Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Day the Music (Sorta) Died: The Short, Bizarre Life of Jack FM

On Friday June 3 2005, at around 5 PM, as the afternoon drive was getting under way, listeners to WCBS 101.1 FM turned on their radios and got a nasty shock -- their beloved oldies station, the home of legendary DJs like Cousin Brucie and Don K Reed and shows like the "Doo Wop Shop", suddenly switched formats to a creepy thing called JACK FM.

JACK was strange beast -- a pop music station but without any DJs. Instead, the music was punctuated by snarky comments from an anonymous, pre-recorded voice named JACK. JACK was a very weird, very cruel, and very unpopular commentor. It was impersonal -- in fact, that was the entire point. This station without DJs was trying to be an IPod on the radio -- and the city was outraged.

Mayor Bloomberg used obscene language to register his displeasure with the format change. The Internet blew up with complaints. Cousin Brucie himself even called into WNYC radio to exclaim how music radio was different, special, and an experience that no IPod could replicate. Outraged reigned.

No one liked JACK. JACK was wack. All boring music and no DJs made JACK a dull boy.

The ratings tanked. NYC firmly rejected JACK. The station didn't get JACK in the ratings. And, finally, in 2007, they decided to take JACK off ... the radio. (To paraphrase Fight Club, "I am JACK's total lack of ratings."). Soon enough, WCBS FM returned in all its oldies, high ratings glory.

JACK FM was an attempt to do something "cool" and "cutting edge" and it failed completely. Just a reminder that different isn't always better or more popular. And today, more than a decade, no one in NYC remembers -- or wants to remember -- JACK FM. It's like that embarrassing person you dated years ago that you want to forget and you want everyone else to forget. JACK has gone into NYC radio infamy -- gone and almost forgotten ... but not completely.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Could NYC Become a Ghost Town?

Huge, looming apartment buildings conquer the skyline ... and almost nobody lives in them ...

Retail and store space occupy some of the most famous streets in the world, highly valuable locations ... and much of it is empty ...

That is the reality of NYC today -- it's rapidly becoming a ghost town.

The reason is obvious: the city has become so expensive that many people can't afford to live here and many businesses can't afford to set up shop here. The result is that some of the most desirable real estate in the world is actually empty. You walk by these buildings and storefronts and you're looking at extremely expensive shells that house and cater to no one. 

And it's not just in Manhattan. Go to parts of Brooklyn and Queens and you'll see the same thing: huge swaths of commercial and residential real estate that everyone wants and no one wants to buy (because they can't afford to).

Of course, NYC is not a really ghost town -- more people live here than ever before. But in one of the many paradoxes of this paradoxical times, the vast majority cannot live and cannot shop in many of the locations where they would like to and where geographic logic would dictate that they should. Neighborhoods that are desirable are canniblizing themselves, making them, ironically, less interesting. 

Increasingly, neighborhoods aren't really neighborhoods -- they're strip malls of chain stores and, when a business closes and/or a landlord jacks up the rent, storefronts remain vacant in order to attract another chain store or business that'll pay exorbitant rents. But if they don't ... the spaces remain empty, further degrading the neighborhoods that more and more people can't afford. 

It's a vicious cycle of economics, a death rattle for a once great city. It can't go on like this -- or the kind of NYC that we love will be lost forever.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Interview: Tama Janowitz, Legendary New York Novelist

If you’ve read this blog long enough you know how much I love the work of Tama Janowitz, the author of Slaves of New York and other New York novels. Her writing is funny, quirky, and brutally honest. She explores the loves, lusts, ambitions, and anxieties of people striving to be successful and happy – and how it’s almost impossible to be either in this super-competitive world. 

Tama has been publishing books for over thirty years, a literary survivor. Describing herself as a “depressed person who laughs a lot”, she has lived an amazing life. Tama was kind enough to tell Mr NYC readers about her life’s journey, her work, her writing process, her memories of NYC in the 1980s, what it was like to know Andy Warhol -- and about the future. 
Very briefly, who is Tama Janowitz and where did she come from? What made you choose a crazy career like writing -- or did it choose you?

