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August 8, 2013

Book Notes - Brendan Jay Sullivan "Rivington Was Ours: Lady Gaga, the Lower East Side, and the Prime of Our Lives"

Rivington Was Ours: Lady Gaga, the Lower East Side, and the Prime of Our Lives

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, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Brendan Jay Sullivan's Rivington Was Ours is a vivid and personal portrayal of both his life and the Lower East Side's nightlife scene of the 2000s.

Emma Straub wrote of the book:

"Brendan Jay Sullivan has written his generation's ode to youth, in the spirit of Patti Smith's Just Kids. He swoons at the streetlights, at the characters crawling out of their grungy holes every morning at dawn, at the empty bottles behind the bar, and most of all, at the music. He is in love with the world around him, and reading this, it's hard not to get swept up."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In his own words, here is Brendan Jay Sullivan's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir, Rivington Was Ours: Lady Gaga, the Lower East Side, and the Prime of Our Lives:

A Musical Map of RIVINGTON WAS OURS: Lady Gaga, the Lower East Side and the Prime of Our Lives

The rules for writing are the same for making a mixtape and the same for DJ'ing. Start with a banger, grab attention, kick it up a notch and then level it out, find your groove but keep it interesting. DJ'ing is just storytelling, you need peaks and valleys and texture, you need to have an unexpected twist and the person at the end shouldn't be the person you thought they were at the beginning. The number one rule is use the time of a total stranger in a way that he or she will not feel that time was wasted. Music is very important to me and to my book and as such the chapters are titled with lyrics that speak to or were diegetic to the action of the chapter. So start with a bang! Or, like I did, describe the most beautiful woman you've ever seen and then have her blow you a kiss.

The Darkness – I Believe In A Thing Called Love"

The book begins in the winter of 2006 when I was very much in love with a lingerie designer named Nikki. I was a writer who was working as a DJ, she was waiting tables to fund her own underwear line. She was also the fit model so periodically I would look up from writing and she would be standing on the coffee table, proudly displaying her latest prototype for me. She had to work late in the opening scene, I wanted to go home but I decided to wait for her around the corner and that's where I met a twenty year old gogo dancer who called herself Lady Gaga.

Andrew W.K. – "I Love NYC"

I dare you to find a better midnight-on-New-Years-Eve song to play in Lower Manhattan. I played this in Chapter 2 and at the time I remember feeling like we were all having breakup sex with the year 2006.

The Killers – "Mr. Brightside - Jacques Lu Cont's Thin White Duke Mix"

This was the first remix I ever heard and liked. Before that I felt like they just stripped away the poetry of rock so a bunch of idiots could dance to it in a nightclub. When the Killers played a sold out Madison Square Garden I threw their afterparty. Gaga came from the show beaming with ideas of what she would do when it was her turn. At the time she was signed to the same label as the Killers and within that summer she would get dropped from her first record deal.

Leonard Cohen – "Chelsea Hotel #2"

Leonard Cohen wrote this song about his impossible romance in the Chelsea Hotel with fellow resident Patti Smith. They knew it couldn't work, but it was beautiful anyway. I woke up in the Chelsea Hotel on my birthday that year. It is funny. Nikki used to ask me why I loved her and I could never quite say why. Just as I could never tell Nikki why I loved her, I can never say quite why I could tell from the way she looked at me that morning that we were going to break up.

The Offspring – "Self Esteem"

It was in this time that Gaga went from being just a girl I knew to a friend and then a good friend. Sometimes when you're going through a painful time you make a good friend and you can return the favor when they have a rough patch. Oh, also, I decided to move on and the first time I went on a date with another girl Nikki called and said she was coming over in the middle of the night.

Elvis Presley – "Heartbreak Hotel"

This is one of those songs you can think you know and then one day I got an Elvis songbook for the piano. The lyrics are incredible. The bell hop's tears keep flowing; the desk clerk's dressed in black. They've been so long on lonely street they're never coming back. On the way to my second date with the new girl, I ran into Nikki and her new boyfriend.

