On NYCTaper and the Proud, Obsessive Lineage of Local Audio Hoarders
Dan Lynch has his spots. At Bowery Ballroom, it's a 10-foot swath by the balcony rail. At 92Y Tribeca, it's a column near the stage. At the Music Hall of Williamsburg to tape the Fiery Furnaces in December, he arrives before the first band, goes to the tiny indentation by the soundboard, and makes his nook. The eight-foot mic stand goes up first, holding pairs of Neumann KM-150s and DPA 4021s angled at the speakers. The cables snake into his bag, where, behind a beer-proof plastic window, a digital four-track records in 24-bit sound. He periodically checks his headphones while the Furnaces play, absorbing the rush of the Music Hall's speakers, politely shooing away a beer-drinker tottering too close for comfort.
"It's almost like the music is a bit of escape from the heavy stuff I have to deal with during the day," acknowledges Lynch, 46, a Notre Dame–trained civil rights and criminal defense lawyer whose cases have included homicide, police brutality, and false arrest, and who once served as counsel to the office of legendary attorney Ron Kuby. Known as NYCTaper, Lynch has uploaded almost 400 shows to NYCTaper.com since his site's inception in 2007. Later, in a corner of his Stuy-Town apartment, he sits below his sleeping children's Christmas decorations and transfers the Furnaces gig onto his well-worn PC. He tucks the setlist into an accumulating drift between DVD-R spindles. After a weekend mixdown, he posts it. Just over 300 people download it.
"I know, when I go out 150 times a year, very few of those shows will have historical significance," he allows, unworried. "It's a realistic thing." Across the living room is a filing cabinet full of Grateful Dead DATs—the impetus for his initial interest in taping back in 1994—as well as "what we used to call 'non-Dead stuff.' " Lynch tapes by compulsive muscle memory, bred by a lineage traceable to the 1972 foundation of the Bronx-centered Hell's Honkies and the Sheepshead Bay–based Dead Relics tape exchanges. His own innovations on Deadhead practices—an affinity for arty indie rock, instant blog access—also put him squarely at the center of the MP3 era, where bands, now more than ever, make their money on the road. It's hard to fathom now that any group ever opposed tapers' enthusiastic publicity. Last year, 23,000 people queued online for Lynch's boot of an Animal Collective show at the Bowery Ballroom, crashing his server. When the Mountain Goats came through in December, the band gave him VIP access, as did Wilco in September.
NYCTaper.com hails Lynch as "NYC's live music archivist." But he's really the latest public face for the city's secret history, which includes such heroes as Charlie Parker obsessive Dean Benedetti (who only recorded Bird's solos), librarian Lionel Mapelson (who stealth-recorded the Metropolitan Opera directly onto gramophone from a catwalk), and hundreds of working professionals. "There's not a soundguy or a crewmember working in any performance space in this city who, if he had his act together, hasn't wired up a patch to record shows," shrugged one veteran recently.
"If it's on tape, I can't throw it out," says Dave Nolan, 47, a self-described "audio packrat," whose current gig transferring recordings at the 92nd Street Y is the latest entry on a sonic résumé that includes engineering stints at WBAI and WNYC, his status as co-founder of the local chapter of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, and a stint heading the archives for the St. Mark's Poetry Project. A dresser in his East Village apartment contains over 4,000 cassettes dating back to 1986, including radio airchecks, old answering-machine messages, and other detritus.
"There's a term in the archival community: LOCKSS," he says. " 'Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe.' The music is going to be fine. It's the stuff in between that's really important. In 50 or 100 years, that will almost be more valuable as historical documents."
The brilliant Life photographer W. Eugene Smith believed the same. The 1,751 audio reels he cranked out in his Flower District loft include Thelonious Monk rehearsals, Albert Ayler jams, and a young Steve Reich's lessons with Monk's arranger (and Smith's loftmate) Hall Overton. Smith also mic'd the stairwells, providing field recordings of mewling cats, bickering roommates, and mumbling junkies. "Smith's achievement is chaotic and utterly weird," admits Sam Stephenson, whose newly published Jazz Loft Project (Alfred A. Knopf) is a stunning cross of scholarly history and Smith's haunted photography.
Elsewhere in the boroughs, filmmakers Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson staged a multi-day "tape-in" at the Staten Island home of legendary countercultural radio host Bob Fass to begin the process of indexing nearly 2,000 hours of Fass's Radio Unnameable reels capturing Bob Dylan, Abbie Hoffman, and other longhair deities. There's also Joly MacFie, the fiftysomething videographer behind the 13-year running Punkcast.com. Not to mention an entire generation with recording-ready cell phones. All face the dual problems of the post-meltdown information age: the sheer economic burden of preservation, and sifting a narrative from the data blizzard.
Gene Smith's modern equivalent—for whom narrative is barely a flicker—might be found in G. Lucas Crane, 31, of the Ridgewood venue/living space Silent Barn, who has rigged the two floors with 20 microphones, snaking around communally painted walls, zine libraries, and tattered couches to a gorgeous Soundcraft Live Spirit 4 console set so deeply into its hutch by the front door that it escaped a recent robbery. Crane calls it "a center for non-amoral surveillance."
"It's sort of urban white noise," he assesses, the patter of a washing machine clattering peaceably in the mix next to the winter lull of Wyckoff Avenue. Across the house, a tea kettle goes off. "It works best for psychedelic sampling," he adds, explaining his process of mixing directly onto hieroglyphically labeled cassettes, to be used in projects like his band Woods, where a tape deck is Crane's main ax.
Crane's roommate, Showpaper editor Joe Ahearn, emerges from his bedroom. While Crane was on tour with Woods, Ahearn appropriated the system, known as the Party Lab, for more traditional use: a series of live recordings by bands playing in the kitchen, including Knyfe Hyts and Soft Circle. Ahearn has crossed paths with NYCTaper, too: "Oh, yeah, he did some pro bono work when [Bushwick venue] Market Hotel got in trouble," he remembers.
"It's small potatoes at my job," says Lynch, who praises the vast network of shows put on by DIY impresario Todd P at Market Hotel and myriad other spots. "I like the freedom of doing the Todd shows," he notes, his presence around that scene and many others no less informed by utter enthusiasm than Crane, Smith, or anyone who ever hit Record: an echo trailing, maybe for decades.
The 'Jazz Loft Project' exhibit opens at the New York Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center on February 17. Party Lab recordings are available at partylab.swillchildren.org
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