The City That Never Sleeps is on high alert. In preparation for what’s being billed as ‘The Blizzard of the Century’, New York’s entire subway network has been shut down and Governor Andrew Cuomo has declared a state of emergency, warning drivers in Manhattan that they face arrest and sizeable fines if they venture out onto the streets.
Jesse Malin smells a rat. Looking out upon his hometown from his East Village apartment, the singer-songwriter is convinced that this enforced lockdown is a smokescreen, a training drill designed to test New Yorkers’ capacity for compliance should a genuine emergency strike the city.
“I’ve seen storms ten times worse than this,” he insists. “This is just a ploy, an excuse to run some tests and to see if we’ll all fall in line when the authorities need us too. I’m calling bullshit.”
As Malin sees it, this current paralysis of his city is just another example of the creeping erosion of New Yorkers’ civil liberties post-9⁄11. It’s a subject he touches upon repeatedly on his new album, New York Before The War, a love letter to the Five Boroughs and its citizens, a snapshot of troubled time and a beleaguered community fighting to hold on to its art, culture and freedoms. Malin’s seventh full-length solo release, the album is also an encapsulation of his own storied career, referencing his musical journey from the nascent New York hardcore scene through to his emergence as a solo artist and lynchpin of the US singer-songwriter circuit. It’s been quite a ride, and the voluble 47-year-old readily admits to feeling “blessed” for the opportunities he’s been given.
“I always admired people who could be what they are but also reinvent themselves to some level, and I feel very grateful for the different re-births that I’ve been able to have,” he says. “A lot of my music is about surviving, going with what your heart feels, and holding on to what you believe in, and I feel I’ve always been true to myself. But man, who’d have imagined how things worked out?”
THE PUNK ROCK YEARS
Jesse Malin was 11 years old when he started his first band. First turned on to rock music, like so many other American musicians of his generation, by Kiss, the youngster discovered The Clash, the Ramones and the Sex Pistols – “a band who made me want to smash my room up and go crazy” – at the tail end of the 1970s, and immediately “stopped trying to be Eddie Van Halen and started writing three chord punk.” Recruiting a couple of neighbourhood friends, he formed Heart Attack, and duly turned up at CBGBs to audition for a slot at the city’s punk rock mecca. The reception he received still rankles.
“They basically said ‘Hey, you’re too late, all that shit happened already, you missed it. Why don’t you try something new, like new wave or electronic music?’” he recalls. “We were like ‘Fuck this!’ I walked away pretty disgusted.”
Some weeks later, walking around the Lower East Side’s ‘Alphabet City’ – then arguably New York’s most run-down, crime-ridden and dangerous district – Malin spotted fliers for $1 shows at venues he never knew existed, hole-in-the-wall clubs such as 7A and 171A, featuring unknown bands such as Bad Brains and The Stimulators. Intrigued, he ventured into the clubs, and a whole new world opened up to him.
“Suddenly, it seemed like a bunch of other kids from Queens and Brooklyn and Long Island and New Jersey were also finding their way downtown and throwing their own gigs,” he recalls. “You’d put your name down on a list and that same night, at maybe 3 or 4am, you’d play to a packed room of teenagers going absolutely crazy. It was chaotic and wild and impossibly exciting.”
“There was a definite edge to our world. There were gangs, there were people looking for drugs, the bars were illegal, the buildings were burnt out, the city was broke …and that’s what made it really appealing! We got asked to go on Saturday Night Live to slamdance to Fear with John Belushi, we got to see Black Flag rehearse at 171A, we had Bad Brains lend us equipment, it was such a fun time.”
In 1981, Heart Attack put out what became the first New York hardcore seven inch, God Is Dead: only 300 copies of the single were pressed up, and Malin refused to re-press it when it sold out in just two weeks. The trio toured with GBH and the Dead Kennedys, and became part of a burgeoning US hardcore community that stretched from Long Island to LA. Soon enough though, as the scene mushroomed, its key players become disillusioned with the bitching, back-stabbing, violence and increasingly codified behaviour: “it had become,” Malin says, “everything that it was once against.”
