Tag Archives: 1990s

1999: Downshift

In 1999, I moved into my first post-college apartment, way out in the farthest reaches of Bensonhurst. It was a mere 15-minute walk from Coney Island, a walk I would take many late nights on my way home from the city and somehow avoid murder. Circa 1999, the neighborhood had barely changed since Saturday Night Fever days. When I jogged around the neighborhood, I was an exotic specimen, because people in Bensonhurst did not jog. Old ladies stared at me like I was a wild animal and rotten teens would joke-jog next to me or fake-lunge in my direction, hoping I would flinch.

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Lower East Side (Mostly), 1996

I’ve written in this space about how when I was in college I used to wander through different neighborhoods in New York City, absorbing all the sights I could. Sadly, I have very little documentary evidence of my trips, unless you count my memory. However, I recently rediscovered a whole pile of old photos I took back then, and included in this pile are some pics from a walk I took through the Lower East Side and the East Village in May 1996. In my head, 1996 seems like yesterday. In reality it’s almost 18 years ago. These pictures make that time seem even longer.

In terms of pure aesthetics, these pictures are not very good. They were taken with a crummy point-and-shoot that had no zoom. This made it very difficult to get the shots I really wanted, because that would have required standing in the middle of traffic. So I’d either have to take very close shots or stand across the street and get wide-angle shots of entire blocks while cars raced in front of me. I usually chose the latter.

Picture quality is further compromised by the fact that all shots were developed at a Genovese on 8th Street. Genovese (one of many NY stores no longer with us) was a drug store that had a photo developing department that employed very few Ansel Adams.

Despite these considerable deficiencies, I want to share these pictures because most of the sights they captured no longer exist. I look at these pictures now and I can remember what the Lower East Side felt like in the mid-90s, when it hadn’t quite become hip, and certainly hadn’t become insanely expensive. If you strolled down Rivington Street on a Sunday afternoon, it wasn’t full of people stumbling their way to brunch. It had an unsettling ancient quiet that was impossible in most of Manhattan. The only sounds you heard were old signs swaying in the breeze and neglected buildings slowly crumbling.

I try not to be one of those insufferable types who longs for a city where “realness” was exemplified by nonstop murder and romantic heroin addictions. However, I look at these pics now, particularly the ones taken on Rivington Street, deep in the heart of what is now the most insanely expensive part of the Lower East Side, and I wonder what happened to the folks who got pushed out by the unstoppable wave of gentrification and development.

One of these pics shows a huge lot on Suffolk Street. You used to see many lots in the area like this, stretches of nothing that were reclaimed by local residents to be ersatz community gardens, junk yards, and flea markets. You can’t quite make it out in the photo, but there was a shack adorned with Puerto Rican flag insignia, whose occupant played a faint salsa soundtrack at all hours. The site is now occupied by a row of very ugly and very expensive condos.

When I took these pictures, the gentrification of the Lower East Side and East Village had already begun in earnest. It was confined to very specific blocks, but a sharp eye could see that it would soon creep everywhere.

Sometimes, you didn’t even need to look very hard. It was right there in front of you. In one photo, a repair shop on West 4th and the Bowery is being converted into the Bowery Bar. The mural on the wall of the building next door is being painted over to mark the occasion, an artsy non sequitur replaced by an enormous advertisement. You can literally see both the working class and bohemia replaced by luxury.

I realize that if you didn’t live in New York back then or don’t live here now, none of this means anything to you. In an effort to display just how much has changed, I’ve paired the old photos with new ones I took recently at the same spots. I did my best to recreate the perspective of the original pics, though in many cases changes in the landscape made precision impossible. And of course, there are the differences in lighting that result from May sky vs. November sky, and the differences in overall look between cheap point-and-shoot and fancy digital camera.

Some sites changed little, synagogues and churches mostly. At St. Patrick’s on Mulberry (the original St. Patrick’s), even the road work sawhorses look the same. Most of these spots have changed, though, enormously. It almost doesn’t matter if that is a good or bad thing, because the change has happened and cannot be unchanged regardless.

While taking the new pictures, I stumbled on a bunch of storefronts that had the look of turn-of-the-20th-century, florid serifed lettering and striped awnings. I thought it was an affectation adopted by boutiques, but then remembered that a TV series was being filmed down here, one set in the early 1900s.

