NY Conversation July 2010

Summer is well and truly here in New York City, and it’s not without a fair old chunk of envy that NY Conversation has read reports of the recent cold snap in Melbourne – this column is being written in a room that feels pretty much like a sauna, only without the fragrant wood and the elderly Eastern Europeans. The last couple of weeks, in particular, have been unrelentingly oppressive; venture out during the day, and it feels like someone is putting a pillow over your face while you walk.

People take various measures to combat the heat. Whenever you walk along a Manhattan street, you have to dodge a constant hail of water dripping from above, testament to a million air conditioners and a Calvinist desire to prevail over nature, whatever the cost. In Brooklyn, you’re more likely to see people out on their stoops drinking beer or just kinda hanging out; the street around the corner from our place has hosted a month-long game of dominoes featuring a revolving cast of old Puerto Rican dudes. Every few blocks, someone will have jacked a fire hydrant, and a host of shrieking, giggling kids will be cavorting in the resultant spray.

As another sweltering day dawns, we decide to ape the Ramones and head way out east to Rockaway Beach. It’s a long ride on the A train, and it turns out that Rockaway is a forlorn place, a salt-bleached, grimy enclave of poverty and social breakdown. Parts of it are virtually shantytown. But from there, it’s a 20-minute bus ride into another world: Long Beach, a long strip of land that faces onto the Atlantic and is home to genuine (if kinda crappy) surf, along with holiday homes for NYC types who can’t quite afford the Hamptons, and a smattering of retirees who’ve clearly been here forever and all look like old leather that’s been left out in the sun. The houses are all decorated with chintzy nautical-themed paraphernalia (anchors, lighthouses, marlin-shaped letterboxes) and have flowers that match their paintwork. The water is a welcome respite, but the news that from the start of July it’ll cost $10 to swim there pretty much kills all enthusiasm for the place.

Back in town, there’s the question of how to spend another sleepless night. The nights are the worst; the heat never abates, and our air conditioner has given me a cold, so it’s off until we work out how to clean the filter and avoid getting Legionnaire’s disease. Happily, there’s plenty to do. You can avail yourself of one of plentiful free events in the city’s parks: today it’s Gil Scott-Heron; yesterday it was Omar Suleyman tearing shit up in Central Park. Last week, various members of the Buena Vista Social Club were meant to be playing in Prospect Park, but were apparently denied visas (in the same way that poor old Ibrahim Ferrer got stiffed when he won at the Grammys and couldn’t accept the award because he couldn’t get a visa).

Or you can just wander the empty industrial backblocks of Bushwick in search of the next party – on any given night, you can see bands like Zola Jesus or Ducktails or our very own Tame Impala playing at any of the technically illegal underground venues that have sprung up in warehouses and factories left abandoned when the recession hit here last year. These rooms are like furnaces; the rough-and-ready nature of the events is part of their appeal, which means no air conditioning and, most likely, warm beer. The vibe is invariably tripped-out and tribal; if there’s an identifiable sound du jour at the moment in NYC, it’s percussion-heavy and psychedelic. The drug of choice is weed, and it manifests itself in deeply stoned music, claustrophobic and atmospheric, based around rhythms borrowed from African music and/or hip hop beats.

The doyen of such sounds for NY Conversation is one Balam Acab, who’s due to release an EP later this year on Triangle, the label founded by the guys who run the most excellent 20 Jazz Funk Greats blog. On further investigation, he turns out to be a skinny 18-year-old kid who goes to college in Ithaca, NY. I resolve to try to track him down – but that, unfortunately, will have to wait for next month. Until then…


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