When Jesse Malin's not busy being the newest rock 'n' roll troubadour, he indulges his New York City dreams at the Lower East Side bar he owns, Niagara.
"I had some kind of Bogart/Sinatra fantasy of having a clubhouse to go to and listen to records when we're not playing. Weeknights are still really cool," he says. "Weekends have gotten weird with all these people coming in from the suburbs treating it like a theme park where the Gap meets Banana Republic."
Malin, once the singer with glam-punk band D-Generation, became a roots rocker by association when Ryan Adams produced his debut album, The Fine Art of Self-Destruction. His newest album, The Heat (Artemis), derives a lot of its imagery from his hometown. "Scars of Love," for instance, evokes Jackie Gleason's Brooklyn bus driver from The Honeymooners when he sings, "All my Kramden schemes and hopes and dreams subside in the night."
"He was always reaching for the crazy idea," Malin explains. "'I got a great idea Alice,' like you might say to your wife or your girlfriend or your friend. 'Gonna make a lotta money: pet rocks!' The show had a big influence on me because the people in it are poor, and they're losers and they're always striving and they always end up failing but they've got each other. Ralph is just that very New York working-class kind of guy. He always has hope. He has these harebrained schemes that are always going wrong but he never loses faith."
The Heat is a collection of impressionistic songs that run the gamut from country ballads to up-tempo rockers, with Malin taking his cues from influences as varied as the Clash, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. But the moody, guitar-textured contours of his songs imbue even slow ballads with rock attitude, an ability that puts him in a short list with people like Ian Hunter and Lou Reed.
"I was doing this interview and the guy asked me 'How are you different than other singer-songwriters?' And I said, 'I don't consider myself a singer-songwriter. I consider myself a rock 'n' roll singer. 'My favorite singer-songwriters are Jagger and Richards, Paul Westerberg. I started out trying to learn to play guitar like Van Halen, but then when I heard the Ramones I realized you could do this with three or four chords.
"The trick is to try to grow," Malin says on a summery day in lower Manhattan, "but not grow into something that sucks, something pretentious. People ask me, 'How do you go from punk stuff to this?' It's really all the same for me -- Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash playing folk songs with three chords, it's the same thing really. For me it's about the songs."
Addressing New York's recent changes, he sings in "Silver Manhattan": "Don't look back silver Manhattan / Can you still be true? / She wore black / Summer came shining through."
"'Silver Manhattan' is a deco view of New York, the way that city looks when you see that skyline. It was almost like a love letter to the city, kind of like Woody Allen's Manhattan, but also taking into account the decay of the city. People always talk about what 9/11 did to the city, but I felt that the decay was starting to come with (former mayor Rudolph) Guiliani destroying the neighborhoods to make it tourist friendly. So much of New York was about neighborhoods. I hope people can connect to that. The decay of Manhattan is like the falling apart of a relationship. But people find a way to survive after losing a lover, and New York will still be there."
On his last tour, Malin demonstrated a master's storytelling touch with lengthy preambles to his songs. In one story, he brought his father to Madison Square Garden to see him open for KISS. Before he got a chance to see his dad after the set, Malin was arrested outside the building for public drinking. "It's a true story," he laughs. "Finally opening for KISS. I think the first time I went onstage at a talent show I was doing KISS and Queen. I hadn't been into them that much in later years and my manager says, 'Hey you wanna open for these guys? They're getting back together with Ace, the makeup and the whole thing.' Opening night in New York, it was like something that you wished for in 1977 and it finally happens and you go, 'Don't wish for things, you might get 'em.' This was back when Guiliani was running the place like a police state. I'm trying to tell the cops, I'm a New Yorker, this is a big thing for me, and they didn't care. It's a shame what's happened in New York but I still love the city. We still have Coney Island, the Empire State Building, we still have the best pizzas."
- Paul Storey
- According to punk-turned-roots rocker Jesse Malin, "People ask me, 'How do you go from punk stuff to this?' It's really all the same for me -- Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash playing folk songs with three chords."