Hebrew School

Jews, Gentry
May 30, 2008, 6:01 pm
Filed under: brooklyn | Tags: ,

I write often about the community I live in because it will inevitably reach the light of day somehow in my music. Not because of choice or ideology, but because it’s simply where I am.

So there are a couple of houses across the street that have had for sale signs in front of them, one for maybe six months. That one finally changed its sign to “sold,” but I was indifferent.

Then in the corner store I overhear a conversation between two middle-aged men. Man 1 mentions that he noticed that Man 2’s house’s sign now says “sold.” Man 2 confirms this, and that the “last [he] heard” it was going for $750k.

“But it’s a shithole,” he says to Man 1. “It’s going to be another 150 after that,” he continues, adding that anyone who moves into this neighborhood will settle for a three-quarter-million-dollar shithole. People are buying. It doesn’t matter.

There didn’t seem too be any cynicism. Someone had just stated a fact.

The Jewish artists, all four of us or however many, are getting forced out of Sunset Park and I want my money back. I would like that money in cash shekels as a bulwark against the dollar. I will move somewhere where I might need to survive peak matzo.

But I probably won’t.


Your Sunset Park gentrification blog primer


Sunset Park 718 (new)

White People Move In, The World Ends

Hell No, No Condo!

Johnny’s Pizza vs. Papa John’s


Jew-tube roundup, Spring ’08

I hope everyone enjoyed their long weekend. I sure did. Here’s a Jewish brain’s YouTube eyeball rolling around in its spring skeleton.

A Silver Mt. Zion, “Stumble Then Rise On Some Awkward Morning”


The Rainmakers, “Let My People Go-Go”

Marissa Nadler, “Bird on Your Grave” and “Rachel”

“Rise and Shine It’s Matzah Ball Time”

Cecil Taylor Quartet, Paris, November 1966. Jimmy Lyons, Alan Silva, Andrew Cyrille on drums. Cecil will always be one of my favorite pianists.

Mohd. Rafi and Asha Bhosle, “Yaaro Ka Pyaar Liye,” from Kali Topi Lal Rumal. Perhaps the greatest Bollywood playback singers ever.

Brezhnev-era state-sanctioned psych.

Lebanese trumpet player Mazen Kerbaj

Kyle Jarrow and Alex Timbers’ A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant

Jack struck gold when he found this Dean Friedman song– had to repost. (Read his original post here.)

And remember…

DGS: Finally, an affordable health care option for artists

A few months ago, I was speaking to a friend of a friend, a young fellow artist, about her current work, and the conversation shifted to her daily life, which her art required. The discussion turned to how she had gotten a bad case of bronchitis this past winter, how that had seriously fouled up her work, and how she was knocking on wood to make sure this wouldn’t happen again.

Perhaps in a purposeful moment of naivete, I blurted out something to the effect of, “Yeah, whenever I get sick, I make sure to see the doctor right away.”

Her response, of course, being, “I don’t have health insurance.”

It wasn’t really her response that caused me agita, but the way it was being said: She seemed to wear her lack of insurance like a badge of honor, something to be proud of. As though it didn’t faze her that a sudden accident could send her to a crowded emergency room to wait for hours, only to be jettisoned from admission to the hospital with a lollipop and a sample pack of Percocet. “Yes,” she seemed to have decided, “I’m an artist in New York, I’m tough. Maybe no one’s invincible, but I have to be. This resolve will inform my art and give me street cred– I’m cool.”

To me, that’s about as “cool” as obtaining one’s drinking water supply from the East River, or taking a drunken late-night walk in a subway tunnel. Though, to be honest, I can’t blame her for legitimizating a situation which requires the invocation of a normalized assumption that artists just don’t have health care, and if they do, it’s a luxury. With the vast majority of health care in the U.S. being obtained through regular 9-to-5 employment, it’s not enough for freelance artists to simply work on their art 24/7 (as any artist, particularly in New York, knows they need to do). You either have to have a trust fund or get a day job.

Even if you’re able to make enough income through your art, chances are it won’t be steady income, and the proceeds from that painting you sold certainly won’t include a free trip for a checkup at Mt. Sinai. And even with a day job and insurance, you’ll have to eke out the time to do your art, at the expense of a social life, a chance for a vacation, and time to simply manage your other daily affairs. That’s providing you don’t fall ill, in which case you’ll also have to cope with your illness in addition to your managed health care bureaucracy. The latter, by empirical definition, will give you the run-around, stick you with strange and exorbitant charges, and generally try to turn the screws on you at every opportunity. Think you have trouble with the IRS, freelancers? Have a go with Aetna, Empire Blue Cross, Oxford, or one of the other brilliantly-conceived insurance plans available in the city. Let me know how it works out– just keep in mind that band-aids and disinfectant are an out-of-network charge.

