The Tris McCall Report
Go on ahead to December.
November 30, 2003
I just finished my latest Friends and Neighbors column. That means you ought to click the link above and read it; top down, preferably. Enjoy.
November 28, 2003
Today, I am thankful for Joe Harrington, who always does such a good job responding to my projects. Note the bedroomy picture of me that ran with the article. Hey, I am trying my best.
I'm also thankful to Justin Vellucci at Delusions of Adequacy. To show my gratitude, I have to fashion responses to both of these pieces. Not today, though, I'm geeting ready for the Southpaw show this evening. See you there?
November 24, 2003
I said I'd talk a little bit more about WTC7, and for better or for worse, I'm as good as my word. After this, it's back to rock and roll posts, but I'm also adjusting to the new World Trade Center station, and actively making it a central feature of my life here in Jersey City. And I can't do that without exorcising a few demons. So bear with me.
World Trade Center 7 was, like most downtown Manhattan buildings, quite literally in the shadow of the Twin Towers. That said, it was around fifty stories tall and was, by any estimation, a skyscraper. It didn't sit on the same megablock as the Towers (as far as I know, it was the only building in the World Trade Center complex that didn't); you had to cross Vesey Street to reach it. Another building -- World Trade Center 6 -- stood in between the North Tower and Building Seven. Building Six was nowhere near as large as Building Seven, but it wasn't any Quonset hut, either.
Like the Twin Towers, WTC7 was a steel-framed building. It was connected to the rest of the complex by a walkway that arched over the street -- cast your mind back to the way Vesey used to be, and I'm sure you'll remember what that looked like. From our vantage point atop the palisade, we could see the top stories of the trapezoidal structure peeking out between the skyscrapers of Battery Park City.
On September 11, 2001, we watched the skyline from the terrace at the hi-vue. We saw the ball of flame from the South Tower impact and the huge expanding cloud of black smoke from the burning upper stories of Buildings One and Two. With brief interruptions, starting at 8:45 AM, we were out on the terrace all day that day. I've noticed that certain news agencies have been slippery with the timeline, but I had both a wall clock (set to the TV) and the computer clock in the room we were standing in, so nobody's going to tell me my timeline is incorrect. The South Tower fell at 9:58 A.M.
The collapse further confused an already chaotic picture, but at no point was it unclear what was going on. The residue -- almost entirely white powder -- seemed surprisingly discrete, and it wasn't hard to follow its billowing contours. Readily acknowledging that I was almost entirely out of my head with horror at the time, I'm still unwilling to discount my empirical experience. Just before the fall of the North Tower, we saw a large explosion coming from the street-level area around World Trade Center 7. I remember thinking that it looked distinctly like a bomb had been detonated underneath the city, and, of course, that's exactly what I thought had occurred.
I went back into the living room to see if anything had been reported on the news about WTC7. Consequently, I missed the start of the fall of the North Tower, but that's not what I'm getting at here. At no point that morning did CNN or MSNBC have anything to say about the detonation I'd witnessed, and to this day, I still haven't heard any discussion of the undeniable event that took place either beneath or at Vesey Street during the half-hour interim between the collapse of the Towers.
After the fall of the North Tower, I watched WTC7 from across the river. It didn't seem to be smoking, but then again, my vantage obscured its south side. At about a quarter after four, the news did in fact report that World Trade Center 7 was burning. I was relieved to hear somebody acknowledge that the building existed, and I expected to hear some kind of report about the explosion I saw.
None ever came. Instead, the fires at WTC7 were blamed on falling debris from the North Tower. This sounds logical until you actually start to think about it. In order for the (mostly) cold detritus of the North Tower to start a blaze in Building Seven, it would have to clear both Vesey Street and the very substantial WTC6 and break down the front wall. Well, okay, maybe that's not impossible. But if it had happened that way, you couldn't have predicted what came next.
At 5:20 P.M., WTC7 collapsed. I watched it happen from across the river, and no revisionism is going to screw with my recollection here -- the building came down straight and flat, as if supports beneath it had been cut. I'm no physics student, but you don't have to be one to realize that a burning building would never have fallen that way. Fires just don't burn symmetrically. South side fires, caused by contact with burning material from the North Tower, would have prompted a collapse across Vesey Street, in the direction of Ground Zero. Bear in mind, again, that this was a major skyscraper -- more than forty floors. For WTC7 to have pancaked as it did, it would have had to have been experiencing structural weakness at all sides.
The unnerving media silence about Building Seven was later broken by a tentative explanation that, again, makes no sense. According to FEMA, huge tanks of diesel fuel stored in the basement may have caught fire, substantially weakening the steel. (This official story, by the way, is mostly guesswork -- there's no proof at all that the diesel fuel was in any way involved). Although they knew of the existence of the diesel fuel, firefighters opted against entering WTC7 and putting out the blaze. Strange, huh? Remember, the North Tower collapsed at 10:30. The city had seven hours to react to the fires that had, ostensibly, been caused by its fall. It's worth remembering that no steel-framed building has ever collapsed due to fire, diesel or otherwise.
I don't know what happened at WTC7, but everything I witnessed suggests strongly that the official line is dead wrong. No plane slammed into the skyscraper, and when it fell, it fell exactly as it would have if it had been demolished by contractors. The debris fell in a straight cone, directly onto the foundation of the building. Media silence about the collapse has been frightening in its totality; WTC7 is almost never discussed, and on the few occasions when it is, the FEMA line has been repeated more or less unquestioned. More bothersome to me is that the strange explosion I saw coming from Building Seven between the Tower collapses has never, to my knowledge, even been acknowledged by the city or the government.
I'm not the sort of person who kicks at the teeth of the official story; for the most part, that's a thankless task. But sometimes, the official story is so obviously incorrect that it absolutely needs to be challenged. That almost nobody has stood up to make that challenge continues to mystify me.
November 23, 2003
A combination of the flu and some downed power lines kept me offline and out of circulation for a little while. But I'm resilient. If the WTC PATH terminal can bounce back, so can I. Yesterday Governor McGreevey was the most prominent Port Authority-Trans Hudson rider, but I think Pataki and Corzine also showed their little faces. All celebrity passengers aside, if you care about mass transit, yesterday was Christmas.
And if you live in Paulus Hook, like we do, yesterday was the Christmas when you wake up and discover you've also won the Lotto. The PATH now offers a four-minute straight-shot ride from Exchange Place (our neighborhood station) to the new WTC and its neighboring transportation nexus on Fulton Street. But wait, it gets better -- unlike Hoboken service, which gets suspended after a certain hour, the Journal Square-WTC trains run all night.
Sick as I am, I still couldn't have missed an opportunity to ride the restored line on its inagural evening. Yet that meant I had to put aside my trepidation and actually head to the World Trade Center. Call me a coward, but since the attacks I've scrupulously avoided "ground zero". When my travels have taken me to downtown Manhattan, I've planned circuitous routes to avoid Vesey Street. When we've gone over the Brooklyn Bridge, I haven't look back at the skyline. On the Staten Island Ferry, I've kept my eyes fixed on the Jersey or Brooklyn shores.
As many of you know, Hilary and I witnessed the attacks from our terrace at the hi-vue. Because we were watching from the northwest, we saw neither plane hit -- rather, we saw huge balls of fire coming from behind the towers, and we had to scramble back into the living room and CNN to figure out what had happened. What we did have a good view of was World Trade Center Seven, clearly visible through the towers of Battery Park City. If you don't remember anything about World Trade Center Seven, I can't really blame you; it's hardly been discussed, and wasn't a source of much news speculation even on that day. But Building Seven was a big skyscraper by any standard, and it, too collapsed on September 11. We watched that collapse happen in real-time.
