The Black and White Cookie at the End of the World

Last weekend, after 116 years of serving Yorkville’s sweet-toothed populace, Glaser’s Bake Shop permanently closed its doors. Beloved in particular for its lavishly frosted black and whites — perhaps the most iconic example of New York City’s most iconic cookie — the bakery was most recently owned and operated by brothers Herb and John Glaser, the third generation to run the family business. And on Sunday, July 1, it served its final cookie.

I’d never been before, despite my twin interests in mom-and-pops (or, as the case may be, sibling-and-siblings) and all things sugar. I woke up early on Saturday morning, Glaser’s second-to-last day in existence, and took the train to the Upper East Side. I expected there might be a line, and if so, I was prepared to wait up to, I don’t know, half an hour? I had no idea what was in store for me. The bakery opened at 7 a.m.; I arrived around 8:15. By then, the line stretched out the door, around the corner, and halfway down 87th Street toward York Avenue. Well, fuck. It was the kind of line that you stop and ask about, which plenty of passersby did — the kind of line that, in my experience, is usually associated with a sneaker release, or admission to a show headlined by a band I am too boring, or old, or both, to have heard of.

Customers crowd Glaser’s Bake Shop

At that point, I didn’t have any intention of staying, but I did want to see for myself just how far back the line went. Maybe, I thought, I’d stay for a few minutes. Then someone from the bakery brought out a tray of blondies with chocolate chips as a thank-you to everyone in line, and after the first bite I knew I wasn’t going anywhere. Even so, conditions were less than ideal. I’d forgotten to charge my phone the night before, and it was down to 25 percent battery. I hadn’t eaten breakfast. I’d already drunk half the water in the bottle I carry around with me.

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My plan to kill time — to scowl, silently, into the middle distance — quickly backfired, when it became apparent that the (many) people standing beside me were both very friendly and very interesting. There was a kind of camaraderie to our randomness that made me think of a jury assembly room, with one important exception: Rather than having a citizenship and bad luck in common, almost everyone I spoke to shared a deep and abiding love for Glaser’s Bake Shop. An artist with a faint Texas lilt and a maroon hat covered in flowers explained that she and her family were longtime customers, “four birthday cakes a year.” Her husband, an editor for a visual merchandising publication, is writing a book about mannequins. He told me a story about Salvador Dalí designing a characteristically bizarre window display for a Manhattan department store: When the staff censored his installation, the artist stormed inside and — trying to reclaim the bathtub that served as its centerpiece — shattered the plate glass. A Ping-Pong instructor who lives in the Theater District wheeled his bike along with the line, occasionally stepping aside to stretch his calves by hanging his heels over the curb. He reminisced about a long-ago shuttered bakery in Istanbul; the recipes for the chocolates he’d loved were lost forever.

Glaser’s Black & Whites are — were— arguably the most iconic version of New York’s most iconic cookie

A hockey fan in a Rangers shirt made a spontaneous sales pitch for his season tickets — he’d just had a baby — to anyone wearing any kind of sports merchandise, including a Yankees cap. The Rangers fan started coming to Glaser’s when he dated a woman who lived a few blocks away. They broke up, but his romance with the bakery was only just beginning. As early morning became morning became late morning, a woman who grew up twenty minutes away from me in New Jersey pushed back brunch with her friends, again, and again. (She took the Rangers ticket holder’s number. She’s thinking about taking her nephew to a game around the holidays.) I sheepishly rescheduled a ten o’clock appointment of my own. It was abundantly clear that we weren’t getting inside anytime soon. And when we did, what, if anything, would be waiting for us?

As the early birds who’d already made their purchases passed by with their arms full of stacked white pastry boxes, those of us in line interrogated them about what remained in the display cases: “Excuse me, did you see any pies? Are there donuts? What about the cookies?” The same bakery employee who’d distributed the blondies warned us that the dwindling supply of black and white cookies would be depleted before we could get to them. (An unsubstantiated but quick to disseminate rumor held that they’d run out of white, but not black, icing.) This was a devastating blow to our collective morale.

Old pictures in Glaser’s Bake Shop recall the founding of the family business in 1902 by John and Justine Glaser.

After two hours of waiting, in which I’d advanced about 200 feet, I asked my new friends to hold my place in line and took a short walk. I thought seriously about bailing, then changed my mind. Call it nostalgia or, maybe, the sunk cost fallacy, but if there was even a black and white crumb left when I crossed the threshold, I wanted to have it. I put my phone on airplane mode. I bought a copy of the New York Times at the smoke shop on the corner and a bottle of water from the 7-Eleven across the street (they did not, I am sorry to report, let me use their bathroom). I was all in.

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By afternoon, it was hot, cracking 90 degrees. The line thinned and contorted to maximize the relief provided by awnings and shady trees, and occasionally parted like the Red Sea to let through residents of the buildings on the north side of 86th — some dressed for the beach, others walking their dogs — apparently unfazed by the bakery crowds after weeks of this pre-closing fervor. When the sun grew stronger, I shared the travel-size sunscreen I keep in my purse. The Ping-Pong instructor generously held his umbrella so it would shield me, too, and told me about his passion for studying the Anatolian monarchs of history. He also likes Mario Tennis. Farther ahead of us, a doctor still in her scrubs, a hospital lanyard around her neck, looked like she might take a nap on a nearby stoop. Behind us, a little boy bounced on his father’s shoulders.

Even though we’d still have another forty-five minutes to wait, the atmosphere was giddy once we turned the corner onto First Avenue, in front of a hardware store advertising a discount for Glaser’s customers, and in sight of both the bakery’s retro mint-green facade and the massage parlor next door. Herb Glaser’s brownie recipe was posted in the window; hopeful customers craned forward to snap photos on their phones. “This is a Seinfeld episode,” the editor said, and he was not wrong. The Ping-Pong instructor pledged to return the next morning, early enough to get in line before the bakery opened, if there were indeed no more black and whites. At least two radio reporters circulated through the crowd. “Why?” 1010 WINS’ Carol D’Auria asked a man who said he’d driven in from Jersey that morning. “Why not?” he replied.

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Four hours after I got on line, I walked inside Glaser’s Bake Shop, where the atmosphere of air-conditioned reverence wasn’t quite so reverent as to prevent customers from being scolded for holding the door open to the heat. I’d say the bakery felt frozen in time, which in many ways it did — the name John Glaser, its German immigrant founder, was beautifully inlaid in the white-and-blue-tile floor — but that would be discounting the delightful fact that one of the women masterfully wrapping and tying pastry boxes with striped string, suspended from a spool above her, was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with Jareth the Goblin King from LabyrinthAnother staff member’s face lit up as soon as she saw the artist in the flower hat. She came around the counter to embrace her. Miraculously, there were still plenty of black and whites available, now being sold in preassembled boxes of four — one box being both the minimum and the maximum purchase.

Herbert Glaser standing in the backroom of Glaser’s Bake Shop”

The artist warmly grasped my hand on her way out with her own well-earned carb haul. The Ping-Pong instructor and I hugged goodbye. I left carrying three boxes (four black and whites, two lemon meringue tarts, two cheddar scones, and two brownies) and gave as much information as I could on the inventory inside to the people still in line.

The food was delicious; that goes without saying. But that’s not really why I waited for so long, I realized later, lying on my couch, too exhausted to wipe some of the last chocolate frosting Glaser’s would ever produce from my face. I felt like I’d been to the happiest, most celebratory kind of funeral: Patronizing an institution like Glaser’s is an increasingly rare privilege, and I’m lucky that I had the chance to pay my respects.


What Is the Most Nostalgic Song of All Time?

