Ten Years Gone
Well, are ya gonna wish me a happy anniversary? Today it's exactly ten years since I moved to this gosh-forsaken heck-hole known as New York City. I am celebrating with a sixpack of PBRs and The Damned's The Light at the End of the Tunnel.
Ten years in New York. I can't say I'm surprised to still be here. When I left Pennsylvania in May of 1996, I did so the way a caged animal escapes a zoo. I knew I was never going back. After visiting New York a few times, I knew this was where I belonged, cheesy and cliche as that sounds. Some of my friends suggested that I would be back in PA after a year or so. I told them not to leave the light on for me.
To this day I haven't been to a city that I feel so natural in. A friend of mine recently said that when he first came to NYC, the sheer enormity and volume of the place made him feel insignificant. For whatever reason, I felt the opposite when I arrived here. I immediately felt a part of New York.
Not that I even knew which end was up when I moved in. My friend Mike and I somehow conned a nice middle-aged casting director named Scott to sublet his apartment on 58th and Broadway to us. We had no idea whether it was a cool location or not; we just knew it was in New York City. We were thrilled beyond belief. After signing away most of our savings to Scott for the first and last months' rent (plus security deposit -- another month's rent), Mike and I moved into our first bona-fide NYC apartment, giddy to the marrow.
It was only a one bedroom, but in a nice, quiet, prewar building near Central Park. I graciously let Mike have the bedroom and I took the couch in the living room. I don't know why I did that. It was a small, pullout, couch/bed type thing but the "bed" part had no mattress, only bare springs. Ouch. Not the most comfortable surface to sleep on. And the couch itself was too small for anyone but a child to extend himself on fully. So what I did every night was pull out the "bed" and arrange the couch cushions in a row on top of the sharp, deadly bedsprings, and slept on that. Well, I shouldn't say "slept." Truth is, I didn't sleep for the first two or three months in this city.
My dad drove me up with my stuff and helped move in on May 3rd. I remember there was a homeless guy hanging out right at the front door to the building, under the awning, asking us for handouts as we moved in, and it occurred to me that Dad probably thought I was crazy for wanting to live here. But to me the homeless guy was part of the ambiance. New York has it all: the richest and the poorest, the most splendid beauty and the most sordid ugliness. I love that about it.
It actually took two days for Mike and I to move in, May 3rd and 4th, a Friday and Saturday. By Saturday night we were all moved in and it was our very first night as New Yorkers. We were bouncing off the walls. We had no idea where to go, and we certainly wanted to celebrate. We bought a ton of booze at the local liquor store, made Long Island iced Teas and got loaded at the apartment before taking the train downtown to some place we'd heard about called Webster Hall.
Well, needless to say our first night in the Big Apple was not stellar. Webster Hall is a pit, albeit one popular with the B&T crowd, which we would soon learn, stood for Bridge and Tunnel. Tourists, get it?! See, we could talk like that now because we LIVED HERE. Weren't tourists anymore, we were New Yorkers.
I didn't know a soul in the city and had absolutely nothing lined up for myself -- no job, no gigs, no prospects, no plan of attack. I just knew I was here to play music. On the Sunday afternoon following our underwhelming evening at Webster Hall, I grabbed my Strat, with a little, battery-powered amp, and wandered around town a bit, hoping to maybe find someone to jam with.
It was surprisingly easy; in Central Park I met a homeless dude named Silk, who was a pretty talented singer and a real character. He had a dog named Soul. Silk n' Soul. Silk and I played a bunch of tunes together that day, although the only one I can remember now is "My Girl." I actually jammed with that guy a few more times in the future, whenever I ran into him in the park. He was a riot. You know the Beastie Boys song "Johnny Ryall," about the homeless guy who claimed to have written "Blue Suede Shoes"? Well that was Silk. He maintained that he'd written "Waterfalls" and that TLC's producer stole it after hearing Silk perform it in the street. For all I know, he was telling the truth.
Silk and I talked about doing a legitimate subway busking gig together but it never materialized. I wanted to do it but it was hard to pin Silk down; after all, he had no home and no phone number. It was tough to arrange things with the guy.
Anyway, back to that first day. After playing with Silk, I took the train downtown and found myself in Washington Square Park wandering around, sitting in with various impromptu jam sessions. You know those hippies that play Beatles songs and such. It was ok.
Then someone gave me a flyer that said an open jam was happening at Cafe Wha? All I knew about Cafe Wha? was that Hendrix used to jam there in the 60s. Sounded cool. So I took my Strat to MacDougal Street and found Cafe Wha?, went inside.