The bustling squalor of that time seems quaint to us now, though life was tough and cheap for the people who lived in the Lower East Side back then. Few shed tears when the residents of the 90s were slowly pushed out for luxury condos and bars. Perhaps one day we’ll see them as picturesque enough to tell their stories. Continue reading Lower East Side (Mostly), 1996

Ray Manzarek, Bill Walton, and Greg Ginn Walk Into a Studio…

waltonUpon hearing of the passing of Ray Manzarek, my first thoughts were not of The Doors or Jim Morrison, but of the keyboardist’s role in one of the weirder albums ever released. The record was called Men Are Made In The Paint, a spoken word project by Bill Walton in which the former UCLA great and NBA analyst shared his thoughts on the game of basketball at length. At great length, in fact, because Men Are Made In The Paint is a double album, clocking in at almost 2 and a half hours of Bill Walton’s witness protection voice talking about hoops.

This is bit odd, but a Bill Walton spoken word album is not especially strange in and of itself. What puts Men Are Made In The Paint over the top is who Walton made the album with, and who released it.

If you’re a former punk rock kid of a certain age, you no doubt remember the little catalogs that came in every SST release, printed on Bible-weight tissue paper and strategically folded so they could hold listings for every record that label put out yet still fit between the CD and booklet for Damaged or Double Nickels on the Dime. One of my former bandmates swore he would one day own every single item in that catalog, and so he made it a point to learn every last release printed thereon, memorizing the backlist of obscure bygone groups like Tom Troccoli’s Dog and Fatso Jetson.

While studying the catalog with talmudic dedication, he discovered a tiny section for something called ISSUES RECORDS. Its only listing was Men Are Made In The Paint. The existence of a Bill Walton double album should have been crazy enough, but it was made doubly (quadruply?) crazy by the fact that Greg Ginn was somehow responsible for its existence. My friend, who worshiped Ginn, would often point to this as a sign of his quixotic genius and proclaimed this thing must be worth listening to it because Ginn deemed it so.

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Recycling Bad Ideas

Last night, I ran across an ad that infuriated me for multiple reasons. It was a commercial for Verizon in which several middle aged dudes play basketball while casually discussing things they’ve done that are clearly poor decisions, the mention of which does not faze any of the participants one bit. Example: “I’ll tell ya what saves gas money: My kids hitch-hiking to school.” Each statement is intercut by a title card that says, BAD IDEA. It concludes with one of the dudes saying he would pick a cell phone company other than Verizon, which is the first time one of these “poor decisions” gives this group of dummies pause. You can watch the whole thing here:

If you’re of my relative age, this will remind you of a classic SNL fake commercial, Bad Idea Jeans. The premise is the same–guys casually discussing ideas that are clearly awful, with no one batting an eye. The setting is the same–guys playing a pickup game of hoops. The periodic title card intercuts are virtually the same. The jokes in the Verizon ad are not as hard edged; the SNL version has lines like “Normally I use protection, but I figured, when’s the next time I’m gonna be in Haiti?” And the original Bad Idea Jeans doesn’t have a “stinger” where one bad idea is considered beyond the pale. Still, the Verizon commercial is 99.9% the same.

This really pissed me off when I saw it last night. But what pissed me off more is the fact that I hadn’t seen any online outrage about this blatant ripoff. And that extends to myself, because once I saw it, I slowly realized, Wait, I’ve seen this Verizon ad before; why haven’t I said anything about this? A tweet on the subject garnered one lone response, while a quick Google search this morning shows some interweb consternation but not anything near what this kind of wholesale lifting should attract.

There are two possibilities as to why this ad has not garnered the seething scorn it deserves, and both are equally depressing. The first is that no one remembers the original. To me, Bad Idea Jeans is a classic SNL fake ad in the same company as Schmitt’s Gay and Colon Blow. In the case of Bad Idea Jeans, it was an oblique parody of an inescapable ad genre of that era, the self-important jeans commercial with superfluously busy camera work. But like all great comedy, the concept contained therein is so odd and perfect, it transcends the source material. You don’t have to know what a Levi’s or Dockers ad looked like in 1990 to find this funny.