My father died three years ago. He was a good man, a good father. He rocked a Jim Croce mustache and a white man ’fro. He rode a motorcycle and worked as a mechanic; he taught us about engines and cars and horse racing (and forgiveness and love of family and a good joke). I grieved him as children do. But ever since he died, this odd thing has been happening in which a song will come on that reminds me of him — perhaps it’s even a song I don’t ever remember hearing — and I’m suddenly overwhelmed by such an intense wave of nostalgia, I literally have to stand still and catch myself. Like I can’t breathe.

It started with “Celtic New Year” by Van Morrison. I don’t even remember my father playing that song. But it was his music, you know? I was standing in the kitchen when I heard those acoustic guitar chords and that raspy voice and suddenly I saw my dad in his red leather café motorcycle jacket, eating a popsicle on a bench at Knott’s Berry Farm while I ate a snow cone next to him. I could feel the sun on my cheek, the taste of the blueberry ice, the sound of his easy laugh as crow’s feet gathered around his weathered face.

Like I said, I had to steady myself. I sat on the cold tile floor and listened to it again and again and again. It hit me all at once: They’re all gone. It wasn’t just the moment at Knott’s or that smile of his. It was like I could suddenly feel the presence of all the people I’ve lost — my grandmother putting cream cheese on a bagel as she told an off-color joke. My grandfather looking up from his stack of articles from The Progressive with glasses on his nose. My uncles howling with laughter as they tell their stories about Mexico.

The author and his father on a beach
The author and his father (with that Jim Croce mustache)

This feeling never happened to me when I was younger. I suspect it was because I’d never really lost anything so big.

It was as if a lost continent — like Atlantis — had suddenly revealed itself, and I could see such monuments that were built to ideas were now buried under a thousand feet of water. They lived, they laughed, they pursued life, and they’re all gone now.

I don’t know what it is about songs that can make you feel the weight of people or their loss or the fact of your own. But they do.

The next time it happened was “The Highwayman” by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. It was another song I don’t remember ever hearing until it came on one day and there were these great old voices singing about building dams and haunting spaceships. Again, I had to stop what I was doing and play the song twenty times. I just had to sit in it, to think about these lives, to understand their monuments. My father with his brown Porsche 924 that he restored. His cowboy boots. My maternal grandfather with his thin mustache, reading the paper in a chair while we played on the rug.

Who were the dam-builders Waylon Jennings is singing about? Where did they all go? What about the women at the shore, the children waving as the boats fell into the water?

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After the twentieth listen I could finally put the feeling down. But not until then. Not until I’d walked around that room in my head, flashed some light in every darkened corner to see the memories that lay about like sunken treasure.

I had this vision of an entire generation staring down at their phones. Millions and millions in separate rooms talking through wires on social media, like inmates knocking on a prison wall, trying to communicate from their individual cells. As one of them, I posted it to my Twitter account, curious if any other people locked in their cells felt this way about nostalgic songs.

It was like banging out Morse code on a wall: knock, rappity, knock knock.

A simple question, posed at eight o’clock on a Saturday night: What is the most nostalgic song of all time? I suggested “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac. (Not the studio version, mind you. But the live version recorded at Warner Bros. Studios in 1997 where Stevie Nicks introduces the song by saying, “This one’s for you, daddy.”) I let the communiqué reverberate through the prison walls and waited.

I got more than 5,000 comments back.

It started with the Beatles (“Let It Be” and “Yesterday”), then moved into James Taylor and even Journey. There was an entire discussion about “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman, a sidebar about Jackson Browne (“The Pretender” might just be the correct answer to the original question). Jim Croce himself made an appearance with “Time in a Bottle.” (This prompted a tributary conversation about dads who looked like Jim Croce.)

Many answers were tied to a specific person, or event: “I’m gonna go with ‘Midnight Train to Georgia,’ mostly because of my mom who passed away four and a half years ago who instilled in me my love of Motown and also because her name was Gladys.”

“ ‘Same Old Lang Syne,’ Dan Fogelberg. They play it every year at Christmas and it punches me in the gut every time I hear it.”

Next we got on to the Pogues, “Fairytale of New York,” that great call-and-response duet with Kirsty MacColl:

I could’ve been someone. Well, so could anyone.
You took my dreams from me, when I first found you.

I kept ’em with me, babe. I put them with my own.
Can’t make it all alone. I built my dreams around you.

By the time we got onto “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” by Roberta Flack, it was a raging discussion — people posting lyrics and memories and suggestions for new songs, new genres. (What about modern classics like “California Stars” by Billy Bragg and Wilco, or “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem? What about hip-hop?) Most Eagles songs were shouted down (thankfully) though the political undertones of “The End of the Innocence” by Don Henley were treated with a respectful reverence. Someone even made a Spotify playlist inspired by the thread. So many people talked about the relief they felt to simply sit like teenagers in a room, listening to music and talking about what the songs meant to them — the connection, to the past, to the lost Atlantises, the buried treasures in our minds, to each other.

And it was around this time it occurred to me we’ve all lost something: that there is a dread infecting the country, maybe the whole world, a sense that the future might not be as good as the past. And this fight, this dread, this nagging fear about the future has become such a familiar burden, we don’t even think about it. Except when we dive down into memory where it does not exist, and momentarily the weight is lifted. Where we commune with our lost cities and ghosts and sense their presence. Not just the people. But the laughter, the clothes, the hairstyles, the ideas, the sound of their voices filling the room.

I became a father a year and a half ago. We started our son’s musical education with lullabies and children’s tunes. We’ve begun playing modern music for him. His current favorite song is “Burning Down the House” by Talking Heads. (I mark this as a personal victory.) He bobs his big noggin and slaps his hands on the comforter of the bed while we dance with him. These are the moments when I feel OK about the future again. When I remember that there are new cities to build, a new lifetime of memories still to come, and the music, for whatever mysterious reason, will always be a pathway back to this moment — for me, maybe for him — laughing and safe and hopeful and free.

It’s all there in the songs.


An Elegy for the Sublimely Crappy Chambers Street Subway Station

Voice transit reporter Aaron Gordon will be appearing Thursday night at 6 p.m. at an AIA New York panel on infrastructure and waste, a topic on which he knows a little something. To mark the occasion, we’re running an essay that is adapted from Gordon’s free weekly transit newsletter Signal Problems, which you can sign up for here.

“Too often, life in New York is merely a squalid succession of days; whereas in fact it can be a great, living adventure.” —Fiorello La Guardia

Shortly after I moved to New York, I took my camera out to do some shooting. This photo is the only one I kept from that day. It’s not a particularly good photo — I didn’t get the lighting or framing quite right — but I’m nevertheless fond of it. Every once in a while, when I’m feeling particularly down, I pull it up and look at it for a few seconds. It makes me smile, because it looks like how New York makes me feel.

On the one hand, there’s so much beauty and potential here. Look at that ornate, delicate mosaic or the clear, colorful Brooklyn Bridge design that’s still splendid from across the platform. The lettering on “CHAMBERS ST.” gleams even under the shabby lighting as if creating its own luminescence. Somebody once cared about this station, about this place, as something more than just a stop on a journey.

On the other hand, there was the office chair — which, it’s worth noting, was on an unused subway station platform for some reason; coincidentally, it’s the same model I had in my house as a kid. Its broken wheels and torn fabric collected layers of dust thick enough to bury Pizza Rat. The white tile above it, once clean and glistening, now looked like the teeth of a chain-smoking coffee drinker dipping into his late fifties. The yellow tiles around the border may or may not have always been yellow, it’s hard to tell; but in any case they were now a sickly dehydrated urine color.

I return to this photo, I think, because it is the subway. Someone once cared about it enough to make it not just functional but beautiful, the kind of art you could stare at like a museum spectator. But somewhere along the line, we stopped bothering. The mosaics went uncleaned — notice the discoloration, most notably the “E” in “CHAMBERS” — the tile fell into a state of disrepair, and someone left an office chair. I have no idea how long it was there before I took this photo, but judging by the dust it was not a short amount of time. For months, if not years, nobody could be bothered.

