Sunday, July 21, 2013

Auld New York Town

This past weekend, I got down to the West Village, what I remember as the old Waverly movie theater (now the IFC something or other), to catch a screening of the Big Star documentary, which I enjoyed greatly.  Lord knows, I moved to New York in the late 80s because of Manhattan, and for the next 15 years or so spent all my spare time there: movies, bands, museums, bars, etc.

Getting into my 40s and more set in my routines, mainly the gym, I got out of the habit of spending all my spare time in Manhattan and now do so rarely.  I usually wait for movies to come out on DVD, the live music scene in Manhattan has been decimated compared to previous decades (mostly migrating to Brooklyn), I realized I don’t like museums, and I don’t drink all that much anymore.  (When I do, it’s more likely to be a few at happy hour to allow myself a normal night instead of a drunken 3 AM subway ride … which I have done far too many times.)

What struck me most walking around the West Village is that, aside from the urge to see a cool documentary … I had no urge to be there.  Tower Records on Broadway and Fourth, where I spent countless hours buying phenomenal records and CD’s?  It’s now the Major League Baseball Fan Cave.  The second floor appeared to be a gym.

Back in the 80s, even the 90s, it was a given that I’d find myself in some part of the Village, all the time.  Knew its shortcuts and back streets.  Shinbone Alley was my favorite.  I don’t know who can afford to live there anymore.  In terms of artists, only successful ones, for sure, or somehow connected financially.  The tenor of the place has changed, as it often does in the city, usually more subtly.  Of course, in the 80s, it cost too much to live there, too … which is why I’ve never lived there!

But it seems like in the past few years, the concept of material wealth and stature has completely overwhelmed Manhattan.  Used to be you could find pockets of that old, gritty New York, of the 70s and earlier, when the city nearly went broke.  Particularly in the East Village, but I’ve spoken to people who used to live there, and they all got priced out in the 00’s.  I know very few people who live in Manhattan now, and most of them are living in very small spaces for rents you don’t want to know about.

In an email to an old friend who loves the historical aspects of NYC, I noted something weird that doesn’t give most people reason to pause but strikes me as stunning: there are no more working-class white people living in Manhattan.  Very few, I’m sure.  Because of the spiraling rents, and the projects, the only places you will find working-class people, being more traditionally non-white.  I notice this more because I was raised in a white, rural, working-class area.  And I know when I’m around “my people.”  My people aren’t around Manhattan!

Any given day in Manhattan, there will be thousands of working-class white people there, but only as workers coming in from the outer boroughs, Jersey or upstate New York.  They don’t live there … they can’t afford it.  Once upon a time?  Entire neighborhoods were filled with working-class whites.  Used to be Polish and German enclaves on the upper East side.  The Irish were all over Manhattan until the post-war suburban boom kicked in.  Ditto the Italians.  There might still be some stubborn Jews hanging in there down around Delancey Street and such, but not many.

(Sidenote: if it’s still available, check out the 1974 movie Law and Disorder starring Ernest Borgnine and Carroll O’Connor as two middle-aged neighborhood guys who decide to form a neighborhood auxiliary police group, with disastrous results.  I always assumed the setting was Co-Op City in the Bronx, or maybe Queens.  No … it was around Delancey Street as the actual street names are mentioned in the movie.)

Am I the only person who finds it strange that an entire class and color of people have no place in Manhattan?  I think this skews the view a lot of Manhattanites have of not just working-class white people, but working-class people of any color.  They have no connection to them, other than to either marvel at their baseness, or fear them in some deep-seated sense.  I’m often aware that white-collar/white folks in the city, when they find themselves around working-class whites, are not just standoffish, but vaguely fearful of them … probably because they spend so little time around them.  And there are actually white people out there who didn’t get the memo that we’re all supposed to be highly-educated and well-off financially.

It doesn’t perplex me – I can see how it happened over the course of decades.  But it does make me wonder if I’m the only one who notices how strange this is.

I wouldn’t say the honeymoon is over with New York and me, but as I look around at New York circa 2013, I ask myself: how long am I going to be able to afford to live here?  And I don’t just mean Manhattan.  It seems like every traditionally white neighborhood in the outer boroughs, including mine, the rents and property values keep pushing upwards.  Honestly, at this point in my life, I’m open to suggestions!  I make reasonably good money – most places in America, I’d be doing well.  Here … it’s like I’m on the verge of being a pauper.  I have no idea how people live here who surely make less than I do.

