Kenny Klein with Stapler

Kenny Klein with Stapler

Thursday, November 24, 2011

NY/HC---my involvement with NYC Hardcore Punk

NYC in the early '80s was not the beautiful city it is today. It was a slime pit. It was cruel, filthy, squalid and rank with the odor of desperation. In the East Village, where I grew up (or actually avoided growing up) the sidewalks were thoroughly dotted with faded globs that might have been chewed gum or dried spit, or maybe something else that I never really cared to identify. There was trash everywhere, and a walk down the street at any time of the day or night involved junkies begging for change and homeless people sleeping on sidewalks. Once I was walking down Eighth Street and I watched a young woman walk into a doorway, pull her pants down, squat slightly forward, and let lose a stream of piss in the direction of the door (her pubic hair was facing me). Another time I watched a disheveled man relieve his bowels between two parked cars as I sat at an outdoor cafe. Once, walking home in the early morning hours, I saw a dog lying dead on the curb. It's ear had been shot off.

To anyone who did not grow up in this type of squalor it sounds horrible, oppressive and disgusting. But I just considered it my home, my world. I'd lived there most of my young life, and didn't really know anything else. Oh, I'd been to the pristine New Jersey suburbs, enough to know I could never live there. New York City, and specifically the East Village, was my bailiwick. At the time, I could not imagine myself living anywhere else.

I'd lived on Saint Marks place throughout my teens in the early '70s. The music scene there was what we would now call Glam Rock or Glitter Rock. It was the time of Iggy Stooge (who later became Iggy Pop), the Velvet Underground, and David Bowie. Men in the scene were androgynous, women were caught up in heroin chic (in their look at least, if not in their use of the substance). Disco raged across the rest of the world. Blocks away in Greenwich Village Hippie Country and Folk were still king; but the East Village was all about The New York Dolls and Lou Reed. It was the earliest incarnation of what by '76 would be called Punk Rock.

Time marches on. I went off to university ninety miles upstate (it was so clean there!), and returned in the winter of '79. I'd missed the early Punk scene in the East Village, the Ramones and the CBGBs bands (Talking Heads, Blondie, Television). I'd been part of that scene at school, but missed the type of immersion in it that residents of the East Village had known. But now it was 1979, turning to 1980, and I was back.

The winter of '79-80 was freezing. Record cold was reported in NYC. I was homeless for a good part of that winter, couch surfing between my brother, a couple of fellow musicians, a neurotic prostitute, an ex girlfriend, and the sister of a girlfriend, and living for a short time in a transient hotel, until I finally got an apartment on 12th and A (through a Punk girl I was sleeping with who was cheating on her BF, and who had learned from her BF that there was an apartment opening up in his building, so I ended up living down the hall from, you guessed it, her was simply like that in the East Village). It was a two room tenement that was divided by a wall with a window in it into the “kitchen” (which also contained the bathroom, shower, and a spare bed) and the “not kitchen” or bedroom. I lived there alone at times, and at other times with a gorgeous Punk girl named Carol (my friend and confidant, but never my lover). Rents were not what they are today: I moved in to the place at $135/month. In the four years or so that I lived there it went up to $156 (which I could barely afford). I imagine if that tenement apartment is even still there, it must go for $1200 or more now.

CBGBs was no longer the place by 1980. The club, still a sleezepit on Bowery, was attracting a lot of Bridge-and-Tunnel types after its heyday in '76. The bands now were mostly local New Wave and Reggae groups. Not cutting edge, more like reliving the cutting edge of four years earlier. Some of the scene had moved to Max's Kansas City, a club in Gramercy where Andy Warhol had hung out for most of the '70s. The Ritz on 9th street, a very large ballroom style hall, had commercial bands on the weekends, but had cool bands on a Monday or Tuesday: I saw Madness, Siouxie and the Banshees, Richard Hell, Lydia Lunch, The Rockats, The Slits, and Bow Wow Wow there, to name a few (and that's Bow Wow Wow, not Li'l Bow Wow, you moron).

