Wednesday, June 7, 2017

WILLIAMSBURG, BEFORE IT WAS A HIPSTER SHITHOLE


When I first discovered Williamsburg, Brooklyn, it was more than a wee bit dangerous. No kidding. There was a wonderful loft turned performance space called the Lizard's Tail from '88 to early '90, run by a very wonderful European couple named Terry Dineen (from Ireland) and Jean Francois (guess where). Located right under the Williamsburg Bridge, it was a great space to play and hang out in, and Jet Screamer and I played there as Living Guitars no less than three times. But it was in an area some of us were a bit unsure of. As such, we traveled there in packs for safety's sake. And indeed, I recall one night when Billy Syndrome almost lost his life to some merciless muggers while foolishly walking home alone across the bridge. I also remember a couple of years later, in '91, when I visited my friend and bandmate Scott Prato and we walked to the subway together past rows of menacing looking burnt-out crack houses. It was frightening for sure, but nothing really happened that time, we just minded our own and kept walking.

Anyway, the Lizard's Tail was the greatest performance space ever. I hung out there frequently, and me and all my friends played there at some point in their too-short existence. I vividly recall one Living Guitars show there in which we performed to accompaniment from a visual artist friend of ours which presaged my recent work with Josh Rogers' Broken Machine Films, though sadly, no video document exists. Syndrome was a regular fixture and I think he even lived there for a short while. We had lots of fun at the Tail throughout '89 and into early '90. Then some subhuman piece of shit torched the Happy Land Social Club speakeasy in the Bronx, cremating 87 people, after which a crackdown on similarly illegal nightclubs in the city was announced. Having just been reviewed in the Times that very same weekend, the Lizard's Tail closed up shop and re-emerged shortly thereafter as a floating operation renamed the Cat's Head, putting on shows of a much larger and more ambitious scope in abandoned buildings on the Williamsburg waterfront.


There were many of those hollowed out buildings and art shows taking place inside them at that time. There were also plenty of happenings and raves going on inside and outside like Keep Refrigerated (so named for the fact that the building they squatted was an abandoned meat storage facility). Then there was the Radioactive Bodega, which took the music fests out of the abandoned warehouses and literally into the streets. The all-day festival they staged right on the trashy East River waterfront in June of '94 still stands in my mind as the absolute coolest music fest I ever attended, a large but informal affair featuring all local bands, artists, good friends and personalities. What always impressed me about these affairs was the way they would incorporate the remains of whichever abandoned space was being squatted in creative ways, turning every room into a conceptual art piece. The June '94 affair even had an installation aboard an abandoned ferryboat!


The warehouse parties quickly came to an end when the cops came calling, but the aesthetic of those house affairs would be carried over to a space opened by members of Fly Ashtray (the world's greatest rock and roll band, and an all-too-huge influence on Pavement) called Rubulad, a combination party and recording studio space which hosted some very wonderful and surrealistic parties over the years, some of the best parties I've ever attended in my life. To this day Rubulad still exists, somewhere outside of Williamsburg now. But they're just about the only real link to the Williamsburg I once knew that's still functioning. God bless 'em for it.

Billy Syndrome, who was there right from the Lizard's Tail onward, was fond of using the sentiment "You either know or you don't" to describe it. Williamsburg was a place only truly cool, genuinely hip non-poseurs knew about. Working-class cool as opposed to rich pseudo-hip. With the gentrification of Greenwich Village came this bold new movement right across the river, setting up shop in what was by the early '90s a genuine sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of downtown. The place was getting safer, and rent was still cheap. There was a melting pot of influences all blending into a vibe that seemed urban on one hand, but down-home on the other.

Around the same time the Lizard's Tail closed, a new place opened around the corner, in a quiet area right on the waterfront, a watering hole called the Right Bank. This place would become a secret society of sorts for me and many others, one which not only fit Billy's motto, but would quickly involve him as well. Lots of great bands sprang up in the area around this time, and I myself was in two of them, beginning with Thundering Lizards, founded in 1991 with the abovementioned Scott Prato, which at one point had Jason Trachtenburg, pre-Family Slideshow Players, in its lineup. I left the Lizards around the same time as Malcolm Tent, the world's first and foremost punk rock accordionist, and in late '94 we formed Thai Raid. It was with these two bands that I would get to live out my most decadent rock & roll desires, including touring the Midwest (with the Lizards, which resulted in both Malcolm and I leaving the band), ingesting the occasional psychedelic substance (which I freely admit I greatly enjoyed), and making my kinkiest sexual fantasies come true (the details of which are none of your business, thank you).


