Intercessors, Be Damned!
With Tonic’s closure, the museumization of experimental music continues
By David Crohn
from the April 9, 2007 edition of Our Town Downtown, which is now the New York Press.
My first concert was Bon Jovi. I was about 10, and it was at a sports arena in Ft. Myers, Fla. My parents took me; back then they took me everywhere.
It seems funny now, or cute (more on that later), but that concert was the most exciting moment of my short life. I had never seen anything like it. My parents went outside because it was too loud, and a very skinny girl with terrible roots offered me pot. (I declined.) It was the loudest thing I had ever heard, for sure, but above all it was marvelous to see these guys—who I had only heard on tapes purchased by my mom at the mall—as five living, breathing individuals who actually played their instruments. And not only that but the lead singer rode around on a trapeze high above the audience because that’s what he did on the “Slippery When Wet” tour. Just like in the video!
This was my introduction to live music. The fact that there were miles of people between the players and me didn’t matter. Nor did the expense (my parents sponsored the trip, after all) or the days of deafness that followed. Rock, like religion, provided meaning, elevation, and best of all, answers.
More concerts followed: Motley Crüe on the “Girls, Girls, Girls” tour (that one had plump skanks dressed up like nurses, and Tommy Lee soloing in that spinning contraption. Just like in the video!) As I got older, my tastes diverged into what is today affectionately termed Alternative: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Jane’s Addiction.
But although the lyrics got darker and the hooks were drained of groove, the venues stayed the same. Me and my friend Tim and whichever girlfriend he had at the time trekked to Miami Arena in his Celica again and again. Miami Arena for Lollapalooza (1991). Miami Arena for the Breeders (ca. 1993). I never suspected live music could be experienced any other way—and it was fine, being pureed with lots of other kids, because my parents weren’t around. I moshed. I wore flannel, closer to Havana than Seattle.
In 1994 I started college, and as so often happens when you do that, everything changed. A few weeks into the first semester, I went to the campus “auditorium” to see a band about whom I knew nothing; I went because it was free and it was something to do. There wasn’t a stage per se, just a platform maybe a foot off the ground. The sounds came directly out of the performers’ amplifiers; the drummer, unmic’ed, had to pound like hell to be perceived above the din.
This what-the-fuck!?!? moment swiftly un- and then remade everything. Not only did we stand inches away from the performers, but we could interact with them after the show. In my sophomore year, I bought a seven-inch record by the band Shellac directly from its frontman. When Tortoise came to town, I hooked them up with the campus pot dealer.
I had become a Protestant mystic reared in a land of Catholics. The whole concept of intercession between me and my object of reverence became outdated. A concert, like a Protestant service, could happen anywhere, and anyone would run the show: all you needed was a group of willing participants and a venue. the idea that there needed to be layers of money, crowds, noise—all these Byzantine procedurals—vanished. At best, it was a quaint notion to put one’s rock experience in the hands of a distant central office. At worst, it seemed criminal. That’s one reason why, when we tell people that our first concert was Bon Jovi, or Poison, or whoever, we say it with a touch of that peculiar type of nostalgia that brings with it no need to revisit the old days.
A year after graduation I moved back to New York, my birthplace, where I was pleased to find much of the same direct access to my heroes and heroines. At small venues like the Mercury Lounge, the Cooler (RIP), Brownies (now called Hi-Fi, with red pleather and MP3s instead of live music), and Tonic, the stages were low, the admission cheap, the crowds small but enthusiastic.
That last club, you may have heard, will have its last show this Friday the Thirteenth, after nine years of operation out of a former kosher winery on Norfolk Street. The location was never a great one, even with Katz’s Delicatessen nearby and the rest of the Lower East Side in full bloom with trendy nightspots and luxury condos. Tonic’s little patch was always a bit of a blight; it was never the type of place you would just stumble into or trekked down to at 5:30 on a Thursday. For many years there was an empty lot next door; you had to know that your favorite Japanese noisician was playing there, although buying tickets in advance was rarely a necessity.
Bars and clubs, diners and restaurants close all the time in the City, and it can be a sad thing when it happens to your favorite spot. The city’s nightlife replenishes itself like a hydra, however, so that when one head dies there are two to spring up and take its place. But Tonic’s closure is a bad thing in a different way. And not just because Tonic holds an especially revered spot in my heart because it’s where I discovered other types of music besides rock and roll, music in which the performers, unmediated by song structure itself, expressed themselves purely (if not always coherently). It’s a Romantic notion with a capital R, I know.
