The North Bronx, long a metro flyover zone of ethnic enclaves, old man bars, Medicare recipients and nursing homes, is a place known for neither enticing day trippers nor inciting giddiness. Yet on consecutive weekends now an unlikely mix of Manhattan hipsters, Westchester teenagers, college students, rock journalists and music industry cruiserweights has there found themselves united and turned on by an improbable phenomenon. Packing off-the-grid, wood-paneled, un-ironic lounges and catching bands with names like Sweetfart (average band member age: 75), Nothing2 (average age: 71) and Grand Mal Seizure (average age 83), they afterward engaged in long searching stares. As if to say, “You thinking what I am? This what it looks like? I’ll say it if you will: could it be at last a major new American rock scene is ready to pop?”
If so, and among music scene mavens the verdict is still pending, there’s little question what it will be called: Geezer Punk. That’s the phrase that’s both been simmering on social media and is also much in use at the shows themselves. And though like all labels this one has holes—for one, influence-wise Lennon and Dylan seem to preside almost as much as Rotten and Strummer—there is nonetheless much that justifies the “punk” imprimatur.
Contempt, for instance—as in the original movement this one seems to have shot up spontaneously on a towering geyser. Contempt for perhaps obvious targets: a dissipated and hollowed out rock culture that no longer even makes a pretence of outsiderness (a sentiment pointedly captured by one of the local bands in a song titled, Raise a Turd to The Rock n Roll Hall of Fame). To contempt for targets that are perhaps more surprising, that is until you hear them blasted: a musical form that has failed to grow up, and mirrors American society’s infantilizing attitudes about the elderly, part and parcel of the marginalization of the non-famous elderly in rock music as well as all the arts.
Then there’s youth culture itself—which for the first time since the dawn of the media age finds itself squarely in the crosshairs. Accused, after generations of being pandered to by Hollywood and Madison Avenue, of having bought into its own false myth and tinsel mystique.
Fun stuff, I assure you, when channeled into an artful three-chord scheme and delivered with the proper slap and tickle. Because also reminiscent of Punk 1.0 is a distinct pleasure displayed by several North Bronx Bands to get in the grill of those who pay admission.
Which brings us to Sweetfart, a four-person power punk outfit that can’t help but elicit comparisons to what The Ramones might have been had they gone on sabbatical in 1979, and reemerged, only moderately worse for wear, in 2009. Lead by Joe “Trip” Riley, a 74 year-old former session player who once toured with Captain Beefheart, they are by far the most popular of the North Bronx bands, and the only to be rumored so far to have been approached by a major label.
Having played only recently to tiny audiences at what for them are neighborhood dive bars, it is possible to directly observe Sweetfart wrestle with the present moment, in all its truth, absurdity and possibility. Or so it seemed at a recent standing room only performance, during which the group tore through a jaw dropping set of original songs with titles like Selfie My Ass, Grandpa’s Got a Gun and Robo Youth, all the while trading insults and occasional gobs of spit with the audience and inviting the same to toss their mobile phones on to the stage so they could be smashed with a mic stand (several people happily complied). Then, before what turned out to be the last song, the otherwise taciturn Riley came up to the lip of the stage and told the thunderstruck crowd, most of whom were forty-plus years his junior: To a few of you we thank you for coming. To many of you though we have a different message. We are not a gimmick. So if you came here looking for one we ask you to leave now and never come back. Got me? I hope so, ‘cause we’re running out of polite ways to make it clear: We. Fucking. Mean. This.
The band then launched into an eighteen-minute up-tempo slash and burn cover of Louie Louie that made the building tilt, the police appear, and Ed Mechaber, notoriously tetchy critic of Mojo Magazine, tweet “Kudos Sweetfart and J. Riley I have now at last experienced RNR catharsis and am ready to die.”
If this all strikes you as some semi-elaborate put on, you’re not alone. An informal poll conducted this past weekend revealed 1 out of 3 audience members were there at the breathless behest of others, under the banner of “If you don’t believe me…” More, adding to the surreality of this story, is an unusual crush of dynamics. Mainly, the proximity of these proceedings to the planet’s media epicenter and, at least so far, the near-Luddite level of media and/or promotional savvy displayed by the vast majority of bands and bars under discussion. The result of this asymmetry is a kind of ever-escalating feeding frenzy in the dark, punctuated in all quarters by similar refrains: Come on? Really? This is actually happening?