Marilyn Monroe – "Happy Birthday Mr. President"

Interlude. When I first started working in nightlife, people were still talking about the glory days. “This place is dead. You should have seen it when ____ was here.” Insert The Strokes/The White Stripes/Michael Alig. If you wanted to be remembered in nightlife you needed to later have a number one song or, if possible, murder someone. Lady Gaga popped out of a cake for my boss's birthday and sang this song and when I go back to the bar where we had the party--that's the story people tell.

The Smiths – "Panic"

True Story: DJ'ing in Chicago. 22 years old. First night out. A girl comes up to me to request this song. Only I she asked for it by the chorus which is "Hang the DJ" and I thought she was trying to say she hated my music and I remember giving her a sneer, which she then took as me being the only oversensitive 22 year old in tight pants who didn't like the Smiths.

Nirvana – "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

There’s nothing to be said about this song. It’s fucking awesome. Every inch of it. The repackaged 70’s guitar riffs. The way Dave Grohl doesn’t have a drum beat so much as he has these insane riffs. The nonsense lyrics make more sense than anything Elton John ever wrote.

MC5 – "Kick Out the Jams - Intro 2/ LP Version"

This and “Time to Pretend” by MGMT are the two best songs written about being in a band.

The Prodigy – "Smack My Bitch Up"

Straight up hated this song until I heard Gaga play it live with an ill-fated band called Ism.

New York Dolls – "Jet Boy"

The Dolls are simply the best New York band of all time. I have DJ'd with Sylvain and he told me that after the band broke up he started driving a cab.

Minor Threat – "Small Man, Big Mouth"

This was the song playing when I got jumped by eight guys at once bartending on Rivington one Saturday afternoon. I was covering a shift for a girl so she could help her uncle with a project. When I found out her uncle is Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth I had this really ridiculous feeling take over me. Like I was doing Thurston a solid. I felt great about it--even after they bombarded me with glass votives from lit candles and I had to pick hot wax and broken glass out of my hair.

Blondie – "Heart Of Glass (12" Version)"

I met the people who later published my book because a friend asked me last minute to DJ Molly Ringwald's book party. Molly came to the DJ booth for photos and paged through my 45s case. "Boy these really take me back," she smiled. I made Molly Ringwald smile. When she got to this one she crinkled her brow and scanned the room, "Wait. She's supposed to be here right now..."

The Smiths – "Ask"

"Spending warm summer days indoors writing frightening verse to a buck toothed girl in Luxemburg" is the most underused euphemism for what sad-sack Brooklyn artists are doing all day when not masturbating.

Johnny Cash – "Folsom Prison Blues - Live"

For years this was my "Thank you and goodnight!" song. But it also reminds me of being stuck in a dead end job when your friends are out having fun without you.

Bobby "Boris" Pickett – "Monster Mash"

More than once I have been flown halfway across the planet to play a Halloween party and have had to work out in advance that I had to be able to play "The Monster Mash" at least once.

Lady Gaga – "Boys Boys Boys"

When I was a kid I used to pretend that big musicians were my best friends. In a sense they were, because I didn't have any friends and I spent all my time listening to their records. I dreamed that the guys wrote songs about good times we had hanging out and that the girls wrote frightening verse about how much we loved each other. Fast forward twenty years and every single person I knew at the time was either in a band or starting a band or thought they had a decent shot at winning Idol. Did any of them write about our shared memories? No. Gaga herself had always wanted to write a song that we would like as much as we liked Motley Crue's "Girls Girls Girls." After she got home from the Killers afterparty I'd DJ'd she laid down this one including the line, "Baby is a bad boy with some retro sneakers / Let's go see The Killers and make out in the bleachers / I like you a lot, lot, think you're really hot, hot / Let's go to the party heard our buddy's the DJ." I mean, shit like that only happens in The Secret.

Shiny Toy Guns – "Le Disko"

Gaga and I were hiding out in a bar on Rivington while all our friends were down the street at a party. Including Nikki. She wanted to go but she didn't want to ditch me if I was trying to stay away from Nikki. This song came on, which I then found out we both loved.

Johnny Thunders – "You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory"

How obsessed with this song was I when Nikki and I broke up? If you asked me then I would have answered, "Not obsessed enough." Only I wouldn't have time to say that because I was too busy corresponding with the forgotten woman that Johnny Thunders wrote this heartbreaking song about after the New York Dolls broke up. Fabienne Shine. After Johnny she moved on to Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin. We became email friends. She told me to hang in there with the love stuff and even made me in her "top 8" in Myspace.

