Dead of Winter, 5 am. It's a blustery night and a light dusting of New York snow--specked with filth and frosty with attitude--swirls around the stretch of Avenue A known as Bigtime Lane. It's desolate now, but most nights down here the street feels like it's plugged into some huge generator of manic energy. Imagine a slab of pavement resting uneasily atop a coiled neon serpent and you'll get some idea of how truly wired this street is. This is the niche of the city where the true face of the underground comes up for air--often and with a boldness that's supremely dark and devastating; this is where the poetically desperate (and just plain desperate) cavort with comers, slummers, hasbeens and stars.
Just a couple hours ago the clubs and bars that line Avenue A and the surrounding area like a gauntlet of pleasure and dissipation were crammed with life and reeking of sweat, perfume and alcohol--the delirious smell of young people at play. Booming tom toms, shrill guitars and high decibel doggerel from competing bands careened against each other and fell dead on the street, beside the used condoms and broken beer bottles. I've been wandering around for three hours, trying to soothe my jolted senses after one of the most intense musical experiences I've had in recent memory.
Mercury Lounge was the scene of this raucous shebang. Holding forth in a house packed to the rafters with boisterously rabid partisans, the mighty Dragmules rocked my world and showed me that some music is still dangerous and capable of awakening the sleeping, seething beast within. This eminently talented and versatile five-piece band turned the homey little club into a maelstrom of melody, noise and PRESENCE.
While the Dragmules might now be a struggling and obscure guitar band in a city teeming with rock'n'roll dreamers, there is no denying how consistently powerful the band sounds and the effect they have on a crowd. I've seen them perform half a dozen times and I can't help noticing how familiar the audience is starting to look and how the band effortlessly induces a collective and contagious outbreak of sheer pleasure. It's no wonder they've already attracted a loyal following.
Mere entertainment is not the rock aficionado's goal. No, the true fan hungers for the beyond. Bands like the Dragmules realize that music and performance are vehicles for transcendence, which is why every show must be an inferno of urgency. Of course everyone loves to be entertained, to have a good time and forget their troubles. That's certainly the American way. Bertolt Brecht, an artist whose work was singularly agenda-laden and created for very specific, non-aesthetic reasons, said an artist never has to apologize for being entertaining.
The essence of rock will always be steeped in mystery and ambiguity. No one can adequately explain how the vague quality known as chemistry works in a band. How do personalities, influences and musical sensibilities coalesce to form a potent unit that is able to not merely play together, but to actually tap into the collective unconscious, burrow into the zeitgeist and brand their essence upon individual minds? How does an aggregation of likeminded but very different musicians locate the juncture where notes become riffs, riffs become songs and songs become banners of style and identity? I certainly don't know, but I do know it's a juncture at which the Dragmules have arrived.
It's a hard time to be a rocker. The emergence of rock as the preferred commercial soundtrack, the relegation of "classic" rock to mere nostalgia and the blurring of the line separating mainstream and alternative music all vindicate the machinations of baby boom miscreants who have grown rich and corpulent since the sixties by exploiting youth culture and its callow rebellious impulse. All that survives of the late seventies supernova once known as "punk" is the marketplace, a fragmented marketplace peopled by consumers with shifting allegiances, whimsical tastes and exposure to a media matrix that is an excess of access. Can anyone, even its practitioners, seriously doubt that whatever rock'n'roll may have once been is in utter disrepute? Behold the pathetic beast: formally exhausted, reduced to redundancy, desecrated, debased and defanged.
At this late date, what choice does a savvy band have but to follow the tide of evolution and become three-chord vultures, nourishing themselves (and their fans) from the gutted carcass of rock'n'roll. Like many of their contemporaries, the Dragmules cultivate a decidedly unforced eclecticism. They're a natural amalgam of all that has come before them and different people taste different flavors of their highly diverse and zesty pop sausage. One song might sound like R.E.M crossed with Social Distortion while another conjures Gibby Haynes sitting in with the Ventures or Tom Jones fronting Black Flag. Yes, the Dragmules have a distinct absurdist/lounge element (with a name like that they'd better have a sense of humor!) courtesy of lead singer Trippy Thompson as a 6'8" dynamo of madcap delirium who favors frilly shirts, bullhorns and anything else that enters his endearingly twisted dada-pop pod of a brain (Trippy also does looming menace, gothic melancholy and turgid angst).
The rest of the band plays with a remarkably steady precision. They're all business but it sure looks like fun. Guitarist Josh Weinberg prowls the stage like a hobo hellion and wields his axe with crunch and swagger. Guitarist Johnnie McNabb is all spit and polish with his finely honed chops, razor sharp creases in his tight black jeans, a glaring shine on his motorcycle boots and a carefully pomaded widow's peak that lies just so on his perpetually sweat-free forehead. The rhythm section is monstrously solid with an almost supernatural command of exactitude. Bassist Marty Sarandria is a picture of hotblooded determination and registers every single note he plays on his long, expressive face. Drummer Paul Garisto is simply a one-man pantheon of rhythm.
I consider myself fortunate to have seen the Dragmules at this stage of their development, while they're still playing clubs--in their own neighborhood, blocks from where they live, work and play. When a band gets big, when the intimacy is gone, it really doesn't seem to matter so much. It's just another show, another empty spectacle, another commercially-induced rock'n'roll ritual.
As for the Dragmules, you can be assured that big halls will soon engulf these arena-rock tykes in their cavernous clutches. The money will pour in and all the trappings of rock star privilege will be theirs for the taking. From then on, whenever I see them onstage, far above the fist flying hordes, I will be poignantly reminded of that one magical night at Mercury Lounge.
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