29 June 2006

The Rat Community

Yep, the Bay Area again. The Chronicle reports an outcry from rat fanciers far and wide after over a thousand rats found scampering around the one-bedroom Petaluma home of a mentally challenged retired armed robber, many of them with "eyeballs missing, teeth growing into the opposite jaw, huge abscesses with open wounds," were disposed of, as in killed, by the animal control agency called in to deal with them.

"An unspeakable injustice to those rats who deserved better," fumes one "self-described rat lover." "Maybe they would have been better advised to leave the animals in their horrible conditions until we, the rat community, had a few days to get moving," moans another, who adds that she and fellow nyfitsaphiles will be "scrutinizing Petaluma's actions and culpability for this slaughter."

But apparently it's me who's the oddball here. A quick Google search for "rat lovers" provides over 25,000 references, including You Know You're A Rat Lover When... "you hear that New York City is overrun with rats and you just don't see the problem."

Worse Than Everywhere Else

Going for a walk with Aaron Cometbus often means stopping and browsing at any place in Manhattan or Brooklyn where two or more books are gathered together, and the other day was no exception. Being already caught up in Roth's Zuckerman trilogy, not to mention the World Cup, new reading material was low on my list of priorities, but in a SoHo charity shop, a memoir called Made In Detroit practically jumped off the shelf at me.

Author Paul Clemens was born in 1973, when Detroit's freefall into post-apocalyptic squalor was just getting underway, and grew up in one of the few white families remaining on the city's beleaguered East Side, not terribly far from where I was born. My parents, however, had either the luck or foresight to get out years earlier, and though we often visited relatives in the neighborhood, by 1973 most of them had abandoned ship for the suburbs and I had left Michigan altogether.

In far-off California, I was vaguely conscious of Detroit's disastrous decline, both from news reports and my parents' doleful comments from time to time, but the full extent of it never really sunk in until a visit in 1989, when my dad took me on a driving tour of the old neighborhoods where he and my mother had lived, worked, and courted and found most of them reduced to empty fields and wasteland. "That's where I used to catch the streetcar to work," he'd say, pointing to a rubble-strewn expanse where, if you looked closely, you could see that a row of storefronts once stood. "Your mother and I sometimes would go dancing over there," he told me, gesturing vaguely in the direction of some scruffy fields that seemed to stretch halfway to the West Side. He did his best, in that matter-of-fact Michigan accent of his, to sound as though Detroit's ruin was "just one of those things," but it was one of the few times in his life that I saw him close to tears.

Still in the latter throes of my doctrinaire left-wing phase, I wrote a couple articles at the time blaming it all on rich white suburbanites and greedy corporations who, as in Michael Moore's fantasy Roger And Me, had supposedly milked the city of its wealth and hung it out to dry. What was the alternative? If you couldn't blame whitey, you'd have to ask some very tough questions of Detroit's more than 80% black population and its Third World-style strongman mayor, Coleman (aka "Soulman") Young, who in his 20 years of virtually unchallenged power, ran the city much as Robert Mugabe has run Zimbabwe, i.e., into the ground.

Like Mugabe, Young engaged in a process of ethnic cleansing that saw Detroit's population decline by nearly a million people, the vast majority of them white, and also as with Mugabe, the fewer whites remained, the more they were blamed for the city's downfall. Once the fourth largest city in the USA and the principal engine of American industry, as of the year 2000 it had declined to 14th, and in terms of economics and crime, degenerated into what Ze'ev Chafets, in his book Devil's Night (named after the quaint custom of trying to burn down as much of the city as possible on the night before Halloween), called "the first major Third World city in the United States. The trappings area are all there - showcase projects, black-fisted symbols, an external enemy and the cult of personality."

You can argue over how much of the responsibility should be laid at Young's doorstep. After all, most American Rust Belt cities were in decline during those years, though few if any so precipitously as Detroit. Unlike Detroit, though, most of them have managed to recover to some degree. About the best you can say for Detroit is that it may - finally - have arrested its freefall.

If so, that would probably be no thanks to the new Coleman, the self-styled "hip hop mayor," Kwame Kilpatrick, who tools about the city like P. Diddy would if he were dictator-for-life of some failed African state. Like Young, Kilpatrick responds to any and all criticism by playing the race card: when his nearly-bankrupt city was found to be footing the bill for multiple Lincoln Navigators and champagne-and-strippers parties at the mayoral mansion, one of his lackeys complained that the media were only making an issue of it because "black men weren't supposed to have those sorts of things." When he was attacked for blowing $130,000 on bottled water for favored employees in a city that was not only broke, but allegedly - according to the mayor, anway - had "the best tap water in the world," Hizzoner responded with, "Slavery is over. We don’t need for massa to tell us to get some water."

Clemens acknowledges that there was a lot of white racism in the Detroit of his youth, as there was in the Detroit of my youth a couple decades earlier. In fact, much of his book is an attempt to come to terms with two apparently conflicting realities: on one hand, Detroit's collapse coincided rather precisely with the period in which it became an overwhelmingly African-American city; on the other hand, many of the individual black people with whom Clemens grew up, played sports with, interacted with and befriended, were perfectly decent people who he respected and in some cases loved. So how do you square that particular circle?

In a way, Clemens' experience was the inverse of mine. Although I grew up only two miles from Outer Drive, the line that divided white from black on the south side of the then very segregated city, I never had much direct contact with black people until I went to work in the auto factories and steel mills. So I was a good liberal, as I'd been raised to be, and secretary of our high school's Human Rights Club, which sprang up in the wake of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream speech" and whose big accomplishment was to bring real live inner city Negro student to our school for a day for our all-white student body to gawk at. I remember thinking that she looked awfully nervous, but at the time couldn't understand why. Yet the very next summer (1964) a rumor spread through school that a Negro family had moved into the neighborhood, and at a teenage dance, our local tough guys (aka my friends and gang mates) were frothing at the mouth about how we were "gonna burn those niggers out." The rumor was false and no such thing happened, but the really scary thing was how quickly I was prepared to discard all my Human Rights Club philosophies and go along with the mob.

But that was only a brief aberration; by the following year I was reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and talking up Black Power, and when Darrell phoned me that Sunday morning in 1967 to shout, "The spades are burning down the motherfucking city!" it was implicitly understood by both of us that this was a Good Thing. So good, in fact, that we immediately jumped in his car and drove downtown to join in the fun, blithely indifferent to the fact that snipers atop buildings were expressing their hostility to the system by randomly picking off passersby who wandered into target range.

While white suburban homeowners sat astride their front porches with shotguns and rifles prepared for the Negro invasion that never materialized, young whites like Darrell and myself cheered on the carnage. We were convinced that Detroit was so bad that a massive incineration of its core could only be an improvement. I came home marveling that the inner city looked like the ruins of Berlin after World War II; my dad, who'd actually been in Germany during the war, snapped, "Don't be ridiculous." But he was wrong, if not just yet, then eventually, with the difference that within ten years Berlin was a thriving city again. Almost forty years later, Detroit has not, and perhaps never will.

I was wrong, too, thinking that any good could possibly come out of the riots, and even more wrong to hate my city with such a passion when I was growing up. Yes, it was ugly and crass and stunk of pollution, and continually cannibalized itself to the point that most of its 300-year heritage had been turned into parking lots and factories and chemical plants long before the rioters took their turn. But it was also a half-decent place to live, one which afforded opportunities and jobs to millions of people - of all nationalities and races - who'd never had them before. It was a hardscrabble life, but anybody, whether illiterate immigrant or dispossessed sharecropper - could through sufficient hard work soon own his first house, his first car, and raise a family in relative security. Being allergic to both hard work and basic decency at the time, I could see little value in this, but now that it's all been swept away, it's a little easier to understand why my father got so annoyed when I was running down his home town. Now that my home town isn't really there anymore, I miss it too.

But the Detroit psychology is perhaps best summed up by Louis-Ferdinand Céline in his Journey To The End Of The Night. Clemens describes how he came to the city when Detroit was "at its incontestable peak," its factories booming, its population nearly doubling every ten years, and its automobiles on the verge of transforming the world's entire cultural and social landscape. Yet as Clemens recounts:
After leaving behind World War I battlefields, Paris slums, and malarial African jungles, Céline's restless narrator makes his way to the Motor City, to work in the Ford factory. At the beginning of the first Detroit chapter he says, in an observation yet to be improved upon: "It was even worse than everywhere else."

28 June 2006

The Right People

Trundling down Broadway - as you do - I noticed a billboard advertising the Los Angeles Times. Strange, I thought; while the LA Times is a perfectly fine newspaper, New York already has its own probably even better Times, and with New Yorkers barely able to interest themselves in what goes on in the Outer Boroughs, it's hard to imagine them being much concerned with happenings in far-flung La-La Land.

Then I looked more closely, and it turns out that the billboard wasn't actually advocating that you read the LA Times, it was urging you to advertise in it. By doing so, it promised, you could reach "3.3 million of the right people every Sunday." Okay, I thought, but of the many thousands of people who travel down that stretch of Broadway on a given day, how many of them are ad execs who have the power to make major purchasing decisions? And how many among them would not already be aware that the Los Angeles Times has a large circulation and accepts advertising?

I'm guessing maybe one or two per week? Or month? If that. Now most billboards are aimed at the masses: if you put up a McDonald's or Pepsi ad, I assume the idea is that out of the hundreds of thousands of people who walk or drive past it, a significant percentage will, consciously or not, get the idea of grabbing a hamburger or soda at the next opportunity. But that's the point: almost anyone who sees the billboard can come up with the buck or two to respond to it. But almost none of them is in a position to lay out hundreds of thousands of dollars for an ad in the West Coast's biggest newspaper.

And this was no shrinking violet of a billboard. Cut into rectangles, it could be reconfigured into a bigger apartment than I could ever afford in New York City. It must have cost a fortune to put up on Broadway - the spotlighting alone could light up at least the infield of Yankee Stadium - yet it's entirely possible that not a single ad has ever been placed in the Los Angeles Times as a result of its being there.

Never mind, though; it's the LA Times' money to spend as they please, and maybe it's important to someone out there that they be name-checked on Broadway. Or maybe the real point is make sure their newspaper is not forgotten about by "the right people," of whom I am apparently now one. But I still doubt I'm going to read the damn thing, let alone advertise in it.