Madonna – "Like A Prayer"

In college I only listened to music from the Lower East Side hardcore scene. Then one night at a party I saw three hundred girls completely lose their shit when this came on and I decided to dedicate my life to making girls at parties completely lose their shit. Guys too.

Jackson 5 – "I Want You Back"

He had a girlfriend, got sick of her and moved on. When she moved on it tore him in half and now he loves her and wants her back. If that hasn't happened to you it's because you're either a fantastic individual or you're fucking lying to yourself right now.

The Doors – "L.A. Woman"

Back in the day the DJ was usually the sound tech who would play records in the booth in between the bands setting up. This was every sound tech's favorite record--including the late Don Hill--because at 7 minutes and 51 seconds it was just long enough for you to take a pee break. I kept it in my record bag for this very reason and so did the legendary club owner Don Hill.

The Rolling Stones – "Sympathy For The Devil"

I repaid the favor to Gaga by being there for her when she went through a bad break up that year. Everyone kept asking if I were moving in on her ex's girl. I said we were "break up buddies." People who don't know me very well always refer to me, word for word as "Brendan, you know, Lady Gaga's DJ." She needed a friend then more than she would ever need a DJ and I feel better about that than I do about any musical laurel leafs I get crowned with.

Violent Femmes – "Add It Up"

For a while on Saturdays we would go down to a place called Sweet Paradise on Ludlow where they served movie theater candy and the DJ was just the barback playing his iPod. We'd dance to the same stuff every weekend and I used to get withdrawal symptoms if I couldn't make it down there to hear him play Violent Femmes. Also, "There may be some things I wouldn't miss / but I look at your pants and I need a kiss?" It took Dante La Vita Nuova and the entire Divine comedy to get that across and by then Beatrice was dead.

Clyde McPhatter And The Drifters – "Money Honey"

Gaga's breakthrough song was a track she wrote for the Pussycat Dolls called "Money Honey." There was a tricky part in the lyrics so Gaga laid down reference vocals and when Akon heard them he flipped and got the label to greenlight more studio time, which is where she came up with "Just Dance." She had never heard of the Atlantic Records original, or the Elvis version.

Amy Winehouse – "Tears Dry On Their Own"

Oh Amy Amy Amy. Everyday I try and write my way back to you.

Aretha Franklin – "The Shoop Shoop Song (It's In His Kiss) - 2011 Remaster"

First concert. Nine years old. Interlochen School of Music in Northern Michigan. I know. My parents are awesome. Also, there's a surprise twist at this point in the story in the love department.

Grandmaster Flash – "Freelance (Street Flavor Cartel Remix)"

Here is something that doesn't happen anymore and the world is a sadder place because of it. 22 years old, I walk into Reckless Records and take a peek at the Just In rack where they put all the new records they haven't had time to file away yet. A staff member listened to the whole record and wrote up a thoughtful little review and stuck it to the sleeve. "You will never hear a better recording of the original, free-wheeling, pass-the-mic style of rapping of early hip hop than 'Freelance.'" I then went to the turntable and listened to it and was equally blown away by this paragon of human culture and bought it for about eight bucks. The record was our of print and isn't on iTunes. Thankfully it later made it to this mixtape. I also like that they call Grandmaster Flash "the Darth Vader of the slide-fader."

Bruce Springsteen – "Born To Run"

When I met my labelmate Rob Sheffield at a book thing this year I told him that my all time favorite review of any record ever was from his review of the Killer's "When You Were Young." He wrote, "I wish I wanted anything in life as much as that song wants to be 'Born to Run.'" Also, Gaga and her dad were both huge Springsteen fans and we all loved that. Her second record was the last one that Clarence the saxophone player worked on before he died.

Bruce Springsteen – "Thunder Road"

That's embarrassing. Two Springsteens in a row? Mixtape faux pas. That and when Gaga took me to her parents house for the first time the door hinge squeaked out the opening harmonica part.

