New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: gentrification

Death By Audio or Vice? Not a Hard Choice

If a venue doesn’t book good music, should it exist?


Why should we care if Death by Audio or Glasslands bit the dust? To castigate Vice Media – who are taking over the Williamsburg space that housed both clubs – is absurd. Vice has a reputation for brave reportage well beyond the scope of corporate media. Aside from that free jazz night once a month at Death by Audio, neither of those two venues ever took any chances, or showed any real balls, when it came to booking music.

And isn’t it funny that far less ink has been spilled over the closure of Rodeo Bar, Spike Hill and the Ding Dong Lounge, venues that actually served a useful purpose and at least to some extent supported viable scenes?

The general perception these days whenever a club closes is that gentrification is to blame. While that’s usually the case, there’s a misunderstanding of how that pathology works. To use a gentrifier buzzword, a lot of these closures are a market correction. Much as extreme rent increases killed off the Rodeo, Spike Hill, the Ding Dong Lounge and others, there’s an elephant in the room that’s just as responsible. That elephant is the overproliferation of outer-borough bars, itself a toxic by-product of gentrification.

The obvious question is how a surplus of venues could possibly be bad for New York. Why should a musician have shlep all of his or her gear into Manhattan when they could just walk to a gig at their local? Why deal with the endless hassle of the trains when there’s a place just down the block that has music that’s probably better than what you could find in Manhattan? And isn’t all this just a return to an earlier period in New York history, when music was more of a local phenomenon, with neighborhoods more defined along ethnic lines?

And aren’t all these bars a boon to the economy as well? Think of the tax dollars. And don’t people actually spend more at their neighborhood bar than they would if they were hanging in Manhattan? If you’re taking the train home, you have to watch your back. But you can get as pie-eyed as you want at your local and then stumble straight to bed.

The result of all this is less serendipitous than the corporate media and their imitators in the blogosphere want you to believe. For one, all these new Brooklyn quasi-venues, most of them without any kind of decent sound system, have balkanized the music scene, which makes it exponentially more difficult for a band or an artist to gain traction and build an audience. Nobody is going to come see you play in Red Hook or Ditmas Park except for people who live there. But if you play Manhattan, pretty much everybody can get there.

Except that nobody does. Nobody wants to leave their neighborhood anymore – and this blog is just as guilty on that score as the rest of you are. And even if you were willing to grapple with finding a way home on the train in the wee hours, the real estate bubble has made it all but impossible to open new venues in Manhattan. Is the city so strapped for cash (yes) that we have to turn every neighborhood into a vomitorium for the sons and daughters of New Jersey Wall Street money? Ten years ago, the idea of Santacon invading Bushwick would have been just as laughable as it is now – for completely different reasons.

What economy do these bars benefit? It’s Robin Hood in reverse. Gentrifiers own them, and gentrifiers work there. And none of those people really need to work for a living: they’re just picking up beer money. Unless you count the Mexican guy slaving away in the kitchen sixty hours a week, off the books, for minimum wage.

Rodeo Bar, on the other hand, drew a diverse crowd. Yeah, a lot of those people were Baruch College kids who wanted to get as trashed as possible and just yelled louder and louder once the band started. As the neighborhood became overrun with yuppies, the din went up another notch. But much as classic country music is a niche subgenre now, there’s money in niche audiences, and the Rodeo folks were keenly aware of that. It might be a stretch to call the Rodeo the equivalent of CBGB for country music in New York, but it was home to a genuine scene, even if that scene went into decline in the past few years. Ridiculous as it might seem to say that Hill Country Brooklyn put the Rodeo out of business, there’s more than a grain of truth to that.

The Ding Dong Lounge was a local Harlem bar and also a spot for punk rock shows, off and on, for more than two decades. If you didn’t live in the neighborhood or didn’t have friends who played there, you probably didn’t know it existed. It was dark and dingy and cheap and back in the day had a good jukebox: sort of a Harlem counterpart to O’Connor’s in Park Slope, another legendary neighborhood spot priced out of existence.

The great loss here is Spike Hill. It was an ideal place to play, just steps from the Bedford Avenue subway. Sure, the club went through a down phase a couple of years ago, trying to sell tickets and compete with the trendoid venues, and making a dubious deal with an online booking scam didn’t help. But they learned from those mistakes, and booking was on the upswing again. They had a backline, the sound there was surprisingly good and the crowds were a lot more diverse than you typically see in that neighborhood, just like the music. And it’s not like the venue wasn’t raking in the dough. When a busy bar on the Bedford strip can’t make enough to survive there, that’s more than a canary in a coal mine: that’s a screaming eagle.

