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.

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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

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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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George Cain

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The similarities between authors Jim Carroll and George Cain seem obvious from a cursory example of their backgrounds. Both Carroll and Cain grew up in New York City during the 60’s, were high school basketball stars, and became junkies soon after. Both attended a prestigious Manhattan private school on a scholarship, experiencing the disconnect of being the only street kid among a school full of mansion dwellers.  And both chronicled this experience in autobiographical novels, Carroll in The Basketball Diaries (published in 1978 but edited from journal entries Carroll wrote in the early 60’s) and Cain in his 1970 book Blueschild Baby.

 

I love The Basketball Diaries (the book, not the movie, suckers!) in the way I love Taxi Driver or the Sex Pistols: because I first experienced them as a disenfranchised Junior High school kid and they showed me there was a whole world out there that was probably better, and definitely more interesting, than the one I was living in.  I revisit these memories now and I can see plenty of flaws in them, but their overall effect is still powerful. However, as a novel, Blueschild Baby is a more effective work than The Basketball Diaries. Carroll is a great storyteller, but ultimately The Basketball Diaries is just a series of scenes with no overwhelming arc or sense of greater meaning. Blueschild Baby is the work of a novelist.  Although it is a book written by George Cain about a protagonist named George Cain, there is a sense that time, place, and events are being manipulated to showcase a truth that is greater than the literal description of one man’s life.  It is definitely a book of its era (and suffers from a few agitprop Black Power moments, as well the fact that the Cain character appears to force himself on multiple women in a way that would be considered rape now if it wasn’t in 1970), the overall quality of Cain’s prose transcends it being a historical footnote. When it was published in 1969, Addison Gayle Jr. of the New York Times called it “the most important work of fiction by an Afro-American since Native Son,” which I can’t argue with. Cain’s book touches on many different facets of the experience of being Black in New York City in the late 60’s. Musing about the difference between the Black New York experience and the one down South,  Cain’s New York bred characters go ice skating and listen to free jazz:

Walk down ’16th and eat dinner in a Spanish restaurant. On the way back to the hotel start coming down. The world goes in stop time, but I decide to go to the Playhouse anyway. Want to hear the music of the dream before I wake. Jazz. Live and loud. One of them young monsters blowing. City-bred nigger. Sounds like he heard the tongue spoken by Trane’s terrible voice. He cooks, the place is smoke-filled and garish. 

“Jazz is the city. Only city niggers can feel this thing. I never liked it much, never listened really, hadn’t been here long enough. To my country ear it was mad noise. But, I’m a part of the tremendous pressure that generates that sound and I feel it so good now.”

 

The character speaking about jazz is not Cain, but his girlfriend Nandy, who is one of the New Yorkers who goes down South every summer to visit relatives and comes back “sun-browned, fat, and talking niggerish until Christmas.”

From the opening page, Cain’s New York is a place full of hidden worlds and their barriers: “I’m at 63rd on Amsterdam and must make it to 81st Street, past the Red Cross on 66th, faggots’ 72nd and the police station on 68th” (Incidentally, this is the exact same stretch of neighborhood portrayed in the 1971 movie Panic In Needle Park starring Al Pacino). But, no barrier is more apparent in this book than the one between Black and White America. Sometimes this barrier is metaphorical, as in the disconnect the Cain character feels towards the white mother of his child.  Sometimes it is all too real, as when Cain discusses the relief he feels when he passes 110th Street going south in a cab when fleeing a man named Broadway who attempted to rob him in a Harlem drug spot:

The black brick wall bordering the park on 110th Street is only three feet high, but unscalable and impenetrable as any wall closing off a prison guarded by towers and guns. I’m safe beyond it. Broadway cannot chase here. He had lived beyond the wall all his life and is imbued with its lifeway, which so contradicts his world, that he is rendered impotent and unable to function. 

Cain’s Harlem has the menace of Chester Himes‘, but instead of writing from the perspective of the police, Cain gives us the view of the man on the street:

’15 and Lenox is the mouth of the sewer where the junkies from the block wash up. A play street kept from traffic by wooden barriers at each end. In summer till late night crowded with people. Kids Playing. Dope dealers occupy the halls and stoops surrounded by lookouts, lieutenants, and customers. Crap game against the curb holds the sports, two white cops on the corner. If you stand here ten minutes, someone you once knew and wondered what happened to will come by.  

