Friday, May 2, 2008

Arlene Grocery, Pt. 2: Holy Hotness, That's Liv Tyler!

For a short time in a year I can't remember at the end of the 20th century, I became a huge fan of Spacehog. This happened directly because of Arlene Grocery. Don't ask me how because I cannot recall. Word reached me that Spacehog would be playing a special set at Arlene Grocery under the name 'Resident Alien' or 'Alien Pig Farmers' or 'Resident Farmers of Alien Pigs'.

I went. In the little empty space at the center of my brain I went solo but I am pretty sure that I had company. Liam? Quasi Uncle Andy? As I said, there is a blank up in the old sagging gray matter.

The things I do remember? A house packed beyond all reasonable comfort or adherence to fire laws. Impossibly tight jeans and t-shirts on all of the members of the band. Over-sized sunglasses on a few. A crowd of hipsters that I've not witnessed since, unless you count the few snippets of 'Swingers' that I've caught over the years without actually seeing the film.

If you are unfamiliar with Spacehog they are fronted by Royston Langdon, a diminutive Brit with serious guitar chops and an obvious Bowie fascination. Throw the square English boogie of The Kinks into the mix, pepper with glam-rock harmony for a bit of spice, and you've got yourself a late '90's alterna-party in Lower Manhattan.

There were faux-fur coats, real fur coats, tattoos peeking out from just above thongs, high heels at the end of tapered jeans, lipstick shades of exotic to goth extremes, and minuscule leather vests barely pulled over wonder bras overflowing with God's gift to man.

Let's just say that Spacehog had a large and faithful following that reversed the ratio normally seen in rock clubs when all-male rock bands play. At the center of this delicious inversion was a pre-Lord of the Rings Liv Tyler.

Can you imagine that there was actually a time when I could point out Liv Tyler to someone and have to explain to them who she was?

'See that ridiculously gorgeous girl at the lip of the stage staring up at Royston Langdon as if he were on a chariot of gold driven by unicorns? That is Liv Tyler, daughter of Steve Tyler, she's been in a couple of movies...etc. etc.'

Amazing what the passage of time can do.

The great thing about the show was that Spacehog DESERVED the adulation of the most gorgeous woman on the planet except for my girlfriend. They were worthy of starlet worship. They blew the doors off of that stage and club. There were no doors to be found from Ludlow to Delancey.

And the most delicious part? It was a SECRET show. They were playing under an assumed name. They were outlaws on the run from the boring music squad who might burst in at any moment and try to get us all to listen to grunge some more. What would they think when they came in and couldn't find a flannel shirt or ponytail? We'd all get busted and thrown in hipster jail where they would make us listen to Stone Temple Pilots and pump Patchouli in through an air vent.

All I know is that I had trouble deciding what to focus on, the band on stage or Liv Tyler shaking her booty at their feet. There aren't too many bands who could render that choice even mildly difficult to make.

Her fame has grown to epic proportions. She and Langdon have a young child together, preserving the image I have of her worshipping equally at his feet.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Arlene Grocery, Pt. 1: Parker Who???

Down in the depths of lower Manhattan is a club called Arlene Grocery. It is so-named because it was actually a grocery at one point. It is tucked away in between Ludlow and whatever is a block over from Ludlow. When it opened it was only one room but it has since expanded to include the next door premises which now functions as a bar/escape from the music.

In the beginning, it was free. It had that kind of New York buzz that happens from time to time. For whatever reason, Arlene Grocery opened and the entire underground music scene paid it full attention.

It was February. I'd just moved out of the Park Slope condo that Maria and I had bought the summer before. I had rented the closest cheapest apartment I could find which was essentially an airless box of a basement apartment in Windsor Terrace. It had two bedrooms but very low ceilings and only the teeniest of windows. I loved and continue to love this apartment with all my heart.

Cousin Timothy was coming through town in the middle of the tour he was on. He was traveling the country in a tricked out van demonstrating digital cameras for Kodak. This was 2000. Hard to fathom that Kodak was trying to convince people to go digital that recently, especially now that they've decided to completely discontinue Polaroids.

Timothy was going to be meeting some of his other friends out on the town and I suggested we all meet at Arlene Grocery. There were always 5 or 6 bands on the bill; it was cheap; and if no one liked the music we could easily duck out and hit one of the 87,343 bars that were in the general vicinity.

I'll never forget this night.

I remember there being snow coming down. But that whole time has snow layered over it because the first night I spent out of the relationship it snowed and snowed and snowed. Arlene Grocery was packed. It had that strange kind of sweaty coziness unique to live music venues in the winter in the Big Apple. Every time the door opens a refreshing blast of cold air comes in. You show up in a coat and end in a t-shirt. I got there before Timothy and watched a band and had a beer. I also smoked cigarettes like they were going out of style, which, in fact, they were, as NYC would ban smoking in bars shortly thereafter.

