Sometimes when I come to New York City, I feel very Marlo Thomas (or maybe Mary Tyler Moore, but she’s in a different city, so never mind). That girl, you’re gonna make it after all— even if you don’t understand the subway map or which side to be on when you hail a cab or try to order a drink in a bar. (Answer: Whatever side you’re on is always the wrong one.)
But when I get into New York on Wednesday night for the 19th annual CMJ marathon, it’s more like Blade Runner, ominous and raining nonstop in an unfamiliar place, the dark side of Hurricane Floyd’s moon. Killer mosquitos are all around, and for all I know, there might be alligators in the sewers again. From the stage of the opening party at the Roxy, club half-empty yet full of incense, come the apocalyptic beats of England’s Hardknox: one Poly Styrene/Barbie girl, one b-boy brandishing “We Will Rock You” and dub samples, and a Betty Rubble/Betty Page go-go dancer in case no one knows how to dance to this stuff after all. Next up is To Rococo Rot, whose Kraftwerk-y German ambience (plus live instruments) is best enjoyed while sitting on warm leatherette. The Cut Chemist cuts his chemistry from Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” to “Iko Iko” to James Brown, like a friend playing records, which is what DJs are best at. Fela Kuti’s look-alike son Femi has more colorful costumes and rhythms and choreography than most of CMJ’s up-and-coming b-boys on display, but who doesn’t?
The next day, Floyd is CMJ’s headlining act. Mad Maxlike rumors fly about the subway
being shut down, everybody hangs onto umbrellas like Mary Poppins, and the local news shows footage of Noho neighborhoods that look like Southern towns on the Weather Channel. The Scavengers, a pseudo-Avengers reunion with a purple-haired Penelope Houston and original guitarist Greg Ingraham, press on at a disco called Life, the only place they’ve ever played that has an ATM right next to the merchandise table. A beer is five bucks and served by the Gwyneth Paltrow Doublemint twins, and whoever does the lights seems to think the Doors are onstage. The crowd is mostly soggy punk rockers forced to wait in the rain for over an hour while a bum hawks “hurricane sunflowers.” In a lot of ways, the Scavengers are like the underground version of the Blondie reunion last winter. There’s a “we’re desperate, get used to it” intensity in Houston’s eyes and delivery when she demands over 20 years after the fact in “American in Me,” “Ask not what you can do for your country, ask what your country’s been doin’ to you.”
Dancing alongside the stage is Houston’s ’90s equivalent, Bratmobile’s Allison Wolfe, who pogos to the Go-Go’s (and “Suffragette City” and “California Über Alles”) with me between sets. “I miss the Go-Go’s,” she says to me. “I do too,” I answer, wondering if I’m cool enough to be having this conversation or trying to do the Belinda arm-wave to “Our Lips Are Sealed.” One of the things that made me want to be a scenester dork in the first place was seeing the “Our Lips Are Sealed” video in my formative years and wondering if I was going to get to ride around the fountain with my friends in a convertible, wearing geometric earrings and scarves.
Now that riot grrrl has been reduced to Liz Phair and her Calvins on a Manhattan billboard, Bratmobile’s Friday set at Thread Waxing Space reminds me what it’s supposed to be about— back to the place where your band broke up long before Sleater-Kinney got famous, back to reclaiming the moment where the Slits’ Ari Upp playfully asks “Are you ready?” before launching into precise modern lovers disorder. Riot grrrl is Wolfe, shaking her butt, Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill!style, making you want to try it at home. It’s Erin Smith’s guitar— part beach, part jungle gym— and
Molly Neuman’s drums holding it all together, but just barely. It’s girls reprimanding boys who don’t know how to dance without crashing into people. This used to be Bratmobile’s playground, and Wolfe dedicates one of the new songs to all the people who want her to go back to being a drama queen even if she thinks she’s done with all that. Then Bratmobile end up doing their troublemaker anthem “Cool Schmool” anyway, a testament to gossip and image
that says nyah nyah to it all.
When Ronnie Spector goes on, the crowd gently shifts from riot grrl to riot mom. Fortysomething women wearing black, from shag to boots— Ronnie herself included— move toward the front. Too bad indie rock never caters to this audience, but then, no rock ever does. In case anyone’s wondering what Ronnie’s doing recording for Kill Rock Stars, she was probably the first graduating class of cool schmool— hair up to there, eyeliner out to there, double-dare-ya voice that almost 40 years later still sounds like any second it’s going to break down or break you in two. Whether she’s doing “Don’t Worry Baby” or “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” everything else seems still and small in comparison.
At CBGB on Saturday at the Sub Pop showcase, everyone looks like Johnny Thunders, all with screwed-up hair and pouty lips and tight black jeans on stringbean bodies. It makes a girl fall in and out of love about 14 times in an hour. Many of Sub Pop’s recent rock signings are sort of the roots of grunge— the Go, appropriately from Detroit and wearing stripy shirts and overgrown bangs, sound like Nuggets and shimmy like the Stooges.
The Hip Hop Essentials party, Saturday at Downtime, is like being at someone’s house. There are big puffy couches to rest on, and even someone’s parents sitting upstairs. The crowd is racially mixed and evenly split between girl and b-boy. The umpteen-act bill probably didn’t end until sometime yesterday. But I caught some of it: Chicago’s Rubber Room dueled rapid-fire, Busta Rhymesstyle, over thick techno-dancehall; Minneapolis’s Atmosphere could have been House of Pain rapping about midwestern winters; Atlanta’s Micranots sampled Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle,” always a good idea. Everyone pretty much dressed like they were waiting for the subway: no ridiculous costumes here.
Got lost on the way to the more-electro-than-they-used-to-be Bis show at Bowery Ballroom because the cab left me off in the middle of the carnival scene from the Jordan Knight video. I went the wrong way and ended up in Chinatown, which was kind of like Chinatown the movie— not a place I’d wanna go back to, even if they had good dim sum. Fortunately, there were lots of rats around who I could
ask for directions.
Back at the Hilton, about half the panels and exhibits were all about the Internet and MP3s, who cares, and the other half were various genres summing up their existence: major label downsizing and decline in rock sales, indies trying to stay afloat, Latin labels living la vida loca after the Ricky Martin boom, Loud Rock still demanding respect (since demanding respect is part of Loud Rock’s shtick), electronicats wondering what happens next, and, surprise, a rock critic panel where no one fought— even though it was called “Who Gets the Last Word? Writers and Editors Face Off.” Moderator Ira Robbins and his moderatees put a human face on the plight of editors (who I always think of as scary middle-management control freaks), but it might have been more interesting if somebody had stirred up some trouble— if
Jojo Dancer was in the audience, he or she kept his or her mouth shut. Keynote speaker Ice-T said “fuck” in every other sentence (and claimed he talks even worse in church), recommended that bands tell labels who want to take control of artist URLs to “eat a bowl of dicks,” but closed the day by saying, “I tell the kids in junior high to go to high school. I tell the high school kids to go to college. I tell the college kids to have courage.“ Always wear sunscreen, and there’s no sex in the champagne room.