It's my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
"A Step Away from Them" - Frank O'Hara, Lunch Poems
I find that capturing photographs of other people viewing art or in the process of creating it is a fascinating thing because it's about the original object itself in the photograph, but also about a new object formed by the photograph and how the two images inform each other. Needless to say I'm not the first person to remark on this - the German photographer Thomas Struth's series of photographs, "Museum Pieces," is a remarkable exploration of this.
For his series, Struth went to a variety of museums including the National Gallery, the Louvre Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago to document how patrons interact with the masterpieces on the walls. As Struth says in an interview about his photographs, "I wanted to remind my audience that when art works were made, they were not yet icons or museum pieces." When a work of art becomes fetishized, it dies."
My theory is a little simpler, I suppose. I'm interested in what captures someone's attention so much that they feel compelled to document the moment, and how that in turn catapultes my own intrigue to capture the process of inspiration from my unique vantage point. Voyeurism this is not, though. Rather it's a way of looking at art through a newly opened but soon-to-be-closed window.
As the first photograph suggests in the beginning of the post, during my lunch hour I stumbled upon a makeshift showroom in midtown Manhattan. The fact that a professional photographer was in the process of his work was enough to wrangle my attention, but when I saw he was taking pictures of a vintage Ducati, well, it didn't take long for me to take out the Sony RX-100.
It was a closed set so I had to press the camera directly against the windows to fight against the glare to get the pictures of the motorcycles (though you can still see some glare, regardless).
Ducati motorcycles invoke a lot of feelings in me. There's the part of me that wants to support American-made motorbikes, but there's also the part that just recognizes how aesthetically endowed the the Ducatis are. Standing still they appear to be in swift motion, and they're the sort of thing I could see Dante blitzing around the corners of Florence with Beatrice holding on tight behind him.
I'm not the only one to romanticize the bikes. The polarizing poet Frederick Seidel owns a couple, and mentions them frequently in his poems (in addition to places like Claridge's and the Carlyle where poets don't normally hang their hats.) From the collection Ooga-Booga, Seidel conflates the femininity of his Ducati with the memory of a woman: "I ride a racer to erase her / Bent over like a hunchback / Racing leathers now include a hump / That protects the poet's spine and neck."
The collection also included some Agustas and at least one Laverda (the one in orange). As I was taking the photographs I realized that I had done a DP post on BMW vintage motorcycles back in 2009 (!) that you can find here.
At first I thought, what a waste! These guys are inside and totally absorbed in activities that don't involve obsessing over the motorcycles. If only I was inside too! I had to remind myself, though, that I would have to leave the area at some point too, and would probably text someone while going to pick up lunch - just what these guys were doing.
I was glad though, that I had this break to remind me of the power of craftsmanship and design, and that sometimes these moments come to you even in such ordinary times like your lunch hour.
My Amazing Commute III: Shimmer and Radiate in the West Village
"...Pour down your unstinted nimbus, sacred moon."
Walt Whitman, Look Down, Fair Moon (1865)
That's all we get from the celestial bodies, here in New York City: the moon. We have to make due with aircraft warning lights atop skyscrapers, lights inside apartment buildings resembling advent calendars, and of course, the moon. Stars just can't make the trip across the Hudson.
We do, however, have a great quality of evening light, something so distinctive it's practically tangible. It's an admixture of street lamps, taxi cab blinkers and the living presence of towers, all promising that the true dark stillness of night will never touch us.
I'm preferential to the quality of light in the West Village, of course. Perhaps it's a perfect proportion of street lamps, small residential buildings and welcoming storefronts that makes it so endearing. Whatever it is, there is a warmth to the luminosity below 14th Street and its subtle radiance lighting the cobblestone streets informs me that whatever is troubling me at the moment, will largely be okay.
I've given a lot of thought to the evening light of New York City, but I've never been able to capture it in the moment. Last week I was returning home from Equinox on Greenwich Street and saw a perfect example on Hudson Street. You can see my closest bodega, Spyros & Sons Food Mart, my favorite rare and first edition book stores, Left Bank Books, and Chocolate Bar.
Here the light just shimmers across the cobblestones and bursts in radiance from streetlamps like seraphim. I love how the white-hot welcoming light of the stores holds itself in balance to the rest of the scene, like some sort of living Piet Mondrian painting.
I don't know if I'll ever leave New York City. As I wrote in The American Interest, I've been captivated with the idea of living here since I was 17. But if I do, there will be a list of things for which I'll ache. Like the energy of the city, like the arts, the quality of evening light will be one of the things I'll miss most. It's something that I can't truly define, but still know what it is.