What does perplex me is this push for so many people to converge on New York these days when there doesn’t seem to be any reason other than to do so as a status symbol.  People used to move here for artistic reasons.  Or to escape.  To find this wild, crazy place where people made their own rules.  That’s not New York anymore.  As noted with Manhattan, you get a wild hair up your ass to move here … it won’t be there, unless you’re well-funded.  There is no burgeoning music scene.  Or Algonquin-style literary group.  I would hope there is still some kind of art scene that encourages people to be here.  But the writing aspect, thanks to the web, isn’t as centralized as it once was.  Outside of Silver Cup Studios in Queens, movies rarely get made here anymore … it’s too expensive.

I’m intensely aware of that sense of materialism overwhelming New York, and, boy, I don’t like it, as you could guess!  I’m not kidding myself – it’s always been a highly materialistic place.  It’s the nature of the city.  But it also used to be the nature that every strata of society could function here, too, with its place, with a tolerable way of life that may have seemed crazy to outsiders, but was entirely manageable to those who knew how to live it.  There still is … but it’s surely going to be diminished as time goes on here.  It feels like everything is being reduced to the level of the rich and very rich, and the subsidized poor, being the only ones who will be left, as anyone in between, sooner or later, will be priced out.

That seems nuts to me, hopefully impossible, but I’m honestly not so sure these days.  Maybe it’s my age, and the irritating effect that being around blind ambition for so long has had on my soul, but I still value that simple sense of going about life, of being open to it, that sort of innocence you can have at any age that seems to be the antithesis of all this status seeking.  That thing is crucial to anyone who creates art of any sort, even if it’s only something like this.  It can peacefully co-exist with the urge to make money and do well for one’s self.  But not when the ability to simply live in a place becomes overwhelmed by financial concerns.

I had to leave the small town to see what else was out there, but that small town never had to leave me.  And it hasn’t.  I can’t shake that upbringing, and I don’t want to.  The concept of chasing money has never made sense to me because I was raised around people who were perfectly comfortable in their own working-class skins and felt no need to impress anyone else.  God, I love the sense of self that my father had, that the guys we worked with in the factory had, they understood this in their blood.  That you should be able to have a place where you can work for a living, and get by.  Not get rich, but be able to have some type of personal happiness that has nothing to do with how much money you are or aren’t making.

This has all got to stop someday.  I though the economy nearly collapsing a few years ago was a sure sign that things were changing, had to change, could no longer function this way as a nation, as a people.  But doesn’t that seem like a speed bump now?  Maybe that was the warning sign that we need to change how we live, the things we value?  Maybe it was nothing … even though it sure seemed like we were on the edge of a new Depression at the time.

It seems like we go through these massive events every now and then – be it 9/11 or the near collapse of the world’s economy – and what changes?  I’m sure things have changed as a result of both – there are lot of people who went unemployed for long periods of time and still could be now.  But walking around Manhattan in my spare time, just quietly taking mental notes, I can assure you, it’s business as usual around these parts.  I don’t get it, but I never really have.  That’s more personal values than lack of understanding.  I do get that I’ve lived here just over 25 years, and it wasn’t until the past few years that I’ve sensed how crazy this all is.  It’s not a direction any sane place should be moving.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

It's a Prog-Rock Life

I’ve been reading Yes Is the Answer, a book by various authors/musicians writing about their lifelong love of prog rock, and it’s a fun read.  For decades, it was considered profoundly uncool to admit even liking prog rock, not something you’d want to do if you wanted to be considered cool (cough, by people who never have been and never will be cool, cough).

It’s the usual suspects in terms of the most popular bands: Yes, Genesis and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.  Some good takes on the Canterbury scene in England.  But about halfway through the book and no one taking chances on bands like Kansas or early Styx.  Hell, if they’d have tapped me for the assignment, I would have broken rank and written up The Alan Parsons Project, who weren’t strictly prog, but leaned close enough on early albums to be in the same ballpark.  More importantly, they were pompous enough on all their concept albums to qualify.  (Rock bands who routinely did concept album may not have been prog, but chances are a teenage prog fan would have those albums and feel the same sense of pride in owning them.)

