New York Diary, 6 November 2013
The day begins at the Hollywood Diner on West 16th and Sixth. I used to keep office hours at Joe Junior’s down at 12th but they closed it two years ago and shifted it, grime and all, to 17th and Third across town, so then I moved to the Hollywood. Joe’s looks just the same as it always did, same pictures on the walls, same ex-boxer type at the hotplate cracking eggshells in a bowl like a lesser man might crack heads, but it’s a hike. The Hollywood’s only five blocks from my hotel. It used to be Steve Dalachinsky’s hangout back when he had a crazy streak in him, four a.m. on a comedown spilling the works on Zorn, Cherry, Fred Anderson. He’s always good for a yarn about Ira Cohen, too. The man’s a walking jazz anthology. This morning I’m sitting there alone with echoes of transatlantic static still ringing in my ears. It always takes a few days after touchdown for my head to stop acting like a conch out of water. When I get to the Hollywood it’s still dark outside. The place hasn’t yet started filling up with the late breakfast crowd, when they put the hustle on for table space. I sit back in a booth and kill time watching the street lights and human traffic. By ten o’clock I’m on my fourth coffee, eggs over easy, a week-old copy of the Voice with Lou Reed on the cover – trying to remember the first time I heard the Velvets, but all that comes up on the mind-screen is a picture of Lou on stage at the Lucerna Ballroom in Prague, with Havel in the audience, bitching about the acoustics and, like Doctor Benway, how am I expected to operate under these conditions? Well he’s dead now. I think of Songs for Drella. It’s still in my head when I get to Academy Records a block east on 18th. They don’t have any Lou Reed on the shelves that I don’t already own, so I drift around to the jazz section. It’s shrunk by half since the last time I was here but I still manage to walk away with some Keith Jarrett, Pharaoh Sanders, The Vandermark 5, some vintage Ornette, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, the Clifford Brown Memorial. Outside, November blue skies light the canyons. I settle into the drift, down Fifth Avenue through Washington Square, no jazzmen in the park today only hipsters with Lytton Strachey beards and grey squirrels and a student film crew rehearsing a set-up that’ll still be in progress mid-afternoon. I skip Shakespeare & Co and the Strand and head straight to St Marks Books. Rumour suggests they’re about to go under or move downscale and most of the shelves are half-empty. They’ve still got a whole rack of The Return of Král Majáles: Prague’s International Literary Renaissance 1990-2010 on display in the anthology section.
St Mark’s is one of the last independents in Manhattan and it’ll be a shame to see them go, but like Gotham they seem determined to make questionable business choices. As they say in the classics, if someone’s determined to do themselves in, you’re only getting in the way. It’s a regular theme around here. A couple of blocks further on, past the CBGB’s theme park, at East Village Books I find a copy of The Burroughs File for eleven bucks in the ‘anti-this-establishment’ section. They’ve also got half-a-dozen issues of Re:search, Zone, and ‘the German issue’ of Semiotext(e) the Sylvère Lottringer franchise. It all seems a long way from the ‘Occupy’ anthologies on sale up the street. Freakshow detritus turned to museum fodder. I sell some books back to the East Village guys then it’s time to run the gauntlet of sushi bars past Thompkins Square Park to Mast Books down on Avenue A. It’s a hipster joint but they’ve got class, enough at least to put cash up-front for the bag of books I drop on the counter. Among them the new Bataille from Equus, and if you think you’ve read Bataille and haven’t read this you’re kidding yourself. Light of a load I cut back west along 3rd, across Broadway and Bowery, down Great Jones Street past the loft space Warhol leased to Basquiat back in the ’80s. They’ve torn down a couple of more buildings at the Lafayette intersection. In a few years it’ll be worse than Chelsea around here. Types like Donald Trump always get away without a scratch, which is something that should be on the top of everyone’s fix-it list. Add Cooper Union and the Bowery Mission to the mix, and what chance does anyone else stand? The sign in the sky says Real Estate or Bust, all the rest’s just Shitsville nostalgia. It isn’t my business anyway.