There was a backing band onstage. It was still full daylight outside. No one else was in the club but the bartenders. Kind of a weird scene; seemed like a touristy place. The band saw me come in with a guitar and lit up. "Hey, we have our first taker!" I got up onstage and played and sang "Foxey Lady" with the band. I couldn't believe Hendrix had held court at this cheesy place three decades earlier. Obviously it wasn't quite the same joint anymore. Oh well. I did my thing and left.
Later that week I started posting flyers advertising guitar lessons. Very slowly I started getting students. My very first was a guy named Steve, who lived on Lafayette Street. I am still teaching him to this day. Now he lives upstate with a wife and kid but he still drives into the city every other week for the lessons. How cool is that? I went to recording studios and dropped off demos of my guitar playing, hoping to get session work. ANYthing. I walked everywhere, couldn't even afford the subway. I'd walk 50, 60, 100 or more blocks a day.
Like most just-off-the-boat musicians in New York, I started looking for gigs in the Village Voice. I knew I would ultimately want to put my own thing together but for now I just needed to get my feet wet. I joined two bands right away: one was an established goth/metal outfit in the vein of Type O Negative and the other was a paid gig with an Alanis Morrissette-ish female singer/songwriter from Montreal who had some financial backing, management and Billy Idol's ex-drummer. Unfortunately, whatever money I made with her was absorbed by the cost of rehearsing with the goth band, who insisted on practicing at least twice a week at the horrid Funkadelic Studios. Oh well. Live and learn.
My first two gigs in NYC were at Limelight (yes it was still Limelight then) with the gothers and Sin-e (yes, the old Sin-e on St. Marks Place where Jeff Buckley recorded his live ep) with the Canadian songstress. I was pretty psyched.
However, my money was evaporating. New York does that to you, and fast. I needed paying gigs. I started looking for a proper job, anything. Bartender, barback, proofreader, record store cashier, fucking Starbucks. I was desperate. I wound up taking a job at a place called Specialty Signs, right across from the old Tramps, on West 21st Street.
I still don't know what the job was supposed to be, some kind of bullshit office work, I think. It wasn't all corporate with ties and stuff; it seemed laid back, dressed-down, pretty innocuous. On the first couple days I sat at a desk waiting to be trained, killing time and answering phones. Periodically the boss sent me out to run errands -- I deposited checks at the bank, bought trash bags at Staples and even picked up toys for his kids. Whatever, it was a job. During the downtime at my desk, I made a few short phone calls; I needed to open a bank account and schedule lessons and rehearsals and stuff.
On day three, I showed up dutifully at 8:30 a.m. (can you imagine?!?). I got to my desk and sat down, waiting for my morning's marching orders. Straight away, the boss storms in and says, "no personal phone calls at this job. Can't make any, can't receive any."
Huh? No phone calls? Not even local calls?
"No. If you need to use the phone, do it on your lunch break, on the pay phone in the hall." He walked out.
I considered that for a minute, then got up and quit the job. And you better believe I made sure I got paid for the hours I put in at Specialty Signs.
I was never cut out for regular jobs and I was kidding myself to think I had moved to NYC to do that kind of thing. I decided that day to just pour more energy into making a living at music, sink-or-swim style. That's basically what I've been doing since.
Meanwhile, I wanted to find the heart of the club scene in this city, and had no idea where to look. At that point in time, I didn't know if the cool shit was uptown, midtown, downtown or in the outer boroughs. For all I knew, the action could have been on Bleecker Street, Wall Street or 104th Street. I was clueless.
The Village Voice "nightlife" section started to illuminate the way, however; I soon realized that the epicenter of the rock scene in New York seemed to be in the East Village and the Lower East Side.
One Saturday night, I was poring over the paper looking for something cool to do (and probably drinking some eye-wateringly strong, bottom-shelf vodka cocktail). I found this ad for a party called Green Door, at a club called Coney Island High. It said the guest dj that night was Joey Ramone. The cover was $5.
Wow. THIS was why I'd moved here. I decked the rest of my drink, made another one, poured it into an Evian bottle for the road, clipped the ad and went downtown on the N/R. I found Coney Island High, a cool-looking, red-painted edifice on St. Mark's between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, and got in line for the club. Took a pull from my surreptitiously stowed vodka drink. Looked behind me. Joey Ramone was in line behind me.
WHOA! It was JOEY RAMONE, the rock legend, architect of a worldwide musical revolution, standing behind me, waiting in line to get into his own gig. HOLY COW! I was elated. I said something stupid, like, "hey, Joey, you ready to rock?" and he grinned and said "I hope so" or something shy and self-effacing like that....he was so cool. The antithesis of the typical "rock star" type who breezes into clubs with an entourage, here was Joey Ramone waiting his turn in line, just like everyone else. I can't tell you how great that was, for so many reasons.
