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Behind the Music

A beloved Lower East Side club threatened by broken sewer lines and rent hikes

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The first time I wandered into Tonic, New York’s embattled experimental music mecca, was in 1998. Located in a yet to be gentrified sliver of the Lower East Side, it had recently transformed, almost overnight, from an abandoned Romanian wine cellar into the premier downtown venue. John Zorn, with his burgeoning Tzadik label, and other avant-garde luminaries made it so by decamping from the Knitting Factory, their previous home, in frustration.

My initial impression of the club was of its heymishe, slightly decaying ambience: peeling walls, tables made from leftover wine barrels, and a jumble of candles. Even more unusual (for a club anyway) was the hushed quiet; the reverential crowd was there to listen, not drink—and anyway, Tonic didn’t yet have a liquor license. That night featured a set by Steven Bernstein’s jazz-schtick Sex Mob, and the staff frantically whipped up smoothies, toasted bagels, and pressed espressos, waiting between songs to run the machine. Bernstein started raving from the stage like a Borscht Belt tummler, encouraging everyone to buy something at the bar to help support this new club.

From that first night I was smitten with Tonic—and loyal to it. I was also desperate for a gig there, and, after several months of cajoling the sweet, badgered owners, I finally got my band, Barbez, a show. It was a midnight on a Thursday, but we were ecstatic anyway. We were a septet then, with a Russian singer and dancer, accordion, marimba, violin, and a love of both Kurt Weill and the Residents, and we had yet to find a place where our hard-to-characterize sound (we called ourselves a “post-cabaret punk chamber ensemble”) could comfortably fit. The night was a revelation. Quiet passages in our songs were audible, and even more thrilling, the attentive crowd roared approval for both subtle moments and the more obvious loud rock ones. We’d found our home.

Tonic’s existence is now imperiled by a broken sewer line, tripled
insurance rates, robberies, and rent hikes. After these woes were made public in February, Zorn, Yoko Ono, Marc Ribot, Yo La Tengo, and even Barbez, among many others, lined up to perform in a string of benefits. Initially dire about its future, the club’s website is now cautiously optimistic about avoiding eviction. It includes fan testimonial, however, which is more fatalistic (“it will be sad to see it gone and it will definitely kill the little musical spirit that still exists in NY,” reads one from London). The anxiety seems well-founded. A quick look around the changing neighborhood, long a home to the avant-garde, shows expensive high-rises popping up and pushing rents ever higher. Other seemingly permanent musical fixtures (Fez, Luna Lounge, CBGB‘s) are already gone or face extinction. Resilient for so long, the downtown music scene must ask itself: If Tonic goes, can anyone now afford to take its place?

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Behind the Music

A beloved Lower East Side club threatened by broken sewer lines and rent hikes

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