Jesse Malin: Rock 'N' Roll From The Bowery The rocker has been on the national music scene since he was 12. Now, at 42, Malin is playing with a band called The St. Marks Social and has recorded Love It to Life, a new album partly inspired by J.D. Salinger. Malin says his focus with the album was on making music that would translate well to live performance.
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Jesse Malin: Rock 'N' Roll From The Bowery

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Jesse Malin: Rock 'N' Roll From The Bowery

Jesse Malin: Rock 'N' Roll From The Bowery

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Most biographies of New York singer-songwriter Jesse Malin start with one little factoid. So who are we to buck the trend, right? Jesse Malin has been on the national music scene since the age of 12. Back then, it was mostly punk rock, glam, with the bands Heart Attack and D Generation. Then there was a long stretch of solo work and even a year without any performing or recording whatsoever. Now he's back playing with a band, the St. Marks Social. Their CD is called "Love it to Life."

(Soundbite of song, "Burning the Bowery")

JESSE MALIN AND THE ST. MARKS SOCIAL (Rock band): (Singing) I was supposed to meet last night. A young girl asked me for a light. I feel like I've been here before but the (unintelligible) life is no (unintelligible). Come on down I've been burning no wax left inside of me. Come on down (unintelligible) history.

SMITH: That's "Burning the Bowery" by Jesse Malin and the St. Marks Social. And Mr. Malin joins us now from the CBC in Toronto.


Mr. JEFF MALIN (Singer-songwriter): Hello. Hello.

SMITH: For a former punk rock musician, is this way too early in the morning?

Mr. MALIN: I was telling my guitar player earlier, it's like you got into this because you love music. But then one of the perks, we used to say, well, we dont have to put on a suit and get up to an alarm clock at 7:00 in the morning. But you find yourself out on the road and sometimes go to bed at 3:00 and your tour manager says lobby call at 4:00.

SMITH: So we just heard "Burning the Bowery" and I was told that the Bowery is important not just in your musical career but in your life.

Mr. MALIN: When I was a kid, I got into music and the place to go was CBGB's. So I started writing songs and CBGB's offered up on Monday nights on the Bowery audition night. And if you had original songs, you couldnt play covers, you couldnt play that Twisted Sister or Def Leopard track, you had to play your own stuff and you could come an audition. I went with four other 12-year-olds in the back of my mother's big old car and we auditioned for the people on the Bowery.

SMITH: But the amazing thing is, youre on the Bowery, youre young, youre trying to look tough, youre punk rock, but at the same time your grandfather used to work on the Bowery.

Mr. MALIN: Yeah. My grandfather sold liquor. He would go up and down the Bowery after the war and he would be selling wine. And he had this bright idea that he would get each bar their own label so they'd have the name of the bar on the bottle, and it was a great thing. It did him really well for a while until somebody got hit 100 blocks away in Harlem with a bottle from a bar downtown and realized people were taking these bottles, was against the law, out of the bars and a guy got cracked in the head, and that was all over. But he had it for a while.

SMITH: Now, I heard that this new album - the genesis of this album - can be tied to the late J.D. Salinger. Explain this to me.

Mr. MALIN: I got this phone call to write some songs for a film on J.D. Salinger, who was alive at the time still, and of course I was a fan and knew his work and I found myself rereading "Catcher in the Rye" and "Nine Stories" and I realized how much, you know, those books, especially "Catcher in the Rye," was probably the original, or one of them, punk rock rebel outsider stories. And I decided I had to do some research and I found out that Salinger was alive and four hours away from New York City. So me and my buddy went up in a car and we tried to maybe get a glimpse of him in Cornish, New Hampshire.

SMITH: Yeah. I was going to say, if you got an interview with him, I'd love to hear about it.

Mr. MALIN: We didnt get too close.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MALIN: I thought, if I get something it would help the songs. And the police rolled up on us and were bothering us thinking we were trespassing. I guess they're used to people bothering the man. He was in his 90s, and we ended up at a police station. And I told him I was an artist, I was a writer, doing research, and they looked me up on the thing, on the Internet, and they saw a video of me singing a couple of songs, well, one was with Bruce Springsteen, so that impressed them.

SMITH: That helps. Yeah.

Mr. MALIN: We were shaking in our boots. I went back to New York and wrote a few of the songs that would end up on "Love It to Life" and it got me going to write about 20 others.

SMITH: Well, I know two of the songs are on the album, "The Archer" and "Lonely at Heart," right?

Mr. MALIN: Yes.

SMITH: Which one should I play?

Mr. MALIN: I think you should play "The Archer."

(Soundbite of song, "The Archer")

JESSE MALIN AND THE ST. MARKS SOCIAL: (Singing) Over the cuckoo's nest, I saw signs of great motion. I've seen the best, moving around in locomotion. My, my, she's so pretty, the only girl from New York City...

(Speaking) You know, I'd read these stories about how Salinger would send these letters to girls that he had a feeling for or maybe he read somebody in a New York Times magazine article or he saw a woman on a sitcom and he would write these letters to these women. He never went out socially to parties to mingle but he would send, you know, these love notes, and of course some girl getting a note from J.D. Salinger is usually probably going to be pretty impressed. And I looked at them as like little arrows, you know, he's sending out these arrows. And sometimes I write songs to get somebody's attention and felt the arrows made the archer.

