Jesse Rifkin, Author & NYC Music History Tour Guide
💭 Thoughts on Water From Your Eyes, Anthony Bourdain, and the future of NYC.
Thought Enthusiast is an AdHoc Project where we chat with fascinating thought leaders across various facets of music, tech, and culture whose work we admire, simply asking “what’s on your mind?” and “why do you care?” 💭
Jesse Rifkin is a NYC-based music historian. He is the author of This Must Be the Place: Music, Community, and Vanishing Spaces in New York City (Hanover Square Press, 2023), which analyzes 60 years of music communities in the city and their relationships with the neighborhoods they called home. He is also the owner and operator of Walk on the Wild Side Tours NYC, a music history walking tour company. His favorite movie of all time is Step Brothers (2008).
🗣️ Convo series at Tompkins Square Park Library
My book came out in July, so I’ve been in book salesman mode for a few months now, which has been a blast because I love receiving attention and praise. As part of that, I’m running a conversation series at the newly-reopened Tompkins Square Park Library over the next few months with some fantastic guests, the first being jazz legend Matthew Shipp, who I’ll be talking to on Thursday 10/26. Matt’s a brilliant musician as well as a genuine and thoughtful guy, and this is really just a way to get him to hang out with me (but you can watch).
👀 Apocalyptic cult turn animal welfare non-profit
I go down a lot of internet rabbit holes, and my obsession right now is researching the insane history of the world-renowned Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, prior to their current incarnation as a bunch of gentle-hearted animal caretakers, BFAS was an apocalyptic cult known as the Process Church of the Final Judgement. Their members dressed up like Rasputin, worshipped God and Satan in tandem, engaged alternately in strict abstinence and full-blown orgies, and had connections to both the Manson Family and Parliament-Funkadelic. The cult started to fall apart in the late ‘70s when it’s romantically entangled co-founders Robert DeGrimston and Mary Ann MacLean split up; DeGrimston moved to Staten Island and got a banal office job, while the few followers that remained stuck with MacLean. By the ‘90s, they had settled in Utah, where they dropped the cult schtick for good and rebranded themselves as Best Friends. Bonkers, right??
I think Water From Your Eyes are the most exciting band in New York right now. Their music definitely flirts with a particular NYC mutant disco/post-punk lineage (e.g. Bush Tetras, Arthur Russell, Sonic Youth, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, heck they’re even signed to Matador), but the sound and the perspective feel very contemporary and forward-looking. Their newest album, Everyone’s Crushed, is fantastic, but if I have to pick one song, it’s “My Love’s” from their previous album, Structure.
🔮 The future of New York City
I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of New York City. Right now, I think the city is very tangibly in a transitional phase, but what it’s transitioning to is unclear. The version of New York that we’ve been saddled with for the last several years – one that’s increasingly unaffordable to all but the very rich – feels like it could be on the verge of a collapse, which would be great news. I am thrilled about the new AirBnB regulations that resulted in 15,000 apartments being removed from the site (!!!); if even half of those revert to residential use, that could do a lot to help the housing crisis.
There’s also the matter of all the empty office spaces that have resulted from the shift towards working from home, which feels especially pronounced in Midtown and Fidi. They’re not up to code for residential use, and bringing them up to code would be expensive and time-consuming, so they won’t be able to legally house anybody for a while, if ever. But illegally...who’s to say? Previous art and music scenes in the city have flourished in repurposed industrial spaces, so there’s no reason to think they can’t similarly flourish in repurposed office spaces (and unlike a lot of the older industrial spaces, these are already fully equipped with fire exits). Maybe it’s Pollyanna-ish, but I’m cautiously optimistic.
Throughout all the work I do – tour guiding, writing, researching – my hero remains the late Anthony Bourdain. He spoke frankly and unpretentiously about local politics, gentrification, corporatization, social and cultural issues, and so much more – and because it was always framed as a food and travel narrative, people actually paid attention. I try to use music history as a similar sort of bait, which can hopefully get people thinking about these fraught subjects by presenting them in the context of something tangible that they already care about.
Ok fine: I’m going to see U2 play all of Achtung Baby in that asshole James Dolan’s ridiculous sphere in Las Vegas. It’s the antithesis of everything I claim to stand for – things that are small-scale, independent, community-oriented, blah blah blah – but come on, Achtung Baby is just fucking unimpeachable. Bono, if you’re reading this, please do Zooropa next.
💸 Rent stabilization in NYC
Every aspect of my life right now is dependent on my continuing to live in the rent-stabilized Greenpoint apartment that I’ve had for a decade. The Supreme Court recently declined to hear a challenge to the city’s rent stabilization law, but there are others in process, so I’m still a little on edge about the whole thing (to put it mildly).
It's been so heartwarming to see the members of Talking Heads reunite around the Stop Making Sense rerelease. If David Byrne and Chris Frantz can be in the same room for two hours without punching each other, truly anything is possible.
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