I'm not a conspiracy theorist; I don't go in for that junk. I'm very patriotic, and I believe in my elected officials -- I even write songs about them. But nothing said in the official (and largely unpublicised) story about the cause of the collapse of World Trade Center Seven jibes with what we witnessed that day. If the government story of the events at the Twin Towers have always seemed fishy and incomplete, I know damned well the few official accounts of the collapse of Building Seven are fishy and incomplete. More than anything else, it's been my weird feelings about Building Seven that have prevented me from wanting to go back to the impact site.
Back before I moved to Jersey City, I used to use the WTC PATH train station occasionally. I also took several trips to the observation deck. And while I sometimes space on names and faces, my sense of direction, interior map, and the layout of the city has always been frighteningly reliable. So I knew where the North Tower stood relative to Building Seven, and I probably knew that if I took a trip down to ground zero, I'd be unnerved. I'm going to write a little more about World Trade Center Seven tomorrow, just to let you know where I'm coming from. For now, suffice to say that everything about yesterday's trip into the new station was idyllic, except for the implications. And I walked away from the PATH train station even surer that somebody in this government was selling me a bunch of hooey.
November 16, 2003
Lovely night, really; a little chilly, but I like it that way. I'm about to find out exactly how easy it is to get to Uncle Joe's from our flat -- five blocks over on Marin, right hand turn onto First St., just follow the sound of the hipster jukebox. They've started the show on time (ten p.m.), so, betting otherwise, I miss the first song or two by The Red Comes Up. It's a shame, because I like them immediately. They're Stones imitators, sure, but they're copying all the right things -- Jagger's showmanship, the jump of the Watts/Wyman rhythm section -- rather than trying to blow the doors off the club with gutbucket boogie. Everything sounds like "Tattoo You" singles as rendered on MTV, but I loved the "Tattoo You" singles as they were rendered on MTV. The singer even has the dance steps from the "Hang Fire" video down pat. It helps that he looks more like Jesse Blockton than Mick Jagger; he's not really trying to be a rock star, he's just here to rock. Me, I'm enjoying every inflection and affectation. I only wish the sound system was a little clearer, because from the arrangement choices to the Thirties-fiction inspired band name, everything about this group indicates they've got a commitment to lyricism.
The layout of this club has been changed again. The groups have set up along the north wall and are now facing the bar area. This means the guitar tones aren't bouncing around as much in the small wooden back room -- without a doubt, the sound man has gotten the best mix I've ever heard at Uncle Joe's, and I don't think it's a coincidence. But if the new orientation helps solve one problem, it's created another. The risers that used to line the east wall are gone, and the group's front line has set up squarely in the middle of the room. With piles of equipment to the right and the sound booth to the left, there's almost no space for the audience to stand. What's more, the drummers are now occluding the fireplace, and perhaps symbolizing the new commitment to sonic fidelity, the out-of-tune piano is gone, too. What price we pay for a decent signal.
The Red Comes Up conclude their set on fire; they rip through their last three songs with the enthusiasm of true believers. After the show, the drummer hands me a demo -- turns out they've been produced by Roadside Graves guitarrist Jeremy Benson. O.K., that explains the connection; the Graves are headlining this bill, and they're the group I'm here to see.
After the youth and cheeky fervor of The Red Comes Up, The Heavenly States come off a bit like disgrunled graduate students. The States are a national touring four-piece from Oakland with a big orchestral pop sound and a crippling smartass routine; the orchestral element provided in large part by an imaginative electric violinist, and the smartass element by a lead singer and guitar player whose between-song banter undermines the power of his potent writing. He's also playing much too loud, and the drummer is hitting the snare like he's auditioning to replace Dave Grohl in Queens Of The Stone Age. Hey, guys, this isn't Madison Square Garden.
The songs are good, really good, symphonic and imaginative, with interesting phrases peeking through the aggressive rhythm guitar. The crowd is feeling it too -- the gender balance in here might be, to paraphrase Jens Carstensen, reminiscent of an OTB, but the few girls playing the wall aren't ducking away for drinks. The electric violinist doubles as a synthesist; she plays a Yamaha Motif-7, an instrument I've never seen before, with skill and a relatively independent left hand. She's not going to make anybody forget Kori Gardner, but she's got a style to match the idiosyncratic instrumental voices of her bandmates. Now if only they'd turn down a bit so I could figure out what the hell they were singing about, rather than saving the cogent phrases for the between-songs bits. "If you don't buy our CD, the terrorists will have won", the singer says, in conclusion. Um, Less talk, more rock.
In case anybody was making venue-specific excuses for the muddy vocals, the Roadside Graves take the stage and show the audience that it's not the mixer, it's the singer-arranger that counts. His voice rings crystal-clear over the six instrumentalists. The group uses acoustic guitars, sure, but that's because everything the Graves do revolves around granting access to John Gleason's storytelling.
With Cropduster/Brokedowns still on the sidelines and still no sign of the long-rumored Prosolar Mechanics reunion, it's safe to say the Roadside Graves are my favorite band in New Jersey. They're ace at that which I value in most rock song presentation: poetic and deeply memorable lyrics, sung through a variety of characters animated by a pathologically energetic frontman with an instantly recognizable voice. Certainly they've been tighter than they are tonight, but they're working without the kind of monitor system they had at Maxwell's. For the most part they hold the songs together brilliantly; it's midnight and they may well be soused on the cheap drinks, but I'm not getting a dissolute vibe up there. Gleason seems characteristically focused, serious, determined to communicate: he describes "Jenny Don't Jump" and nearly indicts himself for the selfishness of the narrator, before doing a reversal and reminding us, wild-eyed and with a menacing smile, of the nasty-ass third verse. The performance of the song is empathetic, liberating. This sort of music is generally awash in cliches; the bar-fight, the cheating heart, the menagerie of drunken losers. The Graves don't jettison any of them -- they just tease out their hidden dimensions, and counterpose them with images wholly their own.
This was the best bill I've seen at Uncle Joe's yet, and to catch it, I had to miss the Ankles at the Mercury Lounge. Ah, well, I am sure I'll have plenty of chances to catch those guys on their home turf. Cigarette smoke or no, this club is five minutes away by foot. I'm looking forward to the next date.
November 13, 2003
Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle. Turns out the Waterbug Hotel is the old Jazzy City Dance Studio. 143-5 Christopher Columbus, scene of my first Jersey City adventures all those years ago. I wonder if Dan Madinabeitia, Dan Koncelik, and the rest of the Fixations crew realizes that their old loft has been turned into a performance art venue. I wonder if they'd care.
Hey, I care. I came to this realization much in the way Charlton Heston discovered that the Planet of The Apes was actually Earth. Only when Heston saw the Statue of Liberty it was half-covered in sand; the Jazzy City Dance Studio looks exactly as it did in 1995. Well, that isn't exactly true -- a wooden cut-out of the silhouette of a large waterbug has been encased in a plexiglass box and nailed above the front door. Just when you think you've left your past behind, you discover you're living in a renovated version of your own memories. Meet the new waterbugs, same as the old waterbugs.
I'm going with the flow here. I don't know what they've got for a stage or a sound-system, but I'm still pretty enthused about the possibilities -- it's two blocks from the Grove Street Path, and it's got my memories in there, too. On December 12th, a day before my big Jersey City debut at Uncle Joe's, Pothole Skinny is doing a show there. I've marked my calendar already, and not just because I dig Pothole Skinny.
In unrelated news: close followers of the Tris McCall saga (or just those interested in the subchapter discussing my association with Palomar) may be interested in this article from the rock and roll newswires:
For once in my life, I have absolutely no comment.
