From the Vault: Bryan Cranston’s Essential Soundtrack


As Walter White on AMC’s Breaking Bad, actor Bryan Cranston transformed from the hapless dad in Malcolm in the Middle to a desperate man who cooks up an elaborate plan—along with plenty of meth—to provide for his family. Here, the two-time Emmy winner boils his life and loves down to an essential soundtrack.

This list is much more than just the songs I like. It is the soundtrack of my life. It pretty accurately expresses how music has influenced and shaped me over the past 54 years. What follows is chronological, not in terms of when the music was produced, but when it mattered to me. So, here it is: my life in 15 songs.

Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson.” I was popular in grade school, but that didn’t translate to being bold when it came to girls. Carolyn was a beautiful, fun girl who set my heart afire. I needed to ask her out. A graduation party at a friend’s house was my last chance. Paul and Art were harmonizing this song as I watched a new boy in school accomplish in two seconds what I couldn’t in two years. He went right up and asked her out. She said yes, and before the party was over they were making out on the living room couch. I was staggered, hurt and embarrassed. This song takes me back to that vulnerable time.

The Doors’ “Light My Fire.” My parents ended their marriage in the late ’60s. This song gave me an escape. I’d listen to it over and over again and it took me to another place: “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher. Come on baby, light my fire.” I was still a virgin then and wondered, Can a girl really light you on fire during sex?

Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl.” When I was 16, I followed my brother Kyle’s lead and joined the Los Angeles Police Department’s Explorer program. Every Saturday for eight weeks, I had to get up at 5 a.m. to make it to the Academy for training. The radio alarm was set to jolt me awake, and I liked not knowing what song it would be: Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May,” Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft” or maybe this one, “Brown Eyed Girl.”

Eagles’ “Take It Easy.” In 1972, my Explorer troop traveled to Europe for a month. The official agenda was to learn from other police departments. The unofficial agenda was liquor and women—nirvana for a 16-year- old boy. After a few beers, a couple of the guys would break out guitars and play this song on a street corner. I’d accompany them (poorly) on my harmonica. To our surprise, passersby would drop coins in the hat, ensuring beer money for the next few days. This was also the trip where I lost my virginity to a very professional woman in Austria. I vowed to return one day to find it.

Elvis Presley’s “The Wonder of You.” In the mid-’70s, realizing I was never going to be a policeman, I took off with my brother from California on motorcycles. We traveled for two years with stops to avoid bad weather and to make money. Our destination of choice was Daytona Beach, Florida, where our cousins lived. One of them, Freddie, was accustomed to using his musical talents to pick up girls. We joined in. I honed my impression of Elvis Presley and even won a talent contest or two gyrating to his songs. It was a seminal moment when I realized that timidity wouldn’t win over girls. I changed overnight.

Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” Billy’s music reminds me of my years living in the Big Apple. Good times.

Johann Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major.” How can anyone possibly listen to this classic and not be moved? Were my musical tastes maturing or was I still just trying to impress the ladies?

Nat King Cole’s “Our Love Is Here to Stay.” This was “our song” at my wedding to Robin in 1989. Sappy? Perhaps. But you bet it was sweet.

Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” On a thunderous, stormy night in Venice, on our honeymoon, we ducked into a church near St. Mark’s Square. We listened in awe as the musicians made this orchestration come alive.

George Strait’s “I Just Want to Dance with You.” I love this song’s simplicity. It compelled me to lift my new baby girl in my arms and dance her across the room every time it came on.

Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).” I was fortunate to have a recurring role on Seinfeld as Tim Whatley, the gang’s dentist. I appeared in some iconic episodes, such as “The Yada Yada.” This song played at the farewell wrap party while clips and outtakes of the nine-year run were shown.

They Might Be Giants’ “Boss of Me.” This was Malcolm in the Middle’s theme song. That show changed America’s view of the modern family, and the experience changed my life forever.

Jack Johnson’s “Taylor.” My daughter’s name is Taylor, so this one is a must for obvious reasons.

Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours.” What I love about this song is not just that it affects me, but that it makes my girls sing and dance. There is joy in the world.

Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I first heard this evocative cover at a graduation ceremony when my sister, Amy, received her master’s degree, a huge achievement considering our childhood. In a quiet moment, close your eyes and listen to this transcendent song. You’ll have the feeling you’re no longer in Kansas.

