Getting our Irish up ahead of St. Patrick’s Day
St. Patrick’s Day is the time of year when everyone wants to be Irish for a few hours and their definition of being Irish is being an obnoxious drunk. There are actually a lot of nice things about being Irish and Ireland has given us a lot of great things besides a love of the drink.
Among the many positive contributions the Irish have made to the world is music, and around St. Patrick’s Day every year a litany of Irish groups come through the Big Apple to quench our thirst for authentic Irish art.
The Chieftains have been popularizing traditional Irish music since the 1960s and with some luck of the Irish and the busy schedule of generous in-laws, my wife and I scored tickets to see them at Town Hall in midtown Manhattan.
Most of the crowd at the show were well-dressed middle aged people like me or older. I thought I might be overdressed but I wasn’t, which confirms yet again I’ve reached middle age where I can blend in with a crowd that used to look old to me.
But sitting behind us was a loud, possibly drunk, but definitely rude women who acted as if she were in her living room, talking loudly and even shouting ahead to a woman seated in the row ahead of us. After sitting through several songs listening to this absurdly inane and incredibly impolite chatter, my wife asked her to keep her voice down.
The woman took great offense and spent the rest of the show muttering under her breath about how she planned to confront my wife. ‘Go ahead lady,’ I thought to myself. ‘It’s your funeral.’
The Chieftains put on an outstanding performance. They’ve had many celebrated collaborators in the past and had an impressive cast of guest musicians and dancers joining them throughout the evening. A good time was had by all.
Once the show was over and the lights went up, the woman told my wife that she had no right to ask her to be quiet, that the show was for everyone to enjoy and some such malarkey. My wife told her in no uncertain terms that she was wrong and needed to learn some manners. The woman, embarrassed to be called out for such puerile behavior, wouldn’t let go. But my wife can dish out whatever you send her way. The woman’s friends were horrified and did not want to see their friend get thrashed by a visibly pregnant woman.
One of her friends motioned to me and implored me to get my wife out of the building. I told her it was her friend that needed the help, not my wife. The rude woman’s friends eventually corralled her and we all went our separate ways.
No punches were thrown, no chairs hurled through the air. I’m glad for that, though I think it would have been great to watch my pregnant wife knock out this nasty shrew of a woman. I’d take a video of it and then yell, “WORLDSTAR!!” and post it to WorldStarHipHop web site, a popular place to post videos of altercations.
In the end we walked out into the sweet Spring New York night and walked to Times Square, where my wife once reminded me that sometimes you have to enjoy being a tourist in your own city.
We will survive the stupidity of this St. Patrick’s Day as we have survived all others, with pride in our Irish culture intact and our tempers only a little bit the worse for wear.
Brooklyn’s Rapid Cultural Death Claims Two More
It has taken Brooklyn less than a decade to achieve the kind of overpriced cultural rot that normally takes a generation in other places.
There have been some very large events that illustrate this: the demolition of the beautiful Prospect Heights neighborhood to build the ugly Barclays Center being a landmark event that marks a shameful chapter in city history.
Brooklyn wears its shame again as two very excellent music venues have found it necessary to close their doors. The Trash Bar and The Lake are two places where I’ve seen and played some of the best shows ever. Their closing demonstrates how lousy, overrated and overpriced Brooklyn has gotten.
With the rapid rise of real estate in Manhattan, the outer boroughs became a refuge for the arts, and many music venues moved or set up in Brooklyn.
The Trash Bar quickly became Brooklyn’s home for punk rock shows that were chased out of Manhattan. Many of the great traditional punk shows that had made their place in Manhattan were now at the Trash Bar: Murphy’s Law’s St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween and New Year’s Eve shows were held at The Trash Bar. When our band, Blackout Shoppers, had its 10th Anniversary show, it was at The Trash Bar. Some of our best shows were there. We were honored to play a tribute show to Norman Bates and the Showerheads’ J. Garino there that included a reunion of The Six and Violence. The Bullys held their Johnny Heff tribute shows there after they lost their regular spot in Manhattan. For many years a picture of Johnny Heff, the Bully’s guitar player who was a New York Firefighter who lost his life in the September 11 attacks, looked over the stage.
