Dave Grohl sat on the windowsill, chucking Skittles and M&Ms at us with an expression of gleeful menace on his face. ”Us” was an invitation-only group of alternative rock cognoscenti assembled in a suite at the New York Sheraton Hotel on a July afternoon in 1993, where The Melvins were going to perform.
I was one of the invitees to this concert, in possession of a laminate with an image of a two-headed orange kitten—maybe drawn by artist Frank Kozik, who created many concert posters for top alternabands back then.
The Melvins, fronted by Buzz Osbourne, oozed cred in alternative rock circles then. Not only did those in the know love their tastily sludgy, intensely heavy music but Osbourne was friends with Kurt Cobain since middle school. I saw the sides of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love’s blond heads as they walked into the Sheraton suite shortly after I dodged Grohl’s candy barrage. I was surprised that Love appeared taller than Cobain (or maybe she was wearing a pair of Mary Jane heels she had been known to fancy then).
A beat or two later, I tried to get into the bathroom. I twisted the doorknob and Buzz Osborne walks up to me with his signature wild black typhoon hair and a warm smile. He says ”Oh, sorry, someone’s in there.” Was it Kurt? Courtney? Both of them? ”Oh, OK,” I said with a shrug and walked away.
When The Melvins started to play in that suite they were irresistible; like being immersed in a pool of molasses and delightedly discovering that you could swim in it. Their music had a thick sweetness that was enveloping and all-consuming. I was grooving along to it when I sensed someone’s presence behind me. I turned around and there was Krist Novoselic, in all his nearly seven foot glory. Quite the ”wow!” moment.
I felt like I was at the coolest place in the universe right then.
In the New York City of 1993, I was Editor-In-Chief and part owner of a music magazine called NET. I wrote freelance articles for Paper Magazine and I ate, slept and breathed cool – specifically coolness involving alternative music. On any given day I toted my second hand Stussy backpack that held my tape recorder and a notepad with at least ten well-thought-out questions to interviews with musicians like Bjork, Beck, Kim Gordon, Henry Rollins, Cristina Martinez from Boss Hog, bands such as Surgery, Unrest, Suede, Luscious Jackson, and others. I was on the guest list at venues such as CBGB, Brownies, and Irving Plaza three, sometimes four or five nights a week.
I was my own boss, although technically I worked under Jonathan, who was NET‘s publisher and dance music editor – NET’s focus embraced both alternative rock and electronic dance music. Jonathan was a well-regarded DJ and he produced raves. I was drawing a smallish biweekly paycheck but I was lucky (privileged, maybe?) because my Dad was helping me out with my rent. I didn’t have a lot of expenses. I shared a three bedroom apartment with two roommates on a Clinton Street block (Lower East Side, not Brooklyn) that wasn’t really gentrified yet. Clinton Street on the L.E.S. did have a brisk heroin trade, though. Maybe that was a reason rents there were reasonable. I’d head north towards Houston Street and the dealers would walk up to me and chant the brand name of that day’s batch of smack – names like bodybag, astro boy, dream on and suchlike. I’d just shake my head to say ”no” and they’d keep walking and leave me alone.
My share of the utilities in the apartment wasn’t too expensive, I had a boyfriend who enjoyed going out to dinner with me, my wardrobe consisted of band tee shirts mailed to me by record labels or purchased directly from indie bands at shows, and I bought FILA and Adidas athletic pants and Demetre ski sweaters from the Salvation Army store on Fourth Avenue and 12th street.
There was a Gold Rush sensibility among the bigger record companies in 1993. Every major label wanted to sign the ”next Nirvana” and strike multiplatinum. Companies such as Elektra, Atlantic, Virgin and bigger indies such as Sub Pop and Mammoth had healthy budgets for advertising their releases and regularly booked ads with NET.
Most magazines derive their operating revenue from advertising. Ads from these record companies made NET possible.
Barry, NET‘s intrepid advertising director and I met with several record company marketing executives as we were planning the first issue, hoping to garner some ads. Most of these companies were receptive and encouraging to us. At a meeting with the marketing director of Elektra Records, Barry and I mentioned that we were promoting the premiere issue of NET at South By South West. SXSW is the pivotal industry convention in Austin, Texas that back in 1993 was really just focused on music (these days it seems to be attended by everyone marketing everything).
”Your magazine is going to be at SXSW?” the Elektra exec said, emphatically adding: ”I want the back cover. I’ll give you an ad for the Frank Black album.”
Barry and I were delighted. ”Let me shake your hand!” I said to the Elektra guy.
He shook my hand despite looking a bit perplexed. I guess I never really knew much about big business etiquette.
We had to generate content for NET‘s debut issue. Jonathan and I wrote columns – mine was about alternative rock goings-on and Jonathan wrote about dance music – and there was a front-of-book two page section called ‘Item’ about interesting music-related phenomena but we also had to have articles about bands and photographs of them (press photos of most bands were available but I always preferred original images). As editor-in-chief I had to assign articles and tell writers and photographers we couldn’t pay them for their contributions. We just didn’t have the money. It was important to be upfront about that (I learned that from my college internship at Paper, which was a low budget publication back then). Writers still gladly wrote for us because they wanted to do the interviews and have the clips and photographers shot bands as well in exchange for keeping the rights to the photos.
The cover story for NET‘s first issue was on the Dutch band Bettie Serveert. Douglas, a very talented writer, interviewed them via phone, and wrote a very good article. They weren’t available to be photographed but we used a still image of lead singer Carol van Dijk from the video for their single, ”Tomboy,” that had a certain artistic aspect to it and looked, to me, like something suitable for a magazine cover.
When it came time to lay out the debut issue of NET, Jonathan enlisted the Quark services of Claire, a former co-worker of his who was working for a big publishing company. We piled into Jonathan’s car with the articles, photographs and advertisements and drove from NET‘s office on 21st street to the Kinko’s on Park Avenue near 34th Street, where we would lay out the magazine. We passed a movie theater that was showing Quentin Tarantino’s True Romance, a film I wanted to see. That would have to wait for another time; there was too much work to be done tonight.
A pizza shop was near the Kinko’s and Jonathan told me and Claire to get some dinner there while he went to Kinko’s and got started working on the magazine. He said Barry would meet him there soon. Claire and I got some slices and sat at a table. She was drinking some Snapple Iced Tea ”This tea is waking me up,” she said. I thought that was good. I think I had one myself.
When we got to Kinko’s, Jonathan was sitting at a computer. He complained that it was slow, but we forged ahead and laid out the articles. The two-page Item section mentioned how the cult film Ladies and Gentlemen The Fabulous Stains foreshadowed the riot grrrl movement and a brief article about Japanese all-girl band The 5,6,7,8s.
We had made a huge blunder when we tried to spread the word that NET was debuting. We created a brochure about the magazine featuring a photo of the band Pavement without the band or their label, Matador Records’, permission. Gerard, co-owner of Matador contacted us about this and he was extremely upset. At Jonathan’s suggestion, I offered Matador a free full-page ad in NET. Gerard said that he appreciated the offer but it wasn’t necessary – a printed apology in the magazine would suffice.
So I wrote the following Letter From The Editors and it was placed on the first page of NET:
”The introductory issue of a magazine is supposed to hit you over the head with how hip it is and how cool you are for being its reader – we don’t want to do that. We don’t love the word ”alternative” because there’s more to underground music and culture than catch phrases. Slogans and buzzwords are limited, but magazines, when they have the right combination of vision and content are about scope and possibilities.
You know who you are, we know who we are and when it comes to finding out about music we have some things in common, we think, so here it goes. Read this issue, let us know what you thought of it and we’ll take it from there.
In our haste to spread the word about NET, we printed a brochure with a photograph of Pavement without permission from them or from Matador. We intended the brochure to look like the cover of our magazine, therefore we printed a photo of a band we’d write about. We apologize for not asking first.”
We spent the whole night at Kinko’s, creating the first issue of NET – me, Barry, Jonathan and Claire, huddled around a PC. We weren’t the only folks doing some desktop publishing there that night. At the workstation to my right at around 1AM I saw a guy in a tweed suit jacket laying out brochures? Postcards? I’m not sure. Whatever they were they had a huge gold headline saying ”EXPLORE THE WORLD OF FEMALE BODYBUILDERS!!” (I guess there was a market for everything). Two hours later, two young Hasidic men were creating pamphlets declaring that Rabbi Menachem Schneerson was the messiah (like I said, there’s a market for everything).