Are you interested in attractive, handmade apparel made in the USA at a very attractive price point? Does that seem like a rhetorical question because in a sense, who isn’t interested in that combination?
Then let me present to you Ruell’s Apparel, a quality manufacturer of bowties, neckties, pocket squares and men’s accessories, based out of Austin, TX. I found Ruell’s shop on Etsy and was immediately struck by the tasteful selection of patterns for pocket squares and bowties at a very reasonable price.
I was a fan of all the merchandise that I saw, but particularly impressed with a summer-y madras pocket square and handsome green plaid bow tie, priced at about $10 and $20, respectively.
(The personal note I received from Ruell's in the package)
My order for my pocket square and bowtie arrived promptly and even included a personal note from Alton Ruell Conn, Jr., the shop’s proprietor. I was so impressed with the product and presentation of this young (two month old) shop label that I asked Alton if he could talk to me for an interview about the shop and happily for me, he agreed.
(I'm a big fan of the simplicity and color scheme of Ruell's logo)
Below is our conversation about the present and future of Ruell’s.
Dan from Disaffected Prep: Alton, I’m a big fan of everything that you’re doing with the shop right now. Can you share your inspiration for it?
Alton from Ruell's: It all started a few years ago when I knew it was time for a change. I had come to the realization that I had fulfilled my passion in Information Technology of almost 20 years. I was looking for something more fulfilling where I could contribute to the local economy, grow long term while giving back. Austin is a great city that is built on make it local and shop local. It is one the reasons I love the city so much and that it continues to thrive.
I was thinking it could just be that I needed a job change and that would fulfill the voice inside of me seeking change. After entertaining many options and testing a few I decided I would stop pressing it and allow the change to come to me and it did. While preparing to attend a local fashion show trying to decide what to wear I happened upon bow ties. After the show was over it hit me: I found it. Bow ties, neck ties, pocket squares and men's accessories was it. The feeling I experienced wearing the bow tie and the compliments was enough to set me on this journey of Act II. I know my passion for Act II is creativity, color, using my hands and apparel with the hope it will brighten someones day.
(I thought the madras pocket square would look good in a khaki blazer I have from Ralph Lauren)
Dan: That's great - I really love the sense of journey that led you here. Focusing a bit on the product itself, how do you source the materials? I really like how my pocket square feels wonderfully broken in already.
Alton: Most of my material is repurposed fabrics sourced from high end men’s shirts. I wanted to take advantage of materials that are already out there and give them new life. It sets me apart for the patterns are not sold in fabric stores or on the open market. It also keeps with my mission of buy local. When I can’t find fabrics I will shop at fabric stores but that is rare. I am working on a process to produce my own custom patterns to set me apart even further.
(The bowties feature regular tie, clasp or clip-on options. I went with the clasp, and yes - I'm using Alan Flusser's classic Dressing the Man as background.)
Dan: That's great, and makes sense that the fabrics I've touched of your's have have a lived-in quality (in a good way). Taking a step back, who are your favorite menswear designers? Are they a big influence on your work with Ruell's or do you try to chart your own path without them?
Alton: I don't have a favorite designer per say but love Project Runway and have been watching since it began. I enjoy the creative process and construction each contestant brings to the show. I wouldn't say any designer has influenced design or pattern for Ruell's. I chart my own path.
Dan: Are you eying any new product lines in the future or are you sticking with your knitting for the time being?
Alton: I am planning additions to Ruell's Apparel to include scarves, neck ties, belts and cuff links. Also coming, decor to include pillow covers, art prints and more. I am super excited about what's ahead.
(Alton shared with me this picture of a necktie currently in development)
Dan: Just wrapping up. Any last comments you want to share?
Alton: I'm self taught and an open mind has guided me through the process of launching Ruell's. I'm learning everyday and I believe that's key to starting a business as well as in life.
Dan: Thanks Alton! I think you're off to a great start and I'm looking forward to seeing your success in the future!
Again, please check out and support Ruell's shop online. You'll be hard pressed to find a better combination of quality and price.
All photography from Disaffected Prep, other than Alton's picture of the prototype tie.
N.B. I am not compensated for any work on Disaffected Prep - all purchases from Alton’s shop came from my own pocket.
Winter sunsets have a subtle quality that I prefer over their summer counterparts. Instead of a bursting of hues across the spectrum of reds, oranges, purples and yellows, winter sunsets seem to juxtapose two colors and just let them have at it.
I was walking to the Summit train station, returning to New York for the night and found myself in the midst of a near-perfect winter sunset. Thankfully I had the Sony RX-100 with me, so I was able to take a few shots before the two minute window of light completely disappeared.
