New York History pt 5: Steal This Book

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I first read Abbie Hoffman’s “Steal This Book” when I was 15, in a reissued collection of his books that coincided with early 90’s Woodstock nostalgia. Reading Hoffman’s self-styled streetwise revolutionary patter was perfect for a high school freshman, because I was young enough not to find it all totally ridiculous.

Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for Abbie Hoffman and his type of sixties radical. Societies tend to get the heroes they deserve, and so while France had the May 1968 student revolts that almost toppled de Gaulle’s government and Germany had the Baader-Meinhof gang whose demise resulted in plane hijackings and prison suicides,  it makes sense that America would have a showbiz savvy activist whose tongue was always in cheek, even if his heart was sincere. It’s hard to think what Hoffman is best known for now (besides appearing in Forest Gump). Was it temporarily stopping trading on the New York Stock Exchange by throwing a wad of money onto the trading floor from the observation level? Or when he and his fellow Yippies attempted to nominate a pig for President at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago? Or attempting to levitate the Pentagon during an anti-Vietnam war march? Regardless, there is a commonality of both theater and a healthy sense of the ridiculous in all of these actions.

But, writing Steal This Book might be Hoffman’s most famous action. A best seller and (according to Hoffman) bootlegged by the Mafia, Steal This Book is a wonderful artifact of the late 1960’s/early 1970’s.  It’s a guide to scamming and getting over on “straight society” in a more trustworthy and analogue era.  It’s very much a relic of a bilateral “us versus them” time, when the hip community of hippies was at odds with the rest of Amerika (the spelling used throughout the book) and maybe, just maybe, revolution was an actual possibility (and if not, then we could get a big place in the country and just get our heads together).

Strictly speaking, it is a guide to the hustles involved in getting free or cheap food, housing, transportation, medical care, phone service, and more. There are sections on drugs, combat techniques, and perhaps most interesting now, ones on pirate radio and phone phreaking that are a rare look into a pre-Internet hacking mindset.  Although Hoffman was from Massachusetts, and went to college there and in California, it was in New York City where he first became a nationally known figure, so it is fitting enough there is a chapter on NYC as well.

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Here are my favorite bits that due to changes either in laws, attitudes, or technology make me realize how long ago 1970 was:

Soda machines with bottles

When hitching, it’s a good idea to carry a bottle opener and a straw. You take the caps off soda bottles while they’re still in the machine and drink them dry without ever touching the bottle.

Air travel

One gutsy way to hitch a free ride is to board the plane without a ticket. This is how it works. Locate the flight you want and rummage through a wastebasket until you find an envelope for that particular airline. Shuffle by the counter men (which is fairly easy if it’s busy). When the boarding call is made, stand in line and get on the plane. Flash the empty envelope at the stewardess as you board the plane. Carry a number of packages as a decoy, so the stewardess won’t ask you to open the envelope. If she does, which is rare, and sees you have no ticket, act surprised. “Oh my gosh, it must have fallen out in the wash room,” will do fine. Run back down the ramp as if you’re going to retrieve the ticket. Disappear and try later on a different airline. Nine out of ten revolutionaries say it’s the only way to fly.

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Abortions

The best way to find out about abortions is to contact your local woman’s liberation organization through your underground newspaper or radio station. Some Family Planning Clinics and even some liberal churches set up abortions, but these might run as high as $700. Underground newspapers often have ads that read “Any girl in trouble call – -,” or something similar. The usual rate for an abortion is about $500 and it’s awful hard to bargain when you need one badly. 

Payphones

You can make a local 10 cent call for 2 cents by spitting on the pennies and dropping them in the nickel slot. As soon as they are about to hit the trigger mechanism, bang the coin-return button. Another way is to spin the pennies counter-clockwise into the nickel slot. Hold the penny in the slot with your finger and snap it spinning with a key or other flat object. Both systems take a certain knack, but once you’ve perfected the technique, you’ll always have it in your survival kit.

Subways / Slugs

DANISH 25 ORE PIECE works in 95% of all subway turnstiles. A very safe coin to use since it will not jam the turnstile. It is 5/l000th of an inch bigger than a token.

Marijuana prices

A rough scale, say, for pot is $20 an ounce, $125 a pound and $230 a kilo (2.2 pounds).

Social networking 

A good way to quickly communicate what’s coming down in the community is to build a telephone tree. It works on a pyramid system. A small core of people are responsible for placing five calls each. Each person on the line in turn calls five people and so on. If the system is prearranged correctly with adjustments made if some people don’t answer the phone, you can have info transmitted to about a thousand people in less than an hour. A slower but more permanent method is to start a Switchboard. Basically, a Switchboard is a central telephone number or numbers that anybody can call night or day to get information. It can be as sophisticated as the community can support. The people that agree to answer the phone should have a complete knowledge of places, services and events happening in the community. Keep a complete updated file. The San Francisco Switchboard (see below) puts out an operator’s manual explaining the organization and operation of a successful switchboard. They will send it out for 12¢ postage. San Francisco has the longest and most extensive Switchboard operation. From time to time there are national conferences with local switchboards sending a rep.

Fake I.D.s

Almost all I.D. cards use one or another IBM Selectric type to fill in the individual’s papers. You can buy the exact model used by federal and state agencies for less than $20.00 and install the ball in 5 seconds on any Selectric machine. When you finish the typing operation, sign your new name and trim the card to the size you want. Rub some dirt on the card and bend it a little to eliminate its newness.

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There are also parts in the book where I question how serious Hoffman was:

Stealing gasoline

Another way is to park in a service station over their filler hole. Lift off one lid (like a small manhole cover), run down twenty feet of rubber tubing thru the hole you’ve cut in your floorboard, then turn on the electric pump which you have installed to feed into your gas tank. All they ever see is a parked car. This technique is especially rewarding when you have a bus.

