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Gary Benchley, Rock Star

Benchley Triumphant

Aspiring rock star Gary Benchley moves to the epicenter of hipsters’ Brooklyn, gets to know his new neighborhood and roommates, enjoys burlesque, and accidentally attends an A-list blogging party.

A long, difficult road had come to an end, and a new, glimmering path appeared before me. After roommate struggles, romantic dead ends, challenges to my sexual well-being, and hours of soul-damaging data entry work, I arrived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, specifically Bedford Avenue, to share an apartment with two other men. I found steady, non-temp employment. My prophetic vision of Wayne Coyne was becoming reality.


I moved all my stuff on a Friday. It took two trips on the 6 and L trains to get my boxes to Brooklyn, using a pushcart to lug them. Farewell, air mattress. Goodbye, Keith, sexual manipulator. Auf Wiedersehen, Harris Glenn Milstead, Jr., penis-biting dachshund. I handed Carl his key and gave him an awkward man-hug.

The new apartment is three bedrooms, one for each bachelor: David, Charles, and myself. It is decorated in an architectural style you might call grotesque asspaint, often found in recently gentrified neighborhoods, when landlords kick out poor people, throw paint and plaster around, and double the rent. I could hear my Anarchosyndicalist friends from college condemning me for my willing participation in the displacement of the poor, but no political theory could make me forsake my new bedroom, a 13’x15’ space with a single dirty window, a wood floor, and a bare light bulb, soon to be decorated with a round Chinese paper lantern, hanging from the ceiling.

Until I got a bed, I would sleep on the floor, and it would feel as soft as goosedown. My two suitcases and three boxes of CDs and books sat stacked against one wall, and I did something that surprised me: I locked the door, stripped off all my clothes, and stretched out naked on the bare floor and breathed the sweet air of Williamsburg, of independence. I had walked out of a metaphorical Joy Division show and straight into a Polyphonic Spree concert.

It was cold on the floor, so I dressed and went out to the kitchen, where Charles was dicing carrots. Charles is tall and thin, maybe 27 or 28, and has shaggy hair and wears a lot of loose-fitting clothes made from natural fibers. He has that lopey way of speaking that I associate with California, but he is actually from Connecticut. I struck up a conversation.

He asked me was whether I was allergic to incense. Apparently that was a major problem with the last roommate. I promised him I loved incense, and he nodded his head and said, ‘cool.’ Then it was time to talk about what he did for a living.

Charles: I’m a yoga and spiritual arts teacher. I run a class called ‘The Ancient Art of Yogic Drumming.’
Gary: Yogic Drumming?
Charles: It’s a new technique, based on research I did while in India. We investigate yoga positions, and use them to enhance the receptive resonance of the body. Then we reinforce the yogic positioning with group drumming. It’s partially based on Reichian theories.
Gary: Awesome.
Charles: Do you know Wilhelm Reich?
Gary: I’m not sure.

For 10 minutes, Charles talked about orgasms and something called an orgone accumulator, which can be used to control the weather. I asked him what orgone was, and why it accumulated.

Charles: Reich called the primordial life energy that is in all things ‘orgone.’ Other people call it qi. You tap into it through your libido, through orgasm. The orgone accumulator collects that energy, and you can use that to change the environment.
Gary: Like the Force.

Apparently not. Twenty more fantastic minutes of orgone.

Charles:—and I’ve converted each drum into an individual orgone accumulator. The drums are made from bodhi wood, so the drumming becomes a reinforcing orgone loop.
Gary: So it’s kind of like if Yoda was into drum circles.
Charles: Well…

Williamsburg beckoned, so I excused myself. As I walked out, Charles said, ‘Just for your information, the phrase ‘The Ancient Art of Yogic Drumming’ is trademark pending. I’d appreciate that when you talk about it, you let people know that.’ I told him I would definitely keep everyone in the loop.

Williamsburg deserves its reputation as the coolest part of New York. It’s a parade that never ends: hipsters, pretty girls with short hair and elbows like razor blades, so thin you could blow them over, and cavernous, single-room stores with only a few racks of dresses. Nothing here is exactly as it seems: a coffeeshop is not just a coffeeshop and an art gallery, but it also sells baby clothes with ironic statements on them, like ‘Don’t shake me!’ and ‘Baby doll dyke.’ A music store might not have any CDs, just vinyl, and then only 12 or 13 records in thick plastic sleeves, and will sell the records next to leggings made from orange-dyed llama hair. There is a bar called Galapagos, which is also an art and performance space, and when you walk in there’s a large black reflecting pool surrounded by a rail. At first the pool looks incredibly deep, almost bottomless, but it is actually shallow, and you can see your reflection in it. It is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. To me, that pool is Williamsburg.

