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Published: 2007/05/11
by Jesse Jarnow

More A Semiotician Than A Guitarist: Marc Ribot Goes to Jail

Marc Ribot went to jail so you could keep rocking. Or listening quietly, dancing, or however you enjoy live music. Though he wasn't dragged from the Tonic stage playing his guitar, the former squatter came awfully close, refusing to leave on April 14th, the day the new tenants took over the lease from experimental music's largest Manhattan home. Ribot and Take It to the Bridge — an organization he co-founded with musician Rebecca Moore — are demanding that the city provide a new venue to the Lower East Side avant-garde community that has occupied the neighborhood for a century.

Like many of Ribot's other projects, his musical sit-in also employed Tonic's red velvet curtain as a backdrop. Instead of angular jazz, though, Ribot played the trespasser. "I've always considered myself more a semiotician than a guitarist anyway," the frequent Tom Waits collaborator told in his matter-of-fact Zappa-like deadpan. Point taken. Playing Hoagy Carmichael's "The Nearness Of You" unamplified, police officers looking on, Ribot and Moore were soon hauled off.

Lest one write this off as more Manhattanite navel-gazing, Ribot argues that the wave of high modern condos across the Lower East Side will have a domino effect on American art. In the fall, he posted a firebrand jeremiad titled, "Crisis In Indie/New Music Clubs." In it, he wrote that "the productivity of New York City’s musical culture, even its more mainstream expressions, would have been impossible without the experimental jazz, new music, avant rock/punk/no-wave/experimental funk scenes which served as a type of research and development lab of the music culture as a whole."

Once a leather-jacketed/spiky-haired young lion of the New York jazz scene, Ribot has transformed into something of a still-restless statesman, now more often seen in a blazer and spectacles. Though he leads a half-dozen projects of his own (including Ceramic Dog, Los Cubanos Postizos, and ongoing collboration with bassist Henry Grimes), plays often with Tom Waits, John Zorn, Medeski Martin and Wood, and others, and has done session work with everybody from Allen Ginsberg to Trey Anastasio, Ribot is still exactly who he was when he started: a Manhattan jazz musician. And, right now, real estate developers are getting in the way of him making a living. Forgive him if he's pissed. I’ve been reading a lot of discussions about the club scene recently, and a lot of people are saying "forget it, surrender Manhattan, clubs are moving to Brooklyn" and others are saying "forget the New York area, it’s dead anyway." Why is it so important to continue to experimental music on the island of Manhattan?

Marc Ribot: I’ve heard a number of people say that the club scene will reform in Brooklyn and indeed it is. There are many wonderful clubs in Brooklyn. It’s certainly better for me. You’re speaking to me, I’m in Cobble Hill, it’ll be closer to me. In spite of the optimism I hear continually voiced, the fact of the matter is that I make less at the clubs in Brooklyn. Why? Because they’re in a less desirable market position. So, if my money’s gonna be cut in half, I’m going to complain about it, and I’m complaining.

It's not only worse for me, but it's worse for the music, because if the music is defunded, it does worse. That's one optimistic appraisal: that the music will reform elsewhere.

The whole discussion of this issue has been entirely false, okay? It's not a question of finding a space to play in. I could have a space to play in every night of the week if I didn't mind playing for passing the hat, in an out of the way place with 10 people in the audience. This isn't about a space to play, this is about money: money for musicians and money for the music. If the scene is defunded, the music will suffer, and the musicians will suffer. Both of those things should be fought by people who care about the music.

The Lower East Side is a good market location: people from New Jersey can get access to it. When you put a club in Brooklyn, people from Brooklyn come. But it's not cool if you're from the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side, or Jersey. That's the reason. These clubs are being driven out by rising rents, and part of the reason the rents are rising is because it's a desirable market location. And part of the reason it’s a desirable market location is because these neighborhoods have had 10 years of places like Tonic and the Mercury Lounge making it desirable.

MR: Right, everybody says, "go somewhere else and be the shock troops for real estate again." Forget it! These places should be able to stay in the neighborhoods long enough for the people in the neighborhoods and the clientele to get to know each other. The second reason involves heritage. Four or five extremely important social movements and attendant art movements were born within a 20-block radius of CBGB. That question is being ignored to a shocking degree by the city.