Using boomerangs for streetfighting

The boomerang is a neat weapon for street fighting and is as easy to master as the Frisbee. There is a great psychological effect in using exotic weapons such as this. You can buy one at large hobby stores.

Spraying people with made up drugs

LACE (Lysergic Acid Crypto-Ethelene) can be made by mixing LSD with DMSO, a high penetrating agent, and water. Sprayed from an atomizer or squirted from a water pistol, the purple liquid will send any pig twirling into the Never-Never Land of chromosome damage. It produces an involuntary pelvic action in cops that resembles fucking. Remember when Mace runs out, turn to Lace.

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The above passage should have raised the eyebrows of anyone with a modicum of common sense, even those whose LSD experience is limited to having seen The Trip. In fact, the LACE section is almost proof that much of the other parts of the book were bullshit, as Hoffman later admitted LACE was in an 1986 interview with writer Andrea Juno for a book on pranks:

We held a Press Conference and demonstrated this with live hippies who fucked in front of all the press. It was a good put-on. People who knew, knew that LACE was tongue-in-cheek. It made a lot of statements- about Mace, about the Pentagon, etc.

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Hoffman’s antics in the name of left wing activism may have made him both an FBI target and a boogieman in the hearts of Nixon’s silent majority, but Steal This Book also made him some enemies in the underground, specifically members of San Francisco’s Diggers, a group that pioneered the mixing of performance art tactics and community activism.  The Diggers saw Hoffman as someone who put his personal media profile above the needs of the movement.  As Digger Peter Coyote explained in multiple interviews taken from the Digger.org archive:

Abbie, who was a friend of mine, was always a media junky. We explained everything to those guys, and they violated everything we taught them. Abbie went back, and the first thing he did was publish a book, with his picture on it, that blew the hustle of every poor person on the Lower East Side by describing every free scam then current in New York — which were then sucked dry by disaffected kids from Scarsdale.

Digger founder Emmett Grogan put across a similar sentiment in a 1971 interview with Tom Fitzpatrick of the Chicago Sun-Times:

 “Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin have never done anything for the people,” Grogan was saying now. “He got all that stuff he put in Steal This Book from us and the only thing it did was to reveal the way poor people steal to exist.

This point is most obviously demonstrated in the section where Hoffman tells the locations of every free soup kitchen in New York. In light of the Digger criticisms, you can perfectly picture weekend hippies lining up next to Bowery bums strictly for the thrill of it:

Other free meals can be gotten at the various missions.

Bowery Mission – 227 Bowery (674-3456). Pray and eat from 4:00 to 6:00 PM only. Heavy religious orientation.
Catholic Worker – 36 E. First St. Soup line from 10:00 to 11:00 AM. Clothes for women on Thursday from 12:00 to 2:00 PM. Clothes for men after 2:00 PM weekdays. Sometimes lodging.
Holy Name Center for Homeless Men – 18 Bleeker St. (CA 6-5848 or CA 6-2338) Clothes and morning showers from 7:00 to 11:00 AM.
Macauley Mission – 90 Lafayette St. (CA 6-6214) Free room and board. Free food Saturdays at 5:00 PM. Sometimes free clothes.
Moravian Church – 154 Lexington Ave. (MU 3-4219 or 533-3737) Free spaghetti dinner on Tuesday at 1:00 PM.
Quakers – 328 E. 15th St. Meals at 6:00 PM Tuesdays.
Wayward – 287 Mercer St. Free meals nightly.

 

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At the time of Steal This Book‘s publication, criticisms were not coming from many other corners. Hoffman was a star in the underground, occupying a rare space in the American social landscape, mixing with artists, poets, writers, musicians, and political activists (and somehow having a foot in all of the above camps). He recorded an album, palled around with John Lennon, had his vasectomy filmed by Larry Rivers, and appeared on the cover of the National Lampoon.

But, there was something about the mixing of earnest (and naive) revolutionary messages and vaudeville hucksterism that began to rub people other than the Diggers the wrong way.  More criticisms coming from within the counterculture appeared a few years later when National Lampoon parodied Steal This Book in a multi-page article called Borrow This Book in their May 1973 issue.  The humor is cutting; parodying both the look of the book and Hoffman’s streetwise-dude-on-the-corner writing voice, and painting the 60’s generation as spoiled and childish.

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Original:

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Satire:

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This idea of attacking both the establishment and the underground has all the hallmarks of Michael O’Donoghue, the Lampoon writer most responsible for pushing the magazine away from a 60’s mindset and into something much more nihilistic and cynical. To O’Donoghue, John Lennon was just as legitimate a target as Richard Nixon, as he explained in a 1983 interview, “At the time, humanity was split into two groups: hippies and pigs. We could just stand in the middle and snipe.” However, the piece was not written by O’Donoghue, but by future conservative P.J. O’Rourke. Considering O’Rourke went from writing for a hippie underground newspaper in Baltimore to reviewing luxury sedans for Car & Driver in about 10 years, we can perhaps see this moment as a turning point when the younger brothers of the 60’s generation turned on their elders.

So, it took two years for Steal This Book to go from cutting edge to cornball, and by Internet-era standards that’s a lifetime.   At the time Steal This Book was written, it was rejected by countless publishers: who would want to publish a book that’s a guide to getting over and criminality?  But, every scam-centric piece of media, from the articles I read on some listserv in 1992 about getting free sodas from vending machines, to youtube videos on how to crack Photoshop, to even the dopiest list of hotel room hacks on Buzzfeed is directly descended from Steal This Book.  We have become a culture dedicated to knowing the ins and outs of every situation and getting that hidden edge (even if it’s something as mundane as the menu at In-N-Out Burger) and it can all be traced back to Steal This Book.  It opened the doors on the ideas that secret knowledge can only be secret for so long (and thus anyone can buy into the underground) and that the people who have the money and the power (aka “the establishment, man”) will always be playing a game of catch-up with the masses.

