.  He’s like some sort of southern US preacher whose only purpose is to save your soul and make you believe in the redeeming powers of rock and roll. Combine this with a very healthy dose of ZZ Top-meets-Black Sabbath inspired boogie rock and you really can’t lose. Plus, if you’re lucky, drummer Merica Lee will heckle any infidels and play half the set with her shirt off.

At the other end of the spectrum, though just as exciting, are the five individuals that make up the band called MiniBoone.  Sure – they have glasses and beards and at first glance can easily be mistaken for the thousands of other try-hards who make noise in Williamsburg. What’s the difference?  Amazing songs and incendiary live performances. MiniBoone absolutely takes over when they play.  No doubt about it.  With three singers who switch instruments throughout their set and a non-stop pounding rhythm section, it’s one of the best examples I’ve ever witnessed of controlled chaos.  Someone described them as if the Talking Heads and Queen got together to make a band. They recently seem to be winning the hearts of the local press and blogs in New York, and justly so.

Electro rock is strong in New York. So many people seem to believe that owning both a laptop and also a guitar makes you a band.  Maybe it does.  Mostly, however, it sucks. Some, though, are outstanding.  Brooklyn’s Sleighbells make a very healthy mix of raw guitars, heavy crunched-out beats and pitch perfect vocals from chanteuse Alexis Krauss. The electro inspired group Sensual Harassment makes what’s referred to in some circles as ‘cold wave.’ That’s just another term for saying they sound like Depeche Mode. Which they do. Fortunately they do it quite well.  It’s synthesizers galore.  Also up-and-coming is a duo known as MKNG FRNDZ.  Imagine a lo-fi Laurie Anderson and Le Tigre meet Missy Elliot and Lene Lovich in a lesbian bar. Great image? I’m sure they have a lot more in store for us in the future.

Down in the dark world of metal, there lurk a few interesting curiosities. Brooklyn based trio Tombs sound like a metal version of Unsane – noisy and relentless with touches of Godflesh-like vocals thrown in for good measure.  Black Anvil play their own version of American Black Metal meets New York Hardcore.  This makes sense because the members were all once in NYHC bands.  They’re certainly more listenable to than most of their contemporaries.  It must be their punk rock upbringing.

Too extreme for your tastes? Fair enough. Straight up rock and roll, believe it or not, is something of a rare commodity nowadays. But there are some bands here that fit the bill perfectly.  The Bamboo Kids grew up together in some poxy little suburb in central New Jersey. After finding themselves in New York, they also found their sound. Think the Clash and the Damned filtered through their hometown hero, Bruce Springsteen.  Believe it or not, this works quite well. Especially since the songs are filled with hooks.  Need more hooks?  Look no further than The Walk Ons.  Their new CDEP, We Did This On Purpose, combines the melodiousness of, say, Weezer and Pixes with a healthy dose of Bloc Party, too.  You like that?  Of course.

In the end you can’t help but dig this scene. New York may not be what it was, the good ol’ venues are gone, high rise condos have colonized the Lower East Side, but you can still count on some select basements to stay dammed loud.

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