A while after the sun came up, we had finished the layout of NET ISSUE ZERO, which I thought was a clever way to refer to it. ISSUE ZERO was free. Cheekily, we ran a ticker across the front page saying ”FREE! (DON’T GET USED TO IT).” Subsequent issues of NET had a cover price of around $3.00
Claire matter-of-factly remarked that she was going straight to her job at the publishing company, sounding a little chagrined because she was wearing the same clothes from the previous day. Jonathan conferred with Barry a bit about the advertisements in the magazine, and then he told me and Barry that we were done, that he would wrap things up at the counter.
Barry and I walked out of the Kinko’s and turned the corner eastward onto 34th Street. It was a sunny morning with mild air for early March. I looked up at the bright periwinkle sky dotted with cottony clouds and felt a huge sense of accomplishment. I’d never had a baby in my then-24 years but I felt that that morning, having my own magazine, was tantamount to giving birth. ”I’ve got my own magazine,” I said to Barry with a smile, adding, ”that feels really great.”
Barry was headed to his girlfriend’s apartment on Third Avenue and I said I’d walk there with him before heading to my place on Clinton Street (two years later I would take over Barry’s girlfriend’s lease on her apartment when she and Barry decided to live together).
On Third Avenue in the low 30s I saw an orange and pink flower-printed suitcase in the window of a thrift shop. I loved it. Barry and I walked in and I inquired as to its price. It was inexpensive and I bought it, remarking to Barry that I would take it to SXSW.
”Well, you are going somewhere,” he said in a good-natured manner.
Barry and I were on the plane to Austin, headed to SXSW, a few days later – St. Patrick’s Day, if I recall correctly. We were seated about a row apart. Jonathan bought us the plane tickets but we had to figure out accommodations on our own. I was going to stay in a friend’s hotel room at The Radisson and Barry was going to stay at a friend’s house just outside of town.
On the plane I sat next to a British guy named Jambi who worked at a Rough Trade record store in London. He had day-glo yellow hair and funky glasses. We made small talk about going to SXSW. A man sitting in front of us turned to us and held up a SXSW brochure.
”Would you two like to look at this?” He asked us. ”Yeah, thank you,” Jambi said as the man handed him the brochure. Jambi looked at it and flipped it over. He read the mailing label and raised his eyebrows. ”Look,” he said, handing the brochure to me.
I read the mailing label and raised my eyebrows too – the label said Butch Vig and bore a Wisconsin address.
Butch Vig produced Nirvana’s Nevermind and had a recording studio outside of Madison.Was that him sitting in front of us? In economy class?
”Hmm,” I said as I looked at Jambi. We both shrugged in a what-have-we-got-to-lose manner. Then I leaned forward and said to the man, ”Pardon me, but are you Butch Vig?”
”No,” he said with a little laugh, ”I just do some work for him.”
”Oh cool,” I said.
Jambi and I looked at each other and laughed a little.
I later remarked in an issue of NET that SXSW was the spring break of the music industry. It kinda was, at least back then. Music journalists, record company folks, bands, publicists and pretty much anyone connected to music enjoyed going there, as far as I could tell. SXSW was where the music industry mixed business with pleasure – sort of a working vacation. Over the few days of the convention, you could see and hang out with fellow industry peeps you usually just spoke to on the phone.
Austin had warm weather in March, delicious barbecue and Mexican food, Shiner Bock beer and bands upon bands playing at many venues every night. The first night I was there, Stacy, who worked at a Chicago-based, rather substantial indie label, invited me to come along to a dinner at the Salt Lick, a sprawling outdoor barbecue restaurant outside of Austin. I gladly went along.
There was a veritable Who’s Who of music industry people at the Salt Lick that night, ranging from well-known journalists to some lesser-known and better-known band members such as Dave Lovering from the Pixies, who I spotted at a big table. It was a comfortably warm night. We ate barbecue family style and I made amiable small talk with the people I was sitting with. I looked at the dark sky and saw stars – I did this every time I was outside of New York and it always felt good.
A SXSW badge got you into the venues where the bands were playing and admission to the panel discussions and exhibition hall at the Austin convention center. Bands played at all sorts of venues during SXSW – some were along Sixth Street, Austin’s center of nightlife, or at outdoor spaces and clubs/bars a little further outside of town. I saw some great music on my first SXSW sojourn: buzz princesses Veruca Salt, Texas hometown hero Alejandro Escovedo, shy songstress Sam Phillips, sweet NYC vocal trio The Shams, San Francisco – based band Her Majesty The Baby playing in an outdoor spot kinda like a parking lot, Cherubs and King Coffey who impressed me so much that I bought a tee shirt bearing the multi-headed cobra logo of Coffey’s Trance record label.
Barry and I, if I remember correctly, got complimentary SXSW badges and placement of copies of NET in bags attendees received. We got these things in exchange for giving SXSW advertising in NET. Badges could also be purchased by anyone who wanted to attend SXSW. I remember hearing about an indie band that went to Austin, intending to go to SXSW with forged badges made at a copy shop. I don’t recall if they were successful.
One of the fancier hotels in downtown Austin was The Driskill. Ken, a publicist who I was friendly with, was staying there. He invited me to come up to his room and hang out after I saw Sam Phillips perform outdoors right next to The Driskill, which I did. In the elevator was Ethan, Sam Phillips’s guitarist. I complimented him on the show and he thanked me.
Howe Gelb, from the well-regarded band Giant Sand was in the room with Ken. We watched The Simpsons and passed around a joint. Ken then picked up the phone, called someone and in a jovial tone said ”Hey! I’m in my hotel room smoking a joint and watching The Simpsons with Robin Eisgrau and Howe Gelb!” I thought this was kinda funny. Was I a notable person?
Daytime during SXSW usually consisted of spending time at the Convention Center. Toting my canvas tote bag bearing a drawing by Daniel Johnston on the front I walked around the Exhibition Hall where record companies, magazines, etc. had displays promoting themselves. A guy from SST Records – a venerable punk label that had been around since the late Seventies and had put out records by Sonic Youth, Husker Du and The Minutemen, among others — walked up to me and said, ”Hey Robin, if I give you a Black Flag tee shirt, will you wear it?” I said an enthusiastic ”Yes” and he handed me said shirt bearing a blue print of an illustration by Raymond Pettibon and the Black Flag logo. I gamely put it on then and there and wore it for the rest of the day.
While chatting at the Convention Center with two music industry women I was friendly with, I found out about a party for the Butthole Surfers’ debut release for Capitol Records at a barbecue place outside of town. The Butthole Surfers had been around since the 80s and were known for performances that melded intense music and chaos. I expressed interest in going to this party and one of the women gave me an invite to it. It was happening late that afternoon.
I ran into Barry and asked him to come with me to the Butthole Surfers barbecue party. It was quite a ways outside of downtown Austin. I don’t recall how we got there but we did. While waiting on line for food I saw an illustrator I was acquainted with. He had a graphics company called ‘Terror’ that I thought had great t-shirts and posters. He was holding a baby. I said hi and remarked about how cute the baby was. ”Yep, he’s a keeper,” the illustrator said.
Barry and I got some food and sat at a picnic table. We looked around and didn’t see any people we knew so we just talked to each other as we ate ribs, chicken, brisket, etc. At one point I said, ”Barry, how are we getting back to town?” He paused and said, ”You know, I don’t know…” I thought for a second as I ate. Swallowing some food, I said ”Let’s hitchhike!” Barry asked me if I was comfortable doing that. I said, ”Yeah, I don’t think there are any dangerous people here.”
So after we ate, we walked up to the main road and I stuck out my thumb. The first car we saw stopped for us. A dark-haired guy in his late twenties rolled down the passenger side window. ”Where are you headed?” He asked.
”Downtown, the Convention Center?” I asked hopefully.
”Sure, get in,” the driver replied. As we headed to downtown Austin he told us that he sold advertising for The Austin Chronicle, the main newspaper in Austin. This made me feel relatively safe. He and Barry talked shop a bit about the advertising business and the next thing I knew we were downtown at the Convention Center. We thanked the driver and shook his hand.
This was the first time I had ever hitchhiked. I felt lucky that it was a good experience.
I went to a panel discussion, the topic of which I can’t remember, but if I recall correctly, the panel consisted mostly of music journalists. I sat next to Stacy in the audience. At one point the panelists were served plates of barbecue, sent to them by a publicist. Stacy and I thought this was very strange and quite inappropriate. ”Who’s going to pay for those lunches?” Stacy asked me. I just shook my head and said, ”What a bad idea.”
A panelist looked very uncomfortable about this food in front of him. Closing his eyes tightly, he tensely said: ”I’m a vegetarian.”
Speaking of food, when I was editor-in-chief of NET record companies and sometimes music publicists would host artist dinners at restaurants in Manhattan where music journalists would dine with musicians. I was invited to these events every so often. I remember going to a dinner at Bubby’s in Tribeca for Ben Harper, who sang his song, ”Like A King” for us and was very gracious. He thanked us earnestly for listening to and liking his music. I also went to a dinner for David Gray at La Spaghetteria in the East Village, a restaurant I always liked because Jamie, a boyfriend I had when I went to NYU, worked there for a spell.