The warm orange hues of the illuminated road contrast just beautifully with the cirrus clouds in the nighttime sky. You can even see St. Teresa's in the small opening between the trees.
Just as I was putting my camera away I saw a plane flying across the near-nighttime tableau. It looked so tiny against a cirrus sky that seemingly could swallow it whole. I was able to capture it against a well-lit section of the sky. Content with the shots, I took my train back to New York.
My Amazing Commute I: Upon A Metrocard Swipe, Passing Through History
The entrance to the Chanin Building I normally take
Part of the resurrection of Disaffected Prep came from an idea I had: what if I could take the most mundane activity I find myself in everyday and instead, find and capture some semblance of beauty within it? Mind you, this isn’t some sort of post-modern American Beauty-esque ,“find the natural wonder of a floating plastic bag,” but rather, finding real aesthetic paydirt. This activity I’m talking about is one of the most dreadful human activities out there - commuting to and from work.
To spot and document these moments of joy would require a camera, but I find the iPhone’s capabilities lacking. I’m also not willing to carry a DSLR with me in midtown, given their bulk. So I purchased an impressive and very compact Sony RX-100 series for this exact mission, a swiss army knife of a camera that I can carry in my bag and snap a quick photo without feeling like a tourist.
The first installment of what I’m calling, “My Amazing Commute,” (said without irony or sarcasm), details the Chanin Building at on the corner of Lexington Avenue on 122 East 42nd Street. The building is a wonderful expression of the Art Deco style, and I think more New Yorkers would appreciate it if it weren’t totally overshadowed by the Chrysler Building, which is catty-corner to it on 42nd. The Chanin also serves as an access point 4/5/6/7 subways through its lobby.
Tried to do a "in the moment" photo through the doors but failed miserably
If you want to commute home via the 4/5/6/7 in the area, you’ve got plenty of options: there are a couple of pure-form structures of egress without style or personality, there’s a subway entrance near Cipriani, and of course there’s a path to the Lexington line in a little Beaux-Arts masterpiece called Grand Central Terminal.
Grand Central is easy on the the eyes, of course, but if you’re a frequent visitor of Disaffected Prep you know that I’m a champion of the underdog versus the overexposed, the indie over the commercial. So it should come as no surprise that I try to make my way through Chanin rather than Grand Central as much as possible during my commute, just so I can feel a part of its under-looked history and be surrounded by beautiful aesthetics, if only for a minute.
The lower bars, I'm guessing, are for kids, you know?
The Chanin Building was built in 1929, and is 56 stories tall. I don’t know much about the building itself, beyond what’s available on Wikipedia, but I pass through the lobby frequently and love it. Part of the appeal are the revolving doors - they’re heavy and sturdy - and cut at at these hospital-corner tight 90 degree angles in a handsome mixture of glass and bronze. They’re the kind of special and unique doors that you expect to be transformed into something beyond yourself just upon exiting them.
This picture speaks for itself
Through the revolving doors, you’re found in a vestibule that features four push/pull doors into the main lobby. But it would be a mistake to walk hurriedly through just to get to the next downtown train. There’s a mind-blowing amount of art-deco detail here, real genuine work you can press your nose one inch away from and just stare. There’s a radiator screen that features this amazing geometry of imbricated, undulating crescent waves, bronzed triangles and soaring beams bursting through the entire grillwork. All this for a radiator cover.
Who is John Galt? Honestly, I don't care.
There’s also these figures that I’m totally not wild about because they unfortunately remind me of an Ayn Rand book (I’m not a fan of her turgid prose) but I’m including as a picture to give a completist view of the vestibule and hey - maybe it rings somebodies’ cherries out there, who knows?
The lobby filled with holiday cheer. The lobby guards, not so much.
I was also able to peel off one (not great) photo of part of the lobby before I was (not so) politely told by the lobby guards not to take pictures, who were (the guards), despite the accoutrements of holiday decorations all throughout the Chanin Building lobby, not quite filled with any jolly cheer, at all.
Each time I walk the Chanin Building I get the feeling of a long-past New York where men wore hats to work, Studebakers lined the streets and you could get a decent cherry rickey within a couple of blocks of wherever you were. I don’t long for that era, I’m perfectly content in this one, but it is still nice to be in touch with it, even if it’s just by passing through on the way home.
I didn’t start thinking about how the barrel cuffs of an oxford shirt should be worn in college or in prep school or even upon reading the 121st line of Eliot’s Prufrock. Instead, I picked it up as an eight year old in 1990 visiting my sister at her liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. I was fascinated by the college guys rolling up the sleeves of their oxford shirts while also rolling these large metal canisters into the basement of their fraternity houses.