Also in Brooklyn, at an address the owners prefer not to publish, is The Swamp, formerly known as The Lake, formerly known only by its street address. Not far from the Montrose stop of the L train, The Swamp is just a few blocks away from a major Brooklyn thoroughfare but in a quiet-looking, industrial area. It serves as a great example of how punk rock has been kept alive by DIY spaces. The Swamp was basically a very large apartment that was run as a venue by people who lived there. They built a stage and bleacher seating in a room that served as a performance space. It was a great punk rock venue like no other. When my wife and I got married, we threw a wedding celebration there that featured some of our favorite bands. Less than a year later, Blackout Shoppers held an album release concert there to mark the long overdue completion of our second album. The Swamp also hosted reggae and other shows and it hosted combined punk and reggae shows that packed them in. It was an honor to play shows there and it will be sorely missed.
Brooklyn stopped being an “up and coming” borough nearly 10 years ago. It’s now an overrated playground for the wealthy and clueless. There are a few artists and enclaves still fighting the good fight, but it’s a losing battle against the tides of money and history.
We will welcome you all to Queens and the Bronx.
Avoiding the Poison of Excessive Nostalgia
The once-celebrated East Village bar the Yaffa Café announced that it is closing its doors for good. It was initially shut down in September by the Department of Health for health violations. The coverage sent up its standard lament; another “iconic” landmark crushed by cruel fate.
It’s a familiar pattern now. A well-known music venue, bar or restaurant announced its closing and there’s a chorus of objection to it, a scolding clucking about how shameful it is and how the city isn’t what it used to be. But this is a pattern that’s been going on since the 1600s.
Many friends and colleagues are correct when they say that small businesses closing represents a danger to the soul of New York. But let’s also remember that constant change and reinvention is also a part of the soul of New York.
While we ought to make sure small businesses have a fighting chance, we also must be careful not to fall victim to the poison of excessive nostalgia.
Nostalgia is deadly because it leaves people to believe that the best part of their lives are behind them. I don’t care if your eight or 80, if you’re not looking forward to something in the future, you’re not really living life. The promise of something in the future is what keeps people alive.
If any place can’t maintain its relevance for its ever-changing clientele, then it’s simply running on the fumes of nostalgia. The fumes of nostalgia may start off smelling sweet, but are composed of an underlying rot.
New York exists in its current form today because it is unforgiving and values nostalgia very little. The constant churn of commerce is always inquiring: ‘What have you done for me lately?’
I was among the chorus of voices that bemoaned the loss of CBGB’s seven years ago. The famous club helped birth punk rock and when I played there with Blackout Shoppers at our very first show in 2004, it was a dream come true. I saw many great shows there and had many good times and memories. But CBGB had not kept up with the times or even lived up to its own history. Bands who got their start there chose not to return and played other clubs in the area. The Ramones played their last New York shoes at a venue called Coney Island High, also long gone, which was a few blocks away from CBGB. The throngs of people who crowded into the club during its last days were curiosity seekers and tourists, people seeking to tap into nostalgia for its own sake, darkening its doors during its death throes so they could boast that they had been there.
So let it be with the Yaffa Café. I went there once when I was younger and I thought the place was overwrought and pretentious, and this was a time in my life when I was happy to put on airs as a hopeful young writer and therefore had a higher threshold for overwrought pretension.
Places like the Yaffa Café attract people who don’t so much want to live the life of a writer or artist as much as they want to play-act being a writer or artist. Ernest Hemingway went to the cafes of Paris because he was dead-broke and those cafes were dirt-cheap. Hemingway is celebrated today not for the time he spent time at a café but because of the time he spent at his typewriter.
I enjoy sidewalk cafes to a certain point, but squeezing my overweight frame into a tiny, crowded space so I can imagine I’m F. Scott Fitzgerald is a ridiculous idea. A writer or artist is too busy writing or making art to invest a lot of time on nostalgia.
The White Castle in Williamsburg has done a greater public good than the Yaffa Café in my opinion. Its demise is the one that ought to be mourned. I’ll indeed miss filling up on delicious White Castle burgers when I am in Williamsburg, but I can’t begrudge the decision by the owners to sell the place. They knew that they’d make more money selling the land to condo developers than they’d make selling burgers, and it followed that it made more sense. It’s a for-profit business; they weren’t giving away burgers for free.
I’m sure the Yaffa Café had its strong points. If I remember correctly the coffee wasn’t half bad. But the past is littered with better businesses that could not stand the test of time. Let them all rest in peace.