I also went to a dinner for Killing Joke, the veteran post-punk British band. I was looking forward to this dinner because I always liked that band. Killing Joke’s music had an artistic, driving intensity with meaningful lyrics. The dinner was at a very good Italian restaurant in Midtown called Osteria al Doge.
These dinners could be awkward as sometimes nobody knew what to say to each other. But Jaz Coleman, Killing Joke’s singer, had a clever remedy for that; once we were all seated and waiters poured us some red wine, he clapped his hands together and said, ”Let’s talk about astrology!”
Smart move, Jaz, I thought to myself. Everybody has a sign and something to say about it.
When it was my turn to speak, I said: ”I’m on the cusp between Cancer and Leo. On my Cancer side, I’m a bit of a homebody, I’m good at doing detailed things with my hands and I try to be smart about my money. As for my Leo side, I like to look good, I love attention, I’m very generous and I have good leadership capability.” Jaz smiled and nodded.
Another member of Killing Joke was their bassist Youth, who was also established as a producer. I handed him a copy of NET with my cover story on Beck (”Loser” was a big hit at that time). ”Oh Beck,” Youth said with a smile, ”he writes great lyrics.” I nodded.
At Parsons Junior High School in Flushing Queens, circa 1980, when I started 7th grade, the kind of music you liked defined you. The white kids listened to classic rock and what was becoming heavy metal and the black and Hispanic kids listened to disco as it began to transform into hip-hop. As for the Asian kids, they were a toss up – some liked rock, some disco, some seemed like they had no interest in music at all.
I’m an only child, so I didn’t have older siblings to turn me on to cool music. I had to develop my own taste.
I was an anomaly because I liked some rock, some disco, the type of soft rock that’s now called yacht rock, whatever new wave I could find, and even some country and oldies. At Parsons you just couldn’t like both rock and disco. Liking both genres, or any other one besides (classical? jazz? You mean the kind of stuff we play in band class? Are you from Mars?) made you a total weirdo.
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel and Paul Stanley from KISS graduated from Parsons J.H.S. many years earlier but they didn’t do anything like make an appearance at Parsons when I was a student there. Years later, when I was attending NYU and was a member of the Program Board, Paul Simon made an appearance on campus to discuss his Graceland album. I got a chance to talk to Simon backstage after his presentation and mentioned that I attended Parsons. Simon had just put on his coat, glasses and hat and was looking very much like a little old man when I asked him if he remembered certain teachers from the school. He laughed and said ”Oh, I can’t remember back that far…”
No one at Parsons was remotely punk or new wave. I wasn’t either, though I was intrigued by those genres. I didn’t have the guts to, say, cut my hair really short and dye it bright pink or dark purpIe – where would I get hair dye like that anyway? (Crazy color hair dye wasn’t sold in drugstores back then.)
Before I discovered Long Island radio station WLIR, which played an endless feast of what was called ”new music” – bands such as U2, Depeche Mode,The Smiths and Duran Duran, I started listening to country music, just to break away from the rock vs. disco tension. There were two country stations in New York City then: WHN and WKHK. I had been falling asleep to the sound of the little radio on my dresser – usually tuned to the top 40 NY station WNBC – but one night in early 7th grade I set it to WHN.
I liked Eddie Rabbit (hey, he was from Brooklyn) and Crystal Gale. I taped The Eagles’ song ”Seven Bridges Road” off the radio and listened to it often, loving the quintessential California country-rock band’s sweet vocal harmonies on this track.
One day, in 7th grade Spanish class, when the teacher stepped out for a minute, I was seated next to Athena, one of the girls I walked to school with. Sitting in front of us was Alan, a classmate. We were talking about music. Athena liked disco and Alan liked rock.
I wasn’t contributing much to this discussion. Alan turns to me and says, ”Robin, what kind of music do you like?”
”I like country music.” I said flatly.
Alan and Athena exploded with laughter. I rolled my eyes and shook my head, only middlingly comfortable in my cloak of dorkdom.
Even though I was delighted when Dad won me a white straw, feather-accented cowboy hat from one of the games at the San Gennaro Festival and I wore it when I watched Dallas on my small black and white TV in my bedroom, I wasn’t a country fan for all that long. I didn’t even want to see the John Travolta film Urban Cowboy, whose soundtrack spawned several country crossover Top 40 singles. In my heart I knew I preferred music other than that.
Queens didn’t get cable TV until the late 80s – thus no MTV when it debuted in 1981, when I was in eighth grade and probably would have faked a stomachache on more than one occasion to stay home from school and watch it all day. So the most immediate way to find out about music was New York radio. Most rock kids listened to WPLJ, which played Led Zeppelin, Queen, Pink Floyd and a smattering of heavier stuff like Ozzy Osbourne’s anthem ”Crazy Train,” and Aerosmith’s ”Walk This Way” on a regular basis. The other New York rock station was WNEW-FM which I liked better. WNEW-FM peppered their standard playlist of Beatles, Rolling Stones and The Doors with new wavy bands like Squeeze, Talking Heads and Split Enz.
Saturday Night Live had groundbreaking musical guests back then, such as The Specials and the B-52s. These days most musical guests on SNL have to be in the Billboard Top 40 or somehow otherwise already famous to be booked on that show. Fridays was briefly on ABC-TV and was a late-night sketch comedy show designed to compete with SNL. Fridays had fairly maverick musical guests too like DEVO, The Jam and The Clash.
My beloved grandfather, Leon Eisgrau, died suddenly late one Friday night. While I was waiting to go to his funeral the next day, I watched the TV music/dance show American Bandstand. One of the show’s musical guests was Adam and the Ants. When I saw Adam Ant in his hybrid Indian/pirate outfit and makeup and heard the Ants’ commanding, rhythmically intense, unique music (they had two drummers – wow), it was like an alien coming through my window, sitting on my floor and saying he was my new friend. That made a very tough day a little easier to deal with.
I used to daydream about my family leaving Flushing and moving to Los Angeles. I wanted to be a dancer on American Bandstand, have teen idol Leif Garrett as my first boyfriend, be friends with the girls on the sitcom The Facts of Life and attend Hollywood High School. That wasn’t happening anytime soon, so I just lumped it day to day at Parsons.
Black t-shirts emblazoned with colorful graphics depicting rock bands were popular wear among my fellow 7th graders (Parsons didn’t have a dress code). I wanted one of these shirts because part of me wanted to be accepted by these kids who were rock fans — but part of me wanted to break away from them.
Dad took me shopping at QP’s Marketplace, an indoor bazaar with lots of clothing vendors. One booth sold black t-shirts with images of rock bands. ”Which one do you want?” Dad asked. I surveyed the shirts with the kind of intense contemplation older teenagers feel when applying to colleges.
”That one.” I said, pointing to an REO Speedwagon tee. That band had just topped the charts with their hit song ”Keep On Loving You,” from their equally chart-topping High Infidelity album. ”Ok,” Dad said and bought it. I thanked him.
But I was afraid to wear that shirt to school. Maybe I just didn’t want to broadcast that I liked that band. I hadn’t seen any of my classmates wear an REO Speedwagon tee. Most of them wore Led Zeppelin, Ozzy Osbourne and AC/DC shirts. I didn’t like those bands and I wasn’t going to sport one of those tee shirts just to fit in. So I slept in my REO Speedwagon tee, like keeping a secret.
Previously in elementary school (P.S. 154, also in Flushing) I was a total nerd. I was very nearsighted and wore dorky glasses. I didn’t own a single pair of designer jeans like all the other girls did. Instead I had a pair of Wranglers Dad bought me from the local Wainwright discount store and two pairs of off-brand flared dark denim jeans my parents bought me from the outdoor bins at Canal Jean Company in Chinatown (in retrospect these jeans may have had a cooler pedigree than a pair of Jordache from Macy’s but I didn’t have the self-possession to pull that off). The girls in P.S. 154 stopped wearing flared jeans two years earlier.
I was convinced Flushing was the polar opposite of cool. No one at Parsons was remotely punk or new wave. I wasn’t either, really. I had no idea how to go about that.
But I was starting to emerge from my dorkiness at least. Mom and I had a disastrous visit to the local Korvettes department store, when we were supposed to buy me clothes for the start of seventh grade and we got into a huge fight, leaving the store empty-handed.
Then Dad started giving me money and letting me buy whatever clothes I wanted (as I recall, when I showed him the clothing items I bought, he always approved of them). And with this money, I bought myself pairs of straight leg designer jeans – Calvin Klein, Sergo Valente and yes, Jordache.
