Recommended Reading

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Genius of Water / Fountain Square

Meet me in the morning
At the bus stop
We'll ride into the town
Down to the square
To see the angel
See the angel in the fountain
Meet me in the morning
Meet me after daybreak
Tie your hair back
We'll drift into the crowd
Get lost among the loud
And they'll be singing
They'll be singing in our daydream
When we're tired we'll leave them all behind
And walk away
I love you
I love you
I love you a lot
Meet me in the courtyard
Where the saints pray
Musing in our stare
Still painfully aware
That there are others
Shoulds and woulds with names and faces
Close your eyes
And open up your mind
And hear me say
I love you
I love you
I love you a lot
See the angel
She's dancing in the water
Hear the angel
She's laughing in the water
Something in the way that you
Said you really felt that we could be
Good friends forever
Together for a long time

-"The Genius Of Water," Over The Rhine 

Over the Rhine is a rock band named after a historic Cincinnati neighborhood, which itself was named after Cincinnati's sister-city Munich, paying tribute to the German immigrants who built Ohio's greatest city. What a lineage.

"The Genius of Water" is not only one of the most arresting statements of love in song, but it is also another namesake--calling to mind the beautiful bronze-laden fountain, statue, and centerpiece in the city square.

The female statue in the middle of the fountain is not your ordinary angel. According to Wikipedia, "the artistic fountain's motif is water, in homage the river city's continuing debt to the Ohio River. The central figure, the Genius of Water—a female in heroic size—pours down the symbolic longed-for rain from hundreds of jets pierced in her outstretched fingers."

Since the fountain's dedication in 1871, this glorious figure of abundance has moved across the city in different locations, has undergone repairs, and has been seen and danced in by thousands. Still she stands tall,  and when I listen to this song, I imagine you can still hear her laugh. After all, she's looking after her friends, and these friends are forever, which is a very long time indeed.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Key Change: Cincinnati, OH-IO

"And I can see them shining
Through the Willows and the Pines,
The lights of Cincinnati
Oh, so many miles behind,
I could build myself a new life
And make it on my own,
But the lights of Cincinnati
Will keep calling me back home."
-"Lights of Cincinnati," Scott Walker

I invite you to join me on a detour to my hometown and the place where I have spent the better half of my summer: Cincinnati, Ohio. While the name may not set off any bells and whistles, I'm feeling inspired enough to break this three month hiatus and share a lesser known, but very distinctive musical history. 

While rummaging around at Half Price Books, crown jewel of second hand bookstores, I came across a mix CD labeled Deary Me Records, the name of a Cincinnati punk-rock label from 1995. Mezmerized, I bought the CD and tended to it before any of my other purchases. What turned out to be a nifty, if slightly scratched little time capsule broadened the contours of my mental map where I chart the city's music history, beginning with the legends of King Records and culminating in the great indie rock scene that exists today. After some family and friends affirmed the coolness of my clearance purchase as well as the ceaseless creative output of this city, I decided to dedicate a few blog posts to the lyrical landmarks of Cincinnati.

A city so much smaller than New York City--1/26 of the population size to be exact--doesn't lend itself to the same endless supply of song references, but I was surprised by the number of name drops that do exist. And yes, they extend beyond a "what's up" from Sir Mix-A-Lot and the T-H-U-G roll call from Cleveland neighbors Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony. Oh, and that annoying but aptly-titled tune, "Cincinnati, Ohio," which provides the low point of every visit to Great American Ballpark. 

The man who wrote the lyrics above was an overseas sensation in the UK, though he hailed from the midwestern city of which we speak. Scott Walker--and no, not GOP presidential candidate #387 --was known for limit-pushing lyrics in the late 1960s at the same time he bore his soul and penned "Lights of Cincinnati." On this rare occasion he traded in bawdy for the ballad, reminiscent of the songs which propelled him to fame as a teen idol in the 1950s. With one of the most stirring baritones in pop music, Walker delivered a sincere expression of the heart--teetering between longing for a loved one and yearning for a particular place.

This post serves as the introduction to a miniseries on my hometown, and in the spirit of summer's melancholy as the season draws to a close, is a nod to Walker that his sentiment is alive and well in me.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mudd Club / TriBeCa

This ain't no party, this ain't no disco,
This ain't no fooling around
This ain't no Mudd Club, or C. B. G. B.,
I ain't got time for that now
-"Life During Wartime," Talking Heads 

As a self-proclaimed Talking Heads head, I'll admit that this week's venture turned into quite the sentimental journey. But I'll hold back the tears and leave you all with the good parts. 

Long, long ago in the early 1980's, the Mudd Club closed its doors almost as soon as it opened them. But the 5 years it spent at the corner of White Street and Cortlandt Alley brought more music to TriBeCa's nightlife than any venue ever did before.

