New York State of Mind
Who are you, New York? I only know thee through off-season airline discounts and rock songs--an even cheaper form of travel. I'm from adjectiveless Chicago, where the question is moot. To a Chicagoan, the city is a place where the sports teams work harder than you do with even less success to show for it, where the clubs run on time and the subway doesn't. But what does it mean to be a New Yorker? Maybe it's a matter of getting inside this looming question of urban identity, moving your furniture into that question and writing rent checks, interior decorating the question, pacing its floors--and then starting a band.
The Fever's Pink on Pink (Kemado) is a record charged with this kind of identity crisis. But while another group might diffuse that energy with defensive NYC 'tude, the Fever (who, like many other NYC bands, are not native New Yorkers) gulp it like rocket fuel. Their Voidoids-style songs and Suicide-style graphics scream Lower East Side, but they also whisper Connecticut or Westchester (or maybe even northern Illinois, for that matter). I mean, Richard Hell was a high school dropout from Lexington, Kentucky (essentially a podunk Nowhereville whose only previous connection with New York was that William Burroughs vomited there one time or something), and if Richie isn't New York, then no one is. But why is Richard Hell's story a New York one before it's an American one? Is New York City defined by its outsiders? And what right have they to claim the city as their own, let alone call someone else out for doing the same?
The Fever tackle questions like these with smashmouth vigor, as we Midwesterners might say, and make you all but forget the answer. On "Bridge and Tunnel," they reclaim that pejorative term for the weekend warrior Jersey-and-outer-boroughs crowd, designating it as a new emblem for the growing blue-collar artist class. Yeah, art's a profession, and being unemployed isn't its defining characteristic--a lot of New Yorkers simply can't afford to live in New York anymore, and if they can, they probably saved their pennies somewhere else long before they got there.
And so "Bridge and Tunnel" wryly exposes the rhetorical notion of the "native New Yorker" as the fiction that it's become--or perhaps always was--and it does so by nesting that myth in a love story. In an interview on the music website Crashin' In, the band hints that the track might be an inversion of Tom Waits's "Jersey Girl," a song about being stranded in Manhattan, which is such a romantic idea that it was long dead by the time microphones were invented to capture it. The Fever's drums detonate the fertilizer-packed amps, and in the aftermath, we're left wondering why their protagonist can't get to his Manhattan sugar mama. Is there another blackout, or did he just misplace his ATM card? Or does Pink on Pink take place in a future like the one pictured in its dystopia discouture cover art, with requisite problems that even plucky New Yorkers couldn't fathom?
"Bridge and Tunnel" has its own romantic indulgences, for sure, but they're interesting ones, gratefully hogging the space that could easily have been larded up with garden-variety irony or self-assured NYC detachment. And their minor conceits only stoke the fires within the otherwise obligatorily kinetic guitars and spastic vocalizing. Archetypal lines like "I'm standin' on the edge, in over my head" almost conjure Springsteen, a fellow suburban romantic whose roadmap ended at the Holland Tunnel (he would have titled the song "Jersey Boy"). But the Fever's lovesick mouthpiece is more like the desperate tourist in the Sex Pistols' "Holidays in the Sun," looking out over the darkening Hudson with a soggy ferry schedule in his hand and, to his surprise, finding a galvanizing chorus rising from the rotten piers: "Dar-lin'!/I wanna get to you dar-lin'!" His yawp is barely discernable in Chelsea, but it's heard in places without zip codes where folks dream that the stars in New York's night sky are somehow sharper--which any astronomer can tell you isn't true. Sometimes you just have to give up and admit you're lost before you can figure out where you're going, which is why the Fever have an edge over other New York bands who keep insisting they're already there.
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