A Ramones shirt. A CBGB sticker. New York City is haunted by its past, inundated with evidence of things that were once very real but now exist only in the spirit of fleeting youth bands and D.I.Y. venues. Gentrification is like cancer, slowly eating away at these rarified relics of punk rock that are inexorably N.Y.C. The Brooklyn What’s Jamie Frey sums it up in his lyrical lament “Punk Rock Loneliness”: “Down here on Bleeker and Bowery, where CBGB’s used to be, this place just ain’t that cool to me anymore.”
Old school authenticity may be suffering from major overdevelopment, but the Brooklyn What are innately Brooklyn—born and raised. The band’s devotion to its home borough is more than just branding; it also comes with a deep sense of social purpose. When they first formed, in 2007, the high school pals from Edward R. Murrow were active in opposing the Atlantic Yards Project. Proceeds from their 2009 release, The Gentrification Rock EP, went to funding the nonprofit Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn.
“That was part of the early mission of the band, in a way that we were sort of part of the protest movement against [Atlantic Yards],” Frey explains. “Our first song on our first record was called ‘I Don’t Want to Go to Williamsburg,’ which I wrote when I was like 18 years old, when that shit started happening.”
Their beloved mainstay, the original Freddy’s Bar on 6th Ave. and Dean St., has since suffered relocation by malignant domain, supplanted by a billion dollars of preweathered steel. In the spirit of accountability, the Gentrification Rock EP is dedicated to Bruce Ratner and Marty Markowitz.
“A lot of money came from Bruce Ratner’s corporation as donations to [Markowitz’s] personal nonprofits while they were developing the Atlantic Yards project,” says O’Donnell. “I don’t think that that thing was considered with the best interest of Brooklynites in mind.”
The band’s latest record stands as nostalgic testament to a specter of old world Brooklyn. Tackling subjects from puppy love to post-college despair, Hot Wine resounds with the desperation of an epic subway trip to a Coney Island lost in time.
Each track on Hot Wine reflects the band’s collectivism through individual songwriting process. The record contains a wide array of influences. Songs like “Catastrophe Kids” and “The Basement” are straight-up Jersey power-punk, while “Come to Me” has a doo-wop patina that’s distinctly Flatbush. “Crush You So Fast” turns L’Amourcore; “Tomorrow Night” has a CBGB roots twang. In its entirety, the album resists subcategorization beyond N.Y.C. rock ’n’ roll. In Frey’s words, “this record is almost like a statement to not do one thing.”
The title track alone is a testament to the band’s heterogeneity. “Hot Wine” is an ambitious ballad conceptualized and composed by guitarist Billy Cohen. In a prophetic dream, he discovers an evil Mayor Bloomberg’s plans to deep-fry children on the Coney Island boardwalk. Swinging from a rope of linked sausages with a buxom babe on each arm, a superheroic Cohen beheads the mayor and saves the day. The ballad builds from dreamy, anthemic intro to electric bridge, finally exploding in a ragtime party pit.
“If you put a bunch of different people from the city in a room and ask them to kind of figure out who the fuck they are in the context of Bloomberg’s New York, this is what you get. And it involves a lot of nostalgia because of all the things that we associate with home,” says O’Donnell. “I think there’s a searching on the record to try to find what Brooklyn means to us now.”
For the band, Hot Wine marks a period of survival and loss, not only of the Brooklyn they once knew, but also of their bandmate. Billy Cohen passed away in 2010 after an eight-year battle with cancer. Hot Wine is dedicated to the memory of their childhood friend, a classically-trained musician and neoclassical composer.
Following his death, Cohen’s family founded the Billy Cohen Scholarship Fund. Through donations and the band’s annual fundraiser, the charity raises scholarship funds for a student, chosen from their high school alma mater, who is living with childhood cancer.
The Brooklyn What have pushed to release Billy’s music and perpetuate his legacy. In a career spanning nearly 10 years, they have cancelled only one gig—on the weekend of Billy’s death. “It was a dark period for the band because ultimately we’re entertainers and we have to get up and make people feel good,” Frey says. “He was my best friend,” recounts O’Donnell. “After he died we got really determined and pulled ourselves together. We got a new residency, put out a bunch of new demos—The South Brooklyn Singles. We started rebuilding.”
The future of Brooklyn, the band hopes, will involve a rock ’n’ roll renaissance. Frey aspires to open an all-ages locale to make up for the lack of small venues in South Brooklyn.
“It’s been rough, but as we keep going, Brooklyn becomes a place I like to play more,” Frey admits. “It’s better than it used to be. Things are getting better, and finally, I think that people want to hear guitar based rock ’n’ roll. Finally.”
CHARLY HIMMEL is a D.J., artist, and Brooklyn College graduate from Chicago.