November 12, 2003
Five o'clock on a wet but unseasonably warm Wednesday. Hilary teaches late tonight. If this was 2001, I'd probably be making plans to head out to Brooklyn for one of Mishka's Williamsburg Wednesday bills at Luxx. But Mishka is on the high road, Luxx is a full-time gay disco now, and all I want to do is explore Jersey City.
It would help if there was something to attend. Indie rock, indie pop, hip-hop; I don't care what it is, as long as it's within the confines of Jersey City, I'm ready for it. I'm so hungry for performance that I think I'd even see a hardcore act tonight. I have a sketchy calendar from Uncle Joe's that corroborates with their website. Hmm, no show scheduled for the 12th. Last Wednesday Dirt Bike Annie was playing, this Wednesday we've got zilch.
Well, okay, Uncle Joe's is out. I poke around the Internet to see if anything else is listed. The Jersey City Reporter displays the usual newsy, uniform front -- this is great if you want to know who won the local assembly races (and I do), not so hot if you want to head out on the town. A big banner on Newark Avenue advertises the Jersey City Downtown website, but upon examination it turns out to be a rudimentary site thrown together by a coalition of neighborhood businesses. Can no businessman over the age of forty put together an elegant and well-written website? At least there are no Java applets. Meanwhile, the main website for the municipal government keeps crashing my browser. Well, they're not going to advertise rock shows anyway.
I hit the road. One flight down and onto Grand Street. To my right, the top of the Goldman Sachs tower is smothered by fog; to my left, the Hudson-Bergen light rail train is pulling out of Marin Station. Half a block west of the Perception Room is a multi-purpose performance center affiliated with the OLC Church; it's called Victory Hall, and as far as I can tell, prayer meetings and foreign film series are what they do. Hey, nothing wrong with prayer meetings, especially ones in a hundred-seat auditorium packed to the rafters with worshippers. We walked by the Hall last Sunday, and I can assure you the gospel band inside was ripping it up. Could there be rock shows in a place like this, I wonder?, must-see events three doors down, featuring bands that sound nothing like Three Doors Down? Probably not -- it is a church, after all, and no matter how happening the priest might be, he will no doubt draw the line at the devil's music.
Up the steps and into the vestibule I go. My first week here I picked up anything that looked even remotely like a flier; now, I'm drawing the line with pet care propaganda and people pitching their yoga classes. I stretch for no man. Posters on the wall advertise a gallery opening, and I recall once again that by tradition and municipal fiat, Jersey City is a visual arts community. Hmm, maybe there's an arts event tonight that I can go to, stand around at, and pretend I'm not a philistine. Tonight I'd settle for that.
My first experiences with Jersey City were all visual arts-related. We would come down to Christopher Columbus to the old Jazzy City Dance Studio lofts to hang with our pals in the Fixations, all of whom were painters, sculptors, collage-makers who just happened to be in one of the most alarmingly literate rock groups in New Jersey. The parties they played had virtually no link whatsoever to any area indie rock scene, but instead were hosted by the Artfux, a loose confederation of artist-activists who painted mock billboards and engaged in cultural critique. I'm pleased to see the scruffy face of the most prominent member of the Artfux -- the notorious Ron English -- peering back at me from the poster on the wall. I recall a music and art (but mostly art) avent held in a pre-gentrified Barrow Street apartment during which English body painted a nude woman while Fixations guitarrist Dan Koncelik played "Fur Elise" on classical guitar. I don't know if English's work has grown any less prurient since then. My guess is no, but there's only one way to find out for sure.
Out onto Grove Street and the fog is thickening. Holidays, the attractive cafe around the corner, has consistently frustrated my efforts to get myself a waffle -- every time we go down there in the morning, the damned place is closed. It's closed now. Hey, it's not even six o'clock yet; the commuters are coming back from NYC. Open up, Holidays, I am concerned for your fiscal well-being. Forget about me, sell your waffles to these hungry corporate warriors returning to Van Vorst after a tough day battling the bulls and the bears, or whatever the hell they were doing. Ibby's Falafel, on the other hand, is open because it is always open. If anyplace downtown can afford not to be desperate, it's Ibby's, generally acknowledged as a legit landmark and the best shawarma and falafel joint in Jersey.
Cross Newark in the direction of Uncle Joe's and the streetlights get dimmer, the brownstones get a little more run-down, and the signage starts to feel slick and harmonized in concordance with longstanding UEZ principles of civic improvement. The last storefront on the retail strip is the most interesting: it's the local used bookstore. Like the Black Sheep used to say, I can dig it. The poster in the window is the same as the one at the OLC Church; it advertises a exhibition by a portrait artist who's done portraits of Jersey city artists. Got that? Yeah, it took me a few seconds, too.
I glean what one can glean through the fogged-up windows of the Book Room on a damp November evening. Visual arts activity seems centered on 111 First St., roughly three blocks east of where I'm standing, and a stone's throw from Uncle Joe's. Well, that makes sense. If the city was going to allow a rock club anywhere, it stands to reason it would be the middle of the WALDO district. I still don't understand the parameters of the special arts neighborhood, who lives there, or what the borders are, but that's what I'm here to find out. I turn onto First.
The street is dark and wet. There are no pedestrians, and automobile traffic is sporadic. This must be what Soho was like in the late Seventies; rainwashed, kinda romantic-creepy. Hell, I don't have to imagine Soho: this is exactly how it felt on Metropolitan Avenue in Williamsburg in the mid-nineties, before the hipsters rolled in and turned it all into a boutique. Speaking of Williamsburg, "China Grove" is playing loudly and unironically on the Uncle Joe's jukebox. The twin guitars are the only sound on the street. I peek in the window just to confirm what I already know: The Roadside Graves are headlining Saturday night. I'm sure they won't hit the stage 'til midnight at the earliest, but I'll be there.
Some artists' buildings look like any other warehouse; you'd never know there were painters, photographers and other social misfits working inside. 111 First Street is not such a building. Everything about the retrofitted warehouse screams "artist residency", especially its obvious quasi-legal residential status. I'm not sure if artists are supposed to be living in this building or not, but from the exterior the studios look to have the haphazard permanence of well-appointed squats. It's cool. I want in. There's a guard at the front door, but he's not paying attention to me, or if he is, he's decided I'm no imminent threat. The door opens onto a warm and well-lit foyer lined with mailboxes. Damn, there must be at least forty studios here.
Loud clanging on the ceiling and the walls like somebody's trying to hammer a piece of sheet metal into a pretzel. Nobody is walking through the foyer, though. I ought to climb up these stairs and peek in galleries, I know, but I feel I'm just getting my footing here. Maybe next visit. Besides, I'm gathering information -- this is a reconaissance trip. If I'd wanted to meet anybody tonight, I would have shaved and dressed for it, and in general tried not to look like something that had just fallen off of a garbage truck. There's a posterboard covering most of the eastern wall, and I am reminded of the old Context studios on Avenue A: theatre openings, displays, here and there a music notice. Unfortunately, now that the Jersey City Studio Tour is over, most of the happenings mentioned are taking place in New York.
The only event listed for tonight is an art demonstration of some sort at a place called the Waterbug Hotel. The Waterbug Hotel? Beyond the gross implications, I'm flummoxed; there's no address listed on the flier. Great, this is just like being in Alphabet City in the early nineties -- mysterious fliers for named events you're already supposed to know the whereabouts of. To be fair, there's nothing cryptic about this posting; it looks more like an omission or a straight fuck-up than an attempt to intimidate outsiders. Could the Waterbug Hotel be somewhere in the massive 111 First Street complex? Well, I can poke around, or I can remember the name and use the power of the Internet when I get back to the Perception Room.
