On Jesse Malin (and My Personal Imaginary Soundtrack)

Jesse Malin at Drew's

While I was writing my novel Catherine, I listened obsessively to the music of Jesse Malin.  At first, my interest in the guy was casual; I'd seen him play a couple of times at Light of Day, a yearly concert that benefits research against Parkinson's Disease.  Also, he had recorded a song--"Broken Radio"--with Bruce Springsteen, and as a huge Springsteen fan, I always pay at least passing attention to musicians who interest Bruce.

But over time, my appreciation of Jesse became more intense.  For one thing, he's a vibrant performer.  For another, he writes the kind of song that's all too rare these days--rock and roll that manages to be smart and edgy yet unironically, full-heartedly romantic.

And then there were the parallels between Jesse's life and that of Hence, one of the key characters in Catherine--Heathcliff in my retelling of Wuthering Heights.  Like Hence, Jesse Malin had a first act as a punk rocker, lead of the band D Generation.  And like Hence, who goes on to own a Bowery nightclub called the Underground, Jesse owns The Bowery Electric--a truly great place to hear live music.

As I listened more and more to Jesse's albums, his songs came to feel as though they were written expressly for Catherine.   When I close my eyes and imagine Chelsea's bus ride to New York City to search for the mother who abandoned her, I hear "Tomorrow, Tonight."

And when I think of the book's ending, one song approaches the emotion I was hoping to create: "New York Nights."  By sheer accident, that song's lyrics seem ripped right out of the novel, though of course they weren't:

"From the desert to this love stained town,
I still find comfort in the underground.
It's written in my soul.  It's unconditional, baby...."

(Here is where I'd link to a "New York Nights" video if one existed, but--sadly--it doesn't.  It's on his Glitter in the Gutter album, though.)

These days Andre and I see Jesse every time he plays in driving distance.  He's recording a new album, so he hasn't been touring much, but we did drive out to see him last summer in Live at Drew's--not a club, but a concert series in a house on a lake belonging to a guy named Drew.  As always, we were blown away by Jesse's songs and his showmanship.  And as always, though we hoped he'd play "New York Nights," he didn't.  We'll keep chasing that song, following Jesse from show to show, until he finally breaks down and plays it.  And if the stars align, maybe we'll be in the front row.


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