For a long time, admitting you liked prog was like admitting that you masturbated as an adult.  One of those topics no one wants to get into, but come on, now.  Let’s not talk about it.  But it’s there.  If not something that dramatic, then think more of wearing pajamas with feet.  You missed out on some serious component of adulthood that left you forever acting like some dislocated suburban 15-year-old with anti-social tendencies.

The reality is, punk fans, who will openly admit as much and be greeted warmly by the world at large (punk helped dethrone prog as a trend), have always struck me as being much more immature and clinging to teenage values than adults who could admit they loved prog in their formative years.  The unabashed prog fans I’ve known tend to listen to all kinds of music, and still listen as adults, often branching off into classical, jazz, and other types of music that please them as much as prog once did.  And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across adults who grew up on punk … and just sort of stayed there the rest of their days.  They could wear that warm blanket of “hip” acceptance forever.

It always seemed like a bum rap to me.  I understood the attitude in the 70s and 80s, when it seemed somehow necessary for a lot people to forget their prog leanings of earlier years, not with a tasteful burial at sea, but by driving a stake through its heart and letting everyone know just how wrong they were.  Obviously, displays like that denote a sense of bitterness and misunderstanding that suggests the person will double-back on himself one day and realize how harshly he over-reacted.

A lot of people seem to be doing that now with prog.  For a simple reason … some of it is pretty god-damned good.  I’ve never lost touch with Yes, probably the best-known and best prog band, because back then as much as now, I can hear the strands of so many different influences coming through clearly, played by great musicians who were doing things your average musician couldn’t.  That was part of the problem: prog was perceived as being overly arrogant and full of itself, not just the bands, but the fans, too.  I ran into this quite a bit with Rush fans in the early 80s, guys who could quote Neil Peart’s lyrics like Bible verse, never once realizing how imbecilic they sounded.  I got it that Neil Peart was a smart guy … and was mildly offended that some guy who wasn’t as smart as Neil Peart was trying to beat me over the head with his goofy lyrics.  That was punk’s appeal when it rolled around: it poked holes in that sort of teenage pomposity.

But stripped of the pomposity … there was just some really good music going around.  Was Pink Floyd prog?  On some level, definitely, but they’re the best example of a band breaking out of the prog label and reaching a larger audience simply because their music was so good.  Peter Gabriel-era Genesis tends to get a free pass, too, because of Gabriel and his solo career that found him first going more pop/rock in a very good way, then veering into world music and such.  He probably got it right more than anyone in prog – he used it as a starting point for musical exploration rather than considering it a home base.  “Solsbury Hill” is the sound of a man breaking free in any number of senses, but for him and those first two albums, he was clearly breaking away from the artiness and heaviness of prog and what Genesis represented to him.

Why now?  Not so much now, but it seems like over the past few decades the burning “dick” factor associated with prog has lessened considerably.  When The Lord of the Rings movie series rolled around, that sort of Tolkien-esque take on things that was so much of prog was openly accepted by millions of movie-goers.  So many sci-fi movies of the past few decades have a definite prog-rock feel to them.  (My favorite is Children of Men.)  And there have been a whole bunch of prog bands that have sprung up through the 90s and 00s and created their own scene that seems analogous to the jam-band scene.  And you have bands like Muse who were clearly influenced by prog … and are pretty good at what they do.

That level of talent can’t be denied these days.  It could be back then because there was so much other talent going full gun at the same time.  Many critics have looked down on the California scene of the 70s, but the truth was acts like The Eagles, Jackson Browne and Fleetwood Mac were very good at what they did, and rewarded accordingly, maybe too much at the time.  Springsteen?  Talking Heads?  Elvis Costello?  Bowie?  Sparks?  Lou Reed?  Roxy Music?  Television?

That’s just off the top of my head.  There were scores of great band and recording artists in the 70s.  Prog losing steam as the 70s wore on wasn’t mourned or noticed so much because there was so much other great music to take its place.  Things are so fractured and marketed these days that there really isn’t that overwhelming sense of one type of music giving way to another.  Which is a shame in one sense that we no longer seem to have recognizable movements in music, or certain cities that take on relevance because a group of bands are from there and reaching greatness at the same time.  But not so bad in that if you know where to look and are willing to expend some effort, you can find music to suit your tastes floating around out there.  I never had to work this hard in the 70s: work implied picking up the latest issues of Creem and Rolling Stone, and listening to the radio.  If I didn’t hear it on there, I could surely read about it in a handful of set places, then go out and buy the record to judge for myself.

