28 December 2008

What I Don't Get

About this whole Gaza thing... Now it's obviously horrible to be dropping bombs on inhabited areas, and I can't imagine anyone but the most extreme Israeli nationalist being gratified at what's been happening in the Gaza Strip these past two days.

Nearly 300 dead and God knows how many wounded, and it makes you kind of sick even to think about what it must be like living under such an onslaught, but at the same time, I can't help wondering just what Israel is supposed to do. Well, not drop bombs on civilian areas might be a good first step, of course, but overlooked in the understandable abhorrence and outrage over the massive casualties now occurring is the fact that the Hamas government is essentially using its own people as pawns in what's now turned into a very deadly propaganda battle. They've been regularly trying to provoke Israel into attacking them precisely so they can play the victim - to be sure, with this many dead and injured, it's no longer exactly "playing" - but if you're Israel and you have an overtly hostile failed state on your doorstep, from which rockets are regularly being launched into your own civilian areas, just what do you do?

It's not like anyone's accusing Israel of being over-liberal with Gaza and its 1.4 million residents. It wouldn't be too great a stretch to describe the enclave as a prison-state, rather like the Manhattan portrayed in Escape From New York. But another way - actually, not all that different a way - of looking at it is a giant welfare colony in which the occupants are only kept alive by constant infusions of outside aid, aid which they repay in bombs, missiles, and suicide attacks.

Granted, Gaza might be able to support itself, at least partially, if it had access to the jobs and trade outside its borders, but we're not likely ever to find out if this would be the case, since every time Israel relaxes its border restrictions even slightly, Hamas hardliners take advantage of the opportunity to launch new attacks on Israel. The only thing that might possibly appease them would be for Israel to close up shop and disappear, along with its 5.3 million Jewish citizens.

I know several militantly anti-Zionist and anti-Israel people who wouldn't be at all displeased with that outcome, but they're largely the sort who can also be seen calling for the USA to get out of North America. More common, though, are the well-intentioned liberals who only want everyone in the Middle East to live in peace, who can't understand why this doesn't seem to be possible, and refuse to believe that a substantial cross-section of the Arab world will do whatever it takes to make sure this never happens.

That's hardly meant to absolve Israeli hardliners of responsibility; they've kept liberal elements hamstrung for decades with the necessity for coalition politics (worth considering, Naderites and other fans of third parties and proportional representation!), and honestly, it's hard to see where the impetus for peace and/or a two-state solution is going to come from. Here in America, where we're laboring through the final weeks of our own failed state, there doesn't seem to be much we can do except look toward January 20 in hopes that, as with nearly everything else wrong today, Obama is somehow going to fix it.

Home Again

24 days. Three and one half weeks. 576 hours. 34,560 minutes. 2,073,600 seconds. That's how long I spent in California, and I was painfully aware of every one of those units of time as they were subtracted from my life. By the last couple days, it didn't seem to matter anymore, as I had lost the will to live as well.

Perhaps I exaggerate just a bit? After all, although Northern California is not my favorite place to be, particularly not in winter, it's hardly the Gobi Desert or the battlefields of Darfur. It's not even blizzard-wracked Wisconsin or, heaven forfend, the stinkier parts of New Jersey.

And in fact, quite a few joys and blessings were bestowed on me during my time on the Wrong Coast: I got to spend time with my lovely family, I saw friends like Janelle, Kristina, Patrick and Erika, who I only get to see occasionally, and other friends like 327 Dave, Jesse Michaels, Michael Donnelly, and the world-famous Kamala, who I almost never see.

The trip cost me almost nothing, as I stayed with my mother the entire time, which meant I was also able to be with her not only for Christmas, but for her 90th birthday party, which was pretty awesome (I spent most of it sitting at the table with the 80-something mostly Jewish ladies, kvetching about public transportation and/or the lack of it in most American cities. One of them had spent the first part of her life in Brownsville and Canarsie, and we were able to fill a good half hour just reminiscing about the names and routes of the old subway lines in the days before they were folded into the MTA.

The fact that I was waxing nostalgic, almost to the point of teary-eyed wistfulness, about the New York City subway system might give you some idea of how out of place I felt in California, despite having lived there for some 30 years of my life. I couldn't travel two minutes on BART, the Bay Area's laughable (to the point of making you want to cry) excuse for a transit system (the old ladies of course remembered the Key System, which for the first half of the 20th century served the same areas as BART now dis-serves at a fraction of the cost and, believe it or not, with greater efficiency, until it was bought and demolished by a subsidiary of the auto industry) without thinking fondly of far happier times spent on the subway.

Yes, it might be a bit noisy, dirty (though not nearly so much as it used to be) and occasionally chaotic, but the New York subway is also far more likely to get you where you're going (and, not nearly so often the case with BART, which was designed with suburban auto drivers in mind), someplace where you'd actually like to be, in a timely and affordable manner. For instance, if I want to hop across the water to Manhattan, I'll walk a couple minutes to the subway stop, and either pay $4 for a round trip ticket, or, far more likely, use my monthly unlimited ride ticket, which makes the average cost of a round trip to the city something like $2.25.

Not so if I want to go to Frisco. First it's a 10 or 12 minute walk to the station (and my mom lives CLOSE; many people in the East Bay suburbs might have a half hour journey before they can even get on a train). Then it's $7.50 for the fare, with no discounts, no monthly tickets, nothing. You have a quick errand downtown, or just want to meet a friend for coffee in the Mission? You're $7.50 in the hole before you even start. And don't even mention wanting to stay out after midnight. Jesse Michaels, Kevin Seconds and Mike Park were playing a show in Frisco a couple nights before Christmas that I might have liked to go to (fortunately I'd seen the same combo at Gilman earlier in the month), but in addition to the club (Bottom of the Hill) being located a half hour's walk from the nearest BART station, I would have had to leave before the second act was halfway over to avoid being marooned in the crappy streets of San Francisco for the night.

And are they crappy? Yes indeed. Not quite, it's only fair to say, as crappy as they were a couple years ago. The heroin sellers at 16th and Mission are not quite as ubiquitous as they used to be, and in fact I walked through quite a few neighborhoods I once would have qiven a wide berth after dark without feeling particularly insecure. I found myself wondering if a couple years of the rough and tumble street life of New York City hadn't inured me to the less than stellar quality of San Francisco hoodlums, but it's more likely that because New York is in general much safer than San Francisco (let alone Oakland, Berkeley or Richmond), that I'd grown accustomed to being able to walk the streets without being constantly vigilant.

Which may not have been the best idea in some of the places I visited, but as I said, nothing untoward happened. Unless, of course, you count the nagging, low grade squalor that seems to accumulate everywhere - or, I should say, in the handful of places that more than a handful of people gather. Most of San Francisco, especially after dark, is practically deserted, and in those few spots with a semblance of night life - the 16th Street and Valencia corridors being a notable example - have a rather desperate Third World ambience, replete with beggars and junkies and other street people trying to flog bits of scavenged and/or stolen merchandise that they spread across the sidewalks. I found myself wondering who on earth was going to buy a pair of stained green trousers that had been lying - all night? for several nights? - on a 16th Street sidewalk in the on-again, off-again rain mingled with the spittle, footsteps, and tossed cigarette butt of the several hundred drunken roisterers who'd passed that way one or several times (several times being the likelier number, since once you stroll more than a couple blocks, there's nowhere to go but to turn around and walk back again; it's the same in the Castro, Union Street, and whatever else passes for a nightlife district). I mean, not just who's going to buy them, but who would then follow up by putting such a pair of pants on? In fact, I never saw any of the street vendors sell anything, but they seemed quite content to sit there and do their bit to bring a little bit of Kinshasa to Baghdad by the Bay (Herb Caen's old encomium seems far more prescient now than it ever could have in the long-ago decade - probably the 30s or 40s - when he coined it).

Speaking, if only parenthetically, of old San Francisco, I happened to watch The Maltese Falcon on the plane ride back to New York. I hadn't seen it in, oh, at least 20 years, and while I remembered it as a delightful throwback to the classy kind of town Caen was always singing paeans to, Sam Spade's San Francisco revisited in 2008 looked darker and sketchier than I remembered. Not a place I'd be all that keen on visiting, though still a notable improvement over what it is today; if nothing else, the villains were better dressed and spoke far more colorfully.

But before I turn this into a one-dimensional Frisco-bashing session (as if I hadn't already, you might riposte), I want to note a couple curious matters. The first, as I've noted before, is that for many years, I thought Frisco and environs were the bee's knees. They possessed, I'd swear to anyone who listened, the best weather, the best culture, the best food, the best scenery. Why, it even smelled better, I'd insist. So, it's only fair to query, as did Morrissey, has the world changed or have I changed?

Secondly, I know quite a few people, my family included who are very happy living in the Bay Area and are not on drugs (well, most of my family, anyway). I could explain that away by saying that the poor dears aren't well traveled and have never lived anywhere sensible (Detroit and San Francisco, mostly, if that tells you anything). But it wouldn't be as easy to explain two former New Yorkers who had relocated (to Frisco in one case and Berkeley in the other) and never doubted for a minute that they'd done the right thing. New York was too crowded, too harsh, too demanding, they said, though it's worth noting that in both cases their idea of "demanding" was the notion that they should have to get jobs and/or otherwise obtain money to pay for rent, transportation and the like.