Tonic’s owners, Melissa Caruso-Scott and her husband John Scott, have said it was always a struggle breaking even, much less turning a profit, when the rent is $10,000 a month and most of your performers play “difficult” music—even in the City, where almost everything has a market.
Two thousand and five marked the beginning of the end: the club was robbed and had a few budget-draining plumbing emergencies, both of which forced them to pass around the collections cup. A series of fundraisers and small donations raised $100,000 to keep the place alive—but not for long.
But in January, when the city forced the closure of the ))sub((tonic lounge downstairs, a vital revenue stream—liquor—was cut off. According to New York Times reporter Ben Sisario, who I heard talking about the club on NPR the other day, the Scotts were simply “fatigued.” They “didn’t want to hit their fans up for anymore money.” Or, as they put it on their Web site: “We simply can no longer afford the rent and all of the other costs associated with doing business on the Lower East Side.” Quite correctly, I think, they also put their situation in the context of the rest of the Lower East Side’s gentrification: “The neighborhood around us has been increasingly consumed by ‘luxury condominiums,’ boutique hotels and glass towers, all making the value of our salvaged space worth more then our business could ever realistically support.”
If it were any other Lower East Side Club shutting its doors, it wouldn’t much matter. If it were almost any other club, you wouldn’t hear me complain about the inexorable march of luxury condos squeezing out everything that makes downtown Downtown.
The shows will go on—the Tonic folks will continue to host events at the nearby Abron Arts Center, and Tonic guru-in-residence John Zorn recently opened the Stone, in the East Village. But Abron is a community center, and the Stone’s Puritanical take on presenting new music means no booze and so-called third-stream music only.
Tonic was unique because in addition to avant-garde, they had singer-songwriters, punk bands, Berlin techno downstairs. Tonic was the only place that openly acknowledged the blurring of the genres that makes Right Now in Music so special, so different, and, I would say, superior.
I saw a remarkable panoply of bands at Tonic over the years. Khanate, gruelingly slow, like Slayer dipped in cough syrup; Animal Collective, merry pranksters with a sound entirely their own that was entirely lovely; Han Bennink, a Dutch percussionist, clarinetist and free improviser who may the world’s loudest purely acoustic musician; and Zorn, best known now for his radical take on traditional Jewish music, recorded here live and premiered many of the pieces that made him famous (in certain circles).
I could go on and on: At Tonic you knew you were in for something outlandish, but it was almost always sexy, like watching aliens tongue-kiss. There was booze, which gave the place a casual, night-out-on-the-town feeling—the music may have been from outer space, but you were still on earth, blowing off steam with friends or hoping to take home the NYU girl with the severe haircut. And who said it couldn’t be fun and romantic to watch someone, who may or may not be tripping on six hits of acid, stomp on an electric guitar?
The terrible implication of Tonic’s closure—for which, in the end, we have no one but the free market to blame—is that boundary-free live music from independent artists, which comes in an infinite number of species and permutations, is going the way of everything else: joyless specialization and homogenization.
This is what happened to jazz, let’s not forget: it started out as dance music, enjoyed at raucous parties and theatrical events. Now it’s a subject worthy of Ken Burns, apparently, and you can see it played at Lincoln Center instead of opera (that’s stuffy European music, as we all know), and $20-a-head clubs where you usher in, take your seat, and sip wine. The fact that people do this is as ludicrous to me as talking during a screening of “The Seventh Seal.”
Many critics upbraided Burns for contributing to the museumization of what was once our most unfettered, loosest art form, and essentially a social activity. Places like the Stone and Abron sound like museums: no fun allowed, only quiet contemplation of the navel. This stuff is Serious. And different. First and foremost, its difference from everything else is emphasized according to this way of presenting live music. You could get hammered and dance until late in the morning at Tonic. When was the last time anyone did that at a jazz club?
My musical education mirrors that of at least a thousand other kids who spent formative years in suburbia (or anywhere else everyone drives) and then came to the City after college: first the discovery of live music somewhere big, then the realization that the experience can be intimate and direct—and that there is a whole world beyond power chords and preening lead singers. Tonic’s departure is but a small ripple in the world, but it could mean a return to the institutionalization of something that is for many not just a pastime but the fabric of social experience.
When the landscape is compartmentalized, certain codes of behavior (for fans) and performance (for musicians) have to be applied to something that was famously code free, and the logical—but not inevitable—end of a progression that began when I saw my first band a decade and a half ago.
To me it stinks, and, I suspect, for lots of others. Moshing at the Miami Arena is starting to sound pretty good.