Yeah, that's what I'll do. Back out on the street, the light rail swings past the warehouses and toward the muffled lights at the Newport Mall. The fog is getting ridiculous now; I can barely see clear to the next block. Right turn onto Washington Street now, one foot in front of the other, trying to avoid the puddles and the crockery smashed on the sidewalk. Tardy commuters are just specters in the mist -- they're trying to get home or to some cozy restaurant on Montgomery Street or to a rendezvous in the shadows. So many lives, so many different intentions. Mine, right now, is to avoid being swallowed by these clouds. I'm alone on the corner with the wide expanse of Christopher Columbus in front of me and the Pizzeria Uno sign bleeding into watercolors in the night air.
The federal-style post office squats on the corner of Montgomery, receding into the fog like an animal hiding in a cave. My eyes trace east past the columns to a single window burning with electric light. I recognize it at once, and kick myself for not making this visit earlier. It's the headquarters of WFMU, an institution I still approach with the awe and reverence I reserve for Maxwell's, and maybe the Lincoln monument. The outer door is open, but the inner door is locked. It's too late to buzz and fake my way upstairs -- I'm wet and tired and in no condition to bluff anybody.
Back out onto Washington, through the tiny park, three blocks north to the warmth of the Perception Room. I can barely see, but it doesn't matter; I already walk these streets like I've been doing it since I was a kid. That's the easy part. Knowing the blocks is one thing, knowing their inhabitants another matter altogether. I didn't come to Jersey City to actualize a map. Next time out, I'm opening some of these doors.
November 10, 2003
It comes out thrice a year at most, but in the absence of any viable alternative, Jersey Beat is the paper of record for New Jersey independent music. If you're looking for perspicacious writing on local groups, it's really your only option; New Brunswick used to have the Splatter Effect, but that's gone now, and jeez, don't even start about the Aquarian. I'm probably prouder of my affiliation with Jersey Beat than I am about any other institution I've ever been involved with, save Maxwell's and Melody Lanes. I think Jim's interview skills are second to nobody's, and I still re-read his conversations with Art Alexakis and Mike Watt for inspiration and guidance whenever I have to do an interview.
At 150-some pages for this month's issue alone, Jersey Beat is a pretty big ship. A tanker of this size displaces too much water to get off course, but it does occasionally list from side to side. Jim's about as good a captain as you could ever ask for, but sometimes the tiller isn't the best spot for getting a sense of the entirety of the boat. From my perspective, Jersey Beat #75 went a little overboard in its sustained disapproval of New York City music culture and its values; a disapproval that permeates this issue of the magazine right down to the capsule reviews.
It might be viewed by some as a welcome compensation or a necessary correction -- it's been pointed out that Jersey Beat had gotten awfully Brooklyn-centric over the past few issues. Nonetheless, the magazine's sharp right turn toward Garden State populism and away from Big Apple glitz feels much more like a gut-level reaction than a conscious editorial decision by Jim. I think it reflects a growing divide between the two scenes, and mounting mutual misunderstanding. Those gut-level prejudices on both sides of the Hudson appear to be hardening.
For those who need a recap, here's the vulgar version.
New York rockers believe that Jersey groups:
- Have no sense of style or presentation smarts,
- Are irresponsibly out of touch with current musical trends, and are otherwise unhip,
- Lack humor and irony,
- Play interminable sets in frat-bars with Michelob neon signs on the wall,
- Are "emo"; i.e., prone to getting up on stage and regurgitating whiny first-person accounts of emotional experiences.
Jersey rockers, by contrast, believe that New York City bands:
- Believe in style over substance, and pay more attention to their clothes than their chord progressions,
- Are slavish imitators of other fashionable groups,
- Use irony to wallpaper over their lack of musicianship,
- Play fifteen-minute sets in snooty art-bars where anybody who isn't dressed properly gets shunned,
- Make cold, calculated music devoid of emotion or genuine passion.
Much of the critique from NYC can be dismissed as classism - no matter what Vice magazine wants to suggest, style is something you have to invest in, and New York rockers are much more likely to come from money than Jersey kids. Moreover, the Michelob bars aren't our fault; they're the places we're stuck with, and the bands here don't like it any more than visiting cosmopolitans do. (Well, that's true for most of us, anyway). Nonetheless, there's more than a little truth behind the stereotypes -- the average Jersey band really does lack a sense of humor, and we are far too tolerant of the "emo" approach, giving young-man-hurt-feeling bands a pass, or worse, commending their erstwhile passion and authenticity.
By contrast, the critique of New York groups -- especially Brooklyn groups -- from the left bank has a clarity structural integrity borne of resentment, and, like most critiques borne of resentment, it's generally accurate. It also betrays a massive misunderstanding of the way cultural production works. Pop music -- indie or otherwise -- isn't a talent contest or meritocracy, or a game of one-upsmanship where guys with guitars duel to determine who has the most original ideas. Pop music is a form of cultural expression. What that means is that the culture comes first; first you have a group of people with shared values, and then you have an expression of those values through performance. The subculture projects a paragon or hero onstage, and the hero reaffirms and fulfills the values of his peers through articulate cultural production. For this achievement and for none other, he or she is applauded.
This holds true whether you're on Bedford Avenue or in Bedminster, in every vegetable market from Borneo to Nome. But some subcultures are more tightly circumscribed and rigorous than others, and right now, Brooklyn has a much better, much more theorized sense of itself than North Jersey does. That doesn't hamper North Jersey's capacity to produce a group as popular as Thursday, but it does mean that Jerseyans have a foggier idea of the significance of Thursday's chart success. Thursday's music is every bit as slavishly imitative of their source material (and Thursday's stance is every bit as much an expression of the immediate subcultural values of its audience) as is Stellastarr*'s, and when we pretend otherwise, we start to look awfully provincial.
We Jerseyans fall into this trap for two reasons. First, because with the notable exception of Jersey Beat, we don't have any organs rigorously examining our local subcultures. I know, I know, I've been laying on this horn for a few years now, but it's no better now than it was a few years ago. It's worse, really, because of the hipster evacuation of New Brunswick and the reduction of the Jersey Journal's arts department to a skeleton staff and whatever they can cherry-pick off the AP wires. Because we exist in a discursive vacuum, we lack the critical voices that would remind us that pop music is a cultural argument, and that the cause for applause is always the clarification and championing of that argument by our chosen models and spokespeople.
The other reason goes back to the classism and resentment I mentioned before. We look across the river at a richer subculture, and falling back on the easy logic of centuries, we call its participants poseurs. Reactively, we emphasize our inner virtues -- we don't have the clothes, but we have the soul. In a populist nation, convincing ourselves that it's more important to have the soul than the clothes isn't too tough to do. But in so doing, what we forget is that the correct soul is a cultural determination just as the correct clothes are a cultural determination. The ultimate outcome is fetishization of poker-faced expressions of feeling and integrity, and that's where we're at right now -- group after group of just-plain-folks emotional shouters, ostentatiously dressing down and feeling superior based on their rejection of fashion and belief that they're guided by an inner light.
There's no inner light. "Emotional" performance is no less a pose than dressing up like a mod. And if the word pose sounds pejorative there, it's not; you get up on stage, you're posing. For god's sake, it's performance, it's an act, a put-on, a character you're playing. Lashing out at a performer for calling attention to his own artifice (or just for failing to take pains to conceal it) is never a valid criticism. It's as beside the point as shaking your fist in anger when a group that can't really play lands on the pop charts. Each circumscribed community will decide for itself how important musicianship is to its members.