One of my sister’s boyfriends in college, I’ll call him E.B., even had a habit of rolling up the cuff of his short sleeve polo shirts. Long before the slim fit wave coursed through the menswear market, I see this now as a small nod to better aesthetics and fit. To this day I feel uncomfortable with a polo shirt sleeve just worn regularly; I have to cuff the fabric at least once, just like E.B.. It isn’t some sort of suns-out, guns-out braggadocio, it’s about what feels natural, and I learned that from him.
The author, aged 9 or so, on his sister's college campus. Note the bean mocs, no socks and rolled cuffs already.
There’s a beautiful poem by the contemporary poet Cynthia Rylant called, “God Went to Beauty School,” which describes how God, “got into nails...because He’d always loved / hands-- / hands were some of the best things / He’d ever done...” and that working in the salon enabled him to “admire those delicate / bones, just above knuckles, / delicate as birds wings...” Wrists, too, are a beautiful creation, like the delicate fingers described by Rylant, and rolling your cuffs lets the world see them.
Oxford shirts that don’t cuff well can be a dealbreaker for me. Standbys like Ralph Lauren and Billy Reid work well, though there’s nothing like the six-pleat shirring at the barrel cuff of a Brooks Brothers oxford to give weight and integrity to the end of the shirt. It’s a strange thing, after all these years my eye is trained to look at the sheering of a shirt to tell if it’s Brooks Brothers, just in the same way I might now instinctively look to a woman’s left hand to determine if she’s married.
Classic six-pleat sheering, from a BB shirt in my closet.
Personally I always roll the cuff over the shirt and repeat the process a second time. Once in awhile I’ll flip for a third, letting the sleeve rest above the elbow, though it can get one dangerously close to the awful short sleeved dress shirt seemingly worn by Peoria-based IRS accountants and well, the Beastie Boys in their “Sabotage” video.
I can see someone reading this and wondering, why bother meditating so much on a flimsy topic? I get that, but I believe there’s more to it. How we interact with clothing is a fascinating symbiosis of clothing preference, sociological background and personal history. What is second nature to me now was born at a very impressionable age on my sister’s college campus. Childhood perspective is always skewed, but at the time E.B. and the frat guys seemed like inspiring figures and I wanted to emulate every (good) thing about them. Now, nearly ten years out of my own college graduation, I see how limited that vision was. A college student isn’t someone larger than life - they’re still adolescents. But somewhere along the line a group of guys planted an idea in my head about how a man should look and dress, and it’s never left me.
Awhile back in 2007 I was at a poetry reading at McNally Jackson bookstore in SoHo given by the poet, Mark Doty. During the Q&A session an audience member asked Doty why he didn’t write political poetry. Doty paused and thoughtfully replied that political poems, by their very nature, have an end conclusion known well before the first word was written. His process of writing a poem, he explained, was one of discovery. So, in the context of political poetry, how can you discover when you already know where the poem will lead you?
I thought about this as I headed to Poets House in downtown Manhattan to find a change of scenery in which to finish a handful of creative non-fiction essays I had on my plate. I brought my camera along with my writing supplies because I had a nagging sense that by following the West Side Highway’s “... faultless ribbons / of blank road ahead...” down to Poets House that my journey would “...promise, like / poems, to end elsewhere.” (1)
The stairs to the library of Poets House
I need to take a step back, first. Poetry has long been considered the red-headed stepchild of the arts. There’s no Koonsian money in the game; a published poem might get you a couple copies of the journal in which it is found or a single Benjamin. I got $200 from the Academy of American Poets once and I’m pretty sure that’s the biggest payday I’ll ever receive from my craft. Sure, later on in your career you could maybe swing a MacArthur Grant out of it and a university teaching gig, but that’s some real rarefied air there. No doubt about it, poetry is a labor of love.
And that’s why the simple existence of Poets House (its latest incarnation, opened in 2009, is 11,000 square feet of exhibit, teaching and library space) is so, well, I guess... comforting is the word. For someone used to reading in makeshift spaces and finding, even in the best bookstores, the poetry section limited to just the usual row of heavy hitters, the stunningly designed and stalwart sight of Poets House on the water of the Hudson River has a way of properly asserting the legitimacy of the art form in which it houses. It gives poetry a stable home in the uproar of New York City.
Getting to Poets House in Battery Park City required me to travel through the World Trade Center area and past the Freedom Tower. It’s not a section of Manhattan I travel through too often. The wounds of the open space there are too raw to visit often, so it’s something I generally avoid.
