Love it to life

(this story originally ran Sept. 29 2010. Malin plays Dive again tonight)

From Springsteen to Strummer
with Salinger and the cops:
Jesse Malin’s rock redemption

Jesse Malin and The St. Mark’s Social play Dive (at Brixton) Friday night. Photo by A.M. Sadler

True story: J.D. Salinger helped Jesse Malin get back to his punk rock roots. He also helped him get thrown in jail, where he was bailed out by Bruce Springsteen and YouTube.

Last year, Malin was down and out on the Upper East Side, a 41-year-old rock ‘n roller who’d been touring since he was 12 (as the lead singer for the hardcore band Heart Attack) and who suddenly found himself living with his sister and wondering what the hell the point of it all was. He’d seemed on the cusp of some kind of bigtime only back in 2007, when Springsteen sang a duet on Malin’s song “Broken Radio.”

But after an album of covers on which Malin paid homage to his roots as a songwriter – ranging from Bad Brains to Jim Croce – his publishing checks diminished and his star swooped in sudden decline.

“Just as the world was going broke and the recession was at full tilt and everyone was freaking out, I found myself busted up in New York and starting to think like, well, what should I be doing?” Malin recalled in an interview this week. “I ended up getting called to deejay at weddings in Las Vegas and started thinking a lot about a change in career.”

Malin paused, thinking back.

“For a moment, I almost became an intergalactic rabbi, a planetary adviser, or some kind of gynecologist on acid for some kind of cinematographer benefit, digitally,” he said. “I was watching Dead Ringers over and over again, and travelling deep inside the human anatomy, mentally, spiritually, and visually. I just had an overdose of cannoli.”

Then the phone call came: a filmmaker making a documentary on Salinger – the author of The Catcher in the Rye – asked Malin to write some songs for the film. Malin had loved Salinger as a kid, so he agreed. Then he reread everything and was amazed to find out how much it resonated.

“If you read Catcher in the Rye, I think it’s very punk rock,” Malin said. “I mean, the guy is an outsider, fucking hates his school, hates everybody, is lost, trying to find a way to fit in,  can’t connect, ends up going to a prostitute, ends up getting bombed, listening to music, trying to relate to girls. I mean, it’s all stuff I felt as a kid, listening to records by the Dead Boys and the Sex Pistols, and I felt very alienated. Really, the Holden Caulfield character and a lot of Salinger’s work is dark and very well written and poetic, but there is an anti-social element, and Salinger’s life was the same way – the guy just went into hibernation.”

So Malin got the notion into his head to go visit the hibernating Salinger, who lived four hours out of New York in Cornish, New Hampshire (where Salinger died of natural causes earlier this year). The reclusive Salinger, of course, hadn’t been heard from in decades; the problem, for Malin, is that he wasn’t the first wayward writer to have the idea of meeting him.

The Cornish P.D. wasted very little time in hauling him to the local station for trespassing. Malin explained that he was a writer doing research. They looked at him – not exactly a scholarly looking sort, in keeping with three decades of hard rock life – and were more than a little suspicious about his back story. Then somebody looked Malin up on the internet and found he and Springsteen on YouTube singing “Broken Radio” together.

“I think that’s what did it for those guys out there,” Malin said. “I thought I was going to be living out Deliverance, Blair Witch, and Walking Tall in five minutes. But I made it back to New York and I wrote a bunch of songs…I started writing again and realized this is what I live to do.”

Thus was born Love It To Life, Malin’s new record. Two songs, “The Archer” and “Lonely at Heart,” are direct takes on Salinger (the former his habit of writing faraway forlorn love letters, the latter based on the short story “For Esme, with Love and Squalor”). The title is taken from what Joe Strummer wrote on a ticket stub that Malin asked the former Clash singer to sign when he saw him performing solo warming up for The Pogues.