I wanted to be a painter but my mom was single, unemployed (for the most part) and we lived very, very marginally. Paints/materials cost money. You could write with a pencil and paper (although in my case I had a manual typewriter!). I just was very determined and even in high school I wrote and wrote and wrote. Plus, me and my mom were huge readers, we read avidly, all the time, we discussed everything we passed back and forth. We got books at the drugstore with the covers ripped off, they cost a quarter; we went to the library every week. Reading to me was being allowed to visit another planet; to enter into someone else's head. If you are reading something you are absorbed by, you are THERE, and then you put down the book and you are NOT there, you are back in the world, but as soon as you pick up that book again you are right back teleported onto that other planet, other time, other people. The actual writing was far harder than I imagined. My mother was very encouraging. She never said, 'You are great!' she just said, 'Good work, keep going, I am enjoying this.' She was never shocked by anything I wrote, just supportive and encouraging. Painting for me was fun; writing was work, but I expect that had I continued to paint as a 'career' or 'life path' it would have eventually turned into 'work'. My mother told me, 'You don't wait to be 'inspired,' you just put words down on paper and when you have enough pages, you can start revising, which is where the work really begins.

You became famous for Slaves of New York in 1986 -- a book about struggling artists and hangers-on in early 1980s Manhattan. Did you still feel like a struggling artist when you wrote it, and even after you became successful? Does a professional writer always need to feel like he or she is struggling in order to stay good?

Oh I don't know. I never made much money from the whole thing, I always say had I started at McDonald's I would now have made more, plus I might be a manager or own my own franchise AND have health insurance. I know rich people who are writers, or look at Edith Wharton! She not only never struggled financially, she never -- apparently -- struggled with getting words on paper, and she is a great writer! Or, William Styron, he struggled with depression but he was married to a wealthy heiress, at least he didn't have to worry about money! Ultimately all human beings are pretty much struggling with something, from what I can see. However, I really, really want to win a BIG lottery so I can fully understand what it is like to not worry or struggle financially. Indeed, winning might prove to 'blight' me. It might be dreadfully burdensome. However, I am WILLING to accept the prize money, if for no further reason than to STRUGGLE with the outcome.

One of the things I like about your books is that the characters are complex and messy. They have very real but also contradicting motivations, just like people in real life. For instance, Eleanor in "Slaves", Florence Collins in A Certain Age, and Peyton Amberg are women who want to be successful in their own right but also feel dependent on men. Is that a good way to describe your characters or, as a man, am I missing something?

Again, I don't know. I think in A Certain Age Florence wanted the societal conveniences and acceptance that come -- at least in my experience, in NYC -- from being married to/associated with -- a wealthy man. (And, these days, same sex is also a status thing). I don't think she felt dependent on a man -- not for love, really -- but for status. She felt like she had waited too long, at 32, the game of musical chairs was ending and she didn't have a seat. Peyton Amberg was different than Florence, it was in a sense a study of a nymphomaniac, she had a void she kept trying to fill: adventure, excitement, basically she was looking for love but since she did not understand what love was, the hunger was all consuming. I can't explain further, I don't think. Both books are in a way about desperation, despair, wanting and an inability to find an inner peace.

When you write, are you more interested in advancing a plot or exploring the lives of your characters?