Afternoon At The Movies

Had to go into Manhattan early today, at the ungodly hour of 9:30, to be filmed for yet another Green Day documentary (who still watches these things anyway?) and was shocked to find the subway crammed with people headed in the same direction, also apparently with the intention of conducting some sort of business or work. Who knew? This sort of thing apparently goes on every morning, and I will have to remind myself of that next time I catch myself agonizing about not having a job like normal people. Apparently the world of the abnormal is not without its compensations.

Filming wrapped up by noon or so, and since I was in the area, I tried to track down the illustrious Chadd Derkins, who works nearby, to see if we could set up an inpromptu lunch appointment, but no luck. Tried another job-having crony on the West Side, with similar non-results. By this time it was getting toward 1:30 and I found myself in front of the Clearview cinema on W 23 St. Hmmm, I mused, wasn't I just complaining about not having seen a movie in ages? Did I have to be anywhere else for the next two hours? Yes and no, respectively, and I bought a ticket for Click, the new Adam Sandler film.

Now I don't know whether it's respectable to admit this, but I've always had a soft spot for Adam Sandler. True, much of his humor is obnoxious and infantile, but then so is much of mine. Even the fact that he makes millions of dollars from his and I mostly just annoy people with mine hasn't been enough to put me off, and I think that's because Sandler so clearly enjoys what he's doing, and I in turn enjoy seeing that. For all I know, he may be impossible to deal with in real life, but in his film persona, at least, he comes across like a man who's managed to blend many of the best qualities of childhood into his adult life.

All I was looking for this afternoon was a little laughter and escapism, but I got much more than I bargained for. The first half of the film was hilarious, often in the usual juvenile, slapstick way (Sandler tormenting the neighborhood brat was hilarious, and the row of kids behind me laughed just as loud as I did), but then it unexpectedly slipped into serious drama, and I don't mean that in a bad way at all. There were still lots of funny bits to keep it lively and flowing, but before you knew it, you'd been led into an examination of some of life's (and death's) Big Questions.

The premise of the film is that Sandler acquires a device enabling him to fast forward through life's difficult, boring or unpleasant bits; the fairly predictable catch is that without them, there's not much left to life. There's an angel involved, too, and if this is beginning to sound like It's A Wonderful Life, that's probably not coincidental. If, of course, you hated It's A Wonderful Life, you might as well stop reading now, but I loved that film, I loved this one, and Click, in my opinion, is a worthy successor. I laughed, I cried, I felt re-invigorated and uplifted, and in my book, that's my money's worth gotten, even at $10.50 (for an afternoon matinee, though?). And whether you want to believe it or not, that Adam Sandler can actually act. It's good to see my faith in the boy wasn't misplaced.

The Town That Has Yet To Get Over Itself

You knew I had to be talking about Berkeley, right?

Okay, could have been San Francisco too, but same difference. In the latest news from America's largest unenclosed playpen for superannuated radicals, the Berkeley City Council has put the world on notice with a ballot measure advocating the impeachment of both George Bush and Dick Cheney.

What? You say the world is unlikely to notice, let alone take seriously, pronouncements on national or international policy from a city that can barely manage its own finances or educate its own children? Why, you are far too cynical. Everyone knows that Berkeley and its politicians are much stronger on the big-picture issues than on that minor-league local stuff, and if once-vibrant commercial districts are degenerating into day care homes for beggars and petty criminals, well, no doubt that's the Republicans' fault, too, even if one hasn't been sighted within the city limits since 1969.

The City Council did, however, decide not to set up a task force to "monitor" the President and Vice-President. No doubt Bush and Cheney are sleeping easier tonight knowing they've managed to dodge that bullet.

Unsettling In

Apologies for the lack of updates this past week. Not sure what happened: decompression from the fest, perhaps, about which I had planned to write more, and hopefully still will, or perhaps a vague bout of angst and anomie as the realities of taking up residence in a new city begin to sink in.

One thing I hadn't wanted, and which I'm nevertheless forced to admit is happening, was to simply transfer my London lifestyle in toto to a new geographical setting. Had I been satisfied with the way I was living in London, it would hardly have seemed worth the effort to uproot myself, but as it happened, I wasn't. Life there felt rootless, disconnected, and too much of my daily routine involved either the internet or wandering the streets in a fairly predetermined if largely pointless circuit around the West End and Soho.

I've got nothing against wandering the streets in principle, and aimless wandering can be even better in my book, but when it's the same few streets over and over, and you don't even know particularly why, except perhaps that you're slightly more likely to run into someone you know there, it can be a bit dispiriting. The fact that London was replete with wander-able streets made it far more attractive to me than Berkeley, where you can also wander through your choice of bohemian suburbia or edgy ghetto, but unlike London, are not likely to wind up anywhere more salubrious and stimulating than the Telegraph Avenue homeless encampment or the Shattuck Avenue beggars' arcade.

But London had also begun to pall some time ago; I just didn't want to admit it for fear of people quoting Samuel Johnson at me. Plus I was worried that it might not be London, but me that was the problem. Every time I'd come back from a visit to New York I'd bore all and sundry with how much better things were Over There. Cleaner, safer, the subway ran all night, cafes and bookshops stayed open past 8 pm, people were friendlier and more open-minded, etc. etc. And all that continues to be true, but the one thing that held me back from moving to New York was my fear that if, when I got there, it wasn't exciting or rewarding or fulfilling enough, there would be no place left to go. After all, for years I'd romanticized and fantasized about London, convinced that once I was able to move there on a full-time basis, my life would finally begin, and yet within a few years, London began to feel like a dull provincial town, constraining and confining me.

Clearly this was not many other people's experience of London: not only did I meet people on a daily basis who were simply ecstatic to be living in what they considered (and what I had once similarly considered) the greatest city on earth, but people from the USA and other countries regularly told me how much they envied my being able to live there. And even when I transferred the "greatest city on earth" mantle to New York, it wasn't as though I'd completely gone off London; I'd only downgraded it slightly, to New York's more stolid and less glamorous twin.

But - and here's the worry - after only a few weeks I find myself doing exactly what I'd hoped I wouldn't, taking up a less than fulfilling routine of internet surfing and aimless wandering over a predetermined circuit; all I seem to have done is to substitute the East and West Villages for the West End and Soho. Ten thousand restaurants within walking distance and I patronize the same handful of pizza, coffee and sandwich joints. More movies and plays and clubs on offer than probably anywhere in the world, and I haven't seen or entered a single one. Eight million people and I often go for days at a time without talking to anyone apart from a sales clerk or telemarketer.

So it wasn't London, apparently, or perhaps even Berkeley that was lacking; the trouble apparently lies in me. That doesn't mean I'm not happy to be in New York. On the contrary, just knowing I'm here gives me a thrill even on days where I barely set foot out of my door. But there's a near-constant sense that I'm not making anywhere near the use I could out of the mass of opportunities this city offers, and I guess that's just today's metaphor for life in general. How long have I felt this way? Oh, since the mid to late 1950s, I'd reckon, but being cast adrift in The Greatest City On Earth puts it in especially sharp relief.

27 June 2006

G-Had and Guevara

The Guardian seems a bit miffed about this new hip hop record. Not because it romanticizes suicide bombings or looks forward to the destruction of America by Islamofascism - those barely qualify as controversial topics in Guardian-land - but because the Bradford-born troubadour of terror has - shock, horror - likened Osama bin Laden to the sacrosanct Che Guevara.

Apparently thinking it self-evident, they don't bother explaining what exactly differentiates bin Laden from Guevara; apart from the fact that the latter is more photogenic and thus better equipped for selling t-shirts, I can't think of a whole lot. Both are/were megalomaniacs prepared to commit mass murder in pursuit of a nutty ideology, both have a certain appeal to angry and frustrated adolescents of all ages, and both are/were devotees of "the nihilist cult of murder and suicide" combined with a "paranoid and utopian mythology" that in Paul Berman's estimation, produce great totalitarian movements like Stalinism, fascism, Nazism, Ba'athism, and Islamism.

But to Guardianistas, especially those of a certain age - anywhere from 60s diehards to RATM teens - Che will always be the James Dean of international terrorism: lived fast, died young, and left a relatively good-looking corpse (I never went for the bearded types myself, but they seem to strike a chord with seekers after the messianic). And really, he didn't kill that many people, did he? And those he did murder were mostly obscure South Americans and Africans, nobody of much consequence, really. I mean, it's not like he killed actual Europeans or Americans like bin Laden, and maybe that's why he gets to be a romantic revolutionary while bin Laden gets saddled with all the bad press.

But now rapper G-Had has squared that particular circle and helpfully pointed out that both dudes were more or less on the same page. If the Guardian doesn't like it, it can't be all bad news.

18 June 2006


The above word may or may not mean "overview of the fest," or "outlook on the fest," or something close enough. I'm too lazy and preoccupied with watching Korea v. France to look it up, and anyway, since I just made the word up a minute ago, it may not be in the dictionary yet. Australia v. Brazil was a disappointment on two counts: I dearly want Brazil knocked out of the tournament before they get to the final rounds for the same reasons I dance and sing whenever Man United or Arsenal are humiliated by lowly opposition, and because I'm sick of looking at them, hearing about them, and most of all, sick of their fans.

At the same time (go ahead, call me Mr. Negative) I'm almost as passionately hoping to see Argentina, Germany and Italy eliminated, though I guess I'll have to scratch Italy off that list, since they have to beat the Czech Republic for the USA to have a chance to go through. Speaking of which, the US were positively heroic in struggling to a 1-1 draw with Italy yesterday, and could easily have won it were it not for some bad luck and bad officiating. The Americans were every bit as good as they were bad against the Czechs (and, curiously, the Czechs were every bit as bad against Ghana as the Yanks were against them). I hadn't intended to watch the whole USA-Italy match, figuring it to be a foregone conclusion, but it turned out to be so riveting that I was an hour late for the first bands of Saturday's fest-type activities.