 

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“Best” Bar To Watch The Mets in NYC / Worst Article in the Village Voice

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 3.31.15 PMBrowsing the Village Voice website and seeing a headline that promised that “This Bar Is the Best Place to Watch the Mets in New York City” I clicked, thinking I’d see a piece on some firefighter bar in Brooklyn or an Irish pub in Woodside. Nope! According to the Village Voice, McFadden’s at Citi Field is the best place to watch the Mets in New York City.

This perhaps needs a little backstory for non-New York sports fans. The bar they’re referring to is not some old time neighborhood baseball joint located next to the stadium like the Cask ‘n Flagon by Fenway Park or Stan’s by Yankee Stadium, but a bar inside the stadium itself built in 2009. So, apparently, the best thing for a Mets fan to do during an away game is leave the actual neighborhood they’re in and drive or take the train to an empty stadium, walk across the vast derelict parking lot, and then drink at the bar located inside.

To make things even more exciting, the Mets’ stadium sits in Willets Point, a no man’s land, surrounded by decrepit auto body shops in an area that has neither sidewalks or a sewer system (and thus floods). Look at the screencap below, Citi Field is enclosed by train tracks, highways, and on the right side of the screen, the aforementioned tire shops and scrap yards.

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It’s hard to explain if you haven’t been there, but there are few places in New York City where you could stand and be farther from a deli, drugstore, an actual bar, or civilization than in the parking lot of Citi Field. If you don’t believe me, here’s a photo taken from Citi Field, giving you essentially the same view if you stepped outside of McFadden’s for a smoke.

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And here’s a contrasting view from Willets Point, with Citi Field in the distance:

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Looks like a lovely place for a pint and some nachos, eh? Now, imagine these same sights at midnight as you straggle across the expanse of a deserted parking lot towards the subway station, hearing the howl of junkyard dogs and the scuttling of swamp rats…  YES OUT OF ALL THE PLACES IN NYC (A CITY OF OVER 8 MILLION PEOPLE) THAT IS EXACTLY WHERE I’D LIKE TO BE… AN AREA WITH A POPULATION OF ONE

I’m not trying to put down auto body shops and the areas they’re in. I think it sucks the city is kicking them out and apparently welching on the deal.  I just think that trying to turn an area that is remote and industrial into a hotspot in order for the Mets to bleed every last dollar they can out of their fans is a terrible idea.  And if they do indeed build some bars and restaurants on the spot, God knows how much oil, antifreeze, and other chemicals have seeped into the ground for the last 70 years…

I’ve been to McFadden’s before Mets games and it sucks even then. It’s a cornball Epcot Center version of a NYC Irish bar, with 8 dollar beers and terrible food. Honestly, the only attraction I could imagine is OMG THE CHANCE TO BE ON TV.

 

The article in question lies below, with my annotations…

The site of the TBS Network’s Mets “fan cam” for the duration of the National League Championship Series, McFadden’s has in recent days become one of the most popular locations in New York City to watch the team as they chase their first championship title since 1986.

“I guess the best word to describe it would be magical,” Amani Mousa, the manager of McFadden’s, tells the Voice. “I mean, people were lining up. They would arrive early just so they could make sure that they were sitting on the side of the bar that was being taped. Everyone got so into it.”

YES, GETTING SUCKERS TO LINE UP TO DRINK IN A BAR NEXT TO CHOP SHOPS IS TRULY THE DEFINITION OF THE WORD “MAGICAL”

Though McFadden’s flagship location on 42nd Street has long existed as a near-inescapable midtown watering hole, for many New Yorkers this postseason has represented a coming-out party for the bar’s second location, at Citi Field. The saloon typically only operates when there’s a home game or special event at the stadium, but as the Mets traveled to the Windy City to challenge the Cubs, McFadden’s opened its doors so that diehard fans could root their team on from home.

“The McFadden’s location at Citi Field was chosen to showcase the excitement of the fan base during key moments of the game,” a TBS spokesperson told the Voice in an email. But as the Mets inched closer and closer to the pennant — and as second baseman Daniel Murphy set an MLB record with home runs in six consecutive postseason games — excitement turned to pandemonium and “key moments” became any excuse to show the crowd’s reaction at McFadden’s following a big play. In a city where Irish pubs can be found on nearly every street corner, you couldn’t ask for better publicity.

Better publicity for what? Anyone going to a Mets game is still going to drink there, it’s the only bar for literally miles in any direction… And anyone who is not going to a Mets game will never ever drink there…

“I think that it’s definitely assisted in people recognizing that we even exist,” Mousa says. The Mets recommended TBS use McFadden’s as the location for its fan cam, and the network first reached out to the bar before the division series earlier this month. “People all week long were coming in and saying that they were here to be a part of the experience because of what they saw on TV.”

Wait, so TBS called the Mets and asked where there was a good bar to put the fan cam, and the Mets said “The bar inside the stadium that we own!” and TBS went “Sounds good!”? And a journalist listened to someone tell him this, nodded his head, smiled and wrote it down? 

At this point, I had to double check that this article wasn’t labeled as a “SPECIAL ADVERTISING SECTION” like those weird advertorials in the Travel section for seeing the wonders of Suriname… I realize at this point the Village Voice is a glorified supermarket circular advertising specials on Halloween costumes and dad blues bars, but c’mon…

Still, thanks to the bar’s prime location and strong relationship with the team, for six years McFadden’s has been a mainstay of Mets fandom at Citi Field, even if the bandwagon is only just catching on now. During the regular season, the bar hosts autograph signings and meet-and-greets with ex-players, and patrons are able to hear the cheers of 45,000 fans from the comfort of their barstools.

