CMJ and The People Who Have to House its Musicians

The New York Times blog The Local published a shorter version of this on their site today. Below is the longer unedited version.


As I was making my way down Avenue A last night, a young girl in combat boots asked me for a light. I stared at her, confused. It seemed obvious to me that before she left the house that morning, she had remembered to smear her eyes with liquid liner, wrap her hips in enough metal belts to refurbish a John Deer machine, and carefully paint each of her nails a different shade of black, but she forgot a lighter. A torching device seemed an essential part of her outfit.

“Here,” I gave her a neon pink Zippo that I had been carting around since the last time I was hounded by Marlboro promoters at ACE bar. She flicked it aflame with her midnight lacquered nail.

“Thanks,” she said, and then she promptly threw the lighter into the hollowed depths of Tompkins Square Park, provoking the muffled sounds of an annoyed rat. Maybe she thought it was a large, cold, match.

Perhaps it was because I’d never seen her around the block before or perhaps because she threw away the best conversation piece I had in my purse, but I found the behavior odd. I scratched my head and headed home, only to hear the cayenne peppered sound of her voice again.

“Yo, do you know where Pianos Bar is?”

Oh right, it’s CMJ: The biggest music festival in New York. I have no idea what the acronym for this concert marathon stands for, who gets the privilege of performing, or why it exists, but it’s impossible to ignore when it’s here.  Every year on a random Monday in October I’ll look out my window to find even more people in combat boots and keys on their belt loops outside my bars, even more underage kids pushing amps down Ludlow, and even more pigeons feasting on abandoned pizza crusts and taco shells in the early mornings. The entire neighborhood becomes a hub for music journalists and the bands that they drool over, though it is very hard to say who is working and who is playing.

To say the East Village neighborhood becomes a caricature of itself during the five days of CMJ is a trite understatement; rather, the area unabashedly lets itself go for a few days. Everything is dirtier, everything is drunker, and the massive buffet of live music is so constant and flowing that some of it can’t help but be really, truly bad.

A year ago, I sat on my roommate’s bed in our 1.5 bedroom apartment on 11th street, eating peanuts and watching illegally downloaded movies on her computer. This is what bartenders in New York do in the daytime when they aren’t aspiring actors. My phone rang. It was Tucker, my friend from back home in California. I answered, thinking someone had died or was getting married.

“We’re in big trouble.” He said.

“Who’s we?” I poured a generous serving of peanuts onto my stomach and ate them off of my pajama shirt.

“Me and the band,” said Tucker. I could hear the faint whir of driving on the I-95 South in the background of his phone call. “We’re on our way to New York for CMJ.”

“Well that’s exciting.” I gathered my shirt and peanuts up like a marsupial pouch. I ate three standing up. Tucker and his two friends were in a band based in San Francisco. They were moderately successful, but in the way that they all had to have day jobs and make music videos with FlipCams. I was impressed that they’d landed a gig at CMJ.

“When are you performing?” I asked between chews.

“That’s the thing,” Whoever was next to Tucker coughed. “We’re on a bus right now from Boston and we have nowhere to stay.”

I don’t like visitors. Visitors need directions. I knew I shouldn’t let them stay with me. In the short time of that phone call I’d already visited every corner of my apartment four times, finding it physically possible to become shoulder to shoulder with myself. But Tucker sounded desperate, and saying no to poor artists made me a bad person, and even worse, a bad New Yorker. I looked around. Maybe three grown men could sleep in the dishwasher in our kitchen. The machine was unnecessary considering we didn’t have cabinets to put dishes in.

“Please?” said Tucker. “It’s only for one night. We have no where else to stay.”

My peanuts fell out of my shirt pouch. It took seconds to pick them up off of the square foot that is my floor. I took one more look around the Tee-Pee sized place and sighed. I figured I could stand having the boys in this tiny space just for a measly twelve hours.  My roommate was away anyway, and besides, badges for CMJ are upwards of $400, so knowing a band would be my free pass in to shows.

The three of them – clad in tight jeans and pit-stained plaid – arrived with guitars, wind instruments, and of course, amps. I learned that amps are like snowflakes, or maybe more like public restrooms; you can’t just use one from any ballroom on the Bowery. We fit all cymbals and sticks into sinks and behind toilets, leaving just enough room for each of us to sleep in the shape of our best cannonball dive.