Rather than continue with the sniping and the cheap shots, I'll just say that I had to accept that much of this must clearly be a matter of individual perception. California quite literally made me sick - I spent two of my last three days there in bed, unable to eat or even move to any great extent, a mysterious illness that vanished completely the minute I set foot in New York City again - but at one time, it invigorated me and filled me with the desire to do great things (while at the same time promoting the sort of emotional - and yes, often drug-induced - lassitude that made it very unlikely I would ever get around to it). But it is also home to hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of happy, productive people, quite a few of whom, hard as it may be for me to believe, are former New Yorkers.

And if I needed further confirmation that at least part of this is all in the mind, I point to the most saliently unpleasant aspect of my time in California: the damp, miserable, all-pervading cold. I swear, to every one of you who emailed or sent a Christmas card with some variation of "Hope you're enjoying your time in sunny California," just be grateful that you were far away at the time, because you might have been throttled on the spot had I been able to reach you.

Yes, the sun did shine occasionally, and I was not unhappy when it rained (they're in the third year of a drought and need the water badly; see, even after all that's happened, I still have a certain bio-loyalty to my old home state), but the one constant factor was the cold. Yes, as many of you pointed out, it gets much colder in New York, but New York is a sensible city where you have winter clothes for when you need them, and once you get home, provided you're not unlucky enough to live in some slum tenement, you will have a warm, heated, well-insulated environment to relax in.

Not so in the Bay Area, where it was a constant (and expensive, for those stuck paying the utility bills) to ever escape the cold. I felt terrible cranking my mother's thermostat up to anything like acceptable levels - enough so that I'll probably have to send her money to pay the extra gas bills I helped run up - but even at 68 or 70 degrees - what is thought of in the civilized world as room temperature - all that's accomplished is that the furnace stays on pretty much constantly and the cold air leaking in from every window and right through the walls creates bone-chilling drafts.

And no, my mother's house is not particularly bad; it was like that in almost every house I visited. The only times during my three and a half weeks that I felt fully warm were a) on the BART, provided I didn't sit near the doors; b) in the shower; and c) in bed, provided I had the full complement of four blankets.

But here's the kicker: when I got back to New York, the temperature was exactly the same - 46 degrees - as it had been in San Francisco when I left. Except in New York, I was warm. I went out wearing my spring jacket with a hoodie underneath and was completely comfortable; in Frisco, I'd worn my heavy winter jacket with the same hoodie underneath, and sometimes an additional thermal fleece - actually, I rarely took the fleece off, even when I was indoors. I may have looked like the Michelin Man, but that's what it took to fight off the cold (even though, as I noted in an earlier post, some of the local nuts and/or drunks were out in t-shirts and shorts).

I mentioned this to my friend Rob, and he said, "Yeah, everyone says that cold affects you way more in San Francisco. Maybe it's because they're surrounded by water." "And we're not?" I asked. Rob, who's lived in Queens, within sniffing distance of the Atlantic Ocean for 50 of his 53 years, just shrugged. "Maybe it's a different kind of water?"

Oh well, here's to everyone being happy on their respective coasts, and here's to me being not just happy, but ecstatic, to be back on mine. Tonight I walked across town and then all the way up from the Village to Times Square just for the sheer joy of seeing people and lights and life and sanity again, and my heart was singing with every footstep. It was noisy as hell, the crowds were - well, they weren't really "crowds," though they would have been seen as such in almost any other "city" in the land - just full of life and energy and - no, actually, they were probably just going to a movie or to grab a late night coffee. What can I say? It just looked like a city is supposed to look, and functioned like a city is supposed to function. I must have been insane to stay away so long, and I am so, so happy to be back home.

16 December 2008

Hunx, Runx, And The Rest Of The Punx

I did manage to get out over the weekend, just as the rain and cold set in with a vengeance, but thanks to having the use of a Zipcar for a few hours, I stayed warmer than I'd been in a while. I looked in on PATRICK HYNES, celebrating his - well, I guess he's getting to the age where I don't need to give an exact number - birthday with his lovely wife ERIKA (the two of them together run LITTLE TYPE MAIL ORDER, and of course many of you will know Patrick from his days as the magnificently pompadoured guitarist of THE POTATOMEN, or, if you can't forgive him for that, as one third of LOOKOUT RECORDS during the 90s glory years.

Patrick was in fine fettle, apart from nursing a sore head as a result of getting beaned during his afternoon soccer match. I stayed longer than I'd intended, which meant I arrived at my next destination, JANELLE BLARG's holiday party, just as everyone was leaving (at least that's what they said, i.e., they swore they weren't leaving just because I'd arrived.

And it wasn't really just Janelle's party, although she gets top billing because she was the one who invited me. Dozens of prestigious East Bay scenesters were also in attendance, and a few even stayed to visit after I'd arrived, though mostly, I suspect, because they lived there. There was, for example, the inimitable HUNX, of GRAVY TRAIN fame, and now fronting his own fast-rising combo, HUNX AND HIS PUNX. Hunx was clad in an authentic 1970s dashiki, of the sort once favored by full-figured African-American women; on Hunx's skinny frame, it looked more like priestly vestments, though perhaps not from any church you'd want your son attending.

Hunx also shared with us his spectacular new video. Here, have a look for yourself:

It's worth noting that the video's awesome animation segments were the work of none other than Miss Janelle herself! This is a multi-talented house party we're talking about, as further evidenced when the elusive RICHIE BUCHER came strolling in. Richie, who you'll know from a long line of East Bay bands, including the immortal SWEET BABY and his artwork on, among other things, the cover of Dookie, is often heard of but seldom seen; his appearance at last summer's INSUBORDINATION FEST in Baltimore providing the first evidence to many of his admirers that he actually existed!

Then, as if Hunx weren't enough, in came RUNX! Otherwise known as MATT RUNKLE, he's the author and artist behind a really cool comic called Runx Tales, which you'd be well advised to pick up first chance you get. Then there was this lady whose name I tragically can't remember just now, but who I'm sure must be a prestigious designer, or will be soon. She had this amazing purse she'd made which I can't really do justice to with words: it was decorated with a series of hanging rings that turned out to have been fashioned from zippers, and that was only the pièce de résistance of her ensemble. I had to pinch myself to remember that we were hobnobbing not in the hallowed precincts of Fifth Avenue but in the nondescript backstreets of Oakland!

Well, there were lots more names and faces I could wow you with, but some of them demand anonymity and others, well, they'll just have to wait because it's really past my bedtime now, even out here on the three-hours-behind West Coast. Oh, but before I go, let me give a further shout-out to my friend KRISTINA (yay!) who was up from Los Angeles and to the new CALIFORNIA ACADEMY OF SCIENCES (boo! - mostly for the shockingly exorbitant price of admission) that we visited. I seem to recall that at the old CAAS, you could just walk in from the park and stroll around looking at the fish, etc. At this one, they fleece you for 25 bucks (three bucks off if you're an AAA member or came on public transportation, but still) to look at some fish, etc. Ask yourself how many kids from the ghetto are ever going to see the inside of this joint. Museums should be free for all, all the time. On that sour note, good night.

Notes From Siberia

It's probably my karma (now I know I've been in California too long) for complaining about the weather last week, when it was at least getting up near 60F (15C) during the daytime. It was still too cold, of course, getting down into the 30s and 40s at night, but now we're in the second or third day of a typical - at least it's happened most Decembers I can remember - California cold wave where we'd be thrilled if the temperature managed to make it out of the 40s.

This may seem like a minor inconvenience, or even a tropical heat wave, to those coping with blizzards and sub-zero temps out East or in the Great Plains, but what people often don't appreciate about the cold in California is a) it's a very damp, especially bone-chilling variety; and b) because Californians refuse to believe that they don't live on a perpetually sunlit Baywatch set, most houses are paper-thin, poorly insulated (if at all) and heated (if at all) by furnaces that are about as effective as an outsized hair dryer.

So while the cold back East can be wretched, even terrifying and life-threatening, it's usually only a matter of making it from the car or the subway back to your house or apartment where you can be snug and warm again. Whereas in California, you can do for days - weeks or months, even - never really getting warm.

Oh, it's not as though people of dying of exposure in their homes, although I suspect a fair few frail and elderly folks have been hastened to their demise by chronically underheated living conditions. It's more a case of chronic, low-grade misery from which there are few escapes. Some public buildings are adequately heated, of course, and if you've got the price of a ticket you can ride around all day on a warm BART train, but if for some reason you're stuck in the house, multiple sweaters and long underwear are the order of the day, and even then the cold air manages to creep in somehow.

Because of a project I'm working on, I've been shivering in front of the computer for most of the past week and a half, only occasionally venturing out to marvel at the nutty, no, let's be more precise, insane Californians who stroll the streets in t-shirts and shorts despite icicles threatening to form on their bright red ears and noses. I don't know if they are brazening things out for macho purposes, or if they are truly in denial - one such fellow that I saw at BART the other night was clearly drunk out of his mind, but this explanation can't apply to all of them - but they seem blithely unaware that everyone else around them is wrapped up in scarves, hats and winter jackets.

I know that if I stayed here long enough I would adapt to the weather, as I did when I previously lived in California. It took me about two years from the time I first moved here before I no longer felt it necessary to wear a heavy coat in June, and after a couple more years, I could be heard swearing that California weather, and specifically Bay Area weather, was the best in the world.