Stop Horsing Around
New York’s attempt to think about stupid stuff for a weekend came to an abrupt halt early on Super Bowl Sunday when word was leaked that Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead of a heroin overdose.
Hoffman was a highly celebrated actor and I had the good fortune to see him on stage several times. His most well-known role was his Oscar-winning performance as Truman Capote in Capote. My personal favorite Hoffman film performances were his turns as the millionaire Lebowski’s assistant in the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski and as the furiously masturbating crank phone caller in Todd Solondz’s Happiness.
Heroin is one of the absolutely dumbest drugs you can take. It is horrifically addictive and even people who have been rid of it for years find themselves drawn back to it, as was apparently the case with Hoffman. I can think of several good people I knew, people I thought were too smart for it, people who were streetwise and experienced and with a lot of talent to offer and good years ahead of them, who have overdosed on smack. It’s one of the most senseless and undignified deaths imaginable. It’s an admission to the world that you were weak, that you let a small envelope of powder determine your fate.
It is immensely frustrating to see people with great talent and success piss away their lives with drugs or alcohol. But they have done so endlessly. The litany of great artistic drunks and drug addicts outnumbers the roster of brilliant teetotalers immeasurably.
One can argue that for big movie stars like Hoffman, arrogance and success drive them to drugs. I disagree. Hoffman likely began his life with drugs when he was little known. Most of the artists who die from drugs and alcohol are not famous people but nameless nobodies without much to their name.
Artists are drawn to substance abuse because they are constantly seeking transcendence. That’s why they are artists; they want to exist outside the humdrum of everyday life. Every creative person, myself included, has a star-gazed idea of themselves that rarely matches reality. Creative people almost always want to be something other than what they are. And for an artist, the worst thing in the world is to look in the mirror and realize that you’re a normal person like everyone else. Drink and drugs can keep that fun-house mirror in front of your face a lot longer than your brain can by itself. That’s the deadly trap of getting drunk or high. It’s a lot easier to sit in a pretty café and drink yourself into oblivion like Hemingway than it is to sit over a keyboard and write a novel like Hemingway.
As one of the world’s legion of frustrated writers, I have spent most of my adult life on the drunk list but became a teetotaler in recent years. I can say with confidence that you can excel at being creative while not indulging in substance abuse. I like to think that if I can quit drinking, anyone can quit anything (and without becoming a religious Alcoholics Anonymous zombie either, but that’s a topic for another time). Even Charles Bukowski, who made his reputation on being a habitual drunk, was able to quit drinking later in life without it damaging his writing output. A biographer quoted him as saying he hardly missed it.
Some people are determined to be junkies or drunks. There’s no excuse for it. Trying to make sense of it will break your heart. It doesn’t degrade the art they leave behind, but the loss of their talent makes their passing much more contemptible.
The Greatest Borough – a poem for the hearty literary types
The first poem of the year has been posted on the Impolite Literature blog. The poem is entitled “The Greatest Borough” and it’s an homage to Queens, which I contend is the city’s greatest borough. You may disagree.
Ars Gratia Artis
The gay community is a collective rainbow huff over the movie “Ender’s Game” because Orson Scott Card, the author of the novel on which the movie is based, holds conservative views on gay marriage and homosexuality. Lots of gays refuse to see the film and some have organized boycotts.
I have not read the book or seen the movie, but I understand it to be science fiction and that it does not overtly or metaphorically address any gay rights issues. It was written decades ago before issues of gay rights were as ubiquitous in our public discourse as they are today. The author is indeed outspoken against gay marriage and gay rights etc.
People are welcome to boycott any film or book for any reason, but there’s one important element I think that the boycotters are missing. That is: Enjoying a work of art is not an endorsement of the political views of the artist.
I’m all in favor of gay marriage and treating gays equally under the law in all relevant respects, but it’s not something I’m going to let get in the way of reading a book or seeing a movie.
You are free to decide what you want to see or read based on the political views of the creators. But at some point you are going to paint yourself into a corner. You will at some point find yourself patronizing the work of an artist with whom you disagree vehemently.
And even if Card penned a violent homophobic screed that called for some kind of lavender holocaust, reading it or watching it doesn’t mean you agree with it. Everyone should be willing to challenge themselves and purposely seek out opposing viewpoints in art, politics, religion and all aspects of life. If we can’t listen to the opposition, we can’t form our own arguments thoughtfully.
