Going back to Webster Hall

Saturday night Stephanie, Dave, Jason, Nicole, and I went to see Broken Social Scene at Webster Hall. In its century-plus-long history, the East Village landmark has been (working backwards) the legendary rock club The Ritz, an RCA recording studio, and a radical theater space where, according to the official website, “It was not unknown to witness Emma Goldman, the outspoken exponent of Anarchist philosophy on one night herald the cause of free love and birth control, and on the next, see the refined atmosphere and grace of a society function celebrating the nuptials of two of its elite.” The sound was fantastic, the show as energy-driven as BSS shows get. The band seemed to be in a good mood–all twelve of them, or however many they crowd onto the stage. My favorite moment, perhaps, was the arrival of the horn section at the end of “Shoreline (7/4).” The only thing better would have been Feist performing with them, but we’ll see her on the same stage in a couple weeks.

We sat up in the balcony, in the roped-off VIP section, thanks to friends of Jason’s. If I hadn’t already seen BSS a couple times I would have been a little disappointed by our distance from the stage, since the point of a show with that much going on is to be right down in the mix: in the pit, with the roughs, rather than the boxes or the gallery, to borrow nineteenth-century theater vocabulary. Perhaps the best show I’ve seen them play, for this reason, was an NYU Program Board show in the student union a couple years ago. My brother Nathan and I went for $3 a piece. Sure, it was a dry show, but I left with a pleasant headache from the volume and from shaking my head a little too much while dancing. Sitting up top at Webster Hall the other night gave me a little distance, perspective, space to realize that the last time I’d been in that building–the only time, in fact–was in 1993, on a visit to New York with Corwin, one of my best friends, about a year before he died.

Corwin had only been to the city once before, and when he found out he didn’t have long to live he made a list of things to do, and New York was high on it. Stephanie bought me the ticket while I was at work one day, and a couple weeks later we showed up at Farrell’s Columbia-subsidized apartment, on 106th or so, near St. John’s. We made all the basic sight-seeing stops, racked up credit card bills he never intended to pay, ate fresh bagels in the morning and Ethiopian food at night–all exotic fare to small-town Westerners in our early twenties. Corwin bought some weed in Washington Square one day and smoked joints on Farrell’s roof to ease his pain; all the walking around had him pissing blood.

One night Farrell said he wanted to take us dancing, so we hopped on a train and headed down to the Village. I had been to the city two or three times before, but never with the absolute freedom we had on this trip. I’d never been to a dance club quite like Webster Hall, to be sure. For years I was convinced Farrell had slipped a bouncer money so we could get in without waiting in line. Turns out he simply told the guy Corwin was sick. Here’s what I wrote about that night in my diary:

About 11:00 we decide to go to a club called Webster Hall in the village. Drag queens dominate the stage on the main floor, platform shoes or heels and ratted, high hair. One in white makeup has her face surrounded by foil. She wears a tight body suit, black fishnet. Male nipples contrast the facial getup and his crotch bulges slightly where his penis is pulled back between his legs. Someone on stilts dances in the balcony. … After a few songs, a painted acrobat takes to a trapeze overhead and performs for about twenty minutes. Her show combines skill with sexual bravado (she spreads her legs for howlers on the balcony). She hangs by her feet while the crowd chants and applauds below. Every few minutes she loses a sequin. … We make it back to Farrell’s around 2:30. NY is treating us fine.

Before Corwin died I wrote an essay about him being sick, the sort of thing I did at that point in my life whenever things seemed out of control. Every couple years I would tweak it around and think about sending it someplace. The last time I read it was in 1999, when he had been dead for five years. I found it on an old floppy disc yesterday afternoon. (It was in WordPerfect and I had to download a converter to open it.) It reads very much like I was in my early twenties when I wrote it, which I was: the sort of heavily crafted sentences and quirky details that all of Darrell Spencer’s students tried so hard to write. A few sentences I was still proud of, like my description of my first conversations with Corwin. We were nineteen, I think, and new roommates. We’d stay up late talking about love and eating Domino’s delivery: “He’d tell me about the one who’s in Hawaii now, seven or eight years older than he is, how she chewed on his nipples the summer he was seventeen. I’d listen, ham and onions hanging from my mouth.” I thought about posting the essay here, revising it, perhaps, but in a lot of ways the version of myself I see there–in the essay’s metaphysical preoccupations, for instance–is just as dead as Corwin. I still like the final lines, which were based on a poem I had written during an even earlier visit to the East Coast, a poem about the view of New York from Exchange Place, Jersey City, a view Corwin and I took a PATH train over to see one evening at sunset. Maybe I used those lines because they were about loss, too: the loss of a postcard view of what looked to me–nineteen years old, and again at twenty-three–like the perfect place to live:

At Exchange Place we walked the wooden boardwalk, watched Manhattan come alive with lights, the Twin Towers rising over the river, the sky grey with building rain. Brown-skinned children gathered crab traps and old men with poles lit cigarettes and talked about Puerto Rico. Soon the rain came in large, hard drops. Someone shut off a boom box, lovers leaving the edge of the water, heading for higher ground. We stood with our backs to the Colgate clock, named buildings we knew. No one talked for a while. One of us peed into the Hudson. White birds rushed, startled by the wind. Lady Liberty stood a little to the south, waving her magic wand.

2 responses to “Going back to Webster Hall”

  1. Bryan Waterman says:

    p.s. The Feist show was great — some really terrific moments. At the end she asked the crowd to slow dance like it was the 9th grade. Check out photos at Brooklyn Vegan, which you can also access via our blogroll. I’ve had enough Webster Hall for a while, though. Need smaller spaces.

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