On this particular trip, I took the 2/3 to Fulton Street and walked west along Vessey. What struck me, more than anything else, was the sense of perpetual construction. Temporary construction projects were themselves in a process of construction. A pedestrian footbridge, while totally functional, was still somehow evolving. This idea manifested itself in a multiplicity of scrims that then created scrims upon themselves. It was something inadvertent yet beautiful at the same time, much like a spandrel in an archway. Unlike a spandrel, which by its nature is static, these overlays of scrim are in perpetual motion both due to the movement of the viewer as well as construction one sees behind it (itself covered in scrim, no less).
You’ll reach Poets House if you continue to walk west to the Hudson River, reaching a small road called River Terrace. In various incarnations Poets House has been around for decades, but only recently moved into their current space in 2009. My friend and fellow Left Bank Books regular Gary Shapiro has covered Poets House for both the New York Sun and the Wall Street Journal, so feel free to check out his articles for more of a comprehensive backstory, which is quite fascinating.
The beauty of Poets House, to me at least, is the combination of the audacious mission - to house over 50,000 volumes of poetry browsable by anyone - in a stunning LEED certified modern building with views of the Hudson. There is no admission, no membership fees required. Mi poetry casa es su poetry casa.
What does 50,000 volumes of poetry look like? Well, I figured I try to see if they had any gaps, any “gotcha” moments where I looked for a volume and could’t find it. I lost at that game. For instance, Campbell McGrath’s first volume of poetry, Capitalism? Despite having a tiny, tiny run on Wesleyan University Press, Poetry House had it. What about a contemporary poet who already has his poems impressively collected (1959-2009) by FSG - would Poets House just punt and settle for that volume? Well, no. As you can see, Fred Seidel, the Ducati-driving, Carlyle-concierge-calling poet in question here has his early work like Final Solutions standing side by side with his later volumes, like Ooga Booga. A great title, by the way, for someone whom many consider to be the boogey-man of contemporary poetry. (2)
Another fun aspect of Poets House is tracking down different editions of volumes you already have. Here’s an edition of Lowell’s For the Union Dead I’ve never seen before. The poems don’t change, of course, but holding something with historical weight, rather than a paperback reissue, can slightly alter the reading experience, I find.
I realize quoting Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 can be a little high school-ish but I’m a real softie sometimes so just indulge me for a second. Specifically I’m thinking about the end of the poem where the subject is given eternal life, “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Even after repeated readings it still gets me. Same with Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. “I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence; / I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is. / Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt...” Shakespeare's audacious vision for his poem's readership and Whitman’s personal call to the reader of the poem are but two small examples of how artists grapple with establishing permanence in a world that is anything but.
In that context, it’s reassuring to know that poetry, and poets, have such a grand spaced reserved for them in lower Manhattan for decades to come. There will be change in New York, no doubt, but Poets House will still be there on River Terrace. While 2069, the last year of Poets House's free lease in the current location, doesn’t stretch out to infinity, it's close enough for me.
(1) The section of the poem I’m quoting by a terrifyingly talented friend isn’t published anywhere other than my college’s lit mag in 2006. I think he wrote it when he was 19. It is one of the favorite pieces of art I’ve ever read. I dedicated a poem to him about weight lifting, in case you are interested (probably not).
(2) Short aside here. Needless to say by seeking out these specific poets and their work it’s clear they both mean a good deal to me. Specifically McGrath, who when confronted by unsolicited email to an non-public email address by someone he didn’t know (read: me) got back to that person remarking upon and praising/encouraging their work. It meant a great deal to me, so you should know that Campbell McGrath, aside from being US Poet Laureate one day (my prediction) is one solid, solid dude.
(3) Shout-outs to people who have been championing my writing recently, including my family, Ashley (who got in touch through Twitter!) and my buddy Sammy.
Golfer: You better come in until this blows over. Bishop: So what do you think? Carl: I'd keep playing. I don't think the heavy stuff will come down for a while. Bishop: You're right. Anyway, the good Lord would never disrupt the best game of my life.
Occasionally the spirit catches me and I want to do one of those pith-helmeted anthropological expeditions, taking pictures of The Moment or How We Live Today precipitated by some momentous event.
Well, Hurricane Sandy is about to descend upon Manhattan and besides an impulse to stock up on cheeseburgers from Village Den, I figured this would be a good time to haul ass riki-tik around the West Village and see if I could find some thread of a story on how New Yorkers act in the hours before a gnar-gnar hurricane goes wheels down.