It’s no coincidence that, when the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on the subway’s disrepair, the photographer went to Chambers Street to document the station’s dilapidation. When the MTA announced some other station was getting the Enhanced Station Initiative treatment, the constant refrain from transit advocates and MTA board members alike has been “What about Chambers Street?” In a system overrun with tubby rats, crumbling tiles, elaborate water damage, and grime thick enough to grow its own grime, Chambers Street was the undisputed poster station of the system’s decay. It is crumbling.

Yet, in the very deep recesses of my conscience, I secretly hoped they wouldn’t fix Chambers Street.

I don’t mean this in an “I actually like things to be incredibly shitty, thank you very much” kind of way. I know the line between nostalgic and cranky is thin and typically in the eyes of the beholder, but I’m not nostalgic about Bad Chambers Street. I want them to fix it eventually, just maybe not until they fix the rest of the subway, too. I don’t want it to become a dishonest visual metaphor, in which the MTA claims, We cleaned up Chambers Street so everything’s cool now. In fact, I fear this will be the exact outcome when they do clean up Chambers Street later this year.

I guess I really buried the lede here: They’re cleaning up Chambers Street. I’m sure it will look nice and I’ll appreciate the mosaic work that much more along with all the other benefits that come with not being damp mold–adjacent. It will be better.

And here, I’m so sorry, I’m going to be insufferable for a second and channel my inner Jeremiah Moss: I have a vaguely irrational sentimentality for this monument to decrepitude. The city is increasingly becoming viscerally dull. Identical glass towers in Manhattan rent storefronts to the same several hundred chain stores. Yuppie boxes in the outer boroughs have architectural renderings that rarely consist of anything more than a 3-D rectangle with sad balconies. Most coffee shops feel like the physical embodiment of five white guys sitting around a table talking about Brands. Bars can either be described as bro-y or rich hipster (I assume there are tiers above this I really cannot afford), and that’s the long and short of it.

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The point isn’t to lament what the city is becoming — which a lot of people like, and has its virtues — but merely to notice it. And so I appreciate Chambers Street’s existence in this way, even if I don’t have strictly positive feelings toward it, because I like when a city reflects its people. Some people are not shiny icons to a new era of prosperity. Some people, like Chambers Street, are barely holding it together.


Rakim, Marley Marl, Roxanne Shanté, and Other Rap Pioneers Celebrate Forty Years of Hip-Hop

Four decades ago, when the Bronx was famously burning, one nightclub brought together the boogie-down borough’s dancing queens, hustlers, graffiti kids, turntable ninjas, and fledgling MCs under one roof. “It was just Sal’s place up in the Bronx where it all went down, where everybody in the whole rap industry used to go hang out,” Marley Marl says. “Whenever Sal has a celebration, I’m always down to keep the Fever spirit alive.”

The club was Disco Fever, and “Sal” is Bronx-bred entrepreneur Sal Abbatiello, whose forty-year love affair with black and Latino club culture has made him a pivotal figure within the overlapping scenes of r&b, hip-hop, Latin freestyle, and salsa. This Saturday, with legendary producer Marley Marl and scratch-master Grand Wizard Theodore on turntables, a who’s-who of hip-hop pioneers, including Rakim, the Sugarhill Gang, Roxanne Shanté, Melle Mel, and Rob Base, will gather at Lehman Center for the Performing Arts to celebrate hip-hop’s ground zero.

Growing up during the Fifties and Sixties in an increasingly nonwhite section of the South Bronx, Abbatiello decided that creating multicultural havens for music and laughter was better than falling prey to the dubious career paths offered by local wiseguys. So, one day in 1977, he persuaded his nightclub-owning father to let him transform their brand new r&b bar on Jerome Avenue into a space where — one night a week — emerging hip-hop DJs and rappers would perform. The overwhelming neighborhood turnout for those first weekly parties quickly transformed his father’s r&b bar into a hip-hop palace, strategically showcasing the most competitive street DJs and emcees seven nights a week.

It’s a world Netflix subscribers may recognize from Baz Luhrmann’s early-hip-hop fantasia, The Get Down. Abbatiello certainly did: Two years ago, when he brought his first Hip-Hop Fever reunion concert to the Lehman Center, The Get Down was not yet turning rap history into a colorful fairy tale, but Luhrmann showed up at the concert looking for inspiration. “He saw me, met Kurtis Blow, met all the rappers, got phone numbers, and I never heard from him again,” Abbatiello recalls, with barely contained frustration. “Now, if you stream the show, you’ll see how he ripped off and changed the image of the Fever to put this imaginary club up there called Les Inferno.” On the show, Les Inferno is run as an organized-crime front, a far cry from the way regulars remember the Fever.

“To me, the Fever was a safe haven for hip-hop,” says Marley Marl. “It was a dope place to go just to see the culture evolving, and to see all the players that were involved in the culture.”

One of the reasons almost every rap star who matters — even those loyal to rival crews, boroughs, and labels — remain supportive of Sal is because Disco Fever never exploited its clientele, routinely gave back to the surrounding community, and was determined to remain neutral ground amid irrational city turmoil. The entrance sported both an airport-grade metal detector and a locked weapons-check area. Departing patrons deemed too drunk or unfamiliar with the neighborhood for their own safety were escorted to cabs or the subway. Nonaggression pacts were negotiated with local gangs and drug lords, as well as with local police.

“My best personal memory of Disco Fever,” recalls battle-rapper and veteran Juice Crew member Shanté, “is being in there at the age of fourteen, in the back room, doing my homework at about three o’clock in the morning because I had to go to school the next day.” Usually escorted by other members of the crew, Shanté — whose life story is set to hit big screens this fall with the Pharrell-produced biopic Roxanne, Roxanne — stresses that Sal never let anyone take advantage of her or any woman in his club. “Sal was that real man of honor among ordinary men,” she says. “And that’s why I love and respect him so much to this day.”

As Marley and Shanté attest, nightly networking at Disco Fever consolidated a dynamic community of hip-hop managers, artists, producers, label owners, radio jocks, and mobile DJs. It was a unique environment with the innate potential to elevate everyone’s game. But this was the Bronx in the Seventies and Eighties, and Disco Fever saw its share of tragedy. Surviving devastating epidemics of drugs like cocaine, angel dust, and crack was no easier for the Fever family than for the patrons of any other New York nightclub. Over the course of a decade, substance abuse, gang activity, disease, and sheer urban misadventure killed several Fever habitués and employees, both on and off the premises. Abbatiello took every loss personally, and continues to raise money for cancer victims, foster kids, and college scholarships in memory of his fallen comrades.

When assessing the historical importance of Disco Fever, Rakim, one half of Eric B. and Rakim, the rap duo famous for landmark singles like “Paid in Full” and “I Know You Got Soul,” speaks of the taste-making gestalt of the club. “If you could make Fever your home, or get some shine for a track there, it was a turning point for an artist,” he says. “Fever was this unique universe where all of the aspects of a culture that was just starting to figure itself out had an open door. It defined New York for me at the time. But looking back, I now see how it helped all these different people come together to also start to define hip-hop.”

Thus Disco Fever’s fortieth anniversary concert will present soul survivors like the Sugarhill Gang, former Furious Five frontman Melle Mel, and the “God MC” Rakim, as living repositories of iconic star power, while also commemorating the contributions of lesser-known lights of hip-hop, less prolific innovators whom Abbatiello believes deserve tribute.

“The significance of these concerts for me is to at least give credit to all the pioneers who paved the way for others but didn’t really get financial gratitude out of it,” says Abbatiello, who could just as well be speaking about himself. “These guys are the ones who broke the ground for hip-hop to be as popular as it is around the world.”