Photo by Randall Slavin. Styling by Vanessa Geldbach.

Behind the Scenes: Paul Dano’s Trippy Shoot

Paul Dano, the 25 year old who has lent his talents to films like Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood, and Where the Wild Things Are, is just as amazing to watch in real life as he is onscreen. Behind the scenes of his April BlackBook shoot, Dano proves to be brooding, thoughtful, and magical to watch. But we might have taken the magical part a tad too far in our video of the shoot. Enjoy the trip!

Barbara Kruger Considers the Legacy of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat would have turned 50 this year, had the Brooklyn-born painter not died from a heroin overdose in 1988, at the age of 27. His contemporary and competitor, art provocateur Barbara Kruger, considers his legacy.

Barbara Kruger doubted the very foundation of this article. “You tell me why I find this funny,” was her response to my first question, which wasn’t about her career or her new self-titled monograph (out this month from Rizzoli) or even her new exhibit at New York’s Mary Boone Gallery. It was about Basquiat: “What did he mean to you?”

Though their careers and artistic styles could not have been more different, Jean-Michel Basquiat was an acquaintance of Kruger’s. Like many artists who came to the art world’s attention in the early ’80s, both spent time at the Mudd Club, New York’s fabled nightlife hub. Despite crossing paths at a very exciting time in both of their young careers, Kruger refuses to indulge in starry-eyed hindsight. “All I can say is that I think he was a tremendously gifted artist. It’s amazing that people do not know his work today, especially people involved in so-called street culture.”

Twenty-two years since being laid to rest in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, Basquiat has become the ultimate luxury commodity. His images have been reduced to shorthand for a grittier, more authentic New York. Since the massive paintings he made in his big SoHo loft in the ’80s still look great in big SoHo lofts today, “a Basquiat,” the noun, has become a hugely expensive, hugely sought-after status symbol.

Barbara Kruger’s text-heavy installation art, which has adorned posters, bus stops and billboards across the world, is a direct address to the types of people who might buy “a Basquiat.” Her body of work constantly questions our sense of self—(Untitled) I shop, therefore I am and Untitled (You Are Not Yourself) are examples—our icons (Marilyn Monroe appears alongside the phrase “Not Stupid Enough”) and our worship of fine art (“Why Are You Here?” asks one of her pieces, hung inside an art gallery. “To Kill Time? To Get ‘Cultured?’ To Widen Your World? To Think Good Thoughts? To Improve Your Social Life?”). Her work visually and linguistically upends expectations, inducting viewers into the 65-year-old artist and UCLA professor’s chronic sense of doubt.

So it’s no surprise that Kruger took care not to perpetuate Basquiat’s deification. “One of the things that creeps me out,” she says, “is the crazy nostalgia that paints those times as so much different and rosier and utopian than they actually were. It was just everyday life, the way we have everyday life now.” She is more interested in the radical nature of Basquiat’s success and its influence on the history of art. “There was a time when the art world in New York consisted of 12 white guys,” she says. “It’s better now. The art world is more globalized. There are different people of different colors, genders, persuasions and classes who are able to call themselves artists, and that makes for a richer cultural life. I don’t think about the good old days. To me, these are the good old days.”

Of those earlier times, Kruger does recall Andy Warhol’s strange adoption of the much younger artist in 1982, which coincided with Basquiat’s meteoric rise to fame. “I thought Warhol’s appropriation of him was sort of weird. It was based on power and libido, and it was about two very gifted male artists.” Though Warhol aided in the creation of Basquiat’s myth, Basquiat was quite aware of the benefits of a well-branded persona. A painting of his, also from 1982, is nothing but two shades of brown acrylic. In the top half of the canvas, scrawled in white oil-stick, is the intended sale price. He titled the piece Five Thousand Dollars.

“To me,” Kruger says, “the ‘art world’ is anthropology. It all comes down to the construction of power through a proper name. These people are no longer bodies to tell us that we’re right or wrong, so rather than talk about a particular artist, it’s all about the construction of fame or prominence, and in truth it’s about how proper names are created through a subculture. You can call it Basquiat or Warhol or even Eva Hesse, if I dare mention a woman. This article, these questions you’re asking, is a furtherance of this very thing.”