The Strokes – "Last Nite"

I wish I didn't give a fuck about anything as much as the Stokes don't give a fuck about being the Strokes. If you ask them why they stopped touring at the apparent height of their fame they say it's because they didn't think anyone was that into them. When you ask them about their legacy they say they have other stuff they want to do and they don't want to be remembered as just being a Stroke. Also, wanting the ability to not give a fuck is kind of sweaty.

Blondie – "Hanging On The Telephone"

Every male person who has ever asked a female person for her telephone number should be required to read the lyrics to this gem. Originally written by the West Coast protopoppunk group the Nerves as a pathetic song about calling a girl over and over again, it was made famous by Blondie's vulnerable cover in 1978. There's something so fucking awesome about when female singers cover macho dude songs. When Blondie does it the song becomes a big middle finger to the idea that it's unladylike to pursue a boy you like. See also Cyndi Lauper's version of Roy Orbinson's "I Drove All Night." Also: Boys, if you're gonna call her, fucking call her!

Death Threat – "Dead At Birth"

I grew up with these guys and worked on records with their drummer, who had a sideline as the town gravedigger at the same time I was writing obituaries for the local newspaper. When I'm having a bad day, nothing cheers me up more than hearing these god awful and depressing lyric, "Dead at birth and we slowly decay / we're born only to fade away / we've got no future we've got no hope / all life is pain and it's hard to cope" See? Don't you feel silly stressing out about that girl won't call you back?

Michael Jackson – "Thriller"

Gaga's creative team--which became known as the Haus of Gaga--was at one point just her, me, two backup dancers and choreographer Laurieann Gibson. Laurieann didn't come to our early shows, so the whole band fit in one car. At rehearsal just before the video for "Just Dance" things fell apart. I was supposed to start over the track but I could see everyone needed a break. So I put on "Thriller." This should have started more fights but instead the dancers and Laurieann Gibson all broke into the dance from the Michael Jackson video. I had no way of knowing they'd all learned it separately. Gaga was getting impatient and turned around to tell me to stop the track but then I joined in. It was a scenes straight out of a dance movie. It reminded us all that what we're doing is supposed to be fun and we need to express that. We did a video run-through right after that and absolutely nailed it.

Huey Lewis & The News – "If This Is It - 2006 Digital Remaster"

If this is it: please let me know. If this ain't love then just say so. Wouldn't it be great if people were this honest? Like, if after the second date you both got together and had a band meeting and were like, "You feeling this?" It would save the world a lot of therapy and alcohol. At this point in the book I have found the woman of my dreams and have promised to love her and not disappear on her like every other guy in New York City. Moments later Gaga calls to say that we needed to leave on tour and couldn't say when we would be back.

Ramones – "I Wanna Be Sedated - Remastered Album Version"

Every song about drugs becomes a way better song when you pretend it's about love. That's what I did before I read that Dee Dee Ramone's wrote this about being in the Ramones and wishing he were high instead. See also the La's "There She Goes" which is about heroin.

Vanilla Ice – "Ice Ice Baby"

"I've seen Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby" go from ruling the world to being a musical pariah to being an ironic statement in my DJ set that makes people smile."- Questlove. This song is a good reminder that the way we look at pop music is a reflection of ourselves, not of the quality of music. Also when Gaga and I went to Winter Music Conference in 2008 we'd never been to Miami before. Everything we knew about Miami was from this song. The label put me up in a hotel with a lamborghini in valet on A1A across from a topless beach and I was ecstatic. I walked down back from the water like a scholar watching a prophecy come true: "Yo – so I continued to A1A Beachfront Ave. / Girls were hot wearing less than bikinis / rockman lovers driving lamborghinis." How awesome was my life then? Awesome like a Vanilla Ice song.

Steve Angello & Laidback Luke Feat. Robin S – "Show Me Love"

We never played commercial house downtown, but as I ventured into this territory I discovered that I could make drunk girls heads explode just by playing the opening synth. Do dodododo do do do do.

Lady Gaga – "LoveGame"

Gaga employs the same intentionally misleading rhyme scheme here as the Killers did in "Mr Brightside" when they try to make you think like a spurned, jealous lover "Now they're going to bed / and my stomach is sick /and it's all in my head / but she's touching his--CHEST." You thought he was going to say "dick." Shame on you. Filthy mind. Just because he rhymed in ABAB and the A verse had "bed" with "head" doesn't mean he's going to say outloud what every single person imagines when they find they been cuckholded. (For an outstanding description of imagining your replacement's genitals, read Molly Ringwald's superb When It Happens to You.) Gaga did this with "I can see you standing there across the block / with a smile on your face and your hand on your--HUH."

