In the springtime I am constantly entertaining Swedes. Swedish people love New York. Of course we acknowledge the healthy and conspicuous Asian and Hispanic population here; my PTA notices now come in Spanish, English and Mandarin. But for a country whose population is smaller than that of our Metropolitan area, there is a relatively huge Swedish contingent in New York City. And New York loves the Swedes. We welcomed IKEA and H&M with financial open arms; our men love their statuesque women, our failing record companies love their charming blonde-roots version of rock and roll, we drive their Volvos and always feature Bergman at our classic film festivals.
And the Swedes love New York. What’s not to like? From a country with very few edges,
here they can feast on rude people, all-night transportation, ethnic food-fests on every street, real rock and roll, bad rock and roll, and black people. The Swedes are obsessed with black culture. They love blues, jazz, r& b, dark women. Sunday gospel services and brunches in Harlem are teeming with Scandinavians hoping to imbibe a piece of something truly authentic. Colorful. Noisy, soulful. They are a model country of perfect physical stature, a polite social democracy—looking for a soul, some grit..
I recently noticed Thelonious Monk boxsets selling on ebay for particularly high prices. Where were these people during the first decade of his solo career when he was under-acknowledged and playing clubs and bars for the very few with actual ears? Here we have to give the Swedes credit. Swedes were historically way more appreciative of American jazz musicians than we. The relative number of important live jazz performances preserved from their on-soil clubs and concert halls is serious. These guys had soul and true talent and the Swedes ate it up. For this I love the Swedes. For their jazz ears.
All that aside, having spent a fair amount of time there, and having lived with a transplanted Swede for several years, I consider myself kind of an expert. I do admit something of a weakness for their cool, sophisticated naivete. But moving into the realm of rock and roll, another story altogether. Okay, Springsteen tours in Sweden. There is actually a national lottery for tickets, he is so popular. Dylan, sometimes. But I find it particularly annoying that SAS offers a special roundtrip fare for the annual Allman Brothers extravaganza in New York. And that I am forced to spend two weeks of every spring entertaining the concert-goers. Don’t get me started. For those who missed the Grateful Dead heyday, or chose not to participate, here is a still-living (well, at least one of them) opportunity for endless extended versions, wandering riffs, a venue filled with marijuana smoke and beer guts. A chance to mingle with American Swedes and Wall Streeters who are nostalgic for something they would not have attended had they been alive at the time. Grown, rich men paying top concert price to hear a glorified bar band ramble, without the waitresses and conversation. Because who else can afford these prices? Upper middle class Americans. Swedes on holiday. This is a perfect opportunity to both ‘slum’ in an American logo’d T-shirt and jeans, and basque in the nostalgia of what they have read in Swedish guidebooks was a golden era in American rock music.
Do I sound bitter? Maybe. I did see these guys when the brothers were actually there, and when it cost maybe $3. No one will convince me that the twenty-five thousandth time they play these songs, no matter how much hot young guitar blood they import, is as good as it was. But for Swedish rock fans, as good as it gets. Personally, I need to be convinced that 2 drummers are better than one. Jimi Hendrix did it all with 3 guys. How many have come close to that? End of story.
I am always a bit baffled by the constant stream of New York tourists looking for the old CBGB’s, Café Wha, retracing the footsteps of Bob Dylan. I have seen more Ramones T-shirts in Stockholm bars in 2006 than I ever saw on St. Marks place when they were still living. The Swedes at my house have them—these people taking the old tours of New York, people from a town with a million-year past, obsessed with ‘historic’ bars and especially anywhere Bob Dylan might have jammed or sat or bummed a cigarette.
A rich Manhattan art gallery owner asked me years ago to help him make a film about the New York Underground. I laughed and said…’You mean the subway?’ Because there is, and was, no underground. This is a marketing term, and the guy made the film and made a cool umpteen million marketing this to the clueless audience who is hungry for ‘the edge’ but wouldn’t know it if they fell over it.
The fact is, some of the guys I know whose pictures are plastered all over these ‘New York Underground’ books…are living in basements, shooting insulin not heroin, being given the bum’s rush at downtown cafes, regretting they sold their old strat in 1986 for $4,000 because they needed to eat, instead of 2007 where to get that old strat back they’d have to come up with $200,000. And there it is, on the wall of Guitar Center, with their name on the provenance, while they can’t even afford a Mexican-made new el-cheapo version, and the kid behind the counter is treating you like a bum, giving you attitude because he can’t afford to waste time with a customer who is here to buy a couple of strings. Maybe even wearing your old band’s T-shirt. Irony, I think this is called.
The thing is, if the Swedish and other tourists were around in the good old days, they might not have known the real deal from the fake, because it wasn’t in guide books. It wasn’t always obvious. It often came in a smelly unwashed package, in a crummy bar or café where the performers alternated between undeveloped genius and bad comics—jugglers, badly dressed poets missing teeth. They wouldn’t have enjoyed Café Wha nearly as much as they do now, where they immortalize it in their digital albums—smiling, clean and blonde, in front of the old posters…
Tonight I might go down and sit in a dive bar—one of the last of a dying breed, because how many of these can still afford the New York mall real-estate prices? And there, while I am drinking from an underwashed glass, sharing the bar with one or two hip investment bank types, but mostly frustrated young musicians, shut-out old ones, some toothless locals and dogs who wander in…there, I might hear, between the really rough acts with the digeridoos and squeaky violins, the too-loud garage-rock posers, overmade-up and tattooed girls, painfully-pierced aging adolescents…I might hear someone real. And they’ll pass the hat, like they do, and I’ll take the subway back to my place where the drunk Swedes will have completed another red-star ‘tourist’ day searching for the ghosts of the New York ‘Underground’, and I’ll just listen.