For Jesse Malin, It’s All for the Love of Rock ‘n’ Roll
Acclaimed singer-songwriter Jesse Malin stands in the back room at Niagara, the bar in New York City’s East Village neighborhood that he has co-owned since 1997 – but he first started coming here in the 1980s, when it was named the A7 Club and it was the city’s leading hardcore punk venue.
“This was an after-hours club – it would start at midnight,” Malin says. “It was a really scary area then, but all these kids would come and hang around here. Usually, it’d go on ‘til five in the morning.” Starting in his pre-teens, Malin made the long trek on the subway all the way here from his home in Whitestone, a neighborhood on the outer edge of Queens, drawn to the East Village by punk show flyers he’d seen pasted to lampposts.
A large photo on the wall shows a raucous scene: SSD (Society System Decontrol) playing to a youthful throng in this very room four decades ago. Malin points out audience members who went on to enjoy successful music careers: himself, Adam Yauch (later of The Beastie Boys), H.R. and Dr. Know of Bad Brains, Harley Flanagan of Cro-Mags, and Jimmy G from Murphy’s Law. On another wall, a commemorative plaque lists all the notable hardcore punk bands that once played here – including Heart Attack, Malin’s first band, which he founded when he was only twelve years old.
It’s a very different scene in this room today compared to that long-ago show. Because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions implemented last March, there are no patrons – and in fact, the only other person in the place is a bartender in the front room, waiting on take-out orders. It’s an immensely dire situation for small business owners like Malin, though he chooses not to dwell on that worry today.
Malin leads the way down into the bar’s chilly half-lit basement. Settling into a banquette, he talks about how he went from an angst-ridden pre-teen to becoming a highly successful musician and businessman. He’s a much-admired singer-songwriter with eight acclaimed solo albums (and a ninth on the way). He co-owns multiple music venues in the East Village. In a notoriously cutthroat town, he has earned a reputation for kindness, and is known for frequently giving others a helping hand. As one of the most recognizable and well-liked figures in New York City’s creative circles, he is frequently cited as the reason there’s still a downtown rock scene at all.
Malin seems embarrassed when asked about his “scene savior” reputation. “That’s very kind of them to say, but I wouldn’t want to take all that credit,” he says. Instead, he shifts the recognition to his band, business partners, and other team members. “I have a good group of people.” He may be modest, but it’s easy to find others who are willing to discuss the depth of affection he inspires.
“He does a lot of stuff behind the scenes for people that you would never know about. He’s a very caring guy,” says celebrated bassist Catherine Popper, who has played in Malin’s band on three of his albums and numerous tours. Besides watching him organize a wide variety of benefit shows, she’s witnessed his personal kindness, too: “He also spends a lot of time checking in on sick friends and folks who are struggling emotionally. He’s reached out to me repeatedly when he’s known I was having a hard time and I know I’m not the first nor the last call he’ll make that day to check in on someone. He doesn’t abandon people, even people who other people have all but given up on.”
Singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur has frequently worked with Malin, and literally sings his praises in his song “The Mayor of the Lower East Side,” which appears on Arthur’s 2019 album Come Back World. “I was like, ‘All right, dude, I see what you’re doing: you’re keeping this scene alive.’ That was the inspiration to that [song],” Arthur says. “It was giving him props, because I do have mad respect for that.”
But Malin’s position wasn’t always so secure. “My parents broke up when I was young and we moved a lot. I was always a black sheep outsider,” he says, “but I always wanted to make things fun. Hearing Elton John and KISS, I was like, ‘I want to do that!’ There was an energy that made me want to jump around and took away all the fear and anger and anxiety and craziness of school and teachers and parents.”
Determined to make his music dreams come true, Malin formed Heart Attack with other kids his age. He aimed high right away, setting up an audition at the legendary club CBGB. They weren’t chosen to do a gig, though. “I found out years later that it wasn’t about the music – you had to bring people in to drink, but we didn’t bring anybody because we didn’t know anybody and we were scared,” Malin says. “We were twelve years old on the Bowery [the street on which CBGB was located] and it smelled like piss and shit and there were bums.”
That audition wasn’t a total loss, though. Someone who saw it booked Heart Attack at another iconic New York venue – Max’s Kansas City. After that, they began regularly playing around town, including opening for The Misfits at The Ritz (now Webster Hall), a large venue in New York. They also put out their debut release, God Is Dead, in 1981. “We didn’t know it would be a collector’s item. Some say that it’s the first New York hardcore release,” Malin says.
During his time in Heart Attack, Malin moved to a band rehearsal space on Avenue B in the East Village. It’s now a club called Dream Baby – and it is another venue that Malin currently co-owns. “These places, they pick you, and they have a history,” he says. “I used to live in there on lawn chairs and outdated yogurts.”