Sure, there are other options for artists in the city, like the Freelancer’s Union which (as of this minute) provides bare-bones (like, really bare-bones) coverage in Brooklyn via the Empire juggernaut for $130 a month. But be prepared to pay $382 if you happen to have a serious or chronic condition that requires regular care and maintenance– and don’t think you won’t have any unsuspected pitfalls with that plan, either.

Fractured Atlas proffers a $15/month “health discount program” which to me smacks of a cruel joke. Their most expensive current plan for New Yorkers costs $338. At almost $50 less than the comparable Freelancer’s option, you’ll only have to cough up a $300 deductible on this plan if you need any medication, and $2000 if you need your blood drawn or have to go to the hospital. After that there’s the $20-$50 copays for prescriptions and doctor’s visits.

And then there’s Artist Access, a high-minded plan attempting to establish an arts bartering system for medical services at Woodhull or Bellevue, but I’ve heard nothing but dissatisfaction expressed when it’s mentioned.  Fascinatingly, there seems to be little information available (on their non-existent website) about exactly what the plan does and doesn’t cover*. Sounds a little like buck dancing for your supper to me.

It’s not that the arts or freelance community aren’t trying. Dance Theater Workshop, for example, posted an apologetic notice on its website last year, announcing it would discontinue its HIP-HMO plan for members due to escalating costs. I’m sure other organizations are being forced to do the same.

And so for the moment we’re back to no health insurance at all. The predicament, I think, is most dangerous for young artists who, just out of school, are likely to earn very little income, think that no harm will come to them, and have no way of understanding (as older folks do) the severity of hardships that will come to light if they are diagnosed with a serious or chronic illness. In New York City, so many young artists are coping this way, living on the edge without realizing it, residing in a place which by definition engenders far greater health risks than, say, Waukesha, Wisconsin. An unexpected health crisis for such a person (and they do occur) would entail, at best, moving in with one’s parents to shoulder the costs, and at worst, well… lack of treatment leading to death.

Fortunately, I’m happy to announce a new option for New York artists. It’s actually not a new plan at all, but one that well predates any of the FDR-era reforms that helped provide health insurance to Americans. The cost to you as a health consumer is nothing— no monthly payments, copays, deductibles, invasive physical screenings, etc. The program ensures lifetime coverage for all medical costs from everything from prescription drugs, to doctor’s visits, to laproscopic renal surgery. You’ll be able to avoid most of the red tape that comes from government offices or HMO call centers. Using this plan as an artist, you’ll be able to pursue your dreams and create your masterpieces without fear of illness, and without being saddled with huge bills. Coverage is universal and absolutely comprehensive. It’s an innovative program called DGS.

It stands for don’t get sick.

* After a good half hour of digging, I discovered that the plan is run out of HHC Options, which does provide some more information, though not a lot. There’s no information here on Artist Access apart from some newsletter articles and video clips about various dignitaries celebrating the success of the program.

Greenwood Cemetery

Just beyond the Jackie Gleason Bus Depot in Sunset Park…

…lies Greenwood Cemetery, resting place for Basquiat, Bernstein, Crazy Joe, and the Wizard, and a stunning visual display, often times more sumptuous than even the sweetest vistas of Prospect or Central Park.


A Double-crested Cormorant! (Pictures: Jill; Ornithology: Christopher)

Red State String Band at Sunny’s

“Time is an enormous, long river, and I’m standing in it, just as you’re standing in it.” –Utah Phillips

The Red State String Band (l to r: Ben Stowe, Laura Feddersen, Mike Mermin) got their name when band members realized they all hailed from Republican strongholds. Thankfully, they made it to New York.

A while back I alluded to a reemergence of folk music in the city, and speculated on what that might mean, in that particular case with regard to singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom. The truth is that this reemergence (or is it simply a persistence?) extends far beyond what might be termed “folk” and in fact back to its roots: traditional American song, African American spirituals, bluegrass, country and the like.

New York City doesn’t even have a full-schedule country radio station. Yet whether bar-hopping through the Lower East Side or staggering one’s way through the erstwhile hinterlands of Brooklyn, one would be hard-pressed to avoid a whoop and holler, the snap of a washboard, or the twang of– well, anything that goes twang. At small venues like Banjo Jim’s in Manhattan, the current schedule smacks of ragtime piano, copious use of words like “river” and “mountain,” and Odetta night. Crossing the East River, Buttermilk’s monthly Cashank hootenanny (featuring the music of Johnny and Williams, respectively) continues to bring out of the woodwork crowds of boot-stompers, weekend jamboree warriors, and innocent bystanders like myself looking for fun without the expense of certain pretensions.

