The times, they have a-changed

I recently got asked to write a short piece for Drum about the “underground” scene in New York, à propos of the Vivid Festival in Sydney, which Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson are curating.

This got me thinking about what sort of “underground” exists in New York these days, and what the term even means. We’ve spent a fair bit of time doing our best to permanently pickle our livers by going out pretty much every night to warehouse parties, small gigs and similar events of late, and it’s been interesting exploring what’s happening beyond the glitz and glamour of Manhattan.

Clearly, I haven’t been here for long, but it’s pretty obvious that the NYC you grow up in Australia romanticising – a mythic Manhattan of Bowery bums and ramshackle rent-controlled lofts and furtive street corner drug deals – just doesn’t exist any more, and hasn’t for some time. This is what I touched on in the post a few days back about Patti’s pessimism.

Admittedly, this is stating the obvious – no-one could expect the city to be the same today as it was in the decade where it gave birth to punk and then no wave – although it’s still interesting to observe just how different Manhattan is today to the grimy black-and-white photographs you see in Victor Bockris’ biographies and books like Please Kill Me.

But the scene isn’t dead; it’s just different. There’s still an absurd amount of culture to be devoured here. Certainly, in Melbourne, you don’t find yourself walking into a fundraiser for the local communist party that features three levels of music – a rooftop bar with Clash singalongs, a mezzanine of earnest performance poetry with young bespectacled men and acoustic guitars), and a basement of slamming left-wing hip hop. It was really great and completely unexpected.

Nor, indeed, do you find yourself fleeing the NYPD through a strange Hasidic neighbourhood at 3am, which is what we found ourselves doing this weekend past. We were heading to a party called Rubalat, which is a huge warehouse party that’s been going for the best part of 15 years, and is now something of an institution. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it’s immune to being shut down by the police, which is what was happening right when we turned up.

We arrived at the party to find police cars out the front and several people in flamboyant costumes doing their best to edge discreetly away (difficult when you’re dressed as a giant pink palm tree). Happily our Melbourne black allowed us to blend a little better into the shadows, and we hightailed it around the corner before anyone noticed the bottle of cheap whisky that we’d been happily swigging from.

This after a half-hour hike around East Broadway in search of a liquor store, which are surprisingly few and far between, especially at midnight. Most likely, only five already somewhat pissed Australians would consider it a good idea to wander around the projects at night looking for a bottle-o. But still, we found one. And we found the party.

Eventually (after another close shave with the cops when answering a call of nature – apparently public urination carries a $100 fine, but hey, if you have to go, you have to go), we ended up at another warehouse, which seemed to be hosting some sort of techno party. On further investigation, it turned out that said techno party was actually a wedding reception, but the DJ seemed happy enough for us to stay. We debated the ethics of drinking the free alcohol for  a while, with predictable results. In our defence, we did do our best to stay out of the wedding photos. Still, we may well be going to hell.

The NYC underground, circa 2010

After the whole crazy evening, the Rubalat party – which we eventually got into at about 3am – was kinda a let-down, notwithstanding that it featured a swarm of bands and DJs and performance artists and crazy decorations. There were just way too many people – it seemed like a victim of its own success, a party that used to be dynamic and cutting edge and was now treading water. But then, no doubt there’s something else that’s gonna take its place. We just need to find it.

Anyway, the point of this whole anecdote is that there’s a fucking shitload of stuff to do and see here, and if that constitutes the “underground”, then all the better. But really these are just labels that mean nothing. What matters is that there are still people making interesting music and art – and there are. Loads of them.

Of course it’s massively easy to romanticise these things, and no doubt the scene is as plagued with politics and pretension as its antipodean counterpart. In a way, it’s nice not to know anyone – that way you have no preconceptions and are ready to experience anything and everything. And it doesn’t matter whose wedding you crash.

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