I mean, Jesus… “prime location”? It’s main attraction is that it’s the last place you can be in the building before they take your ticket and security pats you down…

“Pretty much every bar in New York City tried to capitalize on this conference series and the division series and put on their happy hour specials to draw in a crowd,” Mousa says. “But people already associate McFadden’s Citi Field with the Mets, and they know that we’re the place to be before, after, and during the game.”

Drinking at McFadden’s after midnight sounds like the initiation into some sinister secret society: “The Brotherhood of the Empty Parking Lot.” Do you chase your ceremonial shot with a glass of polio water from the standing pools 100 yards away?

Next Tuesday, when Fox broadcasts Game 1 of the World Series into millions of American homes, it remains to be seen whether McFadden’s will once again be chosen to serve as the Mets’ de facto clubhouse.

“We’re the true home to Mets fans — any other bar would be like a duplicate,” Mousa says. “No disrespect to them, but you really can’t compete with us.”

DEAD. A piece of shit fake Irish bar is calling out the copycats!

I had planned to go watch Game 6 at McFadden’s on Tuesday to see for myself what kind of freaks of nature would, as supposed grown adults, go out to the hinterlands and wait on line to drink 8 dollar Bud Lights, just for a chance to possibly be seeing waving your arms and screaming at the extremely small chance that the Mets won.

But, of course the Mets fucking tanked, so I was denied that oppurtunity. Wait til next year. Let’s go Mets!

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Black Mass

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I saw Black Mass yesterday and while I don’t have time for a full review, here are some quick observations.

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First, it has to be mentioned that having Benedict Cumberbatch play William Bulger is one of most egregious miscastings I have ever seen.  Billy Bulger couldn’t possibly look more Irish, he’s essentially a living leprechaun: a round faced, sawed off runt with a twinkle in his eye.  Benedict Cumberbatch, on the hand, resembles a science experiment involving grey aliens and 500 years of good WASP inbreeding.  I would love to have seen the look on Billy Bulger’s face when he sees the toffee nosed Englishman who is meant to be him, Billy Bulger, a man who spent every St. Patrick’s Day year after year singing Irish fighting songs at his televised breakfasts in South Boston (in between jibes at other politicians and saying things like “my wife, she’s really a great kid”).  Also, Cumberbatch has to literally be a foot taller than Bulger, a man frequently referred to by Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr as “the corrupt midget.”   If you remove the Napoleon complex from Bulger, you are basically left with a blank slate.

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There’s a later scene in the movie where we see Bulger in his  office at the State House in Boston, a room full of burnished leather furniture, old paintings, elaborate woodwork, and a large antique desk. The frisson that should be implied by what Morley Safer called “the little Irishman from Southie holding court in what was once the preserve of the Protestant Brahmin” in a 1992 60 Minutes piece is completely lost with Cumberbatch’s aristocratic head sitting behind the desk.  Instead of looking like the scrappy project rat who crawled his way to the top, Cumberbatch looks like the bit player in some Masterpiece Theater period piece who’s about to pick up the phone and tell his servant to bring him some fresh scones.

In addition, Cumberbach’s accent is particularly confusing as he sounds a bit like someone from the North of Ireland with a little FDR and W.C. Fields thrown in. It’s possibly the worst Boston accent on film, maybe even worse than Martin Sheen’s in The Departed (similar to the way that the voice of Chewbacca was made by mixing the sound of roaring bears with barking sea lions, the voice of Martin Sheen in the Departed was made by mixing John F. Kennedy with a braying donkey).

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On the bright side, Joel Edgerton is great as Whitey’s FBI handler John Connolly. Edgerton claimed that “rather than try to master a generic Boston accent, he studied footage and recordings of John Connolly” and clearly that work paid off. He captures Connolly’s backslapping bonhomie and swagger, perfectly encapsulating a certain type of Bostonian.  Just as places have accents, they also have mannerisms. To portray someone from Southern California requires more than just a dudeish accent, it also requires laid back body language. When you play someone from New York, you should look and move as if you’ve ate thousands of slices of pizza, hailed hundreds of late night cabs, and jumped a turnstile or two.  Playing someone from Boston is harder to put into neat cliches, but whatever it requires, Edgerton captures it. There are very few actors not from Boston who can portray someone from Boston believably (Jeremy Renner’s work in both The Town and Louie are wonderful examples) and Edgerton can be added to that short list.

Edgerton’s performance aside, the movie never really feels like Boston. Certainly the locations are there, everyone aside from Cumberbatch and Corey Stoll (as federal prosecuter Fred Wyshak) seem to doing their best at talking Boston, but mentions of Red Sox tickets and Joe DiNucci aside, it sort of feels like it could be anywhere.  It feels like ANY sort of crime docudrama grafted onto Boston.

1.18.00 The bad guys (bulger and flemmi). DO NOT GIVE OUT. Saved in wednesday, photo6, and library.

Ultimately though, that’s not what dooms this movie. The problem is, it’s too milquetoast; it’s not really any particular type of movie and doesn’t take any moral stance. Despite how it appeared in the trailer, it’s not an energetic Scorsese crime flick. Although the systematic corruption in the FBI is touched upon, it doesn’t fully condemn it, like say All the President’s Men. Despite claims of accuracy, it’s not a document of what REALLY happened, either. For example, the portrayal of Stevie Flemmi was particularly terrible. Stevie Flemmi plead guilty to ten murders and was in every way Whitey Bulger’s match in psychopathy, but the movie portrays him as some moody, chubby, sad sack who’s just going along with Whitey, in both becoming an FBI informant and murdering women. The irony is rich because in both points, Flemmi was the leader. Flemmi had a informant relationship with the FBI that was almost a decade old before Whitey became an informer, so showing him as being surprised by Whitey’s reveal is dumb. Also, although the movie shows Whitey and Flemmi murder Flemmi’s stepdaughter/girlfriend Deborah Hussey, it also again shows Whitey to be the initiator. What the movie neglects to mention is this is the second of Flemmi’s girlfriends to be murdered by the pair in a span of a few years. From that info alone, one could concur that it was Flemmi who was the issue there, not Whitey. So, the note of having Flemmi seem remorseful over that murder rings false to me. On a similar note, the idea of showing Whitey pushed over the edge after the death of his son, when at that point Whitey already had many murders under his belt (as that death occurred at the height of the South Boston gang wars between Whitey’s Killeen gang and the Mullen gang) seems farfetched as well.

