From the terrace of songwriter Tris McCall’s Union City apartment, perched high atop the New Jersey palisades, you can see the majestic Manhattan skyline, from Midtown all the way down to Wall Street. On a clear night, you can usually pick out the World Trade Center, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and Times Square.
But so what? You’ve seen all of that crap before. Sure, it’s beautiful. But, viewed from Tris McCall’s New Jersey, it’s soulless and kind of sterile.
It certainly can’t compare with McCall’s view of the humble and homely City of Hoboken, which gave birth to Frank Sinatra, baseball (allegedly), and Maxwell’s, the legendary North Jersey rock club where McCall sometimes performs. Nor can it compare with McCall’s view of plucky Weehawken, which, to the dismay of many longtime residents, is fast becoming “the next Brooklyn Heights.” And it can’t compare with his view of Edgewater, an improbably slender ribbon of a town that follows the contours of the Hudson River, from West New York (and the Lincoln Tunnel) all the way to Fort Lee (and the George Washington Bridge).
McCall’s second full-length album, If One of These Bottles Should Happen to Fall: Jersey Songs by Tris McCall, is jam-packed with sly and affectionate references to our Garden State. McCall doesn’t sing about Bruce Springsteen’s boardwalks, arcades, and cheap little seaside bars, though. Rather, he provides an alternative New Jersey mythology, which is more urban, urbane, and ironic, than Springsteen’s, but no less captivating. If you want to take the pulse of the mysterious land across the Hudson, you could do a lot worse than starting with Tris McCall.
Produced, in large part, by Scott Miller (of Game Theory and Loud Family fame), Bottles explores numerous different musical styles, from funk to folk, and from pop to punk. More often, though, McCall’s music is reminiscent of early John Wesley Harding. It is honest, direct, wry, restless, revealing, and politically astute.
The most memorable cut on Bottles, “The View from New Jersey,” may be the greatest New Jersey rock song since Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” But whereas the Boss’s song was all about leaving New Jersey (“This town’s full of losers / And we’re pulling out to win”), McCall’s song is about settling down (“Surprised to find that you’re glad you stayed? / C’mon, let’s take a walk on the palisade.”)
Social commentary is McCall’s forte. In “Lite Radio is My Kryptonite,” McCall sarcastically combats his adopted home state’s slacker reputation: “Why work? / Why not fill your days with joy? / Spend more time with the ones you love/And then scramble your ass off for rent and ’lectricity / Temp when you have to / Relax when you don’t / And try to ignore that nagging chest pain / Fib your way through your tax returns and spend the rest of your life in jail.”
McCall also writes touching, if sardonic, love songs. On “Missing You,” a song about boys and girls foolish enough to take separate vacations, McCall almost seems to be channeling Cole Porter: “Some couples deem it normal to keep things rather formal / And deny the seducer’s art / And implying nothing stealthy / They say it’s only healthy to spend a few days apart / But if you showed me information on great separate vacations / Well, I think that would break my heart.”
Although not well known nationally, McCall has been receiving nothing but rave reviews in the metropolitan area. The New York Press named him Best Local Music Product of 2000, while the Jersey Best (the fanzine of record for the tri-state alternative music scene) named him Best Live Performer of 2000.
McCall has been parlaying this increased name recognition into a more ambitious schedule of live appearances. His regular band, a tight volunteer unit called the Union City Six (in spite of having seven members, includes Jen Carstensen on bass, Martin Nienstedt and David Schreiber on guitars, Dan Madinabeita on keyboards, Robin Van Maarth on drums, and backing vocalists Regan Solmo and Rachel Fishman. If you need visuals, think The Commitments, except with better teeth.