Downtown Flushing – around the nexus of Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue – had some cool stuff on offer. It was kind of a gateway drug where Queens kids would first make the scene before hanging out on 8th Street in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.
Stores like Stargazers and Jolly Joint were outlets for Ticketron – the main rock concert ticket selling entity – and sold posters, jewelry, hippie accouterments like peacock feathers and black light lamps. These stores also sold bongs, glass pipes and roach clips but my friends and I had no clue about stuff like that in 7th grade.
And Downtown Flushing back then had two record stores with their fingers on the pulse of music – The Wiz and Jimmy’s Music World. They sold a vast array of both Top 40 and New Wave vinyl, cassettes and 7-inch singles. I remember feeling exhilarated one day upon climbing the stairs up from the ground floor electronics department at The Wiz and entering the record section as the Go-Go’s song ”How Much More?” played. The college age staff behind the counter bobbed their heads and sang along to that bubbly pop-punk tune by the grrrl band from LA who were causing a sensation. I then walked over to where the Go-Go’s album Beauty and the Beat was on display, picked one up and brought it to the counter where I also bought a cassette of Ghost In The Machine by The Police. On another day, I bought Adam and the Ants’ Kings of the Wild Frontier LP which came with a 7-inch of their song ”Stand and Deliver.”
Buying these made me feel like I had accomplished something, like casting a vote for a candidate I believed in.
To get to Downtown Flushing, my best friend Christine and I would take the Q25/34 bus. This bus passed by the campus of Queens College on Kissena Boulevard. There were concerts happening at Queens College. In retrospect, maybe attending one of these shows would have been an easypeasy first concert experience – heck, Christine and I could have walked home from the campus auditorium. But no. When we rode the bus and saw the marquee advertising an upcoming concert by Echo and the Bunnymen we just laughed, thinking their name was silly. Later, when we saw a sign advertising an upcoming show by R.E.M. we just shrugged, figuring they were just some other band we’d never heard of. Yeah, shoulda coulda woulda.
I started to like the Rolling Stones when I was in 7th grade. I kept a blank cassette in my boom box and recorded every Stones song I heard while flipping around the dial. In a Sunday edition of The New York Daily News, there was a free poster of a caricature of the Stones – Jagger had huge lips, Keith Richards was colored blue – and I put it on my wall above my desk.
I remember going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Mom and Dad on a Sunday and beforehand, going to the Barnes and Noble on 86th Street. I found a big paperback/ coffee table type book about the Rolling Stones that I really wanted. Dad bought it for me even though he didn’t like the Stones himself.
Christmastime of 7th grade, Christine and I went to The Wiz and discovered that we both bought each other copies of the Stones’ Some Girls album. We thought this was very funny.
A few blocks from Queens College was a record store – I forget its name. Christine and I went there one day in 7th Grade. At the counter I saw a display for Creem magazine. On the cover of the current issue was a photo of Mick Jagger from a concert on the Tattoo You tour. If I recall correctly, in this photo Jagger was shirtless and had runny eye makeup. I thought he looked amazing; I had to have this magazine. I had a vague idea of what Creem was. As far as learning about music via periodicals, at that time I mostly just read the New York Daily News Dad brought home nightly, the copies of People he’d give me on Mondays and US which came home bi-weekly.
Reading Creem was like breathing fresh air for the first time. The photo captions were hilarious, they had articles about bands I wanted to know more about but weren’t being covered in People or US. The letters their readers wrote were fascinating – they were so passionate about the music they liked. I loved Penny Valentine’s Letter From London column and even Creem‘s advertising – for independent record labels like Posh Boy, Peavy amplifiers and Incognito new wave sunglasses – was like a personal message from the cool place I longed to be.
I wanted to work for Creem: writing captions, interviewing cool bands, sweeping the floor – anything. Reading about music was galvanizing to me; perhaps because I loved music and I loved to read. The best of both worlds, really.
Later on in 9th Grade, I asked Dad to bring home Rolling Stone and the Village Voice for mewhich he gladly did. I would read these publications from cover to cover. One day in 9th grade Dad and I were in the B.Dalton bookstore that was then on the corner of 8th Street and Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village. I came across a magazine called Trouser Press that had acover story on The Clash. I asked Dad if I could have it and he gladly bought it for me. A little while later, I bought a money order from the post office and ordered a subscription to Trouser Press. I delighted in receiving each issue until, sadly, it stopped publishing. (Later on in my 1990s music journalism days, I would become good friends with Ira Robbins, who edited and published Trouser Press.)
At lunchtime in the Parsons Junior High School cafeteria one day in 9th Grade, my friend Nancy showed me her copy of The Clash’s album Combat Rock. I took the vinyl disc out and read its sleeve. ”You know,” I said, ”the lyrics to ”Rock The Casbah” are really disturbing…” I thought that if I had the chance to interview The Clash I’d ask them about that.
I did meet Clash lead singer Joe Strummer many years later, but it was just a brief hello and a handshake. No time for questions really.
At Parsons, there was this thing called the Declamation Contest, where students had to get up in front of their English classes and recite a long poem or a passage from a book – something like that. The winners of the Declamation Contest won a record album of their choice and recited their poem, passage, etc. in front of their grade in an assembly.
I bombed in 7th grade when I recited some paragraphs from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, but in 8thgrade I was a hit, reciting a funny passage from a book called The Pistachio Prescription about an awkward 13-year old girl. I was also a success in 9th grade as I performed a George Carlin monologue (taped from a vintage Saturday Night Live episode) about how there’s no blue food and the difference between football and baseball.
There was a math teacher at Parsons, named Mr. Lubard. In 9th grade he asked me to star in a Christmas show he had written. It was a parody of ”The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Kinda cute, kinda funny. I eagerly agreed to be in it.
One day while rehearsing Mr. Lubard’s Christmas show, A group of my classmates were seated at the back of the auditorium. One of them stood up and shouted to me: ”Hey Robin, what was the name of the band Billy Squier used to be in?”
I cupped my hands around my mouth and quickly shouted: ”Piper!” The classmates nodded.
I’m not sure how I knew that but I felt very glad that I did.
One night when I was Editor-in-Chief of NET, I went to see The Melvins at Roseland, a former ballroom in Midtown. Before the show, I met up at a bar with Jim, a publicist from Atlantic Records who introduced me to Joe and Claire who were editors at Seventeen.
They were really friendly and cool. I told Joe how much I liked reading Seventeen when I was a teenager. I explained that I had a terrible relationship with my mother back then. ”She never took me shopping for my first bra,” I told Joe, ”and when I was about 15 Seventeen printed an article explaining how to find a bra that fits. That solved a big problem for me, so thanks.” Joe seemed to like that.
I had met Claire some years earlier at the Union Square restaurant Coffee Shop, where Lauren, then the publicist at A&M Records hosted a lunch to promote a singer signed to A&M named Denise Lopez, if I remember correctly. Claire sat opposite me, wearing a hat that I thought was very stylish and dramatic. She had a glamorous aura about her; like a star of a movie from the 1940s.
Claire called me at the NET office a short time later and told me that Seventeen was creating an associate entertainment editor position and asked me if I was interested in it. I said I was, very enthusiastically. Claire said she was working on an article about ”guys to watch” – young men who had something to do with entertainment who were up and coming. She asked me to think of a handful of such guys, write short blurbs about them and get these blurbs to her in a few days.
I wrote about Jon Spencer, from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Boss Hog. I had written a cover story about Boss Hog for NET recently. I interviewed Jon’s wife and Boss Hog singer Cristina Martinez for the NET story. She was very friendly and easy to talk with.
I thought Seventeen readers would like Jon Spencer – he had a quintessential rocker boy thing about him; dark hair, pale skin, slim build. He was also an excellent guitar player and singer. For this assignment I intended to pick guys who were especially talented, not just cute. I also wrote about Michael Galinsky, an excellent photographer and filmmaker who photographed the band Velocity Girl for the cover of NET‘s second issue. He also directed a very good film called Half-Cocked. I also wrote about Tae Won Yu from the band Kicking Giant (a duo he had with drummer/vocalist Rachel Cairns) who was also a talented visual artist.
I had an interview at Seventeen also, with Claire and Caroline Miller, who was the magazine’s editor-in-chief. I wore a khaki skort, a striped polo shirt and a pair of navy blue Puma California sneakers. That was my look then – kinda alternapreppy (around this time, my dear friend Susan told me my style was ”70s mom.” I liked that). I was very confident in the interview (I think that’s the secret sauce for getting a job). Later, Claire told me that Caroline was a bit perplexed that I wore ”tennis shoes” to the interview but that some of the other editors said, regarding me, ”she’s six months ahead of us.”
