September 26, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Robert Anasi's The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn is as much New York City cultural history as memoir, tracing Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood from the gritty mid.-1990s to its current gentrified state.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"There's color and romance in his portrait of the avant-garde, but he takes seriously the creative labor of artists, writers and—gulp—erotic circus performers as they hone their craft and their vision. His clear-eyed, heartfelt elegy shows why a Williamsburg—free, fecund, gloriously threadbare—is so vital to the culture."
In his own words, here is Robert Anasi's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir, The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn:
Around 1973, a collection of avant-garde jazz musicians including Don Cherry, Archie Shepp, Roswell Rudd, Rashied Ali and Marion Brown lived in a loft building on Bedford Ave. The downtown loft scene was in full swing and some of the wildest music of the 20th Century was being made in NYC, to complete commercial indifference. I love the image of these African-American dudes in sharp suits or with big ‘fros and dashikis walking up derelict Bedford to the train. The Northside of Williamsburg was emptying but it was still an insular Irish and Italian working-class factory town with freight rail on the waterfront, and Bedford bars packed at happy hour. I knew musicians who had rehearsal space on the Northside back then and when they got off the L train the locals used chase them, shouting and throwing rocks. It's hard to imagine what it was like for local kids to walk by the space when Rashied and friends were rehearsing. I hope the noise blew at least one young mind and sent that kid into a new musical stratosphere.
Los Salseros de Kokie's
Williamsburg was home to the most famous coke bar on the planet: Kokie's Place. You'd be at a café in Berlin in 1995, mention that you were from Williamsburg, and some German hipster would nod: 'Oh, ja, Kokie's.' The bar was named for a Caribbean frog, the coqui, but try telling that to the folks lined up at the snorting booths at five a.m. on a Saturday morning. Kokie's served as a subterranean thoroughfare for various of the more extreme Bburg sub-cultures – late-shift factory workers, hard-partying, middle-aged Latinas, Polish thugs, and increasingly, art-school kids, all sharing a democracy of inebriation. The best thing about Kokie's, far better than the vile product they peddled, was the nine-piece salsa band that played there on the weekends. With its songs about politics and suffering, salsa is music for intellectuals (merengue is for booty-shaking) although the Kokie's band tended more toward salsa romantica. So I include a track from Hector LaVoe, NYC's soulful gangster salsero. I wouldn't be surprised if Lavoe spent a few late nights in Kokie's back in the day, but even if he didn't, he would have appreciated the spirit (and Willie Colon as a bonus).
Hector Lavoe: "Te Estan Buscando"
Urban legend has it that electro-clash was invented in a snorting booth at Kokie's. Apocryphal? Perhaps, but you certainly could run into some of the form's founders in that ugly and magical place.
The year I moved to Williamsburg was the also the year Kurt Cobain committed suicide. We were the same age and I remember reading a horrible, self-aggrandizing poem Jim Carroll published about Cobain in the Village Voice the week after Cobain's death. Besides considering how despicable it was to use another person's death as a vehicle for self-promotion, I also found myself thinking about why Cobain had done it. Besides all the obvious reasons, it seemed that the celebrity he despised (but also craved) played a role. In the 60s, rock heroes could imagine that they were part of a counter-culture, that they were helping to bring about a better world, even if they were deluding themselves. Cobain didn't have the luxury of those illusions. I was lucky enough to see Nirvana play in SF on the Nevermind tour, but I always liked Bleach better than the more polished records that came after
For years I would listen to Funhouse when I was gearing up for a night out. Proto-punk, white funk, and the ugly hangover from the 60s combine in a Detroit that's burning. Funhouse is more consistent than Raw Power and faster than the eponymous first record. The record turns you into a super villain – ready to fight cops or stroll into the Darwinian jungle of a loft party; it was the perfect soundtrack for that raw neighborhood. I'd crank up as I put on my psychic armor for the streets – down the concrete staircase of my shack, through the front building, and into the dirty stretches of the Northside. As a scuffling carpenter (I was the world's worst carpenter), I worked for Danny Fields, the talent scout who signed the Stooges to Elektra. He told me, 'Their music sounded ahead of its time then. And I think it still does now.' He was right. Energy is eternal delight.
The Stooges: "1970"
For the first five years or so I lived in Williamsburg, there was a half-sunken ferry boat next to one of the piers at the end of North 8th Street (now the far edge of the waterfront park). The first deck was awash, but the upper deck was dry. You could walk out to the boat, if you were willing to tightrope on some dubious plank. People used the ferry for all kinds of things – dates, drinking, fishing. A collective of Japanese artists used to throw parties on the ferry. They'd adorn the hull with candles and play ambient music. You'd walk out there in the dark, everyone just a silhouette, voices low, and pick your way around while trying not to fall in the river. I have no memory of what the Japanese DJs spun there, but since Brian Eno is the godfather of ambient sounds, here he is.
The Verb café became a makeshift home for the budding Brooklyn indy-rock scene in the late-90s. Over the next few years, the rock & roll dream kept coming true: baristas projected to shed tour stars in a matter of months.
Along with Grizzly Bear and Interpol (and a bunch of others), TVOTR is the band that defined the Bburg indie upsurge, bringing the national focus back to NYC after a long wanderjahr in regional scenes. While TVOTR certainly didn't follow the old paradigm of sweating it out in small clubs on their way to stardom, band members Gerard and Kyp paid stiff dues that included many a barista shift at the Verb Café. This was the song that raised the curtain.
Gerard A. Smith
I get sad when I think about how we were robbed of Gerard. He regularly blew me away when he was busking classical guitar on the L subway platform. While he didn't compose a lot for TVOTR, he was a prolific and protean artist. I remember hooking me up to his ear buds so I could listen to his ukele demos. He also produced music for Garret Devoe/Purehorsehair Midnight Masses, and Durty Nanas. Here are two clips from one of his projects, Rose Parade.
Robert Anasi and The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn links:
Brooklyn Book Beat interview with the author
Capital New York profile of the author
Gawker interview with the author
Time Out New York interview with the author
Village Voice interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
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