Author Playlists

Jesse Rifkin’s Playlist for His Book “This Must Be the Place”

“I try to keep my own nostalgia out of my work as much as possible, but dear God do I miss Death by Audio. For a certain kind of Brooklynite millennial (which I am), DBA was our CBGB.”

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Jesse Rifkin’s This Must Be the Place is a thoroughly researched and fascinating exploration of New York City’s music scenes through the years, seen through the lens of its venues.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

“This nostalgia-filled, informative traversal of the eclectic scenes encapsulates the city’s meaning to and mutual benefits for the musicians and associated artists… music lovers will wax nostalgic for the passing of the various genres and relish what has been memorialized.”

In his own words, here is Jesse Rifkin’s Book Notes music playlist for his book This Must Be the Place: Music, Community and Vanished Spaces in New York City:

Judy Collins – “Maid of Constant Sorrow”

Forget everything you think you know about this song from its inclusion in O Brother Where Art Thou. Judy’s cover of this folk standard – the title track on her 1961 debut album – brings me to tears. I grew up hearing her ‘70s and ‘80s records around the house and always thought she was kinda schmaltzy, but once I discovered her early ‘60s stuff I was all in. Getting to interview her for this book was a total mind-blower.

Ornette Coleman – “Friends and Neighbors (Vocal Version)”

Recorded live on Valentine’s Day, 1970 at Artists’ Space, the DIY venue that Coleman was operating out of his home at 131 Prince Street in Soho. At the time, he was already one of the most esteemed figures in avant-garde jazz, but he was running his own DIY space as a protest against venues and bookers who he felt weren’t compensating him fairly. “Friends and Neighbors” is free jazz for people who think they don’t “get” free jazz: it’s short, there’s a singalong chorus, the rhythm section is surprisingly danceable, and then Ornette picks up his violin and takes the whole thing to outer space.

Jayne County and the Backstreet Boys – “Max’s Kansas City 1976”

To hear Jayne County tell it, if she hadn’t been a groundbreaking, over-the-top glam/punk icon who influenced David Bowie and the Ramones, she probably would have pursued a career in Biblical archaeology. Viewed in that context, this ode to her favorite NYC nightclub and all the weirdos that congregated there can be understood as County’s attempt at documenting the mid-‘70s Downtown rock scene for future generations to uncover. The New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Blondie, the Ramones, and the Heartbreakers all get shout-outs, and I can think of few other songwriters who would be so generous to their peers. But of course, Jayne was, because she’s a total sweetheart and a goddamn national treasure.

Lonnie Liston Smith – “Expansions”

Smith is ostensibly a jazz musician, but “Expansions” is really a prime example of the kind of hippie-ish disco that David Mancuso was playing at his legendary Loft dance parties in the ‘70s. Mancuso passed away in 2016, but the Loft continues in his absence. Douglas Sherman, a protégé of Mancuso’s, played “Expansions” at the last Loft party I attended in May, and hearing the song through Mancuso’s legendary hi-fi sound system was like hearing it for the first time all over again.

The Shirts – “Operetico (Live at CBGB)”

The Shirts were CBGB regulars who regularly played alongside bands like Talking Heads and Television, but their music was always a little too poppy and prog-y (in the best sense of the word) to scan as straight-ahead punk. They were sort of like a cross between early Blondie and Lamb Lies Down on Broadway-era Genesis, maybe? Singer Annie Golden is better known for her acting career, most recently starring as Norma on Orange is the New Black.

The Stimulators – “Loud Fast Rules!”

The Stimulators left behind a scant discography, but their impact on the NYC punk scene was gargantuan. The band had a charismatic front man in Patrick Mack, and guitarist Denise Mercedes was a bona-fide shredder, but their most eye-catching member was their eleven-year-old drummer, Harley Flanagan. The Stimulators paved the way for NYC’s nascent hardcore punk scene (in which Flanagan, who later founded the band Cro-Mags, was a major player), and “Loud Fast Rules!” was its ur-text. So many bands – including the Beastie Boys, Agnostic Front, Murphy’s Law, and D Generation – probably wouldn’t have existed without them.