But aside from reiterations of the “old-timey” (the worst of which may be superficially mechanical in execution), New York is indeed nurturing an emergent pocket of artists who use these canons as a means of further creative juicing. They’re writing new material with eyeballs on the various traditions, using song structure as an emotional container for music that is completely relevant and often profoundly personal. They’re recontextualizing forgotten early-radio classics and giving them urban sensibility. And some of the most convincing ones are slightly out of their minds.

If it seems too facile to draw a line between the current state of affairs in New York City and the folk scare of the ’60s which produced Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Smokey and his Sister et al., I can only connect the following dots: big corporate music in its birth pangs, and the same industry some forty years later at its death knell. Both sets of circumstances meant artistic fertility for New York musicians, so much so that, particularly in the light of obscurity, one might confuse the products of one era for the other.

* * *

I honestly don’t think I’ve been to Sunny’s since I performed there with the Murrays in 2000. It’s a little less cobwebby, the atmosphere a little less rarefied. There’s now a large back room for bands to play, but it seems to have come at the expense of the availability of Rheingold beer in bottles. And it goes without saying that there was not a Fairway grocery store, nor a gargantuan Ikea opening in a month. Oh well.

But it also goes without saying that it’s still Sunny’s, packed like hell with honest-to-God humans on a cold and rainy Friday night, miles from a subway stop. The Red State String Band plows into an uptempo number, hushing the unhushable and quickly rendering mere seat-dancing unthinkable. Comprised of Mike Mermin on guitar and vocals, Laura Feddersen on fiddle, and Ben Stowe on banjo, they stand somehow in the midst of this old and new I’ve been trying to shed light on. Funnily, they do this in a venue which accomplishes the same in atmosphere, Sunny’s being an ostensible remnant of merchant marine hangouts of that pre-radio era of folk and country.

Red State held court for two sets, mixing traditional standards with originals written by Mike Mermin. The interplay of stylistic modes was sublime, and the musicians nothing less than serious professionals who have clearly honed their craft over a lifetime. They carried with them such a respect and devotion for their material, which varied in subject matter from drunken husbands, to ships at sea, to romantic love. The original tunes used these tropes of storytelling to underscore the timeless quality of these emotions.

Joined by Anna Leuchtenberger on accordion and vocals.

At the end of the night (and to my relief), Sunny’s is still Sunny’s.

“Does that mean you’re not coming over?”
May 12, 2008, 9:11 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Ceil Bialek and Edith Mandl. They’re twins.

Danielson: A Family Movie

For a while now, I’ve meant to publish a review and thoughts on Danielson: A Family Movie (or Make A Joyful Noise HERE), which I had seen on DVD this past winter. The award-winning documentary came to my Netflix queue’s attention at first not for its rave reviews or compelling story, but because a friend (and Sunset Park neighbor), Tom Eaton, who had played with honorary Family member Sufjan Stevens, had created an animation segment for the film (while making a brief cameo). My interest piqued, so I watched.

The movie trails Daniel Smith and his family band, Danielson, or Danielson Family, or Danielson Famile, or Smith’s solo project, Brother Danielson. Feeling a strong connection to his Christianity, he at one time lived at JPUSA in Chicago, an organization with ancestry in the Jesus movement of ’60s hippies, and somewhere along the way began to play Christian music. Weird and interesting Christian music.

Danielson’s success in the mainstream indie world, regardless of how people might have felt about it, resonated with me because of the questions it brought up about this music. (Seeing them open for Animal Collective last year probably helped, too.) The Christian music scene grew suspicious of Smith, as did indie music. Does great art get created in the space where vastly different parts of one’s potential audience both attempt to call a bluff? While Smith, with complete sincerity (…right?), pushed the creative boundaries of the Christian music juggernaut, does Jewish music push boundaries in an analogous way?

The answer to the latter question seemed obvious to me at first, but I can’t really be sure. If pressed I would say that Jewish music today, in all its shapes and colors, is a different cultural phenomenon altogether. But then again, being Jewish– albeit far (like, way far) less involved in my faith than Smith– kind of deprives me of any objectivity. Is “Christian rock” what non-Jews see in a Rorschach test of “Jewish rock?”

No answers forthcoming, though one of the most interesting moments of the film for me was when Daniel drummed up a compelling axiology: Christians and churches, he said, should be funding and supporting Christian bands– not the profit-driven music industry. Can we not say that Jews should also be doing more of the same?

OK, still no simple answers– but let’s have a beer some time.