My City is lost, burnt to ash and I, now, a wandering, faceless ghost within the cold confines of its canyons. After the 1990s, the Gay Nineties (slight return), I reflect upon the Gotham I once knew and see nothing but free doom from the mentally conjured pinnacle of the Empire State Building. Despair sets in not merely because the Twin Towers are gone and Giuliani successfully Disney-fied the old, weird, wild 42nd Street that Queens-born bard Jesse Malin eulogized in his between song rap at the Mercury Lounge last month. This pervasive, vague unease stirred by the metropolis arises from being mired in avenues of broken dreams and being constantly forced to revisit the scenes of interpersonal crimes where the faint scent of blood, semen and other bodily fluids still lingers.
Indeed, one of these crimes directly led me to Malin’s work: a mutual friend from Great Neck, Jon Baum, had attended college with me upon my young adolescent and bright-eyed arrival in Manhattan, pretty much just as Malin’s previous band, D Generation, began its ascent. Baum hung often with the lads and reported favorably on their progress but I never extended myself enough to catch their act; was too caught up in the realm of the era’s greatest rock outfit, the Black Crowes. It is a pity for now I find in the former glam-punk frontman the best indie-rock disciple of Neil Young and a select coterie of populist troubadours. Or maybe I can revel in the joys of The Fine Art of Self Destruction (Artemis) precisely because I don’t carry sonic baggage where Malin’s concerned that’s on par with the physical and psychic tolls the City has wrought upon me. On the whole, this record is as beautiful and peculiarly New York as Adrien Brody’s face.
That is not to say that the appearance of Ryan Adams, Lost Highway’s Crown Prince and Naked Emperor, on the record did not give me initial pause. And typically a song entitled “Wendy” could only be bad news. Fortunately, Adams’ light touch in this instance of a whirlwind six-day recording stretch in LoHo almost redeems the past transgressions of my least favorite wunderkind. Also, believe it or not, “Wendy” “rawks” and acquitted itself well at the Mercury. The Fine Art of Self Destruction is that timely, lucky record which sees itself released amongst the elite of the period’s best rock albums, works with vitality and voice and vision for all that the genre is moribund and being eulogized daily by my colleagues: the Drive-By Truckers’ (probably mercifully severed from Lost Highway) pending Decoration Day, Chris Robinson’s New Earth Mud (Redline Entertainment), Kid Rock’s reissued “Picture” (Lava/Atlantic), (speaking of local heroes) the Burnt Sugar’s three-disc opus That Depends On What You Know (Trugroid), portions of the Roots’ Phrenology (MCA) & Cody ChesnuTT’s The Headphone Masterpiece (Ready Set Go!), as well as Donnie’s triumph The Colored Section (Giant Step) over on the soul patrol [and we’ll give a nod to Arthur Lee & (the new) Love’s 35th Anniversary touring behind Forever Changes].
Malin’s phoenix-like metamorphosis as a (dare one say it) singer-songwriter is best exemplified by the centerpiece of both his record release gig and the album itself: “Brooklyn”. The best tune about the borough since Roy Ayers’ “We Live in Brooklyn, Baby” . . . and that was aeons ago. A song that could seemingly have been written by the great Gram Parsons if only he were born fifteen years later and a Gothamite rather than a Georgian, “Brooklyn”, reprised on disc to indicate its weight, is a minor masterpiece. It is the very ache of New York City in its most important, human guise. The song’s yearning and melancholy and anxious hope for better days ahead is the perfect mate to the avian imagery swirling about my mind from my illusory perch atop the Empire State. As only occurs with music of all the arts, Jesse Malin’s fine inner-gaze arrives as rescue precisely at the time when I gaze westward from the summits of the Hilly Island with longing and prepare to set a course and go. In these times of war and flux, flight is only too tempting. Some Mercury-going wiseacre’s call for “Freebird” as encore only made me smile in anticipation of open spaces enriched by Skynyrd’s axe grandeur. The crack was wonderfully rejoined by Nick Lowe’s “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?” delicately underscoring that Malin does not want his heart and soul further rent asunder by Downtown doom foxes and transient hipsters with their chronic inability to simply connect nor his City lost to the dogs of war.
A Whitman of the stationary throughout The Fine Art Of Self Destruction‘s confines conscribed by the borders of the Lower East Side, Malin is also Emerson’s heir—finding truth in transit as the subway cars run their lines between strangers and bands who might abruptly, unexpectedly become your whole lives. No wonder Adams is envious of his friend; this album—unlike Gold—is concise not sprawling, over-ambitious nor mired in shadow dancing with ego, nary a perfectly mixed drop wasted. Malin’s true debut is everything his producer’s solo records and even his influence Jeff Tweedy’s have not been—“real” in a way both drag queens and gangsta rappers would recognize. Malin does not need to go running all over the rock ‘n roll map, despite having such outsiders as Lou Reed and Young as his compass points. He is very much grounded in his lost-found New York, the City I only borrowed for a short while, with the luscious and divine rock babe Melissa Auf Der Maur as angel. Not only does Malin co-own East Village local Niagara but his jovial story-spinning about the subjectivity of being rock ‘n roll in New York—his tale of being arrested for drinking outside of the Garden after opening for childhood idols Kiss, for instance—rivals the man of the people stance so common to his (aesthetic) neighbor across the Hudson, Bruce Springsteen. Fool like Scott Fitzgerald that I have been, come young and potentially gilded to reinvent myself in the metropolis of the 20th century, I perhaps over-identify with Malin’s strong character as this will to perform minstrelsy upon Gotham’s floodlit stage makes of me a quintessential New Yorker in his mold. Emerson also said: Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not. Carrying the beauty of the Gotham that made and sustains him, Malin’s music fleetingly transfigures the City back into the belle we aesthetic pilgrims courted upon crossing the Hudson both literally and figuratively.
There is something wondrous and, yes, universal about Malin’s inner-city blues, although his fine art comes too late for my resurrection. This Algonquin island of my cousins that Peter Minuit ripped off for a paltry 60 guilders ($24) has already destroyed me; what little is left vibes off the twang trust underpinning Malin’s urban sagas. Thus I retain little enough energy to do this artist justice in script; suffice it to say that Jesse Malin is one of the few Americans with clarity about We The People, as our Texan tyrant flexes his avarice for oil. Gather these blues while ye may. When shortly my spirit finally cries “Westward ho!” and ventures away into the chimera of high lonesome Great White Men like the president continue to kill, these precious aural pictures as transparent as Robert Frank and Eliot Porter images and as opaque as William Eggleston and Bellocq portraits will accompany this “Queen Of The Underworld’s” Hudson-Rubicon reversal and escape from New York.