The New York Times New York Region
Skip to article
NYTimes.com Log In - Register Now
New York/Region Home The City Metro Campaigns Columns New York/Region Opinions
Our Towns

New Jersey's Politicians Have Records. He Has CD's.

Published: June 8, 2005

Jersey City

TRIS McCALL has magnets on his refrigerator of James J. Florio, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Edna St. Vincent Millay. It's probably safe to assume he's the world's only rock musician whose work has been inspired in large part by the book "New Jersey's Multiple Municipal Madness," by a former Assembly speaker, Alan J. Karcher, or who felt a need to include a detailed Hudson County glossary full of the names of local politicians and haunts with one of his CD's.

Skip to next paragraph
Norman Y. Lono for The New York Times

Tris McCall, a musician, is intrigued with New Jersey life and politics. Among his songs is "Scatter My Ashes on the New Jersey Turnpike."

He has written songs about a congressman ("Robert Menendez Basta Ya!"), a mayor ("The Ballad of You and Me and Bret Schundler"), an imaginary but incredibly noble state agency ("The New Jersey Department of Public Works") and put to music an obscure poem about a former governor ("Dear Governor Kean"). Others include a hip-hop shout-out to scads of New Jersey politicians ("It's Not the Money, It's the Principle"), a heartfelt plea against littering ("Another Public Service Announcement") and an apocalyptic farewell ("Scatter My Ashes on the New Jersey Turnpike").

Yesterday was Primary Day in New Jersey - it always seems to be an election in New Jersey - an occasion often known to engender cynicism or resignation. But it also engenders the kind of passion that people in neighboring states might found baffling. And if you really wanted to understand the sense of impassioned, aggrieved, engaged localism that defines New Jersey, you could do worse than spend time with Mr. McCall, the plugged-in, Internet-era muse of Jersey City.

Mr. McCall, a 33-year-old New Jersey lifer, wears two seemingly contradictory hats. In one he runs a Web site, the Tris McCall Report, in which local elections, the closing of a favored rock club and the death of an artists' loft building take on World War III proportions. He also does his best imitation of a humble beat reporter for a local newspaper, sitting down with the mayor or county executive to ask earnest questions about tax abatements, arts district designations or property revaluations.

In his other guise, he puts out obscure but quite dazzling rock, or what's been described as "synth-driven, dance-floor-conscious indie-rock" - CD's that are informed at their core by a sense of intense Jersey-tude. They sell next to nothing but have made him a cult figure among indie-pop aficionados. (One critic who follows the indie world compared him to Bruce Springsteen and called him "the Dylan of our age.") Art imitates life on June 17 when he'll perform his political songs at the rotunda of the Brennan County Courthouse in Jersey City.

Mr. McCall's songs are the opposite of a Jersey joke. In his songs, New Jersey is the center of the world, without apology. The subtitle, "Jersey Songs," on his CD "If One of These Bottles Should Happen to Fall" is utterly superfluous.

"I think very locally; I like doing songs for people in my hometown who are interested in what I'm doing," he said. "It goes back to that Jersey skepticism. I feel if it's not in front of me, what the heck do I know about it? It's why I'm reluctant to tour. I'm not sure I have something to say that would interest people in Muncie, Ind."

SO he describes "Robert Menendez Basta Ya," for example, as the mix of meringue, disco and salsa he heard from his window when he lived in Union City, and a meditation on the way people put their hopes on Mr. Menendez for a better life.

"Most Jersey bands are emo bands, they're writing about their emotions - how they've been hurt in a relationship or something," said Mr. McCall, who has the shaggy, low-key air of a smart sociology graduate student. "It's the Jersey way; we wear our hearts on our sleeves.

"I don't think what I do is that different. I'm trying to tap into the way that civic and public life makes me feel and the way it makes other people feel. I did an interview with 'Roll Call,' from Washington and they wanted to know my position on Congressman Menendez. And I tried to explain, it's not about taking a position, it's about waking up and seeing his signs everyplace, like the entirety of Union City had its hopes invested in this guy."

Still, even in song, New Jersey politics can be perilous turf. He did his comradely shout-out to Hudson County politicians just before a corruption scandal left some in disgrace or in jail. "I get lots of hate mail from people who say I'm too soft on them," he said. "But my world view is more that of 'The Last Hurrah,' or 'Plunkitt of Tammany Hall,' full of flawed characters who don't necessarily start out crooked. And if they go bad, where did they go bad? How come? I definitely have some sympathy for the devil."

Email: peappl@nytimes.com