Too many times, anymore, you walk into a bar, on what’s left of Avenue A, and there’s none of the old grit of Old New York, left. There’s no weirdos haunting the bar, day drinking on a Wednesday, talking shit to the same bartender they’ve been getting shitty in front of since 1989. Everything is spit-shined, polish and wood grain. The atmosphere is gone. And it’s not as simple as there’s no smoke in the air, cos you can’t smoke in a bar, anymore. It’s not as simple as the day drinkers all died, or cleaned up, or finally got shaken out of the city. It’s not as simple as a new coat of paint on the walls, or a new coat of varnish on the bar. All of those things matter, yeah. But, anymore, you walk into a bar, and they’re blasting Katy Perry or Britney Spears or some bullshit.
Now, don’t get me wrong.
I’m not writing tonight to attack Britney or Katy or their ilk. There’s a time and place and an audience for all types of music. I am not one of those fading rock guys who denigrates electronic music as talentless crap. A 909, in the right hands, can make something equally as beautiful as a Telecaster.
There’s a time and a place for everything. Pizza Hut, T.G.I. Fridays, and Old Navy are all appropriate venues for listening to Britney Spears. A bar in the East Village, once the epitome of cool in a city that epitomized cool is, even in 2016, not such a venue.
I wanna walk into Hi Fi, or Sidewalk, or Berlin, and get the impression that something illegal is about to happen. I wanna see somebody just pulling up from doing a rail off the bar. I want “Search and Destroy” to be blasting through the biggest, shittiest stereo you’ve ever heard, just a beat up old woofer that’s been up in the corner since ‘74. I wanna look around the room and wonder who’s gonna pull a knife on who. I don’t wanna hear some passing voice on the street say, “Oh, this is great! New York is so SAFE, now.” I want blood and spit and sweat and dirt, and exhaust from passing trucks. I wanna watch derelicts count change out on the bar for their pints of swill.
This is the New York that was already fading, when I got here. This is the New York that still exists in tiny pockets, and alcoves. This is the New York that spits you out, not the New York that prices you out. You can see it, in Ray’s Candy Store, and C-Squat. The corner of Avenue A and Houston, regardless of the new dystopian skyline popping up around it, will always call to mind the video of GG Allin’s last day, running around the jungle of Lower Manhattan, scared, naked, just trying to get out of the spotlight. This is the New York that I spend a lot of my spare time trying to find.
Not long ago, I found Old New York in a band called Pill.
Pill’s self-titled cassette, on Dull Tools, is five short missives of cool, New Wave-injected post punk. Veronica Torres sing-shouts lines like, “Oh, you wanna touch me where?/No, I’m younger than that,” sounding like the crabby younger sister of Romeo Void’s Deborah Iyall. Drummer Andrew Spaulding and guitarist Jonathan Campolo hold down a tight, skittery rhythm, Campolo seeming like a kind of quiet genius, Robbie Robertson-type bandleader.
The real standout voice, on the record, is sax player Ben Jaffe, who often seems to be more assaulting the saxophone, than playing it. That’s a good thing. Jaffe’s sax lines careen against the lyric, turning each song into a kind of insane, call-and-response.
The cassette, and the Hot Glue 7”, which came a little later on Mexican Summer, are standout documents of an already-remarkable band who are off to a good start, and who seem to only be moving upward. But the recordings, remarkable as they may be, are merely a sample.
When I saw Pill at Union Pool, a few weeks ago, I felt like my skin was coming off in sheets. Jaffe pulls this neat trick, where he turns up the volume on the amp, and strangles a melodious wave of feedback out of the sax. Depending on perspective, it sounds like an angel dying, or like the Devil, getting his wings. Everyone tight as fuck. Very little dicking around. There’s an awful lot of dicking around, going on, lately. Too much dicking around, for a city that’s getting tighter, and tougher to live in. Pill’s live act carries almost no fat; it’s like they’re playing in direct opposition of the wave of gentrification and ennui that’s washing away the last little bit of character New York has left.
Pill sound like Hall and Oates, if Hall were trying to sell you coke and Oates were trying to talk you into a threesome with them. Pill sound like they should be playing in a dive bar in any given David Lynch movie. Pill are sexy and cool and abrasive and danceable and dangerous. At once. Pill are gritty and unique and funny and sick and alive. Just like Old New York. Do yourself a favor, and see them, while you still can. If momentum doesn’t rocket them out our grasp before too long, it will surely tear them apart.