But ten years in England and two in New York have thoroughly disabused me of that notion. It's true that in New York we're far less likely to get those 70-degrees-in-January days that the Bay Area (very) occasionally enjoys, but on the other hand, we're far more likely to get summers where you can actually strip down to a swimming suit and jump in the ocean without risking hypothermia.

And more vitally, the East Coast seems to have a more realistic relationship with the weather. People know that it gets very cold in winter and very hot in summer, so they and the buildings they inhabit are prepared to cope. In California, they prefer to pretend that it's always good weather and when - as is often the case - it's not, to pretend harder.

Adding insult to injury, by the way, I note that at present it's a full 20 degrees warmer in New York than it is in San Francisco. An anomaly, true, and most likely it will be snowing or worse by tomorrow, but for right now, what I wouldn't give for an extra 20 degrees. Or just a steaming radiator and some snug-fitting storm windows.

15 December 2008


Saw the film Milk the other day and must say that while I've never been keen on Sean Penn and haven't been impressed by anything Gus Van Sant's done in the last ten years or so, both of them deserve Oscars. Penn, especially. I guess I haven't been paying that much attention to his career since, oh, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (and his Madonna period was a spectacle best left completely unwatched), but the guy really can act. Or has learned to do so along the way. Respect.

Since I lived in or near the Castro during several (1972-73 and 1976-77) of the years covered by the film (1972-73 and 1976-77), I was interested to see how accurately it was portrayed. When Van Sant was shooting, I saw some flyers asking for extras to re-enact a couple of the marches and protest rallies, complete with instructions of what not to wear (no designer or brand logos, for example; I'd forgotten that such things barely existed in the 70s and would have been considered mightily outré if they had). And the answer is: yes, they pulled it off pretty well. For some reason I found it especially poignant to see the Diesel outlet at the corner of Castro and Market restored to its original (at least as far back as my memory goes) incarnation as the Bank of America.

I did spot one glaring anachronism: as the marchers in one scene set off down Market Street they pass (and disable) a green and yellow F Market streetcar. The streetcar itself was the right style, albeit unnaturally clean, but in 1978 there was no F Market line. What's more, the spot on 17th Street where the marchers passed it is actually the end of the line, so there would have been no point in disabling the car; the track ends right there, so it wouldn't have been going anywhere.

Minor quibble, I guess. If I were going to quarrel with anything else, it might be with the film's idealization of early-to-mid 70s Castro Street as a romantic, halcyon age, more or less the gay equivalent to the hippie free love 60s, marred only by interference from the nasty old San Francisco Police Department. I guess such harassment did take place from time to time, though I had very little personal experience with it; what really felt like a time warp was the film's portrayal of San Francisco cops taking aggressive action of any kind, even if it was wrong-headed and mean-spirited. The SFPD riot squad charging in to stop some mustachioed hunks from dancing together? It's been decades since I've seen them get that excited about mayhem and murder.

But I think I'm in a tiny minority in feeling that the Castro wasn't all that. Most guys my age who have any experience with or recollection of the pre-AIDS Castro share Van Sant's rose-colored view, and telling them that I personally found it a little sordid, squalid, and tacky elicits blank stares at best and outright derision and hostility from those less inclined to listen to my nay-saying.

Maybe it was the mustaches, and the Marlboro Man clone look that overtook the street by 1974 or so: I found that style singularly unattractive (still do, in fact, despite periodic attempts, not least right here in Williamsburg, to revive it), and as a result spent less and less time there. Castro Street was the main shopping street for the neighborhood, and I also had a post office box at 18th and Diamond, so I had to go there on a pretty regular basis, but I didn't linger or socialize all that much. Some of my roommates did, so I heard plenty of stories, few of them appealing.

Probably because of that I never actually met Harvey Milk, though I'd see him around the neighborhood from time to time. I voted for him, too, though probably more out of left-wing political considerations than gay cultural ones. Revisiting that era by way of the movie brought up mixed feelings: while it was touching to see the difference that it made for young people to have somewhere to go and an ideal for living when they'd been repressed and ostracized in their own families and communities, I felt the same difficulty I'd felt in the 70s with seeing a political movement, identity, or culture constructed largely around who one happened to have sex with.

Very possibly this says more about me than about the gay movement, but while we're on the topic, I have to point out that I feel similarly ambivalent about the whole Proposition 8/gay marriage imbroglio. I have friends who ready to secede from the United States of America over last month's vote in California, or at least to withhold all support from Barack Obama, despite agreeing with him on 90% of the issues, because he didn't embrace the cause of gay marriage.

I, on the other hand, found myself respecting Obama more as a result of that decision. The incoming Prez clearly learned from history: before his Presidency ahd really gotten underway, Bill Clinton had squandered much of his hard-won political capital on the ill-starred gays in the military issue. It's not that I in any way support banning gays from the military, just that it was clear at the time that America was not ready for it (it would hardly be an issue if it were introduced today). Similarly, there will almost certainly come a time, and probably not too far in the future, when some form of gay marriage is unquestioningly accepted.

But that time is not here yet, and the aggressive push for marriage as opposed to the more innocuous-sounding (while accomplishing almost exactly the same purpose) civil unions has actually - at least in my opinion - set the cause back. If California had instituted civil unions instead of gay marriage, it's almost certain that the Mormons and Christian right wouldn't have been able to mobilize enough support for Proposition 8, and a prohibition against gay marriage would not now be part of the California constitution.

The same is true of at least some if not all the other states that have now passed laws specifically banning gay marriage. Sure, these laws can and no doubt eventually will be undone eventually, but it will make things that much harder, and why? All because - again, in my opinion - a few hardcore activists felt it necessary to tweak the noses of traditional Christians by appropriating a ritual that religious people felt - whether rightly or wrongly - to be part and parcel of their own belief system. It struck me as being kind of like the kid who's not satisfied just to come out to his parents as gay, but insists on doing so by showing up at their church in drag on Easter Sunday.

Oh well, what do I know? I'm not in line to get married to anyone of either gender, so it's kind of a non-issue to me. Sure, I would have voted against Prop 8 had I been a California resident, but mainly because nearly all of the wrong people were on the other side. In the meantime, go see Milk if you haven't already and be thankful it's not the 1970s anymore.

05 December 2008

MCMYS East Bay Report

There's got to be an upside to being stranded in the East Bay for three and a half weeks, I kept telling myself, and sure enough, I'd been here barely a day when I discovered that my old friend JESSE MICHAELS was going to be performing down the legendary GILMAN STREET along with fellow legends KEVIN SECONDS and MIKE PARK.

I'm guessing, though I don't know for sure, that Jesse must have played at Gilman during his days with COMMON RIDER, but if so, I wasn't there, so this marked the first time I'd seen him on the Gilman stage since the last OPERATION IVY show almost 20 years ago. As you'd expect, some fellow old-timers showed up to see him, including PAT WRIGHT, who's been a part of Gilman since pretty much the beginning, and could barely contain his delight at having, at age 65, started collecting his Social Security. While others, including the lovely KAMALA, of the KARNIVORES et al., assured me (there were a lot of similar assurances going on among the Gilman old-schoolers) that I "hadn't changed a bit," Pat wanted to know if I too had signed up for Social Security, rather abruptly undoing all the good work by the numerous flatterers.

Also in attendance was AARON THORNS OF LIFE, who's taken up residence on the West Coast for a while, so Next Big Thing seeker-afters can relax for a while when it comes to finding out about that next top-secret show that they're not invited to. Meanwhile, what was happening up on the stage? Well, Jesse, who told me beforehand that his main goal in doing these shows is to "learn how to sing and play guitar at the same time so I can join a band," ran through about an album's worth of brand new songs (new to me, anyway, and I think to the crowd at large) with just himself on vocals and electric guitar. "But Jesse," I'd said, "you've already managed to be in a few bands and do, um, reasonably well..." "Yes," he said, but I want to be able to use the guitar as a composing tool for writing songs." "But it seems like you've managed to write a few songs in your time, too..." But at that point I uncharacteristically shut up, it having occurred to me that there was probably not much point in my trying to tell one of the greatest performers I've ever seen how to conduct his business.

The new songs do sound good, though they seem as though they're not fully developed yet, and would probably benefit from being performed by a full band. Jesse also seemed a little nervous on stage, at least during the opening songs, but relaxed noticeably once he realized that the crowd was totally supportive and was going to let him do whatever he wanted (i.e., no one yelling for Operation Ivy songs, etc.). As it happened, though, there was one magical moment at the close of Mike Park's set, when he came down into the audience to pose for a picture at the end of his set and then suddenly broke into a rendition of what was arguably Op Ivy's most anthemic number, "The Crowd." Jesse was standing just a few feet away, and eyes kept straying toward him to see how he would react, but then just as it came time for the second verse, he edged up to the microphone and started singing, "Drink drink in the badlands..."

Those of you who know the song will be aware that just as he kicks into that lyric there's an inadvertent (or perhaps not) catch in his voice that catapults things into another dimension, and not only did chills resonate up and down my body, but my eyes rolled heavenward until I was staring at the ceiling of Gilman Street. There's something about Jesse's voice when he really nails a lyric that does that to you, and I was reminded of the way DAVID HAYES described the feeling of another Op Ivy song, "Bad Town," where LINT (very creditably handles the vocals until the last chorus, when Jesse comes in with a "No, no no, no" that, as David said back then, was "almost scary."