A few days later Claire called me at NET and said ”This is the phone call that could change your life” and offered me the Associate Entertainment Editor position at Seventeen at a starting salary of 30K. In 1994 a salary like that was pretty substantial.1This is approximately $54,000 in 2021 dollars. –Eds
I started working at Seventeen in September 1994 if I remember correctly. The night before my first day there the electricity went out in the Clinton Street apartment right before I wanted to go to sleep. I was livid. I yelled at my roommate who handled our utility bills, called my boyfriend who lived in Brooklyn sounding very upset and he told me to get in a cab and come over to his place.
My first months at Seventeen were a very good experience for me. The women on the staff seemed impressed that I had my own magazine and they liked my ideas. We’d have meetings where we discussed cover lines – the words on the cover that told the reader what types of articles were inside. In one of these meetings I learned that the two words Seventeen always had to have on the cover were ”boys” and ”hair.”
Claire and I shared an office. To decorate my desk, on one of my first days there, I went to a local Cosmetics Plus shop and bought a bottle of Christian Lacroix’s C’est La Vie perfume which came in a bottle subtly shaped like a human heart. I’ve always liked stuff from Sanrio and Ira sent me some Keroppi (Sanrio’s frog character) items for my desk: a plastic box and a comb and mirror compact.
One Monday morning Claire and I got to the office at around the same time and she played her phone messages on speaker. One of them was from Jason Weinberg, a top entertainment public relations person. ”Hi Claire,” Weinberg said, ”It’s about 6PM on Friday and I’m inviting you to Tyra Banks’s birthday party at Bowery Bar tonight. It starts at 8. You’re on the list plus one. See ya there.”
”Shit!” Claire said. We both laughed.
Natalie Portman’s debut film, The Professional was being released. Claire and I went to a screening of it and we thought she was just perfect for a cover story (Natalie was a very young teenager at this time). Her mother was handling her career, so I had to call her and talk to her about Natalie being in Seventeen. I was a little nervous and not exactly sure about what I would say. When Portman’s mom picked up the phone I immediately heard a dog barking. ”Hi Ms. Portman, this is Robin Eisgrau from Seventeen – oh, is that a dog in the background?” I said with a little laugh that broke the ice. ”Yes, that’s our dog”(she may have told me its name but I forget) she said, laughing a little too. ”We love Natalie and we want to put her on the cover,” I said. ”Well,” Mrs. Portman replied, ”I think we’d rather wait until her next film comes out.” That made sense to me and Claire agreed. On another day I talked on the phone to Christian Bale’s father, who was handling his career. Seventeen gave a lot of coverage to the 1994 version of Little Women and Bale and Samantha Mathis, who starred in the film, were on a cover.
TLC‘s publicist called one day and Claire told me to talk to her. The publicist emphatically said that the girls in TLC very much wanted to be in Seventeen.
At that time TLC’s Lisa ”Left Eye” Lopez was in the news because of her stormy relationship with her boyfriend, a football player for the Atlanta Falcons. It was reported that she attempted to burn his house down.
One of the things I was told about Seventeen was that the average reader was actually fourteen and that her parents pay for her subscription and comb through the magazine’s pages looking for inappropriate material before they hand the magazine to her daughter. I knew these parents would object to their daughter reading about Lopez at that time, lest her story inspired their daughter to burn down her boyfriend’s house.
So I said to TLC’s publicist that we were wary of the controversy surrounding Lopez and that we just wanted to wait and see how it would play out before putting TLC in Seventeen. She said okay. Claire said I handled that well.
But what I didn’t handle well at that time was my behavior at Seventeen; I was bratty and obnoxious. I acted like a know-it – all. I argued with Claire more often than not.
Green Day were at the height of their fame in late 1994 and Seventeen really wanted to put them on the cover. I mentioned to the magazine’s creative director that, in the mid-Sixties, Town & Country magazine had a cover where The Rolling Stones were photographed with a pretty debutante. A photograph of this cover was in a paperback coffee-table type book about the Stones that owned. (I was a big Rolling Stones fan as a tween.)
I had an idea for Seventeen to have a contest where agirl reader would be photographed with Green Day for the cover. The creative director really liked this concept. She asked me to make a copy of the Town & Country cover for her, which I did.
So I called Green Day’s publicist and she said the band wasn’t doing any publicity for the next year, that they were taking a break.
”But we don’t care about them, now do we?” Claire said to me when I was done with the call.
I said: ”Well Claire, I think that’s part of the reason why I’m here…”
That pissed Claire off royally. With an angry expression on her face she said, ”I wish you had more respect for me than that.”
The next morning, as soon as she got to our office, Claire let me have it. She was extremely angry at me, telling me that she had fought to create my position and if I wanted to stay in the magazine business I’d better change my attitude. I felt so bad and upset by this that I started to cry, but I understood Claire’s perspective and I thought she was right.
It was decided one day that Claire would get the corner office and I would get my own office on the other side of the floor. There was a file cabinet in the office I shared with Claire containing all sorts of materials from Seventeen’s Entertainment department. Claire asked me to sort through the files to see what was worth keeping as we prepared to move.
In these files I found a typed up interview with The Beatles and a letter from Liz Rosenberg, longtime publicist at Warner Bros. who was renowned for handling Madonna’s PR, inviting a past Seventeen Entertainment Editor to meet Van Halen. The letter was handwritten on hot pink stationery with an image of a woman’s mouth wearing red lipstick. ”Would you like to have lunch with these magnificent fellows?” Rosenberg wrote. I asked Claire if I could have this letter. She said yes. I put it up on a bulletin board in my apartment.
My big project at Seventeen was a three page spread called Alternaguys – photos of cute guys in alternative music with brief descriptions of who they are and what’s great about them. I wrote about Pavement, Trent Reznor, Richard James (aka the Aphex Twin), Greg Dulli from the Afghan Whigs, Thurston Moore, Beck, Billy Corgan – dudes like that.
I really wanted to include Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye in this article, if anything, for the fact that Fugazi had a song called ”Suggestion” dealing with street harassment from a woman’s point of view. I think I actually talked to MacKaye over the phone and asked him for a photo. He put me in touch with Glen E. Friedman, noted photog for the Beastie Boys and other cool music figures. Friedman gladly came to the Seventeen office with some photos of MacKaye that I thought were good.
But Ian Mackaye was rejected for the article for not being cute enough. That kinda told me I wasn’t long for Seventeen‘s world.
The article had a section called ”over them” listing music guys we were tired of; namely Evan Dando, Bono and Eddie Vedder, about whom I said: ”All his whining about being a rock star just makes him sound like a whiny rock star.”
But Seventeen‘s readers loved Vedder and I got a flood of hate mail for dissing him. The clock on my time at the magazine was ticking, I just knew it.
One issue had a Chanel ad on the back cover. Should a 14-year-old girl be encouraged to covet Chanel anything? I didn’t think so.
I wanted us to run a small feature telling girls how to tune a guitar. That didn’t happen.
So one morning I was told to go to the Editor-in-Chief’s office where I was promptly fired for being ”too hip.” ”Ok,” I said blithely. This was not a tragedy. I knew I didn’t belong there.
But there’s never any joy in getting canned. I had just moved into my own apartment in Murray Hill and had to pay the rent. My friend Lauren worked at USA Today and got me a freelance assignment that paid well. But that money ran out and I took a job watering plants in office buildings, followed by a waitress gig at a Mexican restaurant in the South Street Seaport.
Gail, a good girlfriend of mine, was working at Time Out New York as their music editor and she helped me get hired as a staff writer there.
That didn’t work out either.
I had recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was having a very hard time getting through the day. I felt like I was in a constant fog, I didn’t want to go out at night and see live music – which was a key part of the job when you’re writing about music for a magazine. If Time Out New York was Pooh corner, I was Eyeore times twenty.
One day I felt so bad that I walked to the big window overlooking Bleecker Street, leaned my head against the glass, placed my palms on it and thought about jumping.
Fortunately I didn’t do that.
There were a few good things that happened for me at Time Out New York; before I was hired, I was asked to write an article on Kula Shaker, the British band with a Indian sensibility that was fronted by Crispian Mills, son of actress Hayley Mills, who starred in films like The Parent Trap and Pollyanna as a teenager. Gail liked my article about them. I wrote a feature article on Moby when he came out with Animal Rights, his non-techno album and Gail liked that too.
Stephen Merritt from the Magnetic Fields worked at Time Out New York around that time. One day he was standing next to my desk, sucking on a straw in a juice box. He took the straw out of his mouth and said, ”hmmm… I should use that sound in a song.”