But by '81, the real Underground Hardcore Punk scene was centered around tiny after hours clubs. The one I frequented the most was on Seventh and A, called (in what must have been a particularly unimaginative naming session) A7. The place opened after midnight, and showed six or seven bands a night, closing at five or six in the morning. The bands that played there are legendary now, but at the time they were just kids playing music: The Beastie Boys, The Stimulators, The Cro-Mags, The Undead, Reagan Youth, The Young And The Useless, The Misfits, The Bad Brains, The Moppy Skuds (whose members later became Luscious Jackson: photo left), Even Worse, and Agnostic Front. The Plasmatics hung out there, as did Billy Idol (yes, I hung out with them, and no, it was no big deal to do so back then). The place was tiny, smelly, crowded and disgusting. There was a small bar as you entered from Seventh Street, and past that a few booths with the pleather torn and the stuffing coming through. Then there was the stage area, which maybe held an audience of twenty comfortably: fifty would cram themselves in there and do the dance we called HB-ing and you call Moshing.

Like most bars in the East Village in the '80s, age or proper ID were seldom factors in being served. A7 served alcohol to girls I knew to be as young as 13. So did other bars; a Ukrainian old man bar on Saint Marks Place was a common hangout, as was the Pyramid Club on Avenue A. People drank a lot in the scene, but there was seldom any violence or drama. Most people just drank, HB-ed, and listened to (or played) music. I only saw one fight at A7, ever, between Billy Idol and a sort of creepy guy who pretended to have an English accent and claimed to have played with the Beatles (he was from Long Island and was just about reaching puberty while the Beatles were breaking up). Creepy boy spit beer in Billy's face, so I did not blame the rock star for decking the guy. Although I'm sure you can guess who had to take creepy boy home and make sure he didn't have a concussion... yes, that's right, me. Creepy boy was actually a fairly decent drummer by the way, when he wasn't spitting beer in the faces of rock stars. Anyway, after the Hardcore shows we would all go to one of three Ukrainian restaurants for dawn breakfast: Leshkos or Odessa, both on Avenue A, or The Kiev on Second Ave. The waitresses were all cute underage Ukrainian nymphets who hardly spoke English, and the food was cheap. Sunday at dawn Leshko's was a who's who of Hardcore Punk.

In those days I had a sort of double identity (like a secret agent). I would dress in a crisp cowboy shirt and a neatly folded neck bandana at seven or so, and go off to New Jersey to play Country music with bands like the New York Frets. Then I would return to Manhattan at one or two in the morning, change into a torn cowboy shirt and a grubby neck bandana, and head over to A7 to hear The Beastie Boys and Agnostic Front.

On the home front, I was in a band at the time called Mara, who played at A7 with some regularity. Mara did tribal dark Gothic music long before there was a market for it. We had a manic drummer and a guitarist who actually played in tune once. I played bass, and we had a hot singer who I should have appreciated more but who came off a little too suburban for me at the time (I never make any secret about the fact that I was an idiot as a young man). Later the band got a new singer, a blindingly beautiful Punk girl named Diana, who sang about castrating deserving men (she was adorable), and we changed our name to Black Widow (no relation to my Goth Girl song, written a decade or so later). The photo here is of myself and drummer Patrick in Mara, playing at A7 in '82. (Patrick was an awesome drummer, and a great guy).

Around that time ('81-ish) a guy named Dave Parsons and his girlfriend Cathy came to NYC from Boca Raton, Florida. They opened a record shop and distribution outlet at 171 venue A beneath a local recording studio, called Rat Cage Records, and published a fanzine which they named for their former Florida home, Mouth Of The Rat. (The issue of MOTR pictured here shows Janet Whitehouse on the cover, as I recently learned from some excellent follow up e-mail). Rat Cage Records released some of the first and most influential Hardcore Punk records, including the first Beastie Boys EP Pollywog Stew (which was later released on Capitol Records as Some Old Bullshit). Most of the recordings were done just upstairs at 171 Studios. Rat Cage and 171 became the daytime hangout for many the Hardcore kids. You could walk into Rat Cage pretty much any afternoon and find members of the Beastie Boys, Luscious Jackson, The Bad Brains and The Cro Mags hanging out. The Bad Brains often lived upstairs in the recording studio when they were not living on my kitchen floor (my model-beautiful room mate was, um, 'dating' the bassist, and 'dating' is simply a euphemism for 'giving blow jobs to:' I would often come home to find him in her bed with the rest of the band passed out on my floor. All of this happened in the 'other room' of my two-room tenement apartment, which was the kitchen/studio/bathroom).

Rat Cage founder Dave Parsons was a brilliant character, who became well known in the East Village scene not only for MOTR and Rat Cage Records, but also for wearing his GF's dresses while recklessly skateboarding along Avenue A, narrowly avoiding drag queen death under the wheels of speeding cars. (I hear he later became a woman, Donna, and moved to New Orleans).

