December 05, 2007

What It Used To Be

So, I've done a few posts about old New York. This is a bit I wrote for a friend (well, acquaintance) that was going to publish a book of his NYC rock band paintings (hey, it was in France, they'll go for anything). Nothing ever came of it, but here's what I wrote, regardless.

Back before it was a Sex in the City/Wall Street-bonus/trust-fund boutique/Olsen twins nightmare, New York City's East Village was a very small town. Everyone seemed to wind up in the same places and eventually knew each other at least well enough to exchange a nod or a smile during a wait on the (long, slow, what is he doing in there anyway?) line for the bathroom. Happens once or twice more (a show in a basement on the West Side Highway, a party on top of the World Trade Center), eventually you exchange a few words and soon discover a whole connected galaxy of friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, co-workers, classmates, bandmates… which is how many of the bands who are pictured here came into existence. No plan of world domination, just a shared idea, a common purpose, a mutual goal and maybe even an occasional excuse to get loaded and make noise.

It was a scene that had gone on for years, but the mid-late 90s could be called its last gasp: Until the four horsemen of the previous paragraph arrived, the population was still dominated by families and businesses of Polish/Ukranian/Puerto Rican/Dominican origin and the rents and the bars were cheap enough that the artsy minority could live on their erratic income. After all, a high-paying job makes too many demands on time to allow you to start the evening graffiting the bathroom with a girl in a prom dress at an art opening in a coffee shop on Avenue A and end it with the bottom of the bottle and a fresh donut on a rooftop in Chinatown at 6 a.m. In between, it could've been a trip to a fashion show, to an Indian restaurant, to a rent party, to an opera box, to a punk rock gig, to a bodega with a rock critic, a corporate lawyer, a contortionist, a housewife, a male stripper, Beck…. But not matter how far you went, suddenly, eventually, inevitably a face from the bathroom line would swim into view, reminding you that you were part of a small circle that seemed to contain a whole city. And that you had just enough time to make it back below 14th Street before last call.

Not that it was all golden: Sometimes is seemed like the real reason everyone had such a small scene was so as not to have to reach too far to stab you in the back (the sleeves on this jacket are pretty tight and I really don't feel like actually lifting my arm anyway, y'know.) Some bands imploded in conflicting ambitions, shattered relationships, or the realization that having some A&R's expense account pay for that $60 entrée on Fifth Avenue meant that you could pick up even more $10 bags on 5th Street. Life as theater gave way to reality television—once The New York Times and MTV came calling with big corporations and big money at their heels, everyone started looking. Which meant that people started coming just to be seen, eventually crowding out those who were actually doing something.

These paintings offer an image that evokes the time and the people—gaunt, black-clad, poised in space like chess pieces or flung about like broken glass, depending on the band and the hour. But it was more than just an image and a soundtrack. It was the basement-damp n' cigarette-musty smell of the Ludlow Rehearsal Studios, where rats sometimes took up residence in the amps and someone always kicked over a lukewarm coffee mid-set. Maybe the taste of a cheese-stretching slice of Sal's pizza or an East Houston bagel, wolfing down sustenance at the beginning or end of another busy night, trying to use my less-dirty hand and not talk with my mouth full to everyone who says hello.

Or the warmth of the overcranked heat lamps and track lighting of the Max Fish bar, where the glare not only illuminated work by local artists, but invited the patrons to strip down to whatever threadbare T-shirt or designer party dress they happened to be wearing. (Although I do recall Alan the bartender bouncing anyone who went fully naked before last call.) As some of this art was on those walls, most of these bands were on the jukebox. That jukebox also often played Vince Guraldi's "Linus and Lucy"—I have a vivid memory of one last-call night that ended with several of us frantically doing the twist to "The Charlie Brown Song" as Princess Superstar climbed atop a chair, doffed her pimp hat and began yelling "Fuck being cool! Fuck the East Village!" Because, hip as it all was, that wasn't the point. The point was to create something, to create your art, whatever form it might take. And, well, if you could look good and hit a few parties while doing it, so much the better.

Posted by lissa at December 5, 2007 04:25 PM