Meanwhile, Malin attended a Manhattan high school for performing artists (along the lines of the Fame school model) where his classmates included future Reagan Youth bassist Andy Apathy. He didn’t get much of an education there, though. “You could drink in class. You could call and say you’re on tour, but you could be in Central Park getting wasted.” He also remembers finding out that several of his classmates were earning extra cash by participating in a male prostitution ring.
“My mother would say, ‘This Mickey Mouse school you’re going to, it better be accredited for college.’ I said, ‘I’m not going to college. I’m going on the road,’” Malin says. And he did: Heart Attack toured the U.S. and Canada, opening for Bad Brains and Social Distortion. When asked if he actually graduated, Malin says, “I did, but I don’t know if it was real at that point – it really had degenerated; the kids were ruling the school. It’s been gone for a long time.”
Heart Attack released Keep Your Distance in 1983, which was recorded at the same Radio City Music Hall studio where The Ramones and Blondie had also made albums. But after releasing their third record, 1984’s Subliminal Seduction, Malin ended the band. “We got a little too political,” he says. “We were so idealistic. We became a hierarchy of politically correct indoctrinated bullshit – we became everything we were against. It was really meant well, but it was very stupid in the end. It imploded.”
After Heart Attack, Malin formed the band Hope (he was sixteen years old at this point). They played shows with dissonant bands like Sonic Youth and Swans, though Malin says Hope’s music was very earnest, and more akin to his new musical interests. “I was listening to Billy Bragg, Replacements, The Jam, Springsteen, Neil Young.”
But then, tragedy struck. Malin’s mother, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, became so sick that he had to move back to Queens to help care for her and his little sister. His mother passed away when he was seventeen years old. “I don’t want to get into the gloom of it,” he says softly, “but that kind of stopped things for a bit for me.”
Needing to support himself and his sister, Malin bought a van and worked as a mover and roadie, hiring friends to help him on jobs. He once moved a mattress for Barbra Streisand – but most of the time, “The type of people that called us didn’t have elevators and didn’t know how to pack their stuff. Some of them were having divorces or fistfights. There were midnight moves and vicious dogs.”
At this time, Malin began hosting underground parties that became legendary in the city. Called Green Door NYC, these gatherings were initially held in a loft owned by Giorgio Gomelsky, the onetime Rolling Stones manager whom Malin had befriended. This was where Malin began learning how to run a club. “We put on gigs. We brought in our own beer. We brought in our own PA. We learned how to pay off the cops, be after hours, be illegal, and make money.”
Green Door parties eventually paid well enough that Malin quit his moving van business. He rented an apartment in Brooklyn with musician friends. In a happier place personally, and inspired by seeing people having a good time at his parties, Malin disbanded Hope and formed a new band, D Generation, that was “purely for fun” – even though this was clearly out of step with the prevailing musical climate in the early ‘90s.
“All the bands now are dressed up like farmers,” Malin recalls of that era. “It’s grunge, flannels on, they look like they work at the gas station.” In contrast, D Generation took a glam punk approach, like a modern New York Dolls. It worked. “D Gen came into its own. We could sell out CBGBs for three nights.” They signed to Columbia Records, recording their 1996 album No Lunch with Ric Ocasek (former leader of The Cars) producing. They toured with The Ramones and KISS, opening for the latter at Madison Square Garden.
Unfortunately, things weren’t so good when D Generation toured. “We were met with a lot of resistance. Even though we weren’t that radical, it seemed like what we were doing was, so we got a lot of stuff thrown at us.” It wasn’t all bad: “Critics liked us, other artists liked us – we toured with Green Day and became friends with them.” But stardom remained elusive.
After D Generation’s 1999 album Through the Darkness (produced by Tony Visconti, who’d worked with David Bowie and T. Rex) also failed to catch on commercially, the band called it quits. Malin wasn’t entirely disappointed, having become disillusioned by people focusing on the band’s glam image instead of their songwriting.
D Generation did result in some long-term success for Malin, however. For one thing, in 1995, he used the money he got from the Columbia Records deal to open a real rock club, Coney Island High. Located on St. Mark’s Place, in the heart of New York’s East Village neighborhood, it quickly became the coolest club in town. “Everybody played there: Iggy Pop, The Ramones, Beastie Boys. No Doubt played their first New York gig there. And a lot of young bands. It was great times,” he says.
Coney Island High lasted until 2000, when then-mayor Rudy Giuliani had it shut down. “Curse his soul – he was enforcing laws that hadn’t been enforced in a hundred years,” Malin says of Giuliani. “It was the ‘cabaret laws,’ and they came after us for dancing. They shut it down several times until we couldn’t pay the fines anymore and that was it.’ But by then, Malin had also invested in the A7 Club, now renamed Niagara. Next, he became co-owner in another club, Bowery Electric. In all, he now co-owns four venues in New York.
