Seventeen years ago, Manhattan was still the kind of place where a musician could arguably become more famous just by being seen out on the town every night. So the Strokes were especially lucky to find a place to record their first album that was just across the street from 2A, one of their favorite bars in Alphabet City.
“They spent supposedly as much time there as in the studio,” said Jesse Rifkin, standing outside a graffiti-covered doorway on East Second Street that once led to Transporterraum, the basement-level recording studio where the Strokes mined the area’s rock history on their 2001 debut, “Is This It.” “They made a point of going out every night as a unit — all five of them — to every cool bar that they could think of, so that people would see them together and be like, ‘Oh, it’s those guys.’”
Rifkin, a 32-year-old musician and historian, was speaking to a small crowd of onlookers on an overcast day late last month. Since June, he has been ushering people to inconspicuous-looking buildings like this one all over the East Village and the Lower East Side to trace the rise and fall of the Manhattan indie-rock scene of the 1990s and 2000s, personified by bands like LCD Soundsystem and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. His company, Walk on the Wild Side Tours NYC, bills itself as “walking tours for music nerds,” and Rifkin’s two-hour Indie Rock Tour outlines how the area’s artist-friendly rents, walkable geography and counterculture roots helped fuel that era’s music scene — and how that scene lent momentum to the wave of gentrification that would ultimately displace it.
The tour tells that story roughly chronologically. One of the first stops is Sin-é, the defunct Irish-owned coffee shop on St. Marks Place where a young Jeff Buckley got his start playing for tips in the ’90s. The last is a squat brick building on Norfolk Street once home to the club Tonic, a hub for free jazz and avant-garde music before it closed in 2008 because of rent arrears. During a protest on Tonic’s last day, two artists refused to vacate the premises and were arrested. “They were cheered on by a crowd of friends and supporters standing outside,” said Rifkin. “Nobody wanted to give it up. Nobody wanted to leave.”
Along the way, Rifkin offers glimpses of a city where musicians could still afford street-level rehearsal studios and where crust punks, folk musicians, ravers and drag performers mingled along the periphery of Tompkins Square Park. An East Third Street storefront was once home to Plant Bar, where the future LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy was D.J.ing the first night he hung out with Jonathan Galkin, an eventual co-founder of the influential DFA Records label. The site of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ first band practice, on Avenue B, was just two blocks away from one of their lead singer Karen O’s first apartments in New York (above Odessa, the diner where Henry Rollins was invited to audition for Black Flag).
“I don’t want to belabor that point, but that band was very much a product of the neighborhood,” Rifkin said of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. “The proximity of all of these spaces together.”
Music-themed walking tours in New York are nothing new, but Rifkin’s focus on indie rock signals a generational turning of the tide. As millennials creep into their 30s, with a different playlist of nostalgic musical favorites, the landscape where that music took seed is being transformed by buildings like 51 Astor — a black-glass mixed-use colossus that locals refer to as the “Death Star.” And things that happened only 10 or 15 years ago are beginning to feel more like history.
Still, Rifkin was careful to note that the narrative he was tracing is still unfolding. In addition to shuttered venues like Brownies and Cake Shop, the tour visited spots that are still holding out, including long-running Lower East Side spaces like Pianos and Arlene’s Grocery.
Rifkin grew up outside Baltimore, where he says his father, a New York native, regaled him with stories of seeing the Velvet Underground play at Max’s Kansas City in the early 1970s. After studying ethnomusicology at Sarah Lawrence, Rifkin spent 10 years playing in a series of indie music projects, then had a change of heart. “About a year ago, I was on tour and I woke up on somebody’s floor in Ohio,” he said in a recent phone interview. “My back hurt and I was tired and I was suffering some hearing loss, and I was just like, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’”
Back in New York, trying to figure out what to do with his life, he started reading music history books and taking walks to pass the time. “Walking around and actually seeing this stuff — the geographic relationships, how close the clubs were to people’s apartments or recording studios — was kind of a big ‘aha’ moment,” Rifkin said. “Seeing how somebody’s life might have been lived in those circumstances made the idea of a right place and a right time a lot easier to pinpoint.”
Of course, there have been many right times in New York City’s music history. One of Walk on the Wild Side’s two most popular tours explores how the financial collapse of 1975 gave rise to the cross-pollination of post-punk, disco and hip-hop in NoLIta, SoHo and TriBeCa. The other, the Birth of Punk tour, guides listeners from the Velvet Underground’s first residency at Cafe Bizarre in the West Village to the CBGB heyday of Patti Smith and the Ramones.
People in their late 20s and early 30s, Rifkin said, form the core of his customer base — folks who want to approach the city’s history from a “record-collector perspective, or who grew up reading music blogs every day.”
One guest on the indie-rock tour was Julien Deloison, a 38-year-old French sound technician in town for a couple of Lincoln Center performances with Akram Khan Dance Company. He said he discovered Walk on the Wild Side after Sonic Youth, one of his favorite bands growing up, posted on Facebook about Rifkin’s tour commemorating the 30th anniversary of its 1988 album, “Daydream Nation.” (Rifkin also offers tours on Sonic Youth and Arthur Russell by appointment, and is planning to roll out one on the history of dance music in Chelsea next year.)
Another was Alana Skyring, a 36-year-old from Brisbane who toured the globe as the drummer for the Australian garage-rock band the Grates before settling in Queens. This winter the Grates are going on a reunion tour, and Skyring said revisiting some of the band’s old New York haunts from the late 2000s felt like a good way to prepare. “For a brief second, we were part of a whole bunch of stuff happening here,” she said.
There’s a sense of loss running through Rifkin’s tours — on Ludlow Street, a hotel parking lot obscures the former location of the music and comedy club Luna Lounge. But millennials aren’t the first generation to feel like the New York where they came of age is disappearing in plain view, said Ada Calhoun, an East Village native and the author of “St. Marks is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street.”
“If you were a hippie in the ’60s, and you walked around in the early ’70s,” then you felt like “it was done — the whole Summer of Love magic,” Calhoun said in an interview. “I can see how growing up with indie rock, and then walking past the Death Star, you’d feel the same way.”
Rifkin, for his part, reminds visitors that these movements were the product of people making the most of their unique time and place. Hearing him speak about Ryan Adams writing songs at the bar at Niagara or an early career Anohni starring in avant-garde theater performances at the Pyramid Club, familiar streets begin to feel a little more alive — full of connections to be forged, of fire escapes and community gardens brimming with secrets.