“That ended up in the hat full of ideas for song titles and album titles and it became an appropriate title for this record, for me, because it deals with rebirth and renaissance and the phoenix act of being destroyed and coming back,” Malin said. “New York is a good metaphor and hometown for me for that because the city is constantly dying and being born again every day, almost as the sun comes up, you know? It’s like Apocalypse Now: ‘Every day we build a bridge. Every night Charlie burns it down.’”

The record, appropriately enough, begins where it all began for Malin. The Bowery is the formerly rough part (i.e. Bowery bums) of south Manhattan bordering the East Village that later became a punk rock haven (and where the record was partly recorded). Malin got his start in the Bowery at the famed club CBGB’s, where he grew up drinking and going to punk shows and where he first performed as a 12-year-old at the club’s Monday night auditions. “Burning the Bowery” is an ode to the everlasting Bowery spirit, even as the neighborhood became trendy.

“‘Bowery’ is like, I’ve done all this, I’ve got to this age of my life, my friends have kids and wives, and you know I’ve made records and I’ve been dropped and I’ve been bought and sold and had breakups and relationships and here I’m back where I started from, you know, seen the world go through changes, seen them polish the streets up, seen them bring in the chain stores and the Whole Foods and Starbucks and the Subways, and now we are in this crazy scare/recession, people are broke and the Bowery has always been the skid row, always been the place that the people that dropped out of society came to,” Malin said. “And now it’s been made into some gentrified little hipster community, it’s started to come back. When I found myself back there, it was like going back to square one at a different age of my life….You can change a lot of things, but you can’t change your blood, unless you are Keith Richards or some other transfusion expert or medical experiment. So to go through the history of coming up from traditional skid row flophouses, gangs of New York, punk rock hardcore, the Beats, Allen Ginsberg – there is history there, but to me it could be anywhere, every town people have that place they go back to and have a different perspective. So much changes, so much stays the same.”

The song contains these multitudes, but also makes a statement of a sort – it’s not better to burn out, or to fade away, as rock mythology would have you do. It’s better to live: love it to life. Malin quotes Ginsberg’s poem “I Cried All Over the World” as a model of sorts.

“Just the idea of sharing the pain that we are all rained on,” he said. “Thunder Cross refers to Johnny Thunders and all the rock ‘n roll martyrs and people that want to die on that cross and think it’s cool to be a martyr, fucking Sid Vicious, Kurt Cobain – be the burnout, wreck yourself, die for the art form, the romance of that. It’s so much bullshit and kind of depressing, but it seems people only glamorize the fucking martyrs.”

Musically, Malin is no longer a punk, although there is a certain bristle in his voice that carries all those punk years with it. He’s got a little bit of that keening Neil Young thing – a voice that shouldn’t work but does, on its own terms – with a gift for tilted pop melodies not unlike his buddy and sometimes collaborator Ryan Adams. One song – maybe the best track on the record, “Lowlife in a High Rise” (about guilt, love, and living a block from Bernie Madoff, among other things) – sounds like Some Girls era Rolling Stones. And in addition to the exuberant bursts of words that often ring like hardscrabble Springsteenian poetry, he shares a bond with the Boss in something simple and powerful underlying every beat: a belief  in the transcendent, communal power of rock ‘n roll.

“I think music and art, film, whatever, has always been a way to show people you are not alone,” Malin said. “There are other people that think outside society. I always liked Tennessee Williams, who always wrote about the dark side of society. I think Bruce is a romantic, but he doesn’t always sing about cars and girls. I got into Bruce Springsteen’s music from Nebraska and even Born in the USA – those records are pretty harsh, pretty real, pretty descriptive of the working class struggle that people go through. And I think music has the power to bring people together…I appreciate, more and more as I get older, getting to tour and be in a room full of strangers and speak out about these things and make that connection – when it works, you know – getting together in a dark space and playing some loud music and letting it all out.”

Jesse Malin and The St. Mark’s Social play Dive on the Redondo Beach pier Friday night (attached to Brixton). For more info see or ER

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