Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Cobble Hill Mafia: An Encounter

There aren’t many places in my section of Brooklyn that are actually noire, which to me means “ambient with mystery or potential intrigue.” My neighborhood is usually a sedate sort of place where even the whiff of potential sociopathic activity would be out of keeping with its stroller-friendly, artisanal grocery store type vibes. In fact I sometimes wonder why I, at the age of 23, live in a place so amenable to the raising of children, a place that looks and feels older than I feel or wish I could feel—in other words, a place unique for its total lack of spontaneity. Any number of times I’ve strolled through Williamsburg and found myself in a place I never planned on going to: sucked for an hour into the whimsical quicksand of a bookstore that sells nothing but zines, drawn trance-like into a motorcycle repair shop where a three-piece punk band played its heart out for ten or fifteen people, who, like me, had probably been walking down the street, and were unable perhaps on the level of instinct to simply ignore the rhythmic artillery fire emanating nearby. This would never happen in Cobble Hill. Nothing fun or interesting happens by surprise here.

This bar wasn’t noire per se, but it was the only one in the neighborhood that could sometimes feel noire. It’s a dim, cash-only sort of place near the subway, mostly empty on a Tuesday night, staffed by a stocky, slightly dwarvish Mexican and a shaved, corn-stalk hipster in suspenders. A mismatched pair, communicating in furtive sentences of badly-accented Spanish, and, jarringly, unaccented English. Not a busy night, so the hipster would disappear into and then re-appear from a back closet every few minutes, leaving a rare scene, at least in these parts, during his temporary absences—a single, aproned bar-back stoically presiding over a fancy cocktail bar, hard bop and 70s calypso and Afrobeat playing softly but somehow anxiously from a single stereo, a cold draft blowing in from an open back door, conversation absent or whispered to the point of instant sonic evaporation. Sometimes you get a dreary feeling sitting in a bar like this on a weeknight, like who are these people and why are they here, and why am I here, and what drove me here, and why this languidness, this static quiet, this sense of nothing happening or about to happen, in senses both more and less immediate, or senses more and less, how to put it, existential? But sometimes this dreariness gives way to the occasional and for a moment overpoweringly weird and weirdly promising tableaux —i.e. the Mexican presiding over the bar, without the authority to pour or mix a drink for his six or seven customers, all of whom were sitting almost in the dark, clutching or staring into highball glasses or cocktail glasses and hunching to avoid exposure to the wind blowing through the back door.

I wasn’t there alone, of course. We were coming back from the Village and the girlfriend insisted I have a look at the jukebox, which was quite an impressive jukebox actually: a half-dozen Chess records compilations, an ethnographic oddity or two (there are at least 12 Chilean early-70s psychedelia tracks in existence, apparently), and a couple of records that were just wildly out of place: a Budos Band full-length, for instance. Donning my ethnomusicological hat for a moment, the jukebox seemed aimed at constructing a certain cosmopolitan classiness tethered more to a worldly sense of urbanity than to one particular region or time-period. I guess I’m trying to say that it had a lot of world music and jazz. My girlfriend says that she imagined that if I could design my ideal jukebox it would look quite like this one. Neither an accurate nor particularly inaccurate description, so I assume it was meant as a compliment.

Anyway, I was nursing a Manhattan at the bar while the girlfriend was browsing the jukebox when a couple of wiseguys walked in. One walk down Court St. and you understand intuitively that wiseguys still exist in this neighborhood: how else to explain the existence of the Marco Polo, an expensive and altogether mediocre restaurant with a secretive upstairs dining room—and a downstairs dining room that is always, but always totally empty? Or how to explain the persistently old-timey Italiany feel of a neighborhood as succofactingly yuppified as this one? I mean look, I’m not saying that Caputos or Cusamano’s funeral parlor are part of some violent criminal enterprise or another, or that this neighborhood’s unusual preponderance of native Italian speakers in their 60s and 70s means that organized crime has a presence here. And I realize that, if you read the past couple of sentences like really closely, you’ll see that I actually imply that organized crime is caused by the presence of Caputo’s, Cusimano’s, Italian-speaking old folks, etc. But I don’t want to say this. What I want to say that it’s immediately obvious that some of the Italians and some of the old world immigrant spirit that showed up in the neighborhood in the 20s or 30s or even earlier never really left. Who’s to say what stuck behind with them (or with it), or what part of this neighborhood’s 20s or 30s character still endures? Cobble Hill is so palimpsestic, such a sometimes-personality-free tangle of social and economic and ethnic enclaves (the yuppies, the Yemenites, the hipsters, the yupsters, the Italians, the folks from the public housing development on Hoyt St.) as to make an answer to this question utterly impossible to arrive at.

