Through the Cracks

There are some benefits of big-city gentrification. Jesse Malin's brilliant new record is one of them.

Romance is running down the sewers of our cities faster than you can say "Banana Republic." It won't make the news, at least not in so many words: Artists and Lovers Demand More Crime! It is, however, the real subtext of much of the carping about gentrification you hear these days.

But just when you think the cradle of American pop culture, the metropolis, has lost its poetry for good ... it's a bird, it's a plane, it's a punk with a heart: It's Jesse Malin, with The Fine Art of Self-Destruction. Produced by roots-rock revivalist Ryan Adams, Malin's solo debut is a rumpled, wind-borne document of city life that does justice to the urban pop poetry that's come before and, likewise, delivers a swift boot to the coiffed retro hipsters currently claiming that legacy.

For the author of such a resolutely overcast album, Malin certainly sounds like an optimist over the phone, en route to a show in Baltimore. "You walk out your door and life just happens," says the Queens native of his adopted Manhattan. "Even though New York has degenerated into kind of a corporate Disneyland, sold out by Giuliani -- it was a police state for a while and then there's the economy and 9/11 and all the things that have beaten it down -- it still has an electricity and just a real vibe. ... But you guys have better burritos in the Mission."


Supports the New Amsterdams on Sunday, Aug. 31

Dios and Rocky Votolato open at 8 p.m.

Tickets are $10



Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St. (at Missouri), S.F.

Related Stories

More About

The album is not the work of some city-struck greenhorn, nor does it aim to unseat Gershwin and Lou Reed as NYC's musical laureates. "It's autobiographical," says Malin, former frontman for glammy punks D-Generation and stalwart of his city's underground rock 'n' roll culture. "It wasn't a conscious thing, like some U2 record: 'I'm gonna make this a very New York album.' It wasn't like that. It was just my back yard, and New York is such a powerful backdrop for human hell and emotions and suffering and happiness and all this crap that goes around rock music, relationships, and friendships."

Of course, any town makes a colorful backdrop in skilled, native hands: the Minutemen's San Pedro, Chrissie Hynde's Akron, or the dusty Lubbock of Butch Hancock. But if the inordinate focus on NYC during the recent blackouts that covered several states won't convince you of the Empire City's standing as America's universal municipality, just check out the sheer number of ditties, riffs, and opuses devoted to it. You need a filing system just to keep track. For instance, there are songs of New York that don't contain a single proper noun -- no Broadway, egg creams, Peppermint Lounge, or Joe DiMaggio in sight -- but their every note rings of NYC anyway. Take "Be My Baby," "Sweet Jane," "Rapture," "White Lines" -- all prime examples. When Lou Reed is "standin' on the corner, suitcase in my hand," you don't picture him on Eighth and Clement, heading into King of Thai Noodle House, do you? On the other hand, there are songs aboutNew York that don't capture the city's soul. "New York State of Mind" aims for dirty-street romance with such a heavy hand that it overshoots and ends up in Vegas, while producer Adams' own "New York" may be a giddy attempt, but it has heartland written all over it.

There's a third category that's rarer than any of these first two: songs both of and about New York, ones that not only mention street signs, but also pulse with the pavement. Think of Tom Waits' "Downtown Train," the Pogues' wondrous "Fairytale of New York," Ben E. King's "Spanish Harlem," and even Odyssey's "Native New Yorker," the most evocative cheap disco song ever written. With The Fine Art, Malin contributes more than his fair share of such through-and-through New York songs. He also heartily redeems this type of urban paean, especially for cities where artists can't afford "artist's lofts" and there are more Starbucks than bars.

During their last West Coast swing in late April, Malin and his band – which includes bassist John Pisano, an old pal of Malin from the NYC hardcore scene, and former Psychedelic Furs drummer Paul Garisto – toured with Oakland's own bristly pop-rockers the Influents. "They're definitely true New Yorkers," says Influents drummer Willie Samuels. "We were all immediately stricken by their heavy accents and seemingly cold and confrontational personalities. Of course, they turned out to be some of the sweetest guys I've ever met."

The Israelis have a word for it, but New Yorkers often embody it: sabra, a person who, like the desert fruit, is tough on the outside, sweet on the inside. This duality has helped make New York City the launch pad and setting for much of the best American literature, including rock 'n' roll. It's also why punk rock has produced some of the best singer/songwriters of the past two decades, names like Paul Westerberg, Shane MacGowan, Chrissie Hynde: Take away that tough shell and the tender stuff just oozes all over.

While The Fine Artcontains folkish elements that echo Adams' own sensibilities, what makes it stick is a stormy brew of tough-but-sweet East Coast influences -- Brill Building pop, early Springsteen, Patti Smith, and the guitar-serrated edge and punk passion that were D-Generation's stock in trade.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

Concert Calendar

  • April
  • Wed
  • Thu
  • Fri
  • Sat
  • Sun
  • Mon
  • Tue
San Francisco Event Tickets
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.