At some point between being given the bum’s rush at Seventeen and starting at Time Out New York I ran into Thurston Moore twice in the span of two days; once at the Angelika Film Center. I was going to see the John Sayles’s film Lone Star. I had just seen a gallery exhibit of art by Jim Shaw, who I like very much. I wore a curried caramel-colored Naugahyde blazer with pockets shaped like half moons. In the Angelika’s lobby, I bought a coffee and sat down, waiting for my film to start. I looked up and saw Thurston, about 15 feet away, looking at me with a gentle smile.
I had interviewed Thurston for a cover story in Paper in the summer of 1995 and we got along quite well. Olivia, the publicist at Geffen who handled Sonic Youth said, ”Thurston liked you” to me after I talked with him. When the issue of Paper with the Thurston cover story was printed, she called me up and enthusiastically said everyone in Sonic Youth liked what I wrote.
At the Angelika, when I saw Thurston, I got up, said hello and re-introduced myself. Kim Gordon, his wife and Sonic Youth bandmate at the time, and their infant daughter, Coco were sitting on the banquette behind the box office. Coco was crawling as Kim said hello to me with a glint of recognition. ”I’m going to see Lone Star alone.” I said.
”I want to see that movie!” Thurston replied excitedly.
I used to ride a skateboard back then. The next day, I skated from my apartment on Third Avenue down to SoHo. I was on Wooster Street when I saw Thurston walking towards me wearing sunglasses. He saw that I recognized him and he crossed to the opposite side of the street. I figured that he didn’t want to be recognized but given that we had a pleasant exchange the previous day, I felt like I could talk to him. (I was wearing a helmet, maybe he didn’t recognize me?)
I walked closer to Thurston, waved my left hand and said, ”I’m not stalking you!” with a friendly smile. He laughed and tilted his head back. We talked for a bit. I told him I was looking for a job and that I had done personal assistant work for Rocky Horror Picture Show star Nell Campbell (years earlier I had a job answering the phone and doing basic office work at Nell’s, the once-excruciatingly exclusive nightclub named after Campbell).
Thurston took a Rolodex card and a Sharpie out of his jacket pocket. ”Here let me,” I said and I wrote my name and phone number on the card and handed it back to him.
About two months later, Thurston called me and said Sonic Youth had just opened a recording studio in Tribeca. They needed someone to help out with their fan mail – entering addresses in a database – and they were thinking about starting a magazine that would be a hybrid of the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal and The Baffler. ”We’ll pay you,” he said, ”and you can make your own hours. We want you to do this because you’re organized and we think you’re the right person for the job.”
”Sure, I’ll do it,’ I replied.
The timing of Thurston’s offer was pretty perfect. My first day at their studio on Murray Street was right after my last day at Time Out New York. I was pretty broke so I took a waitress job at a restaurant near my apartment to make ends meet.
At Sonic Youth’s studio I had a little chair and a desk. An animation cell from Sonic Youth’s appearance on The Simpsons hung on the wall as did a poster for Lydia Lunch’s Atomic Bongos record. Behind me was Thurston’s graffiti – covered suitcase-sized boom box. On a small Mac, Lee Ranaldo showed me how to do the data entry for the bags of fan mail addresses they had. He was very friendly and nice to me.
I met Susanne Sasic, Sonic Youth’s lighting designer in the living room area of the studio one day when she was there with Kim Gordon. ”Oh, your lights for Lollapalooza were amazing!” I was enthused. A few weeks later I became roommates with Susanne and two other people in her house in Hoboken. I couldn’t really afford the apartment in Murray Hill anymore (frankly I could barely afford it when I worked for Time Out New York). The room in her house that I rented had a loft bed, periwinkle walls and a big window. The rent was only $300. I moved in as soon as I could.
I think what I loved most about this new place to live was how blissfully quiet it was. My Murray Hill apartment was horribly noisy: ambulances, fire trucks, cop cars, buses night and day. I don’ t think I got a decent night’s sleep in the two years I lived there, which didn’t help my mental health at all.
I loved working for Sonic Youth. As I sat in my petit office typing names and addresses into the Mac, I heard them rehearse for their tours and record their A Thousand Leaves album (I’m thanked on that, which made me happy). Lee put me on their guest list for Sonic Youth concerts at Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Bridge anchorage. They gave me CDs and vinyl records, tote bags and t-shirts.
I was still smarting from losing my job at Time Out. I didn’t want to go see bands and run into music industry people and tell them that I was a waitress now. When I wasn’t waitressing or working for Sonic Youth I stayed in the periwinkle room’s loft bed, reading books by Amy Tan, Jean Cocteau and Peter Biskind and listening to WFMU.
One day in the corridor of Sonic Youth’s studio, Steve Shelley told me about a party that night at CBGB for Jim Jarmusch’s documentary about Neil Young.
I lowered my head and looked at the floor. I was too embarrassed to go there and see those people.
”It’s ok,” Steve softly said. ”you don’t have to go.” His understanding was heartwarming.
One day, I was sitting in the living room of the studio. Kim walked in and turning to me, said ”Something smells good. It must be you.”
”Oh,” I replied, ”I’m wearing some jasmine oil. My aunt and uncle live in Woodstock. I was up there this weekend and bought some in a little shop.”
Kim sat down near me and said, ”My mother grows night blooming jasmine at our house in LA.”
”Oh that’s really nice,” I replied, nodding and smiling.
When I got fired from Time Out New York I felt defeated as a music journalist. I didn’t have the gumption to talk my way into a music writing job at, say, The Village Voice or New YorkMagazine. I do tend to take a lot of things personally and I found it hard to promote myself as a freelance music writer after my dismissal.
My friend Ken got me a job interview at MTV – the network’s new endeavor MTV Online to be exact. I was excited yet circumspect about the possibility of working there. I knew people who had jobs at MTV and they said it was a shitty place to work. A girlfriend of mine was the head writer for the MTV program Alternative Nation and she wasn’t getting paid for her work. As with a lot of glamour industry companies, I was told the attitude there was: ”If you don’t like working here there’s 25 people behind you who would gladly take your place, so if you don’t like how you’re being treated, too bad. Suck it up and don’t complain.”
MTV was in the Viacom building in Times Square then. In the elevator on my way to the interview at MTV Online, I overheard a woman employee who looked maybe in her early thirties brag to a colleague that she commuted to her job there every day from Philadelphia.
I thought that was a bad omen.
The interview was with four women who seemed perplexed by my presence.
One of them said to me: ”Ok, so an artist is coming to New York. He’s someone we really want to interview for MTV Online but their publicist says they’re only going to do the Rosie O’Donnell show and a photo shoot and interview for SPIN and they don’t have time for MTV Online. What would you say to the publicist to convince that artist to talk with us?”
I had no fucking idea how to reply. I cleared my throat and said some mumbo jumbo about how important MTV is to popular culture and the great quality of their programming. These women were not impressed. Then they looked over my resume and asked me some pointless questions about my work experience. It was excruciating.
”Ok thank you for coming,” one of these women said. All four of them stood up. I felt like running out of the room. I headed to the elevator, fully expecting to encounter an employee who lived in Miami and was happy as a clam to fly back and forth to New York twice a day to mop the floors at MTV.
So needless to say, I didn’t get the job.
The day after the MTV interview I was at the waitress job talking to Shannon, one of the hostesses. ”Why you are waiting tables is beyond me,” she said. ”Maybe I just haven’t been lucky. But it’s not so bad working here,” I replied. Shannon clutched a bunch of menus to her chest and nodded.
It was perhaps a few months later, when I was working at my waitress job that wasn’t that bad, that I realized what I should have said to the women at MTV.
I brought two plates of chicken parmigiana to a couple who thanked me very sweetly. I went behind the wall that separated the kitchen window from the dining room, where the waiters always went to take a breather and I took a sip from a glass of ginger ale.
I thought about being in that MTV interview, and how I should have taken a deep breath, tilted my head upwards and stated: ”I would threaten the publicist. I would say: ‘If this artist won’t sit down to an interview with MTV Online we won’t put ANY of their videos in rotation. We will BAN them from the Video Music Awards – as a performer, presenter AND audience member. MTV will have NOTHING to do with this artist for the rest of their career. I’d play hardball.”
That answer may very well have gotten me the job at MTV but I didn’t want to be bitchy and demanding to publicists for a living. I was still friendly with more than a few of them from my music journalism days. Yes, having a nice office at MTV had more creature comforts and probably more money than running around fetching mayonnaise in a restaurant but it just wouldn’t have been right for me then. I was very privileged as a full-time music writer and at times I was difficult and demanding. As the weeks went by during my waitress job it felt good to be nice to people for a living. At Christmastime a guy I waited on gave me a $40 tip on a $20 check.