Lehman Center for the Performing Arts
250 Bedford Park Boulevard, Bronx


Trump Tower’s Smoke & Mirrors

It’s spring, 1983. My Californian family is on a trip “back East,” a place still exotic to us. During a few days in New York — my first trip here — we visit the United Nations, Windows on the World, the Met. And we visit the partly opened Trump Tower, where we pay homage, as so many tourists did that year, to the sixty-foot waterfall, the marble atrium (described, over the years, as salmon, rose, or peach, but never pink), the brass TRUMP TOWER over the door (I’m sure I thought it was gold), and to Donald J. Trump himself.

We weren’t alone — “Tourists flock to 68 stories of elegance,” the Los Angeles Times, our hometown paper, reported later that year (breathlessly, and incorrectly: While Trump has always maintained the building has a 68-story height, it has only 58 floors). It seems astonishing that my parents, for whom “gauche” and “gaudy” were favorite disapprobations; who lived surrounded, but unimpressed, by wealth in Los Angeles; whose travel with us was usually geared toward exposing us to American history, would want to see such a place.

The exterior, seen from across the street.
Secret Service agents cleared the lobby moments before the president came downstairs for an unexpected visit.
Secret Service agents cleared the lobby moments before the president came downstairs for an unexpected visit.
An unknown man, in Grand Army Plaza, close to Trump Tower.

Clearly, to them, it was a piece of history. But of what kind? Were we marveling in the court of the Sun King, or gawking at his bad taste? I’m not sure it mattered to him. He had learned how to command our attention — with hyperbole, excess, gloss and shine (“we demolished a mountain of marble,” his wife, at the time, said) — and he never lost it. “My projects now sort of self-promote,” he told Graydon Carter, in an encounter better remembered for Carter’s light demolishment of his small hands. In the end Trump, diminutive hands and all, “self-promoted” his way to the presidency.

Like many megalomaniacs, he saw himself as an artist, with real estate as his medium. The power was nothing, he said in a 60 Minutes profile in 1985. It was the “creative process” he loved. In the twelve-hour documentary Trump: Made by America that will one day be crafted, the building of Trump Tower will be a pivot, like O.J. Simpson’s time at the University of Southern California.

With Trump Tower, Donald Trump realized what he could be, what people would let him be, what people wanted him to be. It is astonishing how many times he — a brash young developer with a few buildings to his name and the sulky mien of a teenager — was asked, in those years, whether he thought about running for president.


Trump Tower as seen from the Top of the Rock.
Trump Tower as seen from the Top of the Rock.
A carriage horse on 59th Street.
A carriage horse on 59th Street.

Is it uniquely American to believe that if one excels — or manages to convince people he excels — in one area, he is graced with the genius to excel in every other? By the fall of 1984, with Trump Tower open only a year, Trump was announcing to the Washington Post his desire to negotiate with the Soviets on nuclear arms:

“‘Some people have an ability to negotiate,’ he says. ‘It’s an art you’re basically born with. You either have it or you don’t….It’s something that somebody should do that knows how to negotiate.’”

Or doesn’t this, from the New York Times in 1983, sound like his presidency, with all its unfilled positions? “At Trump headquarters on the 26th floor of the Trump Tower astride Fifth Avenue, he opened the door of a room furnished with a vast table. ‘This was supposed to be a board room but what was the sense when there’s only one member,’ said Donald Trump. ‘We changed it to a conference room.’”

Twenty years later, when it came time to film The Apprentice, a boardroom set — a facsimile — was built in Trump Tower.

The intersection of 55th Street and Fifth Avenue.
The intersection of 55th Street and Fifth Avenue.
New York City police officers protect the entrance to Trump Tower during a snowstorm.
New York City police officers protect the entrance to Trump Tower during a snowstorm.

Trump Tower should have dispatched his father complex, his hunger not just to impress, but to outdo, his old man. (“Everything he touches seems to turn to gold,” the Trump Organization website modestly quotes Fred Trump saying about his son, a hilariously literal, and possibly tongue-in-cheek, statement.) But such complexes are never dispatched. Trump’s hunger — for approval, for celebrity, for public embrace — has no end.

Trump didn’t make Manhattan safe for the wealthy — they were already there — but he made it hospitable for the crass: the kleptocrats and oligarchs and criminals who eventually found their way to Trump Tower and buildings like it. From the start, Trump sold his Tower as a residence for a new generation of Astors and Whitneys. The reality, as the Voice’s Wayne Barrett wrote, was that Trump Tower’s first residents were as likely to be Medicaid cheats and mobsters. He anticipated so much of what Manhattan would become: the ostentation and phallic reach, concentrated along 57th Street; the leveraging of public money for private gain; the barely occupied pieds-à-terre and tax havens for wealthy foreigners.

Inside Trump Tower
Children in Trump Tower’s marble lobby.
Children in Trump Tower’s marble lobby.

The 1980s, when Trump built his Tower, planted his flag in Atlantic City, and bought the Plaza, turned out to be the apex of his career as a developer: Peak Trump. The milestones of his subsequent real estate career were golf courses and bankruptcies. Not only did I never visit Trump Tower during close to twenty years of living in New York, I never once thought about it, not even when I walked by.

None of that mattered. The myth was impermeable by then, the long con well under way. The dazzle of Trump Tower — the dazzle of publicity around Trump Tower — obscured everything afterward.

Coffee mugs for sale in the Trump gift store.
Coffee mugs for sale in the Trump gift store.
A doorman looks out from the entrance of Trump Tower.
A doorman looks out from the entrance of Trump Tower.

I met Trump once, although “met” may not be the correct word. It was the summer of 2001, six weeks before the September attacks. I was at a party in Jane Rosenthal’s apartment in the Dakota (I was there as a reporter, I should say, not a guest). The penthouse was packed with the famous and wealthy — Oscar de la Renta, Robert De Niro, Harvey Weinstein — who had come to hear former president Bill Clinton speak about the International AIDS Trust. Donald Trump was there too, and he and Clinton greeted each other like the friends they were then. Trump invited Clinton to come golf at one of his courses, and Trump turned to me, whom he took for Clinton’s lackey, to take down his phone number.

It’s a reminder how cozy Trump once was with the Manhattan liberal elite. It was his celebrity — the myth cemented by Trump Tower — that had granted him access.

The view out through the entrance.
The view out through the entrance.
Trump Tower’s escalators
Trump Tower’s escalators

Looking back, it’s not the relationship between Clinton and Trump that interests me, but the relationship between the Dakota and Trump Tower. The Dakota, at 72nd and Central Park West, sits diagonally across the park from Trump Tower, and is its antithesis. Built a full century earlier, it bespeaks class, elegance, exclusivity. It’s a National Historic Landmark whose architects also designed the Plaza Hotel, which Trump so coveted. The Dakota to Trump Tower is East Egg to West Egg, old money to new. Trump Tower is Gatsby’s mansion: “a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of ivy, and a marble swimming pool….”

The Manhattan represented by the Dakota would never have been open to him, just as East Egg was closed to Gatsby. The Dakota is a co-op, where someone like Trump would run a high risk of rejection, if he would even agree to open his finances to what he once called “the scrutiny of a bunch of prying strangers.” (We taxpayers, asking for his tax returns: We also are a bunch of prying strangers.)

Trump had to create his own world — a building tall enough to look across the park and down on the Dakota, one whose lavishness would make up for its lack of history. Amid the financial euphoria of the 1980s instead of the 1920s, this is what he did. Most residents of the Dakota would likely never want to live amongst his marble and gold in the “Louis XIV style,” but bigger and more expensive was all he had.

The only thing that separated Gatsby from his mansion was death. Only the presidency extracted Trump from his Tower. In the weeks after his victory, it was almost as if he didn’t want to leave.