Prog makes more sense to me as an adult than it did as a kid.  I wasn’t a huge prog fan, but I certainly had albums by Yes, Genesis, ELP, Rush, The Alan Parsons Project, Kansas, Styx, etc.  That wasn’t all I bought by a longshot, and I surely didn’t memorize lyrics and quote them to people, or silly shit like that.  What I can hear now that I didn’t then was just how talented so many of these bands were, the ability not just to pick up so many diverse influences, but to weave them into some kind of whole that felt original and true.  Yes, in particular, sounded like they were firing on all guns.  I still have occasional issue with Jon Anderson’s voice and lyrics, but the musicianship is top-notch, Steve Howe on guitar, in particular, the guy could play any type of music and nail it.

I also think these bands took a shellacking from critics because most rock critics were too intimidated to approach jazz and were resentful of it as a result.  Which was a mistake, but one that was accepted because rock was such a powerful cultural force at the time.  Prog was easier to attack because it fell under the rock umbrella, and these guys obviously were not Chuck Berry, John Fogerty or Bruce Springsteen – probably looked down their noses at these rough-hewn geniuses – and not being able to simply rock like that did them in.  Jazz was considered bullshit by so many rock critics and fans, which was a tremendous insult, but no one took it that way or cared at the time.

It was a certain kind of laziness of the times that helped create these issues with prog, and jazz on a larger level.  That’s probably a crucial difference between musicians and critics, aside from the obvious issue of musical talent.  I’ve found that so many musicians are into music that you’d never expect them to be into – country artists who love reggae, or classical, or jazz – but just don’t have the talent to play it, so they listen and appreciate it like the rest of us.  I’ve learned to appreciate that sort of musical open-ness, and seek it out in others.  If you spend time around critics, you’ll find that they have encyclopedic knowledge of genres they love, and a general disregard for anything else.  Part of that is they simply don’t have time to explore anything but what’s put in front of them.  Granted, it’s pretty rare to find anyone who loves every kind of music (not me, for sure), but so much of what passes for critical blind sides tends to revolve around the desire to keep working in the field, rather than take a chance and write a glowing review about a new album by a celtic band that will only appeal to its own small audience.

That’s a good distinction to make, because I’ve found a whole world unto itself with celtic music, with dozens of great, talented bands and recording artists, with their own audiences and venues to play … and they’re invisible in the overall music culture.  Which suits me fine, and I’d wager them, too, once they get over the fact that they’ll never get rich doing their thing (but might be able to make a living if they’re lucky).  Similar to prog in terms of the level of musical talent and ability required to play their kind of music – but prog made the mistake of actually being popular for about a five-year window in the early 70s, and thus an easy target eventually.  Popular with teenagers, too.  Whenever I’ve gone to see celtic music live, it’s always been an audience of full-on adults.  (Barring bands like Black 47, who used to draw a hard-drinking crowd of twentysomething Irish Americans, I’d gather much like bands like The Dropkick Murphys do now.)  It seems to be the brutal nature of being a teenager that they must one day kill the things they love at earlier points in their development.  (Only to realize later that they still love these things and come back to them.)

But as with most genre music, I need the mood to strike to sit down and listen to it these days.  It’s more a fall/winter type of music for me, the same way celtic overtakes me in the spring, or African music or reggae sounds so much better in summer.  By the same token, prog reminds me of my youth, that awkwardness, that need to be taken seriously for the things I listened to, a sincere insecurity. 

I don’t think I’ve ever been ashamed to be a fan.  Back in the 70s in rural Pennsylvania, none of us were splitting hairs between Genesis, and Led Zeppelin, and eventually The Clash, or The Talking Heads, or The Ramones.  In fact, most kids my age flat-out rejected punk and new wave when it first rolled around, but eventually warmed up to it.  Shame seemed more like a thing a writer in a magazine would hope to inspire in prog fans reading about how pompous and goofy they were for liking that kind of music.  Pomposity and goofiness were the least of our problems, and we knew it.