Like the Ramones, Jesse Malin grew up in Queens, one generation later. Steeped in Kiss, Elton John, The Who and the Stones, Malin had his head turned toward Manhattan, and CBGB, by the punk scene. From his earliest band, Heart Attack (formed with he was 12) to D Generation and his two decades as a solo artist, Malin always wrote and played from the heart, but inspired by the city streets. His new album Sunset Kids, a collaboration with Lucinda Williams that pays tribute to friends who are gone, is turning some heads.
It was an early August evening and the heat and humidity were oppressive. Ahead of me on the sidewalk, I noticed a guy apparently unaffected by the heat. Dressed in a perfectly tailored pinstriped suit, dress shoes, and a hat, he was walking with just the right amount of swagger. That well-dressed man, I realized, was Jesse Malin.
Malin is sometimes seen as synonymous with the East Village and Lower East Side neighborhoods in Manhattan, the same streets his immigrant grandparents walked generations before. Though born and raised in Queens, Malin has been playing music in the tenement apartments, rehearsal spaces and bars of this neighborhood for almost four decades. Forming a hardcore band, Heart Attack, at the tender age of 12, he also fronted the 1990s glam band D Generation, and for the past 20 years, has been performing as a singer-songwriter, both solo and with a band. Along the way, he’s counted a number of big-name friends and supporters, such as Billie Joe Armstrong, Ryan Adams, Joe Strummer, and Bruce Springsteen.
If my first album, The Fine Art Of Destruction, was about leaving behind a trail of wreckage and glory and reveling in it, Sunset Kids is about finding ways to survive and transcend and finding beauty in broken things and owning them.
On August 30, Malin’s latest album hits the street. Produced by Lucinda Williams and Tom Overby, Sunset Kids represents the next chapter in his development as a songwriter – an observer, always on the outside looking in, a storyteller or narrator, a voice-over to a movie scene.
The video for the song, “Room 13,” co-written with Lucinda Williams, finds a weary Malin sitting on the bed of a hotel room at dusk (or is it daybreak?) hearing the mumbled voices of strangers through the walls, illicit acts, and deals going down. Alone and anonymous, he’s thinking about friends and family who’ve passed on, his memory of them like ever-present ghosts, lingering:
“Shadows on my wall
And voices in the hall
I’m making up my own scene
Hanging out in room 13
I pull down the black out shade
And watch the TV start to fade
Deadbolt on the lock
And I unplug the digital clock”
During the interview in Malin’s apartment, he talks about using hotel rooms as a place to escape from the many distractions of life, a place to face one’s angels and demons, and a place to create.
PKM: Your songs are very cinematic, like short films. You write in a narrative style and a lot of the songs are vivid and alive with characters of all sorts.
Jesse Malin: Well, growing up in New York, you walk out your door, and…I call New York “a Santa Claus town”…people come here from all over the world to make dreams happen. In terms of finding inspiration in New York, you can just walk out your door and bang into things. As somebody once said about inspiration, “No input, no output.” You need to have stuff coming in. You need new stimulation.
PKM: What inspired you musically as a kid from Queens?
Jesse Malin: As little kids, AM radio was a big thing in New York. I come from a divorced home. I grew up with my mom and my sister in a studio apartment. My dad would come visit once in a while and he’d have music on in the car. I remember liking Jim Croce. He had some good lyrics and stories about roller derby queens and truck drivers, “Bad Bad Leroy Brown”, all that bullshit, I liked. You know, mom had to work and also raise us and have a social life once in a while. So, I had babysitters who were into The Who and Elton John. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was one of my first records. I stole it from one of the babysitters. I liked “Crocodile Rock” because it was kind of fun. You could jump up on the bed to it like a maniac.
But Yellow Brick Road… I sat down and looked at those album illustrations and read the lyrics. They were so dark and angry and pointed with these beautiful pop songs.
And then over time, I went from The Who and The Stones to seeing Kiss on some TV show. I was so into them. My whole world was Kiss, you know?