I put the glass of ginger ale back on the shelf, shook my head and laughed a little. A table of four had just been seated in my section.
Later, when the outdoor tables at the restaurant opened up, I waited on a woman I knew who worked for a record company. I had written about one of their bands for Paper, I was friendly with her. She told me that the record label was facing some rough times. ”I’m grateful that I still have my apron”I said, raising my left eyebrow and taking her order for fusilli with chicken in pink sauce.
I did write a cover story on David Byrne (in the 80s he led the band Talking Heads, and later on was proprietor of the Luaka Bop record company and had a solo career of note in the ’90s) for a magazine called Smug. Byrne was friendly and cooperative in my interview with him but I felt foggy throughout our conversation and kept wishing I had asked better questions. Smug’s editors told me they would pay me $150 for the article but they never did. Someone from Smug did call me up at my Hoboken phone number to ask if I could put them on a guest list for an upcoming Sonic Youth concert. Really? Um, no. Fuck you very much.
Paper called me and asked if I would write about Squirrel Nut Zippers for them, which I was happy to do, probably because I felt a certain loyalty to that magazine. Paper was the first major magazine I wrote for and they had been very encouraging towards me when my music writing career got started.
The swing phenomenon was happening then and the Squirrel Nut Zippers were linked to that trend. In my interview with two members of that band they spoke very disparagingly about swing and how it reduced a whole genre of music they were inspired by to a jingle in a GAP TV commercial. I was earning good coin at my waitress job at that time and when the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ publicist invited me to see the band at the club Life on Bleecker Street, I had enough spending money to buy a 1940s-style pink and black cocktail dress to wear to the show. That felt good. I also wrote an article about electronica artist DJ Vadim for Paper soon thereafter and was invited to the magazine’s holiday party, which I attended and enjoyed. At the party I talked to a young man who said: ”You know where artistic people are talking about moving to? Newark!”
One evening, Susanne, my roommate in the Hoboken house, knocked on my door and invited me to go to a local bar and see a band featuring former members of notable 80s group Das Damen. I had retreated into such a shell at that time and felt so sheepish about going to shows that I said no. ”Oh, come on,” Susanne said, ”Das Damen…” I just closed my eyes, shook my head and said no thank you as I closed my door.
But my very dear friend Katherine helped me come out of that live music hibernation, at least sporadically. She had a very good job in the entertainment industry and would invite me along to concerts by the likes of Radiohead, Bush, Coldplay, The Pet Shop Boys and others. We went to see The Verve at Hammerstein Ballroom around the time their song ”Bittersweet Symphony” was a hit. I had interviewed The Verve for NET when their A Storm In Heaven album was released circa 1993. I enjoyed talking with them. I wore a pair of snakeskin print high heeled shoes to the Virgin Records office where the interview took place. When Richard Ashcroft, singer for The Verve greeted me, he tapped the right foot toe area of my shoe and said, ”cool shoes…”
The Verve concert at Hammerstein Ballroom was really good. I enjoyed it thoroughly. Another night at Hammerstein Ballroom, Katherine and I went to see Underworld, who recently had a hit with the song ”Born Slippy,” featured in the film Trainspotting. I spotted Moby there, standing near a bar with a friend. I had written a feature article on him for Time Out New York and he was friendly to me during the interview, so I felt comfortable walking up to him, saying hi and introducing Katherine to him. Moby was smiling as I told him about Tiffin, a new Indian vegetarian restaurant that had opened down the street from Sonic Youth’s studio in TriBeCa (Moby was known to be a vegan).
Music had always been important to me throughout my life, but at this time I felt rather chequered about it. When I wrote about Kurt Cobain in Paper when he died, I mentioned that, for me, walking into CBGB often felt like walking into my high school cafeteria. After getting sacked from Time Out New York, I felt like I had no place to sit anymore, much less a seat at the cool kids table.
So at this time, I worked at my waitress job 3-4 days a week and did the work for Sonic Youth on Mondays and Wednesdays. I was very withdrawn then, but I felt comfortable at Sonic Youth’s studio. I loved being among their instruments and amplifiers and the posters on their walls that advertised things ranging from Lydia Lunch records to a film about Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. I worked there even when they were away on tour (I had a set of keys to the studio) and I was in my little office by myself, listening to NPR on Thurston’s boom box as I entered names and addresses from their fan mail into a Filemaker Pro program.
At one point when they were in NYC, Sonic Youth had a concert coming up at Hammerstein Ballroom and they were putting me on the guest list for it. I was very happy about that. A few days before the concert, Thurston and I were in the front room area of the studio and he told me that Sonic Youth were mostly going to play older songs that night.
”Are you going to play anything off of EVOL?” I asked him (EVOL is a Sonic Youth album released in 1986.It’s one of my favorites of theirs.)
”Maybe,” Thurston said as he looked at me.
”I’d love it if you did ‘Tom Violence,’ I said, referring to a track on EVOL, ”whenever I hear that song I feel like I’m looking into someone’s soul…”
”Ok,” Thurston replied sincerely, ”we’ll take care of you that night.”
I was thrilled to hear that.
At the Hammerstein Ballroom concert I was indeed on the guest list and had a backstage pass also, which I stuck on the front belly area of my black Betsey Johnson dress.
I stood a little bit towards the rear of the ground floor, next to David, who worked for Sonic Youth’s management. My roommate Susanne was working her magic at the lighting board.
At one point before one of their songs, Thurston said into his mic: ”I used to follow [Television lead guitarist, singer and songwriter]Tom Verlaine around New York City. I stalked him, actually…I never told anyone that before…”
I was elated! I thrust my fists in the air and said, ”YES!” Then I turned to David, pointed at him virulently and said, ”THURSTON SAID THEY’D PLAY MY SONG AND THEY’RE PLAYING IT!!! YES!!” – like I ‘d just scored the winning goal in the Stanley Cup Final Game or something. David smiled and laughed — at me, I suppose, but I was so happy I didn’t care.
Katherine and I went to see Placebo at Irving Plaza circa 1998 or so if I remember correctly. Placebo had a kinda punk/fairly glam/slightly goth aspect to their music and image. Somehow I was still on Virgin Records’ mailing list and their CD Without You I’m Nothing was sent to my address in Hoboken. Their single, ”Pure Morning” was getting some attention and they were in the film Velvet Goldmine, which spun the cinematic tale of two glam musicians portrayed by Ewan MacGregor and Jonathan Rhys-Myers, two actors I liked very much. In the film, Placebo played a band called Flaming Creatures.
I also wore the pink and black 1940s dress to the Placebo show, accessorized with my egret feather boa. I found the boa at Vintage IV, a wonderful vintage clothing store on First Street in Hoboken that was around the corner from the house where I lived. To me, a concert by Placebo seemed like the perfect occasion to wear such an ensemble.
Placebo were very good at Irving Plaza that night. Katherine and I were standing stage left, midway through the crowd, having a good time. There was a certain sense of anticipation in the crowd after one of their songs. Lead singer/ guitarist Brian Moloko said, ”New York is a very magical place and in magical places magical things happen…”
Katherine and I looked at each other and our jaws dropped.
”I’d like to introduce our friend…David Bowie!” Moloko said.
Katherine and I were delighted to hear this as was the rest of the crowd at Irving Plaza. Bowie then remarked about that day being Marc Bolan’s birthday. He pointed skyward and said, ”This one’s for you Marc!” and Placebo launched into the T-Rex song ”20th Century Boy.”
Katherine would later remark that that was a defining moment for us.
After Placebo’s set, Kat and I went upstairs and sat in a booth. We saw Placebo and their entourage walk by, probably on their way to some sorta after party at a hotspot.
A young black woman separated herself from this group and bowed her head, as if she didn’t feel like she belonged with them. Placebo’s bass played then touched her on the shoulder and made a gesture that said, ”come with us – it’s ok.” She nodded and went along with Placebo and company.
I saw Brian Moloko walking by and I immediately jumped up. Waving my boa with my right hand I exclaimed: ”We love you! We love you!”
Moloko smiled and waved at me, bending the fingers of his right hand as if scratching.
”Aww…he gave you a little scratchy wave…” Kat said.
”Yeah, that was nice,” I replied with a smile as I sat back down.
I spent a lot of time reading in that periwinkle Hoboken bedroom those days; books such as Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden and Because They Wanted To, a collection of short stories by Mary Gaitskill. At one point in Sonic Youth’s studio, Kim Gordon told me that Gaitskill had interviewed her. I remarked that Gaitskill was a favorite writer of mine. ”Oh, is she?” Kim replied and I nodded enthusiastically.
Reading while listening to music has often been a favorite thing for me to do. One afternoon in my Hoboken bedroom when I got home early from my waitress job, I was in my loft bed, reading Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles. It started to rain outside. I put the book down, looked out the window and felt so happy and grateful to have shelter; a place where I felt at home, safe and out of the rain.
