The Day the Music Retched

by

10/20/2001

Suffolk St & Delancey St S, New York, NY 10002

Neighborhood: Multiple, World Trade Center

It was supposed to start with a mandated early-morning appointment with an “employment specialist” from the New York Department of Labor and end with me shaking my ass to minimal techno at Centro-Fly. Between these, I was going to vote in the primaries, work at the international DJ academy, and see Matthew Herbert, on of this year’s best musicians, perform live. His album Bodily Functions is a must-own.

If in a thousand years, if archaeologists attempted to decipher the chicken scratches stuffed into my wall calendar’s box for September 11, they would miss some crucial details, like how I usually thrive on these freakishly overloaded New York days, or how this one was supposed to revolve around music, or how much I had been looking forward to that particular Tuesday. They also wouldn’t know how ridiculously close I stood to the World Trade Center towers when they finally collapsed.

During the glory days of Wall Street’s dot-com era, I’d worked tirelessly for a music Web site. Soon there were mountains of unused computers and ergonomically-sound office furniture piled up in our conference room. By June, a platoon of idealistic twenty-somethings — including me — had been shit-canned. Since then, I was subsisting on severance and a weekly $405 check from the New York Department of Labor. My three-month unemployment review was scheduled for Sept. 11.

Of course, that was also the day of the city’s mayoral primaries. I had spent a good deal of 2001 campaigning against our city’s inane cabaret laws with a non-profit music collective called Mishpucha (Yiddish for “posse”). These antiquated statutes defy all common sense and make it technically illegal for “three or more people to dance in a synchronized fashion” in all but a handful of venues lucky enough to have cabaret licenses. The cararet laws were written during prohibition, when dancing to jazz music was considered “moral degradation.”

His Lord, Sir Mayor Giuliani — who is still being lionized for his admirable conduct during the crisis — is, as many New Yorkers know, usually an asshole. His interdepartmental Nightlife Task Force indiscriminately enforces regulations that have crippled much of New York’s once-thriving music underground. Not only have three of the city’s last remaining large dance venues (the Limelight, Twilo, and the Tunnel) all closed, but Manhattan’s once legendary music scene, which helped create and define hip-hop, jazz, punk, and house music, is moribund.

For most of Tuesday I was going to work at the Red Bull Music Academy, an underground marketing initiative created by the Austrian energy drink manufacturer, Red Bull. (The drink itself is a staple at most dance clubs.) This year’s Academy was held in a community center on the Lower East Side. There would be 60 students from over 24 countries who would learn from an international cadre of dance music legends, DJ at a variety of New York venues, and produce tracks at on-site studios.

I was writing daily reports for the RBMA’s Web site, which meant interviewing both students and lecturers. I also spoke at length with techno paragons like Paradise Garage legend Mel Cheren, Mike G of the Jungle Brothers, Chicago house music deity Derrick Carter, and UK 2-step giant, MJ Cole.

At the same time, I spent ten days hanging out with students — most of whom were in their mid-20s, came from all over the world and had insatiable passions for music. There was the dub enthusiast from New Zealand, the cute blonde techno purist from the Czech Republic, the Masters At Work fanatic from Greece, the trippy-hippie, pony-tailed producer from Brazil, and many other bright eyed, bushy-tailed and musically well-versed kids.

Day and night, the students sat around debating the merits of the latest Green Velvet remix or explaining why trance or any album with a sunset and the word “Ibiza” on its cover should be avoided. I witnessed a kid from Serbia and another from Croatia — two historically adversarial nations — discussing house remixes. These kids were sharp, cultured, and generally knew a lot about what was going on in the world.

The highlight of my day — which I’d been anticipating for two months — was going to be chekcing out two music sorcerers. The first was Matthew Herbert, the British alchemist/producer who has a knack for making noise sound warm and beautiful. He was playing the Knitting Factory.

The other was Richie Hawtin (a.k.a. Plastikman), the minimalist techno DJ and technophile from Windsor, Ontario, was to play a late set at Centro-Fly, where he was going to unveil his new Final Scratch science. At a demo earlier in the summer, Hawtin showed students at the RMBA how this new technology could instantly transfer MP3 files from his laptop to vinyl that he mixed live on two turntables.

I woke up inexplicably early on Tuesday morning. I never go to the Financial District because it’s mostly a cultural wasteland. There are few music venues, record stores, movie theaters, galleries, friends, restaurants, book stores, etc. But the New York Department of Labor is right in the middle of it, at 50 Park Place, two blocks from the World Trade Center.

The official notice I received said I had to go to this “meeting,” or risk losing the remainder of my benefits. Since I was now temporarily employed at the DJ academy, I figured I would go in early and wriggle my way out of it.

I took the 2 train from Bergen St., in Brooklyn, to the Park Place station and arrived at about 8:30 a.m. The dreary government offices were empty. I was filling out a temporary employment form when a sudden crash shook the living fuck out of the entire building. A woman ran in and yelled that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center. I handed in my form as quickly as I could and ran outside. I walked about twenty feet, to the corner of West Broadway and Park Place — right in the shadow of the towers — and saw a gaping, smoldering gash high in the sky. Debris cascaded down, then people began jumping. I saw a man’s tie flapping in the air. His legs and arms flailed. I screamed, cried, covered my mouth, looked away, cursed, kicked a wall, became nauseous, held my stomach, and walked away.

Like the quote about mice and men, everything I had planned — to vote for a new, more progressive New York, where dancing isn’t a crime, to work with music students and teachers on transcending geographical boundaries, to revel in the sound of incredible music until morning’s light — was instantly rendered obsolete.

When I finally got to the Academy, on Suffolk and Delancey, nobody was there. I went to the bathroom, closed the door, fell to my knees, and retched.

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