Speaking of Mouth Of The Rat, Fanzines sprang up all over the Hardcore scene, exhibiting a squalid character only possible in the days before desktop publishing. There were a dozen floating around the East Village: Noise News (left), Cheap Garbage, Big City; the 'zine at the top of this post, Decline of Art, was put out by the local NYHC girls, including Jill Cunniff, Kate Schellenbach, Rebecca Scanlon and Sarah Cox, among others.

For me, this idyllic existence lasted about four years. As I said above, time marches on. Rat Cage Records and 171 Studio were closed down by the health department for lacking fire exits (no real surprise to anyone). The owner of A7 absconded with any and all funds and left the place closed down. The East Village was gentrified, after a police scandal involving “clearing out” Tompkins Square Park by bashing the heads of Punks, homeless people and a few waitresses and reporters (the captain who ordered the action retired on full pension before charges could be brought up, leaving his lieutenant to take all of the heat). My roommate who 'dated' Bad Brains' bassist Darryl married a normal guy, moved to Brooklyn and had a bunch of kids. Her best friend, also a frequent guest at Chez Klein, moved to England and became a well known photographer. I speak to her frequently. I myself went on the road playing original music in '86, and never returned to live in NYC for any length of time.

I sometimes say I'm the only one of my friends from that scene that is now not either dead or famous. I'm sometimes amazed at the number of 'kids' from among our friends that went on to achieve fame. The Beastie Boys broke up, reformed, broke up, reformed, and became the rap group everyone now knows and worships. Two of the underage drinking girls from the Moppy Skuds, and the original founder and drummer of the Beastie Boys, formed Luscious Jackson and became amazingly famous (and still beautiful and stylish, as they had always been). Another Moppy Skud is Arrabella Field, the actress. Yet another of that band was the first solo female to circumnavigate the world. The Cro Mags and the Bad Brains are still touring.

A few did not make it. My close friend at the time, Bobby, was sentenced to life in prison after a drug deal gone bad that involved a murder (which I'm pretty certain was self defense). Another friend, a girl I was kinda sweet on, went to England and got stabbed during a drug deal. She died over there. Heroin killed a lot of Hardcore Punks, as did the lifestyle we led. Johnny Thunders, Stiv Baters, Dave (Donna) Parsons...the list of those that did not survive NYC Hardore is a long and impressive one.

From NOLA, and once upon a time from NY/HC, this is Kenny Klein explaining it all.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Travelers and the Day of the Dead Parade in NOLA

The night was warm, with a slight breeze coming from the river. Lauren and I arrived a little early at Press and Dauphine, an industrial block of warehouses along the train tracks. A crowd was already gathered there, many with painted faces in the black and white style of the Mexican-inspired holiday. A group of Travelers I vaguely knew were playing banjos and ukuleles, so I got out my fiddle and joined in. They were not the excellent musicians I usually play with: it was more of a chordal screaming match. But we had fun playing just for each other, and it felt good to play music among my friends again.

A lot of friends were there. Musicians I'd played with all last Fall and Winter. There was joy at seeing them again. "How was your Summer? When did you get back? Where are you staying?"
As I stood and sawed the fiddle, the crowd swelled to perhaps three hundred. Many of us had not seen each other since last Spring, and there were warm greetings a hugs on every side of me. I saw many musicians and friends who had just returned, some arriving yesterday or the day before. Some drove in, some hitch-hiked, some came by hopping freight trains. We were all together again tonight. Travelers from all over the U.S. had finally returned to NOLA for the winter season, and this was the first huge Traveler event of our year: the Day of the Dead Parade.

At the head of this swarm of people, the brass band began a dirge, and the huge mass of black-clad bodies collected itself in some fashion and began a slow saunter down Dauphine.

The Day of the Dead Parade through the Bywater is not a parade like you migh see in a small town, or standing outside Macy's in New York, with floats, ordered ranks of drum majorettes, baton twirlers, and a smiling cowboy on a horse: this is a quarter mile of moving chaos. Travelers simply walk in a disordered mass, wearing Day of the Dead make-up, black dresses, suits or tuxes, pushing their bikes, wheeling carts with their dogs inside or their costumed children beaming their elation at the spectacle, holding up poles with decorated heads on them, carrying banjos, ukuleles, accordions and fiddles strapped to their backs, while the brass band plays dirges and leads us through the bleakest streets in NOLA. People stare out their windows, photograph us, and smile as we walk past, a beautiful mob of pierced, mohawked, dreadlocked and shaven-headed revelers.

