No, this isn’t really about the Super Bowl, though congratulations are in order to the New Orleans Saints for a gutsy performance and well-deserved victory. I only saw about half the game, having attached a greater priority to the Chelsea-Arsenal match broadcast earlier in the day, and then lollygagging about the house all afternoon instead of a) getting out to the park to do my running and t’ai chi; and b) writing this piece I’m finally getting around to now at 3 o’clock in the morning.
At some point in my life I developed the notion that exercise doesn’t really count unless it’s done first thing in the morning, which gave me the perfect excuse, on those many occasions when I didn’t rise until it was getting on toward noon, to tell myself, “Well, there’s no point in bothering with it now, might as well put it off till tomorrow.” But the other night I ran into Luis of Urban Rustic and Pansy Division, who told me that he could only exercise late in the day and after he’d eaten (another of my superstitions was that exercise didn’t count unless it was done before breakfast).
Now I didn’t necessarily want to switch to his system, but it’s clearly working for him, which in one fell swoop shot down two of my cherished beliefs and, worse, removed any remaining rationalizations for goofing off just because I’d let most of the day get away from me. So there I was bundling up in multiple layers (the temperature was in the upper 20s, but with the wind chill felt more like 10 or so) and setting off for a run in the 6 pm darkness.
It wasn’t bad, actually. I ended up doing 3 1/2 miles, which is about as much as I’ve ever done, though I feel ready to step it up a notch or two. It was a little harder to stay warm when I shifted to t’ai chi, which entails more standing around or moving rather slowly, and it was during this time that a fierce wind kicked up. Or, to be more accurate, the wind that had already kicked up suddenly got a lot more fierce. In fact it nearly blew me over a couple of times.
Meanwhile, of course, I was missing the first half of the Super Bowl, but it was more fun feeling like Rocky when (I’ve only seen a couple of the movies, so I don’t know if this happens in all of them) he decides he’s going to fight and starts running all over Philadelphia in the freezing cold, etc. It was all I could do to stop myself from punching my fists in the air at a couple of points, and then what did I see but this husky guy who’d been the only other occupant of the running track, and who’d run alongside me for a mile or so giving me a running commentary (unsolicited but not unwelcome) on his fitness regimen and philosophy, doing the Rocky fist pump himself.
The best thing, though, was the realization that I’m gradually becoming almost impervious to winter. Oh, I’m still looking forward to spring and summer, and if I had my way, New York would bask in tropical heat all year round, but it’s no longer a major issue for me. Walking home after my workout, I took the long way around, and strolled almost as though it were languid midsummer. I’d heard people sing the praises of crystalline winter nights (and generally thought they were imbeciles), but as I left McCarren Park and headed toward Driggs Avenue, it was as though the cable company had come round and given the skyline an upgrade to high def.
Oh, the cable company, that’s been a sore point around here lately. For months the internet has frequently been cutting out in both my apartment and the one downstairs, to the point where it’s often been unusable. Many calls and letters, some angst-ridden and some just plain angry, have been exchanged with our local monopoly. Periodically the service starts working again for two or three weeks before going back to its old tricks.
But they finally seem to have begun taking our situation seriously, as in the past two weeks we’ve had visits from at least a dozen of Time Warner’s finest, including, most recently, several technicians who a) actually appeared to know what they were doing; and b) were not only willing, but eager to deploy this expertise in the cause of resolving our problem. Saturday afternoon they arrived en masse, three trucks – a fourth later showed up, but I think that was only to jumpstart one of the other trucks whose battery had gone flat – and something like eight technicians were soon clambering over ladders and rooftops and hacking down wires with gay abandon (a couple of them briefly got into a snowball fight, but apart from that it was strictly business).
The neighbors got dragged into it, too; the landlady next door was mad because she had to open the gate and let them into the back without their having an appointment (and after all, as she pointed out, her cable was working just fine), and the super, who also takes care of the building on the other side, was less than thrilled when they managed to knock out cable service to several of the apartments in that building.
And even when all the new wires had been strung and the various crews stood milling around in the street discussing where they might go for coffee, I discovered that my television, which had never had a problem to begin with, was now heavily “pixillated.” I’d heard the word many times before; my pseudo-Auntie Olive in London regularly used it to describe people who were, in her view, not quite right in the head, but apparently it also refers to televisions whose pictures are having a breakdown. Oh wait, I just discovered that the correct word for that is “pixellated” or “pixelated,” from, obviously, pixels, whereas Auntie Olive’s term had something to do with pixies.
Anyway, I was told that the TV was doing this because my cable signal was now too strong instead of too weak, but a few more tweaks and I was all set to plop myself in front of it for a Sunday of football, both English and American, should I so choose. But as it happened, I spent more time twittering away (both figuratively and literally) on the internet, which makes it all the more unconscionable that I didn’t get this work done many hours ago.
