My town is an embarrassment

I hope everybody in Jersey City who makes art got the message loud and clear yesterday. Should you be naive enough to contract with the municipal government on a public project, the city reserves the right to alter your work without your consent. A citizen who finds your painting offensive can push the city to deface your project in the name of the general welfare. What we’ve learned from the Monopoly mural fiasco: our local politicians don’t understand how art works or why it’s important, they don’t understand why free expression needs to be safeguarded, and they’re untrustworthy partners for creative people.

To recap: a Jersey City artist called Mr. Abillity painted a large mock-Monopoly board at the western end of the pedestrian plaza on Newark Avenue. Not only was this sanctioned by the city, it was publicized by the Mayor himself. The Monopoly project was part of the mural campaign that has thrown paintings on every available wall citywide; Mr. Fulop, a prolific tweeter, tweeted his intention to make the town over into an outdoor art gallery (his words). Most of the works in this gallery are anodyne, but Mr. Abillity’s wasn’t. His Monopoly mural is a straightforward, if inelegant, comment on the widespread property trading that has consumed the Downtown for a decade at least. There’s a long tradition of this sort of reappropriation in Jersey City arts — those who’ve been around here for awhile might remember that Ron English used to do a similar thing with his mock-advertising billboards. Unlike English’s work, which traded in verisimilitude and surprise, Mr. Abillity’s board was loose and slangy, and used Hasbro’s austere aesthetic as a jumping-off point rather than something to replicate.

No sooner did the paint dry — actually, before the finishing touches even went on the board — did the community and the city begin pressuring Mr. Abillity to bowdlerize his work. The police, for instance, didn’t like the cartoon pig on the Go To Jail space. To placate the fuzz, this was replaced by a character from the Simpsons. Others didn’t like that the Katyn Memorial, which appears on one of the card spaces, was titled “cool statue.” Charged with flippancy, the artist amended this, too. But a few days ago, when Pamela Johnson from the Anti-Violence Coalition called the jail space racist, Mr. Abillity drew the line. The guy behind bars was a self-portrait; he’d had his own run-ins with the law, and that was him in the clink. Not good enough, said Johnson (joined by Assemblywoman McKnight): the image reinforced ugly stereotypes about criminals, and had to be removed. The artist, not unreasonably, asked why he should excise his own experience from his painting. But by now the buzzards were circling. The mural had begun to get critical press, and an administration obsessed with appearances swung into action. In a disgusting display of state-sanctioned vandalism, the city went ahead and blotted out the picture — rather crudely, too — with orange paint.

Mr. Abillity is probably feeling betrayed right now, and it’s tough not to have sympathy for him. The city government made a show of support for the Monopoly mural — they even promised to supply pieces so pedestrians could play on it. But the Mayor was more interested in the publicity generated by the mural than he ever was in the realization of the project. He sold Mr. Abillity out to the censors the moment it became apparent that his work had made some people uncomfortable. Here’s the official statement from the government, quoted by Terrence McDonald in the Journal:

“The mural program should be uplifting and a positive for the city, so being that this became a distraction from the goal of the program we decided to take it out.”

Got that? Allow me to translate. You, participant in the mural program, may think you’re engaged in an art project, and maybe on some level you are. But fundamentally, you’re an ad man working on behalf of the Make It Yours campaign, and your primary responsibility is making Jersey City look hip, happening, inclusive, and a suitable spot for real estate development. Should you get out of line and harm our interests, we’ll disavow you and screw with your work. And since we’re as squeamish as any other imagination-poor middle managers with brands to protect, we’ll jump to take the side of anybody who has a problem with what you’re doing. The customer is always right.

Real art isn’t about making the customer happy. It’s a confusing and troubled world we live in, and ours is a confused and troubled city, and any artist who does not inscribe some of that turmoil in his work isn’t worth his paintbrushes. An artist’s job is not to kiss ass, or uplift the community on a rising tide of feel-good bullshit, or drive up the value of real estate on Columbus Avenue. The artist’s job is to push viewers, and raise questions, and, sometimes, to throw his audience off balance. If the Mayor and the rest of his clown car administration can’t handle that, they should do us all a favor, drop the act, and get out of the art business altogether.

The Monopoly mural isn’t an inflammatory work. It’s a cartoon. People can set aside their worries about it and deal with its mild provocation without much fear that it’s going to inspire misdeeds or even misunderstandings. The policemen and law-enforcement sympathizers who took offense to the silly pig illustration can afford to ask themselves why Mr. Abillity, and many others, aren’t exactly bursting with respect for authority at the moment. They’re armed; they’ll be OK. Pamela Johnson and Assemblywoman McKnight probably mean well, but their objections to the mural reveal more about their own prejudices than they do about Mr. Abillity’s. The race of the guy behind bars, rendered in basic skin-tone spray paint, seemed deliberately ambiguous. If I was Pamela Johnson tonight, I’d be seriously wondering why I looked at that generic, largely featureless caricature and saw a black man. If I was the Assemblywoman, I’d be asking myself if I want to align myself with the sort of people who get up in arms about illustrations, and whether I really want to be one of those fundamentalists who chase down artists for offensive depictions of the Prophet and such. As an elected official with artists among my constituents, I’d need to cultivate a more sophisticated relationship to artistic representation than that.