Walking the streets, I thought of everything that had come before. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ guitarist used to work at this furniture shop. One of the guys in Interpol worked at that used-clothing store. Norah Jones even lived here. It is one of the most historically rich neighborhoods in the city, a place with room for neo-punk and adult contemporary, and everything between.

I drifted over to Galapagos, and took a long moment to look at my wavy face in the black pool. That night, Von Von Von was hosting the Floating Vaudeville show. I felt uncomfortable being there alone, but I got into the show, and the trials and fears of the last two months lifted away.

Von Von Von pretends to be a sexy Euro-rocker from Amsterdam, and he sings songs about New York. His performance works on multiple levels. After doing a song called ‘Do the Von,’ and telling us how sexy he was, he introduced two women twirling batons, backed by a Journey song. They were followed by a woman with decorated breasts that she used as puppets. After her, a middle-aged man came up and sang show tunes, and then lay on the floor and asked women to come up and stomp on him.

As I watched, I felt as light as a Pizzicato Five song, as ethereal as the Cocteau Twins, as grandiose as the guitar on My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. I had a thousand ideas for my own show. Should my band have a hot chick drummer, or a crazy drummer with his tongue out? Should the bassist be tall and smooth and detached, or short and jumpy, like a monkey? Should I play rhythm guitar and sing, or just sing? Questions for the ages—I wouldn’t have my answer right away; I had to listen, and watch, and learn from the neighborhood.

When I got home, David was slouched on the couch, drinking a Budweiser with his shirt off and watching 24 on Tivo. He was surrounded by empty cans. I told him about my new job, and he told me what he did: something in finance that requires him to sit at a desk and answer phones. He moved the conversation over to our roommate.

David: All right, Gary, last month, Charles tried to make this a meat-free house. I’m coming in from work, he’s right there at the door, just announces he’s been thinking, right? And he’s really tired of every time he opens the fridge, death stares him in the eye. And I thought, shit, it’s like Ghostbusters, Gozer the Carpathian is in the fridge. But he’s talking about a chicken breast. He wants it out. You’re not vegetarian, right?
Gary: No. I like, you know, steak.
David: Right. My uncle’s a hunter, I’m going to get him to give me a whole deer next season. Don’t skin it, just chop it up with an axe and stick it in the fridge, the head, everything. Here’s some death staring you in the eye, asshole. Have a fucking hoof.

On Monday, I went back to work. Craigslist, which once denied my every hope, had blessed me with an apartment, and soon after, a job (32+ hours a week, $16.25/hr, no benefits) in the growing field of phone answering and assistant office management, for BrandSolve, a ‘branding consultancy specializing in complete brand metrics and interactive brand experience,’ conveniently located in Chelsea, in Manhattan.

The work requires little rocking, but there are only 20 people in the company and most of them seem pretty cool. I was warned I might be asked to stay on extra hours, to run errands and do web and photo research for people under deadline, and on Wednesday my boss asked me to stay late and run to the copy shop after Para, a designer, finished making prototype screens for a proposal due the next day.

I read Pitchfork at my desk and watched as the office emptied out. The rooms were ghostly and dark, except for the desk lamp over Para’s computer. At eight o’clock, Para handed me a proposal and asked me to make the copy shop run while she finished. I came back with a stack of bound proposals. She eyed them, nodded, and told me we were done.

Para: (Shaking her head, looking at the clock on her Mac) God, it’s almost nine. I have to meet some friends.
Gary: Getting into something good?
Para: Not really. Do you know what blogs are?
Gary: Yeah, sure.
Para: (Embarrassed) Well, I’m going to a blog party in Williamsburg.
Gary: Bloggers have parties? What do they have to celebrate?
Para: It’s just a chance to meet up, and not all be on email.
Gary: So you have a blog?
Para: (Apologetically) Yeah.
Gary: What’s it called?
Para: It’s boring.
Gary: OK.
Para: No, it’s called ‘Gowanus Research Society.’ Because I live in Gowanus, in Brooklyn. But I don’t talk about it at work, you know?
Gary: Sure.

Para invited me to the get-together, and since it was in Williamsburg, I figured it couldn’t be all bad. For those who don’t know, a weblog, or blog for short, is a personal website where people can post stories about their lives. I’d seen a bunch of blogs, and knew plenty of people in college who had them, but I don’t really like reading online, except music reviews, so I’d missed the whole ‘blogging revolution.

Para had not. On the L train, she told me more about the exciting world of blogging. I tuned most of it out and just looked at her. She’d put on her lipstick before we left the office, and pulled her hair forward. She had kind of a cool, nerdy look, with big black glasses and clunky shoes.