That meant, sadly, that I didn't get to see Tokyo Superfans (who really impressed me up in New York a couple weeks ago), the Hot Cops, and the Tattletales. As it turned out, they weren't the only bands I would miss during the long afternoon's journey into the wee hours of the night. If I'm counting correctly, 19 bands played, and I saw some or all of maybe 12 or 13. Having got into a couple long conversations, first with B-Face and then with an inebriated man who wanted to ask me or tell me - it was hard to tell which - how to run a record label, I managed to miss the entire Unlovables set, and was roundly chastised for it by half a dozen of their rabid fans who seemed to be unanimously claiming that it was their best show ever. Kevin Aper supposedly jumped off the ceiling or some similarly high place at the height of the excitement.

(Speaking of excitement, the Koreans just equalized against France, and moments later, Zidane, after elbowing a hapless Korean to the ground, put Thierry Henry in on a one-on-one with the Korean goalkeeper. Who saved. Wow.)

Back to the fest, after noting that the Korea-France match ended in a draw, and with the real possibility that France will be eliminated at the group stage (in addition to the above-noted teams, I'm also rooting against France on general principles): I just realized that I've eaten exactly one small sandwich in the last two days, so busy and preoccupied have I been with trying to see everything and everybody, and to tell the truth, I've barely noticed the absence of food in my life. I could go out and eat now - though it would entail a bit of a walk from this sparsely populated neighborhood - but I feel my higher duty is to file this report for the benefit of the seven or eight of you out there who are absolutely fascinated by this stuff (this would probably match the number of you interested in World Cup football, but hey, write what you know, they always say).

In order to accomodate the 19 (more or less) bands who played Saturday, the fest took place at two clubs, about two minutes walk around the corner from each other. Each band had a rigidly enforced 30-minute set time and there was a 10-minute interval to allow people to move back and forth between the clubs. On paper, no problem, right? Eight minutes to spare between each band. But in the real world of DIY punk rock shows, a recipe for disaster, or at least a fiasco, many pessimists predicted.

Not so, however. It went off almost - no, not almost, it went off FLAWLESSLY. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. I've been to corporate rock shows in giant arenas that didn't run as smoothly. Most of the credit for that goes to Pat Termite, who ran things with an iron fist and a level of efficiency and organization that was simply mind-boggling. But the bands deserve some recognition, too, for leaving attitudes and egoes out of it and cooperating with the organizers to an extent I've rarely seen. Anyone with experience as a stage manager, especially at punk rock shows, will tell you that trying to get bands on and off stage on schedule is like herding cats into a bathtub, but Pat did it without breaking a sweat, and even managed to neatly fit a 30-minute set with his own band, the Beatnik Termites, into the mix.

Somehow the Sidebar managed to secure a special license allowing festgoers to hang out on the sidewalk and in the parking lot drinking themselves silly. With temperatures in the high 80s (low 30s for you non-Americans) and a not particularly well-ventilated bar, this was a real blessing. I can't see this happening in most American cities, but apparently this is a part of Baltimore that nobody, including the city government, cares too much about it. Apparently there's a very dicey street only a couple blocks away lined with strip clubs and a variety of unsavory characters which is also the only place where you can get something to eat after 7 or 8 pm. I mean something to eat of the food variety, of course, and many festgoers had urban-type adventures on their way to and from the Block. One of the local denizens was overheard saying, "Damn, I never seen so many white people around here."

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), I never made it down there, so can't report on the quality of the food, strip clubs, or demographic commentary. And yet, even sticking close to the clubs, I still managed to miss, in addition to the Unlovables, a young band from Columbus, Ohio called Delay, who nearly everyone swore were one of the highlights, and went nearly as crazy on stage as the indefatigable Leftovers, who managed to play a show of their own somewhere up in New Jersey and still get back to the fest in time to see the Mopes. About whom I'll have more to say in a minute, but first a nod has to go to the Copyrights, who matched, possibly even surpassed the Steinways in terms of eliciting an ecstatic crowd reaction. Personally, I still prefer the Steinways, but that might be because I know them and they have a certain homegrown appeal to me. But the Copyrights set was similar to the Steinways in the sense that here was a band who've been laboring in obscurity for a while and now are starting to break through to a larger audience and generate real excitement. To be fair (and accurate), the Copyrights are further along in that process, but I remember seeing them playing for about 20 people in Jersey City a couple years ago and thinking, "I appreciate what you're trying to do, guys, but you'll have to try a lot harder." That was definitely not the case last night: the crowd went absolutely mental, punching the air and doing gang vocals on pretty much every song. I watched from the back, whereas I was right up front for the Steinways, so I had a very different perspective, but I know I was standing there with my mouth hanging out at the sheer intensity of the spectacle. It reminded me more than anything of the exuberance and exhilaration of Gilman Street circa 1987.

Many were predicting that the Ergs set would be the highlight of the fest, but they were handicapped by equipment troubles right at the beginning and cutting short their actual playing time. They were still sensational, of course, but maybe not the sensation this time. Credit for that would have to go to the Mopes, hands down.

It was strange to think that when I first met Dan Vapid, B-Face and John Jughead, they were barely more than kids, and here they were the elder statesman of pop-punk (since they're still a good 20 years younger than I am, I wonder what that makes me). Although I had a hand in putting out the Mopes record (not much of a hand, though, as it came out after I'd left Lookout), I'd never seen them, and wasn't even that familiar with their songs. But nearly everybody else in the crowd seemed to know them by heart, and I just don't have the words to describe what it was like when the Mopes took the stage for only the second time in ten years (the first being the night before in Chicago).

I had intended to watch from the back, because I thought the dancing up front might get a little hectic. It did, and I was right in the thick of it. I wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else, though it did occasionally occur to me that there must be something slightly ludicrous about a man fast approaching 60 swirling around in the pit. I didn't even have my walker with me, either! Apparently there is now a poll on the Pop Punk Message Bored aimed at determining "who ruled the pit the most" and at last glance I was leading. Feel free to go there and vote for me.

I don't know, what else can I say: I honestly thought I'd never again see a punk rock show - no, not just a punk rock show, but a whole event, get-together, convocation, whatever - that made me feel so excited and happy just to be alive. I don't think I'm alone in feeling that way; after the music finally stopped - the Mopes had to do an encore by repeating two songs because they'd already played everything they knew - people hung about on the street until 3 in the morning not wanting the buzz to end, and then finally set off for more partying elsewhere, which I, returning to sensible older gentleman mode, eschewed in favor of my comfortable bed. I haven't checked with anyone yet, but I'm willing to bet that the after-festivities went on well past the dawn.

Okay, I think I've done my duty here. I'm sure I'll have more to say about the weekend's events in the next couple days, but for now I've set down the basics, and it's time to venture out into the sultry streets of Baltimore in search of breakfast, lunch and/or dinner. Oh, and did I mention there's another show tonight?

17 June 2006

First Night Of The Fest

I meant to post about this last night while events were still fresh in my mind, but I was just too tired. Which in turn meant that I didn't wake up until 9:30 this morning, and by the time I'd gone down to the gym and lounged around the swimming pool for a couple hours, it was, let's see, after 2 o'clock and almost time for things to start up all over again. Oh yes, breakfast and/or lunch seem to have been omitted; will have to do something about that sooner or later. Perhaps when I go out to do my exploring of the other end of Baltimore. But that runs into a conflict with the USA World Cup, which just about everyone, myself included, seems to think they're going to lose in humiliating fashion. And now word comes through that Ghana have trounced the Czechs, who in turn trounced the USA. Doesn't look at all favorable for the Yanks, who, should they manage to stage an upset of Italy, still have to get past Ghana. I'm tempted just to go out and give the game a miss. That way if the Americans pull it off I can be pleasantly surprised tonight and if they don't, I'll be spared the pain. And the way this World Cup is turning out for most of my favorite teams so far, I fear it may be reduced to an exercise in harm reduction. Maybe England will come out of its coma. Maybe Australia will beat Brazil. Anything can happen. But I'm not sure I should stake my happiness or even my mild contentment on it.

Anyway, last night's events here in Baltimore were stupendous, exceeding most people's expectations, I would think. No, not every band was completely sensational, but none of them stunk up the place. And enough of the bands delivered stupendous, out-of-this-world performances that it more than made up for the bands who were merely good. And bands aside, I think I can safely say that it was the best audience I've ever been a part of for a punk rock show. Or any show, for that matter. No jerks, no rudeness, not even a sniff of cross words or fighting, and so many interesting, amazing people from all over the country (and a couple other countries) than I couldn't possibly find time to talk to them all. Luckily most of them will still be around for another day and a half or so.

I know I've been singing the praises of the Leftovers and the Steinways a lot lately, but both bands excelled again last night. The Leftovers kicked off the fest, and even though they only had about 15 minutes due to scheduling constraints, they electrified the room and the audience; in a way it's a pity they couldn't have played in more of a headlining slot or at least had a few more minutes, but at the same time I couldn't think of a better band to start things off. I just feel sorry for anybody who has to follow them.

But if anyone was intimidated by the Leftovers' astounding performance, it didn't show, because one band after another blasted through their sets and the excitement level seldom if ever dropped below adrenaline overload. But the Steinways were a cut above; the crowd were going crazy for them before they even finished taking the stage, and sang along so loudly that at times it nearly drowned out the PA. It reminded me of one of the early Operation Ivy shows, when people were just starting to look at each other and realize, "Hey, this isn't just a good band that some of our friends play in, this is an absolutely over-the-top great band." Lead singer/guitarist Grath, a Baltimore native, had his mother in the house for the first time, and although he's not one to easily admit being pleased and proud, I have a feeling he was. A little.

I didn't think anyone could follow the Steinways, though several bands did, out of which the two that stuck out for me the most were the Johnie 3 and the AV Club. But then came the Apers, and though their set was cut slightly short, too, they were even better than the other night in New York. In a hasty moment, I branded them the only European band the matters, until I remembered the Zatopeks, who for my money are still the best. But hey, they're English, not European. so the Apers can still have the title. I woke up this morning with the Apers' song "Really Really" playing in my head, but you know what, it wasn't the Apers playing it, it was the Steinways' cover version. Both versions are great, honest. But that's enough blogging for me right now. Day two of the fest is about to begin.

16 June 2006

Oh, He's Incarcerated

Question: When does "He's incarcerated" become an appropriate substitute for "He's in jail"?
Answer: When you're staying in the classy part of Baltimore, as, apparently, I am.