But we should all recognize that the real villain here is the Mayor, who postured as a with-it dude and arts patron and caved to political pressure of the fustiest kind the moment it was applied. That he wouldn’t recognize a work of art if he tripped over it has always been apparent to me, yet because of his relative youth, he gets a pass from those who ought to know better. Because there’s no gallery owner — outdoor or indoor– that would ever strongarm an artist like Mr. Abillity the way he did, he set his own absurd pretensions aflame yesterday. If this is the incident that reveals him for the philistine he is, maybe we can finally pass Go with a clearer understanding of what we’re up against.

tris@trismccall.net

Starlight, twenty years later

To me, at least, the pick of these songs that David unearthed from 1997 is “Life By Starlight.” It’s exactly the sort of number I overvalue — midtempo, repetitive, diatonic, ominous, etc. — and I still dig that kind of thing. I can see why Scott Miller didn’t like it: it violates all the compositional rules of good guitar-pop that he swore by. This recording is six minutes long, which is ridiculous. If pushed, I probably could have pruned it. He didn’t push, though; he just suggested it was dull, and I accepted that judgment and cast “Life By Starlight” aside. But unlike many of the other songs on these tapes that David found, I never completely forgot it. If I was asked (by a prior version of me, naturally) a month ago to play “Life By Starlight,” I think I could have approximated what’s on the tape pretty well.

I’m not going to post the Limnetic version of the song here or on Bandcamp/Soundcloud, because I doubt David would want me to. The cassette I sent him was, he said, recorded very hot, which like all technical talk about recording, means nothing to me. Practically, it’s a little muffled and a lot distorted, and I think he’d like another crack at encoding it. He’s got all the time in the world, as far as I’m concerned; it’s not like anybody’s clamoring to hear a rarity from the 1990s that I never performed ever.

But I can tell you a bit about it, doggie-treat dangle it, which is in many cases even better than sharing a song. Some of my best music is purely theoretical — I could write all day about the inspiration and strategy behind “The New Math” and I’d have a chance of holding your attention, but there’s no chance that “The New Math” itself, dry as it is, would hold your attention. Past the first few bars, anyway. Any pop cavalier who’ve taken refuge behind the rhetorical moat of a songwriter’s circle will tell you that the iffy ones go down better if there’s a backstory attached. This Limnetic cassette is full of iffy ones, really iffy now, and I still flatter myself to believe that I could make an entertaining evening out of this material if I was given the opportunity to contextualize them within a wider story; i.e., blather to the crowd in a manner that suggests I’ve got something going on upstairs. As a storytelling character-first songwriter, I ought to have a leg up in this department. As it is, the narrator of “Life By Starlight” isn’t very interesting: he’s been dumped by his girlfriend after cheating on her, and he’s facing the consequences. Typical twentysomething emo stuff in a folk-rock package, and I don’t believe I ever get specific enough to justify the portentious metaphor of a world without a sun. This is something that Scott Miller tried to beat out of me with a broom very early in the process — he took a look at my body of work, such as it was, and declared that there were too many rushing rivers and approaching storms and ticking clocks without an objective correlative, as he, the T.S. Eliot fan, called it. He liked it much better when I sang about the New Jersey Department Of Public Works, which doesn’t exist, but you get the point. Sure as hell, he hastened my trip down the road I was traveling.

By the time I completed the demo of “Life By Starlight”, I had a good idea that this was a style of songwriting I’d do well to leave behind, or leave to the experts and/or the electrifying singers. There was never any chance that Scott Miller would have countenanced a song like this on Bottles, where it wouldn’t have fit, anyway — it’s not high-spirited enough. I shot the works nevertheless. Doubled vocals through an EchoPlus pedal, several guitar tracks, a pretty complicated piece of drum programming by the limited standard of the Dr. Rhythm, a needless, underwritten, but still somewhat charming bridge about Hoover flags, aspirin bottle shakers, whatever other junk I could squeeze onto a dubbed cassette via our Tascam four-track. It probably took the better part of a day, now long forgotten, one where I could have been doing something more productive, such as researching securities for my investment portfolio, or building a chaebol, or working on a recording that others besides me might enjoy. But every foray into recording teaches me something new that I can apply to the next foray, or so I keep telling myself. One thing is crystal clear to me: I was in a very comfortable cul-de-sac in ’97, and I was having a good ol’ antisocial time of it. Twenty years later, I hope I’m not in another one, because there’s no Scott Miller around to drag me out of it if I am.

Memory Lane, part 1

David Schreiber has been aiding a personal-archeological project of mine: he’s been digitally encoding discs of songs I sent him twenty years ago. I had no idea he even had them. I must have made them on my Tascam four-track and sent them to David in Florida. That’s way better than a time capsule. A time capsule can’t convert its contents into MP3s.

He hasn’t gotten to everything yet. As a little teaser, he scanned the handwritten cassette cover of a collection I called Limnetic and e-mailed it to me. Aside from the psychic destabilization that always accompanies an encounter with an inactive version of myself, this has been very entertaining, enlightening even. For instance, did you realize I wrote and home-recorded a song called “Reading Over Your Shoulder”?  I guess I did. What about “Electric Angel”? I have a vague recollection of that one, but it must have been important to me in ’97, because Limnetic includes three different versions of it. “Be A Little Tougher”, “Proof Through The Night,” “A Green Feather”, “The Passenger”; what the heck? If ever I needed a reminder that I write too many songs and refine too few — maybe I need one now — David has been providing one for me.

Limnetic was almost certainly created for Scott Miller, who was the recipient of many such cassette tapes, and who used to do triage on their contents. Some of these songs did end up on If One Of These Bottles Should Happen To Fall, which means he liked them enough to want to work on them. He could be pretty brutal about the songs he didn’t like, which was fine with me, because there were so many floating around that I never got too attached to any one of them (except maybe “The View From New Jersey”.) If he stomped a few of them out of existence, it was easier to concentrate on the ones that might point the way to the future. As many of his fans/friends know, he was a copious e-mailer, and he’d send back notes on each; twenty years later, I remember some of his rips better than the melodies of the songs he was ripping on. About “Pepper Martin 1931”: “I hate this song with some energy.” That was the end of that one. To this day, I am glad “Pepper Martin 1931,” existed — even though it really is awful — just so it could have drawn a knockout blow from Scott Miller.