Edward Norton and Tim Blake Nelson Discuss ‘Leaves of Grass’

Edward Norton and Tim Blake Nelson met for the first time over coffee. Remembering the encounter, Nelson, an actor (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and director (O, The Grey Zone), says, “Edward is one of the few actors of his stature who will actually read the script you send him and sit down with you to discuss it.” Norton, the two-time Oscar-nominated star of Primal Fear, American History X and Fight Club, says, laughing, “People who write bad scripts have a very different experience.” Although they were eager to collaborate, “Edward very politely told me he didn’t think that it was going to work out,” says Nelson.

Eventually, Nelson conceived of a project that did work out. In this month’s Leaves of Grass, he directs and stars alongside Norton, who plays two wildly and hilariously divergent characters: Bill Kincaid, a revered classics professor at Brown University, and his deadbeat twin brother Brady, a pot dealer who, hoping to reunite with Bill in rural Oklahoma, fakes his own death. The film, which also features oddball performances by Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfuss and Keri Russell, reveals, despite Bill’s unwavering insistence to the contrary, the similarities shared by the Kincaid brothers. From their homes in New York, Nelson and Norton get on the phone. “Is this a 50/50 conversation?” Nelson asks, to which Norton, turning the tables on his director, explains, “No, Tim. I’m in the driver’s seat, buddy.” EDWARD NORTON: Why don’t you tell me what first made you start pecking the keyboard and hammering out this vision of crazy twins. TIM BLAKE NELSON: The writer P. G. Wodehouse talked or wrote about beginning a story with a single character. That’s what I always do. The first character in Leaves of Grass was Bill, the professor. I started with his monologue about a healthy, happy life as envisioned by Plato. I’m just going to jump in and note that Tim was a classical philosophy major at Brown. [Laughter.] Then I started to write the character of Bill, with his actual life reflecting what he was talking about and what would eventually become the opening monologue of the movie. His is a life of careful restraint and a kind of vaulting toward ideals, with the perpetual understanding that humans can never reach those ideals. Another impulse I have as a writer, because I’m also an actor, is to write great parts for actors. So I thought, How about if one person could embody wildly divergent characters, at least wildly divergent on the surface? That’s, by the way, when you came into my head. You checked and noted that Robert Downey, Jr. was locked up in Iron Man 2. Then I came into your head! What was happening in you that made you want to investigate this idea of balance? Although I admired Plato, the philosopher who struck me when I was studying philosophy was Epicurus. He is misinterpreted through the word “epicure,” because we think that an epicure is someone who eats a lot. But the kernel of Epicurus is actually a quote from Juvenal that says, “Mens sana in corpore sano,” which means “a sound mind and a sound body.” To achieve that, I think you must have balance, which can mean doing everything from constantly reading history and fiction and the newspaper to, you know, enjoying illegal substances and drinking a lot of wine. I did notice that for all of your loquacious, philosophical capabilities, you also know how to make a can of Budweiser explode up into a roasting chicken. Was the earlier part of your life made up of the textures of Oklahoma, the accents and the culture of rednecks? My wife likes to say that I grew up on the Upper West Side of Tulsa. I had a rigorous Jewish upbringing. I went to a private prep school in Tulsa and my parents ran a strict, intellectual household, in which we delivered reports at the dinner table that were then debated.

I see you as a child of [theologian] Reinhold Niebuhr and [rock guitarist] Duane Allman. I’ll put it this way: I had a Latin study group in high school and we would meet several times a week. But after the work was done, we did… other things.

Obviously, the title of this film is pulled from Walt Whitman’s book of poetry. Since this is BlackBook’s Brooklyn issue, I’d like to talk about Whitman, one of Brooklyn’s most famous sons. For me, Whitman marks the advent of free verse. That became a metaphor in the movie for how to establish your own meter in life. Keri Russell’s character, who quotes Whitman and is a poet herself, offers that to Bill. He says, “I really don’t believe in poetry without meter, because then you can simply write anything and you’re not responsible to a form, and there has to be form, otherwise how do you live a life?” And she essentially answers as Whitman offers in his poetry, “You create your own.”


I first read Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” when I moved to New York fresh out of college. It’s probably half the reason I still live here. He observes all the surging humanity in Brooklyn and New York—the dreams and aspirations and sufferings—and speaks directly to you across time: “All the same things that I’m feeling, I’m sure you’re feeling now.” It was one of the greatest poems I’d ever read because it made me feel instantly that people in all eras experience the same struggles no matter how the specifics of life change. That’s perfectly put. By the way, are you not making a film of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn?

