New York Rock: A Critical History
Hence it arises that our imagination is so easily excited by music, and now seeks to give form to that invisible yet actively moved spirit-world which speaks to us directly, and clothe it with flesh and blood, i.e., to embody it in an analogous example. This is the origin of the song with words, the text of which should therefore make itself the chief thing and the music a mere means of expressing it. For song always expresses the quintessence of life and its events. It is precisely this universality, which belongs exclusively to it, that gives song the high worth which it has as the panacea for all our woes.
—Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation
New York Cares.
—Interpol, “NYC,” Turn on the Bright Lights, August 20, 2002
With the death of irony, and so many, on September 11, 2001, came the rebirth of New York rock. For years, zeitgeist-starved critics had been begging the Bumble of the age for more guitar—“Please, sir, we want our own”—and here, at last, was something like a meal. The Strokes’ Is This It was it indeed, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Fever to Tell, released in 2003 but anticipated in ’01 by the eponymous EP, done told us. The Strokes’ own first release was the Modern Age EP; mutatis mutandis, both bands were Hegelian to the bone.
Thesis: the ever-classic New York rock sound, itself a synthesis. In 1997, a sophist quite infamously asserted that you can’t rock without guitars. And yet, the statement’s general speciousness notwithstanding, it has long been thus in New York City, where Glenn Branca once led a “guitar army” whose soldiers included Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore, and where in mid-2001 he premiered his Symphony No. 13, for 100 guitars, in front of the Twin Towers.
Combine guitars with a great man (or woman) up front—Julian Casablancas, Karen O—and the historical echoes become deafening. In the Strokes, you couldn’t help but hear Television, the Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls, Red Transistor, Youth of Today. For the Yeah Yeahs Yeahs, Boss Hog might have been the most obvious point of reference, but who could forget the guitar-overdriven NYC punk poetry of Blondie, the Patti Smith Group, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, God Is My Co-Pilot, Mars, and Haunted Pussy?
Antithesis: a new social awareness, even sense of responsibility. The Strokes were quick to strike their anthemic “New York City Cops,” a European summertime smash, off Is This It’s post-9/11 domestic issue. And the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Our Time” spoke for us all: “It’s the year to hated / So glad that we made it.” We are all Americans now, wrote the French; we are all New Yorkers now, sang these quintessentially New York bands.
The synthesis, then, was some of the most viscerally cathartic, vitally crucial music ever made, with New York guitars salving New York’s, and the world’s, wounds.
But the next year brought with it the Axis of Evil and a splintering consensus. More tragedy arrived in the form of heretofore the worst album of the millennium, Andrew W.K.’s March ’02 I Get Wet, which travestied New York rock in order to ruin it—a kind of asymmetrical warfare brought to bear on the Apple’s other Finest and Bravest.
Rock qua rock and its “imperial” lead guitar, clarion-call vox, and searingly live performance were rejected for a post-Leppard full-frequency studio approach: bubblegum keyboard leads; wall-of-sound quasi-guitars; vocal overdubs; a “band” assembled on 128 tracks of magnetic, or perhaps digital, tape; heavy-metal blast beats one could dance to—if one were brain-dead.
This bogue NYC sound was so dubiously achieved by a citizen in name only: an unwashed refugee from Michigan who’d previously recorded with the willful degenerates in Wolf Eyes, he was backed live, in part, by remnants of Obituary, a death-metal band from Florida. W.K. perverted the nobility of the rock front man into the pop star’s clownish whoredom, inviting fans on stage for mid-song shoulder rides and signing autographs for hours afterward, vulgarly acknowledging his aura rather than hoarding it chastely away.
His lyrics advanced not only an irresponsible hedonism but also an insipidly tautological take on the dialectic: “We are a population / We are a factory / We don’t do but we never did anyway / We are your mother father / We are a final friend / You can’t stop what you can’t end / I love New York City / Oh yeah, New York City.” How dare this come-lately cretin presume to speak for New York? How dare New Yorkers listen?
As is ever the case, cultic reactionaries and extremists praised it in reactionary, extreme terms, the only vocabulary they possess. But thankfully, its “absolute spirit” was too “advanced” for the so-called mandarins—“hollow vessels ring the loudest” the rightfully weary verdict of the Times’ Jon Pareles; “evil in its purest form” the righteous apoplexy of Pitchfork’s Ryan Schreiber—and their last-ditch consensus consigned Andrew W.K. to the used bin of history. By August, Interpol’s acronymic koan was “turn[ing] on the bright lights” in us all.