Between the years 1978 and 1983, many punk and new wave bands emerged at the turn of the decade and performed onstage at the Mudd Club. Sonic Youth and R.E.M. were among the venue's top-billed acts, while members of Talking Heads--David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, and Jerry Harrison--were well-known regulars, both onstage and in the audience. 

Performing there in 1979, Talking Heads mention the famed nightclub in their song "Life During Wartime," which also alludes to the famous East Village venue C.B.G.B.'s (recently converted into a high-end men's boutique, John Varvatos.) Because C.B.G.B.'s had a much longer and loudly celebrated life (and still operates as an annual music & film festival) I'd prefer to draw attention to the short-lived space Mudd Club and the fascinating area surrounding it.

The space at 77 White Street occupies the corner of a very significant and rare feature of New York City--a back alley. Cortlandt Alley is one of few existing back alleys that have remained untouched by years of New York's extensive urban renewal. It is everything I'd look for in a back alley--secluded, dank, graffiti-clad. The only thing missing is a street gang making their way through while snapping their fingers in unison. (Be sure to read up on this historic alley and check out some awesome photodocumentation over at ScoutingNY.)

FUN FACT: Throwing it back to one of my first posts ever, where I profiled a falafel shop mentioned in a song by New York band Vampire Weekend. The same fellows shot an incredibly awesome music video for their hit song "Cousins" in this very alley! So cool!

I love this song, because it has that classic manic quality that Talking Heads exudes in song (and dance.) The song is a musical jet engine, held together by Frantz on the drums, Weymouth on bass, and Harrison on the guitar, and Byrne on vocals while doing aerobic jogging motions.The lyrics, while maybe slightly hyperbolic in their comparison of rock & roll to fighting a war, convey some fantastic imagery of tour life on the road. Though I'm a far cry from a punk rocker, I can't help but feel their description of the sheer madness and foreignness that comes with being away from home, away from the usual stomping grounds like the Mudd Club.

I geek out so hard when I see old doorways like the one above, where I can imagine so many awesome bands made their way in and out, loading and unloading the instruments they'd use to put on legendary performances.

And now, darling readers, what is your favorite NYC music venue--past or present?

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Hotel Chelsea / Chelsea

"Sara, Sara
It's all so clear, I could never forget
Sara, Sara
Loving you is the one thing I'll never regret.

I can still hear the sounds of those Methodist bells
I'd taken the cure and had just gotten through
Staying up for days in the Chelsea Hotel
Writing 'Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands' for you

Sara, Sara
Wherever we travel we're never apart
Sara, Sara
Beautiful lady, so dear to my heart."
-"Sara," Bob Dylan

Honestly, the only thing more dismal than the present appearance of the Hotel Chelsea is its track record of tragedies in the world of wandering poets. The hotel seems to have been a haven for the lost sheep of Greenwich Village, most memorably Leonard Cohen who penned the famous "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" which details the singer's not-so-romantic rendezvous with the late Janis Joplin. It was at the Hotel Chelsea that Dylan Thomas, who once famously roared, "rage, rage against the dying light!" died of alcohol intoxication. And perhaps the hotel's most "rock & roll" story of all was the downfall of Nancy Spungeon who was stabbed to death by her boyfriend, the one and only Sid Vicious, who all but lived up to his name.

And just when everyone thought that there was nowhere left to go but up, the hotel went to shambles and closed its doors to the public in 2011. Today, the scaffolding which embraces the empty edifice has all the charm of a mental asylum. When I dared to enter the front door I was greeted with the temporary doorman's furrowed brow and thundering voice: "We're closed." Indeed, it is hard to believe that this very building, erected in 1883, was once the high-brow and glamorous landmark that inspired the very name of its surrounding neighborhood.

Thankfully, good old Bob Dylan put the bohemian splendor of this hotel into words before old age came in like a Miley Cyrus on a wrecking ball. As always, we can count on Zimmy's sing-songy stories to remind us of times and places we've never experienced, and we trust him enough to believe every word. As much as I am fascinated and disturbed by the dark times and the devilry that took place in this hotel, I am settled by this beautiful testament of love, fated though it was, that graced a moment in Bob Dylan's life and made this place a home to something other than death and drugs (although one cannot be too optimistic that the latter was not totally uninvolved in the story.)

Even if the hotel has been stripped of its placeholder in the artistic world, there is still music in the air today. I needed only to walk a couple doors down from the hotel to see this winsome little hole-in-the-wall, a used-guitar shop that Leonard and Bobby could very well have jammed at together had they crossed paths in the early 1990's on a day off with nothing to do and a little time on the hands for some freewheelin'. 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Forsyth and Bowery / Lower East Side

"We were standing 
At Forsythe and Bowery,
Flowers and painted forehead
Trying to forget

You can't tell if the ceiling's rising
Or if the floor's falling out.

At the time I wasn't with you
By that time I didn't care"

-"Bowery," Local Natives

This week's visit took me to Sarah Roosevelt Park which falls between Chrystie and Forsyth, skirting the north and south of the Lower East Side. It's a beautiful stretch down Forsyth Street, but my heart tells me it was no walk in the park that inspired the lyrics of "Bowery" by Local Natives.