What work, you say? Well, I felt it my duty to report on the massive Don Giovanni Records shindig that I was privileged to attend last night at the Bowery Ballroom. I had been a little suspicious that DGR honcho Joe Steinhardt might be bumping up the numbers and the hype when he warned people to get tickets in advance because the event might sell out, but as it happened, he was right on the money. There was as big a crowd shoehorned into the Bowery as there had been for last May’s Green Day show,and my first question on arriving was, “Who are all these people?”
Joe was equally mystified. “I think I know about 50 of them,” he said, leaving us to ponder where the other six or seven hundred had come from. I asked friends and acquaintances for their opinion: had the crowd mostly come in from Jersey to see their homegrown label’s big city triumph? Or had New York punks and hipsters glommed on to the Don Giovanni bandwagon? The answer, I think, was that the show drew on multiple constituencies. As the night went on, I spotted Williamsburg scenesters who never previously would have been caught dead at a show I was attending (and vice versa), though a lot of them seemed to disappear after Screaming Females, one of the bands du jour, had played. But the joint was equally packed for Blake Schwarzenbach’s forgetters, who came as close to replicating the sound and feel of an old-school Jawbreaker show as I would have imagined possible or likely.
I mentioned that to Blake afterward, somewhat tentatively, as musicians generally don’t like to hear that their new band sounds like their old band, but he took it in stride. “I’ve made my peace with the Jawbreaker legacy,” he said, or words to that effect, which emboldened me to remark how much it annoyed me when bands refused to play their old songs, the ones people had often specifically come hoping to hear. “Oh, I’ve often been known to do that,” he cheerfully acknowledged.
It was not my first time seeing Screaming Females, but they’ve come a long way since I last encountered them in Maxwell’s or somesuch, and of course the high-powered sound system and wildly enthusiastic crowd didn’t hurt, either. Critics far more knowledgeable than me have been gushing over them; about all I can add is that lead singer and guitarist Marissa Paternoster sounds uncannily like Siouxsie Sioux backed up by Cream-era Eric Clapton, the twist being, of course, that she plays all the guitar parts herself. Go ahead and call me sexist if you want, but I have never heard a woman play guitar the way that she does. For that matter, I haven’t heard many people of either gender play guitar with her style and her virtuosity. I literally, if I may dredge up an old cliché, stood there with my jaw hanging open at times.
The only critique I might offer is that just because you can play all those notes doesn’t mean you have to. Many times guitar wizards, at least in my opinion, are best advised to dial it back a bit, concentrate on power chords and only let the lightning out of the bottle at certain special intervals. When your whole song starts to sound like a Hendrix solo, it can become difficult to sort out verse from chorus from overture and epilogue. But hey, as Oliver told me, the whole hesher thing is back bigtime, and at any rate, I’m in no position to argue with a roomful of fans who loved every second of it.
I could say much the same for JEFF The Brotherhood. Normally – no, just about always – when I see a two-piece band setting up, my heart is filled with a mixture of trepidation and weariness. Art damage ahead, my internal sentinel cries out (for some reason I make an exception for Shellshag, about whom more later). It’s not that two people can’t play music, and certainly they can do a splendid job of singing (Everly Brothers, Simon and Garfunkel, who could ask for more?), but when you’ve got two people deliberately eschewing the standard instruments and lineup employed by almost every great band there ever was, you kind of have to ask: why?
It’s like training a dog to walk on two legs. Sure, some dogs may get very good at it. A few might even, with enough practice, might get almost as good as a person or at least a monkey. But it’s almost a dead cert that no dog will ever learn to do on two legs what he’s capable of on four, and I think the principle holds equally true for musicians.
Granted, both members of JEFF The Brotherhood are extremely talented, both as musicians and performers. Granted, too, that the crowd went wild for them, especially the young kids, who had a full-on slam pit going. Note, too, that singer-guitarist Jake Orrall unleashes all his pyrotechnics on a deliberately modified three-string guitar. Which leaves many admirers saying, “Wow. Just wow.” And leaves me thinking, “That’s great, kid. Now just think what you could do with a real guitar and a bass player.”
As I said, though, the people loved it. Who cares what I think? Also, I can see this going over very big in Williamsburg. In fact, I believe it already has. Speaking of Brooklyn, Shellshag played last, apparently by their own choice; I felt bad for them, because by the time they took the stage it had gotten so late that the crowd had thinned out considerably. I didn’t make it to the end of the set myself, pulling out somewhere between 1:30 and 2 am. The hypnotic, trancelike music that Shellshag specialize in has a charm and appeal that totally transcends the two-person genre, and I think it’s because what they do doesn’t even attempt to mimic traditional music forms the way some of my less favorite duos like, say, the White Stripes, do. If I were back in Northern California, still smoking pot, and given to doing tribal dances around the campfire (not as far removed from some of my previous incarnations as you might think), I could probably listen to Shellshag all night. The 21st century New York City version of me, however, wants to get on the subway while there’s still a reasonable chance that one will come soon.
