Momus Loves New York
New York Loves Momus
Tuesday, September 17th 1996
I climb aboard my shiny Jumbo at Paris Charles De Gaule and sail off into a clear blue sky. Don't have a window seat, so I go and look out of emergency exits from time to time, seeing the Thames, then Labrador (how come there is a population explosion and yet all this virgin land too?) then the mouth of the St Lawrence, where Montreal is. Ex-residences flick by.
The weather gets suddenly shitty over New York state and we land in a real
hurricane in New Jersey (later there are powercuts). Matt Jacobson, who runs Le Grand Magistery, my US label, is waiting and his friend has her Jetta standing by. She's a journalist, seems full of judgemental yet reversible opinions about art / music / film stuff. A sign of a place with merciless fashion sensibility changes, but also a constant critical interest in things.
New Jersey is ugly. A girder bridge, the Holland tunnel, and into south Manhattan...
(the weather so bad even the twin towers of the World Trade Centre are swathed in mist and invisible). To Regina's office, which is amongst the run down old warehouses of Tribeca, the old print district. The roads are terrible, pot-holed, worse than the third world. Against the greyness I notice acid colours, techno orange bags and posts and hydrants and utilities stuff.
Regina's office, advertising agency RDA. Brass panels, a slick lobby, glass compartments. It's basically Reg and Martin in their private offices and a lot of young kids at computers doing the work. I'm a dinosaur next to these cool Gen X microserfs. Regina is preparing press shots for Microsoft.
Martin (Regina's husband) is jowly, affable, his north English accent shading off into Manhattan vowels.
The rain gets heavier, me and Reg are buffeted horribly on the way to the very beautiful, villagey Grove Street. Their flat is on the sixth floor with a mezzanine sleeping area and a rather charming garden deck with greenery seeming to stretch all the way to the Empire State Building. I love this part of Greenwich Village. 19th century brick buildings, trees, so peaceful and friendly. It reminds me of Boston's Beacon Hill.
After I demand to go to a restaurant where I can see people with blue hair and piercings, Martin and Reg take me to Lucky Cheng's, a Chinese where the waiters are all transvestites. It seems dirty but friendly, the food (no doubt prepared by hand by cockroaches) is delicious, and when it's someone's birthday the waitresses sing 'Here are the candles, blow the waitress!'
Reg takes a taxi home in the rain and Martin and I see Low, a leading band in the new 'slowcore' scene (all buzzing Joy Division mantras and miserabilism), at the Mercury Lounge. I'm getting exhausted, so the throbbing, vibrant music is deliciously soothing, but I have to leave after the first (ten minute) song. There are other bands too (Windsor For The Derby), equally doomy, spiritual, as if grunge had died and gone to an eerie heaven of peace.
New York is the gentlest place, really. People are so sensitive here. Regina keeps saying sorry to everyone, all her employees, me, Martin.
Home, where I settle down to sleep on the sofa.
There are 70 channels of cable, 80 per cent trash but a couple of ultrabizarre public access chains with meditation lunacy and weird electronic effects.
Wednesday, September 18th
I wake up at noon French time, 6am here, and can't get back to sleep. Reg and Martin see me to Hudson where I check in my blue suit at a drycleaner then set off with my bag and a borrowed jerkin. To explore alone. What luxury!
Buy the NY Times (people are saying 'get me a cawfee... make it a big one') and pick up the new Village Voice. Head to a cafe on Bleeker Street and sit in the window
watching the groovy early morning street scene.
The Momus feature is good, slightly sensationalist. The headline is 'Life Is Not A Cabaret'. The tag line: 'It's tough to play the detached aesthete, the Huysmansesque dandy, when your paramour's family threatens to kill you'.
After breakfast I walk to Prince Street, heart of SoHo, full of galleries. See the Paul McCarthy show. A Disneyland of sinister Wild West characters all fucking and sucking each other, guided by fairground motors.
Then a great artists' bookshop, Printed Matter. This place is like Amsterdam, only better. The huge windows, the brick streets, the charm.
A student show with lots of zines. Zines are really big here, everyone makes a post riot grrrl photocopied zine, it seems. New York magazine has a feature about how much people earn, and some zine editors proudly boast that they earn zero dollars.