I don't think plots are my forte. I always think of E.M. Forster's advice 'the king died and then the queen died' is different than, 'the king died and then the queen died OF GRIEF' the latter is a plot. I'm paraphrasing Forster now of course. How does real life work? Dickens was heavy with the plot. And the coincidences too. Most of 'real life' is not a plot. You are born, you go to school, your parent’s divorce, you go to college, you get a job, you get married, you have kids, your parents die, whatever -- it's a string of events. How do you turn a string of events into a plot that, in so many ways, is NOT real life? Even W.G. Sebold, who one reads for the purity of the writing, manages to put a plot into the work of some sort, however un-plot like. The novel: there are suspense novels, mystery novels, horror novels, family sagas, historical novels etc. the person living her or his life may or -- more probably -- doesn't see their life as having a plot. There's very little way to understand much more than waking up in the morning, eating breakfast. Let's say you have a bad night's sleep and in the morning you are irritable with your child and so that child goes to school that day and gets in a fight with another kid and gets suspended and during that time hangs out in the park and burns down a nearby house, killing an elderly woman and her grandchild and blah blah blah. To see the 'plot' on the part of the person who was irritable that morning with their child, would take an outside observer. Because otherwise, we'd all go crazy, just because we got irritable with someone the entire planet is destroyed? Or, you're very kind to someone and give them five dollars and that gives them just enough to buy some bullets? What I'm trying to say is, just because you as a person are irritable at breakfast, you're not taking part in a plot.

How do you go about creating characters in your fiction? Who are some of your personal favorite characters that you've created?

I can't even remember my books. I struggle writing, sometimes it is more of a struggle. When I am done I have a good feeling for about five minutes. If my book gets accepted, published, I feel good for about five minutes. I can't feel so good for more than five minutes. And there are some fun moments in writing but they are rare and then I do feel good for five minutes. Sometimes I write a line or so that I can still feel good about. Or the moment when a character starts doing stuff I didn't know they would do, that is a good feeling.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but you've published 12 books, including a memoir. Has it gotten easier or harder to keep writing over the years?

Yes, I wrote about that many and I did write more that never got published. And it got harder over the years with nasty reviews 99.9 per cent of the time and I mean that seriously, and no money, and fewer brain cells. And I used to wake up determined DETERMINED I would write 1,500 words a day like a job, just DO IT good bad indifferent until the book took off on its own recognizance or there was enough of a finished book to get an actual idea and start re-writing (like my mom would say, 'gee, this book really starts to take off on page seventy, throw out the first seventy pages and start from there'). I'm not complaining, I had a lot of fun. But if you do something and you don't make money and you don't get good reviews and it's not that much fun to do it most of the time, you get tired out.

In the 1980s, you were part of the glamorous party, art, and literary scene in NYC. What was special about the city and that time to you?

I had so much fun then and met people and traveled all over the world and ate in all the restaurants and went to openings, nightclubs, theater, ballet, opera, openings. And back then you could pretty much create your own outfit, even if you didn't have the same cache as rich people buying Hermes and Valentino etc. one time a magazine made me over to look like a rich person and, wow, did I command respect and was ushered into the V.I.P [. board members club at the opera. free champagne, for sure! Other times I went to Three Roses on Canal Street back when NYC was ROUGH. In retrospect, had I been more confident, had I had any self-esteem, had I been less scared, had I had any financial cushion/security to fall back on (other than scrambling to apply for grants/awards, writing a story that possibly The New Yorker might buy for 3k that would pay my rent for 3 months) had I been prettier, had I not been treated with hostility, well, gosh! Things might have been different.

You and other popular young writer in the 1980s became known as the "Brat Pack." Did you resent that label or is it a badge of honor?

It did not bother me because it had nothing to do with me and other people I barely knew/met. It was odd to be lumped together, but the media sure liked it.

You also knew Andy Warhol in his final years. What was he like -- and what's was it like knowing someone who was already a legend?

Now I wish I had written down everything he said when I would get home every night because he was so so so funny and in a really brilliant way, dry, observant, witty and I did not write down what he said and he had me howling with laughter every night and now I can't remember what he said. and he was so maligned at the time, by critics, by a lot of people, they were so snarky about him - a has-been gay aging pop artist - but he did not let it get to him, at least outwardly, and he always told me, 'gee Tama it doesn’t matter what they say about you in a column, it's how many inches they give you' but he said it in a much better way. but, the difference is, he loved going out and going to the places and seeing the celebrities and the latest play, show, opening, club, whatever, and he loved the attention = good, bad, indifferent -- and I just can't stand it. I just feel invaded, accosted, scared. There is no fun in that for me. That's why I left the city, I like to see some plants growing and my horse and the seasons, and in NYC if you are a success you don't have a second to realize it before you are rated a SECOND CLASS HAS-BEEN TOAD. Which is how they treated Andy, but he didn't mind. 