Timothy arrived and there was much shouting and posturing. I filled him in on what was happening in my life. You have to understand, Timothy was sort of the cousin that got away in the O'Malley clan. His father, my father's brother Joe, passed away from leukemia at age 29. Timothy was 7. His parents had already divorced and his mother remarried by that point so the tenuous connection to the O'Malley clan was essentially severed for the next decade or so.

While I saw the other O'Malley cousins every Christmas, Thanksgiving, 4th of July, etc. etc., Timothy, Marianne, and Joshua crossed my radar on much rarer occasions. This night in New York was to wipe all of that out forever.

Timothy's job was crazy. While living in Boston, he'd auditioned for the gig. The tour was scheduled to hit almost every state and last at least until the following fall. He had put his things in storage at his parents bed and breakfast in Old Orchard Beach and given up his apartment in Boston. He was essentially a nomad.

I asked him if he wanted to rent the second bedroom from me and move to New York once the tour was over. He paused for a millisecond and said, "Yes."

In my memory we didn't belabor it. We toasted to it and knew it was a done deal. Then we set about some serious drinking. A band called 'Parker' was tearing up the stage. I actually called Timothy right before I started writing this to see if he could remember the name of the band. Of course he could.

'Parker' was a multi-racial outfit with a hot black female lead singer and a hybrid sound of R&B and punk and hip/hop. During their 45 minutes, Timothy and I became absolutely convinced that this band was going to skyrocket to stardom. We bought their CD.

Later we listened to it and it was terrible. But they sure put on a great show.

Little did they know they were scoring the beginning of the Pimp Fu/Bomer-B bizarro collaboration that would change how I wrote music, listened to music, recorded music, musicked music.

I'll never forget the look in Timothy's eyes as he pondered his future and said "Yes" to New York City.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Free Naked Ladies, Bare

I've been to Madison Square Garden three times, I think. Once to see Prince, once to see Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus with Cashel, and one hilarious outing to see Barenaked Ladies.

Melody had moved to New York City and we'd started dating. Needless to say this was an intense time for both of us. I was new to juggling the demands of parenthood and divorce with a new love. She was new to big city life and the competing demands of finance and art. She landed a job at Shiseido, a Japanese cosmetics company. The perks included Melody walking around like she stepped out of an Estee Lauder ad. And every now and then free stuff came our way.

Like tickets to see Barenaked Ladies at Madison Square Garden. Now, look, in all seriousness, I never liked Barenaked Ladies all that much. The rap song with the line about chicken was cute and my sisters swear that their albums are great but I just could never summon up interest.

When I look back upon this particular night out, I wish I could give myself a swift caring kick in the ass.

Melody had to twist my arm to get me to go along, in spite of the fact that we had free tickets and Melody looked, as usual, like a photo shoot. My state of mind was so put-upon that I could barely look at this as anything but an imposition, as if the universe were taking up my time. I blush at this ingratitude now and even in looking back on it want to find the corners of joy that I was able to sense.

As is the case with most of the concerts I go to, my memories are blurry, one memory I'm unable to separate into distinct moments. I can see Barenaked Ladies spangled purple matching shirts, something they dared each other to do. I remember thinking that they weren't half-bad, that their sound actually deserved the size of the arena. I also remember thinking there was no way I would last the whole show.

There was a couple sitting almost directly next to us that developed a fascination with Melody. They seemed to be almost arguing about whether or not Melody had been augmented surgically. Needless to say this caused a bit of hilarity to ensue between Melody and I and almost extended my patience towards the Canadian band that was giving their all down there on the MSG stage.

Alas, I insisted that we leave after the chicken song, you know the one I mean. I think we went right home. In an alternate world, the world in which I wasn't overwhelmed by so many aspects of my life, we stayed through both encores and Melody flashed the band to give that curious couple a glimpse of the real things.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

I'm Late, I'm Late...

Sitting off of Flatbush Avenue, the Brooklyn Academy of Music seems like a fortress bent on liberating the locals with blasts of aggressive performance. Even the acronym (BAM) reeks of combat. As is common with invading armies, the locals view the occupation with an uneasy mixture of appreciation and hostility. Most of the folks who live in the vicinity can't afford to go and probably wouldn't want to if they could.

The first time I went to BAM I was still living in Manhattan. Maria and I had moved into a one-bedroom on 103rd street a block away from gorgeous Riverside Park. The seed of our eventual breakup had long been sown but dying plants often flower beautifully. We did our best to enjoy New York and what it had to offer.

We found a Chinese restaurant down on the edge of Broadway and 103rd that could get food to our door within 10 minutes, delicious food that we incorporated into our routine until I bit into what seemed to be a small bit of wire meshed screen buried in my noodles. We ate at the Metro diner around the corner until I saw an Indian man put his finger inside the ketchup bottle and lick it clean before going back for seconds. Disgust, it seemed, was always right around the corner.

We fought viciously from time to time, eviscerating each other in public. Shame reunited us and we apologized to each other and the world for each other. City life didn't seem to agree with Maria the way it did me and I put pressure on myself to combat this undeniable fact with activities that might up her enjoyment level.