But last night's magical Gilman moment was short-lived, at least for me: while everyone around me started singing along (just like Op Ivy shows of yore), the guy behind me sang so loud that even without a microphone, he completely drowned out Jesse. I hope it was a very enjoyable experience for him, singing along with his hero that way, but frankly, just for those couple of minutes, I would have rather heard his hero. Oh well. My feeling is that Jesse's headed in a good direction with the new stuff and that there will be more chances to hear him in the coming months.

Kevin Seconds also did his acoustic thingie and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Not sure how much he liked me reminding him that the first time I saw him with his old band 7 SECONDS was more than 28 years ago, but hey, we're all getting along in years, and the far more important thing is that he's still getting out there and playing and making things happen, and from all appearances, enjoying the heck out of it. From the stage, Jesse told a story that I'd never heard, and which I'll have to assume is legit: that back in the late 70s, Kevin and his brother started an American Sex Pistols fan club while, Jesse made sure to point out, "the Sex Pistols were still a band."

Anyway, good spirits and high times all around on a chilly California night. Gilman Street will be 22 years old in a few weeks time. It's an ongoing miracle, and almost singlehandedly makes up for much that is wrong with the world today.

24 November 2008

A Real New Yorker

Last night I was supposed to meet a bunch of PPMB-ers at BARCADE to give a proper send off to our Canadian friend M.W., who'd been in town for last weekend's ERGS-travaganza. Barcade is located all of three blocks from my house, but I guess I've lived here long enough to fall under the pernicious influence of Brooklyn (Sub)Standard Time, which is the zone in which appointments, shows, whatever, start, well, whenever. Result: I turned up a full three hours late (hey, that's one hour per block; not SO bad, is it), which was still better than most of the PPMB, who didn't turn up at all.

The four who did, including M.W. himself, had already fled back to Queens and Manhattan by the time I came strolling in, which was a disappointment (to me, anyway; I don't recall any of them complaining). But while I may have acquired some bad Brooklyn habits (hey, at least no drugs yet), I'm not, and apparently never will be - in the minds of some, anyway - a Brooklynite. Let alone a real New Yorker.

I can live with that. I've called a lot of places home over the years without giving too much concern over whether the people who'd been living there longer than I had felt similarly. I've had the occasional snooty Londoner, and quite a few snooty San Franciscans, waylay me with some version of "But you're not really from here, are you?" But I've never thought of New Yorkers as being that provincial; in fact, the general rule seems to be the smaller the town, the more obsessed the locals are with whether or not you're "from" there.

Thus I was mightily surprised when a near-violent row broke out between JONNIE WHOA OH, the feisty CEO of WHOA OH RECORDS and JOHNNY B-BAGS, an aspiring lawyer who moved here from DC by way of Ohio a year or two ago, over whether B-Bags had the right to refer to himself as a "New Yorker."

Now even I've been here longer than B-Bags (and if we're going to be pedantic, I was here decades before Whoa Oh and his fellow traveler CHRIS GRIVET ever laid eyes on this city), and I'll admit it can be a bit off-putting when someone who moved in last week starts talking about "our" neighborhood and "our" community in a too-knowing and familiar way (not that I've ever done this myself, but actually, yes I have). But the longer I live somewhere and the more I feel at home there, the less bothered I am by newcomers, and the happier I am to see them feeling like they belong there too.

Not so with Messrs. Whoa Oh and Grivet. In their book (and a ponderous, well-thumbed volume of rules and regulations it is), you can not be a New Yorker unless you were born here. The Bronx's BILL FLORIO is a bit less stringent: he reckons you need to have been here "since junior high" to make the cut.

Whoa Oh gets pretty irate if you point out that while he qualifies under the "born here" rule, he fails abysmally under the "since junior high" addendum, since he actually spent most of his teenage years out on Long Island. He'll protest that this temporary dislocation doesn't count, since as a minor he had no choice but to follow his mother when she moved there, but using this logic, being born in the city limits should count for even less, since as far as I'm aware, most infants exert no choice whatsoever in where they are born and spend their mewling and puking years.

It would seem, in fact, that one's "home town" is really the place one chooses to live beginning when a person is old enough to have some choice in the matter. I've known New Yorkers who grew up here, didn't like it that much, and split for California or Europe or the Midwest as soon as they were old enough to leave home, and conversely there are kids all over America and the world to whom New York represents their spiritual destiny and can barely wait (in some cases don't even bother waiting) till they're 18 and can move there. So which represents a truer New Yorker? The one who was born here through no choice of his or her own and couldn't wait to leave, or the one to whom living in New York represents a dream come true and is willing to put with any sort of hardship or privation to make it happen?

Well, as I say, it's not a super-important issue to me, or, in my experience, to most New Yorkers. This has always been a city of immigrants, both domestic and foreign, and without the constant stream of newcomers, we'd be, well, Boston or something. But it has given me a good song idea for my hypothetical new band, and though I'm still missing a drummer and a bassist and maybe a guitarist, I'm already off to a good start with this half-rock/half-rap ditty about the blood feud between Queens chauvinists Grivet and Whoa Oh and Brooklyn-based B-Bags. In fact it starts out, "Blood in the streets of Brooklyn and Queens..." and I'm thinking of calling it "Gs On The G Train" in homage to the crosstown line that connects the two boroughs.

In fact, since the only other song I've written in recent years was also about the G train, I may just make this an all-G train-themed band, but that remains under consideration. True, neither Whoa Oh or Grivet would be caught dead on the G; provincial Astorians that they are, they don't consider a subway ride to be a "real" subway ride unless the train passes through Manhattan at some point, even if it requires going miles out of their way to do so.

I'm hoping that my song will, by highlighting the tragic futility of this dispute, forestall a potential blood feud, or at least turn it into an all-singing, all-dancing affair à la an outer-boroughs West Side Story. In the longer run, of course, B-Bags will finish law school and successfully sue for the right to be called a New Yorker while Whoa Oh and Grivet might conceivably move to Santa Monica and get their own sitcom which in addition to its obvious Odd Couple overtones, will revolve largely around the two of them trying to maintain their native New York-ness in the face of rampant, overwhelming Californication. Okay, not the most original premise (I think I Love Lucy pulled a somewhat similar stunt), but with this kind of show it's about 90% character and 10% plot, and these guys... well, they're a couple characters, all right. New Yorkers through and through, and we love them for it. Stay tuned, and in the meantime, let's hope no one gets shot.

23 November 2008


Another weekend, another secret THORNS OF LIFE show. This time the in-the-know scenesters and hipsters went flocking to Soho while the less well connected exchanged frantic text messages à la the protagonists of NICK AND NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST in search of the elusive WHERE'S FLUFFY? gig.

Being in receipt of a couple such text messages myself, I briefly considered a dash across the Williamsburg Bridge, but ultimately decided to attend a punk rock show on the more prosaic side of the East River. Actually, it was only partly a punk rock show, the punkest part of all coming right at the beginning in the form of the debut performance by the HOMEWRECKERS, featuring the multi-talented CRISTY ROAD (everyone's seen her artwork, and last night she was also reading from some of her written work) on guitar and vocals, FRANK UNLOVABLE on guitar, JACKIE O. on bass and backing vocals, and CRYSTAL (I tried to get a surname, but all Frank could tell me was that "She's Crystal Homewrecker now") on drums.

They got a really enthusiastic reception and a very good-sized crowed (especially considering that it was the most miserably wintry night of the not-even-arrived-yet New York winter so far. The sound was very raw and old-school punk, almost-but-not-quite to the point of retro, with Cristy's vocals (Jackie's backups helped too!) setting the Homewreckers distinctly apart from the pack. Check them out first chance you get.

This being South Williamsburg, they had to let the hipsters in, too, and remember, these are the lower-tier hipsters, the ones who didn't get their Thorns Of Life text messages in time, so naturally there was a DJ and some other bands playing some sort of music that may have been perfectly valid but didn't do much for me, so after the Homewreckers I retreated to the back room, where numerous PPMB representatives were holding forth.

There were tales to be told of the previous night's birthday festivities for MIKEY ERG and Jackie O. that took place at Jackie's Bushwick loft and which apparently got a little rowdy. The best evidence I have of this, having not attended personally because it was too cold or I was too depressed or something - no, actually because I was a doofus - was the story of Jackie O.'s bedroom door being torn off its hinges, always a good sign of lively goings-on at a party, wouldn't you say?

There was also some speculation about when or if the Thorns Of Life are going to start playing shows that normal people can attend. With at least one and possibly two members about to be out of town for an extended period, prospects don't look good. If there were big money and a major record label behind TTOL, you'd almost think this was part of a brilliant viral marketing campaign, sort of what like RCA did with THE STROKES a few years back, the main differences being that there's no money and no record label behind TTOL and that they're actually really good.

But the level of excitement about this band is already such that people are asking why exactly they're choosing to play only secret shows that no more than a relative handful of fans can attend. Of course there's nothing that unusual about wanting to play a few small, low-key shows when a band is just starting out, much the way Broadway shows have out-of-town tryouts, but for most bands, that happens naturally anyway, since unless somebody famous is in the band, it's hard to get more than 10 or 15 friends to show up to your first showcase at some Lower East Side dive where you're supposed to go on at midnight and end up playing at a quarter to three on a Tuesday night.