To me, this commercial is a piece of our shared cultural fabric. But, I am also old, and it’s possible that many people in Verizon’s target audience– even those old enough to buy cell phone plans for themselves– are completely ignorant of Bad Idea Jeans, having been negative-3 years old when it first aired. I try to not think about the fact that people born in the 1990s are playing professional sports or own houses or have children, but damn it, it’s true. These people are adults, the same as I, yet we do not have quite the same cultural touchstones. Stuff that happened in the early 1990s holds no relevance for them, nor should it, really, and I must accept that.

The other possibility this Verizon ad hasn’t been greeted with more shrieking is that people actually do know from whence it came, but they don’t care. Because we live in such a reference-oriented culture now, one in which decontextualized references are considered jokes in and of themselves. (OHAI, everything Seth McFarlane’s ever done.) So many folks out there in TV Land may interpret this Verizon ad as more of an homage to Bad Idea Jeans than a ripoff. And for all I know, the ad’s creators may honestly see it that way, too. They don’t think they’ve “gotten away” with something; they think they’re playing by the New Rules. What passes for a new idea in the 21st century is being the first guy to complete bite something we’ve seen before.

Maybe I’m just being a cranky Get-Off-My-Lawn-ist here. There’s always been examples of repurposing old bits, joke stealing, concept swiping, and so on. I’m also a person who thinks jarts tweeting about themselves and captioning screengrabs of Dennis Miller is hilarious, so I may not be one to talk when it comes to reference-oriented comedy. Still, it’s hard for me to think we haven’t lost something in terms of what we will accept as entertainment.

Again, look at the original Bad Idea Jeans. It took something viewers of that era would be familiar with–self-serious jeans ads with weird camerawork–and used it as springboard for a truly original idea. Then look at the Verizon ad, which used an old idea as a template to make a reboot, and a much less funny/biting one at that.

And then look at me, the guy who considers himself an amateur ad historian (1980s forward, anyway) and yet couldn’t get mad about this until repeat viewings. Maybe I’m more deadened by this recycled world than I realized.

Friday Jamz for 3/23

It’s Friday! I bet you guys got some big plans for the weekend, like gettin up in the club and so forth. If so, may I suggest a solid tune for pregaming? It’s a song called “Butter On Ya Muffintop” by 4two7. I heard recently it on Billy Jam’s show on WFMU, and it is exactly as ridiculous as that title implies. It is, in fact, so dedicated to its specific area of the female anatomy that it nearly transcends the Ick Factor (almost like Foot Patrol).

I am tempted to transcribe some of the best rhymes here, but I think it might be better to just let you listen and experience them in their full glory. What Sir Mixalot did for big butts, 4two7 will do for muffintops and buttering them, with perhaps a bit of jelly as well.

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If you’re in a more old school mood, perhaps you’ll enjoy this slow jam by the generically named duo Charles and Eddie, “Would I Lie to You.” This video was available on demand on our cable, so my wife played it on a whim one evening, and I found its early 1990s-ness exquisite. That very particular time fascinates me, in large part because that’s when I had the misfortune to be in junior high/high school. It’s an era most people haven’t quite tried to mine for nostalgia or comedy, certainly not in the way the 1980s have been raided. But good lord, is it ever ripe for mining.

There’s a parallel here with the 1960s, which didn’t really start to happen until The Beatles came along. If you look at artifacts from the early portion of that decade–particular what was played on the radio–you can see people stumbling to figure things out, almost as if they’re waiting for something like The Beatles but they have no idea what that thing is yet. The pre-Clinton 1990s are a bit like that, with the catalyst being the arrival of Nirvana. The difference is that in the early 1990s, every aspect of fashion and culture was a million times worse. The Simpsons are a notable exception, but even The Simpsons didn’t really become The Simpsons for at least a season and a half. It’s like irony had to wait to arrive until we had an ironic president.

If you know nothing about the Very Early 90s, this video is a crash course. The Cavaricci outfits, the needless camera trickery, the white guy’s Fabio hair, the Quiet Storm beat–it all screams First Bush Administration, which we all know was a time of tumultuous change. Sadly, the Charles portion of Charles and Eddie passed away in 2001, but Eddie now fronts a band called The Polyamorous Affair. They never let the music die, guys.

