New York City has always been a muse for artists. From Sinatra to Dylan to Lennon, the city's larger-than-life persona overwhelms musicians but still allows them to create in its concrete vortex. With the Big Apple's juice, bustle and size, how can you not want to plug into that electric zeitgeist?
Jesse Malin is one of the latest artists to use NYC as source material for his brash songwriting. This rocker from Queens just released his third solo record, Glitter in the Gutter. The title alone declares his allegiance to both Glam Rock and Manhattan's once-seedy Alphabet City streets.
As Malin tells me from his Manhattan apartment, "The City gives me energy. You walk out your door and there are so many different types of people in a small area. There's a real street kind of walking culture here. I get a lot of ideas just walking around town.
And even though it's been gentrified through the years by Guiliani and Starbucks, it's still New York and still (has) Chinatown, Central Park."
For a relatively new solo artist, Malin has already managed to connect with some big names in the business. His friend, Ryan Adams, produced Malin's 2004 great debut, The Fine Art of Self-Destruction, and that connection didn't hurt either one's career.
In a much bigger coup last year, he somehow landed Bruce Springsteen for a duet on the new record. Networking New York-style, indeed.
But as Malin reminds me, he's not exactly a rookie at this.
"I've been doing this since I was 14 in a band called Heart Attack," he says. "Records saved me back then. Music told me that it was OK to be a little different, that I didn't have to see life like everyone else around me did."
He later formed the D Generation, a much loved local Punk band based in the city.
"D Generation were very much a kind of 'five neighborhood guys against the world' approach," Malin says. "We opened for The Ramones, Offspring, Green Day and many others. Later on my buddy Ryan Adams, who was a fan of D Generation, called me up and helped me with my first solo record. He produced it, played on a lot of my stuff and still does."
Though his solo material still rings with Punk's feisty overtones, now there's definitely a stronger emphasis on the craft of songwriting, especially the lyrics.
"I wanted the songs to be more focused on the lyrics," Malin says. "My whole life, whether listening to Sam Cooke, Bad Brains, Jane's Addiction, whatever, it was always about the lyrics and the melody for me. I wanted to strip it down, and I started writing songs on the acoustic guitar in the back of the bus."
Not that Glitter in the Gutter still doesn't radiate the electric firebrand sound of Malin's youth, because it does, but the mid-tempo rockers are now often layered with acoustic guitars. It's a fine balance between the thrash of yesteryear and the singer/songwriter approach of today. Malin isn't the first artist to juggle this dichotomy.
With his rooster-cut hair, ragged persona and Punk ethos, Malin and his music also resemble one of his idols, Paul Westerberg, the former lead Replacement whose solo career has often been criticized for reflecting a more "mature" vision compared to his wild days of yore.
It's no coincidence that Malin cut the 'Mats classic anthem, "Bastards of Young," for Glitter. He strips the song of the original's gutter guitar and replaces it with just a piano, deconstructing it into a mournful ballad. While this stresses Westerberg's desperate lyricism, it also bleeds the song of its reckless abandon.
"I recorded "Bastards" at 3 a.m. in the morning, and I just heard it lean like that," Malin says. "No point in doing a cover unless it's different — I'm not looking to be a karaoke machine. I've had in mind doing a covers record for a while now, but this one sounded good amongst my own songs."
It's ironic that Malin was signed by Adeline Records, the label run by Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong, who represents the newest generation of Pop Punk.
"Billie Joe heard some of my stuff, seemed passionate about it and invited me out to L.A. to record some demos," Malin says. "Luckily, I had the whole thing written before going out. I spent two months there recording — great weather, but you can't walk anywhere. I've never made a record before above 14th Street, pretty much. But I signed with the label."
Even if Malin's debut record was more thematically focused on adolescent dreams and their amphetamine rush set amidst the barrios of New York, Glitter still dabbles in that streetwise imagery. I can tell his roots are a point of pride for Malin; his speaking voice bristles in a thick, NYC accent coated with the fumes of the Bowery.
He defines his music this way: "My first record was more introspective, more of a heartbreak album. I wanted this new one to be more driven, to be about my place in the world today. I want people take away that passion, that engagement with the world. I hope they put that into their job whatever that is."
Malin's commitment to community echoes through his lyrical themes, whether in Glitter's "New York Nights" or "Broken Radio," the duet with New Jersey's finest export, Mr. Springsteen. Malin's focus on passion and kinship through music can't help but recall the Boss' own.
"My favorite Springsteen is Nebraska, just all those honest stories stripped to the bone that got me," Malin says. "In the '80s I was too busy listening to Punk to really get Springsteen then.
"I met Bruce a couple of years ago. He liked my first record, and we kept in touch. I wrote 'Broken Radio' about my mother, who was a frustrated singer and who spent much of her life waitressing. She passed away when I was 18. I thought it might be right for Bruce as a duet and I sent him a copy of it. He finally called me out in L.A., kind of a movie star moment. I drove down the freeway in a rented car, and it's Bruce on the cell, saying 'Yes.' "
JESSE MALIN plays Oakley's 20th Century Theater on Tuesday.