If ever there was a town built for rock and roll, New York City is it. Besides the ability to walk in the footsteps of giants, from the Velvets to the Dolls and the Dictators, this is the city where Bob Dylan was born from Woody Guthrie's ashes and where a fat, pimply fan boy killed John Lennon. Far away from the lights of Broadway and the plastic T.G.I Friday's tourist trap on Times Square, the heart of rock and roll beats in places like Brooklyn, St. Mark's Place and, for the time being, at CBGB.
But when I flew into La Guardia Dec. 3, I came not to celebrate New York Rock, but to see a once-in-a-lifetime gig by fellow Hoosiers The Zero Boys at CBGB. Then I got to St. Mark's Place and found out about Dinosaur Jr. playing a gig down the street at the Irving Plaza.
The scene at the Irving was electric. The hippest of the hip from the hippest city in the world were on hand to pay homage to one of the forefathers of indie rock.
Working through the crowd and out in the smoking lounge I literally rubbed shoulders with B-list actors and people from bands like Kings of Leon and The Strokes. I even think I saw David Cross, but, considering half of Dinosaur Jr.'s fans now look like David Cross, I could be mistaken.
The gig, a taping for a future DVD release, felt slightly subdued, not quite as mind-meltingly loud and furious as the show I saw in Kentucky last summer, but still a classic slice of J, Murph and Lou blasting through early classics like "lung," "Kracked" and "Freak Scene."
Looking like a weird warlock with his long white hair swaying and his guitar laying waste to music and decency, J Mascis may well be the most under-looked guitar god on the planet. He gave the room full of tight-pants, spike-haired hipsters some serious schooling in the fine art of using the guitar as a mind control device.
Punk rock Mecca
A roller-coaster cab ride, and I'm at CBGB, the Punk Rock Mecca where Debbie Harry's panties hang from the ceiling and Joey Ramone's ghost still rules the weird, diagonal-looking stage. The place is small, stinky and filthy - the rock club that is what every other rock club on Earth wants to be.
When I walk in, the Fearless Vampire Killers are neck-deep into their set, featuring the lead singer of hardcore pioneers the Cro-Mags and a dude that did time with both the Cro-Mags and Bad Brains. The set was a hard-hitting bunch of Cro-Mags classics capped off by Adam Yauch, aka MCA from the Beastie Boys, jumping up for the last few songs. But nothing, and I mean nothing, was to top what came next.
Vess, Paul, Tufty and Cutsinger came out doing a song that appeared on a hard-to-get '80s punk compilation called I'm Bored. The song was a treat, a rare performance and worth the trip to the Big Apple in itself. The crowd was appreciative, and stuck around. I was a little surprised; I figured after the local heroes and the Beastie Boy left, a lot of the crowd was gonna leave. But I was wrong - Jesus Hershel Christ was I wrong.
A split second after the opening song was done, Vess rang out the opening riff from "Vicious Circle" and the crowd packed into CBGB turned into a frothy, sweaty, stage-diving mass that knew every word and deliriously relished every note. As our Hoosier punk-rock heroes tore through the "Vicious Circle" song cycle, the crowd grew more and more intense, all wearing the faces of people who knew they were witnessing one of the greatest rock performances they'd ever seen.
The Zero Boys, for their part, put on probably the tightest, loudest, most unhinged performance I've ever seen them do. Vess was spot-on, ripping out fast and furious riffs that shot into the crowd like pepper spray; Tufty and Mark were as tight as they've ever been; and Mahern ... my God. Paul Mahern.
He is the master of crowd control, a frontman possessed by the music, a man that looks as pissed off as he is delirious, an individual who, for all intents and purposes, is coming apart on stage and he wants you there with him. He stage dives and nearly takes out the first few rows. He slumps to the floor of the stage and a dozen hands poke, prod and push him. He grabs a girl by the hair and makes her sing a verse.
In this show, Mahern was the consummate rock star. As the hits kept coming, "High Time," "Amphetamine Addiction," "Living in the '80s" the crowd grew more and more agitated, wide-eyed and unglued. Mahern reigned over them, the king of the freaks.
When all was said and done and I was leaving CBGB for perhaps the last time, I saw the crowd pouring out into the big, cold city night, looking not like they'd seen a good bit of nostalgia, but rather, looking like they had seen the future of rock and roll. The Zero Boys came to New York and made it their bitch, playing perhaps the best gig of their lives and watching a room full of kids in a great rock bar singing every word of every song - songs that mean as much to them now as they did to us in the old days.
If this doesn't spur Mahern and the boys back out of retirement, nothing is gonna. Regardless, on this one night, The Zero Boys mattered: They were the future of rock and roll.