Vampires, Two-Headed Dogs, Zombies — And those are just the songs!
Anyone with an even passing knowledge of Jonathan Toubin’s increasingly large parties knows the New York DJ honcho does not skimp on the bohemian bash vibe. This time it was in the enormous environs of the Knockdown Center, a formerly forgotten warehouse in southern Queens. While it is definitely far removed from its days as a word-of-mouth DIY music and art space, it has retained its outre “you really gotta want to go” location and shadowy, brick-lined, dark corners atmosphere.
Tobin has done these kind of sprawling shindigs the last few Halloweens, so he has it down pat. You walked in, and there was a fun street sign announcing the various rooms. Then to the right was a room with some folding chairs, and spooling nutty horror flicks (like “Jesus: Vampire Hunter”) and trailers all night; to the left, a makeshift haunted house with some ghouls screaming at you. Walk out of there, and there was food being cooked up; then to the left and into the massive, main stage hall where garage rock legend Roky Erickson would soon be playing.
We’d sadly missed the first band on the big stage, White Mystery, from Chicago. It’s a mystery as to why they were slated first, since they’ve been a reliable touring act for years, but I’m sure they brought a great set of their smashing blues punk. So we headed back and to the right for the small stage room that might be one of the best little places to see a trashy band in NYC. That room housed dress-up cover acts all night, of which “the Ramones” (Mala Vista) really stuck out. Who knew Zippy the Pinhead could play guitar so well?! I just thought he carried the “Gabba Gabba Hey” sign. Though it’s always a question at these kind of Halloween cover act shows: Is this band doing this really well, or is it just impossible to make a Ramones song sound bad? We chose the former for this band. And the Saylavees’ stab at “Abba” was impressively concocted. The sax man, who I think was dressed as Pitbull, was the action man, blowing hard and shaking it all set. As the years have passed, it’s become apparent that, while Abba was considered a joke in my youth, it is not at all easy to sing or perform Abba songs, but this was a really fun try.
Back on the main stage, Death Valley Girls, from L.A., stomped through a solid 40 minutes of their just entering the graveyard garage rock. Then Hank Wood & the Hammerheads played, and the crowd – by then easily pushing 1,000-plus, and still streaming in – got more packed and up close, and sure seemed to like the NYC band’s seemingly incongruous twist of stadium rock and dive bar garage punk. But then it dawned on me that freaking ex-pat NYC punk legend and DJ extraordinaire Howie Pyro was spinning, so we headed to the far back barroom where Howie had his own packed gaggle of dancing fans loving his decades-perfected, vinyl-only monster mash of ‘60s go-go R&B and party trash. And trading places with the similarly sounds-seeped local star DJ, Josh Styles, was a treat to pop in and behold all night – plus it was a little easier to get a beer back there.
It should be noted that the size and subsequent sound-proofing of the Knockdown Center is impressive. We were able to walk maybe 20 feet from the LOUD main stage room into where the fright flicks were being spooled, and you could hear them clearly. Each room seemed to exhibit barely any noise bleed. Although, problematically, the main stage room – due probably to its sheer mass and concrete surroundings – sounded boomy and a little muddled, though the mix improved throughout the night.
I need not go into details about all the hilarious and wild costumes that abounded. At least 80% of the crowd really made an effort with the get-ups. Personal faves were: a loving couple both dressed as Rat Fink; a person surrounded by some large, lovely, white dress with lights underneath who appeared throughout the night like a ghost haunting the dark rooms; the preponderance of huge-headed masks was a fun trend; and I really loved the guy wearing a gold lame smoking jacket and big turbin who called himself, yup, “Jonathan Turbin.”
Also charming was the really drunk pirate girl in one of the Knockdown’s enormous non-gendered bathrooms, knocking on stalls and yelling, “Hey, where’s my whiskey?! I paid eleven dollars for that whiskey! Where is it?! Gimme my whiskey!!”
Did I mention you could also go out a side door into a small alley that offered yet another, more creepy and dank room besotted with fortune-telling ephemera, a tarot reader, and a Satanic-ish star on the ground circled by candles that was perfect for a large swath of narcissists to utilize for umpteen Instagram posts. That might’ve been the only actually scary part of this whole Halloween party.
And then, finally, it was remarkably inspiring to see that the vast majority were indeed here to take the rare opportunity to see one of the legends of American rock’n’roll, Roky Erickson. Once he was helped up onto the stage at about 11, the crowd was at its apex and howling.
It is always intriguing to watch as once “cult” acts like Roky slowly, over time, attain classic status; and it’s downright heart-touching if that cult act can survive to see it happen. One wonders what Lou Reed might think of the shmancy, big gallery exhibit of the Velvet Underground on display in Manhattan right now. Or if Ian Curtis could see that every fourth person walking down the street has the first Joy Division album on their T-shirt. I hope Grant Hart knew how influential Husker Du was. You get the sincere, if kind of sad idea.
But here was Roky Erickson – after a life that would have claimed most of us decades ago – smiling, if sitting, holding his guitar like a swaddled baby, and looking out over the crowd with a huge grin. He sang and sometimes strummed through a full hour and a half show of all killer, no filler psych-Roky classics, focusing on the spookiest material, perfect for this All Hallows Eve.
And he brought along a crack band that struck it hard and tight through the whole thing, with a keen ability to shift into a little riff-riding when Roky had to find the groove again. There were moments where he would just stop strumming, cross his hands, close his eyes, and take it all in. Flashing stage lights and massive liquid-cell psychedelic projections on the back swirled, with every human in attendance dressed up like the creatures of the night that Roky no doubt regularly imagines this world to be inhabited by – in a cool, “we’re all in this haunting together” way.
One after another they came, Roky’s peons to the netherworld, somehow dredging up those high-pitched, yearning wails from his deep, teen heart that decided to investigate the weird way back in Texas in the early ‘60s. “Don’t Shake Me Lucifer, “Night of the Vampire, “I Walked with a Zombie,” “Mine, Mine, Mind,” and more rocked right out.
Of course, as would be expected, Roky started to fade a little by the last three songs, which didn’t really matter as the crowd was more than happy to sing along to “I’ve Got Levitation,” “Two-Headed Dog,” and finally, of course, and forever, “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” As he took off his guitar and the jug player helped him up and off the stage, Roky stopped to look around, wave, and take it all in again, beaming and grinning as the liquid lights swirled over him, like the most grateful day-glo zombie you ever did see.
Early work and impossible transit plans home meant me and my pal took off after that, though of course Toubin had a whole normal night’s worth of fun still to come, featuring his DJ mastery and a costume contest. There were some gripes from late-comers about not being able to get in after two, but the Knockdown and its otherwise quiet neighborhood surroundings probably don’t allow for the Toubin devotees usual nocturnal urges of 2:15 a.m. as starting point. Nevertheless, once again, Jonathan Toubin and his cast of kooks put on another excellent Halloween bash to remember.