Let me put it this way: my job is that I travel around and play music. I go a lot of places. This past weekend I was in Paris and Brussels and a few places in Holland and Belgium. Over here, I see that within the last two years, the Second Avenue Deli has shut down without landmarking, which was the last physical remainder of the Yiddish theater scene. CBGB is shut down. It's amazing that that was allowed to happen. Now they're shutting down Coney Island, and they shut down Tonic, too. I said "I've had enough!"

I travel all over the world, and Paris has social problems. Vienna has social problems, plenty of immigrants, and there are developers there that would certainly like to build in desirable neighborhoods. But they don't knock down their opera houses just because the real estate value has gone up and somebody wants to put up a condo. It's simply not done. In Copenhagen, they don't knock down the famous old amusement park area because some rich guy came along and wanted to put in a hotel. It's not done! They value continuity, and they value their heritage, which is why people from all over the United States are willing to go a night without sleep so they can afford to go visit these places in the summer.

Opera is not our contribution to world culture. CBGB is. Tonic is. This is our cultural capital. We should be protecting it. New York is squandering our cultural capital. Calling the avant-garde the avant-garde was supposed to refer to advances in music, not real estate.

MR: To get underneath the question, first, about whether the scene will reform itself: who knows whether it will? Who knows whether it will move to other cities? Let’s get right to the guts: there’s an ideological assumption going on that it’s somehow wrong to challenge the market, that whatever the market produces is somehow the highest good, and — I’m sorry — that’s ideology. If one’s agenda is the propagation of an ideology, in which case you say "I’m a neo-liberal and I philosophically object to any attempts to interfere with the functioning of the market." That I can respect. What I can’t respect is people who have no idea whether or not things will be alright but saying that they’ll be just fine. I’m not functioning from the opposite standpoint. I’m not saying everything is better if it’s subsidized. I’m functioning from a very simple standpoint: I believe in fighting for the things and people that I love. If the market fails, and there’s no subsidy, then things die. That’s the way it is. Another argument is that what sustains these places — like Max’s Kansas City and CBs in the ’70s, and Tonic on the Lower East Side — is cheap rent, which can bring in a lot of musicians, and once the neighborhood changes and the rent starts to go up, then it’s only natural for clubs to move elsewhere.

MR: I agree, and I understand that argument. Again, I live in Brooklyn, and I would love to see clubs spring up in Brooklyn that pay me what Tonic did. I don’t see it happening. If you’re asking what I’d prefer, I don’t mind getting into a cab and going to Manhattan and making my bread and going home. I recognize that the neighborhood has changed and think that it’d be utopian to think that it could change back to what it was. I don’t think you can fight gentrification. If somebody with money wants to live on East 3rd Street, then they have as much right as anyone else. But I do think that there’s a difference between gentrification and fighting displacement. I do not think that because somebody with money wants to live on East 3rd Street that means that the function of that neighborhood — its nearly hundred-year history as a center of artistic and cultural production — has to shut down. That’s insane.

This is an industry, and the industry benefits the city. The city should protect it. It benefits the city enormously, not only in terms of tourism, but in terms of cultural productivity itself. These various avant-gardes have a relation to a much larger culture industry. Yesterday, I was contacted by a woman representing a Chinese filmmaker, and she wanted the score done. She could've contacted a lot of film composers in China or all over the world, but she wanted it done in New York, because it has that edge.

That edge — to me — translates to an interaction between the regular industry and its avant-garde, but there has to be an avant-garde, and it has to be funded in order for that to happen. That reputation of New York's is what brings in hundreds, maybe thousands, of mainstream productions to New York. Why else would a film production, a film music production, or a mainstream rock record come here? They don't come here 'cause there's cheaper hotels or weaker unions. They come here to take advantage of musicians who, over the years, have had the benefit of interacting with an avant-garde. Once that's erased, it's not just a question of erasing the avant-garde, it's a question of there being no reason left for the rest of the industry to be here. What steps can the city take to protect this?

MR: Let’s put it this way: why is there a garment district? There’s a garment district because the city has zoned a garment district. It has protected it. It has decided that having a manufacturing base is important. It’s why city managers keep a diversified economy. It’s important for New York to have a manufacturing base, so they have protected garment lofts and clothing manufacturers from competition with people putting in upscale condos. It has designated certain areas and provided subsidies and protections. Otherwise, there would be — believe me — there would be no garment industry in Manhattan.