Having, over the course of a variegated and not always above-board life, had many occasions to hear someone - myself included - described as being in jail, locked up, banged up, in the hoosegow, in the can, etc., I can say with some certainty that I've never heard anyone referred to as being "incarcerated" except by a social worker, in scholarly texts, or possibly on the Jerry Springer show.

But that's what I heard today on Charles Street, as I passed a couple ladies of dubious provenance having a spirited conversation about the whereabouts of their various sons, husbands, pimps, etc. Not wishing to appear too obvious about my eavesdropping, I didn't get to find out just who was incarcerated, what he had done, or his exact relation to the lady doing the talking, but I felt sure that wherever he was, he'd feel gratified to be described in such dignified terms.

I continued walking south on Charles Street, down to something resembling a harbor and/or a downmarket version of San Francisco's Pier 39. Not much to see there, but they did have a mall-type food court where you could get rice and three vaguely Chinese entrees for $6.25. But before I got to the harbor-ish bit - and after I left it - I had to negotiate quite a few blocks containing little other than office buildings and hotels in the monolithic tradition of architecture and many, many cars. As yesterday, they all seemed in a terrible hurry to get out of town, and this time it wasn't even noon. Pedestrians were thin on the ground. In one six block stretch, I saw two. I was one of them; I'm just counting myself because I was walking past one of those mirrored-glass buildings and got confused for a minute.

I was looking for a place called Federal Hill, which supposedly had a lot of historic, or at least old houses, and I eventually found it, but not before first wandering into something that a sign proclaimed was the "Sharp-Leadenhall Historic Community" but which looked a little more like the Sharp-Leadenhall housing projects-cum-ghetto. After I got home I looked it up and found that the "historic" referred to the fact that it was Baltimore's oldest African-American neighborhood, dating back to at least 1790. A big chunk of it was lopped off when the city fathers drove a freeway through it in the 1970s (instead of running it through the similarly historic Federal Hill and Fells Point districts) and it seems to have been slowly dying ever since. Neighboring Federal Hill, several blocks of early to mid-18th century row houses, fared a little better, and seems to be gradually evolving into one of those cutesy-elite type quadrants that nearly every city older than a hundred years or so has these days.

Historic and picturesque as it may be, it's small, isolated, and a bit sterile and barren. Walk more than a few blocks in any direction and you're back in the post-urban wasteland, a point best illustrated from Federal Hill Park, where apparently 4,000 robust Baltimoreans celebrated the ratification of the Constitution with feasting and drinking in 1788. From it you can look out over the rather nondescript cityscape and "watch Baltimore grow," as one tourist guide put it. Baltimore is growing, I suppose, but in a rather haphazard and aimless fashion, redolent of the "urban renewal" schemes that have resulted in more wreckage than renewal in dozens of American and British cities. Much of the downtown is a hollow shell, half-populated during the day and deserted by night, and neighborhoods seem to change from good to bad depending what side of the street you're on. There are a lot of beggars, homeless people and garbage-pickers, and nobody seems to take much notice, leading me to think it's been this way for a long time.

That being said, I haven't yet been out to explore the main cutesy-trendy neighborhood, which seems to be Mount Vernon, though I walked through it yesterday on the way here. It seemed pleasant and attractive enough, and I'd like to go there now, but unfortunately it looks as though I'll be stuck here on the grimmer side of town for the next several hours, shut up in a hot, smoky bar (yes, sadly, Maryland still allows the cigarette addicts to befoul the air decent people are trying to breathe) while a near-endless parade of pop-punk bands does its best to entertain us. Should be a blast. Seriously.

15 June 2006


Not too far south, mind you, but enough that I notice the difference. As the header up there in the corner should say, this blog is now based in Baltimore. No, it's not a permanent move, or at least I'll be very surprised if it is, but the next four days will see me malingering, er, lingering, I meant, near the shores of Chesapeake Bay. At least I think that's what that large body of water out there is called. I could be mistaken; normally I'm quite keen on geography and make a point of looking up maps and historical facts about any new city I'm visiting, but between having watched a whole host of John Waters movies and met two teenyboppers from Baltimore back in 1967, I must have assumed I already knew all I needed to know about the place.

As is often the case when I assume anything, I was wrong, but hopefully the coming few days will result in some enlightenment. I had a walk of a little over a mile from the train station down to where I'm staying and found the city surprisingly attractive. I don't know what I was expecting - probably some John Waters-type squalor, which I'm still assuming is out there somewhere - but there were some beautiful and stately old buildings that looked just different enough from the buildings farther north for me to know I was somewhere new.

The one thing that was missing, as is the case with most American cities these days, was the people. Maybe it's just because I'm used to New York and London, but it's eerie to walk down a perfectly pleasant, human-scaled street and see an average of one pedestrian per block while thousands of cars stream past in what looks like a desperate attempt to flee the city before nightfall. Perhaps they know something I don't; it's dark now, and I'm wondering if I dare set foot outdoors and run the risk of encountering hordes of flesh-eating zombies or whatever it is that seems to have frightened everybody else off.

Getting here was a breeze. American railroads - aka Amtrak - have such a terrible reputation, and based on past experience, not undeservedly, but the train down from New York compared favorably with many English intercity trains, and yes, I know that's not saying much, but still... It left on time, arrived on time, gave me an opportunity to see some new places, or at least new perspectives on places I'd only driven through previously, like Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware (my reaction to the latter was much like that of Bette Davis in All About Eve when she memorably intoned, "What a dump," but then the train went around a bend and provided a view of the sun splashing off the glass facades of the international banking headquarters, a substantial improvement over the chemical plants and junkyards it had previously illuminated).

I sat in what was called a "Quiet Car" that actually was quiet. They have these on some English trains, too, but nobody takes any notice of it. On Amtrak, though, the conductor regularly patrolled the aisles should it become necessary to enforce the "library" (that's how he put it) type rules. But Americans must be better behaved. The one time a man's cell phone went off unexpectedly, he virtually ran out of the car, so ashamed was he of disrupting the sanctum-like silence. There were even curtains you could draw if you wanted to sleep, but I ended up so fascinated with the scenery that I never even unpacked the book I'd brought (Philip Roth's Zuckerman trilogy, having finished Updike's tetralogy the night before last). I would have had two seats to myself, but I couldn't bring myself to hog both of them the way some of my fellow passengers did, by sprawling out, leaving bags on the vacant seat, leaving the tray tables up on both seats with bunches of rubbish on them, etc. All tried and true tactics that I have employed to useful effect myself on English trains, even if I always did feel slightly guilty about it.

But I felt a bit more timid about being a bad neighbor or less than cooperative passenger on an American train, and that caused me to realize for the first time that in many ways I still like a bit of a foreigner here in the land of my birth. Not so much in New York, which often seems to have more in common with London than America, but even there, as soon as I get out of Manhattan, it begins to feel like an exotic land and I begin to feel like a tourist.

Which isn't all bad. I've always found it rewarding to try to view anyplace, even my home town, through the eyes of someone seeing it for the first time, or better yet, through the eyes of a child seeing it for the first time. I often used to walk around London conducting an imaginary tour for my 9 year old nephew, trying to figure out what things he would find amazing and wondering why, if that was the case, I no longer found them amazing myself. And often by the time I got through that process, I'd be amazed all over again myself.

Anyway, before I digress any further, if you're wondering what I'm doing here in Baltimore, there's a little mini-fest (except to those of us who are participating in it, in which case it's a very Big Fest) of punk rock and pop-punk bands being put on by the folks behind Insubordination Records. It promises to be an exciting and fun-filled weekend, but before you start packing your bags and making travel plans, it's been sold out for months and you probably wouldn't like most of the bands anyway. Stay tuned and I'll try to let you know how it all turns out.

It's Almost Like Watching Leyton Orient

And I apologize to the fine players and fans of Leyton Orient for dragging them into this. I've actually seen Leyton Orient play on a few occasions, and seen them put on a more spirited and committed effort than was in evidence from England today. Who would ever have thought watching England could make me feel like cutting my wrists or popping my head in a gas oven? Seriously, they were that bad. So bad, in fact, that I wound up cheering for Trinidad and Tobago, because there was a side that really cared, that was going all out to win for the sheer pride and joy of it.

And to be fair, there are some England players who still give their all and play like heroes, though the only one who immediately leaps to mind today is John Terry. He singlehandedly stopped two Trinidad and Tobago goals - one certain one and one nearly so - through heroic acrobatics that I just can't picture a Beckham or an Owen even attempting. But for the most part, England floundered about the pitch, barely able to string two passes together and repeatedly hoofing predictable balls up to Owen, who just isn't fit (or motivated) enough to deal with them in a meaningful way. One has to wonder why he's even on the pitch, or rather one would have to wonder if the answer weren't so obvious: Sven Goran Eriksson. All right, all right, I know I've wasted more than enough bandwidth bitching about the dour old Swede (I actually just learned, distressingly enough, that he's a few months younger than me!), so I'll leave it there and tell you a story about high school that kind of reminds me of what we witnessed today.

I went to a small Catholic high school, all white and not particularly strong on athletics, but one year when I was 16 or so, our basketball managed to win the downriver Catholic league championship. That put us in the state playoffs, and our first opponent was River Rouge High School, a large, mostly black school whose team had won the state championship so many times that people had almost stopped counting. The tallest kid on our team was about 6'1", which was roughly the height of the shortest kid playing for River Rouge. I wasn't a big basketball fan, but I got caught up in the excitement, and went along to the game at River Rouge, who had what by our standards looked like an NBA arena to play in and an NBA-type crowd (with the exception that they were nearly all black) who saw our band of diminutive white boys as little more than a speed bump on the road to another state championship.

Somehow I got it in my head that with enough courage and tenacity our boys could pull off the upset of a lifetime, and spent hours fantasizing just what it would look like for our guys to outsmart and outplay the giants of River Rouge. That fantasy evaporated within about three seconds of the tipoff, as a River Rouge player casually took the ball out of the hands of one of our players and almost lazily tossed it to a teammate who loped down the court and buried it in the basket with a downward dunk. Most of our players couldn't even touch the rim jumping at full stretch.