Another positive outcome of Malin’s time in D Generation was meeting a fan named Ryan Adams, who was fronting his own band, the alternative country act Whiskeytown. Adams’ career would inspire Malin: “I watched him break up his band, which had a lot of success, and go solo and survive and become bigger,” Malin says. By now, Malin was fronting a roots rock band, Bellevue, which put out one album – but seeing Adams succeed had planted the seed that perhaps he, too, should strike out on his own.
Malin showed his new singer-songwriter style songs to Adams, who was impressed and offered to produce an album for him. They recorded The Fine Art of Self Destruction in just five days; it was released in 2002. “There was a freedom to being a solo artist where I could be more introspective, more personal,” he says. Critics and fans noticed. “Suddenly, these songs are being understood. The record is getting some good critical acclaim and it starts to sell better than anything I had done before.” His 2004 follow up album, The Heat, was equally successful.
Malin soon gained a significant fan: Bruce Springsteen, who saw Malin performing at The Stone Pony club in Asbury Park, New Jersey. “He got my record from the merch table and a couple of weeks later called me up to talk about the record and asked me to do some shows with him out in Jersey,” Malin says. Springsteen also offered to do a guest performance on Malin’s next album, Glitter in the Gutter, which was then being recorded.
“In my mind, I thought [Springsteen] was just going to play a cool guitar solo or yell some ‘heys,’” Malin says. Instead, Springsteen dueted with Malin on the song “Broken Radio,” which Malin had written about his mother. They recorded it at Springsteen’s studio in New Jersey.
“We did the song – a song about my mom, a frustrated singer who never got to live her dream, who sang along to the radio – and now here’s one of the great voices of radio singing it with me,” Malin says, still seeming astonished about it. “It was a dream come true. He was so humble and so giving and it sounded great.” (Looking back, Malin says he believes his mother’s own musical aspirations are what made her allow him to start his own career when he was so young. “She believed in that dream,” he says.)
This Springsteen connection also led to a friendship with Little Steven, the longtime guitarist in Springsteen’s E Street Band and owner of Wicked Cool Records, to which Malin is now signed. When asked why he added Malin to his label roster, Little Steven says: “He’s talented, he has educated himself in the art form’s traditions, he has a strong work ethic, and I like him.” (Malin also occasionally DJs on Little Steven’s Underground Garage channel on SiriusXM.)
After Glitter in the Gutter, Malin went from strength to strength with his subsequent albums: On Your Sleeve (2008), Love It to Life (2010); New York Before the War (2015), and Outsiders (also in 2015). All were met with rapturous reviews and an ever-growing fanbase worldwide. But by Malin’s own reckoning, his last album, 2019’s Sunset Kids, was particularly special. It was produced by his friends Lucinda Williams and her husband, Tom Overby. “I think having someone like Lucinda, who I’m so impressed with, scared of, enamored with, and respect – I didn’t want to just come in with some crap, so I worked extra hard knowing that she was going to hear these songs,” Malin says.
Malin was in the midst of his sold-out European tour for Sunset Kids (with a hundred more shows to go, including the prestigious Glastonbury Festival) when the pandemic forced him to return to New York City, where everything went into lockdown. Though worried about the curtailed tour and his now-shuttered venues, Malin didn’t stay down for long: he started a livestream show, “The Fine Art of Self-Distancing” (a spoof on The Fine Art of Self Destruction album title). At first, he did shows alone in his living room in his East Village apartment, running the stream through his phone that was taped onto an improvised “tripod.”
As soon as regulations allowed, Malin shifted the shows to one of his clubs, Bowery Electric, and began streaming full-band concerts (with proper COVID-19 safeguards in place for his band and the camera crew). New shows still run every Thursday night via the Rolling Live Studios website.
Malin has also helped keep the New York City rock scene going through this pandemic by inviting other artists to use Bowery Electric for their own livestream shows. “Once I set it up, I didn’t want to be selfish. I wanted to share it,” he says. “The music community, that’s my family, so I want to help artists stay connected to their audiences. I know how important that is. I like to treat others how I want to be treated. Karma is important. People have helped me out and made a big difference.”
Little Steven has been impressed with the way Malin has risen to the challenge during these tough times: “He’s certainly doing his part keeping the ‘Rock Flag’ raised by managing to keep four clubs alive under these conditions,” he says. “His respect for history has evolved into his being part of history.”
Although Malin is extremely busy between these shows and his behind-the-scenes work to save his clubs, he’s still carving out time to record another studio album, which he plans to release in August. Even the current pandemic worries can’t dampen his enthusiasm for this new work. “I’ve been doing this a long time, but I still get excited to make something,” he says. “I always feel hungry as an artist, still. I need to write. I need to play. I need to sing. It’s how I communicate with the world. It’s how I process the evils of life – and the beauty of it.”
Photo by Vivian Wang.