The Last of the Avant-Garde Joints

We refused to leave. The cops came. We felt like we were doing something right. FUCK OCCUPY WALL STREET, THIS WAS THE REAL THING.

Story by The Dimestore Casanova - Photos by Icarus Blake

FucKeys Photo ©Icarus Blake

An Oasis is defined as “a small fertile green area in a desert region, usually having a spring or a well”.

The truth of the matter is that the last oasis for avant-garde and noise music closed in a tumultuous free form of drugs, booze, and one of its pristine members chaining himself to a streetlight on Norfolk Street in the Lower East Side.

Brass Photo ©Icarus Blake

Tonic wasn’t just some hole in the wall, some area where you could come just for a drink and go about your way. You were invited in by John and Melissa, they owned the joint, they ran it, and they loved it like it was some preternatural experiment that had gone right in so many ways. I first found Tonic thanks to Thurston Moore, of Sonic Youth fame, in early 2003. I went with my pops to see Thurston and Jim O’Rourke play with Chris Corsano and John Flaherty. They were the Dream Aktion Unit and they were incredible. It was a mish-mash of free jazz and ear splitting tones that you couldn’t wrap your head around. I have been known to like what some would consider music that is different, and some would say downright bad, fuck ‘em. It was a glorious time, and from that point on I was hooked into this beautiful conundrum of answers with no questions and vice versa.

French Horn Photo ©Icarus Blake

From White Out, to Gastr Del Sol, to Anthony Braxton, the late Derek Bailey, and the always totally insane Richard Hell. I saw all my heroes in one place, for five dollars at a time. Some shows I didn’t even have to pay for, before “they” came and ruined New York City for all of us. “They” are probably you, reading this, and thinking that this is some remembrance. This is a eulogy for a place I loved, and enjoyed, and spent my years honing a musical style and taking everything in.

Windstrument Photo ©Icarus Blake

The last show at Tonic was almost six years ago, and that spring night is forever burned into my brain. The place was sold out. I had never really seen it sold out except for when John Zorn and Alan Licht used to play there. The place was a motherfucker, a hotbed of drugs, and violence, and the uneasy feeling that a truly great place was crumbling right before our eyes, because of that big blue condo that stands there now, and I wish everyone who lives in that monstrosity slow brain cancer… As I was saying, everyone who was anyone was there, and I got in to the joint just as Thurston Moore was getting there, and the only thing he said to me the entire night was “This is the end of New York Noise”. We walked in and I saw the most furious night of improvised free jazz I ever witnessed. First it was Zorn, then it was Marc Ribot, then it was Medeski, Martin, and Wood, Glenn Branca showed up, and the last group to play was The Ceramic Dog, Ribot’s side project. They played three of the hardest and angriest pieces of noise I think I had ever heard, and if you knew Ribot, you knew something serious was happening, and he wasn’t done. We all spilled outside. We refused to leave. The cops came. We felt like we were doing something right. FUCK OCCUPY WALL STREET, THIS WAS THE REAL THING. Ribot chained himself to the light pole outside the joint, Thurston Moore got up on a car with a megaphone, screaming profanities at the police, and anyone who would listen… They cut Ribot out, arrested him, and a few others, and the crowd dispersed.

Reflect Photo ©Icarus Blake

We all went home, or went and got drunk knowing we had seen something special. The venues since Tonic have never lived up to what John and Melissa had created, two New York music pioneers who were at the forefront of something radical, and important. For one night, we stood up to the police, and did what Hunter S. Thompson said, “Don’t take any guff from these swine.” We didn’t, but did we actually accomplish anything?

Blow Photo ©Icarus Blake

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