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Through the Cracks 

There are some benefits of big-city gentrification. Jesse Malin's brilliant new record is one of them.

Wednesday, Aug 27 2003
Romance is running down the sewers of our cities faster than you can say "Banana Republic." It won't make the news, at least not in so many words: Artists and Lovers Demand More Crime! It is, however, the real subtext of much of the carping about gentrification you hear these days.

But just when you think the cradle of American pop culture, the metropolis, has lost its poetry for good ... it's a bird, it's a plane, it's a punk with a heart: It's Jesse Malin, with The Fine Art of Self-Destruction. Produced by roots-rock revivalist Ryan Adams, Malin's solo debut is a rumpled, wind-borne document of city life that does justice to the urban pop poetry that's come before and, likewise, delivers a swift boot to the coiffed retro hipsters currently claiming that legacy.

For the author of such a resolutely overcast album, Malin certainly sounds like an optimist over the phone, en route to a show in Baltimore. "You walk out your door and life just happens," says the Queens native of his adopted Manhattan. "Even though New York has degenerated into kind of a corporate Disneyland, sold out by Giuliani -- it was a police state for a while and then there's the economy and 9/11 and all the things that have beaten it down -- it still has an electricity and just a real vibe. ... But you guys have better burritos in the Mission."

The album is not the work of some city-struck greenhorn, nor does it aim to unseat Gershwin and Lou Reed as NYC's musical laureates. "It's autobiographical," says Malin, former frontman for glammy punks D-Generation and stalwart of his city's underground rock 'n' roll culture. "It wasn't a conscious thing, like some U2 record: 'I'm gonna make this a very New York album.' It wasn't like that. It was just my back yard, and New York is such a powerful backdrop for human hell and emotions and suffering and happiness and all this crap that goes around rock music, relationships, and friendships."

Of course, any town makes a colorful backdrop in skilled, native hands: the Minutemen's San Pedro, Chrissie Hynde's Akron, or the dusty Lubbock of Butch Hancock. But if the inordinate focus on NYC during the recent blackouts that covered several states won't convince you of the Empire City's standing as America's universal municipality, just check out the sheer number of ditties, riffs, and opuses devoted to it. You need a filing system just to keep track. For instance, there are songs of New York that don't contain a single proper noun -- no Broadway, egg creams, Peppermint Lounge, or Joe DiMaggio in sight -- but their every note rings of NYC anyway. Take "Be My Baby," "Sweet Jane," "Rapture," "White Lines" -- all prime examples. When Lou Reed is "standin' on the corner, suitcase in my hand," you don't picture him on Eighth and Clement, heading into King of Thai Noodle House, do you? On the other hand, there are songs about New York that don't capture the city's soul. "New York State of Mind" aims for dirty-street romance with such a heavy hand that it overshoots and ends up in Vegas, while producer Adams' own "New York" may be a giddy attempt, but it has heartland written all over it.

There's a third category that's rarer than any of these first two: songs both of and about New York, ones that not only mention street signs, but also pulse with the pavement. Think of Tom Waits' "Downtown Train," the Pogues' wondrous "Fairytale of New York," Ben E. King's "Spanish Harlem," and even Odyssey's "Native New Yorker," the most evocative cheap disco song ever written. With The Fine Art, Malin contributes more than his fair share of such through-and-through New York songs. He also heartily redeems this type of urban paean, especially for cities where artists can't afford "artist's lofts" and there are more Starbucks than bars.

During their last West Coast swing in late April, Malin and his band – which includes bassist John Pisano, an old pal of Malin from the NYC hardcore scene, and former Psychedelic Furs drummer Paul Garisto – toured with Oakland's own bristly pop-rockers the Influents. "They're definitely true New Yorkers," says Influents drummer Willie Samuels. "We were all immediately stricken by their heavy accents and seemingly cold and confrontational personalities. Of course, they turned out to be some of the sweetest guys I've ever met."

The Israelis have a word for it, but New Yorkers often embody it: sabra, a person who, like the desert fruit, is tough on the outside, sweet on the inside. This duality has helped make New York City the launch pad and setting for much of the best American literature, including rock 'n' roll. It's also why punk rock has produced some of the best singer/songwriters of the past two decades, names like Paul Westerberg, Shane MacGowan, Chrissie Hynde: Take away that tough shell and the tender stuff just oozes all over.

