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.



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.