PKM: How did you get into punk rock?
Jesse Malin: I saw the Sex Pistols on the People’s Choice or one of those shows and it made me wanna break my whole room apart. I had a lot of anger at the world. I was like, “This is the stuff!” I loved the Ramones, too. I mean, they were from Queens and I was from Queens. They had a formulaic look like Kiss, but they had black leather jackets and they sang these anthems and shouted things.
In the 1970s, there’d been this 1950s resurgence. As a little kid I’d been into shows like Happy Days. So The Fonz was this big thing and the Ramones had the leather jackets like Fonzie, the chants and the choruses like Kiss. I remember thinking “I don’t need to practice my fuckin’ Jimmy Page scales anymore from the guitar teacher! I got three chords. I’m going to start writing songs!
At that time, punk wasn’t like it is now…It was really tough. If you liked Kiss, you got beat up by some people, but if you liked punk, everyone fucking hated you.
PKM: What was the New York punk and hardcore scene like in the early 1980s?
Jesse Malin: At that time, punk wasn’t like it is now. Now, every kid’s mom has a Brazilian and every dad has a Mohawk, a Prince Albert, a nipple ring and a tattoo. Growing up in Queens, other kids would yell stuff at me like, “You’re Sid Vicious. You killed your girlfriend.” “You’re a homosexual.” “You’re a heroin addict.” It was really tough. If you liked Kiss, you got beat up by some people, but if you liked punk, everyone fucking hated you.
PKM: You started your first band when you were 12 years old. Can you talk about your first attempt to book a gig?
Jesse Malin: It was really the Ramones that led me to making a phone call to CBGB. I called from a pay phone at my junior high school to get a spot on the audition showcase, which were held on Mondays. When we did the audition at CBs, we didn’t know that in order to get a gig you had to bring in 20 people who drank. Well, we didn’t know that many people who drank…we were only 12 years old!
PKM: Can you talk about your experience with Heart Attack?
Jesse Malin: I played in Heart Attack from age 12 to 16, putting out three records. Hardcore as a name wasn’t used much back then, where later it became a thing and a style of music. We were really raw, just playing bar chord shit. Our first gig at Max’s Kansas City on July 15, 1980, which was Johnny Thunders’ birthday. We opened for a band called The Intruders.
Heart Attack put out what I think was the first New York hardcore record, God Is Dead, a three-song EP on the Damaged Goods label. Damaged Goods was a fanzine done by Lyle Hysen, who was documenting the scene, along with Jack Rabid who published The Big Takeover. We did three records, toured a lot, worked with the Bad Brains.
When we did the audition at CBs, we didn’t know that in order to get a gig you had to bring in 20 people who drank. Well, we didn’t know that many people who drank…we were only 12 years old!
I didn’t go to high school too much. I went to a school called Quintanos – Young Professional High School. It was set up for kids in entertainment in the 1940s and 1950s. Now it was the 1980s and the school had degenerated so bad that there was actually a male prostitution ring was being run out of the school. True story! Going to that school did allow me to tour.
By 1984, the hardcore scene had gotten really macho and really metal, the two things I’d left Queens to get away from. I felt it was time to break up Heart Attack. We tried for a lot of years to get a record deal, but it didn’t happen. Our last gig was July 4, 1984 at CBGB, on the same bill with the Cro-Mags, their very first show.
PKM: What was life like for you as a 16-year-old rock kid whose band had broken up?
Jesse Malin: I was living in the city in a place that became the Lakeside Lounge and is now a bar called Dream Baby, a bar I’m involved in. But back then it was a rehearsal studio I shared with the False Prophets. We basically lived there, sleeping on foldout chairs and eating out-of-date yogurt and tofu that I got from the health food store where I worked. I did anything to get by. My mom was sick and I didn’t have much money. I also worked as a moving guy with a van. I did jobs for everybody from the Swans to Barbara Streisand, moving furniture, music gear, going on tours and also trying to find time to do my thing.