In concert, McCall appears preternaturally boyish, projecting the same geeky charisma that made stars of Buddy Holly, Elvis Costello, and Billy Bragg. In spite of the accolades he’s received, McCall concedes that he has yet to come into his own as a live performer. Lately, however, McCall has been confidently performing solo shows at the Liquid Lounge, in Hoboken, where he dons, alternately, the hats of the folk-rock troubadour and the ‘70s-esque synth-rock sensation. The juxtaposition is eerie. One minute he’s Phil Ochs incarnate, poised, profound, and ethereal, performing acoustic numbers like “The Ballad of Frank Vinieri,” a song about an utterly hapless (and totally fictitious) Boston politician. And the next minute he’s banging away energetically, if awkwardly, on a bank of synthesizers, like a very young Rick Wakeman on sugar.
Not surprisingly, a typical audience at a Tris McCall show is a roll call of the very types he celebrates (and sometimes lampoons) in his songs. There are the thesis-writing cuties, the ex-skate boarders, the frustrated Wall Street commuters, the wannabe slackers, the professional temps, the 20-something partygoers, the long-suffering Mets fans, etc. The songs are about them and about their New Jersey. And if they don’t get every single reference McCall makes in his songs to New Jersey politicians like Bret Schundler and Robert Menendez, most of them do seem to realize that he is giving musical voice to their anxieties and aspirations like no one has before.
Tris McCall played live at Sin-é (142-144 N. 8th Street, Brooklyn) on Friday, February 9 and at Arlene Grocery (95 Stanton Street, Manhattan) on Saturday, February 17.
A CONVERSATION WITH TRIS MCCALL
Songwriter Tris McCall, of Union City, NJ, shares his thoughts on life, love, culture, and politics in the Garden State. Read McCall’s full reflections on Bruce Springsteen, Frank Hague, and the rest of New Jersey’s “bosses” at www.brooklynrail.org.
Rail: You aren’t a native of New Jersey, are you? When did you move to the Garden State? Where did you move from?
Tris McCall: Norfolk, Virginia, in 1981. I was 10 years old and quite impressionable. We moved to Newark first, then Cedar Grove, and finally Springfield. Since graduation, I have lived in Hudson County—Union City and Weehawken.
Rail: Culturally speaking, Newark is a long way from Norfolk (or so we like to believe). What were your initial impressions? What was it like growing up in New Jersey, compared with Virginia?
McCall: Newark is much more ethnic than Norfolk is. My initial impressions aren’t to be taken seriously, since I was 10, but I was excited. I found Newark to be more beautiful and more dangerous. I also knew I’d be going to a more interesting school (my Virginia elementary school was deadly boring). I remember it rained constantly that autumn, and to this day, when I think of Newark, I think of puddles. Also, we moved about a week before the World Series, so before anything else was set up in the house, I was watching playoff games in barren rooms. The day all the furniture arrived north from Virginia, I was watching Ron Cey get beamed. From the time I got to New Jersey, though, I became interested in history and contextualizing my experience. Come to think of it, the crystallization of my consciousness can probably be dated to my move to Newark.
Rail: I wasn’t expecting that Ron Cey reference. But even more surprising was your reference to Newark as “beautiful.” Most people you talk to find the industrial northeast corner of the state among the least beautiful places on earth.
McCall: I suspect its beauty isn’t accessible to everyone. I particularly like the colors—faded brick, rust red and gray, chipped-paint blue, storefront brown, gray skies. It’s a lovely palette. Almost everything looks nicer when you age and weather it a little, and Newark is extremely aged and weathered. Mid-Hudson County is more beautiful than Newark is, because the light on the palisade is unique, particularly during mornings and late afternoons. Remember, we have two sharp slopes in close proximity, so the angles of sunlight are frequently indirect. Great shadows, dazzling off-white and weathered gray colors.
Rail: What else do you like about that part of New Jersey?
McCall: Any brick buildings and tenement architecture is gorgeous, I think. I hate most new construction, but I dislike most things that don’t have a story to tell. Old machinery is some of the most fascinating stuff you can look at. The grease patterns alone are hypnotic. There’s a drawbridge over the Hackensack between Newark and Kearny—perhaps you know the one I’m talking about—that was one of my favorite places to ride my bike to when I was a kid. The entire mechanism of the bridge is exposed, but perhaps more striking is the pale blue bridge house on the crest; small and kind of frightening, like a blue eye in a wild animal’s face. [My girlfriend] Hilary and I like to break into abandoned buildings and photograph the interiors. That’s how we got the cover image for Bottles—on an expedition in the swamps of Kearny.