But with TTOL you've got three famous people in the band, and it's probably no exaggeration to say they could probably go straight to playing club or festival shows for hundreds or even thousands of fans. Of course just because they could isn't to say they should, and it's to their credit that they're taking things slow. But what, people are already asking, if they have no intention of ever taking things to the larger venues that they could easily fill? Does a band have an obligation to make its shows available to everyone who wants to see them? No would seem to be the obvious answer to that, but when does a laudable desire to keep things low-key and unfettered by commercial considerations turn into something elitist and exclusive? Hey, don't look at me; I sure don't know. Just sayin' what people are sayin'...

One last TTOL item: JONNY RALLY, of pop-punk label RALLY RECORDS, started this, but the trend seems to be catching on: responding to any of life's travails and vicissitudes with, "I guess it's just the thorns of life." Subway shut its doors in your face when you were already late for work this morning? Thorns of life, dude. Stepped in dogshit just before going into an important meeting with your boss? Ditto. And sure enough, one frustrated fan who didn't get his text message in time responded with, "Man, I'm all up in the thorns of life this week."

In other somewhat unexpected news, the RIVERDALES are said to be getting ready to record a new album and possibly/probably play some shows. Not a conventional tour in the usual sense of the word, more like a series of one-offs in various cities. Hopes are high that one such appearance will be at Baltimore's INSUBORDINATION FEST next June; one of the more memorable highlights of the first (2006) Fest came when DAN VAPID's MOPES covered the Riverdales classic "Back To You."

Also showing signs of moving out of musical hibernation: JESSE MICHAELS, of OPERATION IVY and COMMON RIDER fame. He's got at least a couple shows scheduled next month; I'm under the impression that he'll be playing solo acoustic, but no confirmation on that so far. I hope to be seeing at least one of them, and will certainly report back on that.

What else? In this post-ERGS WEEKEND, everything seems relatively slack and slow, sort of like the first week back to normal after the holidays or something. Oh, speaking of which, you want a real rumor? Before the Riverdales resurrection can go into full effect, they need a new drummer, and among the potential candidates are the drummers from not one, but two East Coast powerhouse bands. Any other drummers wanting to get in on this action are advised to send their résumés in forthwith!

Last but very least: as if I didn't have enough ways to while away (waste) my potentially productive time, I've now been prevailed upon to join FACEBOOK. In the past I've already made the mistakes of joining first FRIENDSTER and then MYSPACE, and quickly came to hate both of them. Any bets on how long before I make it three for three? In the meantime feel free to friend me and while you're at it, send me gossip. I can't make all of it up myself!

16 November 2008

Music Can Make ME Stupid


I have to start out by saying I'm sorry to everyone who was bummed or stressed out by my mentioning rumors of a THORNS OF LIFE show here, especially the band and the people at the house who were putting on the show.

After seeing the details (time, place, address etc.) posted a couple places, the PPMB included, on the wide wide interwebs, I figured it wouldn't make any difference if I mentioned rumors about the gig as long as I didn't mention a specific house, but I figured wrong. By Friday afternoon, word had spread pretty much around the world and people were emailing and calling me as well as posting on every message board in sight trying to find out more info. Some people jumped into cars or buses hundreds of miles away.

At that point, someone understandably freaked out (what would you do if you suddenly heard that 500 people would be arriving at your house in a matter of hours?) and posted that there while there was a show planned, the Thorns Of Life had never been part of it. That threw enough confusion into the mix to deter maybe half the people who might have come.

People who put on house shows are the unsung heroes of the New York scene. Those of you who don't live around here might think there's no end of places for bands to play, and technically that's true, but what you wouldn't probably know is that about 98% of them completely and utterly suck unless you're a big, successful band with a fierce booking agent (if you're in that position maybe only 60% of them suck).

But if you haven't sold enough records and generated enough income to write your own ticket, house shows are often your only alternative if you want your friends to see you without getting reamed for cash, bossed and bullied around by obnoxious bouncers and sound men, and generally demoralized. So if/when I do anything to jeopardize New York's thriving house show scene, I deserve a good kick in the pants, though I hasten to inform any of you lining up to take on that task that I've already administered said kick myself, so you needn't bother.

So what ended up happening? Well, the Thorns Of Life played after all, to a living room crammed full of more people than should ever be crammed into a living room, but it wasn't unduly uncomfortable or unsafe, and what do you know? They're a good band! Surprised? No, seriously, a VERY good band. More than one person was heard to be opining that they're the best band Blake's been in, which for a second show is probably more than slightly over the top praise, but people were feeling pretty excitable about the whole business. Given my indiscretion from earlier on, I was halfway afraid to set foot in the place for fear of being tarred and feathered, but the worst indignity I suffered was getting my foot stepped on.

It'll be interesting to see where this band goes. As fun as it is playing low-key house shows, they may be fooling themselves if they think they can carry on that way for long without generating insane levels of interest that will overwhelm any attempts to keep things on the DL. Unless, perhaps, they can find some friends with a very large house. MAYOR BLOOMBERG and GRACIE MANSION come to mind.


JIM TESTA, editor-publisher of JERSEY BEAT and dean of the Jersey scene since practically before there was one, came sidling over as the lights went up on the wreckage and detritus of the last-ever Ergs set.

"Have you ever seen a band breakup like that?" he asked, with the air of a man who doesn't expect to be contradicted, and looked crestfallen when I said yes, I had. So much so that I wanted to run after him and shout, "But only once, Jim, only once!"

The breakup/last show I had in mind was OPERATION IVY in 1989, and even though you can no doubt find as many differences as similarities between the two bands, I'm sticking with it. Both bands represented the culmination of a scene that had grown up organically and - to everyone except a couple thousand true believers in the punk rock underground - almost invisibly. Although the last Op Ivy show was the biggest thing that had happened in the history of GILMAN STREET and was swamped with fans to the point where the warehouse held three to four times its legal capacity, it didn't even rate a passing mention in the local press.

Five, six, seven years later, those same newspapers would be falling all over themselves to write knowing portraits of the scene that was "the birthplace of GREEN DAY," and Operation Ivy finally began to get the recognition they deserved from the mainstream (they already had plenty from the underground, with record sales doubling or tripling every year for the first seven years after they broke up. A band that had sold all of 2,000 7"s at the time they played that last show went on to sell something like a million albums.

Everything is different today, I keep being told, and it's true that the odds are considerably more stacked against the Ergs ever selling that many records. Very few bands do these days. But the fanatical devotion, the ever-growing interest that eventually vaulted Operation Ivy into one of that handful of bands that go down in history because they encapsulated, illuminated and inspired an entire scene is something that the Ergs can also look forward to. Ten years, twenty years from now, they'll be far more famous and far more loved than they are today. I got laughed at and ridiculed - including by members of the band - when I made that prediction about Operation Ivy. No doubt I'll get a similar reaction when I predict something similar for the Ergs. come back and laugh at me in ten or twenty years if I'm wrong, but I don't think I will be.

I say this while not being nearly as familiar with the music of the Ergs as I was with that of Op Ivy, which put me at a big disadvantage yesterday when a packed house at the legendary ASBURY LANES (legendary can mean a lot of different things, but trust me, this place qualifies) went wild for and sang along with every single song. I didn't even know the names of many of the songs, and often only recognized them with, "Oh, that's the one with that great little bit of 60s-style backing harmony," or "That's the one where MIKEY comes up front and sings about Miles Davis." Okay, I'm exaggerating a little; I've been seeing quite a bit of the Ergs lately and by the time of their last show I'd at least heard most of the songs.

But that's not the point. Even though I met at least two it not all three of the Ergs way back around 2000, when the band was just getting underway, I was very slow to appreciate their greatness, and even today I don't "get" them on the level their rabidly devoted local fans do. But that's all right, because this is not about me. If I came late to the Ergs, I also came late to this scene, and it rightfully belongs to the people who kept it going and nurtured it back when it seemed like nobody really cared at all. (There was once actually going to be a zine about this kind of music called NOBODY CARES, but you can guess the punchline to that one.)

When Op Ivy played their last show, security at Gilman lost all control of the doors, so nobody will ever know for certain how many people were actually there. For the Ergs' last shows at Asbury Lanes, ticket sales and entry were far more tightly managed, meaning that hundreds of fans who would have liked to have been there couldn't be. The lucky ones who were got treated to between two and three hours (because of course most of them had to see both the afternoon and the late night show) of vintage and modern Ergs, finally wrapping up in a massive and marathon rendering of "Upstairs/Downstairs" that lasted about half an hour and involved first members of HUNCHBACK and then everybody from the audience who could fit on stage banging or pounding on something and chanting the chorus unto near-infinity.

"That was your version of Op Ivy's extended dub mix of "Hedgecore," I said to Mikey afterward, and he knew exactly what I was talking about. Outside a frigid wind had come sweeping across Asbury Park, turning what had been an unnaturally warm and rainy November day into the proverbial dark and stormy night. There were a couple points during the long ride back to New York (it actually flew by, but indulge me here) where I feared we might be blown off the road, and I didn't get home until 4:30 or so, but oh, what memories I carried with me. There couldn't have been more than a handful of people in that crowd who won't treasure this experience for the rest of their lives, and that was probably because they spent the evening comatose (yes, there were such, about which more later), but speaking on my and everyone else's behalf, thank you, Ergs, thank you for your devotion to the music and the love for your friends and fans, and for the eight and a half years of amazing-ness you gifted us with. I don't think there's a single band that matters in the immediate NY/NJ scene that doesn't owe something of its heart and soul to the fact that the Ergs existed. And for that reason alone, they'll live on forever.