Yet by year’s end, the disarmament crisis and the run-up to the Iraq War had America on edge, polarized, and taking to the streets. So, too, was New York rock a house divided against itself, barely able to stand. Andrew W.K. had, more badly than it seemed, inflamed matters and brought them to a head—a dirty bomb by a dirty man—and so both sides discounted New York’s guitar and front-man heritage, to everyone’s detriment, not least the USA’s.
Some extreme reactionaries, finding W.K., and by extension a straw-man sham of New York rock, to be too totally present, retreated into an absent abstraction apolitical on the surface but conservative at heart. But the other, radical wing of New York rock didn’t throw both babies out with the bathwater. Though some in it neglected guitars and singers, it knew the healing had to continue, and that, with time at a premium, dancing would be the best means of so doing.
Blessedly, our official organs placed their might again on the side of right, Pitchfork as always above all others. Schreiber, its editor, personally reviewed the Rapture’s Echoes, the best album of 2003 (and our generation?): “We have buried irony and pissed on its grave and for the first time we are realizing what rock music, rock shows are all about.” And, definitively: “You people at shows who don’t dance, who don’t know a good time, who can’t have fun, who sneer and scoff at the supposed inferior—it’s you this music strikes a blow against. We hope you die bored.”
At long last, here was hedonism with a human face and a college mind. The sibling bands Out Hud and !!!, though dismissed by the culturally challenged as, respectively, electrified and glorified drum circles, displayed their acute political sense on their track titles—“Me and Giuliani Down by the School Yard”; “Pardon My Freedom”; “Dear Mr. Bush, There Are Over 100 Words for Shit and Only 1 for Music. Fuck You, Out Hud”—putting the Minutemen to shame for subtlety of praxis.
Radio 4 picked up where Gang of Four left off years ago, at the nexus of critical theory and critically funky. Their mid-2002 album was called Gotham!; from 2004 was Stealing of a Nation. This bona fide guitar rock—let’s call it New York guitar dance politics rock—was, as John Kerry put it so eloquently, “Strong at home. Respected in the world.” New York rock, ambitious and relevant, had taken the power back.
Or so we thought. We thought, too, that our marches and Meetups would take the other power back. Yet we all know who became, in 2004 for the second time, (Not Our) President. And I know that, beginning on or about November 2, 2004, when attending shows at New York rock hotspots—lofts, for example, the CBGBs of the day—I was shocked to find myself neither dancing nor thinking. Not even once.
I had hoped, in my heart of hearts, to bask in the reflected grandeur of a soulful new guitarist and shamanistic front man, to sing along to songs in the key of life—to move on with music that moved me. Instead, I came to find that abstraction and aestheticism, as below-ground insidious as home schooling and red-state America, had seized the day.
This may seem of small concern, perhaps of none at all, until you recall that rock has but a few things to offer us. There’s the human voice, anthemic and unifying, and then there’s the guitar, the instrument closest to the human voice; thus does the best guitar rock’s humanism doubly precede its musicality.
Does it move us? Does it change our lives? Does it rock us? New York now says no to these questions. In 2005, these four long short years later, humanism and social efficacy, let alone a beat you can dance to, are just what New York rock lacks. We’ve lost our ambition, our will, and the power. Now it’s time to speak truth.
The idea is to know the enemy. But I’m not here to rehearse the familiar litany—the Reeds, Roves, O’Reillys, Coulters, Norquists. Elsewhere you can read, albeit inaccurately, about Animal Collective, Oneida, Gang Gang Dance, Diamond Nights, Oxford Collapse, the power players in the new New York order. Cloaked in the signifiers of classic New York rock—“singers,” “guitars,” “beats,” even “songs”—but without an ounce of aspiration to meaning between them, their closeted aestheticism is but compassionate conservatism.
Which is also to say, accusations of media bias notwithstanding, our critics haven’t held against the ascendant elite of self-styled outsiders. Highly paid publicists are the industry’s lobbyists for hire, and critics, human like the rest of us, succumb when not well disciplined. Therefore, to be a true intervention, this essay will have to tear out bands yet ankle-high—by the grassroots. Herewith my encounters in a year of fieldwork, a year digging underground:
Sightings have been on my radar for a while now. The first ping was hopeful—synthetic drums, guitar—suggesting a further elaboration of guitar dance rock, perhaps even a higher form of anthem. But from their first single, and ever more so, they’ve developed a group sound that immures transcendence.
Captured in what would charitably be called no-fidelity, the drum pads, bass, guitar, and vocals sound identical—call it noise and be done with it, please. It’s degree-zero ugly, and so loud as to be literally nauseating, a kind of physical affect and fourth-wall breaking at odds with rock tradition, wherein songs should move the ass and the soul, not the gut.