It was time to move on.
THE WILDERNESS YEARS
Heart Attack played their final show on July 4, 1984 at CBGBs, a gig also notable for featuring the first appearance of the Cro-Mags, a band who would become synonymous with a new macho, street-wise wave of NYHC: “kinda a passing of the torch,” says Malin. The teenager’s mother passed away, and with his father long absent from the family home, Malin was forced to return to Queens to look after his younger sister. Dropping out of high school – an independent arts school named Quintano’s, formerly attended by Steven Tyler, three New York Dolls and the comedian Steve Martin and later infamous for being the site of an underage male prostitution ring – he set up business as ‘a man with a van’ – moving furniture, working for bands, whatever paid the bills.
“I had posters on the walls everywhere that said ‘Give me a call, I’ll do anything you need, 24 hours’,” he recalls. “I’d be working with broken-up marriages, people getting evicted, to eventually driving for everyone from Barbara Streisand to The Swans and moving T-shirts for the Ramones. I started to learn a lot.”
New York was changing too. Having steered the city through some of its darkest days, brash Mayor Ed Koch was on a mission to clean up the streets and attract investment. The porn theatres of Manhattan’s seedy Midtown area were shut down, corporations moved in, and the gentrification of the Lower East Side began in earnest. In the summer of 1988, the NYPD instigated a brutal ‘cleansing’ of Tompkins Square Park, arresting homeless squatters, drug addicts and its resident punks, a confrontation which led to riots and the memorable sight, for Malin, of “tanks rolling down Avenue B.”
“They were really preparing to set the scene for condos and higher rents and forcing the artists out to Brookyln and Williamsburg… all those places we were trying to get the fuck out of!” he reflects.
Soundtracking this turbulent period, Malin’s new band, Hope, were heavily influenced by The Replacements, Creedence Clearwater Revival and “the darker side of Bruce Springsteen”, sowing the seeds in territory he’d later explore as a solo artist. The music industry was looking elsewhere for its Next Big Thing, however.
“We made a bunch of demos and played gigs on the East Coast but we never made a record,” says Malin, unencumbered by regret. “It was a transitional time. Those were my ‘Lemmy with Hendrix’s Marshall amp’ years.”
THE MAJOR LABEL YEARS
From the ashes of Hope, in 1991, Malin formed a tougher, edgier new band, glam-punks D Generation. “We were trying to move into the future but also pay respect to the past, things like the Dead Boys, The Dolls, The Clash and The Stones,” he recalls. “Grunge was breaking, and everyone was dressing like farmers, when we wanted to dress like rock stars.” The band signed to Chrysalis, toured with Kiss, Green Day, the Ramones and Social Distortion, and were tipped for a major breakthrough within the industry. Music critics, however, were confused by the quintet’s glammy image and thought that D Generation were on a one band mission to resuscitate hair metal: “The articles would be about the hair, the creepers, the eyeliner…rarely about the music,” Malin recalls.
“We were going against the wind a little bit,” he concedes. “When we went on tour a lot of people didn’t understand the band. I guess maybe The Manic Street Preachers were doing something similar, and those who got it, really got it. We weren’t singing about cars and penises and chicks in LA, we were singing about things that mattered. We were a real gang, five people who grew up together, so it was really meaningful to us.”
“We were on the radio and in films and we had a couple of hot moments, but it was definitely a cult thing. But it was a great ride: we moved back into the city on our corporate dime, threw a lot of parties and made a lot of good friends. I’m real proud of what I got to do back then with my best friends in the world.”