Rail: You may be right about the strange beauty of old machinery. The same has been said about the post-industrial (post-apocalyptic?) view from the New Jersey Turnpike, especially on the northern stretches.
McCall: I’d never look at it that way. Most of the industry still functions, so I don’t think of the landscape as you pass by on the Turnpike as post-anything. For instance, driving north from the outskirts of the Newark metro area, you have the Hess and Exxon refineries (which are both awesome in their current functionality), the Shelton warehousing/trucking site (ultra-busy), the new retail and storage zones in Elizabeth (Ikea, etc.), and extremely popular airport, Anheuser-Busch, a busy port/shipyard, the Cook & Dunn paint complex, two new cinema multiplexes, etc. Where’s the “post”?
Rail: Fair enough. I guess that you have to get off the Turnpike to see most of these things. From the road, a lot of places just look abandoned.
McCall: One of the things we discovered when scouting sites for our abandoned building photo shoots is how rare they really are around here. Intuitively, you’d think that wasn’t true, but it is. Most of the available factory space has been converted into use by modern industries. Getting back to Turnpike North, the only abandoned building on that stretch is located just south of the Pulaski Skyway underpass—we photographed all four floors. Later I found out that the only reason it hasn’t been retrofitted along with everything else is that the structural integrity of the building is in serious doubt. New Jersey is hard at work, and extends into any and all available spaces.
Rail: Still, we don’t want to romanticize decay, pollution, and blight, do we?
McCall: I don’t see it that way. If North Jersey were actually decaying, then, yes, I would find that depressing. But I don’t see much evidence of decay. Most of our cities have survived and thrived in the ‘90s, and even those that haven’t aren’t municipal basket cases. Everywhere you look there’s a plan—new ideas for revitalizing downtown areas, new projects, new public-private partnerships. I may oppose some of this on ideological grounds, but not because they seem like evidence of decay. On the contrary, we keep it building around here. This is an immensely resourceful state—we regularly turn junk into value.
Rail: And the pollution?
McCall: Pollution. That’s a little tougher. I’m not an environmentalist and I don’t claim to be. I don’t like the countryside very much, and I’ve never found much in nature to be inspiring; scary, yes, threatening, yes, beautiful, no. I like to see the presence of human activity—particularly the activities of our culture—inscribed on the landscape.
Rail: What do you think about Walt Whitman’s romanticized view of New York, particularly of Manhattan?
McCall: It was a very different place in the 19th century. Hell, it was very different 10 years ago. Does anybody remember what Houston Street was like in 1990? Now you’ve got French bistros opening up on every block. Manhattan has become very beautiful and very conservative. I appreciate the beauty, but the conservatism—and the lack of imagination and resourcefulness that goes along with that conservatism—seems unfortunate. Instead of creating a freewheeling, experimental environment, prosperity has engendered a sudden paucity of options. Manhattanites seem principally interested in hanging on to the advancements they’ve made and codifying procedures and a new social order. Fun city it ain’t. Creativity is permissible, and wildly celebrated, in a few beautiful and pre-specified patterns. Everything feels pro forma and posed, a second or third generation copy. It’s a city of shadows, and interesting on that score. I have a taste for representations and reflections, obstacles and rituals, crystalline beauty and insincerity, frantic activity and the spectacle of finance, so I enjoy the time I spend in Manhattan. But I’m glad I don’t live there; it’s really not my city.
Rail: A lot of Jersey kids can’t wait to get into the big city.
McCall: More, though, are provincially intimidated by it.
Rail: New York City must have some attractions for kids growing up in the sticks.