Once he’d put the kibosh on something, it was forgotten by me; wiped from the hissing cassette tape of my brain like I’d never pressed play and record. That might seem harsh of me to do to me, but somebody needed to play an editorial role, so why not my own favorite songwriter? 1997 was a strange year: the band I’d been playing with had released an album, but it hadn’t found an audience. It was not at all clear to me that I ought to continue performing music in public, even if I couldn’t stop myself from writing songs in private. I was drifting without a creative anchor, which isn’t a feeling I mind at all; on the contrary, I rather enjoy it. But it’s anti-social, and I’m glad somebody was there to help fix my course.

For instance, a favorite at performances at that time was a big, sopping ballad called “Song 74” about an actress who’d decided to leave New York City. Everybody seemed to like this number — really, it’s not half bad — and I think that the expectation among those people interested in my development as a writer was that it would be the centerpiece of whatever I did next. When I sent it to Scott Miller, I figured he’d tell me the same and we’d get down to work on it. Instead, he wrote “No thanks, not for me. I’m from California. That Broadway-baby-with-a-broken-heart business doesn’t play over here.” I was surprised by this, and maybe a little taken aback by how frank he was, but mostly I felt unburdened of a song that I’d always suspected was a bit shite, as the Brits like to say.  I was grateful to San Francisco — the entire Bay Area, really — for its heartlessness, and its principled aversion to showtuneage.

I’d worked with producers before. My college band made its album with an upperclassman who brought us into the studio in the music building and tried to settle us down long enough to record us. Most of that music wasn’t mine, though — I was still learning how to build barre-chords and triads, and my bandmates who had a firmer grasp of theory handled the composition. We didn’t have much quality material: if anything good got left on the floor, I can’t hum any of it back. When the Favorite Color made Color Out Of Space in ’95 — that’s the forgotten album I was referring to two paragraphs ago — that was my writing, and let’s just say I was very much a work in progress, even if I didn’t care to admit that to anybody at the time. We had very good, very accommodating producers on that project, but they weren’t in the habit of saying no to me. I just served them up and ladled them out, we recorded them, and that was that. Scott Miller was the first person to say to me, essentially, “look, you write fast and you write a bunch, but a lot of what you’re writing is crummy. Let’s fish out the workable ideas and try to develop those into good songs.”

Since then, others have done the same. Jay was very restrictive about what he wanted on Shootout At The Sugar Factory; in general he found my turn-of-the-millennium compositional practices too fast and too sloppy, and I’m sure he was right. I still have a tendency to consider a song good enough, and zip on over to the next idea without considering whether a revision could make the song better. This has been a major problem of mine as a writer in general: once I am done with something, I have no idea how to improve it via internal editing. My writing is like a cylindrical refinery tank with no apparent entrance. All of the songs of mine that any people know are 100% first drafts. They came to me as completed ideas, more or less, with a few blank spaces that I quickly filled in order to be done with it. When I’ve tried to return to a song just to see whether I can do it, I end up with a Frankenstein’s monster with wires and bolts and coat hangers protruding all over the place. Those songs don’t make the repertoire.

My trip down Memory Lane with David has made me question whether I’m back in a 1997 period — just writing and writing and writing and writing because it feels oh so nice to write, snug in a hole and scribbling on the walls, oblivious to quality. All my instincts tell me that these are my best songs ever, but who knows?, I might have said that about “A Green Feather,” whatever the hell that is, twenty years ago. As long as the tunes keep coming and my inane optimism holds out, I’m not getting too attached to any of these numbers, because there’ll be an even better one tomorrow. I think. If you’ve been privy to these songs, and you’ve decided one of them is terrible, please give me the thumbs-down sign. Scott Miller would have.

Further clarification

Were we cynical, I wonder, when we made those social-utility arguments for the arts in the mid-00s? Did we only make them because we believed that our political opponents understood nothing but dollars and cents? Our position on 111 First Street was that the arts center was a public good, and an early driver of interest and investment in Jersey City, and was therefore entitled to special dispensation because of its singular value. As it turned out, of course, we could have saved our breath — the community decided that the Arts Center wasn’t worth the headache, and whatever it was that it was contributing to the commonwealth was inessential. The town would go on fine without it.

But the people who didn’t support the Arts Center weren’t just bean counters. Many of them were people with developed aesthetic sensibilities. They had a good idea of what they wanted the city to look like, and 111 First Street didn’t happen to fit with that vision. Property developers are, by nature, engaged in a creative project; in order for them to realize their commercial ambitions, they’re compelled to deal with artists all the time. Rich guys are good at appraising the commercial potential of artistic production — they might not always be able to put their criticism into words, but they do tend to know a decent investment when they see it. And 111 First Street, as we all probably should have realized, wasn’t it.

Artists frequently feel the need to justify their existence, which is a funny thing, because usually there’s nobody asking. When we go into a gallery, we may not connect with what we see; if we’re feeling extra uncharitable, we might make one of those my-grandkid-could-do-this assessments. But unless we’re total jerks, we don’t demand that the artist turn in his brushes. Society as a whole may not choose to validate the artist’s work by lavishing money on him, but in 2016, you could say the same for your corner attorney, or your local entrepreneur, or a property developer. In every field under the sun, commissions are hard to come by. It’s a risky, merciless, discouraging time in America, and the safety net isn’t there anymore for anybody but the most fortunate (and even then, God help you if you screw up.)