(Soundbite of song, "The Archer")

JESSE MALIN AND THE ST. MARKS SOCIAL: (Singing) ...but she's the only one who knows and I left them long ago.

SMITH: We're speaking with Jesse Malin, who has a new CD called "Love It to Life." So are you J.D. Salinger in the song?

Mr. MALIN: I think when youre writing about something you have to be able to find a piece of yourself in that person, and you know, whether it's some criminal or, you know, some old writer guy, so I just always look for things that have some kind of parallel that I could sing and connect to.

SMITH: You know, in one of the songs in this album you say all my friends are dead or in business. And I laugh because youve actually picked the business side of things, which I guess is better than the dead side of things. You own a couple of New York City music clubs.

Mr. MALIN: It always seemed to be my kind of idea to take some of my publishing money and put it back into a nightclub and, you know, create some jobs for my friends, have a place where touring bands were on tour, they come to one of our spots, they could drink free, they could know that they'd be able to come in and get the hospitality that I seek when I'm in some town and I'm, like, where can I go for an after show beer? Where can I hear a great DJ? Where can I unwind? So with the right team it seems to be working out. We have a place called The Bowery Electric on the Bowery and a club called Niagara, which is a little corner bar.

(Soundbite of song, "Burn the Bridge")

JESSE MALIN AND THE ST. MARKS SOCIAL: (Singing) You got to burn the bridge. Take care. You got to burn the bridge.

SMITH: I noticed on your album, there's at least a couple songs with the word burn in the title. And there's the lyrics for one of them, "Burn the Bridge." It goes like this: Incarcerated, broke and alone. I've been bought and I've been sold so long.

(Soundbite of song, "Burn the Bridge")

JESSE MALIN AND THE ST. MARKS SOCIAL: (Singing) I've been bought and I've been sold, so long.

Mr. MALIN: That's poetry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MALIN: What are you talking about there, the buying and selling of your soul?

Mr. MALIN: Well, it could be on a spiritual thing, what we go through. You know, I mean I've worded some terrible jobs. I've been on record companies that have, you know, bought me, dropped me, thrown me around. You know, I think people, as trying to survive, trying to make a living, trying to exist in the world, I think you go through a lot of stuff where you have to sometimes be somebody's slave in some existence, some way.

SMITH: You know, I sometimes get the feeling that all the darkness and dismalness you write about and we hear in this album, that it's a little bit of a front. There's a picture of you in the liner notes with hope and glory penned onto your hands. Is that a little closer to your real view of life?

Mr. MALIN: I think like anything, if you could speak about bad things, get to share them and sing about them, then you kind of transcend them and you turn them around, they're not so dark and evil. You know, I dont love just fairytale songs that are just about cars and girls. And I like stories and the characters and things that are somewhat created and based in real people and everyday life. And sometimes that's not so perfect, but having these things that are darker and having light at the end of the tunnel is just what I've always been drawn to.

A lot of my songs deal with a lot of personal demons, and when I can't go to a shrink or maybe, you know, get some kind of help, I sing about these things and saying something over a microphone in public with people, there is a connection and some way of getting out the poison and somehow it's a celebration and it's a connection.

SMITH: Well, I know you're a former punk rocker so when I listen to your songs I'm always waiting for that hardcore to bleed through a little bit. And sure enough, what do I hear on the song "Black Boom Box," but a classic guitar riff and an Iggy Pop reference in the first line.

(Soundbite of song, "Black Boom Box")

JESSE MALIN AND THE ST. MARKS SOCIAL: (Singing) Lust for life, sure been nice. It all comes together in your rock 'n' roll self. Come on.

Mr. MALIN: Come on.

SMITH: Is this nostalgia or an homage?

Mr. MALIN: Probably a little of both, probably an homage. I mean for me, those are the records we played over and over again as a kid. And especially a song like "Lust for Life." If you guys dont know it out there, you should check it out. It's been used on commercials. The world has changed, but you know, these are the songs that were our anthems, that rhythmically and what they spoke about, you know, lust for life or love it to life, it's being in the moment, living it, making the most out of it.

SMITH: So Jesse, you are now 42 years old. What would the 12-year-old punk rock Jesse Malin have thought of this album?

Mr. MALIN: I think he would've liked it. You know, I mean I think I always liked songs. So stories, you know, I think punk and folk and the storytelling thing is very connected. You know, Woody Guthrie I think is very punk rock or Bob Dylan. You take away the loud amplifier and what you have is a couple chords and a story that might be a protest song or it might be some kind of slice of life and I think there's a connection there with the troubadour and the squatter punk rocker.

SMITH: Well, Jesse Malin, thank you so much for talking with us. I appreciate it.

Mr. MALIN: Thanks for having me.

SMITH: Speaking with us from the studios of the CBC in Toronto, Jesse Malin. His latest CD with the St. Marks Social is "Love It To Life.

(Soundbite of song, "Black Boom Box")

SMITH: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Robert Smith.

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