McCall: Kids in Morris County probably aren’t missing all that much. A place like that can be digested and synthesized within a few years. The patterns of growth and retreat, edge city construction on the highway strip and chain hotel and restaurant industries, are boring and completely governed by market forces. Anybody who wants to get the hell out of Bedminster has my blessing. But I’d prefer they resettle in Jersey City of Paterson than on Sixth Avenue in Park Slope. Hudson County is much more interesting than New York City. I know nobody is trying to hear this, but it’s indisputable—it’s a much more freeform and freewheeling place. Vectors of growth veer off into all sorts of interesting directions; I contrast the exciting, polyglot transformation of Bergenline Avenue with the extremely predictable gentrification cycle seen on Ludlow Street and Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg. There’s room for experimentation and cultural combination that New York City, with its rigid social structure and meticulously telescoped growth, simply doesn’t permit. It’s a much more imaginative place, much more comfortable for hardcore urbanites looking to establish their own codes, their own ways of living.
Rail: In your song, “The View from New Jersey,” you seem to be intimating that a lot of Jersey kids are missing something about the state that some of us call “the motherland.”
McCall: In “The View from New Jersey,” a woman who’s most likely been downsized out of a job on Wall Street is forced to move from Manhattan to Hoboken (not exactly a cheap neighborhood, but it’d probably have been unrealistic to relocate her to the Marion district all at once; I handle the flip-side of this scenario—a recent graduate commuting to Morgan Stanley from a condo complex in the heart of Union City—in a new song called “The Night Bus”). Since she equates her rejection by the corporate machine and exile with personal failure, the narrator tries to improve her emotional condition by pointing out that New Jersey offers opportunities for self-reinvention that might not necessarily be validated by her former employers, but which could be imaginatively fulfilling. By the bridge, she’s surprised she’s glad she stayed here. It’s a song that encourages listeners to bear the pain of estrangement from mainstream values in exchange for autonomy and self-governance. Thus, it’s a personal recapitulation of some of the more explicitly politically themed songs that I do.
Rail: It seems to me that many of the songs on Bottles can be read as attempts to debunk (or at least rewrite) the New Jersey mythology of Bruce Springsteen.
McCall: Although I often speak in absolutes for the fun of it, I’m a pluralist, and I’m open to different interpretations and different takes on almost every issue imaginable. That said, there are a few things that I do consider incontrovertible, and here’s one of them: Bruce Springsteen is the greatest lyricist in rock history, and anybody who claims otherwise isn’t paying close enough attention. There are several commendable things that a writer can do when putting together a lyric: write symbolically, write narrative, write characters, use irony and literary techniques, use distinctive language, write specificity, write inter-textually (between songs), write poetically, write prosaically with rhythm and force, write about social issues and the political sphere. Generally, the artists we call great lyricists are masters of one or two of these disciplines. Bruce Springsteen has mastered every one of them. He’s done them all, done them regularly, combined them seamlessly and with a champion’s grace, and released albums with internal consistency and cohesion, staggering integrity, and tremendous emotional force.
Rail: Um, I take it that you were a Bruce fan growing up?
McCall: When I was coming up, everyone was a Springsteen fan. That was the time of Born in the U.S.A. I was twelve when that record dropped. I loved it, of course, and played it until I wore out the vinyl, but since it was so popular I tended to argue for many years that Nebraska and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle were his crowning achievements. But in 2001, reflecting on the career of the last and best of the true believers, I can say with some certainty that if there exists a rock record album more brilliant, more consistently, thought-provoking, more vivid, and more affecting than Born in the U.S.A., I’d sure as hell like to hear it.
Rail: Do you live in the same New Jersey that Springsteen does?
McCall: No, absolutely not. His characters are working class and generally engaged in manufacturing industries; they live downstate and are struggling to accommodate their values (generally traditional, i.e., the ties that bind) to the demands of an economic system that is eroding the certainties of family, community, church, and company. My characters are upstaters firmly within the sphere of influence of Manhattan, sexually and morally ambiguous, professional or “privileged poor,” far less romantic, more cerebral (though not necessarily smarter). If I have learned anything from Bruce Springsteen—and I very much hope I have—it’s that a writer in Freehold in the ‘70s will be operating within a radically different milieu to one in Union City in the ‘90s, and that I should engage rigorously with the particularities of what I see and experience.