 The song is achingly personal, much like the rest of the album, which is a window into darker times for the band. Kelcey Ayer, vocalist, keyboardist, and lyricist, shared that together they were wracked with the loss of Ayer's mother, the departure of their bassist Andy Hamm, and relationship troubles, following their debut album Gorilla Manor. The beautiful byproduct of these troubled times came to be called Hummingbird.

It was a day of pink blossoms and blue skies with white clouds, strikingly reminiscent of the background and color palette of the Hummingbird album cover (which you can see on the playlist I've created to supplement blog posts.)

Interestingly enough, there is no corner of Forsyth and Bowery. Perhaps the lyrics refer to two separate corners, or, most likely, they refer to the Bowery area, rather than Bowery Street. Above is the corner of Forsyth looking down Rivington Street and below is the corner of Forsyth and Delancey Street. While I do not know this to be fact, I imagine that the lyrics refer to the corner pictured below, because Delancey Street runs along the Bowery, and the Bowery Ballroom, where the band has performed, sits at the corner of Delancey Street and Bowery Street. This corner is very central in the LES, and is brushed closely with the bustling nightlife. I'm sure many memories are made here.

I stopped to take a photo of the sky on my way to the Essex subway station. From where I stood, it looked like this white dagger seemed to end somewhere on Forsyth. I don't know, it just seemed symbolic, and a little bit sad.

There is not much for me to say, as the broken relationship in "Bowery" is not mine to explain. 
But because pieces of this experience have been shared and immortalized into art, there's a sense of beckoning by them to be heard. Likewise the sights described in the song seem so ready to be beheld. I feel honored at the invitation to ache alongside this band. 
It's amazing how intimate music can be, how committed artists are to their craft in sickness, in health, joy, and sorrow. And I vouch that their loving listeners feel exactly the same way.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Empire Diner / Chelsea

We could have gone all the way to the Great Wall of China
Now all you're going to be is history
Help yourself, it's all you can eat at the Empire Diner tonight
You coulda had class, you coulda have been a contender
Charlie, you shoulda looked out for me
-"Great Wall of China," Billy Joel

Whether you love joining in endless refrains of "Piano Man," or you hate the thought of it (and there's no in between), some things just can't be denied. Billy Joel is a man who has put in his time as a musician, as a New Yorker, and as a New York Musician. Second only to Lady Liberty and possibly Beastie Boys, Billy Joel is the face of New York City to me. (Let it be known I grew up in a household where The Stranger is little short of sacred.)

I'd be lying if I didn't credit the piano man with plotting out my preconceived mental map--all the way from "52nd Street" to "Mister Cacciatore's down on Sullivan Street." And I am well aware that if I wanted to vy for the singer's affection, ladies and gentlemen, this Downtown Girl living in her Downtown World would be flat out of luck. Sure, it can be dangerous when lyrics become your sole framework for reality. But I choose not to think about that and instead, I try and find out the reality behind the lyrics! Amen?

So without further ado, I introduce to you the Empire Diner. 

The Empire Diner is one of the most beloved landmarks in Chelsea's eatery history. The once-swanky restaurant hosted an array of celebrity guests who made it popular during its hey-day in the 40's and 50's. Today Empire is one of only five free-standing diners remaining in the city, according to an excellent article from Scouting NY. This fact alone sings of the diner's age, days gone by when hospitality and fine dining went hand in hand. This came as a surprise to me, as I've always thought of diners to be characteristically kitschy a la American Graffiti.  

 When passing the diner at the corner of 22nd Street and 10th Avenue, the first thing I noticed was the stunning Art Moderne letters announcing the name "EMPIRE DINER", as well as a big, bold cue for me to "EAT." The rounded corners and the ribbon windows call to mind the late Art Deco period during which the building was constructed. All at once I felt hungry and deeply nostalgic for an era I never lived in. A day in the life, honestly.

In "Great Wall of China," Billy Joel is pointing fingers at his corrupt old manager who caused him years of trouble, inviting him to enjoy his last supper before becoming history--just like the diner he mentions. These lyrics carry a cutting-edge tone of "look what you've done" and a remorseful "what could have been." (Fun Fact: Billy Joel makes fitting reference to a line spoken by Marlon Brando in the classic film about New York mafiosos On the Waterfront: "I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender.") The singer clearly witnessed the downward turn the Empire Diner took in the latter half of the twentieth century; and no doubt he still sees the fragments of its glorious past.

Tucked away on the far west side of Manhattan, Empire Diner is a rarity in conversation and nothing like the trendy hot spot it used to be. But there is a reason this gem of the past has been preserved, along with the restoration of the nearby High Line. This restaurant was as personal to its customers as it was popular to A-list regulars. While the stars have all but faded, the Empire Diner still stands, bolstered by the memories of neighbors and the musings of lyricists.