Pedestrians walk past a beggar on Fifth Avenue.
Pedestrians walk past a beggar on Fifth Avenue.
A Trump supporter in front of Trump Tower wears a ring shaped like a gun
A Trump supporter in front of Trump Tower wears a ring shaped like a gun

Bob Dylan’s Book of Love: Thirty Standards That Map a World Sweeter Than We Will Ever Know

Bob Dylan walks through the landscape of love. This three-disc set is his third (or third, fourth, and fifth) consecutive album of standards mostly associated with Frank Sinatra, but Triplicate doesn’t have the curated feel of Shadows in the Night, from 2015, or Fallen Angels, from last year — by comparison they seem hesitant, partial, chapters in a book that doesn’t need to be finished.

This is the book, and it does feel finished. When you reach the end of its thirty songs, from the 1929 “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan” — recorded by Fred Astaire, then by Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Julie London — to “Why Was I Born?” from the same year — recorded by Billie Holiday in 1937 and Sinatra in 1947 — there’s the feeling of having been somewhere, of having been there: the country made by these songs. “Stormy Weather.” “It’s Funny to Everyone But Me.” “As Time Goes By.” “The Best Is Yet to Come.” “It Gets Lonely Early.” “When the World Was Young.” “I Could Have Told You.” “Once Upon a Time.” “It makes me so sad,” said a friend, hearing the album for the first time. “It makes me think of all the people who are gone who loved these songs, every one of them.”

That isn’t a feeling the album insists on or even calls for. It’s not elegiac, regretful, rueful, nostalgic, a gaze into the past where, as “Once Upon a Time” goes, “the world was sweeter than we knew.” That might read as an elegiac, regretful, rueful, nostalgic look over the shoulder — we didn’t know those were the best days of our lives, we didn’t know that they would never come again. As those words come out of the song here, they don’t have to mean anything, but if they do, they might communicate something much harder: that the world itself is sweeter than we will ever know, that knowledge will always escape us, that there is no locating oneself in any single place or time. Life sweeps everything away, and you depart without knowing more than when you arrived.

That was the sense when Dylan sang “Once Upon a Time” for the Tony Bennett ninetieth birthday tribute The Best Is Yet to Come on NBC last December — a show-stopping performance that seemed to search for all the directions a song that begins “once upon a time” could take, including those followed in his own song that opens with the same words.

The words don’t have to mean anything because it’s the sense of an atmosphere to breathe, to be changed by, that you hear. The signposts of the songs, “The fundamental things apply,” “A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces,” “Don’t know why, there’s no sun up in the sky,” don’t necessarily register, worn down by the hundreds of singers who’ve recorded them — from 1927, when Hoagy Carmichael first cut his own “Stardust” for the Gennett label in Richmond, Indiana, a small jazz and blues company that featured Charley Patton, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, to 1965, with Sinatra rolling out “The September of My Years” on his own Reprise label in Burbank, California. What you hear is much lighter than any carefully crafted catchphrase — instead you hear a certain person, the fictional character who inhabits Bob Dylan’s voice in these renditions, lighting down on a song, then moving on to the next one, and so modestly that when you finish listening to the third disc and go back to the first, the feeling is that that character, too, has come back to the first song on the first disc for another go-round — and much deeper.

“P.S. I Love You” — not the Beatles song, in which, Jonathan Cott once wrote, “P.S.” probably referred to Buddy Holly’s Peggy Sue, but a tune written in 1934 and a hit for Rudy Vallée, done better by Bing Crosby, with words by Johnny Mercer, music by Gordon Jenkins, who in 1959 arranged Sinatra’s indelible No One Cares — doesn’t even remotely suggest that it’s a great song. The bends in the melody are so cheesy people in the Thirties probably thought they’d heard it before. “P.S. I love you” is supposed to catch your ear, elicit a response — How clever to use that phrase in a song! — and make you smile, but it seems like it came into the song as an antique. Yet as Dylan sings it, it feels like a great song, or a great occasion for a great song. Again, it’s that sense of the song not as a specific combination of words and music, but as a place where words are music.

Dylan meanders through the song. There is no destination: He flattens everything in the melody that suggests purpose, intent, desire, even meaning. There’s no need to stake a claim, or even carve your initials into a tree. The trees in this song don’t need you. They were here before you came upon them and they’ll be here when you’re gone, and that’s what’s so wonderful about them: You owe them nothing. The singer in this song owes nothing to its images of domestic loneliness — in bed by nine, a burn on the table, each day seems like a year. He owes something, perhaps, to the few notes of the cello and guitar counterpoint that open his version, because they wave him goodbye as he sets out. What you hear is someone exploring the shifts in the melody as if they’re hills, resting places, passageways that you never noticed the last time you were here, exploring the notion that any walk down the same street, across the same field, can show you something you never saw before.

Compared to Dylan’s own songs, the songs on Triplicate are tight, constrained, most of all orderly. They don’t have the expanse, let alone the fabulism, of the ballads that lie behind the Dylan songs that seem like epics, from “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” in 1963 to “Scarlet Town” in 2012. Except perhaps for “Stardust,” which can seem less composed than found, they aren’t, in the best sense, folk songs — and yet in a certain sense they are. The omission of any writers’ credits anywhere on Triplicate — on back of the package, on the discs, in the liner booklet — can let the songs communicate as if they actually don’t have authors, as common coin that is also common property, as if they are landscape, atmosphere — and isn’t that what a song, not its composer, not its singer, but the song itself, really wants? To be the air that you breathe?

“He has such a nice voice,” said the same friend. You don’t hear that said. The conventional word for Bob Dylan’s voice, today, is ravaged. Certainly he doesn’t have the clean tone of other older singers: Willie Nelson, Tony Bennett. What he does have, in the tears and breaks in his voice, is the ability to converse with the songs he sings, especially these songs, each of them carrying so many other singers. And that’s also to say that with any given number he now might be discussing it with Holiday, Ethel Waters, Crosby, London, Sinatra, Bennett, Patti Page, Chet Baker, Astaire, Perry Como, Lena Horne, Helen Forrest, Dorothy Lamour, and countless more — and all those who will sing these songs after him.

Listening to these three discs, these thirty songs, opening and closing and opening this book, I found myself thinking not of any other Bob Dylan album, but of the Theme Time Radio Hour shows he hosted on Sirius XM between 2006 and 2009, and not only for the old songs he played. In the way Dylan reaches for high notes he can’t rise to, or goes flat before letting a hidden theme in the melody rescue him and bring him back into the song, as with “Stardust,” the real analogue is Dylan’s flinty, cracker-barrel commentary in those shows: a sense of having lived with any song he’s playing, listening to it over time as if it were a person, and not telling half of what he knows. Whether the theme was “Lock and Key” or “Birds” or “More Birds,” there was, each time, that sense of a territory, a country of songs, a place to visit. For this show — for this album — if it’s the landscape of love, Dylan may be crossing it in muddy boots, leaving tracks for others to erase or follow.

The steel guitar playing is kind of boring.


The Infinite Worlds of Arthur Russell

At first, Charles Arthur Russell was just Charley. Growing up in Iowa during the Fifties and Sixties, Charley vacationed in the Midwest and Mexico with his parents and two sisters. As a teenager, Charley decided he wanted to be called Arthur. When he moved to Northern California in 1968 and found his way into a Buddhist commune, he was renamed Jigmé. It didn’t last. But he settled on Arthur when he moved to New York in 1973 at twenty-two, bringing all his places and names with him.

Before dying of AIDS-related illnesses in 1992, at forty, Russell checked off many boxes, usually at the same time. But his vision of small and large ensemble work with the unspecified duration of a Buddhist mantra and the hubcap glow of a Beach Boys single was no easy sell — at least, not until his records were reissued in the early 21st century. Now people move to New York because of Arthur.

Russell played in rock bands, wrote folk songs, produced rubbery disco epics, and inverted most of the forms he participated in. First, though, he was a cellist studying both Indian and Western classical music. Once in New York, Russell worked on a hybrid of notation and improvisation he had begun developing in San Francisco. In 1973, he finished an open-ended piece called “City Park,” which used bits of poems by Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. Russell’s professor at the Manhattan School of Music, serialist composer Charles Wuorinen, reacted by saying, “That’s the most unattractive thing I’ve ever heard.” (There is no recording of “City Park,” so we cannot replay this match.)

