They formed here. They came up here. They’ve been mugged here. They’ve collectively eaten hundreds of pastrami sandwiches at Katz’s here. They Might Be Giants are, through and through, a New York City band, one that’s cut its teeth, had its gear stolen and inked its first record deal in its infancy in Manhattan in the early ’80s. Before returning to the Prospect Park Bandshell for their set at the final Celebrate Brooklyn show of the summer on August 10, John Linnell and John Flansburgh take us through a number of New York landmarks–and revelations encountered on the streets of the East Village, in particular–that are intricately woven into the fabric of their collective musical identity.
The 1964 World’s Fair
John Linnell: John and I both attended the 1964 World’s Fair. That’s how old we are. Even at the time, it seemed like it was kind of this, this fundamental cultural experience. It sort of defined the world for us. For me, it seemed like New York was the center of the universe, and I will concede that it may not have been, and probably isn’t anymore, in any case, but when I was born in New York it really did seem like the capital of the universe. In some ways, the New York World’s Fair of 1964 was an expression of that sense. Everything else revolved around us. The fair itself was this expression of this incredibly forward-looking optimistic view of America, and New York City, and the world, in a sense that was already becoming obsolete. Even at that moment, the clouds of social unrest and social upheaval were gathering. There were plenty of interesting moments in world history, but we only get to experience a couple in our lifetimes, and for me, that was probably the most fundamental one, this pivoting of culture and New York vs. The Rest Of The Planet in some sense. Everything was turning in that precise moment. The World’s Fair happened to be an expression of the former culture that had not yet turned into the next thing. It was about to turn the corner. It was amazing and terrific for a kid, and an amazing expression for how thrilling the city was and how much potential there was at that time, how amazing the future was going to be. I’m sure we compared notes pretty soon after getting to know each other because it was a big thing. There are certain TMBG songs that reference the 1964 World’s Fair. It was already kind of on our minds when we started writing songs. It gets name-checked in “Ana Ng,” in particular.
The Observation Deck at the Empire State Building
John Flansburgh: When we first started working professionally, there was a need to have band meetings, with our engineer/producer, to discuss business, and we actually had our meetings on the observation deck of the Empire State Building. We probably only did it two times, but it was a very lofty way to talk about what we had to talk about. We were all working in Midtown, so it wasn’t the craziest idea, but in retrospect, it seems like a crazy idea! [laughs] It’s a really great place to hang out. One nice thing about having a meeting there is there’s actually more to talk about than just going, “Oh wow!” We took it all in.
Grand Central Station
John Flansburgh: When we first started the band, I was going to the Pratt Institute, but for my first couple of years, I was working as a people counter, a surveyor, for the Metro North, where you basically stand at bottlenecks at different parts in Grand Central Station and other places in New York City, and you just count people to see how many are coming in on the trains. It was a way to figure out how many people rode the trains each day. It was a very strange job, but it was very interesting getting to know Grand Central in that period, because it was definitely well before the renovation. There were so many things in New York in the ’80s that had been there since 1905 that left in the ’90s. I feel like so much of 20th Century New York closed in the ’90s, which is no surprise–it was an economic downturn–but it was just strange. I never thought New York would get nicer. Escape From New York was playing in movie theaters when I moved to New York. It was honestly considered to be this place on a downward spiral.
John Linnell: We’d play at the Mercury Lounge and go to Katz’s for dinner. That was a kind of routine. I never got tired of it. It was always delicious. The Mercury Lounge’s about a block away, so it was the perfect thing: sound check, get your pastrami sandwich, play a show and feel incredibly loaded because you’re full of pastrami.
Darinka (E. 1st St., between 1st Ave. and Ave. A)
John Flansburgh: There was a whole set of extremely funky clubs in the East Village that were just really magnificent, in a lot of different ways, and there’s always a super local scene in New York City, but a lot of the venues we played held less than 70 people, and they were still nightclubs. You were playing for strangers. That’s kind of an interesting idea; it wasn’t really a community of people, just this kind of crazy scene. The East Village scene was such a self-defined thing, and what was interesting to me was that it–there was no sense of things happening beyond it. It was in no way a showcase or starting place, because everything that was happening there was much too strange to really move on to somewhere else. When we first came to New York City, CBGBs was in full bloom and bands would come here to be a big rock band and play there, and everything about it would be very professional. We’d play a place like Darinka–which was literally the club owner’s apartment–and he’d move his loft bed so you could play on the stage. That was kind of more typical for us at the beginning.