But let us also enjoy art for art’s sake. If “Ender’s Game” is a shitty book and movie, let it fail on its own merits, not because you hate the religious or political view of the author.
I was disappointed to learn Pablo Picasso was a communist and Louis-Ferdinand Céline was a fascist. It broke my heart to see ZZ Top play the George W. Bush inauguration and to read about Julianne Moore shilling for illegal immigration amnesty. Should I boycott all the works of these artists? No. I disagree with them but my patronage of their work is not an endorsement of their views.
The case of Alec Baldwin, a bona fide leftist who recently issued a mea culpa for calling a reporter a “cocksucking fag,” scrambled the minds of the powers that be at MSNBC, which suspended his TV show for the offense. But no matter how disgusted you are with him for whatever reason, you can’t deny his acting skills. Does watching his films mean you endorse his leftism or his gay slurs or his unique (gay) marriage of the two? No. You can watch “Glengarry Glenn Ross” guilt-free no matter what your political persuasion.
An artist’s goal is to make art that is powerful enough that it can overcome and outlast the foibles of the artist. Only time will tell. Did Robert Johnson approve of homosexuality? Did Nathaniel Hawthorne believe in equality between the races? Those questions are completely irrelevant to those men’s contributions to the world.
At some point art and politics must go their separate ways. Whatever your politics, can we least agree that one of the biggest sins of all is limiting your intake of art?
Beavers, Vultures and Lemmings in East New York
Famous street artist Banksy is currently in New York City leaving works of art here and there, and spectators are flocking to see these pieces.
Recently he painted a picture of a Beaver on a wall in East New York, a Brooklyn neighborhood bordering Queens that is known for being dangerous. Art gawkers dutifully went there to view the piece, and local East New York residents promptly went about robbing these art tourists, blocking the view of the graffiti art meant to be public and charging people $20 to view it.
It’s to be expected that street criminals will look to make a quick buck off of less-than-streetwise tourists, what makes this latest hustle more bothersome is that it’s won approval from the very class of victims most likely to be taken by the scam. The Gothamist blog called the street thugs “savvy” and many commentators thought that since white people dared to go there to view some art, then they were serving some worthy cause to be ripped off by the locals. I disagree.
Robbery is robbery, and feeling you have a right to rip people off because they’re not from your neighborhood or they don’t look like you is no reason at all. What’s more reprehensible is the multitude of self-hating “enlightened” white people thinking this is a good thing or that local East New York residents have a right to a life of petty crime because of their race or their station in life.
Let the local residents capitalize on the Banksy art legitimately. Set up a food cart there or make picture postcards of the art. There are real ways to make money that don’t involve thuggery and intimidation.
And as for the sorry state of East New York, it wasn’t street artists from England or art enthusiasts from Manhattan who made East New York the way it is today. There are people there who can do better; let them. But treat street hustlers like the low vultures they are.
How to Go Crazy Properly
I sat in a room full of very well-behaved financial professionals and analysts wondering why no one was going insane. It was a day like any other and it was a financial conference in Manhattan didn’t suddenly give in to the orgiastic wills of the dozens of assembled people.
Most of us lose our minds at one point or another but almost always too slowly to register to the outside world. We let our own fears and disappointments torture and kill us, carving our minds and souls to shredded pulps.
Given the state of the world, I’m surprised more and more people aren’t dropping out of civilized society by going crazy. Many times I find myself in a situation where people’s acceptance of what’s given to them or the state of their surroundings is maddening and ought to result in a violent outburst of creative violence, but it never happens. And if it did, it would never be contained enough to be justified and righteous.
So even though I sympathize with crazy to the nth degree and feel the temptation to bring that measured and sane violence to our insane world, I can’t stand the people who force their insanity on the world around them.
The people who scream and rave in public, who throw themselves in front of trains or off of buildings, are childish egotists who think they are special enough to force others to notice them and rearrange their lives for them. You have every right to be crazy and are probably right to be insane, but force yourself on others and you’re not better than the rest of the cruel, cruel world, probably worse. That is one reason we have art, music and literature: it’s how we turn the pain of being alive into something worth living for.
You have to embrace your insane rage in the right way. The only worse than letting your insanity kill you is letting it make you an egocentric asshole first.