Russell performing in 1979 at the Kitchen, where he served as musical director in the mid-Seventies.

By April of 1979, Russell was concentrating on dance tracks. Though he had put out a single on Sire Records, he was no more at home inside the pop industry than he had been at an uptown college. After hearing Russell’s submission to Warner Brothers, a&r man Michael Ostin submitted a handwritten note. He described Russell’s “instrumental performance” as “uneventful”; the “vocal performance” prompted Ostin to write, “This guys [sic] in trouble.” His summary: “Who knows what this guy is up to — you figure it out — give me a break.”

Russell was up to many things. Another of his inventions was a form of pop using the tools of modern classical, sort of. With little more than a cello, a fuzz pedal, and very quiet vocals, Russell created a body of songs that were economical, sweet, and pop-smart, with a slippery tonality that suggested neither Top 40 nor lieder. The first album in this style, World of Echo, came out in 1986 on a label called Upside that was also releasing records by Jonathan Richman and the Woodentops. The reaction from critics was almost uniformly positive, but the first pressing of World of Echo sold fewer than a thousand copies. This time, Russell didn’t wait for someone else to characterize the project. He asked the label to attach a sticker to the remaining three hundred copies of World of Echo, one black word on a white oval: “UNINTELLIGIBLE.” “It was Arthur’s way of saying to people, ‘Don’t expect to get it the first time, or the second time. Don’t listen to it that way,’ ” Upside boss Barry Feldman says in Tim Lawrence’s Russell biography, Hold On to Your Dreams.

“I had never seen the rejection notes from the record companies until the exhibit,” says bassist Ernie Brooks, Russell’s collaborator on many projects, including the Necessaries and the Flying Hearts. “Over the last several years, people have started understanding what was great about how Arthur sang and wrote songs. His singing seemed so effortless — he was never striving for drama. But that’s not what was going on at the time. It was the punk moment at CBGB, and here was Arthur doing these quiet pop songs. He conveyed so much affect in an affectless way.”

The strongest album of the voice-and-cello songs didn’t come out during his lifetime — Another Thought was compiled and issued on Philip Glass’s label, Point, in 1994. Russell’s bigger career has been the posthumous one, and began in earnest when Steve Knutson’s Audika label launched in 2004. Dedicated to Russell’s work, Audika has steadily released unheard recordings, as well as those that have fallen out of print. Audika and the 2009 publication of Hold On to Your Dreams have helped move Russell’s work into a pop canon that has become (almost) as accepting as he was.

The origins of the Russell exhibit currently showing at BAM, “Do What I Want: Selections From the Arthur Russell Papers,” lie in two 2015 concerts (featuring Devonté Hynes, Sam Amidon, and others) that followed a tribute album released by the Red Hot organization, Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell. At one show, BAM’s curator of visual arts, Holly Shen, started talking about Russell’s work with independent curator Nicole Will. At that fall’s Editions and Artists book fair, Will and Shen heard from rare-book collector Arthur Fournier that the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts was about to acquire Russell’s papers, and the planning began.

Arthur Russell, on the beach, c. 1980, a decade before his AIDS-related death at forty

“Russell’s music feels important to me because it never seems nostalgic,” Will said while we toured the exhibit. “It doesn’t seem to be tied to any particular era. Steve [Knutson] has told me about hearing Arthur playlists in cafés. Young people hear it and say, ‘Great. Where is he playing next?’ ”

“Do What I Want” is split into two parts, the larger section in the Natman Room on the ground floor of the Peter Jay Sharp Building, with a sidecar upstairs in the Diker Gallery. Some pieces on display are reproductions from the archives at the NYPL, which will open to public view later this year. The majority of the material, though, comes from Russell’s partner, Tom Lee; Knutson; and former collaborators such as Peter Zummo, Peter Gordon, Brooks, and Steven Hall: flyers, photographs, records, snarky notes from label executives, lyrics, and Russell’s Yamaha KM802 Mixer, a fat black box striped with green and salmon.

All of Russell’s various styles involve references to natural phenomena common to both the landscape of the Midwest and the symbols of Buddhism. Check the song titles: “Lucky Cloud,” “Corn,” “Hollow Tree,” “Tree House” — even “This Is How We Walk on the Moon” makes more sense as a song written by an Iowa kid, who would have seen that moon more clearly than his New York counterpart. To this point, one corner of the Natman Room is wallpapered with a blown-out blue-and-white image of a cloud, a photograph taken by Russell’s San Francisco Buddhism teacher, Yuko Nonomura.

This year, Audika released an hour of live recordings of Instrumentals, taken from three different New York performances staged between 1975 and 1978. Even for those already converted to Russell’s benevolent sprawl, the range is immense. Track two on Volume 1, Part I — all are untitled — could be an easy-listening version of a Seventies Bacharach ballad. The legato horn parts on track two of Volume 2, Part II, conducted by Julius Eastman, sound like a Michael Nyman soundtrack from the early Nineties. Track one of Volume 2 evokes the placid, unevenly spaced, evenly delivered motifs of Tortoise; another instrumental the optimistic swells of Copland. As important as the ambition is the tentative quality of these performances. Russell’s desire to make trained players work in an accessible but skewed language is audible in dropped cues and occasional misalignment between instruments. Instrumentals is a document of an ensemble looking for a footing, a process Russell often said was more important than the result.

Typewritten notes included in the exhibit show how Russell’s path could be as confusing for collaborators as it was for suits. Russell wrote: “Since January of 1975 I have been working…on music designed specially for a series of color slides by Yuko Nonomuro [sic]….I was awakened, or re-awakened to the bright-sound and magical qualities of the bubblegum and easy-listening currents in American popular music….Since in most popular music a lyric is the focus of a song, and since in popular music a song without words, in order to be a commercial success, must have a special quality of its own, and since the music for the color slides was not structured on speech patterns, I ended up calling the piece ‘Instrumentals.’ ” Flautist and saxophonist Jon Gibson had a different take: “One of the difficulties (or should I say challenges?) in learning Arthur Russell’s new work involved trying to improvise with unfamiliar chord sequences placed upon asymmetrical (at times) time lengths.” Though Russell imagined it would be performed as one 48-hour cycle, Instrumentals was only ever played in smaller chunks, not all of which were recorded.

Richard Reed Parry, composer and member of Arcade Fire, found Arthur in 2005. “Rough Trade put out the Arcade Fire and the first two Audika releases, Calling Out of Context and World of Echo,” Parry recalled. “Neil Young’s Decade, those two Arthur CDs, and a Discman was all the music I had with me for while we were touring nonstop for about four months. I loved being immersed in these fragmentary bits of poetry and musical ideas. Exploring them seemed more important to Russell than finishing a record. The irony is that he did make some perfect pop songs, fully realized things, but he was happy being in the process of finding an idea that could reiterate itself across different songs.”

In the Diker Gallery, you see evidence of the (slightly) more commercial side of Russell, dance music producer. Sealed copies of Dinosaur L’s “Go Bang!” and Loose Joints’ “Is It All Over My Face,” both New York City club hits, hang on the wall, as does an enlarged copy of Russell’s membership card to the Paradise Garage, the club where New York dance music was legislated: If something went over at the Garage, it had impressed both dancers and DJs.

A working cassette of “Telling No One”

One record that connects all of Arthur’s worlds is his very first commercial release, the 1978 single “Kiss Me Again,” credited to Dinosaur and present in the Diker Gallery as a bright red vinyl twelve-inch. A disco track with a modest chart life but a robust presence in downtown clubs, “Kiss Me Again” had nine different physical releases and five remixes, at a time when releasing even one remix was still unusual. Sire, new to the disco market, was grappling with a thirteen-minute song and looking for the version that might break it on radio. Russell wasn’t interested in shortening the song, and the remixes didn’t help sell it. So Russell got the variation he loved, but for the wrong reasons.