I have been working for too long on adapting that into a script, which I am making some progress on, finally. I’m weaving into Jonathan’s narrative certain parts of the history of New York in the 1950s. It will someday see the light of day. Even though we are talking about poetry and philosophy, your movie is also full of crossbows and marijuana grow houses. Have you ever actually shot a crossbow? You can’t grow up in Oklahoma and not end up shooting something.

Did you ever shoot at small, living things? My experience with shooting small, living things is limited to the time I shot a squirrel with a pellet gun when I was about 13. I was so distraught over killing this animal for no purpose whatsoever that I never shot one after that.

In Leaves of Grass, the characters enter into a Quonset hut the size of a football field filled with sodium vapor lights and cannabis plants. Have you ever seen an amount of marijuana that would constitute trafficking? I saw bags full of marijuana in Jamaica in the ’70s, but not in Oklahoma. You’ve made your life in Manhattan for a while. With the franchising of culture in America making everything seem the same, do you still feel a sharp difference between where you live now and where you grew up? I do, because what makes Tulsa unique is that, as a character actually says in the movie, people generally don’t go to Oklahoma unless they have family there. It’s not a tourist attraction state, and so it does feel of another time.

Do you get a sensation of going home when you go back there? I do. I really do feel when I’m in Tulsa that I couldn’t be in any other city, and I deeply, deeply appreciate having grown up there. It’s left more of a mark on me, I think, than any other place I’ve lived.

Illustrations by Garrett Pruter.

A Tour of Ditmas Park with The National

Ditmas Park was just another peaceful Brooklyn hideaway until indie rockers Matt Berninger, Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and Bryan and Scott Devendorf stormed the block. Now The National pretty much runs this town.

“For a long time, we weren’t sure what kind of band we were, or even wanted to be,” says Matt Berninger, the soup-soaked baritone of Brooklyn-based band the National. “But on this record we knew we wanted to get away from the confessional-man vibe that people have come to expect from us.” As if in disbelief, Berninger’s baby daughter Isla bursts into laughter. That confessional-man vibe has, after all, served the National well, drawing in fans, critics and their musical peers, such as Michael Stipe, St. Vincent and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.

Still, on their fifth album, this month’s High Violet, the quintet is trying something new. Seated on a couch in the den of guitarist Aaron Dessner’s house in Ditmas Park, an idyllic neighborhood where mature trees tower over Victorian houses and drowsy streets, Berninger says, “It’s grimmer and meaner than our other records. It’s about not knowing where you really fit in.” When Dessner’s girlfriend enters the room—a hipster Julia Child wielding a platter of homemade pastries— it’s difficult to imagine that much of the darkness comes from the bandmates’ private lives.


Four of the group’s five members, including guitarist Bryce Dessner, Aaron’s twin brother, and brothers Bryan and Scott Devendorf, the band’s drummer and bassist, respectively, live in the neighborhood. (Berninger lives with Isla and his wife in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights.) The album was recorded in Aaron’s backyard, where the group built a private studio and hammered out all of their new songs while collaborating with neighbors like singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens.

Despite Brooklyn’s strong sense of community, Berninger isn’t sure if the band’s inspiration comes from the actual borough. “I don’t know how much of the music scene here has to do with Brooklyn, other than the fact that there are so many venues and places to grow and learn and perform in front of a crowd,” he says. “There’s a big difference between writing music in your garage and standing up in front of a hostile room of people who don’t give a shit about you, and doing that over and over again until someone, somewhere, finally starts to care. If we weren’t in New York, music might have turned into a dad-rock hobby, something to do on weekends. But here, there’s always new and exciting stuff you want to chase.”