Nevertheless, modern artists often do puff up their self-worth by making the case that they’re in the business of moral correction, or guidance or edutainment, or the upliftment of the human spirit, or “giving back.” I like to believe that my own work is thought-provoking, even as I realize there’s nothing noble or vital about jamming weird ideas into somebody else’s head. Many populists even make a social-utility argument on behalf of bands with huge audiences because unlike you, self-indulgent psych-rocker, they’re spreading joy to the masses. This all speaks well of us; artists do tend to view themselves as stewards of the world’s good vibes, and on the whole, I think we believe we ought to be interesting, broad-minded, hospitable people. Artists tend to offer more rewarding fellowship than financiers do, which is why there’s a long history of financiers patronizing artists and retaining them at their summer chateaus.

But as a resident of a neighborhood where public discourse is dictated by the developers who, for all intents and purposes, run this place, I think we ought to cut it out with the social-utility stuff. The presence of a certain kind of art will indeed make property values go up, and increase the cache of our town, and help with the destination marketing effort and all the rest of it — but the vast majority of artistic endeavors won’t, and there’s nothing illegitimate about that. When we link what we’re doing to the fiduciary health of our town, we subordinate the arts. We make it just another part of somebody’s branding strategy.

In Jersey City, everything else has long been secondary to the project of rebuilding land value. While that’s been grueling at times, there have been benefits to our monomania, too. Some artists have gone out of their way to contribute; some of us haven’t bothered. But just as the community doesn’t owe the artist anything, the artist doesn’t owe the community anything, either. The artist’s only responsibility is to have a vision and express it. That’s it. The artist is the conduit for that vision. If what she expresses is beautiful and uplifting and adds to the cache of her community, that’s wonderful. If it’s depraved and menacing, it might not bump up the aggregate Zillow rating of Harsimus Cove, but it was something that, once seen by the artist, demanded to be reflected in the art.

My own music is an expression of anxiety. It’s lots of other things, too, I hope, but fundamentally it’s a burst of acceleration and turbulence, destabilization, and paranoia about the present dimensions of public culture. Suck it may, but that can’t be the grounds on which it sucks. My task as a writer is to manifest what I’m seeing through my own eyes — for myself first, and after that, for anybody who wants to sneak a peek. If I ever implied that I was a participant in a public health project, or a soldier for justice, or that I had anything to contribute to the commonwealth besides a friendly smile, I’d like to take that back. For all I know, it’s just noise pollution. Any redeeming social value to anything I happen to sing is there by coincidence alone. I *do* have a personal responsibility to be a good citizen, and to treat everybody I meet with respect, and to engage in discourse about the direction of my community. All of that is separate from the responsibility I have to my writing. I reserve for art a status far above consciousness-raising, or community wellness, or urban renewal. And if I ever implied anything otherwise, I was worse than a traitor to the cause: I was a lousy artist.

Getting ready for Saturday

In many ways it’s relaxing to be a sideman: there are a million and one things the main performer is responsible for on the night of the show, and you’re off the hook for all of them. You head to the club, hang with your bandmates before you go on, get set up and choose your sounds, play, pack up, and go home. All that said, you’re probably in the band because you like the people you’re playing with and the music you’re playing — so if the show doesn’t go as well as you hoped it might, you’re probably going to leave feeling like you let your friends down. When it’s own your show, you’ve got nobody to disappoint but yourself.

After supporting George and Mike at the last few shows I’ve played, I’m a little relieved to be taking the helm this Saturday. I want Jay, Justin, and Brett to have a good time and a rewarding experience in my group, but if I mess up the night with my suspect box or my unsmooth stage moves, I’m pretty sure we’ll all still be pals. I’m not going to be half as guilty as I would be had I fallen off the stage in the middle of Mike’s show. This’ll be especially true on Saturday, because Jay and Justin will be doing another set with the Negatones — their band — right after mine. Also, since we’re all singing to benefit Parker Kindred, and Parker has a lot of supporters, there’s a cast of thousands on the bill, and we’ll be done by 7:30 at the latest. Everything feels loose and low-stakes, which is probably the way it ought to be until I’m confident that I’ve regained my skills.

I’m getting there. We had a very memorable practice this week; the sort of practice I always wanted to have with my college band but never seemed to be able to manage. Political discussion kept breaking out between the songs — and since I’ve put stuff like “The Man From Nantucket” and “Conspiracy Theory” on the setlist, we kept slipping seamlessly (I felt, anyway) between power chords and paranoia. It seemed awfully new wave-y to me, and I hope we can channel some of our collective dismay when we play these songs on Saturday. In the practice space, we sounded fast, spastic, and appropriately brutal. Somewhere in Indiana Ted Cruz and John Kasich were getting ready to pull the ripcord and leap from the burning airplane that is Campaign ’16. As power was consolidating around some unappetizing figures, we were charging through “Battleships.” Desperate times call for a desperate sound. Saturday isn’t going to be pretty, but I think it’s gonna be satisfying anyway; cathartic, even.

We’ll be doing three songs from Let The Night Fall, three from Shootout At The Sugar Factory, two new ones, and one very old one that we’re determined to rough up. This is essentially the same set we played at the Bernie Sanders benefit at the Citizen in January — but there’ll be a difference. Back then, I reinflated the helium balloons from the Shootout because they were the closest things at hand: they were made for the stage, and for a punk band, and meant to be played in primeval fashion, and Jay and Justin already knew them. We didn’t have time to practice, so we took the path of least resistance –which, for me, always runs straight to the sugar factory. This time around, I had an opportunity to teach the band some of this new material I’ve been working on, and for the most part I chose not to. The three songs from Shootout At The Sugar Factory were written during the difficult time between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. The three we’ll be doing from Let The Night Fall were composed during the mid-’00s cleanup. They all seem to fit my paranoid mood at the moment. We’re gonna go amplified, electro-aggravating, polemical, frazzled, and synth-destabilized. Come on and freak out with us. You’ll be with friends.

