Robert Lund - Man About Town
The Evolving "Scene"
The notion of a nightclub rock "scene" is kind of elusive, but I'm gonna try to talk about it a bit. I guess to most people it refers to a situation where you're likely to run into a fairly consistent group of people out on the town, usually at a limited number of hangouts, diggin' a particular kind of music, often played by a given group of performers.
I've heard a lot of talk lately, and I've noticed myself, that the "downtown NYC Scene" as perceived a few years ago is getting harder to find these days, if it exists at all. And the further back you go for the comparison, the more of a change you can see. There are no statistics on this that I know of - it's hard to pin down such a subjective concept, and people's perceptions vary as much as their personalities and lives. You've got those who say "I don't go out any more, all the bands suck;" others who get involved in other aspects of life and go out less; others who blame Giuliani; and many more. I figured I'd speculate on a few factors that might be contributing to this phenomenon.
Club decentralization - There are many more nightclubs opening up these days, giving people far more choices as to where to go. I often run across people I used to see regularly and haven't seen in months, and they've usually been hanging out at some new club I've never heard of. The result is that at the smaller number of clubs where folks used to congregate, the crowds are thinner, and things pick up when particularly popular bands are playing. There really isn't any club or party that's THE place to go these days, though some try to maintain this feeling on occasion. Looking back a couple of decades, you had focal places like Danceteria and CBGBs where people would congregate regularly. Try as some might, I don't see anything like that coming about again any time soon.
Changing downtown demographics - As Times Square has been converted to Disney world NE, and real estate building and renovation has replaced downtown cheap housing with high-priced condos and apartments, the neighborhood has become populated with an "immigrant" population eager to move to this (once) "cool" environment from whatever cool-forsaken suburb or town they hail from. Due to quickly rising rents and expenses, these tend to be more gainfully-employed persons than the funky lower echelons of society who used to fill the clubs. And many of those former party denizens have had to either (a) buckle down and find more time- and energy-consuming employment, or (b) move to an outer borough to find more affordable housing (in many cases both). This mass relocation of former Lower East Siders to faraway places like Brooklyn and Jersey City has, of course, generated a lot more club activity outside Manhattan. One of the best nights I had lately, where the crowd felt like it used to, was at the Trash Bar in Williamsburg, where several great bands played (right in the neighborhood where many of them live). It'll be interesting to see how this plays out as time goes on and the city continues to change. The frontier keeps moving (the realtors are already referring to Bushwick as "East Williamsburg" in order to attract residents). One thing is certain - at the rate things have been going over the past several years, Manhattan will be barely recognizable after another 10 or 20 years.
The decline of decadence (somewhat) - I know, decadence is an eternal phenomenon, it'll always be with us. But the institutionalized decadence of past decades seems to have subsided. It's partly due to the more rigorous law enforcement and harassment of the city, in their deplorable efforts to regulate the way people spend their free time. But face it, in the 80s (and through the 90s to some extent) drugs were much more a part of everyone's nightlife. Not that they're gone, oh no, by no means. But the number of friends just about everyone has had who've died from drugs and/or AIDS has inevitably and undoubtedly enhanced many people's awareness that they're not as invincible as once believed, and as much of that stuff still goes on, it's nothing like it used to be. Not that drugs and/or loose sex are a requirement for maintaining a Scene, but you can't deny that the energy and drive to party in that way has lessened over the years. People have to keep this in mind when they lament the passage of the "good old days."
What, then? If this sounds negative or dreary I certainly didn't intend it to be so. The idea that there's a particular Scene, where you can go out and see an expected crowd of people all partying like it's 1999 isn't necessarily something we need to cling to. We're living through cultural history here, things are changing, and we all have to adjust our expectations and what we put into a night to have a good time. Now that I don't work daily in Manhattan (for now), I don't make the commute over from Brooklyn just to "hang out." I tend to go over when a band I like is playing, still trying to remain open to new bands I've never heard of despite my vast collection of bands I know and love. I see more unfamiliar faces all the time, but I meet new people, some of whom aren't assholes. And decadence - well, after all I've been through, I'm more careful than I used to be, and it takes less to satisfy whatever decadent urges remain.
Damn, this wasn't supposed to come out like a sermon or a pep talk - I just get tired of hearing people whine about the "death of the scene" cuz things aren't the way they used to be a few months/years/decades ago. "The first one now will later be last / For the times they are a-changin'"
Let me wrap up with a couple of enthusiastic recommendations, about a couple of my favorite bands which I've seen in the past month. They're not part of the aforementioned Scene, and I haven't seen any of their members hanging out at my regular haunts, but I love 'em.
I've known Spottiswoode and His Enemies for about five years, and they keep getting better. Lead singer Jonathan Spottiswoode creates a wide variety of songs, with a style along the lines of Jim Morrison and Nick Cave, while the lyrics have the dark ironic sensitivity of Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. The basic rock music is supported by very talented musicians - at their last gig at the Living Room, trumpeter Kevin (who often cross-dresses!) added a violin; saxophonist Candace brought her clarinet (and these two provide backup harmonies); accordinist Tony also had an electric keyboard and used the upright piano at the club; lead guitarist Riley provided occasional xylophone accompaniment; and bassist John and drummer Tim rounded out the sound. Always an amazing and inspiring experience!
I also caught another show by Folk Fiction, who I've enjoyed many times since first seeing them in Nov. 2002 at a Frank Wood show. Lead singer Thera intersperses theatrical cabaret recitations between some songs, and livens up her performance with eye-catching costume changes throughout. She puts a lot of emotion into her delivery, bringing to mind a kind of Goth-Blondie style. The songs were written by her and her husband, former band guitarist Stiv Blood, who died by his own hand in Dec. 2003. I thought that might be it for the band, but Thera managed to pull it together and keeps his spirit alive through their music. Their sets include a hard-rock cover version of Harry Chapin's "Shooting Star," a poignant reminder.
Much more coming up this month and anon - check the Choice Cuts page for listings. Come out and make a Scene!