We are, without a doubt, in the midst of what could be considered a golden age for rock music in New York City.
Not since the 1970s, when the punk scene exploded with bands such as Television, Blondie, the New York Dolls and Queens native sons, the Ramones, have so many bands from this city been garnering critical praise and commercial attention.
However, almost all of this spotlight is being shined on bands from Manhattan, and also the neighborhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn.
So where does this leave Queens, a borough that has forever been in the shadows of other thriving city music scenes? The answer depends on who you ask.
The makings of a good music scene always seems to begin with economics. When the punk movement exploded in the 1970s, it was started by a bunch of young people who were broke and desperate and living or hanging out in Manhattan’s East Village. Punk rock was their escape and gave a voice to their disaffection with what was popular in mainstream society.
More recently, the seeds for Williamsburg’s hipster renaissance were sewn when a number of the artists and musicians who could no longer afford to pay the escalating rents in the East Village and SoHo, began a movement toward Brooklyn in the 1990s. With the gentrification of the neighborhood came the spread of places to accommodate the new residents, including some new rock clubs.
And now, as quickly as Williamsburg has exploded, there is a general feeling among residents in that neighborhood that its tag as the new hipster “It” place in New York City could soon have residents once again scurrying to find a new neighborhood to call home in order to avoid the rise in rent that inevitably comes with all the attention.
A mini-movement toward Astoria has already somewhat begun, and at least one bar, Tupelo, has tried to respond to the new demographic. Opened in 1999 “as a long overdue nod to Astoria’s growing population of young, hip rent refugees,” according to Newyork metro.com, the bar offers both live music and a DJ who spins everything from techno to 80’s music.
The bar recently changed booking agents and is in the process of re-focusing its attempts to bring in bands. Tupelo will be gravitating more toward indie rock, a more off-kiltered and oftentimes more lo-fi and complex hybrid of rock that is popular with college radio stations, and has found a home in Williamsburg.
The person now in charge of booking bands for Tupelo, who asked that his name not be used, believes there is a lack of places for bands to play. But he is encouraged by the number of people who call the bar looking to play, which he sees as a sign that a strong music scene is going to happen in Queens.
”I know just from bartending here that we have more and more people coming in here who are interested,” he said. “It’s not going to be a Williamsburg because it’s more spread out here, but it will happen.”
Not everyone shares his confidence. Sal LoCoco, vocalist for the popular Queens-based hardcore band Sworn Enemy, believes the borough has already missed its chance to get something started. “If it hasn’t happened already, with the amount of talent that came out of Queens once upon a time, I don’t foresee it really happening.”
This talent included a strong roster of hardcore bands that have come out of Queens, including Madball, Outburst and long-time stalwarts Murphy’s Law. Hardcore bands bridge the gap between punk rock and heavy metal, playing aggressive, loud music with mostly searing, screaming vocals.
LoCoco, whose band tours much of the year and rarely plays at home anymore, believes the interest for live music among young people in Queens is there, but he doesn’t see club owners responding to the interest.
“I think it’s pretty shot,” he said. “There’s nothing going on, no one seems to care and everyone would rather play Manhattan.”
He points to the resurgence of Brooklyn, which he described as once “having it worse than Queens” as far as having no scene to speak of.
“They’ve actually turned it into a little Manhatttan, which is good for them, but Queens doesn’t have the venues or public transportation to keep anything going,” he said. “Everything’s so spread out here, so clubs need to be close to a bus stop or subway stop for it to work.”
LoCoco also pointed out that demographics could cause problems for prospective club owners.
“Queens has a lot of good neighborhoods and no one is going to want the element that the shows would attract,” he said. “(The now defunct) Voodoo Lounge was a good place, but it was in Bayside. It’s a nice neighborhood. You can’t have that there.”
Castle Heights is another Queens bar that hosts both local and nationally-touring acts. The Jackson Heights bar books mainly hard rock, heavy metal and hardcore bands.
At a sparsely-attended local show last Saturday night, one fan acknowledged that the music scene in the borough needs some help.
“It’s a little weak right now, but there are some big shows coming up and a lot of local bands are getting to play,” said Louis Lopez, a 17-year-old Jackson Heights high school student. “The problem is promotion. The bands are not getting enough promotion so they are not getting a shot.”
To prove his point, Lopez gestured to the area in front of the stage, which was almost completely empty, except for a few girlfriends and friends of the band about to play. “That’s how you know there’s no promotion. There’s a lot of kids who would like to see shows, but they never know what’s going on.”
To check out a bit of Queens’ rock scene for yourself, stop by these clubs: Tupelo, 34-18 34th Avenue, Astoria (707-9588); Castle Heights, 83-11 Northern Boulevard, Jackson Heights (898-9584); La Kueva, 28-26 Steinway, Astoria (267-9069); Cheers, 105-16 Liberty Avenue, Ozone Park (848-9523); Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden, 29-19 24th Avenue, Astoria (728-9776).