I figured going into things that I'd see a lot of boarded up businesses and zero pedestrians as people prepare for meteorological eschaton. So I wasn't surprised when I saw my local purveyor of whimsical vittles, Cafe Cluny, ceased its slinging of concupiscent curds and decamped to pastures unknown. To paraphrase Sam Shepard's play, True West, "There's going to be a general lack of preciousness in the West Village tomorrow morning. Many many bewildered breakfast faces."
But as New Yorkers, we laugh in the face of good judgement (Close a bar at 3:30am? Fuck that! Empty a refrigerator and use it for additional closet space? Why the hell not!) so it became increasingly apparent that I had underestimated our collective desire to be out of our apartments in the hours prior to landfall, and later in my Caspar David Freidrich-esque wonderings, our collective stupidity. Really underestimated that last one.
First things somewhat first, though. There were a ton of people out. Like, you had the whole dude-with-malfunctioning-umbrella-cover-photo-for-The-Dayton-Daily-News walking in some sort of "lurchy half-stumble of a vaudeville inebriate" (h/t DFW) but you had like, regular people out doing regular people things.
People such as my good friend Vince, hanging out my favorite cafe. Hadn't seen the dude in a good three weeks and there he is, drinking his coffee, eating his muffin. So I had a good rap session with my brother from another materfamilias and set plans for the next week.
Y'all had peeps shopping, WITH AWESOME BAGS. And you also had bros running. I saw a lot of bros running.
Speaking of general cardiovascular development, Equinox, the gym chain that puts the (toned) ass in aspirational fitness, opened its eucalyptus scented doors to any and all who did not want to let a Hurricane get in the way of a good NO2-addled pump. Zoom lens affording a interesting look into the second floor.
But as I finished my tour de whimsy I peddled over to the Hudson River Park. And things got weird. Like, David Lynch's Blue Velvet weird. You know, like the Lynchian intersection of real and surreal weird. Of banal and brain-scrambling.
Pretty I standard, I guess. Stupidity knows no bounders. But this was just the opening salvo as people let their freak flags fly.
I don't know. I really don't. But it's nutty moments like this that make me glad I'm drinking from Denny's never ending coffee cup of American life. That I'm getting grandslammed into the rudy-tuti-fresh-n-fruiti embrace of American weird. That I can simultaneously wikipedia Kazakhstan's GDP and listen to Tony Robbins on mp3. Just that strange bestriding both-sides-of-the-aisle like a Colossus aspect. Like seeing the above. A Jason mask with swim goggles. Kinda normal, but really, kinda not. This makes my heart swell like watching Gary Busey and Christopher Walken high-five. It's that good.
But maybe we're not really that weird. Maybe some people were out there to do something practical, like picking up a ten foot tall tree branch. To defeat Master Spliter-sized rats coming from the ocean swells. Yeah, something like that.
(Vassals tearing it up on the third night of their August residency at Pianos)
I’m self-consciously aware that I shouldn’t begin this essay about a band, not my own, with the first personal pronoun because it’s just in bad taste and an insult to quote un quote objective music writing, but I really don’t see any way to square this circle w/r/t my personal connection and history with the band, Vassals, so I’m just going to have to capitulate and go with it (the personal pronoun issue) since this is a blog and whose archetypical structure is predicated upon an uber-promotion of the subjective and also that this story has a beginning that kinda demands I start off with the word, “I.”
So, I tell friends and acquaintances that if you’re in the West Village, you’re likely to find me in two (once three) locations: the restaurant Tremont sitting at the bar reading a book, eating a burger and probably talking up whomever is next to me or Cafe Minerva just next door, where I’m tipping back black tea, reading different books than the ones at Tremont but mostly just engaging in a good ol’ bull session with my favorite guys in the place - Bill, Ian, Jeff (in absentia) and Shay Spence.
I got to know Shay through our mutual love/appreciation/fascination/knowledge of music and Shay knows its history down cold and we can usually trade back and forth factoids on the 1960s soul music Pandora usually promotes on the Minerva sound system around the 9-10pm hour. I would stand and talk to Shay so much in Minerva that people would look at me and motion to me for their checks. Not joking. I knew Shay spent some time at Berklee but it wasn’t until a matter of months ago that he let me in on his own musical pursuits with a band called Vassals (and this was AFTER I sent along my shitty demo his way first. Talk about modesty, man, his stuff is killer and he didn’t even force it on me right away).
Shay tuning up before the show
Anyway, I was sitting at table 12 (yes - I know the place that well) when Shay slipped the bands’ website to me and after giving a good listen under a pair of still-serviceable 10 year old Bose headphones, I came up from my auditory retreat with the very eloquent synopsis of “Holy Shit!”