I just wish that instead of doing a standard 70’s period piece, they had played a little looser with it. Show us Whitey growing up in the first housing project in Boston during the Great Depression, raised by a father who lost an arm working on the docks. Or show Whitey running off to join the circus during the dawn of World War 2. Show us teenage Whitey’s first petty crimes. Indulge in some hokey special effects to portray Whitey’s 50 or so LSD trips taken at Alcatraz as part of the MKUltra program. Shit, show Whitey canoodling in prison with his rumored Native American lover, the Choctaw Kid.  Anything but another retread 70’s gangster movie.

 

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March 2015: Grime Update

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The best thing I can say about grime in 2015 is that it isn’t 2014 anymore, so I won’t have to read anymore “GRIME IS BACK!” articles. It was lazy to begin with, and ignores the fact that labels like Butterz and Oil Gang have been going on for 5 years at this point. Hopefully, small labels and artists can harness some momentum from whatever sort of media spotlight grime had in 2014.

Butterz is still chugging away, and after moving towards more of a garage sound, returned to grime with Footsie’s “Scars EP.” It’s old material, but hearing this in a form other than lowbit radio rips is overdue.

Maxsta is the perfect example of an artist who deserves to profit from the renewed media attention on grime. In 2009, when he was 17, he released “East London Is Back,” which blew up huge in the grime scene, but did crickets in the mainstream world.

Maxsta signed to a major label, but nothing much happened for him. Now, in 2015, it seems like he’s returned to grime and his work rate has gone through the roof, with tons of radio appearances, youtube freestyles, and videos going up in the last few months. They’re almost all fire, but so far “New MC’s” has been my favorite:

Another young MC getting a lot of attention is Novelist and his crew The Square. Novelist definitely has the highest profile in the group and has a good ear for collabos. His 2014 track with Mumdance, “Take Time” was a great linkup between the more intellectual and dark instrumental crowd (is calling this the “Boxed” scene a bad thing?) and classic grime street vibes. The two have followed up with another tune “1 Sec”, which is less wonky than “Take Time” but still mines the same 2004 throwback squarewave sound (definitely not a bad thing). The vinyl on this is coming out in March.

I would have liked to have seen Novelist when he played NYC earlier this month with Jammer, Skepta, and JME except it was a Fashion Week afterparty and no one invited me. The idea of waiting in line outside surrounded by hypebeats when it’s brick out in NYC struck me as terrible idea. At this point Jammer and Skepta have dual citizenship so they’ll be here next time someone releases a new sneaker or Supreme has an outlet sale, but it would have been cool to see Novelist.

Darq E Freaker (producer of Tempa T’s“Next Hype” and Danny Brown’s “Blueberry (Pills & Cocaine)”) also played a Fashion Week afterparty. I saw him spin a few years back at a small spot in Williamsburg and he killed it, so would have been nice to have check what he’s up to now.

Which brings up the question, what’s up with grime artists becoming Fashion Week mascots? Like yo, I like free plane tickets too, but really… Although playing for elite audiences can be a way to build up an audience among the tastemakers and trendsetters, something tells me that in regards to grime your average Fashion Week afterparty attendee has the memory span of a goldfish.

Although there is one tastemaker who recently revealed himself to be a grime fan: your boy Drake. Last week on Instagram, Drizzy posted 3 pictures of Wiley, Skepta, Frisco, and (of all people) Devilman to his 7.4 million followers, with comments like “Man like Wiley been checked for me from time. Truly one of the best to ever do it. #Legends.”

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It’s nice to see Drake throw grime a bone, but seeing Drake talk about grime is kind of like hearing my girlfriend talk about baseball: I appreciate the interest, but I’m not sure they know what they’re talking about. Still, the fact Drake is bothering to screencap random Lord Of The Mics clips means he most likely has an interest in grime that most high profile rappers before him never did.

Kanye then had to do Drake one better, and had half of grime onstage with him with him at the Brit Awards when he performed his new tune “All Day.”

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Which I guess is kinda like the performance equivalent of an Instagram shout out, since no grime artists touched a mic; they just jumped around behind Kanye, shot off flamethrowers, and shocked Lionel Ritchie.

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It seems weird to get grime artists to be, at best, an aesthetic backdrop, and at worst, goons for hire. Besides when it comes to mobbing the stage and shocking a bourgeoisie Brit Award crowd, So Solid Crew did it better back in 2002.

Perhaps this why Kanye had Skepta, JME, Novelist, and Meridian Dan perform at his surprise live show at KOKO in London at few days later: to show that he had genuine love for grime and wanted to put it on.

Regardless, the fact that grime is on the radar of the two of the biggest in the game can only bode well. As a sign of foreign interest, this probably ranks up there with Jay Z performing over the Forward Riddim. I’m not gonna start writing my “2015, THE YEAR GRIME BROKE!” thinkpiece yet, but it’s clear that grime has gotten the attention of some major players. Whether the US audience will follow remains to be seen.