Walk round the streets, heading into the poorer Lower East Side. Videoing carefully, always afraid someone will nick the JVC. Instead an earnest hippy schoolteacher type comes up and asked me all about the camera, she's planning to buy one. So New York, so friendly. The pavements full of wildly diverse multiethnic kids coming out of school. It is just so nice here, so much to look at, people open with each other. A bit like a much more exciting and creative Glasgow, that mixture of ugliness and relaxed friendliness.
Lunch with Eric Swenson (long time E mail friend, makes a CD-ROM called Blam). He's such a big becardiganed fogey, not at all the driller killer I'd imagined (although he's just read 'American Psycho' and is raving about how great it is). He wouldn't hurt a fly, in fact I can imagine him smoking a pipe. We sip margueritas and eat Mexican near his midtown office.
An interview on St Mark's Place with Andrew Beaujon of Eggs, a rather reverent fan who performs cover versions of my songs with his band sometimes.
Thursday, September 19th
To Rafael Jiminez's loft on Waverley Place, just by Washington Square and the NYU campus. He's only got it for two months, while the elderly painter who owns it spends time in Maine. It's a vast space, open-plan, very elegant, with half-finished canvases on the wall. A great stainless steel, industrial type kitchen.
We sip tea and talk about visas.
Supper at Matt's. He lives slightly more uptown, near the Empire State Building. Fairy lights and candles. A shrine to el Records and to me, his bedroom / studio is plastered with stills from Man Of Letters, photocopies of my album sleeves. He's a bit embarrassed about that.
I sit listening to cover versions of my own songs by artists who'll be on the el tribute Matt's preparing. A rather good REMish version of 'Lucky Like St Sebastian', an okay 'Little Lord Obedience', a reading of 'Bishonen' by Andrew Beaujon in which he forgets the lines and starts shouting 'Get me a witness!' And Kahimi's 'Fruit Paradise'.
Matt has a new girlfriend, Mikhell, who is a classical student and loves 'Circus Maximus'.
A Scanner concert on 14th Street, near the docks. I spend a lot of time with NME journalist Ben, who edits the On section. Robin Rimbaud plays two sets, hunched over his three CD drives and DAT player. The concrete (and very dark and blue) cellar is not the best place for his cellular scanning, though, so he's forced to fall back on a DAT.
Afterwards, when my jet lag hits hard (as it tends to do at about midnight) I come out into the cobbled dockland streets and see lines of transvestite prostitutes approaching crawling cars. Handsome Asians and hispanics like the draggy waitresses in Lucky Cheng's. Even Scanner can't upstage New York.
Friday, September 20th
I'm taken by a girl called Robyn on a bus out to New Jersey, to the campus of Upsala College in East Orange, a deserted ghost campus with only one building operational, the radio station.
New Jersey is a fascinating experience: houses that look like Polaroid land cameras, each with their own little flag hanging out the front (autumn leaves, a Halloween mask, cats, a football). Wearing my new wraparound shades (six dollars) which turn everything yellow probably helps make it stranger, more David Lynch-like.
The radio show is great, a supercalm DJ, weedy and clever, called Andy Waltzer plays weird college stuff, but best of all there's a musty library with the most eclectic selection of CDs. Akiko Yano, Sakamoto's wife, the new Boredoms ambient CD, Buffalo Daughter...
Back to NYC and a sound check at the Fez, on happening Lafayette Street. I'm impressed to see Michael Musto (gossip columnist for the Village Voice) sitting on the rather Parisian cafe terrace.
Before I go onstage, Matt, who has left his straightjacket in a taxi, does a hilarious act escaping from an imaginary jacket.
My concert seems to be regarded as a triumph, it goes well, sells out. I enjoy
myself, grinning a lot and playing silly games with songs like
'Hippopotamomus'. I break a string and forget some lines, but nobody cares.
Afterwards I feel like a politician, shaking a hundred people's hands and
signing CDs and CD ROMs.
A lot of people who hadn't heard my records before are now true believers. Robin Rimbaud showed me a micro MIDI composer the size of a wallet which he hopes to use to play all his future shows.
I met a hundred people I knew only as E mail addresses.
Saturday, September 21st
The day begins with an interview with Persistent Visions, two guys from Seattle and San Fransisco who want to make a documentary about me, Patrick Kwiatkowski and Joel Bachar.
