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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2003/04/25
by Jesse Jarnow

A Mountain Range of Evidence

The talk around the door of the club was about a lot of things. Some of it
was about the new smoking ban that recently went into effect in New York
City bars and restaurants. Laws like that have an interesting way of having
strange ramifications and reverberations. On the most immediate level, it
means that club goers won’t wake up smelling like cigarette smoke the
morning after they go to a bar. (Though, oddly, the morning after my first
post-ban show, I still managed to wake up smelling like smoke, which I
didn’t quite understand, but wrote off to residual gunk on the floors and
walls of the venue.) The effect of that – on people like my friends and
myself – is that we’ll get a few more wearable days out of our clothes,
which will ultimately save laundry money. Good deal.
See, I’m not a cigarette smoker. Never have been. But, at the same time, I’m
pretty heartily opposed to the ban. I think it’s pretty lame. Besides the
fact that it’s fascist, I object to it on a poetic level: it essentially
outlaws the smoky jazz club from New York City, which is important a
cultural legacy as the city has ever had. It also makes it harder, of
course, to smoke pot in clubs — which, perhaps, will usher in a new age of
culinary marijuana treats. On top of all of this, and mostly importantly (on
this level), the ban will ultimately create far more work for club
employees. This will manifest itself both in terms of them having to enforce
the ban inside the bars – making sure people don’t smoke – as well as
outside. (In fact, the smoking ban has already caused at least one serious altercation between a bouncer and a club
patron, after which the bouncer ended up dead.)
What grown-ups call "quality of life" issues have long plagued New York
clubs. Noise complaints from clubs’ neighbors have oft been cited as reasons
for the hard times police give clubs and club owners. The Knitting Factory,
in particular, was recently shut down for a week or so due to these reasons.
By banning smoking, the city has increased the size of the crowds milling
about outside. Again, more work for the bouncers to keep a buncha drunk
people quiet and orderly on the streets of a city that looks for any
possible excuse to shut down a club. On the other hand, the crowds outside
will automatically form instant temporal communities — or, at the very
least, it will create little social spaces for people to communicate,
bumming cigarettes or lighters or whatever. Spaces like this are
surprisingly resilient. The very first night of orientation week of my
freshman year of college, for example, I met all of my future housemates,
who stood on the steps of our dorm smoking cigarettes. I wasn’t a smoker,
but that’s where the bonding seemed to be going on, and I met some of my
future best friends.
All of these things are fairly current effects. If it lasts (and there’s no
reason that it won’t), there’s a good chance that the smoking ban will wind
up having a larger impact on the scene. Small regulations tend to do that.
As anarchic as it appears, the very shape of the city today was (and
continues to be) created by tiny, incremental zoning laws that attempt to
mold the city. Architect and critic Rem Koolhaas once called Manhattan "a
mountain range of evidence without a manifesto." If that’s true, then
microscopic decrees might be seen as a slow attempt to shape one — though,
in reality, simply end up contributing to the ever-shifting concrete mass.
The height and design of many of the buildings in midtown Manhattan can be
traced to the 1916 Zoning Law. "[It] defines the outlines of the maximum
allowable construction," Koolhaas wrote. "The process of sheer
multiplication is allowed to proceed up to a certain height; then the
building must step back from the plot line at a certain angle to admit light
to the streets." In Delirious New York, Koolhaas goes on to detail
just how this law (and subsequent modifications and amendments to it) has
defined architectural practices in New York for the past 75 years.
Similarly, things like the smoking ban and the Cabaret Law – the one that
requires club owners to have a dancing permit – might well effect the kind
of music made in clubs.
The Cabaret Law, for example, forced promoters and musicians to search for
alternate venues for their performances. Though I have no way of qualifying
or quantifying it – I wasn’t around the scene when the law was passed – but
I wouldn’t be surprised if it changed the tone of the music in some venues,
as well. It’s not hard to imagine something like the Cabaret Law giving
flower to a downtempo or ambient scene.
It’s in these strange ways that a music scene evolves and morphs. Sounds
change, people grow up, bands form and fall apart, some make it, some don’t.
There was other talk at the door, too — the soon-coming (and long awaited)
arrival of Sir Joe Russo, drummer and hometown hero, by way of a power jam
featuring Russo alongside John Medeski, Charlie Hunter, DJ Logic, and
Skerik; a series of gigs put together by Ropeadope Records in Brooklyn;
success for Corn Mo (by way of appearances in Rolling Stone and on the cover
of the New York Press); hiring, firings, and people working at different
bars. Eventually, it all makes its way back to the stage.
Jesse Jarnow is can smell the cake
factory again.

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