15 July 2006

New York Is A Little Old Town

One thing I've always liked about New York is that at heart it's just an overgrown village. Uptown people may tear around at breakneck speed as if the very fate of the earth depended on them reaching the subway turnstile 1.3 seconds ahead of you, but downtown they're more likely to amble and promenade, stopping here to gawk and peruse, there to offer an opinion on an ongoing street incident, and there again to butt into someone else's attempt to give directions to a befuddled out-of-towner.

But most of all they chat, with each other, with strangers, and with long-lost friends from around the world or up the block. If you'd like to re-connect with someone from your past and can't seem to locate them in the phone book or on the internet, you could always just try strolling aimlessly around lower Manhattan. Chances are that, sooner or later, they'll turn up.

Tonight I was cutting across 7th Street just east of 3rd Avenue when I spotted the unmistakable figure of Dan Vapid - known to most of you from his work with the Methadones, the Mopes, Sludgeworth, the Riverdales and Screeching Weasel, among others - headed in the general direction of the Bowery. It was my second Vapid sighting of the summer - he was in Baltimore for last month's Fest - but unlike the first one, completely unexpected.

Turns out Dan and his girlfriend were in town for a weekend holiday, and were on their way to have a look at CBGB's and maybe grab a drink there. I told them they probably wouldn't be able to get in, at least not without paying $15, as there was an all-day benefit show for George Tabb. "I think they asked us to play that," said Mr. Vapid when my prediction turned out to be correct.

We stood around for a few minutes looking at the immaculately got-up postcard punks. "These are your grandchildren," Vapid told me with a sweeping gesture. "It really smells like puke around here, doesn't it?" I said, and he agreed that it did. So we moved on, walking on down to Little Italy, where I left the happy couple to contend with the menu-wielding barkers, including one wearing a Santa Claus hat who planted himself in his path and demanded, "You wanna chicken onna bone or wit out da bone?"

Back up on Avenue A I ran into an English friend. I told him about Auntie Olivia's death, which led to a long discussion of the prodigious drinking exploits of our various relatives and my telling him how I once almost got in a fist fight with Neko Case (he was a fan) backstage at the Whiskey. I somehow doubt I would have come out of that one covered with glory. After that it was on home to Brooklyn for an early night; it's supposed to be horrendously hot tomorrow, and I want to get an early start on my errands before the city turns into an open-air broiler oven.

Quick update on the Thursday goings-on: the evening started out with my usual volunteer stint at a notorious local insane asylum, followed by an attempted quick dash downtown for the Weakerthans show. Being that the 2nd Avenue Subway is not likely to be open for another ten or twenty years, I opted for the bus, which crawled along at a speed just slightly greater than walking until we got to 23rd Street, after which it slowed down considerably.

I might as well have walked the whole way; if I had, I might have been late enough to miss the New Amsterdams altogether instead of having to endure three or four songs of their rather bland and characterless alt-folk rock. Apparently one of these guys had something to do with the Get Up Kids, which figures. I would have been more interested in seeing the other opening act, Bad Religion frontman and master of polysyllabic pontificating grandiloquence Greg Graffin's solo project, but people tell me it's just like Bad Religion only without Bad Religion, and that this is not necessarily a good thing. I always had a soft spot for the way Dr. Graffin (his doctorate is in evolutionary biology or something along those lines) could string together the most preposterous thesaurus rhymes while still keeping things relatively cogent, but when you strip away the magnificent backing track that Bad Religion provided, what remains is often little more than a Left Coast Richard Dawkins whose message can be boiled down to, "The government sucks, there is no God, Christians are stupid, neener neener neener." Very satisfying to the adolescent in all of us, and having nurtured and indulged my inner adolescent well into my 40s, I was a big fan for quite a while.

The Weakerthans were more or less flawless, almost, in fact, to a fault. This was the first time since 1998 that I was just another paying customer rather than a guest of or hanger-out with the band, and perhaps that had something to do with it, but it felt a little like listening to my favorite Weakerthans songs on an enormous stereo while watching a video. Granted, "Left And Leaving" and a couple others still brought me close to tears, but my iPod can do that, too. I missed bassist John Sutton, too, who left the band a little over a year and a half ago. His replacement is perfectly competent and probably more reliable, but lacks that lunatic glee that Sutton brought to the proceedings.

Then came part three: a trip down to the Sidewalk Cafe in the East Village, where best-selling author and criminally under-appreciated (until now, that is) singer-songwriter Dr. Frank had packed a standing-room-only crowd into a normally sedate folk music (okay, they call it "anti-folk," which makes it sound even worse) venue. I think it was quite possibly the most amazing (and amusing) acoustic show I've ever attended. Highlight might have been when the whole room joined in singing the anthemic "Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba," much to the astonishment of the beard-stroking folkie who was hosting the event and may or may not have ever heard of Dr. Frank prior to this. On the other hand, it could have been Frank's newest song, containing what may well be his most piquant social commentary yet: "Cingular Wireless, Worse Than Hitler."

Having seen Frank at the dawn of his solo career, nervous and uncomfortable in front of a desultory crowd of a dozen or two MTX diehards, it was a revelation and a delight to see him working tonight's overflow crowd like a consummate pro. At least 15 or 20 bona fide members of the New York Pop Punk Clique were in attendance, livening up the proceedings still further with smart-ass requests and requisite in-jokes. They stuck around for Jersey Beat's Jim Testa, himself both cliquester and singer-songwriter, who had, it must be said, a tough act to follow. It's too bad Jim couldn't have gone on before Frank; when he finally took the stage it was well after midnight and many of the fair-weather fans had already bailed. Highlight may have been Jonnie Whoa Oh calling out, "I morally object to that song!" and someone (I'll not say who) responding from the other side of the room, "What would you know about morals?"

Jim finished up his set with a song about "Planet Williamsburg," which contains a line about carrying a guitar around, and then handed me a spare guitar which he'd generously agreed to lend me so that - ostensibly - I can get ready to appear at one of these shows myself. Then Frank and I headed off for the train to - yes, Williamsburg - with our guitars in hand, the living embodiments of the stereotype that Jim had just been perpetuating. I felt like telling people, "I'm just holding it for a friend."

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