When the guitarist does assert himself, it’s to a dog-killing high-end, actually painful and absolutely not to be considered melody. The drums and bass, funkless and heavily treated, steamroll nuance. The lyrics are inaudible. The regressiveness of Sightings’ monochrome, monolithic approach is palpable.
Call it divisive and Neolithic. Call it a brick thrown through a clinic’s window. Call it what it is, a nihilistic blank.
At the opposite pole (a mere formalism), Growing can only be characterized as neo–New Age, their warmth and fuzz smuggling in a senseless escapism. They’re a guitar-bass duo that is, again, virulently abstract. They play sampled nature sounds beneath sheets of feedback and drone; there’s a full frequency range rather than discernible instrumentation.
The guitar lead is parodied by the drowning of a few scrambled small figures in the cacophony, song form mocked by the insertion of a few seconds’ silence halfway through a 45-minute set; they do not sing and there is no rhythm. Even more than Sightings, they dismiss the productive audience-band relationship—there’s no front man, their backs are turned half the time, and their speakers’ rumble reaches all the way to the bowels.
This music can’t be thought, only felt and experienced, and the (proper) distance between performer and performed-for falls away. Meanwhile, the music’s ugliness, even violence, insinuate. When last I saw them, after 20 minutes a teenager standing behind me fell forward to the floor flat as a board.
He was dragged off by his friends; blood, and a tooth, were left behind. That seems to me both symbol and literalization of the damage done, to rock and to us. These bands mutilate, then maim. And then?
In a move reminiscent of first-stage neoconservatism, the New Weird America movement perverted the grandly utopian American tradition of the Grateful Dead, Phish, Dave Matthews Band, the String Cheese Incident, and Psychedelic Breakfast, flushing it of its idealism and rigor, its blues traveling from Left to Right. Now Excepter complete the disillusionment, by banishing real instruments almost entirely and adding a sporadic house beat. The surface is confused. The meaning is opaque. I am put in mind of a drug-addled Leo Strauss, or a sober Christopher Hitchens.
Jack White’s guitar playing, even more so than Neil Young’s before it, could be considered the exemplar of musical humanism. Conversely, Mick Barr’s, despite or indeed because of its consummate virtuosity, might be considered the most anti-human, the most opposed to the heartbeat of New York.
His tone is an insect’s, all shatteringly trebly chromatic squeal, and his attack is a touch typist’s. (He doesn’t sing, but used to, in an invented language—purposeful, perhaps, but to what purpose?) More troubling is Barr’s conceptual aestheticism.
For a time, in their duo Orthrelm, Barr and drummer Josh Blair enjoined themselves from any and all repetition, foreclosing riff and song-form legibility, and the shared experience they provide, in favor of cascading 32nd-notes and full-kit patterns in complex lockstep. The result was opaque—the very opposite of clear—and might as well have been an invented language, not meant for our mere American ears. A philosopher might call it two-self solipsism; indeed, Wittgenstein called its analogue “private language” and preferred that it stay silent.
But now, both in Orthrelm and solo as Octis, Barr has turned to total repetition, yet more antisocial a gesture. He pecks at a small square of the fretboard for minutes at a time, tediously “exploring” minute changes in rhythm and timbre, then makes a rapid run up and down the neck and returns to another patch of terra cognita.
Is he so condescending as to be teaching us how to listen? Is he pissing on the already dubious but at least historically distant minimalism of New York’s Reich, Glass, Conrad, and so forth, by equating them with, of all things, heavy metal?
Contra minimalism Michael Fried famously wrote, “Presentness is grace.” Presentness (not as in presence but as in “in the present,” relevant and meaningful) and grace are what we now need, the beauty of an comely singer and a well-groomed guitar line; the sublime of an updated minimalism is perverse at best. Fried opposed “theatrical” art; that is, art that makes the viewer a participant in an extended situation (presence).
Thus the music’s projective, even sculptural, presence is a final aesthetic insult. Who comes to shows to be made aware of time, or to have a hole drilled in his forehead? When Barr plays the same three notes for five minutes, and you start to live them, where’s the salvation? We should rather fall silent before the charisma on stage, or sing along if so moved.
Fortunately, Barr recently moved to San Francisco, knowing he wasn’t wanted here. Unfortunately, Orthrelm’s associates Zs (modern-classical counterpoint rock. Zzzzzzzz indeed) and Coptic Light (“free rock” like free Iraq, anarchy no freedom at all) remain. Coptic Light’s drummer, Kevin Shea, is as notable for his novelty hats and sunglasses as guitarist Jon Fine is for his flowing locks, but couldn’t play a meaningful rock beat if he tried. He also hits the skins in Puttin’ on the Ritz, New York’s worst band.