You're a female writer in a male-dominated field. How did you deal with the sexism that came from that? And what do you think about #MeToo?

I don't think people realize the level of contempt that men have for women (I'm generalizing now) but until recently women were no more than something held 'a little higher than my horse, a little lower than my dogs' anyway life is so so short, I know I am lucky there is dental care and antibiotics and it is strange first you are young, as a female, and considered a sex entity or just plain and valueless, and then you get old and you become invisible as a female, but if you are an old guy, you are still esteemed. But that's my opinion. 

As someone who has lived in and written a lot about NYC, what do you think about how the city has changed over the years? 

It is not the same place where thirty years ago although that time was almost over, you could come to NYC and survive, you did not need to have money, you just needed to escape where you came from, you needed to have desire, dreams, ambition, you needed a community with which to identify, you needed to go there because you wanted to 'make it'. You could find probably a cheap apartment, you could find a job that was in a copy shop or a waiter position that would pay for the rent, if you were young you could go out at night and find other lunatics of your ilk. now it is a city of young P.R. people paid for by their parents and anxious to get a ticket to a P.R. event on a rooftop where the crowd is composed of other P.R. kids. 

You eventually left NYC for upstate New York. What was that transition like and do you miss the city at all? 

I don't miss NYC but it is so grim bleak and dreary here six months of the year it is mud, cold, darkness, there is no delivery of food, it is hunting season, they go bang bang bang with the guns, they shoot anything they want and the roads are icy. And it is bleak here but it can be bleak in the mountains of West Virginia and many, many other places but it is not that cold there! then six months a year it is beautiful and there are leaves on the trees, although there are many flies and things, we have horse flies, deer flies, green flies, bot flies, mosquitos, ground bees, wasps, no, I would not choose to come to this area. No no no. I think Hawaii sounds really nice, away from a volcano. Maybe the mountains of Tennessee? Mountains of Arizona? What about, parts of Oregon? I would like to move to one of those places. But I have applied for many, many teaching jobs. I applied for a job at the community college of Laramie, Wyoming but they did not even trouble themselves to respond and say, 'Sorry, Tama Janowitz, you did not get the job.' What do you hope to accomplish in the future, either personally or in your writing? I am trying to learn how to ride a horse. I have a horse, she is a 16 year old quarter-horse I purchased from my teacher, Stasia Newell at Newell Farm. I have been riding this horse for five and a half years now. So far, I am not a good rider. But, my dream would be to LOOK good on her. Plus, my mare Fox is, like, my closest friend! I know that sounds silly but we just love each other. 

Finally, tell us something about Tama Janowitz that we don't know! 

There's nothing I can tell you; really. I am a depressed person who laughs a LOT.

Couldn’t have said it better myself! That said, when you look at the great works and amazing life she's had, I hope you feel some joy! Thanks!

You can find all of Tama's book on here

Friday, October 12, 2018

Pump Up the Volume: The Rise and Fall of Pirate Radio in NYC

As a young'un, one of my favorite movies was Pump Up the Volume. It's about a miserably lonely teenager who starts a pirate radio station out of his bedroom/parent's garage that becomes a sensation in the desolate, boring Arizona town he's just moved to with his family. 

Operating under the name "Happy Harry", he speaks directly to the emotional pain and tumult of his fellow teenagers. Unlike his regular shy, reserved self (named Mark), "Harry" is funny, outrageous, profane; he plays wild music, calls kids who write confessional letters, and even prank calls the high school's guidance counselor. His craziness quickly becomes a target by the town elders and eventually the FCC -- and it all ends dramatically. 

As a teenager this movie "spoke" to me. It was and remains the most realistic, most accurate look at what it was like to be an early 1990's teenager. And the idea of creating your own pirate radio station seemed amazing to me at the time.