John Linnell: It was a very intimate little scene. The crowd that showed up, everybody knew everybody else, or at least were familiar with everyone else there. John and I sort of thought of ourselves as the house band there, because we played there quite a lot, and the other things that happened on the stage were all generally performance art with a few exceptions. That was what mostly went on. it was very open-ended performance, which was often utterly abstract, sometimes extremely pretentious, and often really compelling and interesting. There were these wonderful performances where they’d involve this rhythmic chanting of stereotypical expressions and activities and it was very funny. The audience would laugh, because it was something everyone recognized, and it was kind of beautiful and abstract at the same time. In a way, we were what passed as ordinary–we were just up there playing songs, and a lot of the other acts were doing these really very ambitious and groundbreaking kind of things. A lot of the stuff that was going on there went undocumented and has disappeared from the record, and it’s really a shame. Some of the performers went on to be well known. Steve Buscemi was on that stage quite a lot.
Up next: CBGB’s famous filthy bathroom, Brooklyn, Tower Records…
The CBGBs Bathroom
John Linnell: A lot of bands at that time put up with a lot of extreme discomfort. You’d go into CBGBs and you had to sit in what looked like a bombsite, where the dressing room was just utterly torn to bits, but of course we were excited to be there and didn’t care that much at the time because we were happy to be gigging. Apparently they’ve recreated the CBGBs bathroom at the Met, in the Punk Exhibit? I’m curious about that. The weird thing about the CBGBs bathroom was that people felt very comfortable ripping the dry wall from the walls and graffiti-ing up the whole place, but the one thing I’ll say is the CBGBs bathroom always had a bar of soap! [laughs] I never went down there when there wasn’t soap in the sink. It always seemed like this weird little oasis of civility, where they actually cared enough, even in this incredibly trashed, dark environment where you didn’t know what you’d touch if you put your hand out, to have this lovely bar of soap in it. There was something very grounding about that.
Tower Records, 4th and Broadway
John Linnell: There’s a song that we didn’t write that we’d play all the time, one we’ve been playing it for probably 15 years or something. It’s by a band from Vancouver called Cub, and the song is called “New York City.” It seems to be written from the perspective of people who once visited New York, and a lot of the song indulges in this extreme level of fantasy, where a lyric will say that the “streets are paved with diamonds.” Some of it lists places you go to; some of it is just made up. It’s a wonderful fantasy of New York, and Cub, I don’t think they were super well known in the United States, but we toured with them and started playing their song, and it’s become one of the most sentimental songs in our show. It was actually the song we played on the morning of September 11 in Tower Records. It’s a little hall-of-mirrors-y: there’s a film about us [Gigantic: A Tale Of Two Johns] and the filmmaker was finishing the film on the morning of September 11, 2001. We were in the old Tower Records, on 4th and Broadway, and we’re playing a record release party in the film. The attacks on the World Trade Center had not yet happened–those were still a few hours in the future–and we were playing after midnight, as it was a midnight record release party. It’s a kind of sweet thing; we’re just there, there’s a really nice crowd, the place is full of happy people, and we played “New York City,” and it’s one of the last moments of the film. He planned out the film to finish making it on the day of our record release, which happened to coincide with the attacks on the city. It has this feeling of a previous era being celebrated that ended that day. New York is still a nice place, actually. But it’s a very poignant thing, this scene in the movie. It was sort of an amazing coincidence. He doesn’t even mention the attacks in the movie. I think there’s a title card that says “September 11: Record Release Party” and then it’s the end of the movie.
John Linnell: Almost 10 years ago, we went around playing different clubs on a tour, and we made up songs for every venue we played in. Ever since then, when we return to any of these places, we play whatever the song was that we made up for that occasion. There’s like, 30 places around the planet we’ve made up songs for, and it feels like we’re constantly returning to these places. As luck would have it, we played Celebrate Brooklyn that summer, and we’ll be playing it this weekend.
John Flansburgh: We’re really impossibly old. I don’t think we really have our finger on the pulse. I do have to say that I’m really glad that Brooklyn has emerged as such a new music mecca. I think that the spirit of New York as a place for culture-making really lives on in a very lively way. That’s one of the nicest things about New York. It’s not just about auditioning; there’s a youth culture that’s self-defined. People aren’t just looking for a break. They’re just looking to do the thing they want to do the most. And if they find a large audience, it’s all the more glorious. At any given time, when you’re checking out some bar with live music, it’s for the people who are there. It’s not for Clive Davis.