We'll get to the tunes, but let's give a little history first. Vassals formed a little over a year ago in Brooklyn featuring Shay Spence on bass and vocals, Jeff Fettig on guitar and Jon Smith on drums. The backstory is pretty interesting, so rather than give it the short shrift I'll let Shay explain:
Jeff and I were roommates while he was finishing Berklee and I was dropping out. We didn't really play music together then, and he moved to New York while myself and the rest of our roommates moved to Los Angeles, September 2009. I move to New York a year later and met Jon, who had become a good buddy and engineering partner of Jeff's. In January '11, Jeff left New York for a month to travel; I sublet his room in Bushwick to demo some new songs (in addition to having a great protools setup, Jeff also has a penchant for impulse buying various instruments. My demos from that month feature Jeff's banjo, mandolin, xylophone, pump organ, multiple accordions, and a very out of tune fender rhodes). When he returned, I showed Jeff what I had been working on. He dug it, got Jon to come over, and we began arranging my chamber-pop little songs into three-peice bangers. I don't know why we became such a loud band, maybe we were a little weary of the singer/songwriter & ensemble aesthetic that was trending in the musical circles (i.e. Bon Iver) and maybe it was just so damn cold that winter, and so damn hot that following summer, and rent was so damn high, and we kind of rediscovered our teenaged angst together.
Vassals performing "A Curse" at Pianos on the Lower East Side in Manhattan
Early on in “A Curse,” one of the songs from Vassals’ EP released in 2011, Shay sings, “Every block’s newspaper box says Fall will be here soon,” a line, when you repeat it to yourself, reveals a striking cadence of near iambic hexameter with internal rhyme. Now, usually a line of iambic hexameter seeks its concluding couplet, though none can be found here.
For a piece of poetry this lack of conclusion would be problematic, but for a song like this it makes sense, a tipped hand to the notion that these songs often stand on a sonic and structural precipice, their short three minutes climbing in intensity and then plateauing, only to repeat the process again until you are led to a cliff and pushed over into a chorus that acts as a tension-releasing free fall, which finally lands you at the bottom of a Sisyphean trailhead where you repeat the journey again.
Musically, it is probably easy to peg Vassals’ songs as an update of the Pixies’ quiet/loud binary opposition (and when you listen live - they are LOUD), but so much more can be found here in terms of the songs’ restraint, craftsmanship and lyrical dexterity. From start to finish, Vassals’ songs often grow in intensity from buoyant initial verses to bruising choruses, though upon close listening underneath a structure of pop melody remains. Even in the caustic, feedback-drenched choruses there is that insulating force of hummable melodies, channelling the charged energy of the songs like those overhead power lines carrying electricity across the country.
The payoff, then, to the musical restraint of Shay’s songs is that the pop tendencies never become sentimental or cloying. Instead, they, the pop tendencies, are intertwined helix-like with the intensity of the music and a darker touch of lyrics. Note how in their latest single, “Informers,” the interations choruses throughout the song go from a sweetly sung “off to bed, dear,” to a harsher “come to me, dear” and finally, in the last moments of the song, “on my knees, dear,” is sung with painful fervor.
At the end of the third night of their Pianos August residency I turned around from the front row with my camera and saw the crowd behind me had basically quadrupled in size since the beginning of the set. While there are always a few stragglers to any given show I highly doubt 75% of the final crowd happened to be stuck waiting for a delayed F train before the first song commence. It doesn’t take too much cognitive horsepower, then, to figure out that a good portion of the crowd was drawn in from Pianos' larger, siphoned-off bar area during Vassals’ set through the sounds coming off from the stage, resulting in a large mass that resembles, interestingly, the final overwhelming seconds of a Vassals song.
You’ll hopefully have to make you own conclusion as you listen to the music, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you are drawn in, too.
On a sidenote, I've FINALLY joined Twitter so you can follow me @KudosKudlow where 30% of my output will be pop culture theories (DuckTales was Reagan-era propaganda is a favorite invention of mine - the lucky dime was so representative of anti-progressive tax policy) and 40% will be focused on finding links between high literature and not so high stuff (Shakespeare invented the bromance, the link between Chaucer and Dumb and Dumber (fart jokes, basically)), etc. And... I don't know what the other 30% will be yet.
Once young professional adults have enough discretionary coin to play around with, their instinctual desire to spend that money kicks in and, more often than not, deposits that money into a budgetary well they call “travel.” More than just a repository for monies left after rent and food, this category of travel becomes some sort of upperwardly-mobile badge of self identity. People “love to travel,” they “enjoy traveling” or taking it up a self-actualization notch, “work to live and live to travel.”