But I had to leave the studio on Avenue B. My mom was dying so I moved back to Queens to take care of her. After she passed, life got really hard. I had a hard time getting a band together. Things were just tough.
PKM: How did D Generation come about?
Jesse Malin: A few years later, I formed D Generation with guys I grew up with and Howie Pyro, who was a roommate of mine when I’d lived in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I was doing the moving job and we were throwing parties at Giorgio Gomelsky ’s loft called The Green Door cuz it had a green door. We just didn’t wanna be in some nightclub with hair-band people listening to funky Chili Peppers music – No disrespect – we wanted to have parties where people danced to stuff that wasn’t on the radio like the Cramps, The Stooges, Funkadelic. We pulled it off – and held them once a month and it started to pay our rent. This was early 1991.
Then we wanted to make a band, the kind of band we wished we would have seen when we were kids – a five-headed monster, like the Stones. A band where I wouldn’t play guitar and be this earnest songwriter guy, but instead some goofball who could take off my shirt and roll around on stage and front the band and have fun and the rest of the guys would play. We debuted at a party on December 7. One of our guitar players was Georgie Seville who just passed two months ago – he played that first gig, he was a sweetheart of a guy.
PKM: Your new album, Sunset Kids is produced by Lucinda Williams. How did you come to work with her?
Jesse Malin: During the D Generation days, I was always searching for new things. I was listening to the Steve Earle album, I Feel Alright, and this voice just popped out on the last track – a duet called “You’re Still Standing There.” It was the greatest voice I’d heard in forever, I was mesmerized so I went and checked out her records.
Funny enough, I was talking to Joey Ramone a lot. We’d become friends and I was on the phone with him and he asked, “What are you listening to?” I said, “This Lucinda Williams woman.” Joey said, “I know her! I did a songwriter thing with her at the Bottom Line, Vin Scelsa shows.” So I went out and bought all her records and saw her play at the Wiltern in LA and at Roseland here in NYC. She had this swagger and this attitude and she wrote songs about broken people and was able to tell these very real and descriptive stories between songs.
I happened to meet her one day going to see Charlie Watts at the Blue Note in the West Village. I could tell that she was just humble and open and very human and vulnerable. And sweet. She knew of my records; I think I had one out at the time, the one I made with Ryan Adams. Anyway, we stayed in touch. When she was in New York, we’d go out, listen to some records or DJ, dance around, get into trouble.
One night I was playing in Los Angeles and she came. There was a writer from Rolling Stone reviewing my show. He saw Lucinda at the bar, writing in a notebook. That writer had an idea to do a joint piece, an artist-to-artist thing and she’d moderate. So here’s this woman, a singer and songwriter from Arkansas and this guy from Queens. Then the journalist said, “Hey, how about a collaboration?” Anyway, I kept that in the back of my mind. When my manager asked me for a shortlist of people I’d want to produce the next record, I put her name on it and he liked the idea. The same week, Lucinda called and said she’s opening for Tom Petty at the Hollywood Bowl and asked if we wanted to come out. So we went out, the last night of their tour. Turns out it was his last show ever. I’d seen him and the Heartbreakers a lot and they were always pretty good, but this night they were phenomenal.
We met with Lucinda the next night and talked about making the record and she seemed into it. But a week later, Tom Petty died and then the Vegas shooting happened a lot went down, so it was kind of put on hold a bit. But I came back to it, figuring we’d do a test.
It was Christmas time and she said, “I like to work through the Christmas blues.” So we worked through Christmas week. I went to her house with my acoustic guitar. Here’s this woman, one of my favorite writers and voices. I gotta say, I was a little nervous, sitting at her kitchen table. I showed her some songs. I think “Room 13” was one of the first we worked on. I got like six verses and she helped me narrow it down. A week in the studio went pretty well. So we continued to make the record in between both our tour schedules.