Which brings me to another subject: it's time everybody on this side of the river stopped beating up on Interpol. Look, I know Paul Banks is annoying and the bass player dresses like a freak. But if you're looking for an example of a NYC act that gets by on fashion rather than substance, Interpol cannot be your whipping boy. Interpol came to prominence because these motherfuckers can play; they've got an absurdly imaginative rhythm section that'd pound anybody in Jersey straight out of rock school. If Interpol also epitomizes a certain feyness and indirectness about the current city scene, well, pointing that out is fair game. But I would think that Jersey cats -- so ready to champion originality -- would be the last ones to swallow the garbage about Interpol's plagiaristic resemblance to certain eighties acts.
But what's that I hear you say? Interpol fans don't listen behind the superficial resemblance to Joy Division or the Chameleons anyway? Interpol fans became Interpol fans because a bunch of post-teenybopping chicks in love with Banks wrote about his pinup-boy face on their high-profile weblogs? Well, maybe. But I can't understand why that would strike anybody as an invalid or inefficient method of choosing pop stars. New York City's blogs filled a discursive vacuum created by the mainstream print media's refusal to discuss local rock and roll culture. In so doing, their immediacy and enthusiasm forced those mainstream publications to pay more attention and actually make a few efforts to participate in indie rock dialogue. It didn't matter that the blogs weren't (and aren't) well-written; discourse is the oxygen of music subculture. It may not be pure, but as long as it's there, we can all breathe. And if it isn't there, boy, will you notice. That New Jersey's popscene has failed to produce our own bloggers ought to tell you all you need to know about our opinion of the necessity of discourse. The sad part is that we pretend our suffocation is somehow ennobling -- or that it's better to suffocate than to have twenty-two year-old girls determining which of us gets the coronation.
The problem with the NYC blogs isn't that they're elitist, or incestuous -- because what musical movement worth anything wouldn't choose to have strict and clannish gatekeepers? -- no, the problem with the blogs is that they're sexist. The groups they champion are almost entirely male. To be fair, Ms. Modernage, the young women at Divestar, Melody Nelson and the rest don't set themselves up to be rock or culture critics; they're just enthusiastic fans, writing about what they like to see. That defense works theoretically, but not in practice -- with influence comes responsibility. At this point, the bloggers are wide open to the charge that they're attempting to return rock and roll to the bad old days when the boys sang and the girls stood in the audience and screamed. Or snapped photos. For an allegedly feminist city, New York seems fine with the arrangement. Any critique of their culture begins here.
November 8, 2003
One other thing from the De Meglio interview I wanted to mention: she quotes me saying "there's too much music from the heart". In context, it sounds like I'm just trying to be a flippant bastard contrarian. Tomorrow I'm going to write up my response to the latest issue of Jersey Beat, but even before I do, I feel I should mention that in his review of Youth & Young Manhood by Kings of Leon, Jim Testa says that I consider "authenticity" and "credibility" meaningless concepts. Since it's very hard to champion artifice in a culture obsessed with "realness" without sounding like a soulless aesthete, I feel it's on me to provide some cursory explanations for these positions.
I think authenticity and emotion are fine as a direction, if those are the masks you really want to wear while performing. That only sounds cynical until you think about it. If you're up there peddling your authenticity and the purity of your emotion, you've really only got one subject to sing about: yourself. I don't encourage artists to confine themselves this way, and I think it's been a massive liability for the aesthetics of Jersey music that rampant and vulgar self-expression has become our dominant representational mode.
To put it more bluntly, we won't be able to compete with NYC until we recognize that it's okay to wear masks -- that the very nature of performance demands masks. If you're onstage, you're playing a role. The best artists work with this; they don't worry about authenticity, credibility, and personal emotion, but instead craft narrative from their own imaginative toolbox. The worst artists imply that having an imaginative toolbox is somehow reprehensible, and that performance should be a pure regurgitation of lived emotion. Well, I don't believe pure expression is possible, and if you're reading this, I'll bet that once you subject it to rigorous thought, you won't, either. Performance is a projection of character, and if you attempt to limit your projections to that which is personally credible based on your actual lived experience, you're not going to have very much to sing about.
This, in short, is the Jersey disease. More on this tomorrow.
November 7, 2003
When you run your own publicity campaigns, unless you're a natch at it, screwups happen; you don't get back to people in time, you can't coordinate pictures with text, you blow deadlines, you forget to pick up the paper on the day the article runs, etc. My website aside, I'm a really disorganized person, and the campaigns I run for myself are similarly scattershot. I egosurf on Google as religiously as the next megalomaniac, but I do it as much to remind me where the hell I sent records as for the jollies of seeing my name in print.
When Michele De Meglio from 24-7 magazine caught up with me for this interview, it was a few months ago; it ran, a bunch of people saw the photo and article and commented on it, but none of them bothered to pick up a copy. Grabbing it this weekend, it reads to me like an entry from my own personal time capsule. 24-7 is a Brooklyn magazine, so the writer forced herself to skew the story toward her audience. Nonetheless, even given her slant, the interview reads like I've got one foot out of Jersey and the other ready to spring. I'm glad I finally obtained a copy; it takes awhile, but I eventually get going, and I think Michele gets my key concepts on record while insuring that I still sound silly. Hmm, that's not too tough; I always sound silly. Here it is, slightly abridged:
Think synthesized music died in the 1980s? Think again. The new album by self-proclaimed "geek" Tris McCall is an ode to bubblegum pop infused with the musician's synthpunk. Unlike many bands that reject light fare tunes, McCall embraces it, proudly declaring "I like artificial music".
"I tend to really like the stuff that everybody hates, and I tend to hate the stuff everybody likes. The 1980s stuff that everybody hates I think is really brilliant. I do tend to like and strenuously defend bubblegum music," he explained.
The geek in the New Jersey local is fueled by life in his surrogate home -- Brooklyn. "Everyone in Williamsburg is a music nerd. Everyone is a bit geeky, and that's why I like it", the singer and synthesizer player said.
He may be from the Garden State, but McCall's bandmates are all Brooklynites. Rounding out the band are Martin Nienstedt of Bensonhurst on guitar, Greenpoint's Robin van Maarth on drums, bassist Sasha Alcott of Park Slope, Williamsburg electric violinist Karen Meehan, and singers Regan Solmo of Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope's Rachel Fishman.
The band's female predominance is unusual on the Brooklyn music scene. "The women are very kinetic," said McCall, adding that he would like to see more female artists in the borough. "I'd love that. Rock dogma has been dominated by male voices. It could use a new perspective".
McCall's perspective has been influenced by his favorite neighborhood where he spends 4-5 days each week. "I feel more at home in Brooklyn than I do almost anyplace else", he said.
A musician dedicated to his craft, the booming arts and music scene in Williamsburg is a safe haven for McCall. "As a kid, I always imagined being involved in an art scene or rock scene where everybody was mutually supportive, and I never thought I would find that," he said of the Brooklyn neighborhood. "There's a great combination of camaraderie and competition there. There's constant writing, constant discourse about music, and more than anything else, that's what keeps it fresh and interesting."
So why hasn't the artist packed his bags and relocated to the artistic community? "I can imagine getting way too comfortable there, and living in a much more insular way than I'd want to", he said.
McCall admits to lacking confidence in his composing and playing skills when he began strumming his acoustic guitar. "When I first started, I was terrible, and couldn't do anything. I was very bad. I was very bad at writing, and playing guitar. But I know I'm a good writer now."
His guitar quickly took a backseat to his beloved synthesizer that is now his highest musical priority. "The think I most want to be is a good instrumentalist", McCall said. "And I think I've just now moved past the stage where I fooled people into thinking I was a good instrumentalist, and into actually being a good instrumentalist!"