 

Just to clarify

Jim Testa was nice enough to profile me for the Journal this week, even though I don’t have anything new to share with people who like my music. He interviewed me to advance this weekend’s Parker Kindred benefit at Pianos. I’m doing a set with a rock group I’m calling the Contested Convention, which sounds fresh-ish, but actually it’s the same three guys I played with at the Citizen earlier this year: Jay, Justin Braun, and Brett Whitmoyer. I blabbed randomly as I always do, and a lot of what came out of my mouth was confusing and internally contradictory, which isn’t Jim’s fault. I have noticed that most of what I say doesn’t make any damn sense once it’s repeated back to me. That’s probably why I became a writer. I’m (a little bit) clearer in print than I am in person.

A few notes on the piece, which is running over here:

— For me, at least, the campaign to save the community at 111 First Street didn’t have much to do with gentrification. If the people of Jersey City had wanted to keep 111 First Street, it would still be there. The Downtown could have gentrified in symbiosis with the community and left the Arts Center unmolested — things like that have happened in many other East Coast cities. That might not have been good for the Arts Center or for Jersey City, but to me there was no inherent contradiction between the existence of the Arts Center, or an arts center, and rising property values or the changing complexion of the town. It’s always good to remember that one man’s gentrifier is another man’s old-timer; I’ve been in Hudson County since 1992, but I’m aware that some people on my block might consider me a usurper, and rightly so. Whether or not they intend to be, artists are the vanguard for gentrification — that’s what my third album is about — so it could well be argued that the artists at 111 helped make the gentrification of the Downtown possible.

— I also implied that I was interviewing anti-111 and anti-nightlife politicians on the Tris McCall Report. That was sloppy of me. That’s not what I did. In the mid ’00s, it was hard to find a politician in Jersey City who didn’t claim to be an arts supporter. What I wanted to know from the public figures I interviewed, including Healy, Fulop, Smith, DeGise, the late and lamented Melissa Holloway, etc., was how to translate that that theoretical support into policies that might benefit artists. I also wanted to understand why the city was giving out so many tax abatements, and for the most part I believe I got snowed. I’m not a tax expert, so I was way out of my depth there. If you’re curious about that kind of thing, the person to read is Brigid D’Souza. Never send a synthesizer player to do an accountant’s job. That’s a good way to lose your shirt, or at least get it caught on an LFO knob.

— Maybe I’m still naive, but I don’t think that local politicians sought me out for self-interested reasons alone. I think a few of them actually enjoyed the website. Back then there weren’t many people wising off about Hudson County politics on the Internet. Well, hell, that’s not true at all, but by and large the smart-alecs were anonymous posters on message boards. I put my name on it, and I was also pretty visible around town — so if somebody wanted to punch me in the face, which would have been a not-unreasonable response to some of the things I wrote, they would have had plenty of opportunities to connect with my kisser. In a sick sort of way, I think the old-line politicians respected that.

— It’s a tiny thing, but just to be clear, the studio I used in Pennsylvania doesn’t belong to Mike Flannery. It’s called the Farm, it’s a beautiful place, and it’s run by a guy named Eric Tait. Eric also played the drums on those songs. Mike engineered and produced the session. Mike’s studio is on 29th Street in Manhattan.

— I believe The Life Of Pablo actually is finished right now. Maybe.

— Jim called the newspaper the Newark Star-Ledger. I’m very glad he did. It’s what it’ll always be to me.

Player pianos

My first trip to 158 Ludlow Street had nothing to do with music. I went there to see a weird alt-theater performance that I remember zilch about. For a short time around the turn of the millennium, 158 Ludlow was kinda-sorta an underground playhouse, and our friend Brad, who’d founded the North American Cultural Laboratory in the Catskills, was seriously considering buying the property. I am pretty sure I wrote him a long letter telling him to do it, because what the heck, it wasn’t my money. Although I knew that Brad intended to make it a full-time experimental theater space, I figured I could convince him to shoehorn some musical performance in there, too. It wouldn’t be a rock club, but it could be an interesting place to play. Every gang of performers wanted a slice of the Lower East Side; this one could be ours.

Brad decided not to buy 158 Ludlow, which was very sane of him. It became an interesting place to play anyway. If memory serves, Pianos initially pitched itself to the neighborhood groups as a restaurant with occasional music in the back room. A restaurant it was, and still is. But the rock that started in 2002 has continued unabated ever since — several bands and deejays a night, nearly every night of the year, and loud party crowds spilling out onto the sidewalks. Community Board 3 would have much preferred Brad, but heartless me, I didn’t care. I just wanted a space downtown where my voice could be heard.

My voice had already been heard in that space, though. I didn’t realize it then, but if a handyman knocked out the back wall of the Stanton Street version of the Melody Lanes recording complex — a place where I made some of the most obnoxious rackets of my life — he’d be looking through his sledgehammer-hole at 158 Ludlow Street. That location of Melody Lanes was a marvel, since it was almost entirely hand-crafted by Jay and Justin Braun, right down to the functional toilet they’d built. The Lower East Side used to be dotted with similar improvisations, but by the beginning of the 21st century, boutiquization had grabbed the neighborhood by its now-white collar, and Melody Lanes was priced out. Pianos provided Jay a halfway house: he temporarily moved his base of operations to the cellar of 158 Ludlow before decamping, permanently, to Williamsburg and points east.

As the center of rock gravity slipped away from Manhattan, many of our other friends followed Jay over the bridge¹. I love Brooklyn, too, but as a Jersey person, I’d always rather cross one river than two. Many of my most memorable shows happened at Maxwell’s, Cake Shop is a home away from home for the cupcake pop outfits I’ve played with, and there was a time in the early ’00s when it felt like I had a date at Luna or Mercury Lounge every week. But I’m pretty sure that Pianos is the room where I’ve appeared the most. (Some of my favorite local musicians have deejayed and/or run the door there, too.) Though other NYC clubs have earned my allegiance, or at least my appreciation, I’ve never been able to detach for very long from 158 Ludlow Street — and my association has only gotten tighter since Steven took over as the full-time Pianos booking agent.