Mimi’s Hummus 1108 Cortelyou Road “Our zip code is the most diverse in the world, or at least the country. There are huge populations of Pakistanis, Nepalese, Tibetans and Orthodox Jews in the area. This neighborhood was developed in the late 19th century by a group of professional lawyers and doctors. The whole Victorian house aesthetic happened because of that. You could order them from a catalog. If you look today you’ll notice that the stained glass window in this house is the same as the one in that house. Because our lifestyle is so crazy on the road and we spend a lot of time in cool bars, it’s kind of nice to come here and have this really mellow vibe.” —Bryce Dessner

image The Castello Plan 1213 Cortelyou Road “[Ben Heemskerk] is a good friend of ours. Just a year ago, with another friend, he hatched this plan to open a wine bar. This place just opened last week. It’s another one designed by my brother-in-law. Even though people might expect it to be a mellow wine bar, it’s pretty happening at night. My girlfriend painted the mosaic on the ceiling.” —Bryce Dessner

“It used to be quite rough up here. I had a car service driver who was taking me home one night aft er rehearsal, and he was like, ‘I moved to America 12 years ago and lived in this neighborhood. I heard gunshots all night long.’Have you seen Th e Squid and the Whale? When Jeff Daniels leaves Park Slope, he moves to the other side of the park, which is here, and it’s scary.” —Bryan Devandorf

Sycamore 1118 Cortelyou Road “Sycamore and Vox Pop [1022 Cortelyou Road], a coffee shop that has open mic nights, are the main music venues in Ditmas Park. The public radio station WNYC is actually going to put recording equipment in here and start broadcasting from the basement of Sycamore. It’s now on the map as this weird little space for new bands, as well as functioning as a bar and flower shop. My sister is the booker here and she’s always on MySpace finding exciting acts.


Usually, they come here to play their first gigs ever, and we’re the only people in the room. We saw a band called Buke and Gass a while back, and we signed them to our label, Brassland Records, the next week. They have an album coming out this spring.” —Aaron Dessner

“Life here is much diff erent than when we’re on tour, when we stay up really late and drink a lot. We went on tour with R.E.M. last summer and Michael Stipe kind of adopted us. In almost every town, we’d get a call: ‘Meet Michael at this restaurant at 2 a.m. Th ey’re keeping it open for you.’ My brother and I are the healthy ones in the group, so even if we’re living on a bus we go running each morning. Sometimes Bryan is just going to bed when we’re heading out the door.” —Bryce Dessner

image The Farm on Adderley 1108 Cortelyou Road “We come here a lot for dinner. It’s become one of the most popular restaurants in Brooklyn. Th ey use only farm-fresh produce and organic food. Th e short rib ravioli is great, and their kale-lentil soup is the best soup in the world. My ex-wife’s brother started this restaurant. My sister’s husband designed it, and we all helped build it. He designed all of the places we’re going to today.” —Aaron Dessner

The Professional and Private Lives of Paul Dano

I’d like to try to do something helpful. I’d like to figure out what I want and then accomplish that,” says actor Paul Dano on a frigid Wednesday in March. “I’d like to be happy.” The 25-year-old actor’s life is at once as big as a blockbuster film and as intimate as a dusty studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where he just finished posing for this photo shoot. To exist—let alone thrive—in both worlds is a rarity, but with a caginess befitting a more seasoned actor, Dano has been weaving his way through the two, dazzling directors, critics and colleagues with his fancy footwork.

Dano has mastered the art of choosing quality projects, a talent he’s had ever since his breakout turn as a lost and sexually confused young teen in L.I.E., a role that won him the award for best debut performance at the Independent Spirit Awards when he was 16. His lucky, prescient film choices—or perhaps their choice of him—bear the mark of an actor uninterested in the perks of celebrity.

He played Dwayne, the mute Nietzsche apostle in Little Miss Sunshine; embodied the slaphappy preacher to Daniel Day-Lewis’ oil tycoon in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood; and voiced a character in Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. He recently shot Knight and Day, this summer’s Tom Cruise-and-Cameron Diaz action vehicle, as well as The Extra Man, alongside John C. Reilly and Katie Holmes, and another indie, Meek’s Cutoff, with Michelle Williams. He also stars in Icelandic director Dagur Kári’s The Good Heart,a very strange little film about a bar in New York City, shot mostly in Iceland.

The Good Heart reunites Dano with his L.I.E. co-star Brian Cox. “Brian was a father-like figure not only to my character in that film, but also to me, since it was my first time working on a movie set,” Dano says. I remember having a conversation with him about sex when I was like 16, and thinking, I guess I’m an adult now. Nine years later, we’re much more like pals.”