The artist has not only become more secure in the care of the synthesizer, his performances have been enhanced as well, making him unique among other musicians, he said. "I tend to throw myself around a lot, which is different from other synthesizer players," he said. "We try to make every show an event and we try to make every show a spectacle."
Funky, upbeat singles add to the excitement of the band's shows. McCall is most proud to play the jams from his new album, Shootout at the Sugar Factory. "Big narrative lyrics" fill a record completely focused on the art and architecture of New York and New Jersey. "All these songs are about how much I love built environments. It's love songs sung to the city, roads, highways, and the plastic face of public culture", McCall says.
Fiercely defending the town he loves against litterbugs in the mellow "Another Public Service Announcement", he sings "this town's got a bad rep/though it's a great place to be/It might seem like a small step/It matters to me/don't throw your wrappers in the bushes/don't leave your crap on the curb/this town's got a bad rep that it doesn't deserve".
Post September 11 life is discussed over the light dance track "A Commuter's Prayer". With lyrics easily relatable to city travelers, McCall softly sings "I freak out at every little rash/and they're stopping everybody with a moustache/man in a trenchcoat cursing 5-0 under his breath/lord won't you get me through Grand Central without horrible death."
The bouncy, retro beat of "Dancing To Architecture" works with the opening Brooklyn-related lyrics, "everything out of whack/has all been corrected wince you took me to the sack/now I'm staggering drunk at the beauty of Sunset Park." (I even make sense of the art books, Michele - TM)
Professing his love for all things metropolitan, the artist goes so far as to include a song about his local congressman entitled "Robert Menendez Basta Ya", who he says is "great".
Unique content is not only prominent in McCall's music, but also in the ones he is partial to. "I tend to like show pieces, theatrical music, stuff that seems like it's going to take chances and be ridiculous. I think there's too much music from the heart."
In a surprising contrast to his love of "artificial" and "bubblegum" tracks, McCall is a rabid hip-hop fan eager to bring the influence of his favorite artists -- De La Soul, Nas, KRS-ONE -- into his original songs. "Any time I'm putting a rhythm track together, I'm thinking of hip-hop", he said.
McCall is content playing for Brooklyn crowds that he declared are more observant of the little things. "Audiences in Brooklyn will catch all your references, which is not always the case when you play elsewhere. When you make references to an obscure record or phenomenon, they catch it.", McCall said. "They are more language-intensive than any other place that I've been to".
"The next record, scheduled for release in 2004, will be very, very explicitly about Brooklyn. It will be all about Williamsburg and my experiences playing there. Songs will juxtapose musicians with buildings, and emphasize how we should embrace our geekiness rather than being macho and trying to be tough guys on motorcycles".
Let's hear it for the nerds.
A few points: Am I really so reiterative and circular when I'm speaking? Of course I am, I'm a big rambler; that's why I became a writer. If I didn't put it in print, nobody would ever know what the hell I was on about. Phone interviews are pretty humbling. That said, I think I got off some good quotes in there, and I'm pleased I'm on the record somewhere calling Menendez great.
About the gender critique -- one I'm going to have to refine over the next few months before we wrap on the next record -- It's not that I want more female artists in Brooklyn, it's that I want them everywhere. Brooklyn is actually a much more comfortable place for girl bands than anywhere else I've ever been. I wouldn't argue that it's anywhere near as unusual to see a girl group in Brooklyn as it is to see one elsewhere.
But most of all, the reasons I give for not choosing to relocate to Williamsburg seem awfully flaccid. I mean, I stand by them, and I know exactly what I meant by them, but in an interview where I was more or less down on my knees kissing the tarmac on Bedford Avenue, they don't feel convincing. So was I misleading Ms. DeMeglio, or just guilty of muddled thinking? Well, probably a little of both; I can be entertaining in interviews, but my runaway imagination and rhetorical black-ice skids render my veracity perpetually suspect. And to be honest, my thinking wasn't very clear at that point; the summer had ended and with it the Hi-Vue era was coming to a close. I was trying not to be sentimental, but I was also having a hard time coming up with possible futures to believe in. We made the choice to come to Jersey City after some hard thinking, and it's clear that the Tris McCall who did this interview still had that hard thinking ahead of him. So if it's not accurate to characterize the piece as a missive from a currently inactive version of me, it is fair to say that I recognize the inchoate concepts here as the kind of conflicted thoughts you pick up (and sometimes even broadcast) from the crossroads.
But then this was the first interview I did for the Shootout, and it was bound to be a little bit unfocused. It's just my promotional ineptitude that prompted such a tardy response. Hmm, sometimes I think I'd better hire a publicist just to help me keep track of the unintended effects of my own hydra-headed discursive efforts.
November 5, 2003
I'm usually not up for hanging in cafes, but I have a feeling the Ground at 530 Jersey Avenue at Christopher Columbus is going to be inescapable. There are posters all over the walls advertising shows at Uncle Joe's (including a big one on the front door for Andy Action's Cardia), and a display rack in the middle of the floor contains CDs by the Ankles. Considering that Ankles mastermind Sean Towey is now involved in booking at Uncle Joe's -- and could possibly be responsible for their website redesign? -- it's safe to say that the Ground is a spot of some local indie rock importance. Hilary walked in a night or two ago, and Hefner was playing on the stereo. Yep, I'm going to be logging some hours at the Ground.
Other cafes seem shakier, less institutionalized. Holidays at 281 Grove appears African-American owned and run and looks attractive, but they're having a rent party this week, so keep your fingers crossed; it's my favorite spot I've seen so far, and I don't want it to shut down. The Euro Cafe is three blocks further north and offers pastries that you can pick up right off a cooling rack by the door. It's makeshift, but extremely comfortable. Ria's (24 Mercer St.) is across the street from City Hall, and doubles as a Caribbean restaurant. Everybody has been insanely nice so far; that's how you behave when you're new (I could be wrong, but all these places look recently established) and desperate for customers. I want them all to succeed so badly that I can't enjoy a visit; I watch the doors with the same apprehension and expectation I usually reserve for my marathon frets over turnout at my rock events. It's all I can do to resist the urge to jump out of my seat and implore sidewalk passersby to come in and get a goddamned roll. Tris McCall, one man spazmo Chamber of Commerce. And I don't even drink coffee.
It's clear that downtown development around Grove is as fragile as it is promising. Our vegetable market was our mainstay during the first week here; today I walked by and it's been closed for renovations. Now I have to worry about the fiscal health of the vegetable market? Damn, I already love Jersey City so much that it's giving me high blood pressure. Well, to care is to stress out, I suppose. See you at the Ground.
November 4, 2003
Kinda cold and damp today; no day for exploration, really. Yesterday's trip took us down to Exchange Place and the beautiful new Harborside Financial Center -- the recent construction along the Hudson, attractive enough to lure businesses away from the Manhattan battery. Well, the tax breaks had something to do with it, too. New Jersey has always provided a cut-rate alternative to New York City. We go after their businesses the old-fashioned way -- we whore our land out on the cheap. It might put some goregeous skyscrapers on the left bank of the Hudson, but it doesn't do much for our massive inferiority complex.
But we've got pride. Even when we're cap in hand, offering free room and board to New York City establishments, we still have our pride, dammit. Unfortunately, it's pride in the absence of faith; for what is a rate abatement if not an apology for our cities? Our refusal to believe that New Yorkers could want to relocate here is so deeply ingrained in our collective consciousness that we offer them tax breaks as a reflex. And so they come -- and they improve our cities, really they do -- and we have to clench our fists, and grit our teeth, and smile as they pay their 2% into the piddly Urban Enterprise Zone account we've provided for them as incentive to make the long, hard trip over to the wilds of Jersey. It bruises us. It improves our cities, it lights up our skyline, sure, but it also bruises us. And the pride engenders defensiveness, and the defensiveness ultimately festers into philistinism, primitivism and anti-intellectualism.