“No accident, like this all the time, all these people standing round are junkies.”

A young kid comes strolling by, bout twelve years old in a black beaver hat, bright colored knit, matching silk pants and alligator shoes, counting a wad of money, unafraid as his little partners watch his back. He sings his sale, “I got it, the smoker, my bag killed Frankie Lyman (sic) last week.”

Nandy looks at him disbelieving as he joins the crap game of old men.

 

So why is The Basketball Diaries on the reading list of every alienated teenager in America, but Cain’s book is forgotten? Perhaps it’s due to the voices used. Carroll writes with an adolescent playfulness and Cain sounds weary by his mid 20’s. Although their books both share a sex and drugs subject matter, Cain does not display the cockiness that Carroll does. Even the most joyous passages in Blueschild Baby have traces of sadness in them. The Afrocentric elements of Blueschild Baby may turn off white Americans and the Eldridge Cleaver-style revenge rapes of white women will certainly make many a citizen of the 21st century cringe. The fact that Carroll went on to a successful career as a musician and poet, and Cain disappeared into a world of drugs and never published another book cannot be ignored. Ultimately, bookstores and libraries are littered with writers who wrote an amazing debut novel and then faded away (Leonard Gardner’s Fat City springs to mind), so maybe this is just the fate of the man who has one great book in him.

Perhaps it isn’t Carroll who Cain really resembles, but another scholarship product of an elite Manhattan private school, Gil Scott-Heron.  The idea of a city being a snare that traps junkies is one equally evoked by Cain’s book and Scott-Heron’s song “Home Is Where The Hatred Is.”

 

A lump sticks in my throat, can’t breathe or swallow. Gagging, run to the toilet and vomit. Live things, frogs and insects kick in the liquid coming out. The empty stomach dry heaves like it’s coming inside out, ups juices and yellow bile, knocks me to my knees with pain. 

Carroll, Cain, and Gil Scott-Heron were all born with six years of each other in the 1940’s (Cain in 1943, Carroll and Scott-Heron in 1949).  They died within two years of each other in Manhattan between 2009-2011, all suffering from illnesses related to their drug addiction (Carroll had Hepatitis C, Cain had kidney disease, and Scott-Heron was HIV positive).  Both Carroll and Scott-Heron left behind lengthly legacies in both published writing and music. It’s tragic that Cain, after showing as much ability as either of the other two, left nothing else to the world besides Blueschild Baby.

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Pinball in NYC

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David Johanson, Lenny Kaye, Dee Dee Ramone, and Andy Paley play pinball at CBGB’s in 1977.  Photo by Bob Gruen.

Records and pinball are two things I love that make me feel older than I am, because I am just barely old enough to remember when both were viable. I started buying records when every halfway decent city neighborhood had a record store or two, yet for the most part they had been supplanted by cassettes and compact discs. I started playing pinball when you could still find a machine at every downtown pizzeria and suburban movie theater, yet by and large my peers preferred playing video games at home.

And as I aged, slowly both things died off: expensive analogue experiences replaced by cheaper digital substitutes.  Both are bulky and unwieldy, both can now be replaced by an Iphone.

But, at a certain point, the idea of reducing all human experiences down to binary code falls apart. People want tangible things that they can interact with.  In the last ten years, vinyl record sales have gone up every year, driven mostly by younger consumers. Believe it or not, there is a wikipedia page dedicated to this phenomena. The number one selling vinyl record last year wasn’t some moldy oldy by the Beatles or Bruce Springsteen, it was Daft Punk’s new album.  In New York City in the last year, for the first time I can remember, almost as many new record stores opened up as old ones closed down.

Just like with records, the number of pinball producers has declined in the last twenty years.  From the 90’s onward, noted pinball manufacturers Bally, Williams, Data East, and Gottlieb all either went out of business or got out of pinball, leaving Stern as the last maker standing.  Until last year, when small market manufacturer Jersey Jack produced the Wizard of Oz pinball machine, the first machine in the US not made by Stern since 2001. And just as vinyl has come back in the form of limited edition numbered pressings of 500, pinball machines are also no longer mass produced, but a small niche market.  The Addams Family pinball machine made in 1991 sold over 20,000 units. The Wizard of Oz‘s run is reportedly 1,500, most of which were bought by private collectors for their home gamerooms, not arcades or poolrooms.