Rail: Doesn’t Springsteen contribute to some extent to the propagation of Jersey stereotypes?
McCall: While it’s true that Springsteen’s songs have helped to establish some stereotypical mythologies about New Jersey. I consider his oeuvre so rich and intertextually dazzling that I can’t blame him the way I blame the film directors whose air-headed Mafioso flicks, so unpersuasive and hollowly archetypal, have brainlessly sullied our state’s reputation. Ultimately, all you can ask of a writer is that he engages with all stars blazing, rigorously and responsibly. If no other writer has been able to dislodge or even seriously contend with Springsteen as the originator of our state’s epic fiction, I can’t fault the Boss for that. We’re up against the very best here, the most powerful and memorable.
Rail: Okay, let’s go back to the New Jersey stereotypes. Depictions of New Jersey folks by the mullahs of mass culture currently range from the slacker clerks and mall rats of Kevin Smith to the suburban gangsters of The Sopranos. Are these stereotypes any more acceptable for being affectionate? Or is that a stupid question?
McCall: Affectionate or not, I consider them aesthetically bankrupt. Part of the reason I made this album was because I felt that if I saw one more representation of New Jersey as the land of Mafiosos, corrupt politicians, or lovable slacker dudes hanging out at Quick Check, I was going to tear out all my hair. I’m bored by the lack of imagination, the pro forma manner in which our state is represented. There might have been some aesthetic merit to those paradigms at one point, but the twentieth iteration of Goodfellas has none. Mobsters and slacker dudes are not inherently interesting, and stories about mobsters and slacker dudes definitely do not get at what is interesting about New Jersey. The intersection of technology and industry. Edge city/highway construction and the demands of the inner cities. The resettlement of waves of immigration. Genuinely functional political machines and their adherents. The rock and hip-hop subculture. The relationship with Manhattan and the financial industry. The polyglot sights along the major highways and train lines. The spectacle of people retrofitting old structures to accommodate new needs. The endless writing and rewriting of the landscape. The city as palimpsest.
Rail: Those aren’t characteristically New Jersey stories though, are they?
McCall: How about these options for new paradigms for New Jersey stories: a commuter, working in the financial services industry and living on the fringes of Jersey City, is fired and forced to move to and engage with Bergenline Avenue; a city planner looking to transform part of Trenton into condominiums to attract workers to the campus of a healthcare company in Lawrenceville; a startup company in the heart of Newark, staffed by gentrifiers; kids turning an abandoned building into a makeshift amphitheater, living part-time in the old Conrail tunnels; a career political functionary in Ocean County is thrust into the spotlight as a reluctant leader of a virulent “bennies go home” campaign; an immigrant in West New York is aided by, grows up in, becomes part of, and later betrays a political machine on charges of corruption; a white emcee and his crew turns a Morris County suburb into mayhem. Hollywood doesn’t want to tell stories like this, though. They’d rather show you Robert DeNiro blowing somebody’s head off with a pistol.
Rail: Your album, Bottles, opens with a stirring rock anthem dedicated to “The New Jersey Department of Public Works.” However, according to my much-thumbed copy of the New Jersey Legislative Directory, there is no such thing as a New Jersey Department of Public Works, and never has been. What’s the deal?
McCall: Bottles begins with “NJDPW” and “Janie Abstract” serving as a double intro—the first creates a gauzily-remembered fictional New Deal-type program, representing the kind of togetherness and industrial positivism that we imagine the 1930s and 1940s were like. It’s an imaginary echo of an imaginary government department, one that unified state residents through collective building projects. It’s supposed to sound like a dimly-remembered ideal, a dream of political and social cohesion achieved through identification with the state. “Janie Abstract” fast-forwards to the present and the actual—strip highways and commercial retrofitting of old retail establishments, class conflict, fragmentation, the haves and have-nots of modern technology, misrepresentation and aggressive development plans, postmodernity. New Jersey as I might have dreamt it, followed by New Jersey as I actually see it.
Jason Scorza, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey, is probably too old to be hanging out at clubs in Hoboken.