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The 1 hour Layover: Copenhagen

Recently, returning from Ireland my flight home was canceled, and then unexpectedly rerouted the following day through Copenhagen, giving me about a three and half hour layover.  Having spent most of the previous day at Dublin airport, I was a little stir crazy and decided it would be more interesting to go into Copenhagen proper. Three and half hours is a tight time frame to leave the airport, but due to the efficiency of Scandinavian public transport and city planning, it is possible to go from customs to downtown Copenhagen in about 20 minutes.

After getting money from an ATM (and trying to figure out what 500 krone was worth purely on how much a hot dog cost at the airport), and buying my subway ticket, it was 3:30. Fifteen minutes later, I was getting off the subway at Kongens Nytorv station.  I had exactly one hour in Copenhagen.

 

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Exiting the subway into the square that gave the station its name , I was greeted by the flagship building of Danish department store chain Magasin du Nord, built in 1894 (coincidentally, the same year the current Harrods building in London was completed).  It’s a beautiful building, especially for a place of commerce and there is something classically European about the old large downtown department stores. The fact that European cities never suffered the population loss and downtown decay of American cities in the 70’s and 80’s explains why Magasin du Nord still stands and Filene’s in Boston, Hudson’s in Detroit and Rich’s in Atlanta are all gone.

Since, I didn’t have phone service and wanted to keep somewhat spontaneous, I looked around the square and picked one of the 6 directions I could have headed in. Turns out I got lucky and headed right for the water.

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This neighborhood is called Nyhavn.  It used to be a working waterfront, but it seemed tourist oriented, judging from amount of ice cream and waffle places I saw. Walking to the end of the canal, I passed evidence of its practical past along the way:

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This is a monument dedicated to the founding of  Danish salvage company Svitzer, which started in 1833 and is still around today (although most likely not in Nyhaven as the building itself looked like the type of place that held either condos or design firms). It’s still interesting to see a reminder of when the neighborhood was full of sailors, longshoremen, and lost cargo.

At the top of the street, the canal opens up into the river and there sits this modern building:

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This is the Royal Danish Playhouse, built in 2008, and designed by Lundgaard & Tranberg. Whether I like the building or not is irrelevant, look how sleek and Scandinavian it looks!

I walked by a tobacco shop, ducked in and bought a Cuban cigar, and looked for somewhere comfortable to smoke it.

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I found a bench, watched boats go by, and counted the bicycles riding over the bridge on the other side of the river. This was relaxing, well, as relaxing as trying to smoke an entire Cuban cigar in 15 minutes can be.

And while the bourgeois American was unwinding with his cancer causing agent, a Danish father and son were enjoying a more wholesome and healthy pastime courtesy of Copenhagen’s public trampolines.

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I fully expect to see these soon at some parks in America or I will mourn the loss of our status as a first rate nation.

I then started to walk back to the subway, but passed a bar called Cafe Malmo that looked too interesting to pass up.

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My pictures don’t really do the place justice, but it had a very timeless waterfront vibe:

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I know he’s Norwegian, but this seemed like a place where some forlorn Knut Hamsun character would drink the day away.

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The only people in there was the bartender and a friend, who were playing some odd form of billiards that involved little wooden pins:

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I asked them about it and they seemed surprised I had never seen it before, “They don’t have pin billiards where you are from?” I replied in the negative and after watching them for 10 minutes was no closer to understanding the game.  Apparently, being exposed to pin billiards is a rite of passage for all visitors to Denmark:

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After my second beer, it was time to go. I walked back to the train and made it to the airport with enough time to have a hot dog before boarding.  Foolishly I did not take a picture, but I have to say the Danes are not messing around when it comes to hot dogs. They looked like this, were delicious, and have possibly made me change my mind about pork hot dogs:

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All in all, it was a pleasant way to spend a couple hours, and definitely made me curious about coming back to Copenhagen, a place I basically had opinion on whatsoever before I touched down.

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Pre-Punk London Music

Black & White Photographs of Life in London in The 1970's (11)

Photo: Tony Bock

Now that it’s been almost forty years since the beginning of the British punk movement (the Sex Pistols played their first gig on November 6, 1975), the era has settled into the status of a “Great Moment in 20th Century British History,” to be summed up in a few stock images and anecdotes before moving on to Princess Diana’s wedding and Boy George.

One of the angles that is usually used to present punk was that it was the first time that the working class and their concerns were represented in British popular music. Punk was said to be music for “the kids,” usually meaning someone from a council estate and on the dole. Punk was supposed to be the first chance for working class kids to sing songs for their peers unabashedly, without having themselves filtered through a show business prism.  As Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols said in the 2012 BBC special Punk Britannia,  “I guess we were looking for something kids like us could and go see, ’cause there was nothing like that.”

And it’s true that before punk, British rock singers mostly sang in a mid-Atlantic accent and affected Americanisms. If one heard a working class London accent on a record, it was usually done in a broad, music hall manner (like Max Bygraves), or simply fake (like Mick Jagger’s Mockney accent).  Punk changed that, making the (wide) boy on the corner one of the default voices in British pop music.

Oddly enough, show business was traditionally regarded as being one of the few paths to success for working class youth (the others of course being crime, boxing, and football). Pop musicians were expected to be from a working class background, but they were also expected to abandon their rough origins and present themselves in a more class neutral “show biz” look.  The Beatles transformation from leather-clad greasers into off-duty Parisian hotel concierges is a perfect example:

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However, from the early 70’s onwards, there were many bands from London, that while lacking the nihilism of punk, were intent on providing music for “the kids” and also representing their working class origins proudly.

In many ways, bands like Hustler and the Heavy Metal Kids were more similar to early Oi! bands like Cocksparrer and the Cockney Rejects than they were to the Sex Pistols. They weren’t trying to shock anyone’s mum, they were making catchy music for the lads to drink beer to.  Which is to say they acted and sounded like the Sex Pistols did before Johnny Rotten joined, when they’d play Bad Company covers like “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love.” (It’s hard to convey how shocking the general negativity of Johnny Rotten was in 1976. In the earth-toned, “Have a Nice Day”, soft-focus Seventies, Rotten’s pointed nastiness and contrarian attitude must have made him seem like a visitor from another planet. Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones says as much when recalling his first impressions of Rotten to author Jon Savage: “I really didn’t like him at all, because of his attitude: he seemed like a real prick.”)