We felt a little tension, a hint of dread and wariness: last year when we did our end-of-the-season parade, Eris, police raided the group and arrests were made. Some are still fighting charges. Two weeks ago I listened to a concert by local bands to benefit some who are still in jail, or who need money for legal counsel. Lauren and I marched with eyes and ears open, wary of flashing red-and-blue lights. I'm happy to report none were seen.

We walked ten blocks, from the Bywater to the Upper 9th Ward. These areas are seasonal home to many of the Travelers, and this was both a spiritual event, and a celebration of being here, back in the city we love, after being away for the summer, playing our shows across the U.S.A. It was a time to reconnect and, for many, imbibe. ( As I say during shows: "Remember, for every ten dollars you put in the band's tip jar, two dollars will be lovingly donated to the Pabst Blue Ribbon Brewing Company! Keep American jobs!!")

The mob ended up in the Upper 9th at some tavern. I didn't stay to drink; marching with my reunited friends was enough, and unlike most of us, Lauren has a job to wake for in the morning. But just marching, in a New Orleans parade, with the musicians I love making music and sharing my life with, was an amazing start to the season. Happy Day of the Dead!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Busking Now, or Please Clap In The Same Rhythm As Us!

Well, it's official. Last night I busked here in New Orleans for the first time this season.

As you might know from a recent Blog, after I left New York back in the '80s I really didn't busk for many years. Mind you, I performed at renaissance faires, which is just a small step above busking---sort of like busking with a pay guarantee. (And really I prefer the costume I wear here, “anachronistic itinerant street musician,” but hey, I wear what I get paid to wear, right?). But for many years I gave up playing on public streets for tips.

There was one exception, and that was when I first began coming to New Orleans in 2001 or so.

It was early winter. I was coming from what was supposed to be an eight-month-long cruise gig, but that gig was cut short due to a bad agent and the spent budget of a laughable start-up cruise ship line (be grateful you were not on their one ship, a Greek ferry sent to the U.S. to “cruise” the Caribbean; it was a nightmare! And maybe the subject of a future Blog...). I was returning across the I-10 to Los Angeles, and decided to stop over in New Orleans. I needed money, as I'd been paid for only one month instead of the eight months I was expecting. I had heard the busking was good in NOLA. So, poor and desperate, I thought I'd see what the busking here was like for myself.

First I just stood out in the street alone and played the fiddle. I made like fourteen bucks. Rather disappointing. But then I noticed an Old Timey band setting up in front of the A&P on Royal (Now the Rouse's, still a French Quarter landmark). They had a washboard player, a guitarist, bass, mandolin, banjo...but no fiddle. I wandered over and asked if I could join them, and (as I learned will often happen here in NOLA), they happily consented. We played for two or three hours, had an amazing good time, and I made like fifty bucks. Nice, huh? I thought so.

I played with those guys every day for the following week, then left NOLA for Los Angeles, where I was living at the time.

Several years passed. I stayed in L.A., and each time I thought about returning to NOLA in the year or two after Katrina, I heard rumors that it was dangerous, there was violent crime, homelessness, etc etc... Not a very heartwarming story. I decided to wait, feeling that I would surely return here someday, hopefully as a permanent resident.

Finally a year and a half ago I came back, ostensibly to visit a girlfriend, and I remembered how much I love it here (pretty much the minute I arrived, the GF in question broke up with me; I see her as the catalyst that brought me back). I love the architecture, I love the weather, I love the mules, I love the nutria. I also love the fact that NOLA is the only place in the U.S. where I will busk!

And busk I did!

One year ago: It's Saturday night on Frenchmen street, and I'm out with Hank and Corey. I met these two in a bar just about my first week back, and we became immediate friends and band mates. They are part of a culture which I have also been part of nearly all my life, a culture of traveling buskers and performers (see my article on this culture, originally published in the Green Egg, here). Like a lot of traveling buskers, Corey and Hank play a style of music I love to play; Jugband music. Some of the songs are Jazz tunes from the twenties, thirties and forties, some are appropriated from Bluegrass and Western Swing. All are swinging, jazzy tunes with room for fiddle and guitar solos. I knew most of Corey's repertoire already before we met, and I learned the rest by playing the songs as we performed. There are no rehearsals for this style of playing; musicians know the style and either play well together or don't. Corey, Hank and I play well together.

