It's a warm spring day in New York City, and Jesse Malin is calling from the Bowery. He's on a corner that used to be frequented only by those brave enough to head further downtown after a late-night gig at CBGB — maybe searching for a dumpling fix in Chinatown, a boozy fix for a broken heart or even just a plain old junkie fix. These days, that corner is occupied by a giant Whole Foods. This is where Malin is passing by on the way back from a rehearsal in the East Village.
To say things were different back when Malin formed the '80s hardcore outfit Heart Attack in his hometown of Queens — or when he moved to the Lower East Side to front cult punkists D Generation — would be a serious understatement. "It's been depressing for a long time," Malin says. "Back then, I had a studio in a storefront, filled it with lawn chairs, ate expired yogurt. I could play music, go to CBGB's, be in Manhattan." Now, "everyone thinks they are a lawyer, everyone is entitled, everyone is trying to live here in some crazy way because they can't afford it."
D Generation was actually discovered at the legendary but extinct CBGB — now a John Varvatos store where you can buy a $2,000 leather jacket specifically tailored to the tiny shoulders of Albert Hammond Jr. Malin is hoping to bring a little of the original spirit back through a D Generation headline gig as part of the inaugural CBGB Festival in July, which will showcase emerging artists and pioneering bands.
Malin's released several records since the initial dissolution of D Generation, beginning with his excellent 2003 solo debut The Fine Art of Self Destruction, which showcased his singer-songwriter side. Now he's working on new material for both himself and D Gen — with which, incidentally, he hopes to get friend and fan Ryan Adams involved. Having seen mentors like Joe Strummer and Joey Ramone pass away and old haunts disappear, Malin infuses his songs with tales of New York loved and lost — and of different ways the women who live there have stomped on his heart. His new material is "more about characters than personal relationships," and he's listening to records that sound "really warm," like Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, as inspiration. "The songs are written out old-school with a Sharpie," he says, his apartment filled with journals and cassettes. "I'm still very analog like that."
Malin has always been old-school NY, and always will be. There's a bar on Seventh Street and Avenue A called Niagara that Malin co-owns, and for a time, it wasn't unusual for regulars to see him serving drinks or spinning records in the corner — at one point, his huge black hair something like a Ramonesian version of Sideshow Bob. On any given night, you could see a combination of famous musicians, village junkies and students sitting at the tables, drinking beer. Malin floated about in the mix, half regular barfly, half rock star, and willing to talk about records until daylight — even, on one occasion, with yours truly.
Since then, more Chase branches than starving artists have popped up in NYC, and Malin has played with Bruce Springsteen, opened for Adams at The Ryman and expanded his empire to include a restaurant, Black Market, and a club, Bowery Electric. But most of the time, he's still just hanging out at the bar, playing music or keeping the rebel village spirit alive by "having everyone from Patti Smith to Green Day and new bands every night" at Bowery Electric.
He even has a more accepting view of what has become of CBGB's old spot, talking music with Varvatos on his SIRIUS show: "He's a guy from Detroit who loves rock 'n' roll. Look, it could have been a fucking Dunkin' Donuts." He's equally fair-minded about his city. "It's still a great mix of people. Life just happens here," he insists. And as he says in one of his songs, he's "still burning on the Bowery," reminding us of a time when it was lit up by music, not a glowing Whole Foods sign.