We worked on each coast, some sessions with David Bianco and some with Geoff Sanoff, here in New York and in Brooklyn at Studio G and went back to LA. David Bianco, it turns out, worked with Tom Petty’s Wildflower album, as well as working with Bob Dylan, Danzig, AC/DC, Frank Black, Teenage Fanclub, the Posies and the first D Generation album for EMI. And after working with David Bianco for ten days, I get home and get the news that he passed away – that was kind of heavy.
I kept writing. I wrote about 25 songs and it was great to have Lucinda to collaborate and co-write with and also it made me want really up my game. I hadn’t had a record in a bunch of years; I felt like it was my first album again.
PKM: What were studio sessions with Lucinda like?
Jesse Malin: She’s great in the studio because she has a great sense of picking takes. We still record the takes on analog, three takes that can fit on a tape. Then we go into the control room to listen to see if we got it. If she was dancing and grooving her hips, then we knew that it was on. She could always spot the right take, instinctively. We had a couple of great engineers – Dave and Geoff. And Lucinda’s husband produces her records and he’s a rock-n-roll guy from Minneapolis, Tom Overby. He had a big part in making the record, as well as my manager, Michael Iurato. It was a group effort.
I’ve been playing with the same band for five years and I really wanted to use my guys. We went through about 25 songs, they would go away on tour, then come back and we’d come to my kitchen here and sit around with the guitars and the wine.
PKM: Have films influenced your writing?
Jesse Malin: I come from a place where I believe albums are like the movie, the book, the novel. It’s a story and I like that it unfolds that way.
As a kid in the 1970s, I’d sneak into movies and see all these great films by Scorsese, John Cassavetes and then later, Jim Jarmusch, Coppola.
I like slice of life stuff. Walking down the street, you get ideas, you listen to people talking in a bar; you write about your life. I like things that paint a picture. Some of my favorite songs from the Clash, for instance, go right into action, start right off setting a scene. Bruce Springsteen is another person who does that so well. Bob Dylan’s songs – there’s always something going on right from the start.
PKM: Are you a disciplined writer?
Jesse Malin: I’ll pick up a guitar if I have a thought for a song. It can happen anywhere, weird places where we travel. But when I’m deep in the process of working on a record, I write all the time. I write every day and see what comes out. I’ll record everything. Sometimes you get bombs, but if you keep doing it, you write 10 things, you might get 1 or 2 that work out, by the luck of it.
PKM: Can we talk about the song, “Shane” from the new album. It’s obviously about Shane MacGowan.
Jesse Malin: He’s always been one of my favorite writers. I name checked him once on a song called “Mona Lisa.” It ended up being the single in the UK. We were playing a show in London when my stage manager, Michael Sticca (a legend in his own right), says to me, “Shane MacGowan’s here!” Next thing I know, he’s onstage. He wanted to sing – so we did “Oliver’s Army” by Elvis Costello. He was drinking bourbon out of a Pringles can. He was really funny – I had no idea he’d be so funny. I’d always been such a fan of him as a writer, his lyrics. I’d seen the Pogues at Danceteria. He was born on Christmas – it was all just kind of magical. So I wrote that line in “Mona Lisa,” “Hangin’ with the local talent / drinkin’ like you’re Shane MacGowan…” I was touring so much and missing my friends back on Avenue A at the bar (Niagara) and I wanted to give a little shout-out to them.
Michael Sticca (a legend in his own right), says to me, “Shane MacGowan’s here!” Next thing I know, he’s onstage. He wanted to sing – so we did “Oliver’s Army” by Elvis Costello. He was drinking bourbon out of a Pringles can.
Last summer, I got invited to sing at Shane’s 60th birthday. I wrote about that experience, about being this New York guy in Dublin to celebrate this guy’s birthday, a guy who most people didn’t think he’d make it to 60. I’m onstage and there’s Shane. He’s still drinking, but he’s in a wheelchair. All these people are also on stage singing his songs. The president of Ireland is there. So I’m up there, surrounded by these huge, multi-million selling legends and the president of Ireland and Shane! It was like this weird Forrest Gump awkward moment. The president of Ireland tries to hand Shane this trophy, but he’s in the wheelchair, he couldn’t really hold the thing. So the Irish president turns around and hands it to me. I’m standing next to Bono and Johnny Depp and I try to give it to Bono…I mean I’m this Jew from New York. Bono was like, “No…you gotta hold it!” I carried it off the stage. It was just this emotional night.
