I first heard I Feel Tractor at Matchless in 2005, less than a year after I’d moved to Greenpoint from Fayetteville, Arkansas.
I think Eddie Berrigan was playing with two others, although I really only remember him and his acoustic guitar. Tractor was definitely his brainchild, the centerpiece his lilting tenor that reminded me, pleasantly, of a bauble toy—the way he could hiccup notes into one another as he meandered through his upper register. He relied on lots of cyclical strumming structures that harkened back to all those folk and blues greats that I’d talked to him about. After the show I walked the 15 or so blocks up Manhattan Avenue, passing the Polish bakeries and meat markets, the Puerto Rican bodegas, and finally the Acapulco Deli and Restaurant that marked my block of Clay Street.
North Greenpoint was still sleepy then, especially the stretch along Franklin. All the grocery stores and restaurants closed fairly early. The boutiques hadn’t landed yet; there was only one place to get coffee and brunch, and only a couple of bars north of Greenpoint Avenue.
By spring of 2008, when I packed up a moving van and said goodbye to Brooklyn, the transformation was already happening. Boutiques and upscale bars had staked their claim, and my all-time favorite coffee shop had opened just off my block. But I still wasn’t prepared for what I saw when I visited in late May, despite previous pilgrimages, as I walked to the Music Hall of Williamsburg for Eddie’s big gig.
Where we once hosted poetry readings and had my 30th birthday party in what was an artist-run event/production space called East Coast Aliens, there’s now a 24-hour grocery so you can pick up organic milk and Odwalla smoothies at 3 a.m. Close by, the Hair Metal Salon looked absolutely ripped off Bedford Avenue, and that’s exactly what Franklin now resembles.
Then there’s the transformation of dungeon-like Northsix into the polished indie-rock arena Music Hall of Williamsburg. I get all nostalgic for Beirut’s third-ever show, where I stood right by the stage, now completely unrecognizable and reinvented as the multi-level Music Hall all slicked out with neon lights.
I’d never seen I Feel Tractor in such a large venue, though Eddie was dressed, as usual, in a T-shirt and jeans. Tonight he had the help of KB Jones on the saw and Lightning Fay on melodica, ukulele, harmonica, and percussion. Though the venue was by far the largest I’d ever seen him play, the delivery was as intimate as ever, and the set, which lasted around 35 minutes, was tight. Many of Eddie’s friends were there, so we all congregated near the entrance and congratulated him on an amazing show. And that was just the opening act, with Eileen Myles reading new poems and a portion of her novel Inferno, plus Thurston Moore playing songs to celebrate his new solo album Demolished Thoughts still to come.
I’d just finished Inferno, so I was eager to hear Eileen read from it. She joked about how she’d been prepared to read to a noisy audience, but was pleased with how well everyone was paying attention. She read from the chapter titled “the poetry field,” which was all about an awkward meeting between Eileen and some girl who wanted to find out about “opportunities in the poetry field” from her. Myles read like a rock star—well, she is a rock star. The bill was quintessential NYC, Eddie himself a poet and son of two towering NYC poets. Eddie, Eileen, Thurston—they were all so casual in jeans and tees or button-up shirts.
Though the crowd was good for Eddie’s set and Eileen’s reading, it was packed when Thurston finally took the stage, opening with “Mina Loy” and dedicating it to I Feel Tractor. I didn’t write down which song he dedicated to Eileen, but he did that too. (It’d been a long time since I’d taken notes at a live show, and I was also busy catching up with old friends.)
Thurston’s Demolished Thoughts was blissfully mellow and swelled with strings, and he had a harpist (Mary Lattimore) and violinist (Samara Lubelski) on stage with him to perform the new songs. In addition to his own multiple acoustic guitars, he had the help of a second acoustic guitarist, Keith Wood, and a drummer, John Moloney. Grainy black-and-white videos played on an oversized screen behind them, and the large crowd stayed rather quiet, absorbed by the delicate harp plucks and the intricate blissful strums of Thurston, whose presence still radiates a boyishness despite his 50-some years.
My legs got tired. I went up to the balcony and sat in a corner. I hadn’t been to a show in months. Many of the friends I’d hung out with earlier had already left—they were there to see Eddie, not Thurston. At around 11, I decided to leave and take my walk along Kent to Franklin back to the friend’s apartment where I was staying. On my walk home in the early summer air that smelled of beer and the sewage-treatment plant, I again awed at all the new businesses transforming the North Brooklyn landscape. But it was still good to be home, making that walk as I’d done so many times before, if only for a little while.