This is the atmosphere into which I've released Shootout At The Sugar Factory, my new album. Lacking a song as explanatory (or perhaps as conciliatory) as "The View From New Jersey"; my great fear is that the cold surfaces of the new record are striking native Jerseyans as ostentatious and overly cerebral. It's ironic: the Shootout is by no means as verbose as If One Of These Bottles Should Happen To Fall; but it's also nowhere near as warm. Because we didn't take pains to temper and even undercut my ardent intellectual's stance (as I did quite consciously with Bottles), I think I'm coming off as arrogant.
Well, hmm, I am arrogant. Gentle and usually sweet, sure, but pretty arrogant nonetheless. If because of Bottles it took my Jersey compadres a few years to pick up on that, I suppose I should view it as an uncommon gift, a nice grace period during which I had an opportunity to masquerade as man of the manor. But the moratorium appears to be over. Contrast, for instance, Mike Doktorski's glowing review of Bottles with his recently-posted reaction to the Shootout. Both are, superficially, positive reviews -- yet while the former is curious, open, and welcoming, the latter is cautionary and maybe even a little suspicious. Doktorski concludes his reaction to Shootout by suggesting that the album is probably over the heads of area listeners. Regardless of whether or not this is true (it honestly flatters me to think it is, but upon examination of the songs on the Shootout, a few of which really ain't too bright, I have to conclude it isn't), I'd never get a reaction like that from a NYC record reviewer. In New York, journalistic assumption is that any intended audience possesses enough critical intelligence to stay at least a step ahead of a goddamned rock and roll musician. On this side of the Hudson even the smartest writers -- and Doktorski, founder of New Brunswick Underground and prolific writer, is a smart cookie -- treat average joes and janes as more or less unwilling to work with cerebral artists.
As I've said before, the expectation that Jersey cats will resist intellectual writing (or, to be fair, any writing at all) has spilled into our unwillingness to get off our asses and produce a legitimate weekly arts publication. This, in turn, has created a discursive vaccuum and an accompanying self-fulfilling prophecy: we're told that Jersey bands don't desire serious intellectual engagement with their projects, and as long as none exists, there's no incentive for groups to attempt to tailor their work to the exacting standards of a critically-engaged readership. This just isn't the case in New York; Williamsburg may be lousy with wiseguys, but by definition a smartass is a person who at least tries to be smart. Publications strive to serve that readership, and New York rock benefits, ironically, from the expectation that the city is populated with junior wits and other wanna-bes.
At base, pop music obsessors are geeks, and geeks are brainy. Give them a pen and a place to spout, and whatever bank of the Hudson they call home, if they do take pop records seriously, they're going to attempt to engage with them in serious prose. Jeffrey Norman, proprietor of the hyperliterate Architectural Dance Society, recently posted this elegantly-worded reaction to the Shootout, during which he suggests that I thanked him in my most recent liner notes because of his longtime support of my projects. What Jeff doesn't realize is that it wouldn't have mattered if he'd slammed the hell out of my records. He'd still get props from Tris McCall for applying serious critical smarts to everything he writes. Hey, I thank Glenn McDonald, too, and as far as I know he's never even heard any of my music.
Even if anti-intellectualism really is our state flower, I can't believe I'm the only person on this side of the river who is starved for the kind of engagement Norman, McDonald, and other pop geeks bring to their music and culture writing. More than anything else -- more than that new club, more than those major label scouts -- that kind of rigorous engagement is what Jersey music culture so desperately needs.
November 3, 2003
Let me get it on the record right now that there was a period in 2002 where a move to Brooklyn was looking distinctively possible, if not exactly attractive. But we went into the desert with that particular serpent, and when we emerged, Hilary had a job at New Jersey City University, and we were packing up the Hi-Vue for points south. Well, about forty blocks south.
We stick it out in New Jersey with great enthusiasm, love, and hope, but not without a certain trepidation. It is fair to say that over the past three years since the release of If One Of These Bottles Should Happen To Fall, much of our lives have moved to Brooklyn without us. I practice three times a week in Brooklyn. The other six members of my group live in Brooklyn. My recording company and studio are in Brooklyn. I read Brooklyn-based magazines. The vast majority of the shows we attend are in Brooklyn; birthday parties, social visits, shopping -- you name it, more often than not, we do it in Williamsburg. Of my original tightly-knit group of highschool friends, New Jersey loyalists all, I'm the only one left on this side of the Hudson.
I wish I could say this happened by accident. But I know better. Brooklyn is an attractive proposition for us -- all of us who're reading this, I'd reckon -- because it offers the glittering possibility of the intellectual stimulation of a community that's been entirely manufactured by our peers. Brooklyn is deliberately literate and relentlessly literary, and I cannot blame bookish Jerseyans who run crying to Park Slope, away from counties with a handful of struggling independent booksellers to a borough where prose seems to ooze out of the brownstones. That all makes sense to me.
But I can't say it makes sense for me. If Brooklyn offers the comfort of familiarity and the promise of a geek habitat, it does so in part by sealing its borders. I know I've hammered on this piano note for far too many measures now, but it's still true -- I continue to find hipster outerborough neighborhoods to be culturally segregated to an almost unbearable degree. When I'm there, I enjoy that segregation as much as anybody who every wanted to walk down the street surrounded by aesthetes who can sing every word of "Who Loves The Sun". In high school, I remember sitting in my suburban bedroom and feeling like I'd probably have to hop a plane to get in touch with others who shared my values and frame of reference. It was hard not to crave that connection -- that instinctive understanding -- and I won't pretend I don't have moments where I still crave it.
Yet somewhere along the line, I started getting suspicious of comfort. One of the reasons I respect Hudson County so much is becuase it's a difficult place to settle into easily; it's got jagged edges and sharp points, and cultural irruptions happen regularly. There's no analogue here to Bedford Avenue or Montague Street -- no strip of territory that has been culturally colonized by my largely white and male aesthete peers. (No, Hoboken does not qualify). That means on a certain level we can't compete -- we can't have the kind of tightly-woven rock scene and the aesthetic fission that goes along with an intensely immersive subculture. But we're also nowhere near as insular; we have a wider range of influences and stimuli.
For four years, we held the line in Union City, at the crest of the palisade. Our neighborhood consisted almost entirely of Spanish-speaking Cuban expats. There was no local indie record store or newsstand; if you were so inclined, you could go up to Bergenline Avenue and purchase as many salsa, merengue and Latin-music records as you could. But if you weren't Latino yourself, your desire to participate in the local musical subculture could never be entirely satisfied. If you know me, you realize that no matter how much I love salsa and merengue (and I do), no matter how finely I hone my Spanish-comprehension skills, my demeanor and sensibilities mark me indelibly as the Anglo outsider. A friendly one, sure, sympathetic even, but never the true paisan. And I'm fine with that, especially after a long day discussing indie rock minutia in Williamsburg. Still, our decision to stick it out in the U.C. as long as we did must have appeared somewhat peculiar to those who expected me to fly the North Jersey rock and roll flag from fertile territory. There wasn't anyplace on the palisade to plant it, and eventually your arm does get tired.
You also get lonely. I wanted to be part of an enterprise worth doing, and no matter how expansive your imagination might be, that's not something you can manufacture in your bedroom. For me, the choice was simple: either I could cash in my chips and join the rest of the crowd in Williamsburg, or try to figure out a way to make North Jersey work.