From the Vault: Lung Leg

One of my Christmas presents to myself was the acquisition of a new USB turntable. I haven’t had a record player in several years, and I missed it terribly. Yes, I am one of those snobs who thinks vinyl sounds better than other formats. I have no problem listening to CDs or MP3s, but every now and again, I enjoy hearing music played in this format. I don’t think it’s old fashioned so much as decadent, an indulgent treat like sipping a 12-year-old scotch.

Other than aesthetics and my own pretentiousness, the reason I wanted a record player again was to hear some stuff that I only have on vinyl and which has never been released in other formats. So within minutes of popping it out of the box and setting it up, the very first thing I listened to was “Krayola,” Lung Leg’s portion of a split 7″ from 1998. I remembered adoring this song, and the passage of time didn’t diminish that love at all.

Lung Leg–a quartet of Scottish lasses–made their only American tour around this time as the opening act for The Make-Up. It must have been the only Make-Up tours I didn’t see, because I definitely never saw Lung Leg, and I have a uselessly encyclopedic memory for Bands I Saw and What Bands Opened For Them. I used to catch the Make-Up live at every conceivable opportunity, both because they were an amazing live band and to atone for being to young to ever see Nation of Ulysses live. I also purchased all of their singles, of which there were roughly eight billion (all later collected on I Want Some).

The two bands collaborated on a split 7″ around the time of their tour together. The Make-Up’s side (“Pow to the People”) was quality, of course, but the Lung Leg portion blew me away. The driving beat and insistent guitars, contrasted with vocals that are almost whispered, the killer fadeout that leaves you wanting more…perfect in every way.

Since I loved this song so much, I went out and bought the only other Lung Leg release available at the time, Hello Sir, a collection of two early EPs. I was profoundly disappointed, because it was nothing like “Krayola” in style or substance. It sounded somewhere equidistant from Beat Happening and Shonen Knife. At the time, I found it angular, silly, and amateurish. After one listen, I tucked it away in my record collection, where it stayed untouched for well over a decade.

Listening to that compilation again after all these years, my opinion has softened considerably. The songs are quite enjoyable for what they are; I was mostly mad because of what I expected them to be. I also recently acquired Lung Leg’s only LP, Maid to Minx, and found it eminently listenable. The production is considerably better than that of the EPs, and there are a few glimpses of what I liked so much about “Krayola,” particularly the title track.

Nothing quite measured up to “Krayola,” however, which I suppose is ultimately unfair. If you can manage one masterpiece, that’s one more than most us get in our lifetimes.

Note: I suspect this version I’ve digitized may be running a tiny bit fast. So, you know, caveat emptor and all that.

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Download “Krayola” here

Me Elsewhere: Rap Ads at Low Times

Let this be a heads-up to all and sundry that all this week, you can read contributions from yours truly over at Low Times. You see, once upon a time, companies thought they could capitalize on the emerging hip-hop culture in order to move some product. They also thought anybody could rap, and the results that littered the airwaves in the late 80s/early 90s were not pretty. So that we can all take a trip down memory lane, or expose unwitting younger generations to their horror, Daniel Ralston and I have compiled a few examples for your listening and viewing pleasure (?).

The first installment is up as we speak, with more segments to follow all week at Low Times’ “Long Player” section. The inaugural post includes a commercial I think you’ll “love in a major way.” Enjoy!

Slice of Turkey: Forever Plaid, 1990

One evergreen feature of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade is to feature the cast of a Broadway musical performing a number from their show. The effect is often weird, since the actors, singers, and dancers are asked to complete a routine in an area a fraction the size of an actual Broadway stage. It’s like asking Michael Phelps to breaststroke across a bathtub. Not to long ago, I wrote about Starlight Express, which is an extreme but representative example of this phenomenon. Starlight Express was bonkers even at its full scale. Reduced to tiny TV dimensions, it was practically suicidal.

I’ve chosen this clip that features the original cast of Forever Plaid for a few reasons. For one thing, it is a rare case where it seems that no reduction in scale was necessary, nor did it endanger anyone’s life. It’s also pretty amusing. I was genuinely impressed by the insane showmanship on display here.

But mostly I chose this clip because it triggered an ancient memory. My freshman year at NYU, one of my roommates was a pleasant enough person with whom I had no problems with at all, except that he loved to belt out songs with wild, unbridled enthusiasm, particularly early in the morning while showering. It bugged me, but I dealt with, because when it comes to putting up with petty annoyances (as opposed to actually confronting their sources), I have Herculean strength. I will exhaust any and all contingencies before asking someone to knock off whatever they’re doing.