Although I don't imbibe myself, I don't begrudge my fellow music lovers the occasional tipple, and in fact their drinking escapades often furnish me with as much (in some cases, more) entertainment than the bands themselves. Yesterday being such a momentous occasion, the tipples grew far more than occasional for quite a few attendees, so the hilarity that ensued grew exponentially as well.

In most cases, that is; intertwined with the revelry there were the quiet tragedies as well, for example that of the recently-turned-18 lad who drove 175 miles to bid goodbye to the Ergs, drank three quarters of a bottle of whiskey in anticipation of the excitement, and wound up spending the evening passed out in a friend's car and missed the entire show. Even here, though, the humorous aspect was not entirely absent: who else should materialize at the show but errant 18-year-old's dad, who spent an hour or so being given the runaround ("Oh, don't worry, ____'s fine, he's probably watching the show from over there. Or maybe over there. Oh, look, is that him by the snack bar?") before finally being led to his comatose (I know I already used that word once, but what else suffices?) son. Hopefully all has been resolved happily by now, but I am here to testify that in my own teenage drinking, puking and passing out days, my father is not one of the first people I would have preferred to encounter. And guess what? It happened anyway! One of those immutable laws of destiny, I suspect.

And then there were those two movie star lookalikes who rolled in from Ohio for the festivities; let's just call them, say, JONAH HILL and MARKY MARK. Well, it seems that Jonah walked into the room to discover another partier, a normally very sophisticated, well-spoken, sharp-dressing (well, he wears shirts with collars on a regular basis, and they're often plaid - I hope I haven't given too much away here) simultaneously puking and crying and somehow also declaiming, "Oh, my life, my life!" while Marky Mark pointed at him and laughed hysterically (in the original version I heard, PLAID MAN was saying, "This is the greatest moment of my life!" which would have been better, but this column has some regard for veracity. When it's convenient, er...).

Then there's the Incredible Case of the Disappearing Toe, involving (this has already made it on to the internet, so I don't think he'll mind being identified by name) DREW PEABOTTOM, Ph.D. (yes, folks, he's a genuine doctor of the engineering variety) who managed to engineer a hotel shower door onto his foot and remove a portion of one of his toes, necessitating a trip to the emergency room (one which, I note, didn't prevent him turning up midway through the following day's punk rock show up in New York). Despite the great hubbub made about his loss (including innumerable jokes that involved asking unanswerable questions and replying "I don't toe," urging people to kiss their girlfriends "under the missing toe," and comparing Dr. D. to a pizza chef that tossed his dough while Drew lost his toe), the scuttlebutt is that the actual missing portion of his anatomy amounted to little more than toenail. Oh, and lots of blood, witnesses avidly reported. Do you suppose there might have been alcohol involved in this incident? I don't toe!!!

It wouldn't be a drunken bacchanal without CHADD DERKINS putting in an appearance, and sure enough, there he was, wobbling unsteadily in the rain while he serenaded all and sundry with a charming little ditty called "Smell Yo Dick," which apparently has become quite a hit in certain circle (no, not the ones you're thinking) and is the poignant tale of a neglected young lady who is being left alone by her lover until 5 in the morning and apparently wishes to use her keenly developed sense of smell to try and ascertain where he might have been. And when Chadd trailed off, CHELSEA (one name is all she needs, but you auslanders might know her from her hitmaking combo SHORT ATTENTION) gave us a version of "So What - I'm A Rock Star" that was so good you could dance to it even a cappella (well, I could, and I wasn't even drinking, remember).

Who should turn up in the midst of this glamorous mise-en-scène the scène actually was a muddy field across from the Lanes, from whence we'd been unceremoniously booted after the first show) but PHRANK MARTIAN, straight out of Binghamton with his gym-toned new body and (not that there's any connection) the police. About half the crowd then retreated to GEORGIE'S, a neighborhood bar described on one website as "the gay Cheers," where apparently CHRIS A., sporting a lumberjack shirt and several days (weeks?) worth of beard growth, got hit upon in a way he wasn't anticipating.

I missed most of these hijinks, having opted for a half hour power nap in the car, which reminds me of things like sleep deficits: my wonderful new bed has now been in my apartment for three whole days, during which time I have slept in it a total of, if my calculations are correct, nine hours. I think it's time to make like OBAMA and remedy that deficit!


But not before I fill you in on today's CAKE SHOP show, put together and masterfully orchestrated by the inestimable CHRIS GRIVET, which provided a fitting coda to what just might have been the best weekend ever.

It was more than a little surreal to see bleary-eyed rock and rollers wandering tenuously into the Cake Shop's confines at the ungodly hour of 2 pm, barely 11 hours after the last notes of the Ergs' demise had been rung, and considerably fewer hours than that since most of them had gotten to bed. But there they were, perhaps not on top form, but that they were on any form at all should have been sufficiently miraculous.

But that wasn't all: quite a few of them then proceeded to jump up (well, it really isn't very high at all) stage and give us what was easily the best Cake Shop show of the year, featuring the UNLOVABLES (they cheated, though; HALLIE had actually had a normal night's sleep) (but who was on drums? who else but the indefatigable Mikey Erg!), the LOST LOCKER COMBO (who made a bigger mess than usual, but who almost everybody liked so much that for once they didn't mind), FULL OF FANCY, who were awesomely good, FOR SCIENCE, who were playing their last show with JEFF ERG on vocals (remember, original singer, LSD, freakout, Hawaii? you've got to pay attention, folks!), and rounding off the evening (yes, by now it was dark), an absolutely sterling set by THE STEINWAYS, which included one spectacle I'd never seen before and hadn't expected to: MICHELLE SHIRELLE interrupting the usual shenanigans to TUNE HER BASS. Not that she even needed to; I mean, sure, it could have stood tuning, but she was in such rare form tonight that nobody would have noticed if she hadn't.

The pit, of course, was ruled by MATT LAME and myself, being among the handful of people there who hadn't had a drop to drink the night before and were ready to rage all over again. But Matt, usually in full command of his world and all he surveys, momentarily got GOT when Michelle used her microphone to refer to him as Matt No-Fame. Gotta hurt when the guy's in the middle of one of the most professionally managed and effective marketing schemes ever seen for his and CARLA MONOXIDE's combo, SUCIDIE. It's still a safe bet that when all the photos are in, Matt Lame will be in more of them than the combined total of all the members of the bands who were actually on stage. So what, he's a rock star. Once Carla helps him pick out those new tight jeans, there'll be no stopping that guy.

14 November 2008

Music Can Make You Stupid

That was the title of my old gossip column in Lookout magazine. Well, I call it a gossip column now, but at the time it was meant to be cutting edge music coverage, and to some extent it was, since the local bands I wrote about each issue were mostly from the Gilman Street scene that would soon be making big news all across the country.

But of course none of us knew that at the time, so what it really amounted to was rumors, gossip, and the occasional news item about a very tiny fish pond and the even tinier fish who swam there. Anyone who wasn't intimately familiar with Gilman and its habitués shouldn't have had a clue as to what I was banging on about.

And yet for some reason they read it anyway, and in many cases took it very seriously. Soon half the letters I got became variations on, "Why didn't you mention my band?" or "Why did you mention my band (if you haven't got anything to say about them?)".

During this same period Lookout's circulation grew from a few hundred xeroxed copies given away for free in the Bay Area and the Emerald Triangle to 10,000 printed copies, sold all over the country (but still given away for free in Northern California). I imagine this large leap in readership owed far more to the meteoric rise of Green Day than to my silly little gossip column, but now that Lookout and Gilman and the East Bay had become equated in the public mind with "next big thing" status, people combed through "Music Can Make You Stupid" all the more avidly, as if it were their own set of private tea leaves through which they could prognosticate the industry's (or, more to the point, their own band's) future.

I'm not sure I've ever written anything else that popular (apart from the Laurie L. "My Adventure With Green Day" parent-killing story in the liner notes of Kerplunk, of which there are more than a million copies in print), and the only explanation I have is the stylistic approach I took (because, let's be honest, it wasn't even a particularly accurate source of information; I was never all that big on fact-checking or objectivity).

But what I usually did with MCMYS was to write it as a version of the society columns I had always puzzled over as a kid. Why, I used to ask my parents, is it in the newspaper when Mr. So-and-so goes to a party or on vacation? I mean, there were never any stories about my family getting a new (used) car or when our cat had kittens, both of which seemed like far more important events to me.

"Oh, that's because they're part of high society, dear," my mother would explain, but it still never made sense. What was so high about their society? Their lives didn't sound any more interesting than mine, and that certainly wasn't saying much. Later on, when I heard my friend Flam's theory that we counterculturalists/mistfit/sociopaths/whatever were actually "aristocrats in exile," I decided that there was no difference, or if there was, it was merely that the denizens of so-called high society simply had a better press agent.

So I decided to become press agent for the obscure, downtrodden, overlooked, and alienated (i.e., myself and all my friends), and began reporting the most mundane development as though it were a breath-taking revelation: "CHUCK MONSULA (names always in bold face and caps) made an appearance at Gilman wearing a funny hat! LENNY ISOCRACY and PAUL POULTRY MAGIC thought it was hilarious!!!" (The sharp-eyed and/or long in tooth among you will note that this particular item is chronologically unlikely if not impossible; it's meant for illustrative purposes rather than historical ones.)