While The Fine Art contains folkish elements that echo Adams' own sensibilities, what makes it stick is a stormy brew of tough-but-sweet East Coast influences -- Brill Building pop, early Springsteen, Patti Smith, and the guitar-serrated edge and punk passion that were D-Generation's stock in trade.

For example, while the rich, rough timbre of Malin's voice makes it more digestible than Johnny Thunders' cracked yowl, the delivery owes much to the New York Dolls guitarist and later frontman of the Heartbreakers. If you've never heard the desperate ballads Thunders sang, just imagine a pile of internal organs -- mostly hearts and guts -- on a bar stool, oozing love notes onto napkins. Malin's first solo effort finds this vocal tradition, previously carried by Minnesota's Westerberg, finally coming back home to a new torchbearer. In the stark "Solitaire," it rises from defiant shiftlessness to the most determined scream you've ever heard in a folk-rock song.

Lyrically, even if the 12-song collection was never meant to be "a New York album," as Malin says, it's certainly as much about New York as anything since Lou Reed's New York. Like the city itself, The Fine Art is chaotic and beautiful. Song after song, Malin throws in references to John Travolta, Duke Ellington, "Harlem mamas," Central Park, Coney Island's infamously dangerous Tilt-a-Whirl, landlords, sleazy lawyers, rooftops, and even the kitchen sink (literally -- check out the second track, "TKO"). But just when you think the narrative is a barreling, holy mess, it crystallizes with a painterly verse: "I'm an old whore/ In a thrift store/ Looking for something black," observes the title track. "Ain't no wishing well/ Underneath the El/ I still hope someday we might meet," Malin sings on "Riding on the Subway," referring to the much-romanticized elevated train line that once ran through his own Lower East Side neighborhood.

Make that Malin's former neighborhood, as The Fine Art was financed with a windfall Malin received from his landlord in exchange for turning over his apartment to wealthier tenants. "Before I had a record deal, I didn't know if anybody was gonna hear the record besides my cats," says Malin, who initially released the album on his own One Little Indian Records before signing with major indie Artemis. "I had to make the record with money from when they paid me to leave my apartment so they could jack the rent up and rent it to yuppies."

"Brooklyn," on its surface a love song about a girl, addresses the issue of Manhattan's newly sanitized aura with the delicacy of a true lover of the city. "It's about this particular girl I was really grieving over at the time," Malin explains. But it's full of regret for missing color, "trannies near work," "sad songs of doom and gloom." The chorus seems to mourn not just a lost soul, but the lost soul of a place: "You started out with nothing but lonely days/ You started out with nothing but throwaways."

"It's just another place," says Malin of his freshly scrubbed downtown. "Definitely not the place where in the '70s I could look out the window of my mother's car and it looked like you're jumping into Taxi Driver or Midnight Cowboy."

Asked about the possible benefits of gentrification, Malin gets a little acidic: "Sure, you can't dance, you can't smoke, you can't laugh." But The Fine Art is about as lucky a side effect as you can expect from a pill as dubious as "urban renewal." The album also marks an alluring notion: that a "red rose" still grows in Spanish Harlem, and in Malin's Lower East Side, maybe even here in North Beach, or in front of a Banana Republic.

City Songs

Since he seems to have nailed the songs-about-a-city thing, we asked Jesse Malin to give us his top five tunes that other artists have written about cities. Here is what he told us:

"Gates of the West" by the Clash -- "The romance of traveling -- via rock 'n' roll -- into New York, the excitement and the mystery of it all."

"Jacksonville Skyline" by Ryan Adams -- "Paints a pretty sad and miserable picture of having to escape your hometown. No wonder he likes living in New York so much."

"Olympia" by Rancid -- "This makes me want to get out and get on the highway and drive forever."

"Atlantic City" by Bruce Springsteen -- "The romance and decay of a place that once was."

"Fairytale of New York" by the Pogues -- "A failed romance, a beautifully painted Gotham City backdrop: Christmas, jail cells, Sinatra, and booze. Shane MacGowan knows how to romanticize the dark poetry of NYC." -- A.M.

About The Author

Andrew Marcus


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