"art is no longer wanted"
Bush Tetras' Cynthia Sley On the Current State of Downtown NYC
Sley at a recent gig; Photo courtesy of Bush Tetras' FacebookCynthia Sley is the lead singer and a founding member (along with Pat Place, Dee Pop and the recently deceased Laura Kennedy) of the seminal female-fronted early '80s New York City rock band The Bush Tetras. Recently reformed and reconfigured, they made a visit to their old stomping grounds (Sley is now an LA resident) for two-nights at the Slipper Room on Orchard Street. Alas, one night was all we would get as noise complaints forced the cancellation of the second gig. We asked Sley to write her thoughts on New York then and now and, not surprisingly, some things have changed and others haven't: there are still, as she once so affectingly sang, "Too Many Creeps."
When I used to gig downtown, I lived on East 9th Street and First Ave. It was a different animal then. Kind of dangerous, but mostly people ripping off people copping, an occasional mugging, or the pitter patter of guys running across my roof to the next one, armed with stolen cases of beer from the local bar. We would fearlessly walk the streets down here, though, and see each other play. I had a bike back then and would usually ride empty streets to the Mudd Club, Tier 3, or CBGBs with my roommate, Barb, on my handlebars. I hated taking the train, so preferred the downtown club convenience. We bragged about never going above 14th Street. All that was ours was downtown. But it was just a motley few of us. Now there are droves upon droves of upwardly mobile individuals clogging the streets. Maybe they prefer to see a strip or comedy show or go to one of the millions of expensive restaurants in the LES than to see their friends play in a band at some dive club. We had no expensive restaurants. Rent was cheap so it gave us some poetic license not to have to work a straight job. We stayed up late, often without the help of any substances. I loved, loved, loved Tier 3. It was like our clubhouse. We used the upstairs to have wrestling matches and actually danced on the dance floor, whether it was to a live band or vinyl spinning on the turntable...
I often think about our first tour and how well we were received, by both fans and club owners. People would take us under their proverbial wings and give us a floor to sleep on. We were just three months old then and did 29 dates in 31 days, a special flight deal with Eastern Airlines. I marvel at how we were able to get the opportunity to get our music out there in such little time. I mean, we weren't the GoGos... not hardly. We ended up at the airport in Atlanta on every stop over and it served as a constant reminder that we were representing the NYC weirdos, no question. We were always billed as "NYC's Bush Tetras." I liked that and was always proud to be a New Yorker!
80s-era Bush Tetras
Fast forward to last weekend at the Slipper Room on Orchard Street in the LES. The people who rent this space and run the venue are friends of mine, fighting the good fight to keep art alive in LES. They had the space when it was a small, one-story building. The owner built the space up into a now three-story building, totally pissing off the next-door neighbors, who bought their condo in hopes of a great view (a funny idea in LES) and big market value gains.... yuppies that they are. These people aren't moving to the suburbs anymore. They are moving to downtown Manhattan!? I think this is a crazy turn of events in NYC history. All the middle-class fled in the 70s and left it to us vagabonds. Now the vagabonds are moving to Brooklyn and the yuppies are moving to Manhattan. The result is nasty. These neighbors are making life and art living hell for my friends. They are on a mission to close that place down. Bush Tetras are normally loud, but we tried to accommodate and play lower. These neighbors didn't really care. It was 8pm on a Friday night, for God's sake. But this is their modus operandi. They call the cops CONSTANTLY, just to harass the Slipper Room. I left the club that night after getting shut down, not once, but twice for noise violations and it really struck me. Here is the frat boys' headquarters, these LES streets. Art no longer is wanted. Vagabonds are no longer wanted, and they couldn't afford to live or eat there anyway! That is not quite progress in my eyes, but it is the nature of the beast in NYC, and I have accepted it. Change. I'll just wait for it to swing around again in my lifetime, when the weirdos retake the island.
My son, Austin Julian, left NYC over a year ago, mostly due to these same changes in the city. He couldn't do his art and support himself. Rents were too high. Frat boys are not his thing and he realized he would have to have a straight job to earn enough money to stay in NYC. His band is the mighty Sediment Club and they spend most of their time touring the country, playing small venues and house parties, recording, and selling cool t-shirts and CDs on the road, kinda like we did. He is able to have that life-style (the one I had 30 years ago in Manhattan) in Providence, RI. He doesn't exactly take my advice but he and I do commiserate about how much NYC has changed. I tell him tales of how fun and how much the city was like the Wild West, and how the weirdos won for a minute.