But you can intuit an answer. You just sorta know there’s something organized-crime-y afoot. When a Genovese associate slashed the owner of Lucali at the corner of Smith and Carroll a week ago, the only thing shocking about it was the way in which the neighborhood’s unseemly underbelly started to bleed into its yuppified exterior. That was unexpected. Yuppies love the shit out of Lucali. Place is packed every night. But the fact of the owner of a Cobble Hill Italian restaurant having his faced slashed in broad daylight on the busiest street of an otherwise-safe, otherwise-boring neighborhood was not in itself particularly surprising.

Anyway, the wise guys. They were muscular and slightly squat and very clean-smelling, but they didn’t reek of cologne or seem as if they were trying to smell clean, more as if they’d just gotten out of the shower, or actually, more as if they possessed a freshness, an innate sort of hygiene that’s endemic to gangsters of a certain class, or endemic to gangsters of a certain class patronizing a joint of a certain class. And they were polite, but in a menacingly passive-aggressive sort of way, menacing passive-aggression being one the chief skills of a mobster who can really inhabit the part, at least in my own mind. For instance, they shook the hipster’s hand before they ordered their drinks. I had never seen this before. Who does this—who shakes the hand of a service employee who is not a friend or acquaintance of some kind? Why this familiarity, this familiarity that might not even be familiarity? It seemed like a threatening gesture, an establishment of a kind of icily conditional collegiality, or of a power relationship whose terms the hipster was powerless to dictate. I think one of the wiseguys ordered a vodka tonic and the other a vodka cranberry, after they were done shaking hands. The bartender disappeared for a bit.

I don’t know what the wiseguys were talking about, even thought I was sitting right next to them. The girlfriend swears it was something about beating or at best harassing a woman, and she was so scared or curious or both that she pretended to review the contents of the entire jukebox two or three times, even though she was, in spite of not being in any physical danger herself, too paralyzed by the whole situation to arrive at a selection. But I couldn’t tell. They spoke with a cadence, with a tone that suggested that they were used to speaking so as not to be understood or heard, even by people sitting directly next to them. Theirs was a language of evasion and secrets, and I would steal a glance at them every now and then, just to study their body language, their unsmiling faces, their short, greaseless hair, the oddly detached way in which the shorter one rocked back and forth, pivoting on the balls of his feet, or I’d catch the taller one’s lazy stare over the small cluster of bar patrons, all of whom were too busy gazing into their drinks to notice that they were in the presence of two actual, genuine mobsters. They weren’t exactly dressed like gangsters though, or not dressed like the traditional stereotype of a gangster, at least. They weren’t ostentatious at all, and they both wore a matching ensemble of white shirts and dark, casual pants, as if their gang had a dress code or something.

I fidgeted with a hairclip that I’d found on the bar and had assumed to be girlfriend’s, although she later told me that it wasn’t hers.

The bartender returned.

“I put just a splash of cranberry in there. And some extra vodka.”

“Thank you very much” the shorter one said. Again the menacing politeness. The hipster, I should add, didn’t seem the least bit unnerved by all this. He knew exactly who these fuckers were, knew them by demeanor, although not, I think, by name. The taller one then placed a 100 dollar bill on the table, although he didn’t really place it on the bar, he just sort of set it on its side perpendicular to the bar and cupped it in its hand. I’ve only seen four $100 bills in my life, and two of them were in the same drawer in a college friend’s dorm room. My initial thought at seeing these two dudes, basically a “fuck, could these guys be mobsters?” metastasized into certainty as soon as I saw the bill, which hardened into absolute, lead-pipe certainty when the bill immediately disappeared from view and the bartender refused both that and any further payment.

“Mind if we sit in a booth?” the short one asked, in what is in retrospect the most ominous part of this entire episode: these guys don’t have to ask permission to sit in a corner booth. They know this. The bartender knows this. But asking an unnecessary question is a way of normalizing the whole situation, but in a way that inadvertently or perhaps all too advertently highlights how fucked up the whole situation actually is: “Mind if we sit in a booth?” could be translated as “we’re gonna sit in a booth and do whatever the hell we want, and remind you and every other customer who really runs this place.” But the option of saying no—a false option, a fraudulent option, a lie—at least reinforces the fiction that the bartender is still in control. But he isn’t.

