As the Saturday-afternoon crowd at the far end of the Bowery JMZ platform steadily expands its ranks, gaining members (several toting hi-hats, horns, keyboards, musical saws) but not losing anybody with each passing train, we elicit a few stares from fellow commuters. But no more than those reserved for a rowdy group of school kids field-tripping to band camp—which is, essentially, what we are.
What we're doing here is a coordinated effort. Not a flash mob that freezes in Grand Central then melts away after 15 minutes, but the beginning of a nine-hour-long mobile festival. Organized by SleepWhenDeadNYC, today's procession was originally slated to take place on the downtown A train to Broad Channel. Then it would culminate in a parade to the Jamaica Bay Experimental Marshland Restoration Project for a beach party featuring performances from such noisy DIY-venue stalwarts as Aa and KNYFE HYTS. (KNYFE HYTS is a newish side-project from Ex Models members that's apparently pronounced "knife hits," although throughout the day they were often understandably referred to as "Knife Fights.")
Unfortunately, plans had to change at the last minute because of a 70 percent chance of thunderstorms and the subsequent revoking of a permit "because even a handful of crazy kids can destroy years of preserved marshland," according to event organizers. So we're headed to Bushwick, more specifically, the familiar and familial environs of Goodbye Blue Monday's back junkyard—not as cool as a marshland, but crawling with funky organic material nonetheless.
But let's not skip ahead. Right now, we're still on the platform, and at least half, probably more like two-thirds, of the kids here are actual, honest-to-goodness kids. In high school. Like, 14-years-old-and-braces high school. One girl brought her mom. A few boys are balanced on skateboards; others are flaunting their drama-club weirdness. Two huddles of awkward, shaggy-haired boys surround two almost-unbearably adorable girls. Other pairs of girls are watching the scene and talking in low tones. I'm alone in the back, taking pictures and notes and trying to perfect my I'm-not-a-narc face.
And here on the platform, from the other side of the stairwell, the beat of hand drums is getting louder. The So So Glos are starting to play slurry, '70s-style revolt/party punk that melts into reggae/ska covers like "Johnny Too Bad" and "A Message to You Rudy." I'm terrible at estimating these things, but a sizable crowd—definitely the most sizable crowd I've ever watched form with the intent to watch a subway-busking act—is gathering round. But still, it's a pretty everyday experience.
It isn't until someone lights a cigarette (in any enclosed space in this city, the scent of subversion), and moments later the entire gang piles into a nearly empty train car, when things start to get really interesting. Almost immediately, the last car erupts into the Eskalators' unbridled ska-cophony—it seems as though every third person is part of the band—the car lurches forward and so do keyboards, horns, vibes, a guy holding a rainstick, but no one misses a beat. It's easily the most exciting 30 minutes of the entire day. So exhilarating, in fact, that my shaking hands dropped my camera (it broke!), which explains why the photos get blurrier and more camera-phony as the night progresses.
The car is packed to near-capacity with kids—actual kids, remember—standing on seats and dangling over rails, a violinist with a sprained ankle balancing precariously against a pole. A few passengers get on and off at each stop, and no one complains. In fact, everyone—participants and passengers alike—has that goofy, "only in New York" smile stretched across their faces.
The Eskalators introduce their final song; I didn't catch the full title, but "bodegas" was in there somewhere. "And after this we'll all go to the bodega and get beer!" the bandleader yells. To which the horn player appends, "Unless you're underage!" underscoring one possibly tenuous aspect of the underground, DIY, all-ages movement. At Myrtle, the group spills out into the street. The MTA station attendant looks puzzled, but overall unfazed. The sun is out and we head down Broadway to the tune of the programmed bossa-nova beat of an old-school Casio keyboard.
At Goodbye Blue Monday, I decide to get to the bottom of how all these kids wound up here. I decide the best way to go about this is through pure bluntness. "Excuse me," I say to the young man next to me with a grown-out bowl haircut and glasses, "Are you in high school?" "Yes!" Kabir Kumar says, beaming. He's a 10th 11th grader at the Dwight School in Manhattan and a member of the band Tinselfish, described on its Myspace page as "dinosaur jr. … jr." Also from their page, I glean that they are part of an upcoming band showcase June 27 at 3 p.m. at the 6th and B Community Center called "Fuck School." The train-station-performing So So Glos are also on the line-up.
Kabir and his bandmate James Griffiths found out about today's festival through Facebook. "It was pretty awesome," Kabir says about the train portion, but he's really looking forward to seeing fellow high schoolers Radiates, who are setting up as we speak on Goodbye Blue Monday's inside stage. "I'm surprised it worked," James adds. To which Kabir says, "But it's a really good thing—DIY, it's a step forward." Kabir and James introduce me to Sophia Warren, one of the "adorable" girls from the subway platform. Apparently Sophia, a freshman, puts on shows in the basement of a house her family is renovating in Fort Greene. On her MySpace page, she lists a few house rules, which include saying hi to her mom when you come in and not grabbing the pipe overhead while crowd-surfing—it's a septic pipe and could break.
Next I'm introduced to Gabe Weinstock, another high school kid who booked Radiates for today's festival and also puts on all-ages shows through showISmonster. Right after we start talking, Gabe is informed that Radiates need cymbals, so now we're walking down Broadway to the Market Hotel, a DIY venue in the vicinity where the So So Glos live, to borrow their cymbals. Gabe is bummed that the original plan for the day didn't work out, but "with any show you really have to be up for anything to happen," he says. He's also pleased with the turnout, seeing as how so many elements changed at the last minute.
Back at GBM, I take a seat at the bar to watch Radiates. Some observations:
1) This is maybe the largest crowd I've ever seen at Goodbye Blue Monday.
2) The audience is all watching the band. Intently.
3) The guitarist is using a credit card as a pick.
4) Shit, everybody looks like they're 17 here. (I can't take credit for this one—it belongs to Eric Payne, a GBM regular who stopped in to check out the scene before his birthday party, which was happening later on down the street at Soul2Soul.)
For the next five hours or so, bands take turns playing inside and out. Lots of moshing took place, as well as crowd-surfing, and something the opposite of crowd-surfing (burrowing?), which involved a guy ducking down and running through the crowd. Lidia Stone played outside. For them I only wrote down: "crazy." I think I remember liking them, though.
Other bands included Thompson, USAISAMONSTER, The Beets and Fiasco. Puttin on the Ritz offered an appropriately prom-like set, loungey, dirty versions of songs like "Earth Angel" and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off." Consider the Source played some mesmerizing world-metal. Aa was awesome, like almost always. And KNYFE HYTS closed things down with the sound of waking up to several alarm clocks, each set one minute apart, one tuned to a classic rock station, another one metal, one to an r&b station, one on '80s flashback, and another just blaring the buzzer until it all congealed into a glorious noise with a funky, tribal backdrop. In other words—well, in the band's words—"Our rock 'n' roll show."
At the end of their set, KNYFE HYTS invited everyone to an after-party at the Silent Barn, a well-known DIY venue, to hear their "groove set." It wasn't technically a school night, but I didn't mind calling it one as I headed back to the J train, ready for a quiet ride home.