From what she told me, the blog world sounded like any local band scene, where everyone is playing the same clubs and bitching jealously about each other. There is an A-list of bloggers, who get the most readers, and some of the A-list royalty would be there tonight.

Para told me the biggest blog in New York is called Gawker.com, and it’s about magazines. To me, this is really sad. It’s like if you put together a band with the sole purpose of singing songs about the music industry. Unfortunately the Gawker guy was not going to be there that night (that would be like Bono showing up at CMJ Musicfest). Para was kind of nervous about meeting all the bloggers; apparently it was a big deal to be invited to one of these things, and she had actually gotten an Evite, not just read about the party somewhere. She was acting like someone with a backstage pass to the Pixies reunion.

Personally, I was not so nervous. The party was at Royal Oak, on Union Ave. It was a cool place, very big and old-fashioned looking. Para introduced me around to a group of people. There was an Indian guy who gave me his business card, and this couple who make blogging software who were clearly a big deal, who also gave out business cards, and someone who writes about Craigslist who apologized for not having a business card, and a number of people who were in the process of self-publishing books. They seemed to have their own language.

Blogger A: I mean, he’s not even standards-compliant.
Gary: Yeah, that is the truth, isn’t it?

Blogger B: She might as well have a Livejournal.
Gary: You are spot on the money, my man.

All the bloggers were really glad to meet you, and really curious to know whether you knew who they were, and if you read their blog. If there is one word to describe bloggers, it is ‘vulnerable.’ Another word—well, phrase—might be ‘incredibly self-aware.’ Talking to them was like seeing Smiths songs come to life. The music was pretty loud, so the pressure to make conversation was low. Mostly you had to nod, and let the bloggers talk about themselves.

Blogger C: You might have read my blog, it’s called ‘Gathering Moss Slowly Under Bridges.’
Gary: Oh, totally. Your blog is awesome.

Blogger D: Who does Calacanis think he’s fooling?
Gary: Nobody, man, nobody at all.

Looking at the bloggers, I kept thinking of those fish that live way underwater, the ones that, when you bring them up to the surface, explode from the pressure change. I kept looking for the A-list, but it was kind of hard to tell who was on it. I asked Para to point them out, and she motioned to some people and mentioned their blogs—‘There’s Dinesh Patel, he does ‘Patella,’ and Morgan, who does ‘New Morgania,’ and…huh, Brighton Cornell, who does ‘Brightonville and After,’ and Sue Gorsh, who does ‘Invalid and Exposed.’ She’s a genius designer.’ Even after she pointed them out, I couldn’t really decide what made them A-list. Para pointed out a guy who apparently writes a really important blog about blogging. I introduced myself, and struck up a conversation.

Dude: I mean, Gothamist interviews you, and Gawker links to you, but so what, right?
Gary: Yeah, what’s it all mean, really?
Dude: Do you read a lot of blogs?
Gary: No, but I read a lot of personal ads. That’s kind of the same thing.
Dude: (Someone taps his shoulder.) I have to go. Here’s my card.
Gary: I treasure it.
Dude: I’d appreciate it if you didn’t blog about meeting me, uh….
Gary: Gary.
Dude: It gets kind of circular.
Gary: Absolutely.

I picked up nine business cards that night. I was confused as to what I was supposed to do with them. Do I call these numbers when I need something blogged? Hey, we met at Royal Oak, and I was thinking, Yo La Tengo is cool. Can you blog that for me? You can? Awesome. Can you have that up in the next two hours? I might have something to say about Greg Dulli later, maybe you could blog that too? Terrific.

I looked over to find Para deep in conversation with some fat guy in a suit jacket. He had that three-day beard growth that fat guys like because it makes their faces seem angular. Para was saying, ‘I just think what you’ve done with structure is amazing. And I love the redesign.’

I didn’t want to see any more blogger-buttering-up, so I tapped her shoulder and told her I was heading home. She didn’t seem too worried to see me go. She kissed me goodbye and asked if I’d had a good time. ‘The best time,’ I said.

The next day at work I stopped by Para’s desk and thanked her for taking me out. She was pretty excited to have met all those bloggers.

Gary: I was a little surprised to see all the business cards. I mean, I felt kind of stupid not having one.
Para: Oh, business cards are cheap. I could make you a business card. Seriously, we can do it right now.
Gary: Um, I can’t really do it on office hours, because it’s my first two weeks, you know?

She ended up inviting me to her place after work, where we could make my business card on her home computer. We took the F train to Gowanus. Her neighborhood was lots of pizza parlors and bodegas, kind of dark, no performance spaces, everyone looking as if they had worked all day instead of as though they were just waking up, and it made me realize how lucky I was to live in Williamsburg.