Congratulations once again to Joe Steinhardt and Zach Gajewski for pulling off such a spectacularly successful night. Despite some of my musical cavils, I had a great time catching up with old friends and new. I especially appreciate what they’ve done with Don Giovanni, however, because it gives me something to point to when indie label owners start whining about how it’s impossible in the current environment to replicate the kind of success that many indie labels enjoyed in the 80s and 90s. Difficult, maybe. Impossible, clearly not.
And with that, I should wrap this up, but one more item: just as I was considering going to bed many hours ago, the most godawful growling, moaning and screeching sounds emerged from under my bedroom window, which happens to face out onto the street. A lot of drunken hipsters and superannuated frat boys pass by on a typical weekend night, and though few of them produce sounds as loud or obnoxious as the ones I was hearing, they do make a ruckus from time to time.
But unless they decide to stop and have a conversation in front of my house (in which case a bucket of cold water generally works wonders), they come and go pretty quickly; the sounds under my window, however showed no signs of abating. In fact they seemed to be getting louder. Fearful that somebody’s conceptual art project had gone astray and gotten trapped between houses, I poked my head out the window and saw a disheveled, longhaired man bellowing as he tried to get our front door open.
It was just sounds, not words, and the kind of sounds you would expect to hear from a very sick or wounded dog more so than a human. Prospects for establishing meaningful discourse with him didn’t augur well, but I tried nonetheless: “Yo, get the hell out of here or we’re gonna call the cops.” He growled at me and went back to trying to open the door.
I spoke more firmly, perhaps adding an expletive or two, and then he finally managed to say in English: “I live here.”
“No you don’t. Now please leave. I’m sorry if you’ve got a problem, but you can’t have it here.” I did not sound nearly as reasonable as the words look on the page.
My downstairs neighbor came up, frightened because he’d been kicking at her window. She’d already called the cops, and so we waited while our unwanted visitor started getting undressed (it was 24 degrees at the time). I don’t know how far he was planning to take it, but when the cops showed up finally (about 15 or 20 minutes; it’s a good thing he wasn’t Jack Nicholson smashing his way through our front door with an ax), he was barefoot and his shirt was half unbuttoned.
Although it took the cops a while to get here, when they finally did, they showed up, perhaps inspired by Time Warner, en masse. Three cars, six cops, and later an ambulance, which ended up taking the unfortunate souse to a detox unit. But what I really marveled at was how patient and good-natured the cops were. I’ve heard many people complain about how rude or brutal or unfair New York City cops can be (you might recall a certain spoiled rich kid prefab rock band that had a patently dishonest song to that effect), but I personally have never had a bad experience with them.
And let’s be honest: I was almost hoping they would grab this guy and brusquely, even roughly haul him away. He’d been out there giving us grief for nearly an hour, and proceeded to do the same to the cops, at one point even raising his hand as if he were ready to fight them. Which would not be a wise move, one of the officers observed in a lilting Caribbean accent. Now that the malefactor was out in the light, we could see that he wasn’t the wild-eyed wolfman he’d appeared to be while lurking in the shadows; in fact, he was a skinny, extremely drunk hipster and/or recently matriculated college student who had the look and attitude of Westchester or Connecticut money stamped all over his stroppy little hide.
When it finally sunk in that he was surrounded by cops who were about to take him into custody, he managed a remarkable recovery, switching from growls back into English, but it was too little, too late. He couldn’t come up with any ID except an American Express gold card and couldn’t or wouldn’t tell the police where he lived (instead, he kept pointing at our house). Despite all of this, the cops spent the better part of half an hour trying to help him come to his senses, trying to get a coherent response from him that would allow them to send him home instead of taking him in.
I’ve always thought that it takes a very special person to be a New York City cop, and after tonight I believe it more than ever. Before they showed up, I was seriously considering taking my mag light (similar to the kind of long flashlights that police use) downstairs and applying some street discipline of my own. I’m not saying this would be a good idea, but there it was running laps around my head. Yet while cops have to deal with people like him and much worse day in and day out, they’re still capable of being light-hearted, friendly, helpful and courteous to someone most of us would like to deal with by way of a couple good thumps upside the head.
Anyway, that’s it. Thanks to the NYPD for restoring peace and justice to our quiet little street, and thanks to any of you who’ve managed to make it all the way through this hypertrophic bit of bloggery. Now if I move quickly I just might make it into bed before the sun comes up.