The formula proved to be a winning one, if having my stuff and nonsense taken seriously by my readers can be called winning. On the plus side, it definitely generated interest in the bands coming out of the East Bay and playing at Gilman; on the maybe not so plus side, it helped inflame egos and fan rivalries that, while often highly amusing, ran counter to what Gilman was supposed to be about.

It wasn't that different, I suppose, from what happens on internet message boards and Myspace pages nowadays, albeit not nearly so instantaneous. Before long I was getting letters (remember those?!) from kids in Connecticut or Croatia who'd never been within three thousand miles of Berkeley but who were as well versed as I was, if not more so, in the ways, wiles and tumultuous interactions of the various Gilman personalities. I began to feel like Charles Dickens might have when readers would besiege him with letters demanding to know whether their favorite character was going to prosper or die.

Ah well, that was then and this is now; here we are on another coast and in another century, and this time I promise you the unadulterated truth about the bands and people I'm about to mention. First off, the musical news overshadowing all other musical news locally this weekend will be of course the last shows by New Jersey's ERGS!, who for reasons incomprehensible to most of their fans, are breaking up.

MIKEY, JEFF and JOE are going out with a big four-show bang, the first being the "secret" one (in that nobody but the band's friends and about 3,000 subscribers to the PPMB knew about it) that came off tonight at The Parlor in New Brunswick. Friday night will be at the Khyber in Philadelphia, and Saturday will see two shows, an all-ages matinee at midday and a late-night blowout, both at Asbury Lanes on the Jersey Shore. Tickets to any of these are, to put it mildly, extremely difficult to come by, with the late night Saturday one being by far the most sought-after.

The PPMB crew, not surprisingly, is in a tizzy and an uproar - honestly, the last time I saw this kind of hubbub over a band breaking up was when OPERATION IVY called it quits - with a slightly-more-manic-than-usual CHADD DERKINS trying to organize a mass tattoo-in in which attendees at the matinee will use the down time before the late show to have the Ergs! exclamation point inked somewhere on their body (and Chadd himself will join in, he promises, if only somebody will pay for him). The STEINWAYS' GRATH McGRATH has been mocking the tattoo people, accusing them of succumbing to the same sort of hysteria which in his view accrued to PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA in the recent campaign. Perhaps he's merely upset that his recent trial balloons about bringing the Steinways to an end soon didn't result in a wave of penguin or zombie hamburger tattoos.

Speaking of which, the Steinways will be playing an early afternoon show this Sunday, along with THE UNLOVABLES, FOR SCIENCE, FULL OF FANCY and the LOST LOCKER COMBO, which should be almost as hot a ticket as the Ergs shows, not because as many people will turn up (though those who've flown in from other states and countries to see the Ergs will swell the numbers), but because the Cake Shop's basement is INFINITESIMAL, and also because For Science have just announced that this will be their last show, too. Something about a singer getting wacked out on acid and disappearing Peter Green-style to Hawaii, and when's the last time you heard about anyone getting wacked out on acid, let alone have it majorly impact on their lives? For Science have always had a serious 70s vibe to them, but this might be taking it just a little farther than necessary. Their live shows have, thanks to various forms of substance abuse, tended toward the shambolic, but their recorded output has won them lots of fans, many of whom will be lined up outside the Cake Shop come Sunday. No advance tickets, so getting there early is advisable.

So much going on in the New York/New Jersey (I'm nowhere near finished) may prove to be bad timing for BEN WEASEL, who along with Brooklyn's THE CHALLENGED is playing a couple of shows at Reggie's Rock Club in Chicago on Friday and Saturday. His last two appearances there were sold out months in advance, with people flying in from all over the country for the rare opportunity of seeing Ben perform live, but you might actually have a chance of getting a ticket should you be somewhere in the vicinity of the Midwest this weekend. Meanwhile, back in Brooklyn, we have a two-fer and/or a pick'em for Friday night: in Williamsburg, at Death By Audio on S. 2nd Street, there's a show featuring LEMURIA (who were absolutely sensational at THE FEST last week), CHEEKY, GORDON GANO'S ARMY (who also won Fest raves) and GET BENT. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? But wait... across town we also have what promises to be only the second appearance ever by THE THORNS OF LIFE. Who they, you ask? Just a little old Brooklyn house party band featuring some people you may or may not have heard of: BLAKE SCHWARZENBACH, AARON COMETBUS, and DANIELA SEA. I could list the previous affiliations of the first two, but it would probably be as pretentious as it would be superfluous. As for Daniela (formerly Danyella in some circles), she used to be in a Gilman band called the GR'UPS. Oh yeah, and a TV show called THE L WORD.

This band has been in the works for a few months now, something I knew but was sworn to secrecy about, which became rather annoying when everybody else started telling me the latest gossip, and even more annoying when I missed their first show last weekend. Perhaps they thought that by excluding me they'd be able to stay out of the MCMYS column, but no chance of that, boys (and girl). Anyway, sometime before tomorrow night I'll have to make up my mind which of these I'm attending, unless of course I end up sleeping all through the evening because I stayed up so late to write this column, which is a real possibility. Especially since I'm getting a new bed tomorrow, my very first bed, in fact, since I left England. Yes, it's true, for over a year now I've been sleeping, and not very well, I must say, on a futon on the floor. So if this bed turns out to be as good as I'm hoping, I may sleep right through the entire weekend and someone else - probably RAZORCAKE columnist JOEIII will have to fill you in on all the amazing developments, which in Joe's case will consist largely of a JUNK FOOD JUNKET to all the worst eating places in New Jersey. Some men see themselves atop Everest or K2, but not for Joe the safe and easy challenges.

Is there more stuff and gossip happening in NYC this week? Absolutely, but you're going to have to wait for the next edition of MCMYS to find out, or better yet, if you're worried that I might miss something or put an insufficient spin on just how great your band your scene is, better write to me and tell me about it. Or don't, because I'll probably find out anyway! Okay, unless it's a secret Thorns Of Life show. You got me there.

12 November 2008

Seems Like Old Times

One of the many delights of the in utero Obama presidency is hearing the right wing radio commentators waxing apoplectic over the horrors that await America now that it's been taken over by the Marxists and the terrorists. If one of these clowns doesn't give him or herself a heart attack while ranting away, it will not be for want of trying.

Actually, I'd be more concerned for the well-being of the listeners, many of whom seem to take the paranoid flapdoodle of Limbaugh, Hannity, O'Reilly, Savage et al. far more seriously than the hosts themselves do. These past few days I've heard quavery-voiced callers ask Rush in all earnestness whether they should be stockpiling ammunition or preparing to flee the country. Whereas I've always harbored a sneaking suspicion that for all the expressions of alarm delivered in those mellifluously measured foghorn tones, Limbaugh could just as easily be preaching the socialist gospel if market research showed that demographic to be potentially more profitable.

The first time I regularly listened to Limbaugh was during the summer of 1990, when I was living deep behind the Redwood Curtain in Arcata, California, where few radio signals penetrated from the outside world. The only AM station that came in loud and clear during the daytime was one almost toxically right wing operation over in Eureka, and while at first I found it objectionable that there was nothing else to listen to in the way of news talk (on the FM dial there was the insufferably smug NPR/college radio programming of KHSU, but apart from the couple hours a week when they played punk rock, it was even more unlistenable), Rush's flamethrower invective gradually drew me in with its almost scatological vehemence.

Being quite a bit further left of center at the time than I am today, I began by being outraged at the blatant distortions and hatemongering, but eventually I saw the humor in it, and his ability to so viciously skewer the sacred cows of the PC and identity politics left felt naughtily exuberant in the cloistered, intellectually constipated realms of Northern California radicals and libsymps.

It was sometime that summer that Rush pulled what I still think was one of his cleverest stunts ever (presuming you don't count the ability to turn an outraged-loudmouth-at-the-corner-bar act into hundreds of millions of dollars): pretending to have "seen the light" and undergone a conversion to liberalism. For about a week he turned everything he had been saying on its head as he preached - very convincingly - the standard left wing gospel as his listeners called in, sometimes literally in tears, begging him to return to the fold.

When Rush finally fessed up to having been funning us all along, I was less impressed with his rationale for the hoax (something about demonstrating how easy it was to fall into believing cockamamie notions) than with his ability to pronounce diametrically opposed viewpoints and make each of them sound equally sincere. Ever since then I've never been fully convinced that he believed anything at all.

Sincere or not, Rush's views carried the day, and with the Republican hard right in the ascendancy, entered into what had begun to pass for the mainstream. Ironically, his seemingly all-pervading success proved to be his own worst enemy; as the 90s gave way to the Bush II years, Limbaugh was increasingly consigned to the last place a controversial radio host wants to be, that of boring irrelevance. With little to complain about, and with more fiery and, it must be said, more intelligent or at least more clever right wingers having stolen his thunder, Rush retreated into drug addiction and cranky grumbling.

So if he's a religious man, Limbaugh should be on his knees thanking the Almighty for the Democratic renaissance and the coming of Obama, which should provide him with sufficient cod-outrage to propel him into an extremely lucrative old age. Ditto (so to speak) for his fellow travelers, most of whom have already turned with a vengeance on McCain (or are claiming to have never really believed in him in the first place) and are plumping for Sarah Palin in 2012, which, unless Obama screws up massively in his first term, can only be a blessing for satirists in general, Saturday Night Live in particular, the Democratic Party, and all those who would like to see the rabid religious right wing of the once-respectable (albeit still mostly wrong) Republican Party wither into extinction.

