Jesse Malin exemplifies an increasingly rare breed—a songwriter with an almost umbilical connection to a New York City that barely exists anymore outside of fading photos and fading memories. It’s fair, I think, to consider him part of a lineage stretching from Lou Reed through Jim Carroll, Richard Hell, Alan Vega, et al. From his time as a really young kid in the pioneering NYHC band Heart Attack, through his ‘90s alterna-fame with glam punks D Generation (a band that also included my DM colleague Howie Pyro), to his 21st Century solo work, Malin has grown into a worthy Bard of the Boroughs. His new album, New York Before the War, may actually be the apotheosis of his career so far. (I have no doubt that some DGen fans would disagree.)
Since DGen, Malin has shed some Lower East Side punk classicism for a broader approach; there are traces of Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen all over the new album. But it’s an eclectic batch of songs, and still for the greater part identifiably punk-inspired, and still absolutely classicist. Malin told DM that the title New York Before the War itself refers to things that New York, and society at large, have lost.
It’s no particular war, it’s surviving and fighting against all the fucking corporate bastards, all the changes on the planet, with New York being one of the central pieces of the world. It’s that the world is such a disposable, apathetic, digitized place and we’re burning through it so fast. I’m into holding on to things that are important, and finding them, and making them, and celebrating them.
In that spirit of touching back to the worthy past for inspiration, we thought it would be fun to look at Malin’s very early roots, as a member of Heart Attack. That band formed in 1980, when its members ranged in age from 12 to 16. Even at that age, the band managed to tour, and they released a 7” and two E.P.s, which were collected on the inevitable discography CD The Last War 1980-84. Malin was kind enough to share his old stash of fliers with us, and when we prodded him for personal reminiscences of the shows, he was supremely obliging.
That’s the first time anybody took my picture. That’s me and two other members of Heart Attack. Javier, on drums, from Mexico City. I met him through an ad in the Village Voice, he was a very original drummer. In the middle is John Frawley, he was from Flushing, Queens, and had been in the band The Mob, who were our friends and rivals at the time. He played bass. And that’s me on the right, I was 14 years old, and that was around the time the “God is Dead” 7” came out on the Damaged Goods fanzine label. And we were on East 12th Street, with a bunch of Puerto Rican guys in the back, and that was shot for Sounds, the UK weekly newspaper. Tim Sommer was doing a piece on the early, early New York hardcore scene, and I think we put out the first 7” from that scene, which became kind of a collectable, but it got bootlegged a few times. And that’s not our car, it just looked like that down there.
171A was the studio where Bad Brains recorded the ROIR cassette. They had a record store in the basement called “Rat Cage.” Jerry Williams, rest his soul, wonderful guy, recorded all our bands there, let us rehearse there, had illegal gigs, the Bad Brains LIVED there, Black Flag rehearsed there, it was one of the first places to support hardcore. The first Beastie Boys record Polly Wog Stew was recorded there as well, with the famous “Egg Raid on Mojo.” That was a benefit, three nights at a theater, and believe it or not, with that bill, it was kinda empty! But a great show.
The later years of Heart Attack, we got a bit noisy, and somehow attracted fans in those bands, so we played with Sonic Youth, we played with Swans. Swans were the loudest thing I’d ever seen at the time, louder than Motörhead, and they were very good to us. We did a few shows, mostly in New York, and that one was at the SIN Club, which means “Safety In Numbers.” That night there were gunshots going off across the street, and we were the very few white kids at 3rd St and Avenue C. The SIN Club took chances and put on great shows, and that was the cool diversity, being able to have Heart Attack and Swans, mix those two worlds. I guess the common thread would be anger, angst, intensity.
That was at the Reggae Lounge. The second Dead Kennedys album was out. I remember Jello took [Reagan Youth singer] Dave Insurgent, a very intelligent writer and one of the strong leaders of our scene, and just a great kid, I miss him all the time, Jello took his cowboy hat and !wore it for “Winnebago Warrior.” I remember Jello was very generous, he bought a few copies of every record that we had for sale, being the collector that he is. I remember him calling my house, and my mother answering the phone, and him inviting us to play some shows with the Dead Kennedys. That was a kick, having Jello Biafra calling your house! Beastie Boys played kinda early, I missed them that night. Reagan Youth were great. Opening for Dead Kennedys, we got the behind-the-scenes look at how great they were, and how Jello worked himself and the crowd until he was worn out. He gave everything.
We were on tour in California. GBH wasn’t very nice to us, but Social Distortion was very nice. I think they might have been on drugs then. They’d heard I was from New York and they wanted to talk a lot about Johnny Thunders, Walter Lure, the Dolls. I remember they showed up very late. I thought a “junkie” was someone who ate too many Twinkies, I didn’t really know what that was back then. Social D were really big out there, and not that big in New York, and I thought they were great, they had the balls NOT to have to be like a thrash band, and still play like rock ‘n’ roll like they wanted to.
Rick Rubin had a band called the Pricks that used to open for Heart Attack, he was a friend of mine. As he started to grow and change, but before he started the Def Jam label—and if you notice, the flier says “Def Jam presents”—he put on a show at the Hotel Diplomat. He wanted to mix three types of music that he loved, the dance/art thing with Liquid Liquid from 99 Records, Treacherous 3 from the Bronx, early days of hip-hop, and hardcore. Today, that would be an amazing bill, but $10 was a lot at the time, and no kids were going to pay $10 for the one out of three bands that would be their type of music. Before Lollapalooza and big festivals like that, the tribes were separated. Rick postered the town, rented a great P.A., and he personally probably lost a lot of money, but he was very honorable and he paid everybody what he promised. It WAS a great night, and it was great to check out those bands. I respected Rick then and still do.
Dave Grohl wasn’t in the band yet, that was before. That was one of their first gigs, we got in touch with them early, we really liked them a lot. We liked that they had a Bad Brains thing going on, but they were still very original. [Singer] Pete Stahl is still a friend of mine, and they still play, and they still kill it. We would swap shows with them down in D.C. at the 9:30 Club. What a great band! They weren’t afraid to play reggae, and play it well. Peppermint lounge, with all the history of it, was still open to new things and letting the kids take over on Sunday nights. I was still in junior high school then. I’d have to get myself back together to get to school on Monday.
Our drummer Javier flew back from Mexico after being away for a month, and we rehearsed all that day—I ripped my fingernail off my strumming finger and had to gaffer tape it. I didn’t have calluses anymore because we hadn’t rehearsed. It was not my favorite moment. I loved Irving Plaza, still do. I’ve used “Irving Plaza” as my stage name in a band I have with Ryan Adams called The Finger. But that night the tape didn’t hold and my guitar got covered with blood, it was not a fun night. My good friend John Carco from the Misguided was hanging out with us, and he wrote something on the wall in the dressing room, so the owner of the club took his denim jacket and wouldn’t give it back, it was quite upsetting. The gig was OK. Circle mosh pits were just beginning in those days, watching people go around in circles was kind of amusing. Kraut were really nice guys, they were from Queens. like we were. They made really good sounding, well-produced records, in a Sex Pistols/Clash kinda way. They were the first band of our scene to be on MTV, even before the Beastie Boys.