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Considering the narrative that punk is usually framed with (dinosaur bands, Led Zeppelin, boring stadium shows, nothing is going on, what does Keith Emerson’s 20 minute synthesizer solo say to a young kid with no money), it’s interesting to note that these hard rock pre-punk bands are guilty of none of these accusations. None of them were vacationing in the South of France and they played bare bones rock and roll. In retrospect, their only crimes were not being forward thinking enough: being complacent with the general shittiness of things, and not having some smart ass manager like Malcolm McLaren or Bernard Rhodes around to contextualize everything.

Bands like Hustler, The Hammersmith Gorillas, Dr. Feelgood, Jook, and the Heavy Metal Kids played mostly small clubs and performed short punchy songs that were perfect for a pub singalong.  They were mostly from London, had songs that addressed the concerns of working class London youth, they dressed no different from the kids on the terraces (something that disqualifies many glam rock bands from being included in this conversation), and they weren’t weirdo squatter hippies like the Pink Fairies or Hawkwind.

As the announcer in a 1974 BBC Panorama report about youth crime (!) that featured the Heavy Metal Kids comments, “In the 60’s (Kids singer Gary Bolton) points out, it was all beads and peace and pot, now (Bolton) believes it’s boots, bovver, and booze, and his songs reflect that.”  It sounds more or less like Garry Johnson’s 1981 description of Oi! as being “about real life, the concrete jungle, (hating) the Old Bill, being on the dole, and about fighting back and having pride in your class and background.”  And sure enough, “The Cops Are Coming” by the Heavy Metal Kids sounds like it could have been a first draft for “A.C.A.B” by the 4 Skins. “Get Outa Me`Ouse” by Hustler is such a perfect Oi! song that it was covered by The Business.

Punk required a Khmer Rouge styled Year Zero reset of pop culture. Playing blues based guitar solos, or ballads, having a keyboard player, or aspiring to be the Rolling Stones were now all crimes. The punishment was irrelevance. Unfortunately bands like the Heavy Metal Kids were collateral damage in punk’s effort to get rid of the excess of the sixties and the dullness of the seventies.

Up until a few years ago, when talking about the history of British music, there was not much focus on any of these London bands that predated punk. Recently, there has been some focus on the pub rock scene and bands like Ducks Deluxe, Roogalater, and Eddie and the Hot Rods.  Like the aforementioned bloke rock bands, the pub rock bands played short songs with a high level of energy. The main difference was the pub rock bands were unabashedly retro, playing sets composed of 50’s and 60’s R&B covers, whereas bands like Hustler, the Heavy Metal Kids, and Jook played very few covers and were very much of their time musically, being hard rock bands.

I love Dr. Feelgood, and their original material is amazing,  but they wasted too much time and energy doing half-assed versions of John Lee Hooker and Chuck Berry songs. Also, with the exception of Ian Dury, no one in the pub rock scene seemed like much of a London geezer or even a typical “kid” on street. Generally, the pub rock musicians were slightly older and from somewhere other than London proper.

By 1978, punk had blasted through the British music business with the expected results. Novelty songs were recorded. Lots of hippie musicians cut their hair. And bands like Hustler, the Heavy Metal Kids, and Ian Dury’s Kilburn and the High Roads all broke up. Some of these pre-punk musicians like Ian Dury or the Hammersmith Gorillas (and Motorhead, for that matter) saw that the punk movement gave them an opportunity for exposure and managed to latch on in some way, playing on bills with punk bands or releasing records on punk-centric labels. To be fair, in most cases, this required very little modification on the part of the older musicians, it was just that the zeitgeist had finally caught up to them.

 

 

 

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NYC History Pt 4: Serpico and 778 Driggs Avenue

Recently I found myself on such a spot, on Driggs Ave near South 4th St, where in bygone days , the Novelty Theater was located. I pondered on the trials, tribulations, and vicissitudes of the building that housed this theater from the day it was first opened under the name of the Odeon on Aug 25, 1852 down to the day the old building was torn down in 1917.  

-The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 24, 1949

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The area was basically a Puerto Rican ghetto… The address was 778 Driggs Avenue. In another time the building must have been the neighborhood showpiece. It had an ornate, stone-sculptured front and even a name, also in stone, NOVELTY COURT, but now its shabby entranceway was filled with garbage, the paint on the walls peeling off in great chunks… He continued up the stairs, and admired the intricate designs of the tile landings, now barely visible beneath the filth. The landings were filled with the smell of beef bones being cooked down into stock, and the lingering odor of fried pork and achiote, a reddish spice used to color rice… The stairs were deserted, except for a bedraggled dog stretched out just before the landing. He stepped gingerly over the dog, hoping he wouldn’t start barking. But the dog did not move a muscle, and when Serpico went out on the roof, he realized why. Probably the most common experience in the dog’s life was being stepped over.

A stench of urine hung in the air despite the cold, and the roof was dotted with lumps of dried feces. In the light cast by a naked bulb at the top of the stairs, Serpico saw dozens of empty glasssine bags, and even worse in a way, the flattened tubes of airplane glue that children sniffed before they graduated to main-lining…

Off to his right he could see the pretty, bluish beads of light marking the span of the Williamsburgh Bridge, and the spectacular Wall Street skyline across the river, so close that Serpico felt he could reach out and touch it, glittering as though the ghetto rooftop he was on did not exist.