It cannot be gainsaid that rock history is a matter of masterpieces, which ennoble a trivial genre and humanize us as people. Where would rock be without them? The last thing we need are record collections filled with cheap provocations, adolescent jokes, refusals to communicate, coded propaganda: Twin Infinitives and Generic Flipper, 1/2 Gentlemen/Not Beasts and Chocolate Synthesizer, Harsh 70s Reality and Spiral Scratch, Sang Phat Editor and What Was Music?—some of the angrier attacks on rock’s values in its history, but so sloppy as totally to lack cogency. Such is extremism: hot-headed and self-defeating, but against which we must ever remain vigilant all the same.
Now consider instead Pet Sounds, Exile on Main Street, London Calling, Born in the U.S.A., The Joshua Tree, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and OK Computer, and realize how far we’ve come, as people. Such works end distraction and discussion, and allow us to live in and through them. When New York–born guitar god Lenny Kravitz yowled, “You can’t even sing or play an instrument / So you just scream instead / You’re living for an image / So you got five hundred women in your bed / Rock and roll is dead,” he helped keep it, and us, alive just that one moment more.
His gesture, now ten years young, makes New York’s late lack of final-word masterpieces the more disheartening. The mantle of saving rock, and the human heart, has fallen to young bucks like the White Stripes (Elephant and its “Seven Nation Army”), Wilco (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and its “Ashes of American Flags” and “War on War”) and Green Day (the audaciously titled American Idiot), and titans like “The Boss” Bruce Springsteen (The Rising—and how).
Yet America itself is falling behind. French-speaking Montreal has become the new rock city au courant. U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, though from 2000, is timeless in retrospect, and Irish, and who hasn’t come down with a bad case of “Vertigo,” with its pointed lyrics, “Shot dead / Shots fall / Show me, yeah”? England’s Coldplay, who in 2002 released the song “Politik” on A Rush of Blood to the Head, have upped the ante with their new album, X&Y, whose “Low” manages to speak to both Dubya and us all: “You see the world in black and white / Not painted right / You see no meaning to your life / You should try / You should try.”
We should try. Look at the history we have here. There’s a tradition of quality in New York rock, from the Fugs in the ’60s, through Chain Gang and Wayne County in the ’70s, and into the ’80s with Missing Foundation, the Honeymoon Killers, and Pussy Galore. With Seattle changing music for a generation, and the Zip Code Gentlemen classing up the Bay Area, the ’90s were a fallow time in New York, but the point remains that New York rock, thick with meaning, is neither casual nor tossed off.
And yet here we have Brooklyn’s Puttin’ on the Ritz, who seem somehow to have self-released a self-titled CD-R, a pathetic seven songs and 15 minutes long, in a plain white plastic-windowed envelope marked up with ballpoint pen and a crayoned dinosaur-centaur creature a child would be ashamed of having drawn. For this they try to charge $3, money ill, if rarely, spent.
Consider: I myself could “rip and burn” a CD-R, scribble on my own mock outsider art, and hawk it for “three dollar!” like some base urchin; so could my kid sister; so could the girl next door, or anybody. Is that what we want, music as cheapened and easy as contemporary conversation?
It was almost cute when, decades ago, the punks played at do-it-yourself and defamed real musicians, professionals with a sense of production values, album art, the whole package; the Desperate Bicycles’ 1977 “The Medium Was Tedium” was, as indicated, a poorly labeled, poorly recorded bore, but the chorus’s “It was easy, it was cheap, go and do it!” had a charming naïveté.
Yet when something like this comes along, you see how pernicious their little joke really was. It’s a further devolution of Wolf Eyes, Nautical Almanac, and their ilk, whose spray-painted cassettes (a gratuitous pseudo-Ludditism), and records lathe-cut into assorted garbage, at least aspire to objet d’art status. But crayoned CD-R? The album’s last song sounds like it was recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, and repeats track 1. A contract-killing tack for a band without a contract—speaks volumes about their values.
The only information given on the label is the address of the band’s blog—more vulgarity, not even an official site, just a confessional—and the words “Kevin Shea—traps; B. J. Rubin—croons.” I suppose that’s an adequate enough description of their sound, though that Rubin styles his voice a croon implies nothing about the quality thereof. Now he’s flat; now his voice cracks; now he’s rushing to keep up; now he’s screaming “skippity-bop” as if scatting, tunelessly. He’s an incompetent rock singer pantomiming jazz, and the lack of guitar tells badly: There are no anthems here, no redemption. Shea plays a jazz beat, not anything you could dance to.