Thanks to Steven, we were able to do the Let The Night Fall record release event at Pianos, which I consider a frazzled high point in my run of synthesizer madness. Every Mr. Flannery show so far has happened at Pianos, and some strong recent Overlord concerts have been hosted there, too; I recall playing the Pianos upright piano (now gone, sadly) at a solo gig and accompanying Palomar on “Keeping Us Up” and “Bury Me Closer”. I’ve had some awful gigs at Pianos, too, and evenings when I was the only sober person in the room, and probably the neighborhood, too, and I paid a steep price in sanity for that. There was the disastrous night that featured an altercation on the Ludlow Street sidewalk between a bandmate and a friend of mine — a fight that I was powerless to intervene in despite my flailing efforts to break it up². Standard rock and roll stuff, and I’m not complaining about it anymore; my point is that I almost never come away from Pianos without an story to tell. If we do this rock business, in part at least, to add drama and noise, and effrontery, and all the emotional depth that goes with it, to our lives, 158 Ludlow has provided a setting for this obscure but crafty art flick for a decade and a half.

So when I say that Thursday night’s gig is a big one, I don’t necessarily mean it in a showbiz sense. I mean that I expect events of consequence to unfold at 158 Ludlow Street, because they always seem to. A karass³ needs a clubhouse, and I guess this is ours — because time and again, circumstances keep on calling me back to this address, and I’ve long since convinced myself that there are some paranormal forces at work. I have a feeling that this return is going to be a meaningful one. I’m not just inviting you to a gig here — I’m inviting you to be a witness to a plot point of an ongoing narrative. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out: this could be a triumphant chapter, or it could be a yucky one, or it could just be a transitory passage that sets up a climax. But it’ll be something. It always is.

 

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¹The worst one of them all, according to a Negatones song.

²That happened on my birthday, too.  That wasn’t such a happy birthday.

³See Vonnegut, Kurt; Cat’s Cradle.

spoon river

it’s almost exam season, so hilary has gone to the poetry anthologies to scrounge up some end-of-semester verse. one of those anthologies i stole from my tenth grade english class, and i still have it on the shelf, with the names of my favorite poets (e. e. cummings, edna st. vincent millay, marianne moore) underlined in red magic marker. i was amoral back then and would have courted any risk to possess some poetry. sorry, mr. byrne, i shoulda turned it back in. if my disdain for capitalization bugs you, you can blame the poets for that too. william carlos williams in particular. he was a jersey guy through and through. he liked to see what fences he could hop.

here’s something i forgot: i forgot how much i liked edgar lee masters. the spoon river anthology is a collection of two hundred short poems, each one narrated by a different dead person in a small town cemetery. the poems are stupendous on their own, but to really understand the anthology, you kind of have to swallow the whole thing. many of the narrators knew each other in life, and refer to each other in their epitaphs — it would have made a great hypertext document. some of the stories are contradictory, and some deliberately undercut others; for instance, the local politician praises his mother for teaching him his strength of character, and then we find out in a different poem that his parents stole him from a german immigrant. now i’m making spoon river anthology sound like a lifetime channel movie, and it isn’t that at all. it’s an attempt to engage with the midwest, and rural america, by examining the struggles of ordinary people and then asking the reader to assemble a folk orchestra from a riot of individual pipes and fiddles.

i wrote (bad) poetry in tenth grade, because of course i did, and i found myself wondering if, someday, i could illuminate my little quadrant of the universe as nicely as edgar lee masters represented his. i put those ambitions on hold in the nineties while i was learning how to play and sing, and i think spoon river got lost behind the kinks and randy newman and other pop miniaturists and social satirists i was eager to imitate. but it now occurs to me that the original draft plan for tris mccall album number two was something so similar to the spoon river anthology that it had to have been a direct influence on it. i made up a street on the border between union city and jersey city heights, and imagined the people who lived there, and then wrote songs from the perspective of each of those characters. i came up with a whole quasitheatrical stage show based around this, and dragged some of the new jack trippers into my fiendish plot. as it happened, the company that promised to back the project pulled out, and that, i thought, put an end to that. but jay braun rescued most of the flotsam and we made it into shootout at the sugar factory, which is way better than what i’d been planning, so all’s well that ended well. several of the characters did survive the crash and found a path to shootout: tim berg, the frightened stockbroker of “the night bus,” hector the code inspector, frank the overeducated toll collector of “scatter my ashes on the new jersey turnpike,” etc.  we buried edgar lee masters in the mix behind david byrne and nick rhodes, but if you listen carefully, you can hear him strumming.

now that i am writing and recording again, i discover to my amazement that i am still trying to do a spoon river anthology. edgar lee masters is ultra-lucid and i am anything but, but i remain committed by the idea of a cycle of individual stories told by separate narrators on a common theme that only becomes apparent when the listener experiences the stories together. these thirty-five songs i’ve written for this project are each single narrations from the mouths of american characters who i’ve conjured up and know much more about than i can fit in a pop song. if i could draw, i’d draw a picture of each one. maybe i could write a story about each one. maybe they should be presented, spoon river style, in sequence somehow. some of the narrations are so general that there’d be no way for a casual listener to pick up on any of the backstory i’ve developed — or even connect the character to the city he’s meant to represent — but maybe that’s my task. maybe i have to frame these stories so that the spoon river nature of the project is always apparent. and even as i type all this i am realizing my unbearable inadequacy to the source material. but it’s a literary grail i’m after, i guess. if i’m ever asked about my influences, and i don’t mention edgar lee masters, please refer me back to this post. and then to my poetry anthology.