While neither meandering nor disengaged, Dano talks slowly, measuring each word and phrase, considering the weight with which they’ll land. There’s a knowing wit in him, too, a dry sense of humor one might expect from the bartender at the local pub—not, say, one’s pomegranate martini- making mixologist—which is fitting considering his latest film. A Good Heart tells the story of an old loner, played by Cox, who adopts Dano, a homeless young loner, and then trains him to take over his beloved dive bar. Things go awry when Dano’s character encourages a young French woman to join the twosome (which, technically, is already a foursome, if one considers their loyal dog and a duck named Estragon).


A Good Heart feels foreign and incredibly odd, though still touching and unique. In other words, it’s not the romantic comedy we’d expect from an indie star breaking into the mainstream. “I got the script and I read it and said, Shit, Kári is talented,” Dano says, explaining his choice. “And so we talked. And I liked him a lot. And I’m a sucker for a good bar. And I liked the duck. And the dog.”

But even when he takes on larger studio projects, he doesn’t sacrifice any of his obvious passion for the craft. Says his recent co-star Cameron Diaz, “The part that Paul plays in Knight and Day was a smaller role that he made into so much more than any of us could have imagined. He truly makes the most of every moment as an actor. He managed to find the humor as well as the humanity in the character.” Plus, she adds, “He’s dead sexy.”

Dano, who began acting in the theater long before he landed his first film role, last took to the stage in 2007’s Things We Want, an off- Broadway play directed by Ethan Hawke that paired Dano with his then co-star and now-girlfriend Zoe Kazan. “I love and trust her. I talk about everything with her, including my career, and not just because she’s an actress. She’s super-talented and makes me want to be better.” Kazan, who has appeared in films such as Revolutionary Road and It’s Complicated, shares the sentiment. “It’s nice to find common ground,” she says. “And that’s something I didn’t know, because I had never dated an actor before Paul. It’s lovely to come home and be able to say, I had a really tough time with this scene.”

Dano and Kazan call Carroll Gardens home, and count among their neighbors Michelle Williams. (“She’s good friends with Zoe,” he says. “We do the Brooklyn thang.”) Far from the bottom lines and overheads of Hollywood, Dano seems to have found his niche. There, he relaxes with his girlfriend, plays guitar with his pals and gorges on dumplings at a local spot called Eton.

Still, he’s always looking forward. Dano has just written and will be directing a short film. “It’ll be six to eight minutes,” he says. “It’s a love story. One thing about acting is that I wish I had more control over the final product. It’s probably best, when I’m acting, not to—but I’d like to be in an edit room. Everybody has a perspective on love, death or samurais.”

As he trudges past the warehouses that line this particular part of Greenpoint, hands in the pockets of his hooded army coat, Dano looks like any other man making his way home from work—or in his case, to a donut shop called Peter Pan where he’ll pick up snacks for Kazan’s parents, who are visiting from Los Angeles. But then he ducks into an awaiting Lincoln Town Car, and, just like that, Paul Dano reminds us he isn’t all that normal.


Photography by Billy Kidd. Styling by Anna Katsanis.

Celebrity Apprentice’s Selita Ebanks Must Be a Ho

There’s no denying that Selita Ebanks has thatje ne sais quoi, but while shooting on the streets of Flatbush for our April issue, the Celebrity Apprentice star and Victoria’s Secret model got mistaken for a hooker. Perhaps humping the window of a pawn shop while wearing disco clothing in broad daylight had something to do with it. Video after the jump.

Brooklyn: The Borough That Never Sleeps

On any given Friday night, South Williamsburg, with its stately brownstones, vinyl-sided walk-ups, endless apartment complexes and sagging warehouses, is a virtual ghost town. The only people on the corner of Rutledge Street and Bedford Avenue are two Hasidic men in mid-discussion, dressed in black overcoats. Tonight is Shabbat, and so this neighborhood, heavily populated by Orthodox Jews, sleeps.

Further down Rutledge, toward the East River and the imposing Manhattan skyline, a group of scruffy friends loiters outside of a nondescript warehouse, smoking cigarettes, talking about nothing in particular—their very presence the only tip-off that something unusual is underway upstairs. A rickety staircase leads to an architectural mishmash of smaller, incongruous rooms haphazardly stitched together and packed with strangers, artists, freaks, slummers and revelers. In the main room, tropical plants and Christmas lights line the walls and ceilings. A group of burly stoners wearing sunglasses are plopped on a couch watching a distorted video of what looks like a nightmare about ballroom dancing, as imagined by Chuck Close. The light prances, refracted through clouds of cigarette and marijuana smoke.