And that was the way things went, with very little variation. By halftime they were up by about 50 points, and brought on the reserves, and then the reserves to the reserves. They weren't mean or offensive about it, they showed the normal courtesy and respect you'd show any opponent, but they systematically, easily, almost laughably demolished us.

The point? I was thinking about midway through England's barren and sterile first half that in the matchup against Trinidad and Tobago, England were the equivalent of River Rouge, yet instead of joyfully striding to a 3 or 4-nil lead and bringing on the reserves, they were struggling for all they were worth just to keep their heads above water. Eventually T&T succumbed to the inevitable - they were, after all, the equivalent of a second or third division side going up against Man United or Chelsea - but not until England had done a far more convincing impression of a second or third division side than Trinidad and Tobago. It was pretty much a repeat of the dismal showing against Paraguay, and not much different from the form England have, with few exceptions, shown for years now. Years that unsurprisingly coincide with the reign of one Sven Goran Eriksson.

Does blame inevitably have to come back to the manager? When you've got players of the caliber than England does, I don't see where else you can look. Contrast the dismal and desultory England showing with the heroic comeback staged by Australia, a national team that on talent alone would struggle to make it out of lower division football. Had England gone one down against either Paraguay or Trinidad and Tobago, who thinks they would have been likely to come back and win either game. At best they would have struggled mightily for a draw and Sven would have come out afterward with his pursed face and pronounce it a "satisfying result." The man almost singlehandedly embodies what is wrong with English society and culture today and he's not even English. No wonder the FA picked him, and no wonder that now that he's finally taking his leave, they couldn't come up with anybody to replace him except his even less imaginative understudy.

P.S. Even if against all odds England do manage to win this World Cup - and after 40 years in the wilderness, winning is the only result worth acknowledging - I will still maintain that it was in spite of, not because of Eriksson. He'll be content with a quarterfinal or semifinal exit, and that's exactly why he's a perennial loser. On the bright side for those of you who have no interest at all in these football postings, if Sven gets his way, they'll be ending sooner rather than later.

The Daily Doings

The other pop punk accountant is in town, that being Sebby Zatopek, who arrived yesterday from London (you'll recall from the other day that our local pop punk accountant is New York's own Bill Moon). Since it was his first visit ever to the USA, I went out to the airport to meet him and guide him through the vagaries and vicissitudes of the Airtrain and the subway system, which managed to get us to Brooklyn with a minimum of bother. Oh, apart from when the Airtrain inexplicably circled the airport twice before deciding to drop us off at the subway station, but I suppose that's what you have to contend with when you ride driverless trains controlled by God knows who or what.

From Brooklyn we decided (maybe more like I decided and Sebby aquiesced without complaint because he's so, well, English) to walk to Manhattan via the Williamsburg Bridge. Wearing matching hats of the sort most commonly seen on Australian beach bums and old men on golf courses (Sebby because of his delicate alabaster complexion, me because of the chemically induced blotch on my forehead that supposedly could turn into full-fledged skin cancer if exposed to sunlight), we traversed the East River (really a tidal strait, as I've been pedantically reminding everyone, and will continue to do so until someone tells me under pain of violence to shut up) and headed up through the Lower East Side, past one of my old squats on E. 2nd between B and C. They're finally, after it being a vacant lot for about 20 years, building some pricey new condos there. It's happening all over the neighborhood, but it still startles me when I think back to the time when they couldn't pay people to live on that block.

From there we had to go to CBGB so Sebby could pay his respects to the punk rock shrine. Some band with an enormous tour bus was loading in, but we got no further than the lobby. At least Sebby got a glimpse of the fabled grounds. Personally, I've never been too impressed with the place, but then I was never at a show when it was in its heyday 30 years ago. My first CB's show was actually not until 1986, by which time the magic had pretty much gone out of it (I know, depending on your generation, it might have just been beginning, but I am not of that generation). I've also been there once in the 90s and once (the other day) in the 00s, and I'm still very whatever about it. You won't see me marching in the funeral procession if/when they finally shut it down.

Then it was down to St. Mark's and A for Sebby's first slice of New York pizza, a stroll in Tompkins Square Park where about 200 tap-dancing Christian teenagers in green t-shirts from Dallas, Texas were putting on some kind of presentation. I marveled again, explaining to Sebby that at one time such a troupe appearing in Tompkins Square would probably be met with a hail of flying objects and/or a mob of muggers and looters to make off with their musical instruments and the buses they rode in on. But times do change; the park was placid as can be, and the avid little Christians got a polite reception while a little red-headed two or three year-old joined in, mimicking their dances with surprising dexterity (I have a feeling that word may apply more to feats of the hands rather than the feet, but it will have to do).

Across town to the West Village, where we watched the basketballers at W 4th St. while waiting for Mr. Jonnie Whoa Oh to make his way downtown from his prestigious office on the Upper West Side, and then while waiting for Chris A to arrive from Astoria, took a stroll down W 11th to the Hudson River so we could give Sebby an unobstructed view of New Jersey. With which, as you can imagine, he was utterly thrilled. Once Chris A finally turned up, we set out to do some serious walking, back over to Union Square, up Broadway and 5th Avenue to Times Square, where I saw something I myself was unaware existed, the animatronic roaring dinosaur in the flagship Toys'R'Us. Who knew? I've been through Times Square a few times in recent years, but never long enough to look into any of the shops. Also saw a video game that resembled soccer except for periodic explosions ripping through the field. Don't know what that was about.

That was about it for me last night, and I headed back to Brooklyn while the others retreated to Astoria. Today the Germans ruined what could have otherwise been a perfectly fine afternoon by scoring a goal in stoppage time to defeat Poland, which mainly bothered me because they'd been bragging, "In 1939 it took three weeks to defeat Poland, but today it will only take 90 minutes." 91 minutes, it turned out to be, but what a delight it would have been to see them choke on whatever the German is for braggadocio. Then it was off to the city again for tonight's punk rock show at the Knitting Factory: Grover Kent (from NJ), Johnie 3 (from somewhere - Youngstown, it turns out - in Ohio, New York's own Unlovables, and all the way from Rotterdam, the sensational Apers.

As it turned out, I missed the first two bands because yours truly, Mr. Know-it-all, got lost. Okay, I got started late too, but when I got out at Canal Street I went uptown instead of down. Not because I thought the Knitting Factory was uptown, but because (and it's not the first time this has happened, I'll even more shamefacedly admit) from Canal Street you can't see either the uptown or downtown skyscrapers to orient yourself. Never mind, I had an interesting self-guided tour of Little Italy and Chinatown out of the deal, and witnessed a fancy dance club for what looked largely like middle-aged Chinese people dancing frenetically to "Mony Mony" by Tommy James and the Shondells. It's possible, they say, to find just about anything merely by walking the streets of New York City, but who has that much time? Apparently quite a few people, judging from the number of people doing just that.

Anyway, I got to see the Unlovables, featuring the nonstop perkiness of lead singer Hallie, followed by the music-cum-standup comedy of Kevin Aper and Krew. They've got a new guitarist called Kelvin (if they ever get tired of the Apers for a name, they could be the K&K Musik Faktory) who seems to have added a little extra something to the band, because they were on some of the best form I've heard yet. Sadly the crowd was a little thin, consisting mainly of about half the usual New York clique, with the rest of them apparently at home packing for points south, where pretty much all of us will be migrating in the next day or two. In fact I should be packing my own bag (or sleeping) instead of typing this drivel, but on the off chance that some of you might want to know what's going on, there it is. Next stop, Baltimore.

12 June 2006

Hating England

Mike Marqusee (yes, I wondered how to pronounce it too; it sounds like a name somebody made up while high on drugs) is a bitter old hippie who has lived in England for 35 years, but is avidly rooting for anyone but England to win the World Cup because in his paranoid little mind, an England victory will "...ignite an orgy of nationalistic celebration, which in present circumstances cannot be dismissed as harmless fun."

You have to wonder why someone with such a low opinion of England and the English would voluntarily choose to live there, although given his dope-addled retro-commie politics, it's safe to assume he hates his native America with an equal passion. But you also have to wonder just why it is that it's only the English who can't be trusted to have a healthy pride in their country and a sense of unbridled joy should it win the world's biggest sporting competition. Apparently he's not worried about a similar eruption of mindless nationalism should, say, Iran, or Togo, or South Korea, or the Ivory Coast wind up taking the top spot. Is this because he believes these countries to have more mature and sophisticated political cultures? And if so, why does he persist in living in what he clearly considers to be one of the world's most backward and hateful societies? Could it be yet another case of a superannuated adolescent bellowing, "I hate you, Dad, you're a fascist capitalist pig, now give me my allowance and drive me to the mall"? That's my guess. If you want to read him debating one of his commie friends over the pros and cons of supporting England, you can look here.

Bill Moon: Hates Bridges, Loves Green Day

I've regretfully fallen behind in my efforts to document happenings on the New York scene, thanks in large part to the World Cup, computer difficulties, and a visiting nephew. And did I mention it's been raining an awful lot? Not that that should stop me from posting on the internet, but somehow it did. I spent too much time and energy staring out the window glowering at the foul weather, apparently. I'm especially conscious of the fact that after a whole springtime of moaning about London's cold and rainy weather and looking forward to New York's hot and sunny weather, I've landed in New York's cold and rainy weather while London - since the very day I left, mind you - has been baking in Mediterranean-style heat. Someone up there is having a good laugh at my expense.

Or maybe not. Since I'm being treated for keratosis - a condition that's a precursor to skin cancer - I'm supposed to stay out of the sun while the unsightly red blemishes on my forehead heal. And thanks to this spate of foul weather, that hasn't been difficult. The sun did finally come out on Saturday, but accompanied by a chilly north wind, which must have been a little unpleasant at that day's Punk Rock Barbecue up on City Island in the Bronx. I really wanted to go, but considering a) visiting nephew; b) the World Cup; and c) the something like three hour train and bus ride required to get there, it didn't really seem possible. Those who did attend, though, are raving about the performance of the Misfats, "the fattest Misfits tribute band ever." Some pictures can be seen here.