I make a detour to East 4th and Other Music, this time it’s Franks Wild Years and Hot Rats. Then back to the park to watch the pigeons for an hour, scribbling random thought transmissions on folded paper scraps I’ll probably never look at again. Like voodoo messages plugged into the entropy, the cosmic sleeper’s mind in which we all play-act at individuated destinies, calling the shots, our own at least, maybe even us dreaming it. It passes the time. I amuse myself this way for a while then retire to St Dymphna’s on the Place for a couple of quick ones. Someone’s left a copy of Rolling Stone on the bar and I can’t help wondering who the hell reads Rolling Stone anymore. Somehow the Guinness in New York tastes heavy on the charcoal, maybe it goes with all that diasporic melancholia that got exported before the Celtic Tiger roared and then squeaked. Like those Washington Heights pubs that keep a framed portrait of Gerry Adams over the bar. Back out on the street they’re setting up the soup kitchen, right under the noses of the restaurant crowd. There’s a line half-way round the block. It’s got all nice and shiny round here but people are still hungry. When the blizzards start in, this is no place to be sleeping rough, but plenty do – up on 14th the subway grates are at a premium. Well, I’m leaning on the gate at Tomkins watching the rats sniffing around their burrows when Eddie Berrigan slouches across the intersection holding a two-dollar pizza slice. He’s heading over to Simon Pettit’s birthday bash. Or someone’s birthday. I’ve got the latest VLAK in my bag with the tortured monkey on the cover, Peter Milne’s statement on vivisection. It looks even more sinister under the orange streetlight. We’ll be launching the new issue at Unnameable Books in Brooklyn in just a few days time, with Marjorie Welish, Bruce Andrews, Vanessa Place, Vincent Katz, Stephanie Strickland, Steve Dalachinsky, Amy King, Anselm Berrigan, Stephanie Gray and an old Prague friend Holly Tavel. Like Tom Waits says, nobody brings anything small into a bar around here.
It’s been a year already since the last time Eddie and I talked face-to-face. Things happen, the world gets smaller. We make a date for the Poetry Project later in the night. No sooner has Eddie gone than a voice at my elbow speaks to me and I realise Joshua Cohen’s standing right there. This’s the sort of thing that still happens around here. Cohen and I haven’t seen each since the Král Majáles book came out, three years ago. We’d had lunch at a Russian joint over by Brighton Beach before spending three hours in traffic trying to make it to the Czech Centre on the Upper West Side. They’d shut the west side of the island down on account of some big notes at the UN. Cohen, who used to edit the Prague Pill with Travis Jeppesen, is one of the best writers I know. He explains how he’s been hiding out in Jersey, away from all the trolls that’ve been waving dollars in his face to write the next Great American Novel. We head to a bar and shoot the proverbial shit for an hour or so then wander across to St Mark’s Church. I part with eight bucks to go inside for the Thurston Moore & Anne Waldman show but Cohen takes a rain cheque for Saturday night, he’s got a lady waiting at Astor Place.
The show’s set for the main chapel. Eddie’s already inside with his brother Anselm and Bruce Andrews, who introduces me to Thurston, and there’s Vincent Katz too and Yuko and Steve Dalachinsky who’s got it in for Keith Jarrett tonight. He says ‘Keith Jarrett couldn’t shine your shoes.’ The place fills up smartish, but it’s a dry house, a real church service, listening attentive in hard chairs to the old folk spin the parables. They begin the set with a joint reading of a poem Anne wrote for Lou Reed, Daniel Carter joining in on horn. Then Thurston reads solo for a while, short epithets reminding of Bill Berkson mixed with the odd tour bus sutra, before plugging in and taking us all through a long slow meditation on guitar, no frills, the simple riff making its own action. This closes out the first half of the show, before talk time, flesh-pressing, people avoiding each other, the bottom-feeders on the prowl, not a drink in sight. Then a woman who’s too young to know better takes the podium and unloads one of those interminable love-ins that pass for introductions down Naropa way. Bruce says, ‘if the length of the intro’s anything to go by…’ And he’s not wrong. Anne starts right in on the more recent collected works, joined an hour later by Carter who puts in a serious effort accompanying on alto, soprano, tenor, bringing the word redemption to mind. Thurston comes back on stage, adding subtly layered noise to the background, keeping it civilised. Anne takes the opportunity to launch into something she calls ‘free jazz,’ though she’s reading from a script. At least the crowd gets their money’s worth as she works up into a series of screeches and staccato ‘cuts’ and moans. All the while Bruce, who’s sitting next to me, is shuffling catalogue cards, scribbling time-to-time choice morsels for his latest assault on sense and sensibility. Across the aisle Dalachinsky rolls his eyes. A couple of kids in the front rows swoon. A sense of moment passes by. They didn’t even have to dim the lights. It’s all wrapped up by 10:30. And the night’s only just begun.