You Can't Touch This

YOU CAN’T TOUCH THIS - THURSDAY NIGHTS IN NYC

In the summer of 1864, General Philip Sheridan was appointed commander
of the Army of the Shenandoah by Ulysses S. Grant, and in 1888,
Sheridan’s career reached its apex when he was appointed General of
the Army by President Cleveland. He passed away that same year,
apparently due to obesity-induced heart attack. His wife Irene never
remarried, saying, "I would rather be the widow of Phil Sheridan than
the wife of any man living." That is marital dedication of a degree
rarely seen in our modern times where short-lived, non-committal
relationships are the new norm. True dedication - of any kind - where
can it be found these days, one might ask?

Irene would have to look no further than her late husband’s namesake
park in the Village right at the spot where 7th Avenue and Christopher
Street intersect at an angle that is not quite 90 degrees, unlike the
vast majority of New York City’s monotonous grid system. Every
Thursday night for almost three decades, a group of dedicated music
aficionados congregate in front of one the city’s last surviving dives
whose entrance is sandwiched between a non-descript staircase and the
renowned Stonewall Inn, hardly visible to the random passer-by. If you
know that entrance, it is because you have been here before or it is
because you know somebody who knows somebody’s cousin who had been
here and told you that you must check out the music. Neither the
sweltering heat of August, nor the numbing cold of a nor’easter in
January can deter these dedicated disciples, nothing can be put
between them and their music, their raison d’etre. It sometimes
appears as if this community of destiny stands a little closer during
the cold winter months to rub shoulders and to defrost toes, with
vapor-like breath emanating from lively conversations revolving around
past jazz gig experiences – as iconic as the dense white vapor
escaping from NYC’s intestines through manholes covered with giant
white and orange tubes. Community members hail from all five boroughs
and all five continents with different accents ranging in nasal
variety from a tough Brooklyn accent to lofty, haute French. These
people talk and look just like that off-the-grid geometric
intersection, people from all walks of life. You got your starving
music student standing right next to a loaded hedge fund manager but
it all doesn’t matter to the people eagerly forming an orderly human
line that stretches almost around the block and peaks the curiosity of
everybody who is not standing in it. Sometimes I wonder if this is how
Marx imagined his classless society with brothers and sisters rallying
behind a common cause. Well, speaking of sisters, their almost
complete absence is the only visible irregularity to the superficial
observer and, thus some persons who may want to visit the premises
next door might mistake this line for the path to Stonehenge.

The night of the lunar eclipse in 2017, I found myself standing in
said line a few people behind a guy all the way in the front who
decided to dress like Jesus for the occasion, a slender young man with
long, brunette hair and white robes flowing around his ankles. I can't
be sure, but I think he was an up and coming guitar player on the
search for divine inspiration. I looked up at the sky to see the last
sliver of the moon disappear into the earth’s shadow as one of the
usual Village hobos plucked at my arm, eager to know if I could share
a bitcoin. I handed over some loose change and steered his attention
towards the celestial magic. He just shrugged. He’d seen better.
Earthly Sheridan Square pulsed with the red and blue lights of three
police cars on a chase and luminescent beams were reflected off the
wet and cold asphalt except for dark spots where the numerous potholes
swallowed the light rays like black holes in a far away galaxy.

The thing was, none of this was any stranger than any other Thursday
night in front of 55 Bar. For almost an hour, the suspense had been
building up amidst the musical magic to be performed tonight, and
reached a temporary climax as the doorman bellowed his sentence down
the line, “Alright everybody, it’s $15 cover charge with a two drink
minimum. CASH ONLY!” I noticed how the group of millennial jazz
musicians behind me frantically searched their pockets for real green,
only to find credit cards made of plastic or Venmo on their iPhone. I
took pity and directed them to the nearest ATM just across the park as
the line began to move forward at a slow but steady pace, similar in
dignity as a procession during the San Gennaro festival in Little
Italy, a few blocks south.

Descending the two stairs into the tiny bar, with a maximal capacity
for approximately 60 patrons, is like stepping into a different era, a
time when New York City was abound in black and white femme fatales,
private investigators with a penchant for scotch, and street-smart
guys who seemed to know all the angles; a ride with Philip Marlowe on
a time machine rollercoaster for just a nickel. Best seat? Front table
or at the bar right next to the band stand although the real jazz
heads voluntarily offer their advice that the best seat is behind the
guitar amp, proximal to the restroom entrance, or all the way in the
back where sound waves forcefully crush ashore due to the compression
of the bar’s low ceiling; it is the sweet spot for the introverted
listener on the beach of a sonic ocean. After sitting down the
friendly wait staff was quick to bring the drink I have been ordering
here for years, seltzer with bitters, affectionately called a “Jim
Campilongo” and a main staple for a lot of musicians. 55 Bar is a like
a neigborhood joint, where the staff remembers where you are sitting
and what you are ordering, and if you don’t show up to your favorite
musician’s gig, something terrible must have happened to you. The
iPod, belonging to the barkeeper, was plugged into the PA and served
up hors d’heuvres from the past, setting the mood just right with
sweet melodies and grooves by John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, and other
luminaries. As the bitters slowly diffused into the seltzer water, my
“Jim Campilongo” changed from colorless water to a dark, unoxidized
copper color (not the oxidized, green copper of the lady down at the
harbor). It wasn't quite water to wine, but I was tempted to consult
with that guy in the white robe who had positioned himself exquisitely
behind the guitar amp, eyes closed, jaws moving invisibly, as if
meditatively chewing on “Third Stone from the Sun” glaring from the
PA. One more time, I glanced around the bar to cherish the diverse
audience that is indeed a cross-section of society, before I got
sucked into a conversational bubble with people sitting at my table.
Topics can be as far reaching as a coup d’etat in Turkey, Prince’s or
Aretha’s too early departures, infamous tweets, really anything and
nothing that had happened on a random Thursday – Seinfeld-esque
really.