A recent signing to Sire, David Byrne, played guitar on “Kiss Me Again”; r&b designated hitter Bob Babbitt played bass; studio heavy Allan Schwartzberg was the drummer; and friends of Russell’s including Peters Zummo and Gordon played horns. Though there is a topline vocal, the length and vagueness of the song make it both glorious and impossible to reduce. Find the version that clocks in at 12:42 and you’ll hear Byrne’s rhythm guitar work itself into a blur around the ten-minute mark, moving from a clean chicken-scratch to a fuzzy German chug. The main hook seems to be the horn line, until Russell’s cello part comes in; both are more memorable than the vocal melody. While sounding absolutely nothing like Instrumentals, “Kiss Me Again” presents the same sense of indeterminacy: equally strong sections that could be arranged in any order without depleting the vibrancy or masking the voice.

On April 20, Matt Wolf’s elegant documentary on Russell, Wild Combination, will be shown at BAM, as will Phill Niblock’s short movie from 1988, Terrace of Unintelligibility, a twenty-minute close-up of Russell’s mouth near a microphone, filmed while he played cello and sang. Two days later, on the 22nd, BAM will host a free tribute concert led by a clutch of Russell’s original collaborators. Go to both — but in the meantime, go to the Natman Room and look at my favorite of the seeds on display.

Russell always carried a piece of composition paper, folded into quarters, in his front shirt pocket. Some of these sheets were used for compositions, but many were just notes (or phone numbers). These were ideas, not lyrics, sometimes put into parentheses; some are works yet to be finished, others predictions that came true. “Exploit fact that amorphous material is always in sync when greeted by a drumbeat.” “Speaker cabinets that are paraplegics.” “Nature documentary on radio with crunching sound effects only.”

One of them reads like a sticker Russell might have printed up for this exhibit. He just didn’t get around to it. “(p Idea: its clear that any style can be heard [in] the recording, yet critics continue to put a ‘price’ on the trappings of form, really in the imagination) (sometimes very clearly).”


Charlemagne Palestine Takes Fans Back to Seventies New York

Amid the deluge of Nirvana, Garth Brooks, and gangsta rap in the mid-Nineties, a corrective trend began to emerge, an appreciation for the minimalism that had droned, strummed, and pulsed and originated in myriad lofts throughout Martin Scorsese’s seedy New York City of the 1970s. It was a history basically washed away in Philip Glass arpeggios, until bands like Sonic Youth and Tortoise began to explore these more demure and patient sounds. Most important was when downtown guitar-strangler Alan Licht — in the short-lived zine Halana — waxed reverent about his top ten minimalist albums. It was an ur-listicle featuring noted experimental filmmakers Phill Niblock and Tony Conrad; Steve Reich’s early churn Four Organs; Terry Riley’s pre–In C babbling brook, Reed Streams; and the granddaddy of minimalism, La Monte Young’s The Black Record.

But topping them all was a double LP that had only been released by the Sonnabend Gallery in 1974, Charlemagne Palestine’s heavenly Four Manifestations on Six Elements, full of trance-inducing piano clouds and electronics that sounded like white light. For all the placidity of these pieces, Palestine was a terror on the contemporary gallery scene, younger than the minimalists but brimming with what would become punk’s sulfuric energy. That meant performances where he flung himself against gallery walls while singing overtones or else hammering away for hours on end in a cognac-abetted trance on a nine-octave Bösendorfer piano surrounded by a drift of stuffed animals, leaving blood on the ivories by the time he returned to earth.

“I felt exiled from the music scene — from the old establishment or the young punk scene — I felt I didn’t fit in anywhere,” says Palestine, from his home in Brussels. “The music had been forgotten. Every time I tried very hard to make things work, they didn’t. And every time I chucked things up and said, ‘Well fuck it,’ things happened in the opposite momentum.” The Brooklyn-born composer wound up in Belgium and focused on his visual art and installations, until overtures from Sonic Youth, Glenn Branca, and the like — as well as reissues of Four Manifestations and another minimalist classic, Strumming Music — brought him back to his music 23 years later.

This month the Jewish Museum seeks to highlight Palestine’s dual vocations as performer and visual artist with Charlemagne Palestine’s Bear Mitzvah in Meshugahland — his first U.S. exhibition of his stuffed teddy bear installations — and a live performance on March 16, the title of the exhibit a play on Palestine’s embrace of being meshugah. But Palestine is also quick to point out that between his music, installations, and performances, he sees his decades of work as a Wagnerian “Gesamtkunstwerk,” or total work of art.

Born and raised in Brownsville, Palestine remembered his borough as “a no-person’s-land, and now it’s like the center of the world,” although upon his last visit he found his old hood basically unchanged, “except it wasn’t dangerous anymore and now there are flowers in the windows.” He sang in synagogue and was carillonneur at Saint Thomas Episcopal Church in Manhattan, two disciplines that would later inform his own resonant work. As a teen he played bongos with the likes of Tiny Tim and Allen Ginsberg at a Beat coffeehouse, “which was right next to the NYU Intermedia Center, where Morton Subotnick and Donald Buchla invented the modern electronic synthesizer,” he recalled. Later, he switched to the transportive sine waves that these new devices could elicit.

While he was studying at CalArts at the end of the Sixties, a girlfriend gave him a teddy bear, which he promptly named King Teddy and who resides in his home still. Said King rekindled in Palestine a kinship for the teddy bear itself, which, much like Palestine, was a product of immigrants to Brooklyn. He saw in these plush bears a line that stretched back to the Hindu elephant-headed deity, Ganesh, and in conversation he prefers to refer to them as “divinities.” “All indigenous cultures integrate the spirits of animals as part of their religion and culture,” Palestine said. “What in western society is considered ‘childhood,’ became a major element in my adult career.” And he’s proud to note that science now bears (pun not intended) out this notion, with hospices giving patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s stuffed animals to help with their treatments. He sews his own creatures, and also boasts that his home doubles as “an orphanage of animals that have been given up by their families.” What was once packed away with so many childish things retains the mark of the innocent and divine for Palestine.

“In those days, people thought I was totally crazy,” Palestine said of his collection of stuffed bears and animals, which will number in the hundreds when he installs them at the Jewish Museum this month. “But after a whole generation of Jeff Koons, Mike Kelley, Matthew Barney, and many others, I’m now the Picasso of stuffed animal art.”

Charlemagne Palestine’s Bear Mitzvah in Meshugahland
The Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue
Through August 6

Aaa HHeavenlyyy RResttt SSchlingennn BBlängennnn
The Church of the Heavenly Rest
2 East 90th Street
March 16, at 8 p.m.


Great Depression Survivor Surveys Trump’s America: “People Were Hungry and Angry Then Too”

At 97, Evelyn Birkby spends most of her days remembering. Birkby lives in Sidney, Iowa, near the Loess Hills, where ancient winds swept glacier-crushed soil into bluffs that stretch out to Missouri. Sidney is home to Iowa’s oldest rodeo and to Penn Drug, the oldest family-owned drug store around, which serves lunches of sandwiches and milkshakes at small tables that crowd the area in front of the hair products, right across from the greeting cards and the display of wine from nearby Tabor. There is only one grocery store now, but Birkby can remember when there were three and they delivered. Remembering is important for Birkby, because it reminds her where we began — of the things that root us to place and people. Too many people forget.

Birkby lives in a small house filled with pictures of her three sons as moon-faced toddlers. I visited to talk to her, for a book I’m writing, about how churches in the heartland have changed, but she tells me that many things have stayed the same — nationalism, fear, hunger, and anger.