This is the Newsonic loft, a sweaty hideaway of progressive music, video art and altered states, which houses a monthly blowout thrown by the glam-rock outfit Dynasty Electric. Initially a showcase for that band’s psychedelic sound, the party has evolved into a popular, unauthorized venue for a litany of emerging Brooklyn acts and their devotees—a house party open to the public.

The crowd in the back room undulates to the sounds of experimental Latin band Navegante, who are in the midst of thrashing through a potent, bongo-infused cover of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus.” The walls rumble, and in any other neighborhood, or on any other night, the noise would warrant a hundred complaints. But there will be no police interference. It’s Friday, and on the holiest of nights in this community, phones are off limits. “Plus, our neighbors support us,” says Dynasty Electric’s lead singer Jenny Electrik, one of the loft’s four tenants. “They are a mystical people and they see us as mystical, too.”

Every weekend, parties like this are thrown across Brooklyn’s sprawling urban expanse. The supra-neighborhood that encompasses Williamsburg, Bushwick and Greenpoint has become the epicenter of a certain boho-hipster lifestyle and aesthetic, attracting young people from across the globe. The Manhattan transplants who move to Brooklyn, in search of cheaper rents and the creative freedoms they provide, have brought with them some of the more established borough’s recreational habits. The result is an endless network of parties that borrow from traditional nightlife practices (cover charges, doormen), but ignore the rules imposed by law and economics (smoking bans, last calls) and go down in irregular locations (an auto-parts store, a stranger’s loft).


New York has always had a culture of hush-hush social milieus. “You can read Malcolm X’s biography, where he talks about the sort of underground spaces that were up in Harlem when he was a kid,” says Jeff Stark, the founder of Nonsense New York, a nightlife website that sends out weekly e-newsletters and bills itself as a “discriminating resource for independent art, weird events, strange happenings, unique parties and senseless culture in New York City.” Stark says, “An unbelievable amount of underground nightlife goes on in New York. The police and the city government have made it so hard to play by the rules.”

Nowhere are these rules more deeply felt than in Manhattan. In 2009, Beatrice Inn—a West Village speakeasy that was the city’s unquestionable “it” spot since opening in 2006—closed after the city burdened it with repeated crowd and smoking violations. Shortly after, the Jane Hotel and Ballroom, which looked to be the Beatrice’s successor, was derailed after neighbors tirelessly leveled noise complaints. This past February, the Department of Health cracked down on five nightspots over violations of the city’s smoking ban, forcing them to appear for hearings that could result in heavy fines or closure. In March, when Beatrice owner Paul Sevigny opened his latest venture, Kenmare, in NoLIta, the State Liquor Authority required assurances that it would only be a restaurant—not Beatrice redux—before granting him a liquor license.

As Manhattan becomes more and more affluent, a trend that even the current recession has not reversed, homeowners feel entitled to get what they pay for: a quiet street, a good night’s rest. In the city that never sleeps, it’s always someone’s bedtime, and if that someone happens to have a cell phone and deep pockets, rest assured the party will be over as soon as they can dial 911.

For all of these reasons, many nightlife lovers have skipped across the Williamsburg Bridge. DJ Justin Carter did this very thing when he moved his Mister Saturday Night parties from Manhattan’s Santos Party House to the Market Hotel, an underground loft in Brooklyn. He believed that a non-traditional venue, where money was not the bottom line, better reflected his values. Besides, in Brooklyn, the neighbors, twentysomethings hustling to make it in the city, are more likely to join the party than shut it down.


Roughly every second Friday, a warehouse on the fringes of Bedford-Stuyvesant opens its doors to hundreds of people. The space is home to a party we’ll call “R.” (One of the conditions of being able to publish photos from inside the space was that we wouldn’t mention the party’s name or address.) It looks like the devout followers of Burning Man ditched the desert for an industrial warehouse. The place is a night terror of sneakers, roses, dolls, stars, flamingos, disco balls, baubles, Chinese lanterns, giant candy canes, bras and countless other identifiable and unidentifiable objects. It’s as if Daniel Johnston sawed open his head and the contents floated to the ceiling.

