Last night, JJ and I went to see a friend of hers have a dream come impossibly true. When Robin was in his late teens, he and some friends formed a band which they named Jack Ruby. They made music that was loud, distorted, punk. It was the early 1970s and that sort of things was very new, even in New York City. They played in their loft, and occasionally for other people.
After a few years of dicking around, Jack Ruby disbanded. The members got jobs, families, mortgages. Randy became the Ethics columnist for the New York Times. Robin became an advertising TV producer. Their Jack Ruby memories faded and dimmed.
One day a couple of years ago, Martin Scorsese hired Don Fleming and Lee Ranaldo (who used to be in a different band, a successful one called Sonic Youth). He asked them to help him make an HBO show about the music scene of the 1970s. At the core of the show is a punk band — the lead singer is played by Mick Jagger’s son.
In their research, the guys happened upon a bootleg tape of Jack Ruby’s songs and it blew them away. They decided that this music would be what the band in the TV show would play. They rerecorded the songs using authentic period instruments, the fake band lip-synched along, and Marty shot his show around them. Suddenly, finally, and out of the blue, Jack Ruby’s music is being heard by millions of people. It had taken forty years but the members of Jack Ruby had never intended it to happen.
Robin called up JJ one day and told her this story. He invited us to the recording of a radio show in which the guys from HBO would be interviewed about the show. At the end of it, the musicians would be performing the Jack Ruby songs. And Robin would be singing. He hadn’t been on stage since Jerry Ford was in the White House and his voice was shaking on the phone. Small wonder.
So yesterday, we went to see the show. The recording was in front of a live audience on lower Broadway, just a few blocks from Wall Street. We took an ear-poppingly fast elevator to the 20th floor and go out on what turned out to be one one of those collaborative working spaces where startups rent desks by the month and share wifi and espresso machines. About a hundred people were there to watch the interview and afterwards the band played. They were so loud we could barely hear anything Robin bellowed into the mic. It sounded awful and just like every show I ever saw at CBGBs. It was awesome and odd.
During the interview, the musicians had talked about coming to New York in the 1970s, about how exciting it was, about how there were all these overlapping cultures converging and sparking. American culture was transforming.
Three forces that would soon define today’s popular culture were emerging and NYC was Ground Zero. Downtown, CBGB was giving a stage for music that came to be labeled New Wave and Punk. In the Bronx, people were laying refrigerator boxes on the pavement to break dance and free-form poetry over spinning records, sowing the seeds of the rap and hop-hop that is today’s status quo. And in Bay Ridge, in gay clubs and eventually in Studio 54, disco music was upending Rock’n’Roll’s throne.
Because the tectonic plates were shifting, a few guys in a loft in SoHo could make noise that would make a difference. Despite never having a Soundcloud page or posting on Facebook or even releasing a record, Jack Ruby could still make a ripple. A ripple that still mattered when their hair was grey and their shades were trifocal.
While the band played, I kept thinking about where we were and how the world has changed. Here I was on a conference room chair in a co-working space. Every so often, a dude with a sleeve of tats and a man bun would emerge from his glass cube to make a macchiato, only casually interested in the piece of history being honored in his lobby.
He didn’t know it but this dude is the heir of the Jack Ruby guys. He’d come to New York to be a part of the scene too. He was one of hundreds of thousands just like him, dudes who packed up their fixies and plaid shirts and business plans and come to the Big Apple.
He’s a part of a creative revolution but one with extraordinarily different goals. These new dudes are not interested in the long dead music scene. No one makes a dime making records. Instead of smashing guitars or thundering baselines, the dude and his bros are coding VR headsets and delivery drones. Unlike Randy and Robin, the dude came to New York to get funded, IPOed, to be a billionaire by thirty.
As Jack Ruby’s last chords died out, I wondered, “Will anyone celebrate this dude’s accomplishments — in 2056?”
6 thoughts on “Jack Ruby’s Second Life.”
What a great story! And Randy Cohen, The Ethicist!!!! BOY do I miss him. He was the first thing I would read every Sunday. Who ever would have guessed he was a punk rocker. Did hear the music on Vinyl. Whoa. All these odd loops tying in together. NY life.
To answer your last question Danny- not really because everything technical the dudes are doing will be completely obsolete in about 18 months or so at the soonest, in 4 years at the latest.
This is such a great story. That this could happen – and did happen – makes my heart swell with happiness!
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Thanks so much for this. I was there. SO GOOD. I’ve been vicariously loving every sec of Robin (and Randy’s) re-birth. With two young kids, this, Robin, is about as good as it gets. Savor it.
[…] We’ve been out of our minds from the minute we got wind of Northern Lights EP Robin Hall’s previous incarnation as front man for Jack Ruby, yes, Jack Ruby. Monday night – when we got to see him scream himself hoarse – was just perfect. Danny Gregory captures it all beautifully right here […]
Hooray for this story!