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Rebel Quietly in the Mornings

Don't sit too close, I've got kulchur

On Friday night I went to hear Arto Lindsay perform. Lindsay, with Bill Laswell and John Zorn, is a scion of the downtown Manhattan art-music scene. He's also mixed in deep with the old Brazilian Tropicalia folks, like Tom Zé, and an early member of the band the Golden Palaminos. Now, he's remixed by young disc-itchers like DJs Olive and Spooky.

He played at Tonic, a club off Delancey St., at a 7:30 show. About half of Lindsay's lyrics were in Portuguese, the rest in English. The occasional percussive skronk of his blue electric guitar, which he does not play, but spanks and thrashes, took the sugar off the sound.

“This is a small crowd, but an intense one,” Lindsay said into the mic. Maybe 30 people were in the room, including a randomly shouting harmless nut in a white shirt and the bartender. Likely a larger group would come at 10pm for the second set, and an even more the next day, when he played with John Zorn.

I don't know Lindsay's music well - my friend is the fan - but Naked City was a John Zorn album that got me through high school, jazz gone bad, with Yamatsuka Eye singing like theTasmanian Devil.

With a proprietary thrill, I would put it on over and over after chores and breakfast, before we walked to Senior Hall. Naked City was one of several sonic amulets I hung around my neck to ward off quiet sameness, during the 6 years of my life (15-21) when personal identity and music consumption were fused.

Milton Hershey School was a sprawling enterprise funded by a chocolate company for the benefit of disadvantaged children. We lived there, 1100 brats with parents who'd died, or gotten into a mess; a faculty of 700 fed and disciplined us, inserting as much education as they could in the process. The morals at MHS were strict potato-salad America, and adopting music no one else wanted was a way for me to keep the beast at bay, to rebel quietly in the mornings, to ward off the monster that had fresh-mowed lawn for skin, TV tube eyes, and picket fences for teeth.

I told my friend about listening to Zorn at the Milt. Then I said, “What I would like, as much as I am enjoying myself, is to come in here with a remote-controlled fog machine and put it on at critical points in the songs, big billows of smoke.”

My friend said, “With strobe lights, a green laser, and purple-and-red-gelled spotlights.”

“And lower a big red Satan head poster behind Lindsay halfway through. I think that's the sense of drama that's missing.”

“And start a pit.”

“I am wearing steel-toed shoes,” I said. “And would love a pit.”

He and I sat on a wooden bench at the back of the club, drinking little. I had a $6 gin and tonic from a plastic cup. A half-hour into the set a woman wearing a large leather coat stood two feet in front of us, with a friend, obscuring the band.

I looked at her back for a half-hour, maybe longer. She was tall; the coat came down to her knees, and her legs were in stockings. She had brown hair cut above the shoulder, which covered her neck. One by one, half the people in the club came up to speak with her, bumping their hips into hers, patting her shoulder. When the set was over Lindsay spoke with her, too. When she turned her head, her face was even, smooth.

My friend told me about the scene in Phoenix, Arizona, when he was living there a decade ago, in college, the familiar narrative of a small group of people brought together by a certain kind of music, standing in for ideology - in this case, Industrial dance - vainly trying to make anything happen at all, believing that if only there was a really good nightclub that could bring people together and build community then things would finally begin to happen.

It remained always the club of dreams, tantalizingly close. Like him, I spent the end of childhood imagining huge cavernous rooms that throbbed with rhythm, moving lights cutting lines through smoke, seeking a place for myself in the vision; the vision pulled me to New York, one of the world's general urban space, where I could find my own life, live without external moral pressures, without carpets and carports.

Of course, when I got here - a warm afternoon with a big truck - the club of dreams was no more; I stopped wanting to go out and see live music; I didn't care what music my friends liked, if they liked any at all. I retired my musical amulet; it had brought me here, and now that I was in the city, the source of its power, it no longer had any effect. To see Lindsay play in the near-empty club, having paid $15 and come there by the Ftrain to Delancey, brought all of this back. I cannot fathom how the 17-year-old in a small room in Hershey, PA in 1991, listening to John Zorn in the mornings, was me, not simply something I read or wrote.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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