On St. Marks Place, half the people pictured on the T-shirts being sold were dead. Almost all of the rest were for bands that broke up or peaked 10 or 25 years ago. Nostalgia and archaeology. Coney Island High was boarded up and the place the Velvet Underground played was a mini-mall. What was the point of being geeked on bands these days, like, of knowing who was in the Faces and who was in the Small Faces, or feeling like you were Overend Watts with a Thunderbird or Arthur Kane because he had a Telecaster? It was just another form of celebrity-sucking now.
The sidewalks were packed with legions of the rich and clueless, people who would have been scared shitless to come east of First Avenue even 10 years ago. Shiny, waxy young women gabbling and chirping on cellphones, filing toward the hundreds of bars. They all reeked of money. Ten bucks a drink or more, it’d cost you 30 bucks just to get a mild buzz on. When he was their age, he was working for minimum wage. These days that would be two hours’ pay for one cocktail.
“Excuse me,” asked a black guy with smooth dreads, “which way is Alphabet City?” No one who actually lived there ever called it Alphabet City. It was the Lower East Side to the Jews and leftists, the East Village to the arty, Loisaida to the Puerto Ricans, the Lower to the B-boys, or Letterland, as one campy young queen put it, back in the days when it was A you’re adventurous, B you’re brave, C you’re crazy, D you’re dead, and F.D.R. you’re face down in the river. It was like seeing the corpse of an old friend who they hadn’t had the fucking decency to give a proper burial.
The walls used to blossom with homemade flyers for bands, plays, art galleries, and politics, with weird graffiti and murals: There was one guy who did metal-paint stuff that looked like silver rake handles; another who stenciled THE WORLD IS BEING RIPPED—two giant sets of incisors crunching into the globe—BY MEN WHO TRADE IN HUMAN BLOOD; that Missing Foundation upside-down martini-glass thing; some band called Health Hen that spray-painted stencils of chicken tracks and old-style black dial telephones. The former bush telegraph of the underground, messages and directions and cryptic symbols, now it was all posters for cellphone companies and prison-rape reality shows, big, full-color glossy ones for breath mints, blockbuster movies, and hip-hop albums by some wanker in a chauffeured Hummer. It was illegal to put up flyers but that law only went for the little guys. He vaguely remembered some zine editor getting busted for it, fighting it and losing; CBGB getting fined 600 dollars for some band putting flyers for their show there on lampposts.
“Move it, pops,” someone interrupted. Who the fuck? Two guys around six inches bigger than him. He edged aside, lit a cigarette. He headed east, passing by the bars he’d spent a thousand nights in. Pluto, the Lizard Lounge, the Snakepit, Gloria’s. Passing by the new bars he’d never been in, scores of them, upscale lounges with glass windows, theme park dives, faux-French bistros. Picking his way through more hordes of the young and rich, gaggles and clusters smoking outside the bars. Snatches of conversation: “That’s one of the benefits of alcohol.” “For $300,000 all you can get is a hovel.” Where the fuck do all these people come from? He crossed Avenue A to the power-station side where the crowd was thinner.
“Yo, Underend! Bassman!” called a voice from the shadows by the wall. Part Spanglish, part Brooklynese spit and glee, a bit of dying-chainsaw junkie grind, from a short dude in a ragged camo jacket, spectral and chunky, steward of a spread of used books and magazines on the sidewalk.
“How’s it goin’, man?” A generic greeting while Underend’s brain fumbled to remember who the geezer was.
“Tato bien, man, can’t complain.”
Oh yeah, Tato, an old scenester long gone from the world of bands and clubs and into that of dope and memory. Tato was of uncertain ethnicity, somewhere between Italian and Puerto Rican. He’d grown up on the Lower East Side, drugs his bridge between the ghetto street and the neighborhood’s countercultures, between the pleasure-seeking utopias and the looking-out-for-number-one hustle. Acid, weed, and pills in the Santana hippie days, dope moving up in the urban crisis and when punk came in, then taking over, taking him back to the street. He’d gotten his name from “tato bien,” the olly-olly-oxen-free of the Loisaida junkie world, called by lookouts when the cops were gone and picked up by Tato as his mantra of positive thinking.
“How you doin’?” Tato clapped and clasped his hand.
“Not bad. What’s up?”
“The Gutters, man... when you gonna get back together? How’s Mickey?”
“You know, he called me a couple nights ago. But I don’t know.”
“You should, man. You and Mickey and that girl Trisha.”
“Whatever the fuck her name was. Tanya. Patty Hearst. Tammy Faye Bakker. You oughta do it. Why dontcha?”
“I don’t know. There’s a lot of issues, you know.” Underend wasn’t into expounding on the reasons for the band divorce, the petty and the real.
“Nah, fuck that, it’s all old stuff. Forget all that old bullshit. Youse should do it. Fuckin’ rock out, there ain’t no real music any more. You hear CB’s is closing?”
“Yeah, that’s fucked up.”
“And Coney Island, too? They’re sellin’ it to Disney World.”
“So we couldn’t do ‘Cyclone,’ it’d be a Disney commercial?”
“Cyclone” was a Gutter Astronomers instrumental, the B-side of their last indie 45. Scott started it out with a hip-hop beat while Underend did scratches, scraping his roundwound strings with a pick and running it into a wah-wah pedal. Then Tina hung a chord, Scott detonated a surf roll, and Tina raced into some double-picked clockwork palpitations over Underend’s Ramones rumble, then the three of them traded riffs and rolls, breaking down back to the scratches again and roaring back. Underend had brought the basics in, and the band fleshed it out and fertilized it. He liked it, felt he’d captured the spirit of Coney Island in two minutes 49, and that they’d also done something original, doing a loud-fast tune that wasn’t a punk cliché, copped a hip-hop flavor without doing lamo imitation rap. But it had been gone from the set the minute Tina was gone from the band. Mick couldn’t stand to shut up for three minutes, and he wouldn’t condescend to be a lowly tambourine or maracas player.
“‘Cyclone.’ That was a great tune, man!”
“Yeah, thanks.” Well, if Tato knows that one, he’s a hardcore Gutter Astronomers fan, not just some old burnout trying to suck up to a faded star. “No, seriously, it’s fucked up what’s happening in the city.”
“You know it, man.” Tato dropped to a whisper. “You need anything?”
“No, I got six years in the program now.”
“That’s good. You doin’ the right thing.” A weird bit of junkie psychology, admiring those who left the life they were unwilling to quit. Underend walked on. If they close CBGB’s and Coney Island, they cut the soul out of New York, like the Aztecs cutting out the heart of a sacrificial victim. Only it’s not a Jimi-Hendrix-at-Monterey “I’m gonna sacrifice something that I really love” immolation, not an offering to the gods of Newyorktitlan so the streets of Sunset Park may ring with corrido accordions, that Roosevelt Avenue may pulse to cumbia, for the Bronx to boom and bump with reggaeton. Just the routine carnage of the market, the ruthless god that chews up everything in its path and shits it out as product. Cut the heart out and sell it to a dog food company. Replace it with a logo, a theme-park bar where it costs five bucks to breathe and $12 for a drink of water. And you will buy the product because it is the closest you can get to the original, the thing you want.
STEVE WISHNIA is a former editor at High Times and a musician who played with the False Prophets. He now writes regularly for AlterNetabout civil rights and civil liberties issues. When the Drumming Stops, his first novel, came out in October from Manic D Press. Excerpt by permission of author.