When the clock stroke 10PM, a wiry guy with glasses, skinny jeans,
colorful sneakers, and bangles was striding into 55 Bar. Nothing
unusual, if it weren’t for the fact that he carried a guitar and a
little suitcase. The din of the bar didn’t budge, as the guy
miraculously retrieved a whole arsenal of effect pedals from the
suitcase with at times futuristic names, such as “frequency analyzer”,
or names simply descriptive in nature, such as “delay” or “freeze”. He
set them up in an almost perfect semi-circle next to the front table
where I was seated and connected them meticulously, hardly peering
into the audience seated in front of him. As a matter of fact, he
looked so relaxed and deadpan that I suspect he just flew back to town
from a yoga retreat in the Himalayas and he was wearing the cloak of
shavasana as a protective shield against the madness of the city.
Finally, he connected his guitar and flipped the standby button of the
amplifier from off to on, not changing his facial expression once.
Immediately, the bar started to vibrate from a very open variation of
a G chord, maybe with a colorful 6th in there. As far back as I can
remember, it has always been this very same chord for sound check.
Consequently, he precisely inspected the pedal’s working condition by
testing riffs and licks matching each pedal’s unique character. Once
done, it was time to get out your ear protection, only the uninitiated
expected an average jazz gig and retreated to stuffing napkins into
their ears.

It was 10:20PM. “Hey, how are you? Thanks for coming out! On drums
Josh Dion and on bass Timothy James Lefevbre”, thus spoke Wayne Krantz
- looking like an ageless hipster - and the crowd cheered
enthusiastically. The show was starting. Krantz may not have an
illustrious name that evokes the notion of an artist like some of his
sidemen this night but jazz has always been a sidemen-driven business
in any case. A very subtle count to four plunged the band into unknown
territory of an improvisational tour de force and coinciding with the
first beat, the audience started to smile collectively and grooved
their heads in unison. Some fans delighted in recognizing the main
riff of whatever song was agreed upon. This recognition can sometimes
feel like a personal Eureka moment, when the universe finally makes
sense again.

All Krantz shows are great but I came to realize that the composition
of the audience pushes the limit of the music and makes a show not
just great but superb. The boundaries between musicians on stage and
audience are fluid, I felt like I could almost step on one of the
effect pedals and become part of the band, while drummers in the
audience were gesticulating whatever was played on the snare and
hi-hat. The audience was great that night and the trio delivered an
improvisational triumph. How to convey what this triumph was? Perhaps
you should imagine an immense piece of machinery in which all the
parts are strongly interconnected. And this piece of machinery, which
might be a classy locomotive, has no mass. It is weightless like a
neutrino. It stands and moves by virtue of pure energy. It has, too,
the qualities of a living being. It has moods. It can reflect. But
through all those moods and reflections it has one supreme and
constant trait: it enjoys being what it is in a very specific moment
and specific place, here and now at 55 Bar. Individual contributions,
whether soft or vigorous, were the achievements of distinct band
members but also of the whole group, for everyone was bent to the same
intent.

Krantz blended in his effects pedals to great effect and always to
great taste. Einstein’s special theory of relativity ceased to hold
truth as Krantz told the band “I got it” and bass and drums stopped
hard on beat four. The guitar alone continued to gently weep at light
speed as Krantz delivered a signature solo that painted rhythm,
harmony, sound, and melody in one brushstroke of genius onto a canvas
stretched out to eternity. To this end, he began to work the “delay”
and “freeze” pedals with such intense agility that the beat of the
universe stopped within the confines of starship 55 Bar, now flying at
warp speed, far beyond the reaches of the solar system. I am
remembered of the outside world when the red and blue lights of a
police car flooded through the stained windows of 55 Bar and glimmered
in primary colors on Krantz’s face, who edged ever closer to
resembling an indigenous warrior. As if orchestrated by an invisible
hand, the doppler effect of the police car sirens morphed into the
guitar solo and Krantz cued the band with a subtle nod of his head,
consequently reuniting the band in a hard-rocking groove. To me it
seems that each band member is assigned one of the three mutually
exclusive responsibilities: Playing slightly behind the beat, playing
on the beat, playing slightly ahead of the beat. This creates a
rhythmic tension, some sort of counterpoint, that is only resolved
when the band starts to collectively play full force on the beat.

Finally, the last song of the first set is opening with a drumroll
salvo that gives way to a pulsating dance rhythm at disco tempo. That
rhythm slowly and stealthily infects the band and audience, thumping
away on an autopsy of a famous pop tune. “You can’t touch this”, a
beloved cover song in Krantz’s repertoire and also a metaphorical
statement: Krantz is untouchable and no other band even comes close to
the Thursday night magic. It is almost midnight when the final chord
is played. Jesus ventures over to the bar to order another Brooklyn
Lager, he looks happy and inspired. The guy at my table is asking the
crucial question, “Are you hanging for the second set?” I am tired and
exhausted from listening to complicated music for almost an hour but I
decide to hang for the second set. Just krantz get enough!

Dr Daniel P