The city should recognize that there's a market value in this industry. It should recognize an obligation to economic and cultural reasons to protect this music, and the venues which present it, and the people who play it. It should recognize that this music in particular is important.

I don't want to put down Lincoln Center. There are some lovely things that go on up at Lincoln Center, but the discrepancy in funding is outrageous. There's a lot of great orchestral music that's produced, and a few virtuoso players that tour. But if you go online and see who's touring. They don't need our Mostly Mozart festival to tour in Vienna and Salzburg to show them how to play Mozart. On the other hand, I'm playing at the Salzburg Festival. I don't know if they need me, but my point is the music being produced here is an export. It’s the cultural face of this city abroad. It should be protected.

Those are the general things. Here are the specific things.

The city, which has dozens of empty buildings on the Lower East Side, should give one rent free to either a cooperative or presenters of this kind of music to make up for the space lost at Tonic. I know that sounds so radical, giving it up rent free, but what I'm talking about is asking New York to do what almost every city in the Western industrialized world already does. There's a lot of music that's very close to the identities of Americans and New Yorkers in particular: jazz, for example. The reality is that most of it would not exist if not for subsidized European touring. That's the reality that is not spoken about. I'm talking about New York because the national situation is hopeless. I don't think anything is possible on the level of national politics. That's their funeral. It doesn't have to be New York's funeral.

I realized I glossed over one of your earlier questions, so I'm going to go back: the idea that the glory days of the late '70s and the '80s, and it's quite true that a lot of what produced the cultural productivity of the Lower East Side is that it was a margin between the working class Lower East Side on one side and NYU on the other. It was a place where people could get cheap houses. A lot of the displacement has already happened, but rent-stabilized tenants should be protected. Displacement is a separate issue from gentrification. I don't think the Lower East Side could ever return to being a working class neighborhood.

Some of this comes down to how memory works. I have a different view than some people involved. I think memory lives in objects. I think this was a neighborhood that was important in that it carried the idea of resistance, cultural or political, for well over a hundred years. I think it's important to preserve some of the objects in which that memory lives. On an economic level, I think it's important to hold on to some spaces where musicians can make money. On a cultural level, I think memory lives in objects, and some objects need to be preserved. The idea that memory lives as a pure abstraction… I don't think that's the case.

There are a lot of explanations given for the political direction our country has taken, but if you fly over it an airplane on a clear day — from Dallas to New York, for example — you'll see quite clearly what's going on. You'll see mile after mile of suburbs constructed out of nothing with no history, no common historical memories. Without the objects that would tie people to past history, including a history of resistance, their politics become mediated only by the media, and you get this. I think it's important to fight for which the objects in which memory lives. With record labels failing, and clubs failing, what’s the best a musician can hope for?

MR: Buy an uzi. (Laughs.) The place where musicians start is the place where musicians always start: learn your instrument, or work on your conceptual skills. I’ve always considered myself more a semiotician than a guitarist anyway. Work on your conceptual skills, work on your ability to do whatever it is that you need to do on your instrument, find other people with whom to work, and then understand that your band, or your individual ability to say what you need to say exists within a political and cultural context. Just like you practice your guitar, and just like you rehearse with your band, you have to work politically, to find a context in which you can exist. Yeah, that’s just as viable part of a musician’s toolbag as anything else. You need to know how to find an audience.

MR: Right! I’m not talking just about marketing, either. There are individual skills, there are group skills, there are collective skills. For a long time, you could afford to ignore the collective situation. That day is over, brothers and sisters. Work on all of it.

What's happening right now is that there's been a perfect storm. Rents have created a crisis in terms of clubs, and the collapse of the record industry has forced a collapse of other forms of income that were once open to musicians. If there's a market failure, and there's no public response, then things decline or die. What does it mean for things to decline or die? Look at dance. There are a few United States companies that tour Europe, but most of that market is European companies, and European companies coming here, because the United States hasn't funded dance the way European countries have done. People think that New York is a cultural center by act of God, but that's not how it is. One of these days in the near future, the United States is going to get the culture it paid for. I the city should institute a Gentrification Tax to make up the difference in rent between the old property value and the new property value.

