What I saw at Hart Stop
And what may be left to us
It’s been a while. Do you guys remember when quarantine was sad but cute? It might be hard to recall now, but there was definitely a point last March or so where we were being fed the idea that there was a twee quaintness to our predicament, that we could take comfort in watching celebrities fumble with streaming technologies, and in the promise that we were “all in this together.”
Well, that turned out to be a huge fucking lie. We’re not all in this together, especially not here in this wretched conglomerate of violences and thefts we randomly like to call a “country.“ The solemn gestures have faded, and Anthony Fauci has predicted that life “getting back to a degree of normality” probably will not happen in the US until “well into 2021, towards the end of 2021.” Bill De Blasio, an impossibly long time ago, included concerts in a list of events he expects to be “one of the last things we bring back.” Shows, parties, and everything of the sort continue to be far off beyond the horizon. So, me branding myself as a “nightlife writer” in March 2020 is looking stupider by the day.
But what was nightlife, really? Venue after venue has collapsed from economic despair, inspiring a cultural rally so intense that it became enshrined in legislation as exaltations of nightlife’s importance even united Democrats and Republicans in Congress around the “Save Our Stages Act”. Concurrently, the same pause that’s pushed beloved bars and concert halls to and past the brink of ruin has made room for revelations that many spaces that sold themselves as wonderfully weird or artistically maverick transmuted the same cachet that so tempts us to romanticize them into opportunities to exploit that sense of belonging in the members of their communities who needed it most.
So, as often as I look dreamily into the nightlife that was and, with any luck, will be, my nostalgia is often interrupted by a squirming stomach that reminds me of the reality the absence of nightlife has laid bare, of the absurd precarity upon which my entire conception of a night out rested.
So, save our stages? In their letter announcing the venue’s closure, the Union Square Hospitality Group’s Jazz Standard signed off as “your family at the Jazz Standard.” My family? Mine? Nightlife is powered by this kind of dubious sentimentality. That’s the moneymaker, because at the core of our romanticizing of these spaces is our own self-conception through them. Whether it’s a cocktail delivered to your seat at a venue owned by a prestigious restaurant group or a PBR in a basement where you can only pay in cash so there’s no paper trail, we’ll pay good money for that kind of flattery, as anyone who’s tended bar can attest. And though it’s not clear what exactly corporate-owned venues that charge $15 for well drinks are actually doing to make audiences feel like family, they don’t really have to do anything–we’re chomping at the bit to self-identify as such, and to flood our souls with that narcotic sense of belonging.
And if anyone knows about dubious sentimentality, it’s this guy. I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m trying to throw cold water on everyone’s daydreaming about post-pandemic raving. I’m daydreaming right alongside you, and I’ve even started making the playlists. But nightlife fascinates me to the point of starting a blog about it precisely because it’s mostly not real; it’s comprised primarily of our fantasies of the future and our fantasies of the past. And when there are people who feel like they can only tell the truth about what they experienced when now, when the venues are all closed, I worry that it’s precisely those fantasies that allowed reality to get so fucked up.
So, while we continue to be stuck in this quagmire, I figured I should at least acknowledge some of these cold hard truths, that nightlife was not just the world of sexy dance-floor eye contact with hot people we’d all like to remember it as. In fact, I think it rarely ever was.
This is perhaps most evident in the fact that nightlife, uh, didn’t actually stop. Not really. In mansions, on yachts and in Florida, nightlife has hobbled forward all this time, an industry caught in a grisly vice of non-existent governance, financial urgency, unbearable loneliness and frigid apathy.
And anyway, If I’m really gonna give this “cultural criticism” thing a go, it feels like the least I can do to to at least try to resist my tendency to romanticize, and to see myself trying not to see things. But as I’ve been thinking a lot about what nightlife will, or could look like, “after,” I keep coming back to a night in October 2019 at a show thrown by the booking collective Hart Stop. Here’s my song for the winter.
What I saw at Hart Stop
Lily Rothman, Paris Andersen and New York Nick. Photo courtesy of Michelle Lobianco.
As Hart Stop, Paris Andersen and Lily Rothman are creating a platform for musicians to support each other.