We chose the latter. Nobody is going to mistake downtown Jersey City for the Lower East Side, but I see no reason why we couldn't build a viable aesthetic alternative to the Brooklyn experience here on this side of the Hudson. We've got the smattering of bars and cafes, we've got the hipsters, we've even got a venue or two. I've praised the Uncle Joe's initiative; I figure it's about time I actually went to the club every now and then. Hey, I remember when Williamsburg was nothing but the Charleston, Beacon's Closet, the Grey Parrot, and a bunch of enterprising settlers -- most of whom have since moved on. Collectively, they left a stamp on the neighborhood, though. With your help, I'd like to try to leave a comparable imprint -- sophisticated, perhaps, but characteristically Jerseyan in its egalitarian sensibility -- out here in the shadow of Grove Street Station.
So while I'll still be in Brooklyn regularly (perhaps even more regularly now that I'm virtually living inside the PATH tubes), I'm not going to straddle the line anymore. My group, my friends, God bless them all, are Brooklyn writers and poets; brilliant ones, too, worthy of the mantle of their storied borough. I'm not, and I've decided I don't particularly care to be. I'm a Jersey artist. Jersey made me what I am, and I am duty bound to attempt to return the favor. I had my moment of temptation, and I got over it; over here in the Garden State, I was offered the big apple.
I turned it down. I'm in for keeps.
November 2, 2003
A quick round-up of comments, opinions and responses I couldn't post while I was offline. They're in no particular order. If I left out yours, brain me with a frying pan or something.
- Astonishing sonic event of the year: the Brought Low in midday at an outdoor Brooklyn street festival. Through force of musicianship and maniacal drive, those guys managed to make Atlantic Avenue sound as ferocious and intimate as CBGB. Two rivers away, at the Hoboken Street Fair, the usual grandma- palatable, middlebrow acts were busy boring the pants off of everybody on Washington Street. And we continued to hemmorhage talent and energy to Williamsburg...
- I say it again: if Indie Rock Nation ever wants to reconcile with the rest of America, we're going to have to cease scheduling the CMJ festival for the weekend of the World Series. The obliviousness feigned by the organizers is not at all becoming. There's nothing cool or improving about pretending to be "above" baseball.
- As a resolute indie, I always insist on doing my own publicity campaigns -- not because of any real objection to the standard rhetoric of self-promotion, but because of my pathological fear of having anybody else speak for me. So I set myself up for intense frustration. Those who choose not to hire outside publicists are viewed like criminal defendants who act as their own lawyers. You can be incredibly rational, persuasive and forceful, but the judge is still going to think you're insane.
- Rock critic Joe S. Harrington, longtime and fervent supporter of my music, will be at the Barnes and Noble in 660 Beacon Street, Kenmore Square in Boston at 7:00 PM this Tuesday. He'll be reading from Sonic Cool, a book so visionary it calls me and Marianne Nowottny two of rock and roll's best hopes (no, I'm not kidding!) If you're in Boston on Tuesday, swing by and remind all the Tris McCall fans in the house that it's election day, and they'd better have voted.
- And while I'm announcing stuff: Brad Krumholz, one of my oldest and best friends, has returned to NYC from his retreat in the wilds of the Catskills to host a monthlong residency at the Ohio Theatre. His group will be performing two pieces -- a sex nightmare (complete with plenty of nudie scenes) called Terrotica, and a re-presentation of Tannis Kowalchuk's solo interpretation of The Passion According To G.H. If you have any taste for experimental or movement-based theater, go on and visit the NaCl website for showtimes and further details.
- As an Outkast fan since "Player's Ball", it pained me to admit that I found Stankonia something of a chore to sit through. Despite the presence of the two killer singles and the very good "So Fresh, So Clean", I found much of the album more admirable than enjoyable; dizzying, colorful, and kaleidoscopic, but also dense, confusing, reiterative, and occasionally shrill. So I'm pleased that there's nothing offputting about Speakerboxxx and the studiously bizarre Love Below; confounding expectations, they turn out to be the most joyous and compelling albums the group has done since ATLiens. Which isn't to say that the double album doesn't contain wack elements -- Andre Benjamin's set alone contains some of the most godawful vocal performances I've heard since 69 Love Songs (the experience Speakerboxxx/The Love Below most frequently resembles in effect) and the drum 'n' bass version of "My Favorite Things" is every bit as diligent and painful as Aceyalone's reading of "Jabberwocky". But the magnitude of personality and internal coherence on these albums is stupefying. If you're the War & Peace type, and you've got the time to put into it, you won't encounter a more rewarding musical experience this year than a listen to Speakerboxxx/The Love Below from top to bottom. And the best song is the very last.
- It may not be a big deal for you, but if you're a fan of fey synth-pop and general wussiness, you couldn't ask for a better Halloween present than the stateside release of A Certain Evening Light. This Trembling Blue Stars compilation collects non-LP Shinkansen tracks and B-sides dating back to Her Handwriting in '96. Robert Wratten -- who has made a mini-career out of his own romantic longing and desolation -- even cheers up enough to drop us all a callous little rejection of emotion. "Keeping your heart broken is too much like hard work", he sings in the uncharacteristically sprightly "It's Easier To Smile". It's buried fourteen songs deep into the album, but Bob, I got the message. And in quasi-related wimp-rock news:
- With 138 Americans killed in Iraq since the infamous declaration of the end of major combat operations, and untold numbers of soldiers getting limbs blown off by RPGs in the combat zone, I find myself utterly unable to get worked up over Elliott Smith's suicide.
- The onus is now on the members of the rest of the Democratic field to show us why and how they offer a viable alternative to Howard Dean. That said, Dean is running like a man determined to win a primary, not one driven to capture the White House. His "trade policy" is really mystifying me; Bill Clinton didn't win two terms by dissing the Bretton Woods organizations and thumbing his nose at Wall Street money. I'm sure denying labor endorsements to Dick Gephardt will feel great in January, but it's not going to mean a damned thing against Bush a year from now. I know the Dean people are very proud of their Internet fundraising (and rightfully so), but outspending Dennis Kucinich is not the object of the game. Dean's war chest is chump change next to the Republicans' mind-blowing bankroll, and if he's serious about going toe-to-toe with Bush, he's going to have to learn to play nice with Robert Rubin and his pals at Goldman Sachs. Otherwise, he's dead in the water.
- I am currently having my mind blown by the Charles Jacobs 1943 translation of Martin Luther's Three Treatises, written at the dawn of the reformation in 1520, but all of which read like hypercaffeinated Internet rants. I add this in case you're interested in theology, in which case, I have a few other... oh, no, no, I didn't really think you were.
- My godfather checked out of Jersey City just as we checked in. Rest in peace, Louis V. Saliceti. You'll be missed.
November 1, 2003
It's good to be back.
We're all set up in a new apartment tentatively named The Perception Room. I'm here to investigate the local rock and roll subculture and make a fool of myself in the name of my own Jersey pride. Now that I'm drunk with new Internet access, it's easy to think I'll be updating this space every day, even if it's just to say I didn't encounter anything particularly rocking. It might just be the magic of the evening light, but looking out our back window at the row houses and glass-paneled office buildings on Montgomery Street, I cannot imagine there'll be too many days like that.
Jersey City people -- send me your local recommendations, show announcements, retaurant reviews, urban planning commentaries, shortcuts to the PATH terminals, maps, poems, blueprints and big ambitions. I am ready to go.
In perpetuity or until Summersault goes under, it's firstname.lastname@example.org, early and often.
"When I die I want to be buried in Hudson County, so I can still be active in politics." -- Governor Brendan Byrne