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There was no bigger personal proof to me of the death of pinball than the lack of places available to play it in New York City.  Now, admittedly, Chicago is the ancestral home of pinball, being the city where Bally, Williams, Gottlieb, and Stern were all located. And, New York City did ban pinball machines from 1942 to 1976, as they were thought to be gambling machines, mob connected, and contributions to juvenile delinquency:  “Pinball machines are a harmful influence because of their strong tendency to instill desire for gambling in immature young people,” said New York City’s police commissioner from 1934-45, Lewis Valentine. “Children and minors who play these machines and frequent the establishments where the machines are located sometimes commit petty larcenies in order to obtain funds, form bad associations and are often led into juvenile delinquency and eventually into serious crime.”

LaGuardia1Mayor Fiorello La Guardia smashes a pinball machine in 1938.
tumblr_mswn5iouny1rrpxw5o2_1280Ironically, there were no pinball machines in Times Square when this game was produced in 1953

So, New York City can’t claim to be the nexus of pinball the way it can with comic books or rap music, but shouldn’t America’s largest city have a home for such an American pastime? At least in the 90’s, there were still plenty of poolrooms, bars, and small arcades that would have a little row of pinball machines. Slowly but surely they died off. The famed Broadway Arcade in Times Square closed in 1997, a victim of the Disneyfication of that neighborhood.

Pinball machines are expensive to buy and expensive to maintain. They are a morass of tiny light bulbs and moving pieces: springs, coils, and belts. Any bar I can think of that had more than three machines always had at least one that was out of order or not working properly (the most frustrating thing is when only one of the flippers works!). In the past few years, I had to make do with the odd bar that still had a machine or two, usually some new game like The Sopranos that I wasn’t crazy about anyway.

If I really wanted to play pinball, I had to roadtrip to places like the Silverball Museum in Asbury Park, NJ or the Funspot in New Hampshire, where there would be dozens of machines lined up, consisting of mostly classic games.  Both of those places are great, but one doesn’t always feel like making a weekend out of playing pinball.

Finally, though there is a place to play pinball seriously in New York City, Modern Pinball NYC on 3rd Ave in Murray Hill.  It’s a small storefront packed with about 30 games. All of the games are set for free play, and passes are sold for admission for one hour, two hours, or all day.  Modern Pinball is run by Steve Epstein, the former owner of the aforementioned Broadway Pinball and tournament player Steve Zahler (various other pinball tournament players work there as well). Additionally, all machines are for sale, which combined with the presence of the pros on staff, means the games are well maintained.

The machines themselves are a nice mix from the 80’s and 90’s through today, with almost half the games there from the last 15 years. This is very different from the Silverball Museum or Funspot, both of which play up the historical curation angle and feature mostly games from the 1970’s. I have grown to love games like Fireball or Gorgar, but to a player who started playing on modern machines loaded with multiple ramps and levels, these simple games with nothing but bumpers and targets may seem a little boring.

image-14Bally’s Mata Hari machine from 1978, not a ramp in sight

It’s nice to finally play excellent new games like Batman or AC/DC in a place with proper lighting (the last 2 times I played Batman I was in a highway rest stop where the sun glared through a window onto the machine and then in a bar so dark I could barely make out the ball), and I think the focus on newer games presents pinball as a still living entity as opposed to a museum piece. If I had my druthers, some of the more mediocre newer games like CSI or Avatar would be replaced by nice clean working copies of older games like Bride of Pinbot or Stargate (a personal favorite), but it is nice to have a chance to play so many newer machines in a good environment.  I’m happy enough that they have a well maintained Funhouse machine.  Few things make me happier in life than making that dummy Rudy shut up.

All in all, Modern Pinball NYC is probably my favorite thing to open up in New York City in 2013. In a city where unique, individual small businesses (like Jamaican patty bakeries or comic book stores) seem to close every day to be replaced by another branch of a multinational bank or a chain drugstore, it’s fantastic to have something like this come into existence.  Here’s hoping they can stay open.

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