For a gentrifier venue, Death by Audio drew a surprisingly mixed crowd, if only because ownership was cool enough to let neighborhood kids and local stoners in to smoke weed. Which isn’t to say that those crowds mixed. And ultimately the venue was better than the music there. Sure, some good bands passed through, but pound for pound, Death by Audio was no more important to the New York music scene than Arlene’s is now.

As far as Glasslands is concerned, there are plenty of gay bars and loft spaces where newcomers from Laguna Beach and Lake Wayzata can get their fill of being “in a band” until their trust funds kick in and they move to Beacon or Provincetown. They won’t be missed. If the owners choose not to reopen the venue elsewhere – which ostensibly they plan to – they can always repurpose their Greenpoint piano bar the Manhattan Inn.

Thanks for the Memories, Lakeside Lounge

Lakeside Lounge has been sold and will be closing at the end of April. After just over fifteen years in business, the bar that defined oldschool East Village cool will be replaced by a gentrifier whiskey joint, no doubt with $19 artisanal cocktails and hedge fund nebbishes trying to pick up on sorostitutes when their boyfriends are puking in the bathroom – or out of it.

Lakeside opened in 1996 [thanks for the correction, everybody] in the space just north of the former Life Cafe on Ave. B north of 10th Street in the single-story building between tenements that had previously housed a Jamaican fried chicken takeout restaurant. It was an instant hit. Owners Jim Marshall (a.k.a. The Hound, an astute and encyclopedic blues and soul-ologist with a great blog) and Eric “Roscoe” Ambel (of the Del-Lords, and eventually lead guitarist in Steve Earle’s band) had a game plan: create a space that nurtures artists rather than exploiting them as so many venues do. And they stuck to that plan. Before long, Lakeside had become a mecca for good music. For several years, there was literally a good band here just about every night with the exception of the few holidays when the bar was closed. Artists far too popular for the back room would play here just for the fun of it: Earle, Rudy Ray Moore, Graham Parker, John Sinclair, the Sadies, Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby all had gigs here, some of them more than once. Dee Dee Ramone hung out here and eventually did a book signing on the little stage in the back, with people lined up around the block. Steve Wynn had a weekly residency here for a bit (which was amazing). The place helped launch the careers of countless Americana-ish acts including Laura Cantrell, Amy Allison, Mary Lee’s Corvette, Megan Reilly, Tom Clark & the High Action Boys, Tammy Faye Starlite and Spanking Charlene and sustained countless others through good times and bad. And as much as most of the bands played some kind of twangy rock, booking here was actually very eclectic: chanteuses Erica Smith and Jenifer Jackson, indie pop mastermind Ward White, punk rockers Ff and several surf bands from Laika & the Cosmonauts to the Sea Devils all played here.

As the toxic waves of gentrification pushed deeper into the East Village, Lakeside never changed. You could still get a $3 Pabst, or a very stiff well drink for twice that. Their half-price happy hour lasted til 8 PM. The jukebox was expensive (two plays for a buck) but was loaded with obscure R&B, blues and country treasures from the 40s through the 60s. Countless bands used their black-and-white photo booth for album cover shots. Their bar staff had personalities: rather than constantly texting or checking their Facebook pages, they’d talk to you. And they’d become your friends if you hung out and got to know them. Some were sweet, some had a mean streak, but it seemed that there was a rule that to work at Lakeside, you had to be smart, and you had to be cool.

But times changed. To a generation of pampered, status-grubbing white invaders from the suburbs, Lakeside made no sense. The place wasn’t kitschy because its owners were genuinely committed to it, and to the musicians who played there. It had no status appeal because it was cheap, dingy and roughhewn, and Ambel refused to book trendy bands. Had they renovated, put in sconces and ash-blonde paneling, laid some tile on the concrete floor, kicked out the bands and brought in “celebrity DJ’s” and started serving $19 artisanal cocktails, they might have survived. But that would have been suicide. It wouldn’t have been Lakeside anymore.

There won’t be any closing party, but the bands on the club calendar will be playing their scheduled shows. Ambel plays the final show at 9 on the 30th. Before then, stop in and say goodbye to a quintessential New York treasure.