Father Koi, nostalgia trips, and a fighter at Berlin in the East Village.
You can also listen to a recorded version of this article on Youtube. Learn more about the “PEACE STUDIES” series in my introduction, PEACE STUDY 00.
On a hazy night of personal disappointment, I shaved my face and stepped outside with two goals: to chain smoke until I was sick of smoking (at which I failed) and to follow music (at which I succeeded). Along the way, all my usual haunts were closed, and the corners were people by the warm goodbyes of friends in the throes of that bloody holiday, Thanksgiving, which was set for the following day. On this particular third Wednesday of November, I was terribly envious of those with friends and family to be among, the kind of base resentment which alcoholics like myself must be careful to avoid, and which vanishes like smoke into night in the presence of oldies.
Under a neon sign reading “Berlin,” I paused to sway as old songs played on a loudspeaker on the street. Nat king cool, then the Beatles, crooning just for me. I decided to go inside, paid the door-woman twenty dollars cash, and stepped down into pink light and exposed brick, a perfect, Tumblr-infected pastiche of Weimar nostalgia. First act on the bill: Father Koi, finishing up a lively first number in an unexpectedly vibrant set. As their singer and keyboardist Kara explained: they’re in town from Vassar, they play a mix of pop, hyper pop, and indie music, and they’re grateful for the turnout, especially their friends who came to the city to see them play. Kara, I must note, is an absolutely magnetic frontwoman: tall already, but made heroic by the stage, with high, perfectly clear cheekbones that cast a spotlight back on the spotlight. Whether steadily carrying an original like “Won’t You Come Home,” or with the band crackling under the force of a distorted Mitski cover, Kara’s voice expands the theater into a different dimension, and her smile disarms whatever strangers in the crowd are trying to be aloof.
For Father Koi, this is their first show outside of their college campus. This basement bar may as well be the apollo, and their excitement is infectious. No diss to the rest of the acts, but I grow weary of those of us who were active performers in 2019 and are still rehashing 2-year-old gigs as though they were yesterday, as though the last two years didn’t happen simply because our egos were not fed by the adoration of crowds during them. It’s the kind of nostalgia that creeps in and snatches entire decades from the minds of the young, like a late spring frost culling unripe fruit from the branch. It’s refreshing to hear, for a moment, someone excited about the present, perhaps even about the future.
Interlude: a fighter.
Upstairs and outside, I smoked and danced to a Sinatra number I didn’t recognize. An older gentleman who I recognized from around the neighborhood stopped me, wished me a happy holiday and peace upon me, and asked for a cigarette. I rolled him two, gave him a dollar, and smoked with him for a while. He drummed along to the music, tapping out the beats with fingers, rings, and his lighter, occasionally interrupting his coughs long enough to tell me some stories.
“You know what I say?
Whatever problems ya got?
Hah! Hah! Hahhhh!
Money? Know how much money I had?
Hundred thousand? Hah!
Know what I spent it on?
Mil. Mil. Mil. Mil. Mil.
Hey kid, I respect your style. Shake my hand.”
I obliged and he clutched my hand, holding me in a long silence.
“I was a fighter. Light heavyweight. Boxing. And the war. Iraq. Nineteen Ninety-Two. War. War. War. War. War. War. War. War. War. Hah! War? War? War? War! Know what I say about war?
. . .
A long pause. I reluctantly offer: “fugettaboutit?”
“Hah! Fugettaboutit! Hah! Hah! Hah!”
He trails off in coughing and I trail off in thought. 92 was 30 years ago, but culturally it feels like a yesterday that never happened. A few of my relatives fought in that war, and none have anything to say about it. Was it Graeber that said War is basically a meaningless exercise of human sacrifice? Truly: sound and fury, signifying nothing.
We talk a little more.
He tells me I look like Pancho Villa, I tell him my family’s from Chihuahita.
Revolution of 1911, plus 30 years, 1941. My great grandfather fought in the revolution. My grandfather fought in the western front. My father invaded Iraq. The military caste learns nothing from history which we can’t unlearn by hunger, conscription, or bribery.
He tells me he’s Boricua, I say word to Boriken, viva Puerto Rico libre y con Independencia and all that, then shake his hand to go catch up with the show.
I can’t get into it.
The rest of the acts are fine, capable, confident musicians, all of them, but my mind is drifting. The second band, Gem and Eye, are a hard sell for me, dressed up as absolute caricatures of 60s Brit Rockers, but they win me over easily with a cover of the Beegees, and follow up with some absolutely killer hippie lines about how we are “no longer man and machine,” and “we are the greatest experiment of all time.” The third band is “Late Night Thoughts,” an exceptionally pleasant pair of Brooklyn Indie Boys who are likable in the reluctant way that Brooklyn Indie Boys so often are.
The headliner, Amaya Santos, backed by Sad Math, proves to be a very capable closer. The band is professional, groovy, and more than fill the space while Amaya holds the center with her beautiful face, presence, and most of all, voice. She works her way through a repertoire of romantic pop songs, lulling the audience closer and closer, so many of them on video calls with loved ones who wished they could be there to see Amaya shining in person.
But, as I said, I’m somewhere else. My mind is on the fighter, wondering how many men like him get thrown away daily, their wicked work being done. My uncle is not so different, a boxer and Iraq war veteran of the same vintage.
Will America ever learn? Do empires ever? Perhaps we can ask Berlin, 30 years after their war to end all wars. Ah. Maybe not. Perhaps better to dance to an old, familiar number, and try again at loving the present in the morning.
-November 24th, The East Village.
Wren [CUIDADX] Romero