That first night we also had Taylor playing with us on stand-up bass. The boy is a bass genius, and I played with him in several different bands throughout the season. Corey played ukulele (later she took up bass as well, and played in several other bands with me on that instrument). We did a lot of Jazz tunes that first night, as well as Country standards like Rolling In My Sweet Baby's Arms and Folsom Prison Blues. Corey has a gorgeous voice, and we sing well together, and Hank plays a good rhythm guitar and, like a lot of buskers here, drinks like a fish. (I joke that for every ten dollars the band makes, two dollars will be donated to the Pabst Blue Ribbon Brewing Company).

There is a door-frame on Frenchmen that makes a perfect busking stage: it's three steps above the street, and it's walled in, so it looks like a performance stage and accommodates four or five musicians. There plenty of sidewalk space for people to gather and listen, and it's well lit. Perfect for busking! That is where we set up shop for most of the season, playing hour long sets two to three times a night, sometimes alternating sets in the spot with another band.

Playing on Frenchman is, as Dickens put it, the best of times and the worst of times. For the most part, you have an amazing audience of people who are in town to hear good music, who want to celebrate and dance, and who have discovered you randomly simply be walking down the street. They become very attached to you for a few songs, tip generously (tens and twenties in the case are not uncommon, and we have received fifties and hundreds). They want to dance, sing along, and tell you their life story.

This is the good part (well, except sometimes for the life story).

The bad part: some are really really drunk. Drunk people tend to be obnoxious, and we get a lot of obnoxious drunks in our audience. That's never all that good. They scream. They gurgle. They fall, sometimes on you as you try to play. They want attention. They want love. They want to play your instruments. They want to touch you. They want money from your tip case. They want to clap along loudly and completely out of rhythm. Some want your first born. Some inspire you to never ever have a first born.

These are all very bad things. Some of them would actually be really funny if they were happening to other people.

Another bad thing disguised as a good thing: we get a lot of Travelers (our friends and co-buskers) who love us, and who sit right in front of us, drinking, listening and talking to each other (sometimes regrettably loudly). Great, you say, what more could you want? You could want the tourists with actual money to have a path to get to your tip jar! (Well, in this instance, your tip fiddle case). One of the small frustrations of busking on Frenchmen Street; the love and adoration (Still, I love my friends, and I'm perfectly OK with us all starving together).

Time marches on: by a couple of months before Mardi Gras, Corey and I had found some other musicians who play on Royal Street during the day. These guys are also awesome musicians, probably the best I've played with in NOLA. (NOLA, by the way, stands for New Orleans LouisianA, and is what white people call our city; black folks say Nawlins). Playing day shifts on Royal was even more lucrative than nights on Frenchmen, and I also got to meet and hear a dozen excellent bands out there playing as well. On a typical day we meet on Royal at ten AM or so (this is almost like a day job). The street is blocked off from auto traffic from 11-4, and we play throughout that time. Sometimes we take turns with another band, each band doing one hour sets. That way the spot is never “dark” on our breaks.

We jealously guard our spots! As Mardi Gras nears the competition for spots gets fiercer and fiercer, and we actually stay all night and hold our spot for the two weeks before Carnival. We had a large band alternating in the spot with us last season, many of whom were young and liked to stay out late. So each member of the two bands took a turn sitting at the spot for a couple of hours. I took the 10 to Midnight shift. I had just begun dating my awesome GF Lauren, and we would sit on Royal Street together, picnic, and play games of Scrabble with the board set up on milk crates. I think we got more attention, both positive and negative, for the Scrabble games than I'd get playing.

The competition for spots on Royal Street is higher than spots on other streets, as some of those spots are not quite as lucrative. There's a sort of hierarchy on the daytime streets: the best bands play Royal; bands that do not consider themselves to measure up to the best will gravitate toward Decatur Street. It's a self-policing system, and there is a good deal of jockeying between band members of each caste. (I have played on Decatur many times...don't tell anyone!).

By a few weeks after Mardi Gras, most of the traveling musicians have left town (I usually leave for my tour in June, though I'm already booked for some away gigs in May of 2012). It gets lonely here after the season, and I am very dependent on my friends being here to play with (remember that whole $14 solo vs. $50 with a band?). At the moment, few of my regular players are back yet (though more and more are now returning). But last night (Halloween) I found an awesome Old Timey band playing Frenchmen, and they were happy to have me play. It was so great to be back busking on Frenchmen, and that's something I spent years never thinking I'd hear myself say (or write...). I am SO ready for this season!

From NOLA, this is Kenny Klein explaining it all, and playing on Frenchmen Street.