New Jersey Stage

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Your Scene Is Born To Die, Kid

by Donald W. Dunphy
Ruminations about how things got worse when things got better.

There is truth in the idea that a music scene coalesces around a sound. One points to the early-90s and the Seattle thing. I bite my tongue when the temptation to say "grunge" comes up. Punk, maybe. Classic rock, surely. There is a lot more of The Who in Pearl Jam than people cared to believe at that time.

There is also truth that scenes arise from virtually nothing, with disparate sounds literally finding commonality under one roof. For these fragile things, the macro-economic picture indicates a neighborhood where bohemians can afford to be bohemian, and can host raucous rent-raising parties without having the neighbors calling the police on you. Rent parties are only effective when you don't spend the proceeds on bail.

This might be why, for the moment, the varied musical communities around New Jersey ought to be buzzing with life. The housing marking is in the dump. As far down as properties have gone, the experts haven't reached consensus over whether there's still farther to go, if that is even possible.

That would mean a lot of people are itching to make some money off those languishing buildings they scooped up when the housing bubble was expanding and floating to the stratosphere. Here's the problem: that's exactly what is happening, but not for the starving artists, singer/songwriters and freak flag fliers. A lot of the available rents are going to people who are under-water in failing mortgages, or have been foreclosed upon, and so the kind of neighborhoods where young, creative, and regularly broke people burst into activity are supplanted by former homeowners, families and such.

It gets worse. Demand dictates price so, even in a lousy market, rents are high and capitalizing on the throngs of recently-interested tenants. Beyond that, when you have buildings suddenly being filled with former suburbanites, who still enjoy the amenities of the suburban life, gentrification can't help but seep in.

I recently covered a story regarding New York's High Line, an attraction few would find fault with except, perhaps, the long-time residents. Again and again, while they showed great appreciation for the architecture and landscaping that have come with the revamped High Line, and how this once-used elevated train line is now a park unique to New York, people want to live near it. They will pay to do so, and they will pay more than anyone else to make sure that happens.

Those who came to the disused meatpacking district for cheap rents, big lofts and wild times were either priced out, shushed up or otherwise driven away by wine bars, cheese emporiums and tourists.

Not that there is anything inherently wrong with wine bars, cheese emporiums and tourists, but they tend to make lousy subjects for singer/songwriters. There's a Chelsea Hotel and there's a Waldorf Astoria. Which one got the song?

The Asbury Park of Bruce Springsteen's time is not the one of today. While there are still some great knockabout clubs that present new live music, the bands seem to be mostly out of town types, not homegrown. We should be fortunate that places like The Stone Pony and The Saint still exist, because it is only a few miles down the line where other clubs are featuring cover bands that are making a hell of a lot more money per weekend, trying not to feel violated when they do Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" while waiting for the drunken crowds to interject "Oh, oh, oh" and "So good, so good, so good!" (When did this practice actually start, who started it, and might I still have the opportunity to kick this person in a vulnerable spot?)

It is an act of bravery, naïveté and maybe a terrible disregard of personal well-being to present one's own songs these days. If American Idol and The Voice have taught us anything, it is that imitation, not innovation, gets you paid, and yet these clubs stubbornly hang on. I hope they have a lot of life still in them.

Having lived in the Red Bank area for most of my life, I've seen firsthand how a town can change. Most will say it is for the better, and aesthetically I believe they're right. In matters of the soul of a place, I'm not so sure. Downtown Red Bank used to be a grimy sort of place when I was young, not particularly rough, but there was a sense of lacking refinement about the area that suited it. Jack's Music had the largest selection of records and tapes in Monmouth County, and right next door was the fully-loaded showroom full of guitars, keyboards, and the bastard child of the music world, keytars.

The convenience stores had the oddest sense of humor about them. That must have been the reason why the comic book rack was right next to the porn rack. Either that or Superman and Wonder Woman had taken the Justice League to a whole new extreme.

The important thing was that almost everyone seemed to be in a band then, or said they were. There was the feeling that any one of these bodies that bumped around on Broad St. could pick up a guitar and, with the right ears tuned in, could be the proverbial something. Some of them actually did.  Monster Magnet came into being during that period, and the members had day-jobs all over downtown Red Bank.

Then came Kevin Smith's View Askew Productions and the unexpected success of Clerks. I am quick to say that it wasn't the presence of his company that started the undoing of the town, because the attitude of one seemed to compliment the attitude of the other. Tonally, it was a pretty good fit.

The problem was the throngs that followed soon after. This town suddenly had potential beyond the yearly fireworks displays. They had a moviemaker setting up shop so, wow, this must be a hip little place. That phrase, "a hip little place," started proliferating, up one street and down another. When ice cream was the designer trend, suddenly there were seven ice cream stores. When coffee houses became the hot thing, bam, eight beaneries overnight. Like a fine cigar? Here are four separate places to get your smoke on.

Aside from one or two stragglers, all of those businesses are gone, even the chain store Haagen Daaz and Coldstone Creamery locations. The vegetarian restaurants? The designer doo-rag emporiums? Gone, gone, gone. With rents high as the highest billboards affixed to the rooftops, little startups haven't a prayer.

What bothers me most is that nobody here seems like they're interested in playing music, not even the ones hanging out in front of the rehearsal studio. It's as if the sponge bath the town took with the "resident upgrade" also wiped off the residue of ambition. They all just packed up and headed across Marine Park and kept going until they hit Brooklyn.

I miss the old Red Bank, knowing all too well that day is over. I would hold it up as a reminder to any nascent artist-occupied community that, with the harsh light of a success, any success, there is also a stopwatch that begins ticking to the end of that slightly sacred thing you've tried to harbor and harvest.

Funny how interchangeable the terms "better" and "worse" can be from one's distinct perspective.