Get up everybody and sing

Wednesday was a different thing altogether. Of the ten songs we ran at practice, I’d never played six of them, and I had no approach strategy for five of those six. I’d never seen the drummer before, and one of the guitarists was a guy I’d met briefly at shows but never made any music with — actually, I didn’t even know he was a musician until February. This was a common experience for me ten years ago when I played with a bunch of outfits that were permanently in flux. Back then, I possessed improvisational skills that have now, alas, evaporated. In 2016, just figuring out where my hands go on the keyboard is enough of a challenge for me.

There is a school of thought that says this is the best way to run a band: keep things unpredictable, stay open to possibility, switch up the musicians constantly and see what happens. That school has not been getting much funding lately. Zappa, who was the headmaster, died in ’93, and superintendent Jerry Garcia went two years later; it’s all gotten more and more Common Core since then. Conformity to rock and roll convention is not the sort of thing that Mike has ever cared about, and I am glad he’s committed to making each Mr. Flannery And His Feelings show a discrete experience. At the first show we did, Mike was backed by several musicians from the Chamber Band, a really good, D&D-loving Brooklyn group he was then working with. Show number two was a free-for-all with what felt like thousands of people onstage at Pianos at once; I was at the very crowded stage right and had no line of sight to Mike or Eric Tait, who played the drums that night (I believe). After that, #3 was a total changeup: just me, Mike, and Chris Conley onstage. I think it’s a measure of the strength of Mike’s concept that nobody can decide which of the three shows was the best.

I’m pretty sure show #4 is going to be the best. It’ll certainly be the most audacious and eclectic: reckoning that there are more Mr. Flanneries in the world than one, Mike is turning the stage over to his brother Dan for three songs and then to his dad for another three. Turns out Ron Flannery — that’s Mr. Flannery The Elder — was in a psych/garage rock band in Long Branch in the mid-’60s. They were called the Inmates, and they put out a 45 on Columbia Records in 1966 or 1967; I should’ve asked. The a-side of that disc is a goofy Beatlesque number called “Local Town Drunk” that I really like and which has been stuck in my head for the past 48 hours, but the really fun numbers are the other two: “You Tell Lies,” a pure garage rocker with a “Paperback Writer”-style riff, and “More Than I Have,” a tripped-out psych song that could have made one of those Nuggets collections. This stuff is a blast to play, even though (or maybe because) the organist doesn’t have to do too much. If I make like Daryl Hooper from the Seeds and wheedle away in the upper midrange, I ought to fit in fine. The irony is that, given George the Monkey’s fixation on ’60s pop in general and the Four Seasons’s psychedelic period specifically, the three Inmates songs probably share more with Overlord than they do with Dan’s ukulele-funk project or Mike’s upcoming Try Your Hardest. Hopefully Ron Flannery will stick around for the Overlord set. I already talked it up to him, but if he doesn’t want to wait around in a cramped club on the Lower East Side when he can get back quick to the Jersey Shore, I can’t say I’d blame him.

I rode the elevator up to the fourth floor of Ultrasound with Ron Flannery, and asked him whether the split show was his idea. He told me that Mike had put him up to it, which certainly sounds like Mike. But once we got in the room and started playing — Mike and Ron on guitar, Dan on bass, me on the organ, and a kid I’d never met named Tomo on drums — it was clear to me that he was enjoying himself. Not only did he burn through his own material, but he happily added Stratocaster and good vocal harmonies to his sons’ not-uncomplicated songs.  Which got me wondering about me and my usual musical running-mates: how many of our own dads would ever do the same? My father was a celebrated doo-wop singer in the 1950s, but by the time I was old enough to take piano lessons, he’d left that part of his life far behind. It’s as difficult for me to imagine him with an electric guitar around his neck as it would be to picture him swinging through the jungle on vines. Dads — even former-hooligan dads — are supposed to be, at best, vaguely disapproving of the rocking activity of their children. If they ever do consent to sing together, it’s supposed to be moldy oldies, with the kids playing an earnest support role on a trip down Memory Lane. Certainly dad is not supposed to ratify the boys’ musical ambitions by singing along enthusiastically to unconventional new compositions. But here was Mr. Flannery the Elder doing just that.

Earlier this week, I heard some bad news about the father of somebody I care about. That particular dad can’t be much older than Ron Flannery is, yet it sounds like his body is betraying him. I don’t think he was ever the sort of dad who’d strap on a Strat and make psych-rock with his children, but if he was ever so inclined, he doesn’t have that option anymore. Many of the people who played during the period that we all still strive to imitate aren’t exactly in performance shape anymore. If it wasn’t for ’60s music, we indiepop individuals wouldn’t have anything to rip off but the new wave and the C86 — and that’s just not as good. I’m not a member of the Flannery family, but I’m still glad I’m going to have the opportunity to play these Inmates numbers for the same crowd that’ll be there to hear Overlord and the material from Try Your Hardest. I’m a cornball, I know, but these links to Jersey musical history always excite me. I should just open a museum already.

I’m glad he insisted

I wasn’t surprised that it rained last night. It always rains on the night of an Overlord practice. Rain or snow or wind or some combination; whatever it is, I’m prepared to ride my bicycle through it. It never bothers me. I’ve come to see it as a solid metaphor for the adversity that Overlord has always had to face. Practice itself has been swell lately. If I can get through the discomfort of the trip, there’s always something rewarding on the other side. It seems like a small price to pay.