The second passage above is from the book Serpico, written by Peter Maas in 1973, which the identically eponymous film of the same year starring Al Pacino was based on.  They are both the story of young Italian-American cop Frank Serpico, who after speaking up about the endemic corruption in the NYPD, was shot while attempting to enter a drug dealer’s apartment, while his backup somehow escaped unharmed. The passage in question relates Serpico’s feelings and actions in the moments leading up to his shooting on February 3, 1971.

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So, this was Williamsburg in 1971, a ghetto full of junkies where they’d even shoot a cop? Driggs Ave and South 4th is STILL not Bedford and North 6th, which is to say it still has some semblance of being an actual neighborhood, and still a Puerto Rican one at that.  But, imagining anywhere in Williamsburg being host to one of one of the most infamous shootings in the last fifty years of New York City history is difficult to do now.

What’s almost more shocking than the shooting itself, is the sense of utter hopelessness that Maas and Serpico use to describe Williamsburg. That paragraph reads like a lost page from a Son Of Sam letter. This Williamsburg is a place of poverty, drugs, and violence not boutiques, bistros, and condominiums. The saddest sentence by far in that description is one of a Williamsburg being so close, yet a million miles away, from the glittering wealth of Manhattan.

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I recently stopped by 778 Driggs Ave. The outside probably looks much as it did in Serpico’s day, with the words “Novelty Court” still carved into the facade over the doorway. Inside, however the building has been completely renovated. The dirty tiles Serpico describes have long since been replaced with (mismatched) linoleum.  The wooden and stone staircase that Serpico must have trod up has has been replaced with metal, as have the apartment doors. Generally, the entire building looks as it went through a thorough but cheap renovation sometime in the last 20 years.   In a neighborhood that has been through demographic changes in the last 40 years, the building is still predominantly Latino. The sounds of salsa music and Spanish being spoken is still heard in the hallways. The smell of pork being cooked (and perhaps achiote) still permeates the air.  However, there are no bedraggled dogs in the stairwell and empty heroin envelopes on the ground. I did see a Laffy Taffy wrapper on the 5th floor. The door to the roof is armed with an alarm, so I can not report how metaphysically distant Manhattan felt from there.

Sadly, the shooting of Serpico was not the nadir for 778 Driggs. As the 70’s progressed, the building declined further, until by the early 1980’s it was abandoned by its landlord. At that point the ownership was transferred Los Sures, a community group that assumed the management and ownership of many properties in South Williamsburg during the 70’s and 80’s, when the neighborhood was beginning to fill up with vacant buildings. With grants from various agencies, Los Sures renovated 778 Driggs sometime in the 1980’s and turned it into affordable housing.

It’s interesting that the this cycle from squalor to stability that the building has gone through is far from the first change of fate and status that 778 Driggs has experienced. The name of the building itself, Novelty Court, comes from the Novelty Theater, which stood on the site (under a variety of names) from 1852 until 1917, when it was demolished and replaced by its namesake apartments.

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In its original form, as Odeon Hall, it was a theater for plays ranging from contemporary pieces to Shakespeare and was known as one of the premier theaters in Brooklyn. By the late 1880’s, it had lost some of its cachet to a newer theater on Bedford Avenue and begun to feature less esteemed touring companies. At that point, it also presented lighter entertainment like vaudeville, minstrel shows, and burlesque. As the neighborhood changed at the dawn of the 20th century, and the Irish and Germans moved out and Eastern European Jews moved in, the Novelty begin to feature more Yiddish theater (on March 7, 1913, seven people “of the Hebrew faith” were charged with putting on a theatrical performance on the Christian Sabbath at the Novelty).

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During this time it was named Adler’s Novelty, as seen in the photo above. The name was derived from its owner, actress Sarah Adler, mother of Stella Adler (who also acted in the Novelty) who later brought Method acting to America and taught Marlon Brando and Robert Deniro, amongst many others.

By 1916, with the advent of motion pictures, the Novelty featured less live performance to the point where it was described in a contemporary newspaper article as an “ordinary movie house.” The same fate had befallen many of the live theaters in the area as they struggled to cope with both a changing neighborhood and changing tastes in entertainment. While it would certainly continue as a pastime for the middle and upper classes, the days of theatergoing being a regular event for New Yorkers of all backgrounds was over and done.

In 1917, the Novelty Theater was torn down, to be replaced by the Novelty Court apartment building. I have read that the same bricks were used in both buildings, but I’d take that with a grain of salt. At the time of its construction, it most likely was a neighborhood showpiece. However, just 15 years later in 1933, with the Great Depression in full swing, the building was already being foreclosed and auctioned off by the Dime Bank of Williamsburgh.

By the time Frank Serpico got there, decades of neglect to both the inner cities in general and the building specifically, had left its mark. Who would have ever guessed that the building where one of the most notorious crimes in New York history occurred would later stand in one of the most famously gentrified neighborhoods in the city?

The word “Williamsburg” has become a punchline in TV shows like 2 Broke Girls, used as shorthand to signify posturing wannabe artists whiling away their days sitting at cafes, and spending their nights abusing cocaine and PBR, all on the tab of daddy’s trustfund.  But, without groups like Los Sures managing the buildings and the Puerto Rican community that lived there and maintained a community none of this gentrification would have been possible.

But, ups and downs are part of New York. A neighborhood’s fortunes are almost always rising or falling, they rarely stay static. The Williamsburg of the Novelty Theater/Court has lived through the memories of English, Irish, Germans, Puerto Ricans, and yes, now some transplanted Vogue magazine intern from California, each of whose Williamsburg experience would be completely foreign to the others.

As a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article from January 20, 1866 notes: “The Odeon, like the section of the city which it is located, has undergone vicissitudes, and its career is typical of the fortunes of the ‘Burgh. When Williamsburgh was thriving, the Odeon flourished; when Williamsburgh sank into dulness(sic), the Odeon was deserted.”

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