Of course, these days, we'll all pirate radio broadcasters thanks to the Internet. We can create YouTube channels, Facebook Live, or podcasts -- and, of course, blogs! Pump Up the Volume reminds you of a time where the idea of young, regular person reaching hundreds, thousands of other people to broadcast their lives was a truly novel, totally strange concept.

But pirate radio was a real thing! In Brooklyn, back in the 1990s, there was an amazing pirate radio station called WBAD, a hip-hop station that quickly become a local phenomenon (I remember a guy in one of my SAT prep classes talking about it). Eventually, of course, the media and the FCC got wind of it and pursued it to its grave.

Listen to this amazing Studio 306 segment about WBAD, a piece of NYC history, and remind yourself of another time when the idea of regular people broadcasting to the masses was a truly revolutionary idea 

Thursday, October 11, 2018

"The Life and Times of Tim" Revisited

Eight years ago I blogged about a hilarious, obscure cable cartoon show called "The Life and Times of Tim" about a sad sack who lives with his girlfriend in NYC, has a crummy job and awful friends, and finds the world totally bewildering and scary and overwhelming.

As I said at the time, it felt like this show had been created just for me. It's viciously funny, its sense of humor is, well, like mine, and Tim even looks like me! 

The show only lasted for about three seasons and vanished into the cultural ether but it's great to see that, years later, this classic show is getting some revisionist love.

Best of all, you can find many of the episodes on YouTube so click here if you want to laugh your ass off about a guy who is, in too many painful ways to count, a lot like your friend, Mr NYC. 

Salvador Dali & Rikers Island - A Story Too Bizarre to be Believed

This is a story that's too bizarre, too weird, too only-in-New York to be believed.

It begins like this: Salvador Dali -- yes, that Salvador Dali! -- painted a picture for Rikers Island ... and that's not even the strangest thing about this very strange story of an inside-job art heist that went wrong ... or did it?

Read it and wrap your mind around how small decisions plus bad decisions plus bad luck plus dumb good luck can lead to some people's lives getting ruined and others prospering. It's a reminder of why life, and this world, is so unfair.

And what ever happened to the painting? We still don't know! 

Postscript: here's a clip from a documantary about Salvador Dali in NYC in 1965, the same year he painted this picture for Rikers Island.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

'Tis the (Cultural) Season

This fall the culture of NYC is richer than ever.

We recently went to the just-closed Heavenly Bodies exhibit at the Met (the fashion show of Catholic Church and Catholic Church-inspired garb) and I'm itching to see the New York at Its Core exhibit at the Museum of the City of NY (it tells the story of NYC through the lives of important individual New Yorkers and 450 objects). 

Also this fall, if you can afford the tickets, is a booming season on Broadway of original plays. For the last several years Broadway has seen an influx of "blockbuster" musicals, many based on movies, and original straight-plays have become scarcer and scarcer. But this season is different. There's a bunch of new plays featuring great actors like Kerry Washington, Bryan Cranston, Daniel Radcliffe, and Cherry Jones that should make any fan of great acting and original drama salivate.

But what's got moi really salivating is this: the new Velvet Underground Experience exhibit. This a massive multi-media show of films, pictures, "projections", special events, and lots of other stuff that not only is about the band and its music but also about the late 1960s music and artistic scene in NYC that birthed and nurtured it. I cannot wait to see this!

So, this fall, as always, the cultural life in NYC never disappoints. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Wall Street *Hearts* Democrats

Okay, not really, but lots of people in the financial industry are pouring huge amounts of money into Democratic campaigns to help the party win control of Congress next month.

Normally the financial industry gives way more money to their employees in the Republican party but, this year, it seems that all bets are off.

"Bet" is the operative word. A lot of this money is probably being given so that the financial industry will get access (and favorable regulations, etc.) from a Democratic congress, assuming the Democrats win. But it appears that raw greed and self-interest isn't the only thing motivating this giving: it seems that even people in the brutal, cut-throat world of Wall Street have some decency and don't like seeing their country slide into fascism.

If only the maniacs in DC had the decency of the people on Wall Street.