My roommate was painfully, blissfully oblivious to how loud he was, until one morning after I’d invited several girls to crash in our room. (Nought but crashing went on; it was, for all intents and purposes, a slumber party. I only mention this to emphasize how awkwardly chaste I still was at age 18.) I was used to my roommate’s performances and just buried my head under a pillow. The girls, however, thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. They all tried to shush each other but couldn’t help breaking out into chortles at his thoroughly earnest crooning.

He eventually emerged from the bathroom, wearing nothing but a towel, to find several girls (who’d escaped his notice before, apparently) sitting up in their sleeping bags, giggling. One told him she liked his voice. She said it sincerely, but he looked mortified. “You could hear me?” he asked, incredulous. I have no idea how he could not have known we could hear him. The whole dorm could.

From thereon out, his singing was far more subdued and infrequent, which was good for sleeping in but bad for my conscience. Annoying though it may have been, I felt awful for making him feel so self conscious about his shower singing. He also became a bit leery of me, suddenly thinking I was this super macho hetero dude because I was bringing over multiple girls to our room. Even I found this to be ridiculously funny, because the most exciting thing that happened that night was watching the “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Regardless of reality, he now saw me very differently, and we were never quite “cool” again.

Before this incident, however, Forever Plaid was in heavy rotation in my roommate’s repertoire. I’ve never seen the show or learned much about it; according to Wikipedia, it seems to be a proto-jukebox musical with an oddly dark premise. On the rare occasions where I hear/see it mentioned, I think of my freshman year roommate and how I accidentally crushed his fragile spirit with my irrepressible manliness.

Close Encounters of the Gen X Icon Kind

I’m leaving work, headphones jammed into my ears and a large box under my arm. I’m in that vague, annoyed space of not paying attention to much of anything, of wishing I was home already, and feeling like every step I have to expend to get there is a personal insult. It’s a little after 6pm. The early evening is a little windier and chillier than I anticipated. I wish I’d worn a jacket.

A few blocks up on Hudson Street, I spot a woman in a red tank top, revealing a few tattoos on her upper back and arms. I haven’t seen her face yet, and still she looks vaguely familiar, for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on. She must feel me looking at her, trying to figure this out, so she turns her head, in that I’m-not-trying-look-behind-me-but-I’m-totally-turning-my-head-so-I-can-see-this-person-peripherally. That’s when I figure out that this person is Janeane Garofalo.

In the span of nanoseconds, this revelation brings to mind a few distinct memories from my misspent youth. The first is that, during my college years, I had the habit of running into random celebrities in the streets of Manhattan and somehow scaring them to death.

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Turkey Day, the Most Holiest of Holidays

I cannot think of Thanksgiving without also thinking of the annual Turkey Day marathons that once came with them. In the early/mid 1990s, Comedy Central would turn over its broadcasting day to a non-stop showing of Mystery Science Theater 3000, my favoritest show ever.

If I recall correctly, it was a Turkey Day Marathon that turned me on to MST3K in the first place. I didn’t even have cable, but an older cousin hipped me to its basic premise, and it certainly sounded like it was up my alley. One Thanksgiving at my grandparents’ house, I just happened to flip on Comedy Central as they were airing the “Crash of the Moons” episode. It was love at first sight.

My grandfather, who did not cuss lightly, wondered “What the hell is this?” with genuine bewilderment. But he still indulged my obsession by allowing me to set up a timer recording on his VCR, so I could tape it every night at midnight and bring it home to watch.

“I don’t get that show at all,” Grampa would say, but he let me monopolize his TV (and cable box) anyway. He was a saint.

I am decidedly a Joel partisan; his shows had a goofiness and silliness that kept them from being too mean-spirited, and I think that was lost when he left. However, my favorite Turkey Day bumpers might be these from the Mike Era, which bring back many characters from over the years: Mr. B Natural, The Kitten with the Whip, and Pitch, among others. Plus, Mike reprises two classic roles: the preternaturally ebullient Jack Perkins, and crooner Michael Feinstein (much to the delight of Dr. Forrester).