The booking collective has thrown dance parties in the palatial discotech of Bushwick’s Venus in Furs, showcases at Rubulad, a glittery, historic enclave wedged between warehouses in East Williamsburg, talent shows at Hart Bar, and, of course, “house shows” in their apartment. At their events I’ve heard trance from Matt Sebastian, punk from No Ice, and indecipherable goth noise from Holy Wisdom. At Rubulad last October, Lily Rothman lists off names of other venues that have hosted Hart Stop events: “Threes Brewing, we had a monthly show there for awhile. Ivy House, [too].”
In an interview, Andersen and Rothman describe how the collective came together. “We met very randomly.” Andersen said. The two ended up roommates after being connected by friends when Andersen moved from Austin, Texas. “I used to work for a music blog, organizing their events and booking shows,” Rothman, who is also a member of indie rock group Sloppy Jane said. “We had the space for it and it just made sense, and some friends wanted to play a show so we just said let’s just throw a show! We had the equipment, a drum kit and speakers, because our roommate, [New York] Nick, DJs.”
Hart Stop’s very first show was in May of 2019, and was held in Andersen and Rothman’s shared apartment, naturally. “Since then, we’ve been doing them pretty much monthly there,” Rothman said.
“Only a couple years. I grew up here and I would go see live music all the time growing up but I didn’t start performing in bands until a couple years ago.”
At both Rubulad shows I’ve been to, there has been catering by friends of Hart Stop; Brooklyn Kitchen Beast served southern American comfort food like macaroni and cheese and cornbread.
In DIY–”Do-It-Yourself”– scenes, it’s typical to expect that people are drawn together by genre, whether it’s hardcore, emo, or hip hop. If you go to a few Hart Stop events in succession, though, you’ll notice quickly that there isn’t a ton of aesthetic/genre cohesion to what Hart Stop does -- genre borders evaporate, leaving behind only an ethos.
On a below-freezing December (2019!) night at Rubulad, burgers are being grilled. “Everyone’s been so supportive. If you ever need anything, there’s somebody there who’s willing to help you” Andersen says. “They’ll go out of their way to help,” Lily adds. “Everyone’s been really supportive.” “So supportive! If you ever need anything, there’s somebody there willing to help you, go out of their way, to lend you something. It’s a really beautiful thing to be a part of, bringing different groups of people together who are all interested in the same thing: playing music.”
Photo courtesy of Hart Stop.
“People who performed in our shows, we ask them to come to the show as vendors, we also hire a lot of artists to work doors, work sound. If they have side projects or something they’re working on, we give them a space to show them off.”
I asked what advice, if any, they had for anyone who would like to start throwing their own house shows. “Keep the windows closed, be kind to the neighbors,” Andersen said Be very kind the neighbors. Get them presents. Don’t turn people away, be very inclusive. ”
Between rising living costs in New York and industry-wide austerity, being a musician in New York might be more difficult than it has ever been. Across the city, musicians are rejecting the cutthroat atmosphere of an industry that demands artists fight each other for its scraps. They’re choosing instead to create opportunities for each other, platforms for each others’ success.
Brooklyn Kitchen Beast. Photo courtesy of Hart Stop.
The question of what will come after this, of what will be left when all this is over (not to go jinxing anything), is devastatingly and thrillingly unsettled. The costs might have been too great. All the promises embedded in phrases like “underground” and “independent music” now sound empty and dumb, malevolent even.
And anyway, find the term “underground” unbearably corny. I’m not quite sure what it means–how can something be underground and also on Instagram?–and it makes me feel like I’m being advertised to. But the term still serves its purpose; it’s one of the few ways we know to describe a structure where that doesn’t center the extraction of profit from artists and their communities.
As remote as the ideas Hart Stop is founded on–tightly packed dancefloors, ad-hoc catering, tattoos between sets–feel right now, what I saw there has stuck with me, even now that nightlife is dead. Paris Andersen called Hart Stop “a really beautiful thing to be a part of.” I like to imagine there will be even more beautiful things, and more things to be a part of.
Here’s a bunch of shit I did since I last posted on this blog:
For Bandcamp Daily, I spoke to some musicians about their short-scale instruments and accessibility. You can read that here.
For OkayAfrica, I wrote about five of my favorite songs from the period of reggae-disco crossover from 1978-1983. You can read that here.
For an as-told-to piece for Tidal Magazine, I spoke to the singer A.J. Haynes of Seratones about the song “Be Real Black for Me” by Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack. You can read that here.
Also for Tidal Magazine, I interviewed the jazz experimenter Duval Timothy. You can read that here.
Rest in peace to one of the best to ever do it:
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