Everyone knows that New York is over. Well, at least the "Old New York" I grew up fantasizing about, the one that my mom told me stories about, the one I saw in Paris Is Burning, read about in Just Kids and heard about on Illmatic. New York, the gritty utopia, the enclave and safe-haven for artists of kinds, for niche communities, for poets and freaks and weirdos and their work, is, for my generation, just a memory, an ancient artifact buried beneath decades of upscaling corporate branding and high-rise condos where Roseland used to be.
The notion that Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe lived penniless for years at the Chelsea Hotel seems laughable to New Yorkers my age, scraping together $1,300 bucks a month for a shoebox bedroom in Bushwick.
But while I was lucky enough to have my mother reminding me (constantly) about Old New York ("It was pure, unfettered creativity everywhere you turned,") the new New York has always been my New York.
And let it be said that I love it here. Maybe it's because I don't know anything different. Maybe it's because I cringe whenever people claim that the past was somehow better than what we've got now. Maybe it's because even in its newer, glossier, possibly more superficial incarnation, I feel like New York is still the most exciting city on earth; the only place where you wake up each morning believing anything can happen.
I have been fortunate enough to be able to make a living here -- and to make it doing work that I love. Being a DJ allows me to pursue something which, at its best, is a challenging creative pursuit that also pays the bills, an increasing rarity in New New York. I'm extraordinarily lucky.
However, as I've become more entrenched in New York nightlife, I have found myself riddled with an empty feeling -- one that often accompanies being surrounded by an industry that ultimately caters to money and fame in place of creating something remotely special or meaningful. Over time, the craft of DJing has, for me, felt increasingly lost in the shuffle to make rent.
Granted, this isn't a new idea. The debate between artistic integrity and professional success has existed since "The Woman of Willendorf." The difference here is that in nightlife circa 2014, and indeed in much of the contemporary entertainment industry, "selling out" is no longer a dirty word. In new New York (and L.A. and Vegas and Miami, for that matter), most nightclubs are run on nothing but a simple formula: Play these songs, attract bottle-service clients, foster the celebrity-worship culture, make money at the bar. And that's fine for what it is. It's just that what it is doesn't exactly nourish the soul.
This hollow feeling, along with a general impulse to push myself creatively, highlighted a craving I had for that mythical old world, a sliver of what it was like to live in New York before there was a Chipotle on St. Marks Place, before the party wasn't always brought to you by [insert corporate sponsor here]. This new York could, of course, only exist in fantasy, but that has never quenched my desire to taste it.
Relatively unbeknownst to me, though, was the fact that a little chunk of Old New York existed even closer than I realized -- namely, in my friend Kenyon Phillips.
Kenyon, a musician, actor and performance artist whom I met through StyleLikeU, had always possessed that spirit of "unfettered creativity," the spirit that values creating for the sake of creating, not for brands or even for money. "I've been losing money on art for decades," Kenyon once joked (he has a knack for saying things that are fundamentally tragic with a big, enchanting smile on his face).
After my mom hosted an early reading of his autobiographical musical, The Life and Death of Kenyon Phillips, I knew I needed to get involved. Not only because I believe so much in Kenyon, and not only because I felt I could help the show, but mainly because of the sheer number of talented characters who crossed my mom's threshold that November night.
Among the 50 or so who gathered I saw the one-man show impresario David Cale chatting with the groundbreaking LGBT actor, Brad Calcaterra. Twilight star Chaske Spencer was helping himself to the cheese plate, next to legendary drag performer, Flotilla Debarge, while she nonchalantly enjoyed a chilled Cab Sauv. To my right stood my childhood idol, Daphne Rubin-Vega, the original MiMi Marquez from Jonathan's Larson's Rent (I pretended to be her alone in my room for longer than I'd like to admit).
Actors, singers, managers, painters, dancers, journalists, agents, teachers and everyone in between crammed onto the sofas that line my parent's loft. All of these gifted people showed up that night for no money because they love Kenyon, love his work and love what they do. They just wanted to be a part of something special.
After I fed Kenyon some of my thoughts following the reading, he graciously asked me to help rewrite the show and co-direct the performance along with our friend Gerald DeCock.
Fast-forward to now, and the six months since then have brought some of the greatest experiences of my life. We spent weeks reworking the scenes in Kenyon's living room, then began hosting rehearsals at Gerald's apartment which, ironically enough, sits on the top floor of the Chelsea Hotel. Each day of rehearsal brought another astounding artist through Gerald's door: Many of the aforementioned names visited to work on their scenes along with icons like Village Voice writer Michael Musto, Magician Dennis Diamond, FischerSpooner choreographer Vanessa Walters and countless other established and up-and-coming artists of every shape and form.
One day, Burlesque ballerina, Aurora Black would stun us with the precision of her choreography and some surprisingly refined acting chops. The next, 22-year-old drag performer Justin Sams would step in as a last-minute replacement and then proceed to bring us to tears with his hilarious performance as Geena. At band rehearsal later in the week, five-foot tall guitar virtuoso Ariel Bellvalaire would leave us totally speechless while she very casually shredded like Hendrix. All in a day's rehearsal.
The best part was that we were just having fun -- no one was showing up for a huge paycheck (which, trust me, none of us are getting) nor for a corporate endorsement (ditto), but simply for the sake of creating. As I would sit and watch rehearsals, it would dawn on me how anomalous these circumstances, the notion of artists getting together and doing work for fun, was in my day-to-day life.
For a citizen of new New York, like me, the whole thing has been thoroughly inspiring -- merely getting to see these talented artists work has been a privilege. But I ultimately must hand all the credit for this wonderful experience to Kenyon. His generous spirit and the commitment, freedom and creativity he brings out in everyone who comes into contact with him and his work is the main thing that I will walk away from this show with. It is also what I hope everyone who comes to see the show walks away with as well.
In fact, it has even made me question whether Old New York really isn't as dead as I once thought. Maybe the fact that you have to search for it is what makes it Old New York, anyway, even if you have to do a little wading through new New York to find it.
More info on "The Life & Death of Kenyon Phillips," which opens May 2 at Joes Pub, is available here.