Probably about eight years ago outside a Miracle Sweepstakes show in Williamsburg, the guys we knew in the other band declared that KISS was the only true New York rock group, I think to prove that a) KISS ruled, and b) New Jersey, where they were from, had a richer musical history.
I reeled off obvious names — Television, Sonic Youth, the Strokes — and they all got shot down. Richard Hell was from Kentucky; Kim came from LA, Thurston from Florida; Julian met Albert in Swiss boarding school. I can’t remember what their answer for the Ramones was, but when I brought up the Velvet Underground, and specifically, Freeport-native Lou Reed, they scoffed.
“Psh, Long Island isn’t New York. That counts as Jersey, man.”
I would say the difference between New Jersey and Long Island is that Jersey is an endless, mostly shitty suburb whose “cooler” natives proudly rep their roots, and Long Island is an endless, mostly shitty suburb whose “cooler” natives proudly move to Brooklyn. Of course, Brooklyn is on Long Island, whereas other than a few quaint enclaves, there’s nothing cool in Jersey.
The difference in mentality creates a blackhole for any positive cultural legacy LI might’ve comparatively had. “Matter of Trust” is better than any Springsteen song, but no one’s going to bat for Billy Joel because we — unlike our compatriots across the Hudson — know our local hero sucks. So if you were a disaffected teen in Nassau County, that Lou was from Freeport, Sterling Morrison was from East Meadow, and Maureen Tucker was from Levittown meant nothing compared to the cool allure of the city that their music conjured.
But now that I’m older, I got a real kick out of hearing Morrison and Tucker’s accents watching the Todd Haynes doc when it came out. Morrison, who died in 1995 and appears via grainier archival audio, sounds like every Mike and the Mad Dog caller from my youth. Mo Tucker joined the freakin’ Tea Party. For his part, Lou once came into the Roosevelt Field Apple store when my friend worked there, asked for some sort of car device for his phone, and became irritated when he was informed it didn’t exist. These people were as quintessentially Long Island as it gets.
No New York bands have accents now. I consciously stifled mine to avoid sounding like the guidos at my school (my parents and sister all have one), and now I kind of regret it. Having one wouldn’t just harken back to a bygone era, it’d signify that I’m from here. And hey, like I illustrated at the top, transplants have played a major role in shaping New York. But I’ve had a unique perspective being here my whole life, and having the majority of it be from the outside looking (or driving) in.
The first show I played in NYC was with my college band at the original Silent Barn in Ridgewood in late 2008. It was some sort of audition for some sort of battle of the bands, and we played to a pretty sparse crowd. This really spacey girl came up to us after and said, “You guys were raaaad, you need to talk to Joe downstaiiiirs, he really dug what he heard and can put you on more shoooows.”
Shocked it was this easy, we made our way to the basement, where Joe was seated at a table, seemingly disrupted by his new visitors. We awkwardly told him we heard he liked the set, to which he looked confused and said, “Oh… yeah… you guys were cool…” as if he were agreeing to disagree, before offering, “You remind me of a band called Polvo.” Through a different contact two years later, we’d get booked to play Silent Barn a second time — our record release — on a Friday night in April.
At the last minute, the band Maps & Atlases decided they wanted to play an impromptu DIY show in advance of their scheduled tour date, so we got booted to Saturday at 2 PM. No one showed up, save for two dudes who read about us in the Long Island Press and couldn’t believe there was a good band from their hometown of Valley Stream. We’d befriend them and play countless house shows together at their space Nana’s on the other side of VS — but the record release at Silent Barn was a bust, and I vented about it on our blog, which made its way back to the venue, effectively blacklisting us. It wasn’t until my new band Hit played Trans-Pecos this past Spring that I’d technically grace that same stage again.
The classic era of New York music that I was around for was 285 Kent, and “the band” of that moment was DIIV. I resented their hype and didn’t care for their music, but I’ve grown nostalgic for them, because on a very small scale they were rockstars, which you can’t say about anyone today. They were on every single show, sometimes multiple in a night, and if you were at one, you’d know it because there’d be 45 minutes in the middle where the stage was empty, until four scraggly ass dudes hopped out of a livery car and took the stage, late to their own set.
DIIV had everything you’d need for a Very Online (possibly abridged) Behind the Music episode. The main guy was admittedly modeling himself as the new Kurt Cobain, complete with Kurt and Courtney scandal arc. The bassist got proto-canceled for offensive posts on 4Chan. They followed up their highly praised debut with a sprawling double album. They were truly Bushwick’s Guns ‘N Roses.
I got to play 285 once, with a band I joined for only a few shows, because the singer said I’d have to quit my college band in order to be an official member. He gave me a big speech once at Shea Stadium about how I was making a mistake not joining, how he’s “one-and-a-half revolutions” further than me in life, and how his band would either be like Nirvana and conquer the world, or be like Squirrel Bait (“Do ya know them, Craiiiig?”) and have this enduring cult legacy. But either way, they were already going down in history.
I remember seeing a pic on Facebook of him and a singer from another popular local band, on which someone commented “OUR HAIGHT-ASHBURY,” which several people liked, including the photo’s subjects. Between the two of them, their bands’ next albums would get a combined Pitchfork score of 9.7.
My college band would fizzle, but my pals from it, Doug and Ian, would form the rhythm section for Miracle Sweepstakes. Two albums in, with a third on the way, we can trace it all back to meeting as kids in LI.
The Brooklyn scenesters I’d be intimidated by at parties, who became distant characters each time I merged on the Belt Parkway at the end of the night, have largely moved on to doing inconsequential bullshit in Los Angeles. A new crop moved in, realized it was getting expensive, and bounced for Philly.
The people that stay, like my friends Cameron and Charles, who play in Hit, and Justin, who does double duty in Hit and MS, continue to play for the joy of making music, rather than chasing buzz. But with the people coming to NY now, you get the sense that they’re About Their Business. They’re not paying $1,500/month in rent to waste time, but unlike the social climbers of yore, they haven’t captured any zeitgeist. I see lots of bands play around Brooklyn who sound like a very outdated idea of something that would be commercially viable. I imagine it was similar in Seattle in the late ‘90s.
These people will probably leave too (they all did for COVID). It takes a genuine person to stick it out somewhere. I’ve yet to see someone leave New York for greener pastures and hear about something they’ve done since. By contrast, I’ve been here the whole time, and between making new albums with MS and Hit, this is the busiest I’ve ever been.
Being a lifer amid all the turnover is weirdly reaffirming. Regardless of whether they’ve booked me or not, I’ve seen the lifespan of every big DIY venue of the last 15 years, and where they shutter I keep going. But if you were to ask me my favorite, the answer would be my friend Krissy’s house — dubbed American Boner — out east in Centereach.
You can find more of some of our favorite artists on the topic of NYC in the Talkhouse Reader.