MR: One of the things I hope to support is a slightly different way of doing that. Rather than neighborhood-by-neighborhood, it’s a citywide program. There’s a bill that Alan Gerson, who is the councilman for the Lower East Side, is drafting. It would create a property tax rebate for people presenting new music. It would accomplish some of the things you’re talking about on a citywide basis. The bill could be a potentially great thing if it provides that the saving in tax money is passed on to the musicians. I’m not sure if I’m representing it 100% correctly. It sounds very abstract, but the property tax is pretty enormous. John and Melissa, who ran Tonic, said that if this bill had been in place, they’d still be in Tonic. A lot of people had utopian ideas for clubs. David Byrne once said that the best way to foster a music scene is to let all musicians in for free and let them drink for free. John Zorn has the Stone, where there’s no bar and the band gets the entirety of the door. Wetlands used to have it so they were pumping money into an environmental activism center. Do you have an ideal in your head? A utopian perfect club?

MR: David Byrne’s idea is actually a very old idea. People used to be able to get in free or half-price to New York clubs with a union card. Musicians used to have access to clubs, though I don’t know if they could drink for free. Drinking for free is a very utopian idea. Sometimes, I personally blame myself for having drunk Tonic into the black. I may have drunk for free a little too much, although John assures me it was probably other things, but I definitely didn’t help.

I think a lot of things that go into scene-making. I'll give you some un-utopian stuff. I think John has done some amazing things with the Stone, but what we're asking for is a capacity around what Tonic's was — around 200. There are some larger venues — Irving Plaza, Bowery Ballroom — but that's not really the problem. The problem is the lack of middle-sized venues that pay fairly. I should also add that John's generosity in donating his time and money to the Stone is amazing. But we're looking for a sustainable model. I don't think one can pray for the timely arrival of angels and tzadiks. I don't know how sustainable that is.

There's a kind of economy of means operating there that's good for the music. This is actually not a terrible year in terms of non-profit funding. Elliot Spitzer got all that payola money, and they dished it out, so a lot of the non-profits are doing better than they have, and better than they will the year after next. They're not gonna get $30 million from the record industry every year. I don't know if there'll be $30 million left in the record industry five years from now. It's great news for the non-profits, but non-profits have to book way in advance, because they have to write grants for each thing they're booking. Something that helps scene-building is if musicians can get an idea and say, "man, let's work that out and try out playing with this drummer or those new things." It's not instant gratification, but if you know "I can book that in two months or three months" and have a gig and try it out, I think that's helpful. That's what helps make a scene, a certain degree of spontaneity in the booking.

Beyond that, my utopianism. When you talk to me, you're talking to the ex-food buyer for a food co-op. I lived a number of utopian dreams. I'm an ex-squatter for a Chelsea Coalition tenant action. I'm not that interested in utopianism at this point. Every time I've seen musicians come together, the first thing I've heard them say is, when they talk about getting ripped by a record company or a club, is "let's start our own record company" or "let's start our own club." But what I've seen in the time I've been around, and it's getting to be a lot of time at this point, is that these efforts usually fall flat. I'm not interested in seeing things fall flat. They fall flat because a bunch of people without money, who don't have a pot to piss in, when they start their own club, instead of making things better, they end up behaving like every other hungry club owner who wants to rip them off, only this time they rip themselves off.

On the other hand, when the magic missing ingredient is present, it could work just fine. In Europe, when I tour, I see squats and I see cultural centers where the city gives people the clubs for free, then it works. Then co-operatives do great, all kinds of things, with all kinds of creative possibilities, when the capital is provided. That's why I'm not in a utopian mood right at the moment, because I can't afford to be. We're in a critical moment, and I had no objections… everybody said "oh, the major labels." Yo,, the major labels used to give a lot of money. I don’t care how much they took. They gave a lot. There were some serious budgets that they chopped out and I don’t find it a great cause for celebration that musicians now have to take money to make records out of their pockets. It’s a great cause for celebration if you’re independently wealthy, but how are people supposed to live for months while they’re working on that?

I keep coming back to the question of how things can work when capital is provided. If the market doesn't provide it, and the state doesn't provide it, then things don't work.

Jesse Jarnow blogs at

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