We go to sunny Washington Square. This funky little park is the one with the Arc de Triomphe-like arch in it. It's where the skate kid fight happened in 'Kids'. In fact it's full of students from nearby NYU, where I also did a college radio interview and where Shazna would probably study if we chose to move here.
We talk about an hour before walking five minutes down the street to Rafael's loft on Waverley Place, our next location.
After the interview / discussion with Rafael, me and Matt go for my
Raygun interview to Howard Greenberg's flat.
This guy has the most fantastic collection of Jap pop stuff of anyone I've met, as well as a fabulously decorated apartment (all CD shelves, deep purple blue walls, little Tintin
models...). It was Howard who put Lawrence (Felt / Denim) up for a month when he was in NYC, Howard who singlehandedly wrote the Raygun Big In Japan issue. (I have a copy, it's very inspiring, makes me think that Jap-Pop has really made inroads here alongside Slowcore).
Instead of doing a proper interview we gossip about Japanese pop and watch Kahimi Karie videos.
Howard even has the Skeleton Ape record player Keigo of Cornelius designed for Denon (I'm meant to be doing a pink vinyl record for Kahimi's bubbletopped one).
We listen to 'Roomic Cube' by Kahimi's ex-collaborator Takako Minekawa.
After the very cool Howard, it's back to Reg and Martin's. They have a very groovy English friend round, Phil, a copywriter who came to one of my London shows in the 80s and now lives here with his Jewish wife Chelle.
(Everybody here is Jewish, absolutely everybody. Just as the patina on the old buildings makes them almost more European than the tidy, clean 19th century buildings we have in Europe, so the vivacious and very European New York jews seem to have come straight out of a time when Europe really was lively and creative... before the Nazis, and before the Bundesbank took over).
So the filmcrew comes with Reg and Martin to Chinatown, down at the south east tip of the island by the Brooklyn Bridge and the town hall. An excellent Vietnamese soup clears out a bad throat and deaf ear thing I seem to be developing. Afterwards we invade one of the many Chinese barbers where, for six dollars, you get a haircut and hot towel massage.
Reg interviews me for the film sitting in the next chair.
I get a message from Dave Dimartino (editor of CD-ROM magazine Launch) saying that the Microsoft NBC network (which goes out to 25 million American homes) wants to interview me for a show called The Site about my CD-ROM. They record the show in San Fransisco but will try and organise a crew in New York early next week. This is a huge break for the ROM. I want to get Eric on the show talking about our remix.
(In fact it never happens: they can't get a crew in New York in time).
Sunday, September 21st
I speak to you between a kids' birthday party (a little doctor's son called Julius, who lives in a high rise behind New York University, and who is to be treated to a magic show by Matt) and an afternoon / evening with Eric Swenson at his flat in the East Village. Then later on tonight there's an easy listening club Matt wants to show me.
I seem to have seen a lot of shows recently that fell under the Chick Factor banner. Chick Factor is Gail O'Hara's organisation, she's a sort of zine Riot Grrrrrl (also happens to edit the music section of Time Out and to have organised my show). All her bands are sad, clever, and a bit doomy. They adore the Monochrome Set and wear striped hats. Some of them play at a place called the Mercury Lounge, where I've now been twice, others were my support acts. They're where Slowcore meets English-inspired whimsy.
It's amazing how close everything is here, south Manhattan feels small. Already I have an eminently walkable network of streets between Reg and Martin's, Rafael and Skye's, NYU, Eric's, Matt's...
I feel instantly at home here, more than I ever will in Paris. Because of language, because everybody is so friendly and open, because I already have this little network of friends matched to the streetplan.
Night scenes on the streets, so much light, so many funky ethnic faces, shouting, chino-latino girls in posses with harsh squeals, honking abusive drivers, but cheerful and very young and vital. Such a buzz (Bridge and Tunnel people on St Mark's Place, which is almost Italian). Yes, you sense danger occasionally (though no-one I've asked has been mugged or seen any shootings or anything, and when asked which areas it isn't safe to walk in, everyone says 'none'). But the adrenalin sees you through.