Of course, at the top of the list waiting for an alarm clock chirp are the musicians themselves. Many of them have been performing in the area in near perfect anonymity for more than a decade, and so perhaps understandably start choking when they hear themselves referred to as a “scene”. This bill fits Sabina Vitale, 74 year-old rhythm guitarist of North Bronx band Crooked Spine. Ms. Vitale, who counts several area groups as friends and in fact often sits in with another local outfit, The Big Almost, explained it this way, “Hell, we were just a bunch of old bands, in an area where old bands can still get booked, mostly because the bar owners themselves are old—or in their cases, old bastards—and know we draw not just friends but children and grandkids to boot.”
And yet, at the same time, among local players, there’s long been a sense that something special, if not quite afoot, was at least possible. Roland Ehrlich, bassist for The Big Almost, had this observation to share, “What you tend to get up here are groups who’ve persisted long after they had any sane reason to do so. Long after dreams of fame and fortune or even hopes of making a decent living turned to ash. We kept going, on and on and on—and that, it turns out, can lead to some interesting stuff.”
In this opinion Mr. Ehrlich is not alone. Though none of the critics surveyed for this piece had yet seen enough of the bands to make sweeping judgments, except to agree that at least so far there is no single or signature North Bronx Sound, common themes have emerged. Superlative musicianship and band cohesiveness are two things frequently cited, perhaps not surprising for a milieu wherein it’s not unusual for people to have first gigged together in the 1960’s. And while the striking qualities don’t stop here they do seem to get harder to articulate. This anyway appears to be the position of Chauncy Garber, Critic at Large for SPIN. Garber, one of the first critics to start posting about North Bronx bands, recently had this to say, “At the risk of sounding like a pompous blowhard—an occupational hazard, I realize—I’m about ready to own it: with the punkiest of the bands in the scene, like a Sweetfart, I’m starting to believe we have something like those Japanese soldiers who fought on after World War Two, refusing to accept the cause was lost. Only in this case they were right. The cause was not lost—Geezer Punk says—only faith. By the greedy suits, by the sellout musicians, and by fans of all ages, especially those fickle, snotty kids.”
Okay… maybe. But why here, in of all places the North Bronx? And why now, when, if anything, American culture and business—and by extension music culture and the music business—has never been more youth-centric?
The answer to at least the first of these is possibly quite simple. What better place than the North Bronx? Loaded up with bars and old people, and nestled between endless suburbs and Manhattan’s hype, media and music machines, it could hardly be a more logical spot for such a movement to spring. And actually, an unverified story in circulation—which if nothing else qualifies as a grade-A creation myth—poses it just this way. Specifically, this past Easter Sunday, Sweetfart’s drummer, Liam Bokorowski, fearing a particularly small house, asked his grandson, a student at Westchester Community College, to bring as many friends as possible to the evening’s show. Which happened to be the same night that Sean Rizzo, New York Culture Editor, and his boyfriend found themselves on East Kingsbridge Road, looking for a post-family-dinner shot and beer. Hearing something loud, thrashing and original, they looked through a shamrock-decaled window and saw a room in full riot, beneath a barely elevated stage of rock musicians. Then, upon closer examination, they noticed something even rarer than a good rock n roll show. That the musicians resembled nothing so much as a clutch of tattooed, long-retired jewel thieves. And that while the guitarist, bassist and drummer played in perfect time, impervious to the storm around them, their wiry, slightly stooped front man held its center. Stood among the rioters, with what appeared to be glee. Holding under one skinny arm a blubbery, fist-flailing audience member in a tight headlock, while at the same time belting out lyrics that were hard to make out yet seemed to extol the benefits of eating one’s young. They stepped inside…
As for the “why now?” maybe this too is not all that complicated. After all, what better time for any art form to relocate its heart and rage then after the world has stopped expecting these qualities? Ceased to perceive it as anything but a housebroken entertainment?
But also, more to the point, it’s possible rock music was heading here all along. That life’s endgame, now that Baby Boomers are playing it, will increasingly have different rules and boundaries. Beyond “Senior’s Rights” the cultural dialogue will soon be about changing perceptions of what it is to be elderly, the false limits imposed upon them, the criminally untapped resource they represent. And that rock n roll—the soundtrack of the Boomers—will of course play a part in this. Providing the new sound and fury by which the new protestors (who yes, are the same as the old protestors!) will rattle the cage, this time from the outside.
Kevin Mandel is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY. He writes fiction and plays and is currently working on a novel. He can be reached at KPMandel at gmail dot com.