There are few things I object with in the above, namely the nomadic impulse that I really don’t understand, but also the common usage of the word travel. It’s a verb, definition-wise, employed to explain the process of getting from expensive city A to expensive city B, but people more commonly use it as a substitute definition for the destination experience rather than the journey itself.
Let me explain. How often have you heard people complaining about airports or the traffic experienced on your way “out east”? (1). What about the common suggestion to take a Klonopin and carafe of Cotes-du-Rhone in your upper-class seat to pass out and consequently, cut down on the conscious time you have in the air? If people REALLY loved to travel they’d be basking in bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-95 or pleading with the pilot to do a couple more circles around SFO before they go wheels down.
I recently wrapped up a multi-pronged vacation that included a few nights in Cold Spring, NY. More on this town I’ve come to love in a separate post.
Thinking about the trip in advance I decided to purposely concentrate on and document the journey itself, rather than the destination.
I can’t tell you - seriously, I can’t - how many times I’ve stood on the train platforms at my hometown station. The trip to high school started here; besuited I’ve made way way to New York as, what the pointy-headed economists call, a knowledge worker. But toting a camera forces you to reexamine your staid points-of-view as you search for inspiration. It’s hard to do this in a place where function, usually, trumps form, but I was struck by the absolute abundance of straight lines, so many that I lost count. Also, the kid peeking his head around the support pole is pretty precious.
No pictures of Penn Station as I was hoofing it, double-time, to make my connection in Grand Central. But I did take a few shots while in my cab over to 42nd street (had to make a stop in the West Village). I call cabs “urban chariots,” even though the people I’m with when I say the phrase give me a real great jaw-dropping gape that gives me a wicked case of the howling fantods. How amazing is it that usually within 15 seconds after raising your hand you’re in someone else’s car who has to take you WHEREVER you want to go and will usually violate several traffic laws to do so tute-de-suite while you watch TELEVISION in a seat with air-conditioning? Absolutely mind-blowing, the urban chariots are.
It’s a tough get a good shot when you’re going several miles above the city speed limit, but this one, taken in the flower district, interested me in its ability to capture the reflection of the moving cab in which I was currently sitting.
Judging by the abundance of iPhones and DSLRs pressed to people’s faces, it’s pretty clear Grand Central is a popular spot for photography. Most people (and hey - myself included) are fascinated by the constant movement of the terminal as well as its Beaux-Arts Main Concourse. That said, I wanted to find a person - not a thing - in stasis to be a counterweight to all the motion around me. I’m not sure why he was getting a portrait done, but the moment still fascinated me nonetheless.
Take Metro North just an hour north along the Hudson and you’re deposited in Cold Spring, NY - a pulchritudinous country hamlet that retains a warm country town feel with a healthy dose sophisticated restaurants and cultural opportunities nearby (I saw a REALLY good regional theater troupe put on Romeo & Juliet my last night there).
Like I said, it’s a small town.
The main drag is - wait for it - Main Street. Practically a 1:1 antique shop to regular business shop ratio. If this was in Maine, it’d probably be a setting for a Stephen King novel (in a good way!)
Before I even checked into the Pig Hill Inn, the only B&B in town worth visiting, I made two very important purchases: a few trail maps from Hudson Valley Outfitters and Red Velvet ice cream from The Scoop. Vacation priorities.
Lastly, my lovely accommodations for the week. Pig Hill Inn.
In a later post I’ll have some photos of mansion ruins I took in the woods/mountains surrounding the area and - more interestingly - photos of the mansions back in the 1920s, which I’m pretty sure is an online exclusive.
(1) The expression usually is employed when referring to Westhampton, Bridgehampton, Amagansett, etc. It’s a phrase that tries to shield the speaker from a self-conscious awareness of the perceived sense of ladder-climbing embedded in the speaker’s reference to those towns through a shield of false modesty by declining to name the towns, though this false modesty is only recognized by those who understand the phrase, which results in an ever-tightening circle within which those who know, know - completely subverting the perceived intentions of using the phrase “out east.” I fucking despise the phrase.
(2) I, myself, don’t fly much because I can’t comprehend the very concept of flight. If you think about it for a good hot second, the airplane was invented maybe a good decade after the invention of the modern bicycle. You know those massive big-wheel penny farthings? People were still riding those freakish things like fifteen years before we started flying. How the hell did this happen? A basic rule in my life is that if I can’t wrap my head around something, I don’t want to engage in it. Consequently my American Express membership rewards points go to Brooks Brothers gift certificates and not airplane trips.