NEW BRUNSWICK, NEW JERSEY, GOODBYE: Bands, Dirty Basements and the Search for Self
A book by Ronen Kaufmann
A few months ago, someone told me about a book being written by some dude from New Brunswick, NJ about the underground music scene. I was interested; my brother was pissed. His band, Endeavor, would inevitably be included in the account, and I’m assuming it’s a chapter of his life that he’d like to ultimately put to bed (even though people come out of the woodwork to tell me how much of an impact his music had on them, say, for instance, Brian Cook of Botch and later of These Arms Are Snakes.)
We lived together throughout most of our college experience, sharing houses with people in similar situations. His band mates, mutual friends that started record labels out of the house, some dude that worked in a gas station with a dog named Misty. It was an experience, I’ll tell you that. From the wise ass antics, to the array of influential bands that slept on our couch and let their dogs run around our backyard, things were good, and things got done. My brother and our roommate Rich Cunningham started a record label which released the first recordings from Hot Water Music and Ink and Dagger, our other roommate Carl went on to start Ferret Music and front the band Nora, while our other roommate Mike, who was in Endeavor with my brother, later went on to front Burnt By The Sun and ultimately joined Nora. The gas station guy, he disappeared. I bet I can find him on MySpace if I look.
So yeah, there was a lot of energy running up and down Hamilton St. in New Brunswick in that day and age. None of which is accounted for in the book I was interested in reading. To the author’s credit, it is a memoir. And memoirs aren’t scene documents. But amid the setting for the memoir, big things were happening and had happened. So I was half-heartedly expecting to maybe recapture some of that energy.
I was wrong. Again, to the author’s credit, the book is a memoir. But I was expecting more. Maybe I wanted to believe the book was the New Brunswick equivalent of D.C.’s ‘Dance of Days.’ I don’t know. I guess I just wanted New Brunswick to finally get some vindication for everything awesome that was reared there. This book didn’t do the job. And again, it’s a memoir, so I should just let it go. But man, there were some straight up aspects that unnerved me. Beginning with…
THE NEW BRUNSWICK MUSIC SCENE
This is clearly not a book documenting the New Brunswick underground music scene. Despite the fact that Lifetime have a song entitled ‘Theme Song for a New Brunswick Basement Show,’ and the title (New Brunswick, New Jersey, Goodbye) and subtitle (Bands, Dirty Basements and the Search for Self) of the book might lead someone to assume that this book is about the evolving NB music scene of the ’90s, and more specifically Lifetime, it’s not. It does document some of the later, less influential NB bands, and does cavort briefly around Lifetime, but it’s no all-telling anthropological diagram of New Brunswick’s underground music scene. So don’t go into the experience assuming that, even if that’s what your friends are telling you. If you want to know more about Lifetime, The Bouncing Souls, Deadguy or any other band from the New Brunswick, NJ area, get started on the interviews NOW and write the book already. I would but I was too busy wondering who the dirty kids on our couch were when that shit mattered to pay attention. (They turned out to be Ink and Dagger by the way…)
Furthermore, the back cover blurb states that the book is “an insider’s look at a truly underground artistic movement/community that eventually became well-known and influential.” But, it was well-known and influential before the author came to New Brunswick. Sorry to be the old dick here, but the author’s arrival into New Brunswick was a few years too late to capture the true artistic movement that would eventually give voice to his generation. There were bands in New Brunswick before 1998. And they were powerful, if only because they were doing something so fresh and new that no one knew how to gauge them. I would reference Sticks and Stones, Greyhouse, Policy of Three, Merel, The Trans Megetti or Iconoclast as some of the earlier up and running points for the very safe and established “punk” network that the author arrives into. Even if the bands described within the book didn’t know it, their “revolution” had been started years before by people that had since moved on. And being as how I really don’t know much about what happened before 1992 in New Brunswick, then perhaps that revolution goes further back. The point is this; it was there already. It wasn’t something that began as soon as the author came to town. If anything, I think he arrived just in time for the “revolution” eulogy.
THE PUNK PARADIGM
The author really, really loves calling himself “punk.” I don’t know if it’s punk to refer to yourself as “punk” so much. Of course, I don’t really know what “punk” formally means to begin with, so I’m at a loss, but I don’t know if labeling one’s own experiences and ideals as “punk” “punk” “punk” really helps. To his credit though, the author does fall in line behind a variety of “punk” expectations. I guess that’s punk, right?
1) He holds a job at Kinkos. (If you’ve ever read anything by Aaron Cometbus, who is also continually struggling to define the meaning of punk, then you know that he’s held jobs at numerous copy stores…)
2) He starts a band even though he can’t play an instrument, which isn’t really that out of line. It’s his bands politics, which he’s so ready to espouse upon. (They only play all-ages shows and don’t want people to pay more than $5 to see them. Those aren’t ideals, that’s Fugazi…)
3) He lives in group homes which border on squalor. (One was my former apartment, and yeah, we had roaches, but we dealt with it. And no, I can’t remember a hint of violence in the area, despite the author’s claims of riots in the area. It might sound pretty punk in print, but in actuality, it was a cheap apartment with no strings attached in a fairly safe environment.)
4) He doesn’t care about the music, only the message. (Heard this one way too many times before…)
Ultimately, the author does live a fairly DIY existence throughout his tenure in the New Brunswick scene. And even though he continually states that this book is about his experience, it’s one that’s been tried, tested and perfected for over twenty years before him. The paradigm had been established many years before his entry into New Brunswick. Hell, it was established before my entry there too. We all fell in line to a degree, attending basement shows, living on the cheap, stuffing 7″ records into plastic sleeves, etc, etc. Only I think we had more fun than the author. And we never called ourselves “punk.” My point is this; everything the author experienced was to be expected if you owned anything on Dischord Records and attended college at Rutgers in the ’90s. If he had tried out for the football team and documented the experience, I think I would have been more enthralled. I think that woulda been “punk” too…
According to the author, there were skinheads throughout New Brunswick in the late ’90s. Apparently, they lived two houses down from myself, my brother and our roommates. To my knowledge though, I never saw any. The one dude at that house who might have been construed as a “skinhead” was fat with long hair. I think we called him “Junior” and I know we never took him very seriously because he wore a kilt.
ROCK THE MOTHERFUCKING HOUSE
No one should ever state that they are in a place “to rock the mother fucking house” unless they are Flava Flav or some other manufactured record industry scum. The author does though, and even if he’s the most ironic dude on the planet, you gotta remember that irony or sarcasm doesn’t always come off when you’re reading a stranger’s memoirs. I’m hoping he’s the most sarcastic sonofabitch on the planet.
I bought the book, and I read through the thing in a day. That’s not a bad thing. Nor are any of my gripes. I really, sincerely do appreciate the author’s efforts. I just think he got there too late, came off a little naive and missed out on a lot of fun. I applaud his effort. I just wish it was more comprehensive, less about his own experience and not as generous with the word “punk.” That, and not enough about Endeavor. I can’t let nepotism escape here…