Puttin’ on the Ritz are superficially less abstract than their brethren. They do, after all, “sing” songs. But their material is aestheticized and irrelevant—they’re singing, of all things, love songs and ballads. Now, “New York, New York” is a morale booster, and good after Yankees wins, but let’s not pretend to be songwriters the caliber of “Ol’ Blue Eyes,” nor that his genre glances into relevance at any level but the highest.
Indeed, it can’t—when you have a “Beautiful Day,” the rest of the field is rightly crowded out. In any case, this band’s material, on record and live, is of singularly low quality. Their rhymes are, by turns, clichéd (“clouds of gray” with “Russian play”), awkward (“laughable” / “unphotographable”), and sappy (“please be true” / ”I love you”). Sometimes, they’re all three at once: “It’s incredible / That someone so unforgettable / Thinks.”
On the larger scale, the songs are as unfortunate. One explicates what I think are racial differences by listing “humorous” differences in pronunciation, a territory even Steve Harvey has covered with greater agility. Another asks why there are so many songs about what’s on the other side of rainbows. Perhaps because softheads like you keep writing them? Aesthetic, yes—aesthetic failure.
The band’s abstraction enters only live, in the situations they create. I have suffered through a number of awful shows in the past year; at seemingly every one of them, Puttin’ on the Ritz inserted themselves as headliners, bringing the night to a crashing close. (According to their blog, in the year from the day they first played, May 8, 2004, the band played 54 shows, all in New York and mostly unannounced.)
They set up off stage, on the floor, and plug in a mic if they can; else, Rubin yells louder. Par for the course: They’re set up in front of the door. No one can leave. They’re aggressively drunk. The crowd is too scared to stop them. They start a song. Rubin hits Shea’s drums. Shea solos for two minutes. They scream at each other. Rubin throws himself onto the pool table. Shea chases Rubin. Rubin chases Shea. The crowd scatters.
The songs, if one can call them that, continue. Rubin’s voice gets worse by the minute. Shea’s drumming maintains its standards. Rubin takes off his shirt. Shea solos for three minutes. Rubin falls to the floor. The set ends. A few clap. And none boo. Is this the New York I love so much?
There’s this poverty of ambition, in terms of what rock people will do to promote their work. That’s a critical issue to me.… The great moments of rock ’n’ roll were never off in some corner of the music world, in a self-constructed ghetto. I don’t like that kind of thinking.
Progressive rock was the enemy in 1976. And it still is. And it has many, many faces. This beast is lurking everywhere. It can describe itself as indie rock. It’s the same fucking thing. It’s misery. I have seen so many great minds struck down by it.
Great groups were broken up, like the Clash, because of ridiculous concepts like not selling out. The bass player in Hole took her own life. And when they asked her Dad what happened, he said, “She was under a great deal of stress, because she’d just signed to a major.” It breaks my heart. It’s the cultural revolution in China all over again: Let’s rid rock music of thinkers, let’s rid rock music of big ideas.
The new breed are going to take over the world. But how are they going to get out of the ghetto? Answer: They make pop music, they make pop records.
—Bono to Greg Kot, May 2005
I’ve used the word shaman to describe the rock singer, and, while that may be overstatement, shamanism should be the aspiration. It’s a responsibility, to aspire to change people’s lives through song, and it demands aesthetic distance and a kind of magic: behind the fourth wall, behind the microphone.
Bands, meanwhile, should accept the responsibility of instrumental skill, of ambition, of grandeur; thinking band and audience equal was punk’s fallacy. In real life, perhaps, but not in music. Thus does the ubiquity, the sheer ever-present smallness, of Puttin’ on the Ritz perpetuate and extend punk’s fallacy, and oppose life.
Music is the church of the secular, yet New York’s is weekly desecrated, and we sit idly by. All this sound and fury, and the nothing they signify. We need something. We need everything.
It’s worth bearing in mind Bono’s humble words in a recent interview: “What we have to offer, if we’re lucky, are lyrics, some interesting arrangements, and beautiful melody. That’s what rock music can do right now. To be relevant, to set the imagination off on a new generation coming up.”
After 9/11, the pieces of the world’s fallen capital were put back together with all the tools at rock’s disposal. Now, with the Freedom Tower yet unbuilt, and our people still lost, in Iraq and at home, we need more of this spirit glue. Guitar melody and lyrics that set your imagination aflame—that’s what New York rock has offered, and what, for the future, it can.
We know how rock ’n’ roll Howard Dean’s scream really was, and now, we see, he has the DNC. But still, it seems, New York rock and the Democrats are scared of success. We see imperialism wherever we look and so shy away from power. What we need now is a masterpiece.