THE SINGER-SONGWRITER YEARS
In the wake of D Generation’s dissolution, Malin formed a new band, the more downbeat, sober and introspective Bellvue: “I was getting tired of people not hearing the lyrics and just wanting a mosh pit,” he recalls. For inspiration he looked to bands such as alt-country newcomers Wilco and Whiskeytown, whose frontman Ryan Adams he counted as a friend since the pair bonded over punk rock and heavy metal at a 1996 DJ-ing gig in Raleigh, North Carolina. Adams liked Malin’s new songs, but was less enamoured of his band, and having recently struck out on his own as a solo artist, he encouraged his friend to do the same.
“You pay for rehearsals, you write all the songs, but you’re just afraid to be Jesse Malin…why don’t you just call it that?” Malin recalls Adams telling him.
“I thought that if I went solo I’d have to sit on a stool and grow a moustache and I thought I was too rock and roll for it,” he laughs. “But in truth I was just too scared to be exposed.”
In autumn 2001, with his hometown slowly picking itself up from the horrors of the 9⁄11 terrorist attacks, Malin finally plucked up the courage to stand solo in the spotlight, opening up for Ryan Adams at New York’s Irving Plaza.
“It was a heavy time but Ryan was very supportive, because I was scared to shit…not least when he told me Elton John was in the audience,” he laughs. “But I got through it, and soon after that we made my first album, The Fine Art of Self Destruction record, in five days.”
“I was living on a block in NYC that the Hells Angel are on, and I was paying next to pennies for an apartment, and some slum lord yuppie guy offered me several thousand dollars to leave, so I took that money, paid off some debts so that I could walk on blocks that were less protected by motorcycle gangs, and used the rest of the money to make that album. Ryan had never produced anything, but he did a fabulous job, he was a real smart little genius. We did it on an old analogue board, straight to tape, and he wouldn’t let me re-sing anything, so it was just a snapshot of songs that I’d been playing around the city for the past two years, trying to figure out this new voice. And when the record came out it actually seemed like music writers were getting what I was trying to do and say, as opposed to thinking that I wanted to join Poison and hang out with Vince Neil at the Rainbow! It was a whole fresh start, and several albums later I began to think I might finally have an actual career…”
THE ELDER STATESMAN YEARS
By the time of his third solo album, 2007’s Glitter In The Gutter, Jesse Malin was very much a ‘face’ on the US singer-songwriter scene. Released on his friend (and Green Day frontman) Billie Joe Armstrong’s Adeline Records, the album featured cameos from Ryan Adams, Jakub Dylan, QOTSA frontman Josh Homme, Foo Fighters’ guitarist Chris Shiflett and long-time hero Bruce Springsteen, who duetted with Malin on Broken Radio, written in tribute to Malin’s mother. Then living in Los Angeles, the singer returned to his hometown, and began investing in property – first a bar called Niagra, then a restaurant named Black Market and a live music venue, the Bowery Electric, in the city’s rejuvenated East Village, his old stomping ground. With old friends stopping by, and a new generation of music fans discovering his catalogue, the singer entered his fourth decade in good shape and in good spirits.
“I guess when you’re a little kid you want to go around the world and play your music and have people listen and not have someone tell you to go back to your room and turn it off and shut up,” he reflects. “And I felt like I’d finally got to that place.”
In 2011, Malin reached back into his past to reform D Generation for a series of reunion shows, including two nights supporting Guns N’ Roses. “And suddenly we were bigger than we ever were back in the day!” he laughs. A new single from the band is coming on Record Store Day in April, with an album to follow. Before that though, the release of New York Before The War will prompt the Big Apple troubadour to take his gritty tales of love and loss, dreams and regrets on the road once more, as a new chapter in his life less ordinary begins.
“An old school handshake and respect story in a bar is cool, it gets you a shot of tequila and a slap on the back, but as much as I respect my history, I’m also excited about right now,” he maintains. “I’m inspired by new bands and new people and I’m hoping to maybe inspire some new faces myself. This is my hometown and I feel I can still turn a trick here, but there’s a big old world waiting outside this door and I want to get out into it again as soon as possible.”