Eric's: the ethnic neighbourhood (puerto rican Alphabet City) reminds me of Brixton or Ladbroke Grove, perhaps in the early years of their colonisation by the hip. Eric is surrounded by cats and computers, his space is big and rent low. Sipping Turkish tea, we looked at the remix he's been doing on my CD-ROM. He's rejigged it so it runs at 100 mph and cannot be stopped, even when you exit to the Finder.
After jawing about this, life in NY, the multimedia industry, we eat at a very dark Japanese restaurant (everywhere in NYC is kept ultra-dark, for some reason). Filiz, who teaches essay composition at NYU, is interesting. We all have green tea ice cream, then Eric takes me to Tomkins Square, Little Japan and the extremely well-stocked St Mark's Bookshop, then a zine store on St Mark's Place where we laugh at zines like My Dick (a two page photocopy dedicated to the author's penis).
To the Nines, an Easy Listening club on 1st Avenue. An elegant white room with very low light, great swinger music, an interesting crowd pretentiously decked out in nerdy dark suits, hats...
Monday, September 23rd
To the financial district to try and cash cheques. I find it's impossible. Eat a scorching hot burrito in the World Financial Centre, which reminds me strongly of yuppie London docklands in the 80s.
The smell of maple syrup in the shopping malls. A glimpse of a hornery Americana which is deeply reassuring, with roots in my teen mall rat years in Montreal, and trips to Kennebunkport and Williamsburg. A gothic Post Office straight out of Batman's Gotham City. Glimpses of Saul Steinberg and Sesame Street. America is a set of unconscious associations we all contain.
Photo shoot with Donna Ranieri for Raygun. She has a very cheap and spacious flat right on St Mark's Place. We climb to the roof and I pose against a blackened wall. A beautiful skyline of Manhattan all around, sun skidding in and out of clouds.
Later we go to locations around Lafayette: a petrol stand called Guru, the cybercafe, parked taxis...
Supper (our 'blow out') with Martin and Regina at Rafaeli's on Bleeker Street. Champagne, relationship talk.
Tuesday, September 24th
I walk down through the Lower East Side and Chinatown to J&R and buy lots of cheap RAM. Also a QuickCam for Shazna.
Lunch with Martin. Then photos with Rafael at his loft. Perched on his fire escape I get horrible vertigo. We go to Dean and Deluca's on Prince Street and talk about America, Skye, couples... Later on Houston Street, as if to prove Deee-Lite's dictum that New York really is a global village, we bump into Dominique A, the closest thing the new French minimalist pop scene has to a Jacques Brel.
My instore performance at Other Music. The shop is packed, I play different songs than on Friday for about half an hour. A girl cries when I sing 'Flame Into Being'. But people seem happy too.
Buy lots of Cibo Matto and Boredoms. Sign a lot of 'Jellies' and ROMs.
To a very dark, yuppie-chic bar in SoHo called (appropriately) the Murk Bar where, incongruously, I do a long interview with a fanzine girl who edits a zine called Spilt Milk.
Plod home with my guitar and watch a lot of my digital video of the trip in bed wearing headphones.
Wednesday, September 25th
Meeting with David Levine at Caroline Records. Then take a bus uptown. (I've stayed in the Village all week, never even seen the tall buildings past the Empire State Building!) I walk in Central Park, gorgeous in the autumn sunshine. Much more manicured and Parisian than I'd expected. To the Guggenheim and the Whitney, where they have a good show called New York, City of Ambition.
Park Avenue, Madison Avenue. Rich old ladies hold their hands up imperiously as they cross the road.
To the airport. A short flight home (only about six hours this way) reading magazines, watching my trip videos, and slumbering. The in-flight film is Charlotte Gainsbourg / Bronte's 'Jane Eyre'.
Four hours sleep then out with Shazna to some gallery openings (Rue des Beaux Arts and a most impressive show in the vast hall of the Gare D'Austerlitz, at which we find ourselves talking to the notorious French Culture Minister, Jacques Toubon, the one who imposed the 40% french music quota on broadcasters).
We meet and dine with a shaven-headed Canadian writer called Doug Cooper (I've read his stuff in Wired). He now works in multimedia in New York. I tell him I'm seriously thinking of moving there as soon as I get my Japanese royalties. I see myself, romantically, living in a cold water flat on Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side, like Cale and Reed in the 60s or Cibo Matto now. Doug and me start trying to persuade Shazna how great it would be.
Momus, Paris, October 1996