When we entered her apartment, she flicked on the lights and yelled out ‘Butter!’ I was confused for a moment, but Butter is her cat, a yellow tabby. He came out and eyed me, then propped himself up on her chair and ignored us. She apologized for the mess, but I didn’t see anything out of order, unless you count the bed not being made. I don’t even have a bed, so I can’t judge. There were two museum prints on the wall. One was a sort of blobby picture of a face from the Chuck Close retrospective at MOMA, and the other was a big yellow shape thing by Ellsworth Kelley, from the Guggenheim.

Para got us both a drink of water and we got to work. Her Mac started up with its moaning noise, and her scanner went ka-shaaa-kunk. She opened some programs and moved the mouse with blinding speed, speaking while she worked. She seemed a little nervous to have me over.

Para said, ‘You know, I think you’re a Frutiger kind of guy.’ For a weird moment, I thought she somehow knew about my episode with Keith, but then she brought up some text in Frutiger, which is a font, sort of like Arial, strong and manly.

Para: Adrian Frutiger did it for the Paris airport at Roissy. It’s a good choice.
Gary: You know, maybe not Frutiger. (Pointing to the font menu) How about that one?
Para: Goudy Old Style.
Gary: Sorry. I thought it said ‘old school.’
Para: You know, I don’t want to be too obvious, but we might want to use the Scala family. And Scala Sans.
Gary: Well, I guess obvious is bad.
Para: They’re the typefaces they use for the New Left Review. Really reliable stuff. Just perfect, really—here, look at the descender on the ‘g.’
Gary: That is one sweet descender.

After much discussion, we went with the Scala family, a happy and harmonious grouping of fonts with a rich history that I will not repeat here. I told Para what I wanted my business card to say, and she typed it in, and moved some boxes around on the screen. Her fingers raced over the keyboard and mouse. She was pale, and as she flexed her hands, the veins showed through the skin. I realized, suddenly, that she was about 28, which surprised me, because most of the people I know are my age. It felt cool to be hanging out with an older woman.

Gary: What are you doing now?
Para: I’m kerning.
Gary: What’s that?

What followed was a serious explanation of what kerns are, namely, little bits of lead that were used in Ye Old Printinge Shoppe of Yore. Para is as into fonts as I am into music.

Gary: It looks awesome. You should do album covers.
Para: I’ve done some, actually. My friend Teri has a folk group.
Gary: (Quickly, before she can pull out the CD and play it) So, what do I do to get these made?
Para: I’m going to burn this to a CD, you can take it to a printer, and he’ll do them up.
Gary: Wicked. Now, let me buy you some pie.
Para: OK. I like pie.

Who doesn’t? We had pie at a diner, rhubarb for her and blueberry for me, heated up, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream for each of us. ‘I never eat pie,’ she said, ‘I don’t let myself.’ She attacked the pie at first, two huge bites, hiding her ecstasy, and then began to eat it slowly, in small, polite forkfuls. Me, I just ate my pie.

Afterwards she said she wanted to get home and write things for her blog. So I said goodbye and rode the G train to Metropolitan Ave. I leaned back in the hard orange plastic seat and drifted back through the last weeks.

New York City has tested me, made me kill its lions and clean its stables, and sent me to the brink of returning to Albany, but now, it had decided I could stay. The mind of the city had changed and I had a room of my own, with a lock on the door. Yes, with a roommate who collects orgasms in drums, and another who wants to keep large game in our fridge, but who cares? Neither of them would ask me to trade sex for rent, and no small animal will ever again attack what my bathing suit covers. I had a job, and even a business card, or at least the digital equivalent of one, on a CD in my bag. And, I was not a blogger.

Truly, I stood on the cusp of the age of Benchley. All that remained was to get a band together and stick to my mission. I needed, deeply, to produce Williamsburg culture, not just consume it. And the band would come into being—I knew it. I had the same feeling I had at Galapagos, that sense of victory, of rising above.

Ten years ago the Monday before, Kurt Cobain killed himself. It didn’t really register at the time, but now I reflected on what he meant to us, and I could feel him nodding to me, feel him passing a torch, as so many other serious musicians must have felt this week. ‘Kurt,’ I thought, ‘I was only 12 when you died, but you helped me get through high school. And then in college I was too cool for Nirvana, but I’m past that now. I recognize what you did for rock, and I just wanted to say, thank you. Music has suffered since you left, but that doesn’t mean that no hope remains.’

I let out a huge breath, as the train rolled toward Metropolitan Ave., toward Williamsburg, toward home. ‘Also, Kurt,’ I thought, ‘I hope you got to beat up Shannon Hoon in heaven.’
 



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