That the band is better than ever isn’t the surprising part to me. What’s most amazing in 2016 is that there’s an Overlord at all. Everybody in the group has other projects and commitments, many of them consuming; still, no matter what else comes up, Overlord outlasts those distractions. Some of the obstacles that the group has had to overcome during the decade or so I’ve been in it: geographical challenges, including the frontman’s relocation to San Francisco, some not-inconsequential lineup shuffles, the defection of a few key allies to other cities, the loss of a permanent practice space, a scrapped European tour, the lucidity crash in NYC indiepop that made everything on the scene sound like the Pains plus a blender for awhile, and our bewildering name, which always makes the uninitiated assume that we’re a metal band.

Overlord is not metal. I doubt very much that a metal band would have me. For many years, I wasn’t sure why Overlord would have me either. Sometimes I’ve joined a band — My Teenage Stride comes to mind — with a clear need for something I know I’m able to provide.¹ Overlord wasn’t like that at all. The lineup I first heard at the old Knitting Factory in Tribeca sounded impressively complete, but George wanted me in anyway, and he can be a persuasive monkey. In retrospect, I’ll bet he asked me to be part of the band because he was under the misapprehension that I was a capable backing singer. I know he appreciated my spazmo enthusiasm during performance, though it must have made quite a contrast with his impassive mid-’00s stage demeanor. I remember long bike rides back from Williamsburg after practice, wondering if I’d contributed anything or if my bleeps and blorps were just messing up the songs. Once after a show in Philly that didn’t go too well, I wrote to George and explained that I’d always be a fan, but I wasn’t fitting in and Overlord would probably work better without me. He wouldn’t accept my resignation.

I’m glad he insisted that I stick around. George didn’t really have any suggestions about how I’d better fit in to what the group was doing, but he must have been envisioning a future Overlord that could accommodate my approach. The guys who were then in the band — Steve Schiltz of Longwave, and Jon Robb, a longtime Overlord collaborator who is in a Philadelphia group called Lo Power Plane that you might not know — played in a tight, resolute, super-locked-down Euro-style that did not beg for ornamentation from me. I love those guys and enjoyed being in the band with them, but I… I can’t really play like that. I don’t need to be in Phish, necessarily, but I’m always going to put intuition ahead of execution, which is a pompous way of saying I need latitude for my many screw-ups. What ended up saving me was the addition of Kerry Kennedy on second guitar, which saturated the top range and gave me a place to hide, and jump out from, like a mugger with a synthesizer.² Although George wasn’t hearing it then and still, I’m sure, wouldn’t want to hear it now, we’d started to resemble Oasis: songs influenced by classic sixties pop and the Smiths, wall o’ guitars, impressive rhythmic discipline, alternately anthemic and cheeky numbers but an atmosphere of seriousness, no small amount of stadium rock grandeur.

Cake Shop is no stadium, thank goodness, and there is limited demand for an Oasis-like band on the cupcake pop circuit. George, I think, understood this, and at some point (and I’m still not 100% sure how this happened) we acquired the Palomar III rhythm section. For me, this felt like coming home. Matt Houser knows the whole pop-punk playbook and his Costello too, and he’d put it to practice in my own band on many occasions. Sarah Brockett is basically a new wave kid.³ Brockett, I understand, played in one of the first versions of Overlord, long before I knew who George was, and thus began a long and fruitful musical partnership that, I hope, will last forever ever. Suddenly the band began to sound less European and more like the Cars. And if a band is going to make like the Cars… well, yeah, it’s pretty obvious where the synthesizer fits.

A wise woman once said that if you look around the practice space and you can’t identify the jerk in the group, it’s probably you. I must be the jerk in Overlordª, because I can’t even imagine three people I’d rather be in a band with than Matt, Sarah, and George. Even if they weren’t as good at what they do as they are, I bet I’d still feel that way. We’ve got a ten-song record coming out called The Well-Tempered Overlord, and every time I hear it, I’m astonished, and inspired, all over again by how beautifully my bandmates played. There’s a lot of love inscribed in this album — which is counterintuitive, since the songs are all about interpersonal disaster and aesthetic frustration. But ain’t that indiepop, something to see, little pink houses for you and me. Trust me, I’m not boasting not because of anything I did. I’m just proud to be in this group and absolutely confident that this is going to be one of your favorite albums of 2016. If I had the ability to do it, I’d link to the songs right now, but that’s not how showbiz works. I take the moral of the Overlord story to be one about patience and perseverance, not to mention the perennial cleverness of monkeys, so perhaps it’s for the best. One way or another, you’ll be hearing from us soon enough — at Pianos° on April 28, if you’re game.

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¹The other model, which I always dig, is to join a group in its nascent stage and help shape the sound. That’s how it worked in Sasha Alcott’s first band. What I contributed to her music wasn’t all that hot (sorry, Sasha), but playing in that outfit taught me how to respond to other musicians. Before that, I was strictly plug in and twist knobs and to hell with the rest of you people.

²I don’t know if Kerry ever liked me much, but we played well together. One of my favorite moments in any show I’ve ever done with any band: me and Kerry improvising a lead line over the top of “Keep It From The Baby” at the Bell House. We’d just flown across the country after a show at a Nerd Nite event in Los Angeles, and were on an hour of sleep, max; we got into JFK a few hours before soundcheck. (The Wrens were headlining, which more than justified the trip.) Maybe exhaustion had lowered our mutual empathetic resistance, but we were really listening to each other that night. I miss her.

³One of the first times I ever felt like I was on the right track with Overlord: onstage at Cake Shop, I messed with the semitone knob on the MS2000 until I’d made the beginning of “Evergreen” sound like early OMD. Brockett, who was in the audience, lit up. I thought to myself, hey, if Sarah likes it, I’m going to stick with it.

ªObviously.

ºI’m pulling double duty that night. I’m also playing with Mr. Flannery and his Feelings. Mike’s band is on first, then Glenn Morrow of Bar/None plays with his Cry For Help, then Overlord, then Richard Davies, and then Hamish Kilgour of the Clean finishes the night. Steven puts together ambitious bills.