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. Cut back to last Wednesday, when it was still raining felines and canines and New York looked in danger of becoming Venice: The Famous Mr. Whoa Oh, Chris A., P Smith and I made our ways through the soggy streets to an obscure Fifth Avenue address, where we were directed to a tiny elevator that deposited us on the third floor. Expecting some sort of dingy loft space or ninja hideout, I was startled to emerge into a semi-posh bar-restaurant. About 95% of the people there were Korean, but nobody seemed too disturbed to see us haoles wandering in.

We were there to see our friend Bill Moon do his singing and guitar-strumming act, and it was an act well worth getting wet for. Bill, for those of you not lucky enough to know him, is a CPA by day, which inspired one of of his songs "CPAin't", performed originally for the PWC (Price Waterhouse Cooper) Idol competition (you'll also notice that I ripped off the idea for my USAin't blog entry a bit earlier today). Bill also does quite a few covers, including Dr. Frank's "Even Hitler Had A Girlfriend" and Green Day's "2,000 Light Years Away," but I liked it best when he sang in Korean, which just now caused me to wonder why he doesn't try translating some of his pop-punk favorites into Korean as well. It would definitely give "Even Hitler Had A Girlfriend" even more of the je ne sais quoi it already possesses in spades. P Smith observed that Bill left out the bridges of most of his songs, which may or may not be true, since I'm not musically sophisticated to notice these things, but I'm entitled to take his word for it, since he's very smart and has a recently acquired Master's degree, neither of which applies to me. Anyway, in case you were wondering about the title of this piece, there you are. Ladies and gentlemen, P Smith.

We followed up Bill Moon's bravura performance with a fine meal across the street at something called Maui Burritos, which, as the name suggests, is apparently a Mexican restaurant with a Hawaiian theme. Or vice versa. The two ethnicities have never previously elided in my apparently limited imagination, but the food was good nonetheless. Or maybe, since I've never been to Hawaii, I was simply unaware that it was there, not Mission Street, that the noble burrito originated.

Thursday night the rain had let up to some extent, contenting itself with some occasional sprinkles and drizzles as I made my way up Second Avenue in search of a decent decaf cappuccino, and for the first time since I left, I was briefly homesick for London. Partly because New York lacks a Costa and/or Nero's on every corner, but also because something about Second Ave reminded me ever so briefly of the West End or Soho, where I misspent so many of my languorous hours. I was early for a Teenage Bottlerocket show, partly because I was afraid the show would sell out, considering how much hype the band has had, partly because the last time I tried to see them, at Gilman, I got there half an hour late and missed the entire set.

Turns out I didn't have to worry; although the crowd was easily double the size of a normal New York pop-punk show, CBGB was no more than half full. It was only my third time at the "legendary" dive, which I'm sure must have been really cool once upon a time, but was anything but by the time I made my first visit there in 1986, and hasn't improved in the interval since. Oh, it's not terrible, either, but imagine if San Francisco's Mabuhay Gardens, which hosted and virtually spawned the NorCal punk scene in the late 70s, were still operating today. Yeah, it's something like that.

Anyway, my big objection to CBGB at the moment is the obnoxiously, dangerously loud level they run the PA at. I know, I know, "If it's too loud, you're an asshole," as the old punk saying went. But when all the band members and nearly everyone in the audience are wearing earplugs, what's the point? Why not have it just a few decibels lower and allow everyone to listen au naturel? Really, the problem is that I have a lifelong resistance to wearing ear plugs, having decided sometime in the 1960s or 70s that they weren't cool, so instead I stood there in pain and hoped all the bands would finish quickly. Real sensible, I know, and my ears are still slightly sore five days later.

So was it worth possibly permanent hearing loss? Um, not really. The much-ballyhooed TBR were tight but formulaic, their songs, though expertly played, never quite measuring up to the lyrical or melodic genius of obvious inspirations like Screeching Weasel or the Queers. The best ones were those that had a Vapid/Weasel-like guitar lead dancing over the otherwise somewhat pedestrian tunes. They were followed up by the Phenomenauts, who I once heard on a live KALX broadcast from Gilman that I quite enjoyed. Considering that most of the Phenomenauts' esthetic centers around the visuals of their live performance, I found a bit ironic that it came across better on the radio. Still, I appreciated the effort and the effects, which too few bands these days seem to be bothered with.

Last were the Epoxies, who started out promisingly, looking like a time-machine version of some of my favorite circa-1980 new wave bands, complete with striped sheets and wacky keyboard player. Having never heard them before, I had no reason to expect the whirling-dervish-on-amphetamine lead singer who came zooming out from behind an amplifier midway through the first song, and while she certainly had the voice, the moves and the presence to front all sorts of bands, this one wasn't one of them. I know that might sound like heresy to those (and apparently there are quite a few of you) to whom she represents the heart and soul of the Epoxies, but while she also has that 1980 new wave thing going on, hers is more like a high-speed Lene Lovich (you'll have to look it up, youngsters; I don't have time to make links right now) while the band is more like a tightly-honed Pushups (if you can even find a link for that one, you're a better man than I). After watching her bob and weave like Muhammad Ali being chased by a heard of ravenous jackals for about 20 minutes, I decided it was time to head home. The Bowery never sounded so tranquil; even blasting car horns and screeching truck brakes were like whispering songbirds compared with the lethal volume of the CBGB sound system (no slur whatsoever intended on the bands; they were all perfectly in tune and generally harmonious) and my ears thanked me devoutly for the peace and quiet.

Not that bad a show, despite my carping, but next time I think I'd rather see the Steinways.


I spoke too soon when I said the US looked the better side. They did for a good part of the first half, despite the early Czech goal, but once the Czechs went two up, the Americans seemed to lose all heart and began strolling around the pitch like a tourist party. Especially painful examples: given a corner, the American (didn't catch his name) barely ambled over; when you're playing catch-up, you run, not walk, toward every opportunity. With less than a minute of stoppage time before the half, the Yanks had a throw-in deep in Czech territory; by the time Onyewu lazily sauntered upfield, the minute has gone and the ref's whistle went as soon as the ball was in play. That's not how you win football matches, or much of anything else, for that matter. I'm very disappointed. Also disappointed to see former Fulham donkey Eddie Lewis making the same sort of wildly misdirected kicks that he used to specialize in at Craven Cottage, and not to see current Fulham defender Carlos Bocanegra in action, but all in all, unless something very dramatic happens, the USA are not going far in this tournament.

UPDATE: It's ended up 3-0, which puts me in mind of another v. annoying thing about those American announcers: their habit of pronouncing said scoreline "three-nothing" instead of "three-nil." I had planned on listening to commentary from Britain on Radio Five Live while I watched the action on TV, but they've been blocked from the internet, just as they are for Premiership games. As I say, v. annoying. Which should suffice as a description for the USA performance today as well. They just didn't seem to care all that much. Even the manager sat on the bench with a slightly bored and disinterested look on his face, as if he were trying to tell the cameras, "Hey, don't look at me, I don't even know those guys out there."

Victory Is Bittersweet

As many of you know, I was cheering for Australia, so you'd think I'd be over the moon at their last-minute come-from-behind triumph over Japan. And I am happy that Australia not only scored their first three World Cup goals ever and notched up a win that gives them at least a fair chance of going through to the knockout stage. And I should be even happier that justice was done after Japan took the lead on what should never have been a goal: after complaining long and loud that the Australians played "dirty," the Japanese used an American football-style body block to take Aussie keeper Mark Schwarzer out of the action while what otherwise would have been an innocuous lob sailed into the net. The Egypytian referee, perhaps mindful of strained relations between native Australians and "men of Middle Eastern appearance" (official Aussie-speak used by police and respectable newspapers in place of "thieving wogs"), made like Arsène Wenger and never saw a thing. For an alternative view you can check this commentary by an Aussiephobia-blinded smartarse (you might argue, with some justification, that the snarky and effete snobs of the Guardian shouldn't even attempt to cover any activity more athletic than hitting policemen over the heads with picket signs, but they do excel at snideness, an essential quality when dealing with football as played by the English).

As cross as I was over the unmerited goal, I gradually came round to appreciating the superior effort of the Japanese; they played as a team, with unbounded spirit, while the Australians floundered about like a pod of beached whales, and when it began to look like they had little chance of scoring, I acknowledged that even had the disputed Japanese goal not stood, a 0-0 result would have done Australia few favors anyway in a group most likely to be dominated by Brazil and Croatia. As the second half went on, Australia finally had several chances, all stymied by the Kawaguchi's sterling goalkeeping. That's why, when Cahill finally knocked in a sloppy ball after a penalty-area scramble, my heart went out to Kawaguchi. Not so much because the goal was undeserved - Kawaguchi had after all punched the ball out into the scrum instead of putting it beyond reach - but because the look of dismay on his face was just so heartbreaking. After a flawless performance he'd made one small mistake and broken the hearts of an entire country. And by the way he bowed his head ever so slightly, you could tell he knew it.

In the last few minutes of the game, first Cahill and then Aloisi put in goals that Kawaguchi had no chance to save, and Australia had come back, if not from the dead, at least the severely comatose, for a victory that will launch a lot of hangovers in Sydney tonight, but as much as I wanted the Aussies to win (and now I can only hope and dream of the day when they humble the gifted but obnoxious Brazil), I really felt for the Japanese. They may already be on their way out of this year's World Cup, but they're a team that will be back bigger and better in future years. I could see them contending with the best within the next four or eight years.

Other notes: I'd resolved not to join the chorus of complainers about the American announcers on ESPN and ABC (an endless source of amusement to the Guardian's correspondents), but after hearing them refer several times to Australia's (and Middlesbrough's) Mark Schwarzer as "the Premiership's best keeper," I must ask whether they have ever heard of Peter Cech (facing the USA today for the Czech Republic)? Edmund van der Sar? Paul Robinson? Jens Lehmann? Among others. Schwarzer might be the 10th or 12th best, but never mind that; the same commentators have been hailing the USA's Casey Keller as "the best in the world." Um, yes, whatever.

Anyway, time now to cheer on the USA, clueless flag-waving commentators or not. I have a constitutional inability not to cheer for any team containing Fulham's Brian McBride, who is truly a class act on and off the field. Unfortunately, the Czechs have already put in a ridiculously easy goal with only five minutes gone despite the US generally looking the better side. Could be a long way back, but let's hope the Yanks can take a cue from the Australian playbook and put this one away 3-1.