The boys also brought whiskey, which we quickly drank in the apartment before setting out into the village to appreciate some music, eat some pizza, smoke cigarettes and carelessly throw borrowed lighters into the foliage. It was the night before the CMJ festival began, and everyone on the street was fresh, energetic, and stowing procured drugs like hibernating bears. The neighborhood looked like the inhabitants and contents of Lit Lounge had exploded onto the streets. The energy and excitement of the crowds matched those of NYU freshman in the first week of September, except there were less drunk girls crying outside of bars and more drunk girls head-banging inside of bars. It was awesome.

When I awoke the next morning, the band had gone to retrieve their badges for the festival. They had left a bag of David’s bagels, a tub of cream cheese with no top to speak of, and an onion, which I never found, only smelled for days and days. Their eight-piece orchestra still rested in my kitchen/living room/bedroom/foyer. This had not been the agreement. I said they had to be out by noon and had to buy me more toilet paper, not bagels. They also had made an agreement to put the seat down on the toilet, which I probably don’t have to tell you, was not fulfilled.

Though bagels are very important, I realized that day that it is much more important for me to be able to straighten at least one of my legs when sleeping in my bed. I began to get anxious about the band taking their stuff and getting out of my hair, which also didn’t have room to be in the apartment. I called Tucker.

“We’re playing at so many venues right by your place!” he squealed into the phone. I could hear him put out his cigarette on the side of his 9th street Espresso cup. “It’s so convenient! Thank you so much for letting us stay there, you’re the best!”

Now might be a good time to mention that Tucker isn’t really my “friend from home.” He was a friend of an ex-boyfriend whom I was desperately trying to win back. I had to remain cool, relaxed, chill even. By housing Tucker and company, my Ex would see me as someone who likes band members and appreciates art, not a crazy girl needs a quiet place to eat peanuts out of her pajama shirt like a mama kangaroo.

“Awesome,” I said. “See you at home!”

Tuesday came and went. The band played to a bored crowd of four at The Cake Shop. We went to a party that you had to be on a list for. Everyone’s makeup looked really well done. More whiskey was consumed.

On Wednesday morning, I awoke to another smell mixing with the pungency of the onion. My nose crinkled, and my eyes watered. I opened my eyes, hungover from the whiskey and saw a mouse gnawing on a pink slab of lox while his friend snacked on one of the David’s Bagels. They still hadn’t bought me any toilet paper.

I told Tucker they had to be out of my apartment by that evening. I immediately decided no boyfriend was worth the torture of having to get rid of mice.  “But we have a show,” Tucker whined. “Not my problem,” I said, then I stuffed their bagels in their suitcases in hopes a mouse would make one its home.

On Wednesday night, when I got home from the bar, the string section of my houseguests’ symphony was still gathering dust in my conservatory. Tucker said they were drinking with some girl band, a band that had a name that sounded like the name of a coloring book, and that he’d be back at 4 am to pick it all up.

I sat in front of my dishwasher, now housing a banjo, and buried my head in my hands. The great part about living in the East Village during CMJ is the proximity I have to great music for five full days. The neighborhood is teeming with interesting people and hopeful young artists. Conversations on street corners are laced with hooks and riffs, and lyrics are written down by the second. I often long for an East Village that I never saw, one with hungry artists and beatniks talking about the man. CMJ is the closest we’ll get to that spirit, and here I was threatening to put one of the bands contributing to the whole process on the street. But I’m not in a band. I’ll never be in a band. My apartment is much too small for a cello. So I told Tucker I was throwing it out the window if he didn’t come get it that second.

I gave up on trying to impress my Ex. I could never be with a man who was indirectly responsible for a vermin infestation. After Tucker retrieved the rest of his keyboards and synthesizers, I went out of town for the weekend. When I returned, the cigarette butts were swept out of the gutter, the brown bags of Sparx had long since been recycled, and all band members that had participated in CMJ had gone back to their parents’ houses in Jersey. Tucker and the band didn’t leave a note, they didn’t leave me toilet paper, but they did leave me several traps for my new vermin tenants and a note that asked how could they ever repay me. I thought I’d been clear about my desire for toilet paper, but I appreciated the gesture.

This year, at my new job (no longer at a bar), I received an email from my co-worker inquiring about a showcase we would be putting on for CMJ. We had a lot of work to do, she said. We had to book bands, find a venue, come up with a marketing strategy to get the CMJ crowd to come to our show as opposed to the hundreds of other performances that will be going on around the one-mile radius at the very time of our show. There will be no time for drinking whiskey or attending parties with guest lists. There wouldn’t even be time for us to go over what CMJ stands for, which I still do not know. There are stories to be covered and performances to be reviewed. It is going to be a lot of work.

I told her I knew of a band we could book for free. They owed me a favor.


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