But our first visit to BAM was of her own design. Tom Waits had collaborated with avant-garde theater impresario Robert Wilson on a version of 'Alice in Wonderland' using a troupe of German carnival actors. Waits' songs combined with Wilson's vision laid over the ultimate head-trip of 'Alice'? Seemed like a winner.

To add to the attraction, there was still the lingering memory in both of our heads of Maria's performance as Alice in a production in Rhode Island. She'd been quite good in it. However, the creative circle that spawned the show had fractured since we'd lived there. There was some sort of strange umbilical connection between the show we were going to witness and the past that we'd participated in.

Waits and Wilson concocted a nightmare roller coaster ride of a play. At one point Alice is about to go through a door and through the use of light the door grew to an immense size. The caterpillar sat on a cushion and while singing the Waits original inflated into a blimp like creature. It was like being trapped inside of a graphic novel with songs.

Our seats were way up high in the balcony which was enervating to Maria. This led to tension between us which escalated to the point that we barely spoke at intermission and rode all the way from BAM back to the Upper West Side in silence. Our conflicts often dovetailed with subway rides and silent transport.

The next time we went to BAM we took Cashel to see an animated film festival for children. We'd split up by this point and the echo of the musical hallucination we'd seen had long since ceased to ring. The silence of the post show ride home had ultimately prevailed.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Zat Ees A Scary Man

My first CD purchase in France was not 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'. It was actually the Red Hot Chili Peppers blockbuster 'Blood Sugar Sex Magic'. I listened on headphones at FNAC in downtown Orleans a stones throw away from the statue of Joan of Arc that sits in the center of the city.

I had been on the fence with the Chili Peppers up until that point. I thought they had an interesting SOUND, sure, but none of their songs really moved me. They did Stevie Wonder to the max on 'Higher Ground' but nothing they had written could even come close to that.

But I could tell from the first that this album was different. This album had SONGS. It wasn't surprising to me that the mainstream embraced the band on the heels of this collection. Anthony Kiedis was stretching his vocals out to include actual melody instead of manic barking; tempos varied greatly which increased their sonic palette; and the melancholy/sexy content of the lyrics was also a sign of great growth.

It was produced by Rick Rubin who must have sold several souls to different devils over the years. His list of collaborators is mind-boggling. Johnny Cash, The Beastie Boys, Neil Diamond, System of a Down, The Dixie Chicks, Justin Timberlake, AC/DC, Slayer, Metallica, Kanye West, Shakira, Sheryl Crow, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Mick Jagger, Run DMC, The Cult,and Weezer.

Take a second and go back over that list please.

Not only do I want to be him I want him to produce my album. Just putting that out there in the universe.

In any case, the 'Blood Sugar Sex Magic' album was some sort of zeitgeist moment. The Chili Peppers were underground but they weren't rock. They took elements of funk, rap, hip/hop, and soul and put it all on steroids and surfboards. The sound of the album is is as if you are in a giant comfortable room with the band scattered to the corners, their sound meeting right over your couch.

Turns out the Chili Peppers were immediately going to tour the world and explode this album out to its farthest incarnation. This tour turned them into international superstars instead of catchy oddballs. They played Paris and a few of us made the trek from Orleans to catch their act.

They played a cavernous old club to a mostly teenage French crowd that seemed to identify more with an American aesthetic than whatever French rock scene was the order of the day. But none of them seemed prepared for the opening act.

Henry Rollins is something of a demi-god to the punk movement. Childhood friends with Ian MacKaye who virtually invented American hardcore with Minor Threat, Henry Rollins parlayed his status as most intense fan into a singing slot with the West Coast hardcore giants Black Flag. Their singer had disappeared in a puff of smoke, or been shot, or had joined the Marines. Their tour was only half over. Henry Rollins jumped onstage and promptly made everyone forget Dez Cadena.

Once Black Flag imploded for the 87th time, Rollins set out on his own, doing 750 push ups before the Army even thought about shooting those commercials in the morning. Rollins Band was a punishing conglomerate of jazz precision and angry angst.

Rollins Band took the stage minus Henry and started grinding music to a pulp. After a few minutes of this assault, out strolled Henry himself. Clad only in black workout shorts, he looked like a block of granite lathered with Vaseline. His tattoos seemed to be barely contained by his skin and each muscle articulated his anger separately. He then took both hands around the microphone and attempted to choke the life out of it for the next 45 minutes.

You could feel the crowd hush like a bunch of kids confronted by a bitter substitute teacher.

They were all psyched to get on the Red Hot Chili Pepper bandwagon and along came the Anti-GI Joe to obliterate all memory of that fun-time band and replace it with the power and drudgery of a piston pumping pile-driving factory of steel.

Oh sure, the Peppers eventually took the stage and did their best to return the equilibrium that had been sent to work camp and abused. But make no mistake, Mr. Rollins left his mark. I felt lucky to have escaped his notice.