10 June 2006

So Far, So So

After waiting four whole years for the World Cup to come around again, I must admit being a bit underwhelmed, a distinctly different reaction from what I was feeling at this point in June of 2002, when I virtually gushed to a friend, "Isn't this like the best World Cup ever?" and he, despite his characteristic English reticence, enthused (after a fashion), "Yes, I suppose it might be."

That of course was before England made its usual ignominious exit, and while underdogs like Senegal and South Korea were still riding high, and I do recall that the second half of the 2002 tournament was definitely a letdown from the fast and furious first couple weeks. Also, we're only two days in, and have already seen inspiring performances from Trinidad and Tobago and (almost) the Ivory Coast. So I suppose it's mainly England that's left me in a lethargic snit over the whole business, with "lethargic" being the key word to England's performance as well. Or what did I call the Sven-Goran Eriksson approach to football on some message board this morning? Oh yes, the apotheosis of mediocrity. Much has been made about it being inappropriate to have a non-English manager these past few years, but when you think about it, Eriksson embodies one aspect of contemporary Englishness, the willingness, even eagerness to settle for the average, the "it'll do," the so-so. For the first ten minutes of today's game, I was ready to change my tune, but once England had scored a lucky goal, things settled down into the usual tepid, sludge-like, utterly unadventurous display, and if we make it past the quarterfinals on that form, it will be a wholly undeserved miracle. Luckily I still have Australia, the USA, and the Ivorians as my backup teams. None of whom have nearly the talent that England does, but all of whom seem to have come actually to play as opposed to merely putting in an appearance.

Bearers Of Meaning

Note: apparently this stuff is all very old news in the blogosphere, and will only serve to demonstrate how not a part of said blogosphere I am. What can I say? If I weren't one of Kendra's regular readers, I might never have heard of it at all.

What the hell, you might rightly ask, is a "bearer of meaning?" Well, in the broadest possible sense, I suppose it's any person, place, thing or event which evokes or transmits insight or understanding, and I know, that's already way too intellectual for me to be writing or you to be putting up with.

But if the pop music critic for some uptown fanzine calling itself the New Yorker is to be believed, some prominent "bearers of meaning" in today's world include Beyoncé, OutKast, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. And if you don't agree, and what's more, if you don't accept these particular mass market pop stars as serious musicians and commentators on the zeitgeist, well then, you are probably, like the brilliant singer/songwriter Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields, a racist.

How's that again? According to Sasha Frere-Jones, one "meaning" being borne by said pop stars is that they are, "two women, three people of color and one white artist openly in love with black American music." Which makes it your duty not just to be aware of the musical offerings of said bearers, but to embrace and accept them. This goes double, apparently, if you happen to be of the Caucasian persuasion.

Sasha Frere-who?, the many non-New Yorker readers among you may be wondering, and I wonder along with you, although the vaguely counterculturish forename and the double-barreled surname would seem to imply an overindulged scion of the baby boomers who just happened to know somebody who knew somebody who could land young Sasha a slightly higher than entry-level position in the journalistic world. Perhaps its mere class envy that's prompting me to suppose such things, but having read some of the man's ostensibly earnest outpourings, I think it's safe to assume that he didn't get where he is through merit alone.

Granted, this effusive paean to Justin Timberlake, for whom Frere-Jones carries a rather alarming torch, has merit in the old-fashioned punk rock sense of simply saying things that you know will wind people up, and further granted that Frere-Jones was just plain unlucky to canonize Timberlake as the new prince of pop a mere two weeks before the wannabe B-boy signed a $6 million to become the new Ronald McDonald. But hey, if a singing and dancing hamburger salesman is what floats your boat, I'm loving it too. Where I take serious umbrage with Frere-Jones is his misappropriation of the term "black music" to further his own peculiarly racist - yes, I said racist - agenda.

I'm sure Frere-Jones, should he read this, would be outraged at such a characterization, just as I'm sure he regards himself as one of the best friends the black man ever had. He probably thinks he's every bit in love with "black music" as Hamburger Boy supposedly is, but here's where I get off: what in the hell is "black music," if there even is such a thing? And why does some whiter-than-white pop critic think he's qualified to tell us about it?

Turn it around. Is there such a thing as "white music?" Sure, you could say, there's everything from Barry Manilow to the Beatles, from Frank Sinatra to Hank Williams to Mozart and Beethoven, not to mention polka, death metal, bluegrass, waltzes, minuets, emo, folk-rock, etc., ad infinitum. Obviously only a pinhead or a racist would contend that all these forms have much in common apart from the fact that they are primarily created by and listened to white people. As a result, we very rarely hear the term "white music" employed except in a contemptuous way by black racists or a "we must uphold our culture" way by white racists.

So if it's idiotic to lump together hundreds of highly disparate musical genres based solely on the (white) skin color of their creators, how is it any less idiotic (or racist) to lump together all music made by black people as if it were a monolithic entity? Of course this is not what Frere-Jones is doing. When he says "black music," he's not talking about the concert pianist who happens to be African-American, he's talking about a specific variety of hip hop and r&b, the kind that Wonder Bread white boys, especially those of a certain age, cream their jeans over, probably in the hope or expectation that some of that Magic Negro mojo will rub off on them.

Stephin Merritt, who Frere-Jones called a "cracker" and "Stephin 'Southern Strategy' Merritt," correctly pointed out that much of F-J's favorite contemporary pop music is not just garbage, but itself racist"
people, both black and white, behave in more vicious caricatures of African-Americans than they had in the 19th century. It's grotesque. … It probably would have been considered too tasteless for the Christy Minstrels."
And if you doubt that, just try putting yourself in the place of an anthropologist from another planet who had to draw conclusions about African-Americans and their culture based solely on the study of rap and r&b videos. Wouldn't the dominant impression be that black people are sex-crazed, violent and obsessed with conspicuous consumption? Could the Ku Klux Klan do a better job of defaming an entire race of people?

But who needs the Ku Klux Klan when you've got fawning fanboys like Frere-Jones to help pin the stereotype on the minority, and then stand reality on its head by suggesting you're the racist if you don't like the same soul-deadening, moronic music that he does? Okay, maybe I'm being too harsh. No doubt some of the music Frere-Jones champions has merit, and no doubt, similarly, that I could afford to be more open-minded toward contemporary pop music than I am. But to try and make it into a racial issue is demagoguery of the worst sort. Much of my favorite music as a child and teenager was by black artists, in the form of doo wop and Motown. But I didn't listen to it because it was by black artists, any more than I later listened to British Invasion or punk rock bands because they were white. I listened to what I listened to because I thought it was cool, and made me feel good. Even my favorite rap music, which continues after all these years to be NWA, doesn't exactly make me feel good.

Okay, maybe it does, but not in a way that I feel good about. I can laugh all I want about "niggas" and "bitches" and shooting everyone in sight, but is it something that makes me feel good about myself or humankind, black or white? Not really. And when it comes to most of what's on pop radio these days? Sorry, but for every good song, there are ten really horrible ones, and I don't usually listen long enough even to know the race of the people producing it. Anyway, my point isn't whether today's pop music is good or bad; that's largely a matter of taste. What worries me is when self-appointed arbiters of racial consciousness want to create playlists based on skin color.

And if you still don't think there's something fundamentally racist about Frere-Jones' assumptions, riddle me this: has he ever interrogated the listening habits of Jay-Z or 50 Cent or Mary J. Blige to see if they include a sufficient quota of Green Day or the Weakerthans or the Hi-Fives? Somehow I suspect not, and gee, I wonder why.

04 June 2006

Sleep With The Midgets

Even though it's owned by Rupert Murdoch, the Sunday Times is not usually a hotbed of sensationalism. Hence this tale of gunplay on a local commune that apparently featured "sex with dwarves and lesbian orgies" came as a bit of a surprise. Not so much that it happened; New York is big enough that almost anything that could happen probably is happening at any given time in some corner of the five boroughs. Like, for example, the marching band that, for no apparent reason, tootled down my normally quiet residential street early this Sunday morning. No, what surprises me is that this managed to make the papers in London while it seems to have gotten little or no play here in the city where it happened. Are communal hippie shootouts that common that they no longer raise much of an eyebrow around here, let alone a coment? Granted, this all took place on weird and remote Staten Island, a place which doesn't feature prominently in the consciousness of most New Yorkers. The subway doesn't even go there, so how important could it be, right?

But even as I type, I realize that I've barely been looking at the New York papers since I've been here, so maybe I just missed the whole thing. But I didn't miss the prominent mention in the New York Times Sunday Book Review of Gabrielle Bell (full disclosure: yes, she is my niece, but she can't help that; she's brilliant, talented and beautiful nonetheless). My bragging about this last night led to an argument with record mogul and regular man-about-town Jonnie Whoa Oh (but then there are few things that don't lead to an argument with Mr. W.O.). "My niece is in the Times," I said. "Saturday or Sunday?" he responded. "Why would it matter? I'm just so proud of her." "Okay," he says, "but it's just that Saturday is the least-read issue of the week. So I hope for her sake it's Sunday."

The usual rhetorical donnybrook ensued, reaching, also as usual, no conclusion, and eventually veered off into an even more vituperative discussion about Baltimore (not relevant here, but it will probably be covered later), during which Jonnie stomped off into the bar outside which this enlightening exchange of views was taking place.

He was doing himself no favors; the reason we were all huddled under an awning on the less picturesque fringes of Chinatown on this chilly, rainy night was not so much for the camaraderie or the scenery, but to avoid the agonies and terrors awaiting within the Hell Bar (not its real name, but they might as well go ahead and adopt some truth-in-packaging policies). Perhaps I lead too sheltered a life, but I was unaware that such places and such crowds existed, except maybe on television in the form of a Yo MTV Rapping at the Beach Blanket Real World Frat Party. Anyway, it was loud, it was obnoxious, it was unbelievably stupid, and for reasons that defy explication, our friend the Steinways were part of the featured entertainment.