The rooms—it’s impossible to count how many—overflow with costumed performance artists: A topless transsexual sings to an admiring audience; grungy musicians tinker with homemade rubber band harps, creating dystopian rhythms in front of a papier-mâché mosaic; an Andy Warhol lookalike pulsates on the dance floor to bursts of drum ‘n’ bass; a man screens black-and-white silent films to a half-rapt, half-disinterested audience. The collective din is R’s only soundtrack.

A mysterious girl who looks lost in a ’90s rave tells me to lick my pinky finger and dip it into a plastic bag filled with white powder. “Now put it on your tongue,” she says. It tastes like chemicals. “You just did pure MDMA,” she says, smiling.

Later, a thin, bearded man—his hairy shoulders exposed in the strapless white dress he’s wearing—offers me his plate of mac-n-cheese, which was for sale that night, along with hefty servings of $5 pot brownies. It’s this kindness-to-strangers mentality that defines most off-the-beaten-path events. Brassy Puerto Rican girls, Leary-like neo-hippies, goth and punk kids, Williamsburg hipsters, New Yorkers and brave high school students all dance, writhing en masse—a collective waving of freak flags.

R has been going strong since 1994. How it has managed to avoid mainstream attention in a media-saturated city like New York—where secrets are not only hard to keep, but actively hunted down and exposed—is miraculous. It’s scarcely covered online and has no Wikipedia page. When our photographer showed up at its doorstep in early March, vigilant employees immediately tried to turn him away. “We don’t do any press,” they said.

Not all Brooklyn parties dealing in the illicit, “underground” scene are as secretive as R. Williamsburg’s Monster Island Basement is only blocks away from Bedford Avenue, the neighborhood’s busiest street. The Market Hotel is right off the intersection of Myrtle Avenue and Broadway, steps from the nearest subway station. These places skirt the line between licensed venues and basement parties.


Instead of official websites, they advertise through online social networks like MySpace and Facebook, and also have listings on popular nightlife directories. What distinguishes them from traditional spaces—aside from dinginess and billows of cigarette smoke—is the attitude. “You set out to do something that’s about the music, the audience and the culture,” says Eamon Harkin, who, along with Justin Carter, runs the Mister Saturday Night parties. “It’s about the ‘why.’ The ‘where’ is a byproduct of that.”

That “why” isn’t necessarily beholden to any particular party. The Brooklyn underground is not immune to the fickle tastes and high turnover rates that afflict Manhattan nightlife. The Shank was a shortlived but legendary after-hours party on Bayard Street in Greenpoint. Its popularity peaked in January of 2009, and it imploded shortly thereafter. In July of last year, The New York Press ran a cover story detailing the Shank’s spectacular downfall. After becoming notorious for its all-night parties, it started attracting drug dealers, underage kids and thugs. According to the Press article, the original crowd of “rock-band dudes and vintage-store employees,” stopped coming.

In recent months, a new Williamsburg after-hours party has emerged that DJ Jonathan Toubin, a Bayard Street regular, calls the new Shank. “Everyone involved in the Shank, except for the owner of the building, got back together and started the Saturday party at Badlands,” Toubin says, referring to the dusty, graffiti-marred garage a few blocks from the NYPD’s 90th Precinct. Its door reads “Whore House.”

On a recent Saturday at Badlands, an aggressively hip crowd lined up inside, waiting to pay the $5 cover and get past the monolithic bouncer. (At unauthorized parties, nothing happens on the sidewalk, including lines and smoking.) Last call was hours ago, and for this carefree group of partygoers, sleep is an afterthought. “If you dropped a bomb on the space, you would knock off half of the city’s bar staff and DJs,” says Toubin, who also manned the decks that night. “The rest are people who heard about it secondhand and are looking for something to do.”

Loose wires dangle from the ceiling, and tags like “I Love Jew York” are scrawled on the walls. Beer and cheap, migraine-inducing liquor is for sale, but most people have brought their own. Toubin is perched above the crowd in a makeshift DJ booth spinning 45s, and people in leather jackets and hooded sweatshirts use the wires to pull themselves up a narrow staircase to an alcove of couches. Rumor has it that rapper Cam’ron is there. The crowd is noticeably amped about this possibility—a surprise given how aloof they hope to look. But then, they’re young and healthy, drunk and fucked up, here to dance and play, scream and have a good time. Outside, the sun is shining.

Photography by Robert Whitman, Maia Wojcik, and Dana Decoursey.