"A knife, a fork, a bottle and a cork, that's the way I spell New York"... Well maybe not, but New York City has always had sort of a mythical status for those of us who don't live there, We either hate it or love it - you can't be ambivalent about that town. If you can make it there you can make it anywhere the song says, but what the hell is it that all those people are trying to make it as?
There's what - ten million of them crammed onto an island that was supposedly bought for some beads and trinkets from people who didn't think anyone could own land...a city started by a deal which cut corners, what more do you need to know about it?
Still, New York City...The one time I've actually wandered its streets was early 1981. The city was still recovering from the shock of John Lennon being gunned down outside his apartment building four weeks earlier. Stars don't get killed in NYC, only junkies and stupid people who go down the wrong dark alley at night or wander into neighbourhoods they don't belong in. During the day it was all broad avenues, full of people hustling.
Tall buildings casting long shadows down canyons made of glass, steel, and concrete in the bright sun of the first week of January were replaced at night with neon strewn streets filled with the white plumes of exhaust streaming out of the constant caravan of yellow cabs flowing up or down stream. In the shadows of the night excitement and danger walked hand in hand waiting for some fool to make the wrong choice.
It was probably a mistake to have taken the pink micro-dot a friend had given me for while in NYC - it was already enough like an acid trip for a kid from the tame streets of Toronto just in town for three nights and four days, but I had the idea that I wanted to go deeper into the experience of New York City. But you can't do that as a tourist - you can't get past the veneer no matter what you ingest. You have to have spent time inside its rhythm, develop a feel for its sound, understand the good and the bad - love her for both sides of it, and then be able to sit back and say shit - I lived through that. It takes great rock and roll to understand New York City and bring her back to life. Which is what you get, great rock and roll and New York City, by the truck load, on the new self titled release from Steve Conte And The Crazy Truth distributed by Varese Vintage, Steve Conte & The Crazy Truth
Willy DeVille said to me once that nobody's born in Manhatten, implying that everybody was drawn there from somewhere else, but if Steve Conte wasn't born there he sure as hell belongs there. He's guitarist for the ultimate New York City band, the New York Dolls, he's subbed as guitar player in the Mink DeVille Band during Willy's 2003 tour of Europe, and now he's released a CD which sounds like it was written in blood that pumped out of the city's heart. Yet this ain't just some dark and mysterious ride into the heart of darkness at the core of the city, because there's a real heart that beats at the core of both Conte and New York.
If there wasn't a heart in New York City how could so much great art be produced on one small patch of land? There's something happening in those dark places that fuels inspiration, desire, passion, and pain - and Conte and the boys (Lee "Leeko" Kostrinsky on bass and Phil Stewart on drums) and their friends who've sat in for the session, find their way into those corners and have brought back a few of stories. (That great harmonica solo you hear about half-way through the disc is Conte's band mate from the Dolls David Johansen while the beautiful back up vocals are provided by Nicki Richards and Catherine Russell)
The credits list eleven tracks on this disc, but its really like one long stream of conscience dive into the music. He starts us off with the aptly titled "This Is The End". because sometimes the best way for you to look at something is looking back at where you've been. Then, before you've had a chance to take a deep breath before making the plunge, he's hauling our asses downtown in a "Gypsy Cab" for a whirlwind tour of what makes New York City and rock and roll fucking great. (This is definitely a PG column by the way, but so are rock and roll and NYC and if you don't like it, go find Rudy Giuliani and commiserate with him over his failure to round up all the scum like me who pollute our fair streets)
Now although "The Truth Ain't Pretty", and some of "The Goods Are Odd", this isn't just some dark magical mystery tour into the underworld. There has to be light in order for there to be dark and Conte has been around long enough to know that it's not cool to die with a needle in your arm, it's just a waste. So if you've come here looking for some sort of peon in praise of riding the rails to destruction, this isn't the place.
There's no room for nihilism anymore, you may have to take the bad with good, and we may all take a few wrong steps now and again and fall down blind alleys while we're looking for whatever it is we're looking for, but that doesn't mean you can't have hope. The bright lights flashing by the cab window can turn your head, but you can only mistake fame for talent for so long - and in Conte's New York City talent and heart win out over fame and posing everyday.
Steve Conte And The Crazy Truth is rock and roll at its most dangerous and hopeful best. Like all the best music that's come out of New York City since the mid 1970's there's a knife edge to their sound, but that's only there to protect them from a world that would cut out your heart if given a chance. At its best New York City defies those who think different is bad and originality a sin.
This CD brings that to life without ignoring the dangers of the flip side - being different just because its cool could find you face down some day if you take it too far. It's okay to "rock and roll like the Marquis de Sade" (One of the best rock and roll lyrics I've heard in years) but there's also more to life and you can't forget that either. Conte's songs sound like they've been down quite a few roads, some of which might have been dark and dangerous, but he also sounds like he's never forgotten how to find his way home. New York City may not be everyone's idea of home, but Conte sure understands what makes it home for so many people.
(Originally posted October 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.