I wound up having the time of my life that night. Joey spun an incredible set of punk and dancefloor rock and roll. Coney Island High was packed with rockers, freaks, punks, glam kids, regular people. The vibe was so unpretentious, everyone was sweaty and dancing like crazy. Joey spun Blondie, the Stones, T. Rex, New York Dolls, The Damned. I couldn't believe I was at a club that actually PLAYED The Damned, or any other cool music, for that matter. In Pennsylvania that shit was unheard of.
I danced my legs down to the kness that night (thanks, Morrissey) and emerged from CIH, at dawn, a sweaty, high-as-a-kite mess. The city seemed so fresh, clean and innocent at that hour. There wasn't a happier person on the planet than me that morning.
Our sublet at 226 W. 58th Street only lasted three months and Mike and I relocated to the East Village on August 1st, where I graduated to a full-sized couch. I eventually figured out how to make it in this city but I must say, those first, wobbly, uncertain few months contain some of the best memories.
SOUNDTRACK TO MY SPRING OF 1996
Dead Kennedys, Bedtime for Democracy...brought this one with me from PA. My introduction to the DKs.
The Damned, The Light at the End of the Tunnel...can't say enough about how much I love this band. My friend Jeff, from back home, had copied this double disc for me and I became hopelessly hooked. Listened to this alot during the first couple months in NYC. Hell, I still listen to it alot now.
The Fugees, The Score..."ready or not, here I come, you can't hide"...remember that?
KMFDM, XTORT, Angst and Naive...I had just discovered KMFDM maybe a month before moving here. The XTORT album had just come out and I picked it up here in the city. I love that album. Record store hopping has always been one of my favorite New York pastimes.
No Doubt, Tragic Kingdom...I ultimately wound up unloading this album but for a few months I enjoyed "Spiderwebs," "Excuse Me Mister," "Hey You" and other songs whose titles escape me at the moment. So very nostalgic...talking about it almost makes me want to buy it again.
Rage Against the Machine, Evil Empire...can't say I still listen to this one much, but the first few tracks are pretty devastating...and by the way, where are the protest bands of today?
Love and Rockets, Sweet F.A....found this one for $3.99 in a used bin, and it was a new album at the time, so I considered that quite a consumer coup. I still like this record although no one has really paid much attention to it.
The Cure, Wild Mood Swings...I ran to the nearest Tower Records the day this album was released (I think it was Tuesday, May 7th), bought my copy, ran back to the apartment, tore off the shrink wrap, put it on and was...well, kind of disappointed. Most Cure fans absolutely hate this album but, all told, it's not nearly as bad as they say. One thing's for sure, though -- the magic years for the Cure were over by this time...I ventured out to Nassau Colisseum on Long Island a few weeks later by myself to see The Cure on the WMS tour. That was a great show.
LARD, The Last Temptation of Reid...haven't heard this in ages. It was the side project of Jello Biafra and Al Jourgensen. I do remember the song "Mate, Spawn & Die." That's a great one.
Skinny Puppy, Rabies...I had just stumbled into Skinny Puppy, too, around this time. Rabies was co-produced by Jourgensen, perhaps a reason why I was drawn to it and the band. I've since collected half-a-dozen or so Skinny Puppy records but Rabies is still probably my favorite. First impressions are hard to beat.
Ministry, Filth Pig...I still think this is an underrated album. I listen to it now and as far as I can tell it's pretty damned potent. Was heavily into Ministry at this time, obviously -- was also listening to Twitch and Land of Rape and Honey, not to mention Revolting Cocks' Linger Fickin' Good and anything else related to Al Jourgensen.
Beastie Boys, Ill Communication...this album's too long but it's great anyway..."Root Down," "Sabotage," "Sure Shot" -- good times, good times.
The Muffs, Blonder and Blonder...brilliant songwriting. Still love this album to death. I saw the Muffs on the Blonder and Blonder tour in September '96 at Coney Island High. They were really fun. Caught the Damned there in '98, too. Coney island High sure was a great place.
Deee-Lite, World Clique...I bought this along with a Stranglers cd and Skinny Puppy's Cleanse, Fold and Manipulate disc at the Times Square Virgin Megastore, which was just walking distance from my apartment. I remember putting on the first track where Lady Miss Kier says, "from the global village...of communication...NEW YORK CITY!" and being really excited.