Konk – “Konk Party”

Konk are arguably best remembered for including trumpeter Richard Edson among their ranks – he also briefly drummed in Sonic Youth and acted in everything from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Do the Right Thing. But at their early-‘80s peak, Konk were NYC’s premiere party-starters, with a sound that drew from homegrown jazz, salsa, post-punk, and disco. The “Konk Party” music video is notable for including some of the only existing footage shot inside David Mancuso’s Loft space at 99 Prince Street, and for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by one Madonna Ciccone.

Rammellzee & K-Rob – “Beat Bop”

He wasn’t credited for it, but this is Jean-Michel Basquiat’s record: He produced it, drew the iconic cover art, and self-released it in an edition of 500 on his Tartown label. Rammellzee, a close friend of Basquiat’s, was a graffiti artist, sculptor, and oddball rapper who appeared in the seminal hip-hop movie Wild Style; K-Rob was a teenager who’d caught Basquiat’s eye at the East Village hip-hop club Negril (which is now the basement level of Village East Cinemas). Basquiat’s production is heavily indebted to dub pioneers like King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry, his SAMO graffiti partner Al Diaz plays percussion, and actress/musician Ezster Balint contributes some drone-y, Laurie Anderson-esque violin.

Missing Foundation – “Backbreaker”

My hand was kind of forced here, as this is the only ‘80s-era Missing Foundation song on Spotify. But Missing Foundation are key players in the story of music and gentrification in NYC: fighting the influx of wealthy assholes into the East Village was the band’s raison d’etre. They plastered the neighborhood with graffitied slogans like “We will not act civilized in this fucking city” and “Your house is mine,” as well as their immediately identifiable logo: an upside-down martini glass that meant “the party’s over.” Their peripheral role in the 1988 Tompkins Square Park protests got them hilariously pegged as a Satanic cult by CBS news reporter Mike Taibbi (Matt’s dad).

DJ Spooky – “Galactic Funk”

Turntablist DJ Spooky (born Paul D. Miller) is the rare avant-garde musician who can be cerebral and funky at the same time. His music combines elements of hip-hop, musique concrete, dub, jazz, techno, noise, and contemporary classical, but it’s nowhere near as daunting or inaccessible as that might sound – you can just get lost in it and have fun. He’s also a brilliant writer and philosopher, and just an all-around great guy. He took the time to vouch for me and introduce me to a lot of other folks that I wouldn’t have had access to otherwise, and my book would look a lot different (and a lot worse) without him. I cannot praise or thank him enough!

Diane Cluck – “Easy to Be Around”

I’ll never forget the first time I heard this song in 2003; it was one of those jaw-dropping “How have I gone my whole life without this?” moments that music lovers live for. Diane was part of the ‘00s antifolk scene at Sidewalk Café, but her style is miles away from her plainspoken and funny peers like the Moldy Peaches, Jeffrey Lewis, and Regina Spektor. I think of Diane’s music as borderline-goth in the most flattering sense, but you can also draw a direct line back to that Judy Collins track at the top of the playlist.

A Place to Bury Strangers – “I Lived My Life to Stand in the Shadow of Your Heart (Live at Death by Audio)”

I try to keep my own nostalgia out of my work as much as possible, but dear God do I miss Death by Audio. For a certain kind of Brooklynite millennial (which I am), DBA was our CBGB. It was unpretentious, comfortable, under-the-radar, wildly illegal, and just so frickin’ fun. The sound was way better than it had any right to be, and bands could really grow into themselves on that stage. Edan Wilber and Matt Conboy, who ran the joint, are such good, solid, generous dudes, and their taste was unimpeachable. This recording of A Place to Bury Strangers – who were practically a house band at DBA – was made on November 22, 2014, the venue’s final night before they were mercilessly forced out of their space by Vice magazine.

Jesse Rifkin is the owner and operator of Walk on the Wild Side Tours NYC, a music history walking tour company in New York City, and consults as a pop music historian for the Association for Cultural Equity. His work has been featured in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveller, Vice and Fodor’s Travel. Prior to his work as a historian, he spent twelve years touring the country as a working musician, playing at CBGB, Lincoln Center, and venues of every size and shape in between.

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