The Right Bank was a particularly special place and indeed, my single fondest memory of those glorious days of the '90s when Williamsburg was actually cool. It sprang up literally out of nowhere on Kent Avenue, just under the Williamsburg Bridge and directly across the waterfront from the World Trade Center. Nowhere was Billy's "You know or you don't" motto more applicable than there, and fittingly, he was a key player in the scene which sprung up there, convincing its owner Kerry Smith to start putting on shows and promptly booking himself and his friends in there. I played the Right Bank with Thai Raid several times, and the studio we practiced in, which our drummer Jim designed and built, was right around the corner on a one block alleyway called Dunham Place. Jim and Greg had joined us at a time when their previous band Nice Undies, who featured the amazingly spine-tingling lead vocals of Amanda Pollack, was close to breaking up, and elected to stay on full-time when the Undies finally imploded.

The Right Bank became a home away from home to a crew of self-proclaimed "Baltimorons" who would make the place their main HQs when traveling to NYC from Maryland, with great people such as Mike Bell (drummer from Syndrome's band and a man of many other projects) and Tommy Tucker bringing their music and their local beer to the party on a regular basis. Mike remembers how the place known to some as "Little Baltimore" began when a close Baltimore friend migrated to NYC and took a job there: "Bonnie Bonell was the first bartender, which led to Kerry booking Baltimore bands who slept on the floor on the second story. That was also our home base for visitors and even bands that were playing other clubs. The first place you would go was the Right Bank to 'check in.' Eventually, Kerry started selling our hometown brew, National Bohemian aka 'Natty Boh.' We would bring up cases with us, and Kerry would drive to Baltimore himself to buy kegs. It was the ONLY place in NYC you could get Natty Boh!" New York magazine somehow took notice of the Right Bank and promptly put the bar on its front cover. Bear in mind that the headline is from 1992... a full quarter century ago!


Being just around the corner from the Hasidic section, the bar also attracted a young Jewish renegade known to its patrons as Curly Oxide, who was invited to join local space-rock legend Vic Thrill onstage one night (clad in his full traditional outfit no less) and kicked off a brief spell of regional stardom which caught SNL's attention and almost made Curly a movie star before his family finally got wise to what he was up to. It is very likely he's living a straight orthodox life to this day.


Our little music scene in the mid-90s was very unique to say the least. The bands represented all styles of music and then some, everything from punk to psych to country and rockabilly and even zydeco and merengue. So many cool bands... The Billy Syndrome and the Astro Zombies were my favorites, both just totally insane and loud and experimental. Vic Thrill, Colored Greens, Nice Undies, Xloty Fric 'N' Frac, Slick 50, Edith Frost and the Marfa Lights, TNT Mix, and so many others played the Charleston, the Ship's Mast (one of the few bars I've played that actually PAID its performers), Rocky's, and of course the Right Bank, whose "house band" soon became Tommy Tucker and the Bum Rush Band, a country-punk fusion led by "Baltimoron" Tucker and featuring members of Thai Raid. Only the Charleston still stands, and only as a mere shadow of what it once was. no longer serving pizza.

As a member of the Thundering Lizards, I saw our EP get reviewed in High Times. As a member of Thai Raid, I saw our EP spend two weeks at number one on Bill Kelly's Teenage Wasteland hit parade on WFMU. Neither honor brought us much fame outside of Williamsburg (or maybe even within for that matter). But we were SO much cooler than any of today's pseudo-hipster inhabitants, and I will participate in absolutely no arguments about that proclamation, thank you very much.


Bedford Ave. in the 1990s. Oh, to have it back again. It didn't resemble St. Mark's Place in the slightest then. Band practices would routinely end with various configurations of band members grabbing pizza at the Charleston, then a combo pizzeria and bar run at the time by an old couple who had opened the place right there in the late '60s and loved to brag about how Kool and the Gang used to play there regularly before they hit it big. It was a great place, and a great block, to have a QUIET slice after a hard evening's work. The real beauty of Bedford, though, lay in the way it was zoned. The north side was largely Polish, spilling over from neighboring Greenpoint, but as you made your way from north to south the area suddenly became Hispanic, and by the time you hit the deep south you were fully immersed in a Hasidic wonderland. It was almost like visiting Warsaw, San Juan, and Tel Aviv all in just fifteen minutes. Oh, and there was a great Salvation Army Thrift Store just outside the Bedford Ave. L train stop. And NO fucking Starbucks. Earwax Records did exist, but it was much less slick then, more of a crate digger's haven than anything else, though always run by WFMU's Fabio Roberti, and it's cool to see he's still there at least. But who else remains with him?

Oh, those wonderful days before 9/11. The Twin Towers glowing from across the river, and the rich kids staying on that side of the river where they belonged, while we, the true pioneers of whatever you know today, had OUR special little thing going on which none of them could touch. But times have changed. Billy Syndrome is now deceased, and so are Jean Francois of the Lizard's Tail and Kerry Smith who owned the Right Bank. Most of those still living have moved far away, myself certainly included. The kids of today will never know what Williamsburg really was or coulda, shoulda been. They've inherited a very different 'hood than the one we lived in, one where all that remains of the old world is the view from the bridge. I'm sure they have memories of their own to make. But goddamn it, at what cost to mine?


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