I ended up playing some Nipple Erectors songs – they were Shane’s first band – and I did “That Woman’s Got Me Drinking” with Clem Burke (Blondie) on drums and Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols). I went to the after-party and Shane was there, sitting in the corner, alone in his wheelchair. I went over and shook his hand and said, “Thank you for everything and I hope you live on.”
I came home and I wrote that song.
PKM: You dedicate Sunset Kids to people in your life who died during the making the record.
Jesse Malin: Yeah, I lost a lot of great people who were very dear to me in a very short period of time. I like the idea of keeping their spirits alive through this album. Music has always been a thing that helps you deal with pain. Life is for the living, but it’s important to me to keep those people in our hearts, as they’ve given so much to us
PKM: Your dad was one of those people.
Jesse Malin: Yeah – I didn’t grow up with my dad, but we got to know each other better in recent years. We learned to accept each other in ways that we never did, just before he passed. He was a bottle-up guy from the Bronx that liked Elvis and Dion but didn’t listen to his heart.
Some of the others who passed on are my friend Todd Youth, who was a friend and guitarist in D Generation, Chris Charucki, a hardcore kid I grew up with, Elda Stiletto, who was in the Debbie Harry and Chris Stein’s first band the Stilettos, and David Bianco.
The title of the album, Sunset Kids, is a nod to all of them and how they affected me.
If my first album, The Fine Art Of Destruction, was about leaving behind a trail of wreckage and glory and reveling in it, Sunset Kids is about finding ways to survive and transcend and finding beauty in broken things and owning them. Spitting out the poison and moving on. Songs like “Meet Me At The End Of The World Again” might come across as cynical in these generic and disposable times, but it’s really about living out each day like it could be your last, with conviction and soul.
Meet Me At The End Of The World Again – by Jesse Malin
PKM: So you have a record release show coming up on September 14th at Webster Hall?
Jesse Malin: Yeah, at the old Ritz! Then we’ll go on tour in America for two months after that – September and October and then the UK. We’ll be out the rest of the year. You make the doughnuts, then go sell the doughnuts!
PKM: You’ve dabbled in a bit of acting. Can you talk about it?
Jesse Malin: I have a part in a movie called Bring Out The Dead. It’s a Martin Scorsese film with Nicholas Cage. I played a club doorman, letting EMS squad in to pick up a dead OD’d body. I had one line, I think. I don’t know, I love films, but I wouldn’t want to be bad at it. I’ve definitely thought about it.
I would have paid them the money I got paid. I think it was $1,200 each day just to sit there and talk to Scorsese and ask him all kinds of questions. We mostly talked about music. But yeah, it came out in the late 1990s and is kind of like Taxi Driver meets After Hours. You can look for me in there. My one line, “This way!”
PKM: You were also at that infamous Fear show on Saturday Night Live, weren’t you?
Jesse Malin: Oh yeah, I was stage dived a couple of times. I was going to junior high school in Queens and my science teacher said, “I know where you were Saturday Night.” I was like, “Wow. How did he know?” Now looking back at it, a guy in his forties at home watching SNL? What a stretch! He recognized my leather jacket. That was Halloween night in 1981. Ian McKaye from Minor Threat was there and Harley Flannigan from the Cro-Mags was there, too. I think it was Ian who grabbed the mic and yelled, “Fuck New York.” Harley smashed a pumpkin. I jumped off the stage three or four times, it was cool. Somebody smashed up a camera and some woman who worked on the show yelled, “This is all Belushi’s fault!” He had pushed to have Fear on as the musical guest. It was Eddie Murphy’s first show and he came into our dressing room and was really cool. We had a dressing room. They even gave us food!