photo by Ilaria Conte
Coney Island Baby soft-opened on Thursday with performances by a host of downtown music staples: Murphy’s Law, Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, and HR of Bad Brains. One of the long-gestating bar-venue’s owners, Jesse Malin, a veteran of the Manhattan hardcore punk scene and owner of nearby Niagara and Bowery Electric, also performed with his band. For this new venue in the former home of HiFi Bar, Malin has teamed with Laura McCarthy, owner of the legendary venue Brownies (which also occupied the space, from 1987 to 2002) and Velvet Elk Records co-founder Don DiLego, who will run the label and curate special live recordings from the venue.
Coney Island Baby’s mission — to re-establish downtown Manhattan as a hub for local and national music acts– flies in the face of the city’s sea change. Malin describes it as a place where bar-goers can “throw their phone down and look in someone’s eyes or have a drink, maybe meet your companion or bandmate or someone you’re going to do a very important activist act with.” In light of the continual exodus of independent, small-room venues and performance spaces from Manhattan to Brooklyn and Queens, he hopes to recapture cultural momentum lost with the closings of Rodeo Bar, The Living Room, and Webster Hall’s Studio space. While Malin noted that Coney Island Baby won’t exclusively showcase punk and hardcore music, having a venue with its foundation in one of Manhattan’s most prominent musical contributions is doubly rare.
Before Thursday’s soft opening (the grand opening will be May 2), Bedford + Bowery spoke to Malin and Tom Baker, a co-owner and Malin’s partner at Velvet Elk Records. Read the B+B Q+A alongside photos from opening night.
How did the plan for Coney Island Baby come together? When did you first get involved?
Baker: I met Jesse about 10 years ago through a mutual friend, and we realized we were probably going into some of the same Clash shows. We hit it off that way and the relationship just grew. So when I was approached in October by Jesse saying, “Hey, [the former HiFi Bar space] is opening up, would you be interested in coming in as a partner?”, it seemed like a no-brainer to me, and it’s been that way since we took over basically November 1st. I worked on Wall Street for 31 years, so this is all new territory for me, but these guys have proven successes. As much as you invest in the the coolness and the concept, you have to invest in people. That goes a long way.
photo by Ilaria Conte
Having a new venue that’s independent, in Manhattan, and explicitly carries the spirit of hardcore music is kind of rare for this moment.
Baker: And it does appear as though there’s a need for independence. A lot of [smaller venues] get gobbled up by the bigger corporate places now. That spirit is what we’d like to be identified with, not just a genre-specific venue, but if we’re attached to a category, that’s fine. I think [Coney Island Baby’s promoter] Michael Risinger is going to bring a dynamic mix of music that’s hopefully going to expose us to a much larger base– while still being cool [laughs].
Why was opening a club in Alphabet City so important to you?
Malin: I was born in Queens and started living down in Manhattan my early teens. Next door [to Coney Island Baby] was a place called 171A, where the Bad Brains recorded their first record; The Beastie Boys, their first record; my old band Heart Attack used to play and do some recording there; a lot of other great bands, a lot of hardcore bands, recorded in there. Bad Brains’ lightning bolt through the Capitol building logo was designed by my friend Dave Ratcage in the next-door basement when he lived there. I’m just paying tribute to the sacred ground that was there before. I love the history, being not only a musician, but a fan. I think it’s important for us to respect where things come from — the good things — going forward.
Also, being in the moment right now where everybody keeps moving to Brooklyn and now to Queens where I come from, all we want to do is get the hell out of there now. There’s galleries and vegan socks and gluten free toilet bowls and whatever, it’s really become a very different world. But I still live in the old apple, and I still like this city, because it’s such a mix of so many people. Even if it’s expensive at times, we find ways to turn a trick in a back alley and try to make it fun still. I love touring all around the world, but New York’s still a city for dreamers in some way, and I still got a couple of dreams left.
Coney Island Baby, 169 Avenue A, East Village; open Mon-Fri 5pm to 4am, Saturday and Sunday noon to 4am.