But not so fast. First there was a singer-songwriter showcase, an unlikely enough juxtaposition that it should have resulted in the drunken yobbos grabbing acoustic guitars from the bleating folkies and doing a John Belushin a la Animal House on them. Unfortunately it didn't, but apparently (I have to rely on secondhand information here), the last of the folk singers, told by her manager, apparently, that she needed to do another song (things were already two hours behind schedule by now), threw a snit and announced that she was going to do the longest and most obscure song she knew. She was followed by a cover band, who provided the greatest hilarity of the night, albeit entirely unintentionally, I'm pretty sure, but who also droned and screeched on for something like an hour. But seriously, when is the last time you heard a gang of podgy frat boys attempting the likes of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir"? As I say, perhaps I don't get out often enough.

They were followed by New Jersey's Groucho Marxists, who, nothwithstanding any other merits, did perform the useful service of driving at least half of the beer-swilling party monsters out into the streets, so that by the time - going on 1 am - the Steinways came on, we had a modicum of breathing space in which to enjoy them. And enjoy them we did; in fact they were astounding. I hadn't seen them in a couple years, and at a momentary loss for words, I enthused, "Best band in Astoria! Best band in Queens! Best band in all of Long Island!" at which a dyspeptic Jonnie Whoa Oh sneered. "That's like saying, 'Breakfast! Best meal I had before noon today!'" One might infer he's not too enthusiastic about the scene this side of the East River. Ignore him. Regardless of how else one might put it, the Steinways = awesome, great, wonderful They've got a record out this month, too. Check it out.

That performance alone was worth the long, tedious journey home via the F and G trains, made longer and more tedious by my sleepily missing my transfer point and having to walk a mile through some part of Brooklyn where I was not best pleased to be. But there was an added benefit, an deeply philosophical discussion about building with Legos (something I have actually never done, but I suspect it was a metaphor) and whether you had to have a structural vision ahead of time or whether the structure simply revealed itself in the act of building. Apparently there is no balance without structure (or maybe I have that backwards) but what was truly hilarious was how the discussion was actually about someone's love life. Everyone but the person involved knew that, and the more vehement he grew on the subject of Legos, the more everyone else laughed. I never before believed that it was possible to injure oneself from sustained and uncontrollable laughter, but now I'm not so sure.

Anyway, remember that marching band I mentioned several paragraphs ago? Sounds like they're still out there somewhere. I must go investigate.

03 June 2006

Rocking In The Rain

Last night's subway misadventure (more about that later) rather forcefully reminded me that one of the best ways to soften the vicissitudes of public transport is to carry a good book, so I went in search of Rabbit At Rest, the last of the Updike tetralogy (a word I'm a bit dubious about, or would be if it hadn't been employed by such an astute commentator as Jonathan). Being that I hadn't yet been down to the hipster strip of Bedford Avenue, I thought I'd take a walk up there and look for a used copy at the bookstore where Aaron Cometbus used to work.

No such luck. Not only was the book not there; neither was the bookstore. Just an empty storefront and some empty abandoned shelves. A bit depressing. I used to go there fairly often to visit Aaron, but since I spent my time talking to him, I never actually got around to shopping there. Hope that's not why they went out of business.

By then it was time to get off to the city for the second consecutive night of pop punk rocking. This episode was to take place at Desmond's Tavern, a nondescript semi-Irish bar with an unlikely (for punk rock shows, anyway) Park Avenue address. Since I'd already done my bit to put one independent bookshop out of business, I thought I might as well drive another nail in the coffin by purchasing the Updike book at the Union Square Barnes and Noble, from whence I could walk up Park Avenue to Desmond's. Of course the flaw in this plan was that by the time I got to Union Square, I had already finished the subway ride for which the book had been intended, but at least I knew I'd find a copy there, even if I had to carry it around the rest of the night in a backpack, thus resembling (and, I guess, being) one of the doofuses Ben Weasel used to rail about for standing around at punk shows with their little Jansport emo-packs. While at B&N, I noticed and couldn't resist buying the Wodehouse novel Leave It to Psmith for a friend who happens to be named P Smith, which at least gave me more justification for hauling around a backpack.

Another thing the backpack could have usefully been used for would have been an umbrella, because just as I exited B&N the heavens opened up again, which they'd been doing at regular intervals the past couple days. However, since I'd just been involved in a conversation the night before about how lame umbrellas were (prompted by repeatedly getting knocked in the head by commuters rushing in and out of the Port Authority and my recollection of Joe Queer violently denouncing a Japanese tour promoter for having the nerve to carry one), I'd decided umbrellas were out of the question. I'd just slip and slide between the raindrops, with occasional stops under awnings and overhangs when the storm got too intense.

That resolution lasted about as far as 18th Street (B&N is on 17th), and I started looking around for one of those corner shops or bodegas that are always selling umbrellas for a buck or two, one of the few genuine bargains to be found in New York. But apparently Park Avenue isn't the neighborhood for cheap umbrellas, or umbrellas at all, and I walked block after block, getting completely soaked, and cursing the cars who kept me waiting at street corners just because they had a green light, the selfish bastards. When I finally spotted a couple promising stores, I was disconcerted to realize that I was just across the street from Desmond's; buying an umbrella now would be the equivalent of buying a book to read on the subway after I'd already taken the subway ride. I dried my hair off with the extra t-shirt in my backpack (don't even ask why I was carrying an extra t-shirt), and went in just in time to see the Tattle Tales. They're a power pop outfit from Nyack, NY, with a lot of talent, some excellent songs, and a curiously desultory attitude, which I think some find charming and others grating. You can put me somewhere in the middle, though I really like the music.

Nothing desultory about the next act, the Leftovers from Portland, Maine. They hit the stage like a barely contained explosion and barely stopped moving for what seemed like an incredibly brief - maybe only 15 or 20 minutes, or maybe the time just seemed to fly by because they were so good - set. Their lead singer and bassist had a bushy semi-Afro that reminded me a bit of the MC5's Rob Tyner, and maybe that's why there was a kind of 60s feel - but only in the best possible way - to their show. There were elements of the (early) Who, of the Rationals and some of the other old Ann Arbor bands, but at the same time, it wasn't retro at all. Just brilliant songs and an adrenaline-fueled performance by three kids - I'm not sure all of them are even 21 yet - who reminded me what rock and roll has always been about when it's not being hijacked by "artists," ideologues and merchants. They're doing a tour of the UK this July, so my readers on that side of the ocean are encouraged to check them out.

Dateless, one of the few West Coast representatives of the Pop Punk Message Bored clique from which all these bands seem to emanate, had the unenviable job of following the Leftovers, and pulled it off pretty well. They've got a female co-singer I would have liked to hear more of, but their songs are catchy and well-delivered, and they went over well with the "crowd," which thanks to the incessant rain and half the subways and highways being flooded, was mostly limited to hardcore clique members and their friends. Too bad, too, because the whole night's entertainment - five bands - left virtually nothing to complain about. Except perhaps the water pouring through the ceiling just in front of the stage. The tiles looked as though they were ready to come down any moment, forcing people to keep an eye on what was happening overhead, thus putting what you might call a damper on the dancing. Which is of course illegal in New York anyway. Dancing, that is, not leaky roofs.

Paranoid about a repeat of the previous night's adventure, when we and about a thousand other people sat on the L train for half an hour waiting for it to leave before a garbled announcement came through to the effect that "signaling problems" meant there would be no more trains, I only stayed for half of the penultimate act, the Stabones, and missed the Steinways altogether. Naturally the subway ran flawlessly this time, and I barely even got wet. So I feel bad about not seeing more of the Stabones, but at least I'll see the Steinways tonight, in a third consecutive night of - let me take a quick look out of the window - yes, a third consecutive night of rocking in the rain.

Oh, about those subway "signaling problems:" what really wound me up about it, apart from having to find my way back across the river to Brooklyn at 3 am, was the question of why these signals were so bloody essential anyway. The track goes in a straight line, there are no oncoming trains or cross traffic; if need be, why couldn't they just drive the trains slowly and look out (you know, like with their eyes) for any potential obstacles. If need be they could have some employee (there seemed to be a few dozen of them sitting around doing nothing apart from laughing at the thousand stranded passengers) walk along in front with a lantern calling, "Train coming, watch out everybody!" Ah well, obviously my karma for all my complaining about the London Underground and wishing it could be more like New York City's.

Oof. It's almost time to set out again tonight, this time with umbrella ($2) and book ensconced in backpack, which means I barely have time to tell you about Thursday night's rocking, also punctuated with torrential rainstorms, this time with heinous lightning that struck and completely destroyed a car in Staten Island (didn't they always tell you that a car was the safest place to be in a lightning storm?). But we were mostly able to duck and dive around that one en route to Siberia, up on the fringes of Hell's Kitchen, where we witnessed Tokyo Superfans (slightly ragged, as it was only their first or second show with a full band, but great; their energy, vocals and costumes - Japanese schoolgirl uniforms - totally carried the day), the clever, maddening and annoying Short Attention (40 or 60 songs, none longer than 10 or 15 seconds; apparently they also haven't got the attention span to acquire a Myspace page), New Jersey's perennial favorites, the Ergs, and, from Washington, DC, the utterly amazing Full Minute of Mercury (generally abbreviated by the cognoscenti as FMHg; even though I was forced in high school to memorize the Periodic Table - it was shorter then - it took me a little while to get it), who combine power pop, cheese metal and the choreographed moves of a Broadway dance troupe into a breathtaking and intoxicating spectacle that, sadly, because of the lateness of the hour, only a few privileged people witnessed. But they tour regularly up and down the East Coast, so there's no excuse for missing them. Indeed, you'd be foolish if you did.

Tina, responsible for half of the vocal duties in Tokyo Superfans, also organized the show, the first time, I think, that she'd ever tried her hand in that department, and deserves a lot of credit for pulling it off. I know that when my bands used to do shows I'd be more than stressed enough just about playing, let alone worrying about keeping everything else going. Anyway, it's nice to see a new face stepping up to help out in that department, rather than let all the burden fall upon the indefatigable Chadd Derkins, who handles the Desmond's shows and quite a few others, like last Halloween's triumphant event at the Charleston.

Okay, I could say lots more, but it's presuming a lot to think most of you have even read this far, and anyway, I've got to get out the door and off to the city. If the good Lord's willing and the East River don't rise, I'll be back here tomorrow with another update.