So they walked to their booth, and the girlfriend and I gulped our Manhattans because we were pretty eager to leave at that point. What sort of a city did I live in? An unavoidable thought during the walk back to the apartment, which was shorter than perhaps I was comfortable with, given what we’d just seen. This is a city where hipster-friendly cocktail bars still pay protection money to the mob; worse, it’s a city where something like that could be thought of as a signifier of authenticity, a last, enduring outpost of urban grit in a neighborhood blighted by expensive French bistros and boutique pet stores and bars with growler service, whatever the fuck a growler is. How dare I think for even a second that that was cool, I thought during the walk home. How dare I.

I think this would go well with this post:

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Charlie Megira, Dirty Beaches and the Meaning of Lo-Fi: An Inquiry

So if I can keep the Israel theme going--my favorite bar in Jerusalem was (and I guess still is) a cozy yet slightly divey little spot called Uganda. It's crammed into a little alleyway a block or two down from Kikar Tsiyon and attracts few of the personality types that have conspired to pollute the rest of the Ben Yehuda/Rehov Yaffo-area bar scene--there are no disaffected Yeshiva kids, no arsim or guidos, no drunk 16 year olds. I'm not sure I ever saw more than twenty or thirty people in there at a time. It was this, and not the place's audacious yet almost effortless hipness (this in a city where audacious yet effortless hipness is more or less a wasted accomplishment), that explained why my study abroad friends and I ended up there so often, usually after getting fed up with the creepers and Rockland County fucks who lurked at Egon or Zolli's or Goldy's. But the place's Bedford Avenue vibe, so uncanny in a city like Jerusalem, was always sort of comforting to me, so I'd sometimes find myself there in the middle of the afternoon, pouring over the crates of independent records that cluttered a niche near the bathroom. Using a dusty combination turntable/CD player the bar made available to its customers, I'd spend hours trying to get a handle on Israel's alternative scene, which apparently consisted of artists like mindripping crypto riot-grlls Plastic Venus (see above), genius minimalist composer Cherly KaCherly and the brilliant DJ Caress, who sounds like he could be a rogue member of The Avalanches or some shit.

But the Israeli artist who impressed me the most was Charlie Megira, a songwriter who, I realized about halfway through my third or fourth pint of Teybeh, had reached that Holy Grail of the lo-fi: the creation of music that serves as something more than the semi-ironic re-appropriation of an outdated sonic ethos, but that seems to exist outside of musical history itself.

Slow down, right! Well allow me to explain: the past few years of lo-fi have been a sonic race to the bottom (production-wise at least), as well as a backwards regression to the origins of alternative music. I think an artist like Ariel Pink, who produced the bulk of his recorded work in 2002 and 2003 (I think), represents the beginning of this trend. Unlike an archtypal lo-fi act like Guided by Voices--who seldom evince any awareness of a world outside of that laundromat basement where Bee Thousand was recorded--Pink is clearly attempting to comment on some previous musical trend. So his music is acid-washed 70s and 80s cheese that sounds eerily dislocated in the present, the sort of thing you'd be momentarily horrified but then weirdly comforted to randomly pick up on your car radio in the middle of Illinois.

But other lo-fi artists don't even seem to care about eerie dislocation, or about the intimacy that comes with absolute creative insularity (insularity, by the way, is crucial. The best lo-fi, i.e. Bradford Cox or Jeff Mangum's home recordings or classic-period GBV, is lo-fi because its creators seemed too wrapped up in other aspects of the songwriting process to give a shit about production values). Indeed, Bee Thousand is one of my favorite albums because of its intimacy--you're sitting right there in that fucking laundromat basement, right between the tape recorder and the 30-rack, watching Robert Pollard and Tobin Sprout rip into one four-chord nonsense poem after another. That's what listening to Bee Thousand is like. What is listening to Wavves like, other than annoying after awhile? Is it like anything? How 'bout Best Coast, whose music is retro and breezy and utterly meaningless? Both bands can be summed up in a sentence or two: "lo-fi imitation of 60s beach rock."

Keep the concept, but lose the production values and backtrack about a decade or so, and you get this:

Dirty Beaches. They're pretty hip now. Pitchfork gave their EP an 8.2. But they do nothing for me. Megira, who threw his own 50's style surf-rock beach party like, five fucking years ago, is part of the reason why:

When I first heard Megira's Joy Divison-esque Charlie Megira Und Hefker Girl (which must be one of the most underrated albums of the past decade) I wasn't sure if he was a new artist or an old artist, if he was an Israeli or an American, if he was one guy or ten guys, if he was signed to a label or was just some post punk-obsessed self-distributed crank. I didn't care. Like Guided by Voices, the raspy, cassette-tape quality of the recording spoke to something that couldn't possibly be located in space or time as we currently understand it; something that was totally insular, confined to a basement or garage or a single musician's imagination. On the other hand, the long, lazy guitar swells, the distorted singing voice, those lyrics that were cryptic but not cryptic to the point of total meaninglessness, the AM-radio fuzz--it all jarred me like a cry emitted over an indeterminately vast distance. Great lo-fi can be simultaneously immediate and impenetrable, as GBV and I guess maybe Ariel Pink but especially Charlie Megira have taught me.