09 November 2008

In Praise Of The New Prez

What a thrill it was to tune into President-elect Obama's first press conference and see someone who actually looked and sounded like a President. In the course of struggling manfully to give George Bush the benefit of the doubt for far longer than he probably deserved it, I must have conditioned myself to accept the sub-normal and the sub-literate as "just the way he is," and often chastised people when they got on their high horses to the effect that "Oh, man, Bush is so dumb."

"Just because someone doesn't have perfect mastery of the English language doesn't necessarily make him dumb," I'd say, and go on to point out that whatever his failings, intellectual or otherwise, Bush had been clever enough to snag the most powerful job in the world whereas his critics as often as not were holding forth from a barstool or the equivalent thereof (bringing to mind George Burns' old dictum about it being a shame that the people who really knew how to run the country were all too busy driving cabs and cutting hair).

But the minute Barack Obama took the stage it became clear that affirmative action for the perpetually befuddled was no longer necessary or appropriate. The contrast just made it all the more clear that it wasn't just Bush's policies or means of executing them that were deficient; the man himself had been painfully unequal to the task. Those who tend to view the American Empire as being in terminal decline would compare Bush to one of the dreary succession of buffoons and pretenders who held the imperial throne at Rome during that Empire's last days, the difference being that Roman emperors found wanting (i.e., just about all of them during the last century or so) were rather more quickly dispatched - often in a matter of weeks or months - once their weaknesses revealed themselves.

Those not ready to write America off might see Obama's accession as a case of normal service being resumed except that with the partial exceptions of Reagan and Clinton, America hasn't seen much in the way of either strong or competent leadership for most of the last half century, while the sky-is-falling crowd could just as easily maintain that even should Obama prove successful, he might represent only a brief lacuna in an overall cycle of decline.

No matter how you look at it, Obama comes into office with greater expectations thrust upon him than any President since FDR or possibly Lincoln, and yet the guy seems to exude, in fact, to radiate confidence. And he'll need it; it will probably be no more than a few months, if that, before commentators are either measuring him for a spot on Mt. Rushmore or damning him as a bad Jimmy Carter retread.

Personally I want to believe in him, not just because he's so darn likable and inspiring, but also, and more importantly, that we'll all be in very deep shit if he doesn't succeed. With all the problems we face, it's kind of maddening to have to wait two and a half months for Bush to finally vacate the White House and let Obama get started, but in the meantime, there hasn't been a day so far where I haven't at least once or twice thought about how great it feels to have a President - even one in waiting - who looks, sounds and acts like a President. I might be singing a different tune come January or February when the cold hard facts of Realpolitik kick in, but for right now I can't think of a single person I'd rather see getting ready to lead this country out of the mess it's in.

06 November 2008

Proud To Be An American

It's a great day, it's a beautiful morning, a new dawn, a new beginning - not just in America but the world over.
- Spike Lee
It was like Times Square at midnight... oh, wait, it was Times Square at midnight, only it wasn't New Year's Eve, it was something much, much better than that.

All day long there had been the feeling of something momentous in the air, beginning when I showed up at my polling place, a sleepy little senior city where poll workers usually outnumber potential voters, to discover lines of people spilling out the door. A mostly genial chaos reigned, even though those in charge were clearly overwhelmed by a turnout that dwarfed anything most of them remembered ever seeing. Nobody knew which line to stand in until some local artists waiting for their chance to vote took it upon themselves to make some colorful signs.

When I voted at the same location in the primary last spring, I was in and out in a minute or two; yesterday it took me nearly an hour, and apparently people who'd showed up earlier had to wait for up to an hour and a half. And yet I didn't see a single person give up and walk away, and this in a city where the outcome was never in the slightest bit in doubt (the networks called New York State for Obama before a single vote had been counted).

Normally I would have stayed home to watch the results, using my remote to flip back and forth between the channels and quietly cheer or grieve, but tonight I wanted to be in the midst of the excitement, so I headed up to Times Square, where various networks had screens set up on the sides of buildings and a sizable crowd had already gathered even before the first polls closed at 7 pm. For the first hour or so McCain was in the lead, both in electoral and popular votes, and people nervously cheered any sign of movement, no matter how minuscule, in the Obama totals.

Things started picking up, with a tranche of states moving Obama's way, and the crowd grew, spilling out into the streets. Drivers honked their horns in time with the "O-bam-a" and "Yes we can" chants. A handful of onlookers cheered when McCain carried showed some strength ("Must be tourists," someone near me said), but apart from that, the crowd was practically unanimous in its sympathies. People chatted back and forth about which states "we" needed to carry, as though there was never any question of who "we" were and what "we" wanted.

When Pennsylvania was declared for Obama a wild cheer went up and people began to show a little more confidence in the result. Still, there was the looming question of Ohio, of Virginia, of Florida... "They better not be trying to steal it from us again," said one feisty fellow behind me. "Don't you worry," his girlfriend assured him, "This time we got the people on our side."

Then the sound went out on the ABC broadcast, so I moved over to Rockefeller Plaza, where there was a choice of NBC and MSNBC, along with some hokey but cool props, like McCain and Obama elevators that moved up the side of the building toward the 270 mark as the electoral votes came in. I was there when Ohio went for Obama, and the sounds of people cheering drowned out the announcers for nearly five minutes. Someone did some math and declared that - assuming California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii went Obama's way, about as safe an assumption as you could make - there was no possibility of McCain winning now.

It seemed logical, but too good - and too early - to be true. The vote count in Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida seemed to be taking forever, and it would be more than an hour before the polls closed on the West Coast, so I migrated back to Times Square to discover that while the election hadn't been called yet, it was looking more positive all the time.

Then came 11 o'clock - 8 pm California time - and almost instantly the Left Coast put Obama over the top. It was sheer bedlam. Half the people were screaming and banging on things, the other half standing there agog in the sheer wonder of it all. "Look at Jesse up there!" a girl shouted, pointing up at a closeup of Jesse Jackson on the big screen overhead, "He cryin' his eyes out!"

The crowd was more or less equally divided between black and white, and though everybody looked ecstatic, it was especially marvelous to see the looks on the black faces, a mixture, it seemed, of sheer ecstasy and darely-baring-to-believe wonder. Maybe it's a testimony to my own residual racism, but I have to admit that I was surprised to see how many of the celebrants were the sort of guys you'd more expect to see hanging around in front of the liquor store rather than taking an active - and often very knowledgeable - interest in the political process.

My preconceptions were shattered again and again, something I expect was happening all across the country. America will never be the same again, and I say thank God for that. Obama may never live up to the expectations we've placed on him - though at this point I remain hopeful, as I think most of us do, apart perhaps from the rabid right wing talk radio crowd (and even they can expect a giant uptick in their ratings as they can look forward to boundless amounts of material to bitch about).

All the way home, as I passed dozens of impromptu celebrations on subway platforms and random street corners, I reveled in a mixture of excitement and gratitude, finally daring to believe that America had turned a giant corner, that once more it would begin living up to the enormous promise and lofty ideals that we'd been so often told about but too seldom seen.

A great national realization has come about, one that lets us know beyond a doubt that love of country, true patriotism, can be about something more than bellicose chants and mawkish anthems, that it manifests itself in the most meaningful and historic way when millions of people find the confidence and strength to cast aside their disillusionment and cynicism and allow themselves, no matter how tenuously, to believe in a common purpose and a shared destiny.

No, of course I don't expect everything to change overnight, and it's entirely possible that things will get worse before they get better. Or not even get better at all, because there comes a time in every nation's life, just like an individual life, when an inevitable decline sets in. But after what I saw this Tuesday, I don't think that time has come for us yet. In fact I'm fully prepared to believe that some of America's greatest moments still lie ahead. Sorry if that sounds like a campaign speech; it's just a simple statement of how I feel right now: proud, happy and thrilled to be a part of one of the greatest social and political experiments in the history of humankind.

I don't want to slip into the mindless chauvinism that has unfortunately characterized this country in recent years, so I feel compelled to note that there are many wonderful countries and cultures around this planet, most if not all of which have something to teach us. But I don't think it's stretching things too far to say that what happened here in America in the autumn of 2008 probably couldn't have happened anywhere else.

The only time in my life that comes close to how I feel about my country right now is when at the age of 13 I heard President Kennedy's inaugural speech, and his words then sum up that feeling better than anything I could manage:

I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it -- and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

Maybe it will all come to nothing, or worse, dissolve into the contention, violence, acrimony and social decay that the 60s came to embody in the wake of Kennedy's assassination. But despite the dark side of that era, then too a seed was planted, a torch was lit. The night before he died, Martin Luther King told us that there was no reason to fear the future, that he'd been allowed to go up the mountain and look out upon the promised land. "I may not get there with you," he declared, "but I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!"

Many, perhaps most of us, may never journey all the way to the promised land. It could be that "the promised land" will only ever exist just beyond the horizon, a beacon to light our way and spur us on. But as Dr. King said that night, it didn't matter anymore, because he'd been to the mountaintop. Now, as of Tuesday, November 4, 2008, we all have.