In her living room, small glass pine trees fill shelves near wooden replicas of old-timey schoolhouses and a miniature High Flyer sled. There are hand-painted glass goblets clustered above, mugs of pens, piles of neatly folded newspapers, a bowl of eye drops: the fussy tchotchkes of memories and age. Birkby sits like a queen in a recliner, her lap covered with a maroon fleece blanket, a butterfly scarf pinned around her shoulders like a cape.

Birkby recently completed a memoir about the year 1935. She was 17 then and had just moved to Sidney with her family. Her father was a Methodist circuit minister, with four different congregations. America was locked in the Great Depression. “People were hungry and angry then too,” she says. “They are hungry and angry now.” Maybe, she offers, people have always been hungry and angry.

For 67 years, Birkby has written a weekly column for the Valley News in Shenandoah, Iowa, and hosted a call-in radio show called Up a Country Lane. She doesn’t like to get political in the column or on air, because she likes to stay positive. “Positivity helps you live a long time,” she says. “It worked for me.”

Birkby listened to the radio during the Depression; later she’d remember how the positive words encouraged her. When she got her own show, in 1950, she made sure she was never critical or unkind. “All those women stuck out on their farms with their children, I talked to them through the radio.” The thing they needed then was just to know they weren’t alone. People still need to know that, just in a different way. Kindness, she believes, is something America has forgotten. But Birkby remembers.

While writing her memoir, Birkby noticed a number of similarities between 1935 and 2017. Americans needed jobs then, too; 1935 was the year President Roosevelt signed the WPA into law and established Social Security. It was also the year of the Dust Bowl. Birkby remembers hobos, those malnourished boys, stopping by her parents’ house. Her mother believed in God and kindness, so she never closed her door on anyone. Birkby believes the house was marked. “But we didn’t mind. We were all hungry then.”

Americans were also wary of growing tensions abroad. In 1935 Congress passed the Neutrality Act, which established a policy of non-intervention that would obtain until 1941. “We were also scared of immigrants then,” Birkby says. “Although maybe not so much, because we all remembered our families being immigrants.”

Birkby didn’t vote for the current president, whose name she never uses. But she’s begged explanations from friends for how the state she believes is the heart of America could have turned so cold. “They say they are angry, but I don’t know why.” I ask her if it’s because it’s hard to live out here. Small businesses are closing. Towns that used to have their own schools and churches are now boarded up. People have to work more and drive more.

Birkby twists her mouth into a line of disapproval. As someone who remembers the Dust Bowl, she doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for the complaints of middle America. She explains that she doesn’t believe in the Devil, she believes in God and choices. Whatever hardship people have, Birkby believes, is born of choices. But there’s also the choice to be positive and see the good in people. The choice to help and be part of a community. “We just need to make better choices,” she says. We means America.

Birkby served on two committees for Robert Ray, Iowa’s Republican governor from 1969 to 1983. “He let in so many immigrants and always tried to be kind and helpful,” she remembers. Even though she stopped calling herself a Republican when Nixon ruined it for her, Birkby believes America could use some more Iowans like Ray.

Birkby also remembers the Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Sidney. Established by Roosevelt, the CCC collected teams of out-of-work men to build roads and facilities for the local state park. “Then we put people to work using new ideas, not fear.” It’s a major difference she sees between the world today and 1935.

That also happens to have been the year she met Robert, her husband of seventy years. They met in high school and married ten years later. There’s one way 2017 is different: Robert died last fall. This is Evelyn’s first year since 1935 without him.

It’s been hard. The difference in her life is stark. But she stays busy writing, teaching her nurses to make the perfect orange-Jell-O salad with bananas on top, and remembering.

When I tell her to have a good day, she waves and shouts out, “Every day is a good day if you choose to make it one.”


Kehlani and Syd Look Back to Nineties R&B to Show How Expansive the Genre Can Be

The primacy of r&b isn’t theoretical. Two weeks ago, after Adele, and not Beyoncé, won the Grammy for Album of the Year — and Song of the Year and Record of the Year — she lugged her awards backstage and said to reporters, “I thought it was her year. What the fuck does she have to do to win Album of the Year?” After this, Adele snapped the horn off her flimsy gramophone and gave it to Beyoncé. It wasn’t the real award, so you can check up to see if this gesture holds once Adele receives the genuine article in the mail.

Beyoncé may not have something to do with every record released in the world, but people don’t think of her as “the sun” just because they love her. She is not an isolated marvel — Beyoncé draws from a community that revolves around her and bears fruit all year long. R&B is as generously vague and fertile as it’s ever been. The genre has accommodated fluid sexuality more comfortably than pop, offered hybrid visionaries a historical tradition to push against, and maintained a consistent level of surprise ever since 1949, when music of black origin was first wrangled into the ungainly folder labeled r&b (after being called many other things). Which walls did Frank Ocean warp? Which body of work did FKA Twigs dive-bomb? And how would you classify Syd’s Fin and Kehlani’s SweetSexySavage? They draw from more than one source but signify as extensions of a musical continuum that is rich enough to feed its own and, yes, Adele: r&b.

Kehlani Parrish, originally from Oakland, functions like an r&b index. SweetSexySavage is her second album, and first on a major label, following a self-released EP and full-length. Kehlani has Beyoncé’s tendency toward both ambition and omnivorous curiosity, writing on almost every track while drawing in a variety of collaborators. Her register isn’t regal — she’s lithe and practical. The title of her new album is a clear reference to TLC’s CrazySexyCool, and she gravitates toward a spring-heeled bounce. Her lyrics don’t try to parse relationships. She’s either on her way or on her way out; going deep into the building isn’t part of the project.

The low-stress chorus of “Distraction” — “Are you down to be a distraction, baby? But don’t distract me” — matches airy, multi-tracked vocals that recall Nineties trios like SWV and TLC. “Piece of Mind” takes the bargain further, going hard into the physical glow of voices while asking politely to ditch any analysis: “I think sometimes the best things are in the unplanned and the unknown/And sometimes when we balance back and we do it/We don’t know how we did it, we just do it.”

One of the most accomplished practitioners of the deceptively elegant was Aaliyah, whose work has come back on the wind. She kept her voice firmly soft while never ceding any emotional ground, rising above us all. Kehlani’s “Too Much” makes this link explicit, sampling Timbaland’s drums from Aaliyah’s “More Than a Woman” and modeling the phrasing of “too much of a woman” on the chorus of the 2001 song.

Kehlani is too exuberant to channel the rest of Aaliyah’s emotional timbre: the detachment, the love of strangeness, the muted anxiety. For that, Syd’s Fin is perhaps the finest update of the original formula. Syd, originally of the Odd Future collective and the band The Internet, has leapt ahead of most around her. Distractingly, she’s referred to Fin as an interim project, a “pop” album that she’s co-produced with biz pros like Hit-Boy. It doesn’t have the emotional impact of a provisional statement — it hits hard.

Where Kehlani samples Aaliyah, Syd drops hints. The bed of “Know,” produced by Nick Green, is an open tribute to Timbaland’s production: hiccups, thumps, and syncopated filaments. Syd flips Aaliyah’s 1996 single “If Your Girl Only Knew” in the chorus: “Don’t let nobody know/Let’s keep it on the low/And as long as he don’t/Long as she don’t/We’ll lay back and play the game.” As an openly gay artist, Syd can do things with pronouns that Aaliyah didn’t, while channeling that same sense of tensile strength underpinning Aaliyah’s songs.

The current political climate — essentially American history dialed up by ten decibels — hasn’t yet brought out as much defiant r&b as plangent songs that stick to their demands. To nurture others is a running theme, perhaps because social media has made yelling at people so easy, and so obviously pointless. Calling a work of art “touching” has long sounded like faint praise, or a creepy euphemism. Now touching, in any of its formations, is a complex political act. For Kehlani and Syd, Aaliyah is a solid reference point for how you can become light enough to float into someone else’s life.