Lost in America

New York, NY, USA -- 20 April 2006 | Permalink
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Shortly after I first moved to the US, I remember seeing a New Yorker cartoon that showed a man wearing a T-shirt with a text that read “I have mixed feelings about New York”. A few years later, I still feel like that. One of the things that makes me happy to live here, however, is the thought of all the good music I've seen since I moved here. I don't think I can say beyond a doubt that I've seen more good bands since I moved here than in the all the years I lived elsewhere, but I've certainly been to more good shows (and fewer bad ones) than in any other single city that I've ever lived in.

As befits a great city, New York caters to a broad spectrum of tastes. From this musical smorgasbord, my own recent selections have included local bands like The Moonlighters and the Byzantones, or our friends The Whores and the Wharton Tiers Ensemble, through to better known acts like X (and The Knitters), Iggy Pop, the DKT-MC5 and James Brown. Plus Brave Combo (thank you Jenny), Blackfire (thank you Shana) and Ozomatli (thank you Max).

Discovering that American music did not begin and end with AM radio and MOR rock was something of a revelation for me. Obviously, I knew at some level that a nation as populous and diverse as the USA necessarily has more to offer than Journey, REO Speedwagon, and bump'n'grind bubble-gum bikini acts like Britney Spears, but it's a pity that the record companies spend all their energies promoting the worst that the US has to offer and ignoring the harder-to-market best. In the end, the playlists and payola add up to a vast collective theft from those who'll never hear American popular music at its most expert and inventive. I'm just lucky to have knowledgeable friends who have taken my musical education in hand (and other aspects of my education as well: can we stop watching the Pee-Wee Herman videos now, please?).

For my moments of homesickness, there are also plenty of British bands that make it over here, from Wob to New Model Army to Richard Thompson, The Tiger Lillies, The Mekons, and tonight's treat - and the starting point for this extended ramble - Jon Langford's Ship and Pilot.

Who were excellent, even if Jon L.'s transformation from art school dropout and minor punk has-not-been to some kind of poly-talented jack-of-all-arts Renaissance Man is both bewildering and impressive (I bought a copy of his 'art book' and he was kind enough to write “I am a big dunnock in Sharpie pen on the inside cover). The great appeal of the now middle-aged Mekons - and by extension, Ship and Pilot, which included Mekons' drummer Steve Goulding as well as Jon Langford and Sally Timms - is that they look like the kind of people you'd find propping up the bar at your local and then they get on stage and deliver some of the most consistently enjoyable shows I've seen. Ship and Pilot was rounded out by Tony Maimone from Pere Ubu and violinist Jean Cook, who had the scraped-back hair and serious spectacles of a Suzuki Method child prodigy, but who fiddled up a storm on "Nashville Radio" and other songs. Great music, the legendary Langford-Timms stage banter, and an extemporaneous lecture on the sex life of the hedge sparrow: what more could anyone want?

I've only been disappointed by a couple of bands I've seen since I came here, which is perhaps a tribute to the musical knowledge and good taste of my friends (thank you John, thank you M.). One of the disappointments was my choice. Unfortunately, while the musicianship of the Pogues is beyond reproach, Shane MacGowan has turned into one of those toothless, drunken old tossers who insists on getting up and singing along to all the Pogues' songs because he thinks he's Shane MacGowan. Many of the bands I've seen are getting on in years (“Oh my God!” said M. “Exene Cervenka looks like my mom!”) but of all the sometime legends now shuffling into middle-age, MacGowan seems to have aged the least well. Even the frail-looking survivors of the MC5 made up for their advancing years with virtuosity (and a sizeable infusion of younger talent that included Mark Arm, Gilbey Clark, Lisa K. and my almost-neighbor Handsome Dick Manitoba) while Iggy Pop's long hours in a Miami gymnasium have evidently paid off, giving him the muscular look of an extremely buff shar-pei and an energy that can only be described as Satanic.

Rock venues are not camera-friendly, and it's hard to take good pictures unless you have better equipment and better music industry contacts than I have. Still, here are a few snaps from the past few years.