At the Back Porch, where I was waitressing, I often waited on two very sweet gay guys who worked at Charrette, the art supply store on Lexington Avenue. One day when I earned a good amount of tip money from working a lunch shift, I went to Charrette and bought a set of about 50 colored pencils.
I was thinking about becoming a fashion designer. I had all these ideas for clothes, such as a collection inspired by candy: a red and white shift dress in a pattern similar to starlight mints, a glittery pink, stretchy bubblegummy minidress and a dress the color of a butterscotch candy with a sheer amber-colored shrug around the model’s shoulders like a butterscotch candy’s wrapper. I even thought the outdoor patio at the Back Porch would be a good setting for a fashion show.
One day I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and saw an exhibit of clothing by designer Bonnie Cashin in the Costume Design section, which I felt inspired by. Cashin’s clothing was very well-constructed yet feminine and pretty, like ideal working woman wear for her time (the 1930s and 1940s). Cashin designed apparel for women in the Armed Forces and costumes for Hollywood films such as Laura and A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. I visited with my grandmother soon after seeing the Cashin exhibit and told her how impressed I was by it. ”I’d go there every day if I wanted to be a fashion designer,” she said.
One night in the Hoboken periwinkle bedroom, while listening to David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane, I was drawing while talking on the phone with Douglas, a friend from my early Nineties music journalism days. I was ruminating about how separated I felt from the music scene but that wasn’t such a bad thing. ”I’ve got my colored pencils, I’ve got my David Bowie CDs – I’m good,” I told him.
I had a color TV and a VCR set up in the corner of my loft bed. I had attempted to get cable TV hooked up but after making three calls to Cablevision and not agreeing on a time for them to come by and hook it up, I gave up. I decided to just make a substantial donation to free-form radio station WFMU, the station I loved listening to.
I didn’t watch a lot of TV then; mostly just Seinfeld and Frasier reruns when I got home from work. I was out sick with a bad cold from my waitress job for two days at one point and just sat up in bed watching daytime television. I got so fed up with seeing the same handful of commercials over and over, I couldn’t wait to get back to work. I had some regret for not getting cable and having the option of commercial-free viewing.
There was a good video store a couple of blocks nearby. I rented a lot of movies from there. Some became favorites like the Chinese films Farewell My Concubine and Raise The Red Lantern. Often I saw a beautiful furry white cat prowling around the video store. I asked the young woman working there about it and she said the cat’s name was Frosty. After a following visit or two I didn’t see Frosty at the video store. The young woman told me he ran away. She seemed very sad. ”I hope he comes back,” she said.
Since I spent so much time during the week waiting on tables, I relished going to restaurants, enjoying some different food than my two staff meals at the Back Porch (where the food was rather good, and I was grateful for it but sometimes I just wanted something else). I’ll admit I liked having someone wait on me. In Hoboken there was a cozy eatery called Café Martinique on Washington Street (the town’s main drag), where I regularly ate on my days off. They had a sweet potato and corn soup that was delicious. Suddenly one day while I was dining there, the owner told me the restaurant was closing and that day was their last day of operation.
”But why?” I asked, ”it always seems busy here, it looks like business is booming…”
”It’s my landlord,” the owner said, ”she won’t renew my lease. She’s jealous of me.”
The owner of Café Martinique looked extremely sad. Her eyes were deeply red, as if she hadn’t gotten any sleep or had been crying all day. I felt very bad for her.
My birthday came around in July of the first year I lived in Hoboken. Sarah, my best friend from high school, was still living in Manhattan then (She would later live in Holland, Germany and England) and she wanted to celebrate with me. We had dinner at the TriBeCa restaurant Bubby’s. The place was bustling with customers. Sarah told the waiter it was my birthday when we ordered pieces of pie for dessert (Bubby’s was famous for its pies) but when the runner brought us our pie, my slice had no candle. Sarah tried to explain to him about the missing candle but he didn’t understand. ”It’s ok, really. It’s ok,” I said and started to eat my apple pie which did taste very good, albeit it was missing my wish.
Then Sarah and I went to Windows on the World, the bar at the top of one of the World Trade Center buildings. There was a good band playing ’70s dance music. I drank a vodka and cranberry and then Sarah and I moved over to the dance floor. A good looking boy wearing a white shirt who seemed close to my age danced with me. I asked him his name and he mumbled something I didn’t understand. I introduced myself anyway. He danced in a sort of odd manner and his speech was a bit slurred; I figured he had a few drinks in him. I tried to have a conversation with him and asked what kind of work he did. He raised his hands in a halfhearted roof-raising way and with a shrug said: ”I do a lotta…crap,” ”What do you mean?” I replied, ”Ah, you know…crap…” he said. I decided not to press matters further.
As the band finished their song, the mover and shaker from the crap industry danced away from me, off to perplex another girl on the dancefloor.
A park on the Hudson River shore of Hoboken had recently been dedicated. It was named Sinatra Park after Frank Sinatra, the most famous person to come from Hoboken. I’ve always enjoyed sitting in a park as a way to relax, collect my thoughts and just enjoy being outside.
Sinatra Park had a lovely view of Manhattan’s West Side, which glimmered with gold splashes of early-evening sunlight late in the day. Terraced steps led park goers down to a plateau alongside the Hudson.
One Sunday, I went to Sinatra Park with a book and just sat and read. It was May or June, late afternoon I recall. At one point I turned around and saw a limousine pull up. A young woman wearing an ivory gown and carrying a bouquet got out as did three other young women in matching Burgundy short dresses. All of a sudden a wedding was taking place. A groom, a best man and an official stood waiting for the bride and her bridesmaids as they walked down the steps.
There were more than a few people at Sinatra Park at that time. I don’t think any of them expected to see this. The wedding party seemed to enjoy having an audience. I got the impression they were involved in the theater world. The official quoted Shakespeare and Sophocles and mentioned how the bride and groom met while working on a play.
After the vows and the bride and groom kissing, all the members of the wedding party stood shoulder to shoulder and faced me and the other park-goers. They held hands, raised their arms and took a group bow, as if at the end of a theatrical performance. Me and the other people who just happened to be at the park enthusiastically applauded.
One night after closing time at the Back Porch, I sat at a bar table as me and the other waiters ate our staff meal and drank our (one) end-of-shift complimentary drink. I felt a thought dawn on me: a strong urge to listen to music I really liked. Was it because the restaurant played music that kinda bored me? (This was circa 1997; that meant the likes of Collective Soul and The Wallflowers, who were ok but not really favorites of mine then.)
I took the PATH train home to Hoboken that night and got home at some point between 11PM and 11:30.
I had quite a stash of vinyl records in the basement dining room area of the house where I was living in those days; a lot from my full-time music journalism era when records and CDs were mailed to me daily. Some records were ones I bought – there was a time in my late teens when I went to the Tower Records that used to be on East 4th Street and purchased vinyl Cocteau Twins records on a nightly basis.
That night I poked through the records in the basement, not quite sure what I wanted to hear but I knew I had to listen to something meaningful.
A came across my copy of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, given to me by Christine, my best friend since seventh grade. That was it; an album that was released when I was about seven and had songs — the title track, ”Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting,” ”Bennie And The Jets” – I had heard on radio station WCBS-FM that mom had playing on the living room stereo in the hours between my getting home from school and when Dad came home from work. I had to listen to it.
So I went upstairs to my periwinkle bedroom, placed the record on the turntable of the Magnavox stereo I bought from Macy’s seven years ago and put the needle in the groove at the beginning of ”Grey Seal” – my favorite song on the album.
Listening to that song felt like spectacular nourishment; like eating a delicious meal after starvation. I read the lyrics and sang along, marveling at how incredibly good the song sounded to me. I danced a little bit; grooving heavily and thoroughly enjoying the experience of hearing good music. Bernie Taupin’s lyrics told of yearning in a way I found very relatable: ”I read books and draw life from the eye/all my life is drawing from the eye,” Elton John sang. I was drawing a lot those days; something I always found therapeutic. I didn’t pursue a career in fashion design like I fantasized then. I didn’t see myself going to school again and taking garment construction classes etc. – I even sold my sewing machine three years later when I moved out of the Hoboken house and into a much smaller place. But I wasn’t disappointed by this or felt deprived of a dream. It was just the way my life was turning out.
Robin Eisgrau is the author of Eve Of Destruction: The Wild Life of Wendy O. Williams and has been writing about music and other cultural subjects since she was an undergrad. She has held editorial positions at Paper Magazine, Seventeen, Time Out New York, and Net Magazine, of which she was editor-in-chief.