Monday, September 05, 2011

Riddle of Manhattan

When you think about how utterly vast and random the universe is, it is pretty remarkable that a place like Manhattan exists.

Manhattan is a wondrous place, full of good food, great theater and a wide variety of culture and art. It features some of the world's greatest museums, architecture and music. It is vibrant, colorful and exciting. It is also cruel, because it persists with such infinite vigor and energy and alas, we do not.

I recently returned from Manhattan on a fabulous vacation. 5 nights at the center of Time Square, with the world's oyster at my beck and call. A cab could be hailed within a minute and from there my heart's desire was accessible, be it jazz, Broadway, punk rock or pizza baked in coal-fired ovens.

I reveled in my time there, surrounded myself with theater, music, dance and good food and drink. I shared it all with those I love most.

There are two incidents however that stick with me most post-vacation.

The first was a simple experiment. In 1991, I took my first visit to Manhattan. I arrived after a long stint in the Bahamas as a DJ. It was a trip that was unlike my recent vacation. The circumstances were different. Far from the world's oyster at my beck and call, I was quite broke. I was at the mercy of people I had met while working in the Bahamas, (relying on them for shelter and expenditures). I had a great time though and I took this photo of myself in front of the Radio City Music Hall (see below).

20 years later, in 2011 I went to the same spot to take the same photograph, eager to see what 20 years had done to me. I even wore the same hat. It was a very eye-opening contrast. I have aged so much and have truly become "old". I was 25 in the original photo and I am 45 now. Here's the contrast of the two photos:

So many questions arise from the photos. Will I make it another 20 years I wonder? How many times will I visit New York again in those 20 years? I feel the city, and this photo, makes a superb backdrop to reflect on it all. If New York is anything, it is this mirror into your heart and desire. It is a dangerous reflection too, because New York is so vast, so unknowable in its entirety (people who live there for their whole lives are still "discovering it"), that you can often look into this mirror and feel your life has come up short.

Did I really achieve everything I aspired to? Did my dreams and my reality find a happy compromise? New York's answer is always "no". Always. It's entire purpose is to goad you, coax you and inspire you to reach for more. All of the great art from New York is about aspiration. While hopes and dreams are vital and necessary they are also as infinite, vast and cold as the universe itself. In other words, our aspirations are a catalyst but can never be a destination. We never "arrive" in life, we simply keep moving on and with each step, Manhattan takes another bite out of our vigor and vitality.

I look at these photos, at the center of the world's most energetic and inspiring city and find myself humbled. I am such an insignificant part of the universe, I have achieved so little when measured against this metropolis. My life can't be measured against the yard stick of Manhattan, I will always fall short. It must be measured with a different scale, or perhaps, more importantly, shouldn't be measured at all.

The other incident that stuck with me was a visit to CBGB. Long ago, CBGBs was the apex of modern music. It rose from the heroin and dark alleyways of the Bowery, a sleazy slum perched on top of Little Italy. It produced a brand of music that was malformed, but beautiful. It featured music that could be learned in a garage or broken bachelor apartment. It was music that was angry, energetic and full of aspiration (there's that word again). Some called it "punk", but truly it evolved beyond labels, to me, the music is better just labeled as "New York".

Time passed and now CBGBs is dead. Replaced by a designer store, run and managed by a man who seems to despise the legacy he's inherited. He designs "rock n roll" fashion. I choose such a banal description on purpose, because it fits. It is so derivative, that it gives the word derivative an even worse reputation. For example, you can find desert boots here, a reflection of that cool suede shoe from the early 60's. Except these aren't the original Clarks of that great era, they are just replicas, sewn and constructed and China and then branded with the designer's name and repackaged to you for a mere 700 dollars. The originals can still be bought on King's Road in London for 50, but here, in the place that once created some of the world's greatest music out of artists who survived on a few hundred dollars a month, the shoes now cost you 14 times their actual value.

But perhaps the epitome of the lunacy was a simple leather necklace. It was just a few strands of black leather, with some 1-inch skulls made out of silver-coated metal. The skulls were just tied into the knots of the leather. It celebrated death, turned it into a tacky commodity with a few shiny objects and material cut from a cow skin. It was the kind of necklace a street artist might sell to you for 200 dollars. Here, it was a mere 8000 dollars. A month's salary on a leather "punk" necklace. "Punk" rock had officially become haute couture, it had become so bourgeois, that it ceased to be a mockery and became truly "vicious". Punk was angrier now than ever before, because, like me it had become middle-aged, comfortable, bloated and a reflection of broken dreams and promises. It wanted money now, lots of it and would scalp anyone to get it. Filthy lucre indeed.

It was clear I was not welcome. I wanted the past and his store gladly sold a manufactured connection to it, but for a vicious price. This was nostalgia at a price only a Wall Street broker could afford. This was no longer the art of the garage, this was the art of car services, guest lists and expense accounts.

Like the photo on Time Square, time had changed the perspective. Look at what I had become as 20 years passed me by. Look at the what CBGB had become as 20 years passed by. I went from Sonic Youth to middle-aged malaise. CBGB had gone from Sonic Youth to tacky desperation at prices only Coco Chanel would dare to demand. Each of us had decayed, each had failed to truly conquer the impenetrable dream of Manhattan.

I stared at the necklace, I had failed. I had fallen short. I had stood before the giant of New York and was slain. Yet somehow, I felt superior to the bourgeois designer who had taken Manhattan's promise by the horn and wrestled the beast to its inevitable conclusion of greed and hypocrisy. Was I just a middle-aged man justifying his mediocre life and meager means? Perhaps, but if the evolution of punk rock was to sell hipsters an 8000 dollar leather necklace, then "evolving" into my middle-aged, middle-class malaise seemed rather genuine by comparison.

I was a failure, but maybe, just maybe I was a more honest failure than the 8000 dollar necklace?

The universe is a pretty vast, cold and unknowable thing. You can't conquer it. It will always conquer you. Always. Your dignity and to some extent, your limited happiness derives from confronting that reflection and smiling anyway. Once you do that, the tragedy of what CBGBs has become, (or what you have become), seems more amusing.

Time doesn't heal wounds, it inflicts them, the more you wear those scars with pride, the more you can laugh back at Manhattan's cruel reflection.

Of course, Manhattan will always laugh last. Those silver-coated skulls were just a warning. So were the photographs.

Manhattan will always win in the end.