50 Cent – "In da Club"

It has never bothered me that people who might not hang out with me like the same music as me. That is pretty much the more ignorant argument ever made. That's like saying that people who like Dave Matthews Band have categorically never had an original thought in their heads. It's stupid, but just because it remains unexpressed doesn't mean people don't think it. This was the most sough-after beat of that year but only 50 could make it complete. A lot of rappers rhyme and brag and then call in a pinch hitter for the hook. 50 is the hook. Also, if you put all the songs on this list through an oscilloscope and asked everyone to pick the best song based on which had the best looking syn wave everyone would pick this one. Hands down. I hope that when Dre saw it for the first time he felt like he'd missed his calling for the Human Genome Project.

Phantom Planet – "California"

Gaga and I leave Miami and go straight to LA to film the first video. Whenever my plane lands in California I become very hopeful and optimistic which are the two things that make this song sparkle.

The Buggles – "Video Killed the Radio Star"

First video ever played on MTV is a song about how television has ruined music. Thanks, guys. Also, it's a cover by a Canadian band so when you see how toothless their inoffensive argument is it kind of makes a lot of Canadian sense. I thought about it while making my music video debut in "Just Dance."

Warzone – "In The Mirror"

As I mention in the acknowledgements, I was a very poor student with no direction before I discovered how much I enjoyed connecting people to their hearts and universe through storytelling. Until then the closest thing I had to a role model was a Lower East Side musician named Raymond "Raybeez" Barbieri. He taught me to stick up to myself and not give a fuck what my peers thought. Earlier in the book my girlfriend breaks up with me and dates a guy who looks exactly like me. It was a rough deal. I had to ask myself some hard questions about my life and where it was going. Seeing him date my girlfriend was like taking a long hard look in the mirror. See what I did there? I'm a writer.

Violent Femmes – "Kiss Off"

This is the best song ever written about telling someone to fuck off right after they tell you to take a hike.

Jeff Buckley – "Hallelujah"

Dear god this is song amazing and I have nothing to say about it.

Beastie Boys – "I Don't Know"

I can tell you the last time I cried. I went to the park in Brooklyn they dedicated to MCA, the recently deceased and much loved member of the Beastie Boys. Someone had strung prayer flags and something about seeing that park on the first day of spring with a dogwood blooming made me promise myself that I would take the gifts I'd been given and use them to devote my life to bringing joy into other people's lives, to help others, to listen more, to be a good person so that I could one day be a great husband and father like he was. When I turned around I saw a little girl named Corey had written in sidewalk chalk, "MCA- You made a difference in this world. I love you and I wish you peace." That's the message that it took me 345 pages to get out. I put this song is up there with "Under the Bridge" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and "Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White" by Minor Threat. It is completely unlike the rest of their catalogue and yet everything great about it is everything you like about them to begin with.

The next time after that was after my first book expo. A librarian came up and asked me to sign a book for a student of hers who was going through a tough time. "He's fourteen and the other kids pick on him because he's gay but I don't even think he knows it yet. He worships Lady Gaga and I know your book will make him really happy." That's when it hit me. Being the imaginary friend that helps a kid get through a tough time is just about the greatest honorary position a human being can hold.

We don't put emotion into music it puts emotion into us, which is why music has always been my best friend. And like a good friend music should be nonjudgemental, complex, opinionated, forgiving and a hundred other contradictions. Music is everything that I am not and everything I want to be. Every time I want to give up on writing I need to only crack the spine of my favorite books to be reminded that I'm not Ernest Hemingway or Zadie Smith or Marcel Proust. But then I hear the crystal clear words of a beautiful song and it reminds me to forgive myself and give it another try.

Brendan Jay Sullivan and Rivington Was Ours: Lady Gaga, the Lower East Side, and the Prime of Our Lives links:

the book's website
buy a signed copy of the book

Pop Mythology review

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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weekly music & DVD release lists

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