Megira's 50s-style dalliances didn't have quite as powerful an effect as Hefker Girl or Bee Thousand, although fuzzed-out sock hop music sung in Hebrew with the occasional country blues breakdown is just a disorienting and weird combination. Gimmicky, sort of. But Megira is a preternaturally talented songwriter, and unlike Dirty Beaches, he isn't satisfied exploring one riff or sound or piano phrase at a time. There's a restlessness to his music, a constant urge to move on to something different or new--Fragmentim Rock n' Rollim, Megira's most "50s" album, contains eight tracks (out of 25 total) that are under 1:30.

Which is all another way of saying that Megira wants to be something more than just a throwback, which is something that can't be said about the latest, hippest crop of lo-fi artists.

More Megira:

Your City is Still a Wonder Town

A caveat: the new version of this blog won't be nearly as interesting as the old version of this blog. For one thing, I'm no longer in Israel. And if I were, I don't think there'd be quite the character of bewilderment rubbing against travelogue-style pretension and self-assurance that was the hallmark of YCIWT's initial 12-post, three-week run in January of 2009. If I were banging out 2,000-word blog items in the basement of the Conservative Yeshiva, rather than on the third floor of a walkup in Cobble Hill, I'd have no war or national election to follow as I did that January, and the naiivete reflected in the blog's previous output (a post entitled "War? What War?" is a prime example) would likely give way to something drearily, even monotonously critical of everything and everyone around me. The taste of cardammom in my coffee would become less and less pronounced; the wait for the 19 bus would be a tedious fact of life, rather than the anthropological bonanaza I once treated it as (which isn't to say that it wasn't an anthropological bonanza...). So I hope all zero of you keep your expectations low.

To be perfectly honest, I'm restarting this blog because I'm actually deathly afraid of blogging, which is to admit that since freshman year of college I've lived in a sort of mortal fear of a blog I maintained between mid 2003 and early 2007. Shit, I think to myself when my limited powers of self-discipline fail, and I find myself wandering the spiritual/physical/cyber exclusion zone in the middle of which sits the once-vaunted Personal Daily Hell. Shit. This work, this product of juvenile intellectual tumult that seems relatively alien to me now, this product of someone who actually thought he like, understood Dead Souls when he read it as a freshman in high school-- was the product of a different person that just happened to have the same body and name as me. But it's not mine. I can't explain how it got there or why. And I certainly can't reproduce it, or even anything like it. Call it performance anxiety.

But performance anxiety of a very certain type. For me, the blogging enterprise is a grim reminder of the aforementioned schizo-temporal nature of life; of the fact that the "self" is something that you have depressingly little power to shape or control. Even that other, now amber-clad self, the one that wrote hundreds of still-extant blog posts during high school, is a mystery to me, and if I thought enough about this--about my sense of alienation from the person/state of mind that produced the best writing I've ever produced--my failure to understand him would become a source of embarrassment and perhaps even a source of something with a more than passing resemblance to insanity. But I don't worry about this as much as I used to, and now I feel I can blog again.

The other reason I'm restarting this blog is that I've recently been disabused of the notion that my writing is worth anything in the fiduciary sense. This is just as well, I think. Back at the PDH, I gave my work away to free for the 5-10 close friends who actually read it on a weekly basis, and my creative life has been relatively stagnant ever since. Maybe--just maybe--the problem is that during my long break from blogging I attached too much of the wrong kind of value to the wrong kind of creative enterprise, and the only payment I really want or need for my efforts is the sense that they're not going totally to waste. Of course, money's like, important, and there are few ego-boosters greater than getting paid for something I've written (and no ego booster greater than getting paid for something I've written that was actually like, worth paying for). But ego and money carry their own sets of rules and limitations that I'm frankly better off without, as far as serious writing goes. Hence my decision to restart a personal blog that I'm sure very few people will find or read.

NB: Readers of my last blog might remember me putting a quote at the end of every post. How 'bout some music instead? Starting with this website's namesake: