The McCarren Park Pool Parties: An Oral History
By Patrick Sauer
Image: Copyright 2020 Larry Racioppo
In August of 2017, I was swimming with my 6-year-old daughter in Brooklyn’s sparkling redo of the McCarren Park Pool, when I had a major flashback. I turned to her and attempted to explain the impossible.
“Daddy used to go to concerts here.”
“In the water?”
“No, there was no water. It was a giant outdoor space to listen to music. The brick walls around the outside were the same but the pool was empty and kinda run down.”
My daughter quickly lost interest as talking isn’t splashing, but as we lolled about the 1,057,914 gallons of heavily chlorinated water, I marveled at taking a leisurely dip in the same spot where, ten years before, I experienced some of the wildest summer afternoons of my more than two decades in New York City. In 2006—when, the prospect of parenthood was still a vague future “possibility” and the idea of being a dad helping his daughter learn to swim in a brilliantly reborn community pool unimaginable—a group of scrappy DIY music lovers formed JellyNYC and transformed a ghosted piscina into a raucous open-air cathedral of live Sunday music, a church of bacchanalia, and a holy spot for Holy Fuck and all the other amazing artists, bands, and communal fans who, for a short time, truly made McCarren Pool the center of the creative cool-shit universe.
THE BACK STROKES
On July 31, 1936, the McCarren Park Pool had its moment in the sun. It was one of the 11 New York City pools opened that summer by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who was in charge of getting them built. The two biggest pools were Astoria and McCarren, but the pride of Williamsburg boasted the largest bathhouse in the system. McCarren was built to accommodate 6,800 guests at a time with a 55,400-sq. ft. basin swathed in Art Deco glory.
Jump ahead 50 years and the former crown jewel was boarded up due to mechanical failure and political neglect. It was the only WPA pool denied renovations, thanks to a vocal group of neighborhood residents who wanted it gone. Whether to rebuild or demolish became a contentious battle that wouldn’t be resolved for a quarter century. And since illicit New York City abhors a vacuum, it became and remained for years a hop-the-fence place for the kinds of behavior people engage in when nobody’s watching—that is, until Williamsburg became the heart of Gotham’s indie art scene.
From 2006 to 2008, the McCarren pool was a raucous concert venue, home to free Sabbath shows in all their Williamsburgian glory and paid gigs with the hottest artists going. I spoke to some 30 people who were instrumental in bringing the noise, throwing the soirées, partying like—and as actual—rock stars, and attempting to re-create the whole thing down the block, about what happened and, ultimately, what it means all these years later.
McCarren pool nearly met its maker in the late ’80s, but enough supporters rallied to keep it from the wrecking ball. No plans however were enacted to turn it into, well, anything, though, until a choreographer converted it into an open-air amphitheater.
Phyllis Yampolsky: (Artist, activist, founder of the McCarren Park Conservancy): On a misty day in November 1988, I went to watch an artist who was protesting the planned demolition and, through the gates, saw the pool for the first time. You can imagine what a vision that was. The scale was astounding. I founded Friends of McCarren Park that same year. We worked with community organizations and the American Institute of Architects, and halted a planned demolition. We pushed to get landmark status for McCarren. I spent 19 pro bono years fighting to get the pool funds. The pools were extraordinary examples of WPA architecture, you wouldn’t believe you were in New York City.
Noemie Lafrance (choreographer, Agora, Agora II): I moved to Williamsburg in 1994 and found this quiet, deserted space. There were holes in the fence around the perimeter, so it was easy to get in. I liked hanging out in the pool and knew it would be an incredible performance space.
Daniel Campo (Associate Professor, Morgan State University; Author, The Accidental Playground: Brooklyn Waterfront Narratives of the Undesigned and Unplanned): In 1994, I was a masters student in city planning at Hunter, by ‘95 I was working on a studio project of the North Brooklyn waterfront. Later, I went to work for the city and was constantly in Williamsburg, all day on studies and projects, then hanging out at night in a scene that was much more underground. The changes in the waterfront from the mid-’90s to the early-2000s were tremendous. Physically, it was different. When I first started working down there, people drove their cars out onto the piers and sunbathed on the hood. The warehouses were overrun with weeds and garbage and there was a lot of antisocial behavior. By 2000, it was safer. The chop shops and open-air drug markets were gone.
Matt Johnson (Matt and Kim): I’d ridden my bike past this graffiti-covered structure a million times without ever knowing there was a pool inside. When it opened, I was like, “Holy shit! What an incredible space.” Then Kim tells me she knew about it all along because her friends used to break into the pool and go skateboarding. She was always too scared.
Campo: Every year, New York districts would submit a community needs document to the Department of City Planning, and every year, at the top of the list was the reconstruction of the McCarren Park pool. Community leaders wanted to reclaim it as a pool, but also because it had become a nuisance, in the eyes of some.
Yampolsky: Why wasn’t it renovated? Racism. The fight over the pool was always racist. The Polish, Irish, and Italians of Williamsburg and Greenpoint didn’t want to share a large pool with African-Americans and Latinos, so it sat empty. There was a movement to demolish everything but the arch. A bunch of stupid designs were put forth to reduce the pool to a fourth of its size, add a gym, awful stuff. There was so much anger in the community. I was branded an enemy of the people. At times, I feared for my life. We finally had a lot of momentum in the late 1990s, even secured city funding to rebuild the pool. It all vanished after September 11th. The fight to demolish started all over again.
Lafrance: The essence of my work is reclaiming public space and utilizing the architecture of the city, so I’d held dance shows on city-owned property. I’d done Manhattan performances in a criminal court stairwell and a Department of Transportation parking garage. I knew the permit process, so in December 2004, I went to the Parks Department. They kind of blew me off, saying it would cost $500,000 to get the venue up to basic safety levels, but I was persistent. I hired a contractor and I think the renovation ended up being $250,000. I was operating with no leverage because I didn’t control the space, so there were ongoing battles. I had to fight the asphalt mafia who are friends with the Parks Department. They wanted to fill in the pool and make it a blacktop. They also wanted me to paint over the graffiti, I said, “No, it’s part of the dance set.” We compromised. I painted the outside walls but left the pool alone.
Craig Finn (The Hold Steady): I live in the neighborhood and was certainly always aware of the physical pool structure. Word started going around they might start doing shows inside. It seemed improbable, but that if it happened, man what a cool gig. We would have welcomed the chance to play there from the get-go.
Lafrance: The first year, in September 2005, Agora ran for three weeks, and drew an audience of between 1,500-2,500 people a night. It was a great visual, all these people sitting along the edge of the pool letting their feet dangle. They didn’t know the dancers were also on the edge until they jumped into the pool… One Friday night, I arranged for the bike group Critical Mass to use the pool on their route. I should say loosely arranged, I had no idea if they would show up. I hadn’t told anyone when I got a walkie-talkie call mid-show, “There’s a hundred people on bikes and you said they could come.” Critical Mass roared in as a huge group circling the pool, ringing their bells, slowing down for a moment of silence, and riding off into the night… It was incredible, a deep meditation.
Yampolsky: I went to the dance performance. She didn’t know how to use the vast space.
THE JELLY, ROLLS
Three music industry friends—Sarah Hooper, Alexander Kane, and Doug DeFalco—hosted parties and concerts at the dearly departed Park Slope venue Southpaw. They got wind of Agora and decided their company JellyNYC should turn the McCarren pool into the spot.
Alexander Kane(JellyNYC Founder): I moved to Williamsburg in 1997, back when there was a lot of under-the-radar stuff going on. Everyone kind of knew each other and late some summer nights, you’d hop the fence to sneak into the pool and drink beer while watching the sunrise.
I was directing music videos, and was on a good path, but then 9/11 set everybody’s career back. A lot of commercial work dried up, so I thought about what I could do that would be more than director-for-hire. This is where the impetus for Jelly first started, something in music and entertainment that was broader and could offer support and stability. For quite a while, we kicked around the idea of some kind of Williamsburg music festival, and then when the Agora dance performance happened… The three of us put our heads down and made the thing happen in a few months. It was like, “I guess now I’m an event producer. Awesome.”
Sarah Hooper (JellyNYC Founder): The friendship between the three of us grew through our collective love of music, so we decided to throw a party at Southpaw featuring new bands. I would always dorkily make Jell-O shots, which is kind of where Jelly came from.
Doug DeFalco (JellyNYC Founder): I thought we chose Jelly because we were drinking and it’s a funny nonsense word.
Kane: Far as I remember, Doug and I were spitballing names and he said Jelly. It’s conductive and makes people happy. Made sense at the time.
Hooper: The Southpaw parties were great, but Alex and I wanted to do something in Williamsburg, where we both lived. Dan Miller from They Might Be Giants told us about this crazy, possibly illegal Agora dance show he’d seen in McCarren Pool. We went to the Parks Department and got the okay so long as we took care of cleaning and some safety issues. We put an ad on Craigslist and a bunch of people showed up. Some stayed on as our Pool Party PAs for the entire run.
Kane: We talked to Lafrance, who acted as our go-between for the McCarren permits. We paid way more than had we just gone to the Parks Department ourselves. The money was supposed to go to refurbishing the pool.
DeFalco: In 2003, I’d hopped the fence after hours to see the place, but we were drunk, heard sirens, and bolted. The first time I got in and really saw how daunting the pool was came during the initial walkthrough. It was intimidating, but even more mesmerizing. My eyes lit up. Having connections to all kinds of bands who had played Southpaw, I brought in production people and the first sound crew. The possibilities were endless, but as the oldest out of us three, I was the most skeptical. Alex and Sarah’s energy was infectious though, so I started calling bands explaining what the place was and what we wanted to do.
Image: Copyright Edwina Hay
THE OPENING ACT
For the first McCarren Pool Party on July 9, 2006, Jelly brought local favorites Les Savy Fav in as the headliner. It would set a major precedent for Sunday afternoon decadence.
Finn: I know I went to a lot of the Jelly shows—everybody went to the Jelly shows—but at that period in my life we were touring a lot, so I don’t specifically remember the concerts. Except for Les Savy Fav, who set a high standard.
Kane: Les Savy Fav hadn’t played live in a while, so initially we weren’t worried about people showing up. At 2.p.m, we had Proton Proton go on stage. By 4 p.m., it felt like we were fucking doomed because nobody but volunteers were there. Wait. That’s not entirely true, my mom was there.
DeFalco: I think it was somebody in the stage crew who said, “Don’t worry about it. The bars on Bedford Avenue are packed. We’ll be fine.” I thought, “What the fuck? Why sit in a bar when you could be outside listening to Les Savy Fav?”
Hooper: Somehow, in the no-sleep mania of getting our first show off the ground, we completely forgot about the World Cup final.
Kane: It was the Italy versus France match, the one with the famous Zidane headbutt that went to penalty kicks. Literally, the whole world was watching, including all of Williamsburg. It was a perfect summer day, but people were barely trickling in. It was becoming just the worst day. We’d fucking blown it already and there were eight more shows to go. Then all the sudden—
Hooper: Waves of post-World Cup hordes came walking through the park, 3-4,000 people poured into the pool. And they were already drunk, so nobody needed to get warmed up. They got right into it, dodgeball, Slip 'N Slide, crowd-surfing, all of it. And then Les Savy Fav blew them away.
Kane: It was an amazing moment. All these people waving their country flags, taking photos of the venue, just so excited to be there. In an instant, I went from utter panic about the biggest mistake of my life to euphoria. I was overcome.
Hooper: We were buddies with Les Savy Fav, so we told lead singer Tim Harrington, “It’s our first show, we really need some awesome shit.” Tim asked for a wireless mic and as much rope as he could have. He went on the Slip 'N Slide, climbed down in the middle of the audience, and covered himself in glitter and paint.
Beans : McCarren Park was a little minute ago, but I know I played the very first one with Holy Fuck. It went swimmingly, no pun intended. There was a range of people, but it didn’t have an aesthetic yet. It wasn’t like it would become, it was just music in an empty pool, so nobody knew what to make of it. Seemed like a lot of people came in off the street, followed the sounds out of curiosity. They were lucky, the performances were dope. Dragons of Zynth killed it. And that Les Savy Fav show, shit was bugged out.
Graham Walsh (Holy Fuck): I’d been to Williamsburg before, but it was still surprising that in a massive city, with all that money, a crumbling concrete fading structure of that size was sitting there waiting to be taken over by weird art bands.
Brian Borcherdt (Holy Fuck): McCarren didn’t feel like a big blown-out festival, like Coachella. It wasn’t a happening, at least at that first show. There’s a video of a dude dancing by himself in the middle of the day, a one-man rave on his own planet that perfectly captures the vibe. People who love music just doing their own thing, partying their own way. Felt like a glorious day in the sunshine, not a puking-in-the-corner event.
Matt “Ice Cream Man” Allen (Retired traveling frozen treat purveyor, concertgoer): In 1998, as a college student in Durango Colorado, I wanted a summer ice cream truck, but I couldn’t afford it. I bought a three-wheel bike and called it Ice Cream Man, which amazingly, wasn’t trademarked. I had that in the back of mind for years. In 2004, while living in Ashland Oregon, I bought the domain name and a 1969 Chevy Step Van. At summer’s end, I had a big ice cream social and gave it all away for free. I decided giving away half-a-million ice cream treats was my life’s mission, and set aside seven years to pull off that goal. We got sponsors like Toyota and started traveling nationally in 2006. Music festivals became central to the operation. I befriended Sarah Hooper and she asked if I wanted to help curate the first Pool Party. We drove across the country for the Les Savy Fav show. Holy shit. It ended up being the best day of my life.
Walsh: Playing Coachella as the backing band for Beans in 2005 was one of our big breaks. He gave us such a rad opportunity, using part of his set time to do a few songs of our own. At McCarren, we could feel the sweaty rowdy crowd. And the sun. There was no real stage yet, and no cover. Hot as balls. Whole place was boiling. Made sense that Les Savy Fav’s Tim Harrington stripped down and hulked around in his underwear.
CONSTRUCTIVE SUMMER, 2006
Jelly put on nine shows in the first season. Word quickly got around that there were free wild bashes going on in Williamsburg.
Ted Chase (Editor/reviewer/photographer QRO Magazine): Early on, I had to ask a local where McCarren was. He just said to follow the line of kids from the Bedford L stop. A cabbie once asked me to define a “hipster,” the Pool Parties were the definition. They were the symbol of Williamsburg.
Hooper: Back then, if you were young and working in the Brooklyn music industry, you had 20 jobs. I was an indie publicist at this label, working at the studio, promoting parties, managing bands, and I got to know a lot of people who helped us pull the shows together. We’d have blogs like Stereogum or Brooklyn Vegan curate shows, everyone pitching in to get it going.
Kane: I was always the first one there, every Sunday morning at 6:30 a.m. The first thing that had to be taken care of was cleaning the pool. There was always broken glass everywhere, and every week, the broom brigade would show up to help. Unpaid volunteers who loved being a part of it. Who does that?
Darby Moeller (JellyNYC volunteer): In June 2006, I graduated from Seattle University and bought a one-way ticket to New York City, moved to Bushwick all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with the idea that somehow, I was going to work in the music industry. A close friend said there was a volunteer gig at a newly reclaimed music venue in Williamsburg. My first job was to take donations out front, but it was too hot. I moved to the back of the venue and was given the task of minding the VIP list, cross-referencing who got in, which I thoroughly enjoyed. A couple months later, I got a job at Columbia Records, but I kept volunteering to run the list for the next four summers.
Darcy James Argue (Bandleader/composer,Secret Society): Like so many people back then, I started blogging because it was an easy way to get a website up and running on Typepad. Our band was having early gigs in basements and indie blogs were a great way to discover and promote music. It was kind of an oasis before the rise of Spotify. So I just started writing about the shows I was seeing, jazz, rock, new bands, a reflection of my musical input. I suppose it was a bit novel to have a jazz musician writing about indie rock, but the snobbishness of some in the jazz community has always annoyed me. A lot of great music at that time was coming out of Williamsburg…. But let’s be honest, the best thing about the McCarren pool shows is they were free. I was pretty broke and whatever money I had was feeding my big band habit.
Mary Ramirez (The Detroit Cobras):It was a bizarre gig because there’s all the people standing like ants in an empty basin. They’re looking at you, you’re looking at them and all anyone is thinking is, “This is a big-ass pool.” From the stage, the bathroom was so far away, especially if you walked all the way around. I immediately thought everybody must be peeing in the pool.
Kane: The temperature at the Dead Meadow show hit the 90s, even hotter in the concrete sauna. It was perfect for sludge rock, but after that we were required to have an ambulance on site. We talked the NYFD into bringing a fire truck to the pool and hosing everyone down.
Ramirez: I caught the Legendary Maxine Brown. She was so great. I walked around during her set. The venue was really spread out with little groups scattered about doing their thing. There were just weird random things. People were offering me stuff. I had fun. It was a good party. I wish everyone would have climbed down into the pool though, that would’ve been the coolest thing ever. Did anyone ever fall in? Impressive if they didn’t.
Moeller: For the most part, the VIP list wasn’t packed with celebrities, especially in 2006. It was like people from Bowery Presents, or local record labels, or venue managers, bartenders from the neighborhood, that kind of thing. I made a ton of friends, I couldn’t walk down Bedford Ave. without people calling out, “Hey, you got me today?” I was never more popular, nor will I be throughout the rest of my life.
Hooper: By the end of 2006, Live Nation had seen the pool and were freaking out about it. They did a deal with people higher up at the Parks Department to come in for paid shows. It was good for Jelly because our setup was never safe. Somebody sued us and we laid out how we had no money. They “settled.”
DeFalco: The three of us from Jelly wore many hats, and were so busy, we didn’t really get the zeitgeist of the thing, even though we were in the middle of it. It first hit me at the Deerhoof show in mid-August. Here’s this arty punk band playing for 4,000 people and most of them showed up by the second act. Questlove picked that show to be the DJ. He’s got incredible taste.
McMicken: It was the first time I’d heard and seen The Walkmen. I knew of them, they were like an institution with an awesome air about them, but I didn’t really know their music. I was blown away by how exciting it was watching them. The Walkmen had a 64-key miniature acoustic piano on stage, which fascinated me. They told me originally, the pianos had been designed to provide live entertainment on bougie passenger trains way back when. They’re called Melody grand pianos, I now own two of them.
Regular piano in a rock band is a nightmare. Obviously, touring wise, but even during recording. Pianos are large, heavy instruments capable of an array of sounds, so engineers often think of pianos that way and fill the spectrum of speakers with the instrument’s sound. It’s rational, but kind of doesn’t make sense when there’s guitars, drums, and bass involved. There’s something inherently small about the Melody, which is great for a rock band because it’s a grinder, not some wide-open dee ballad lush stuff. On a practical level, it works in a live show because two people can easily pick up and move it. That day, The Walkmen even had a piano tuner sitting side of the stage tuning up their piano. We’ve used our Melody grands on countless Dr. Dog songs, so the McCarren show literally altered our sound.
Hooper: That first year, we’d go to Alex’s apartment and count the money from the bar and the donation bins to see what we could afford for the next week. Someone left a diaper in the donations once, that was gross.
Kane: The flagship sponsor the first year was Brooklyn Brewery, they signed on before the first concert. They put down a nice amount of cash up front, but it was a sweet deal for them because they kept all the beer sales. We were green. Brooklyn Brewery made their money back and then some.
Chris Goldstein (JellyNYC jack-of-all-trades): There were so many people around the Pool Parties that it built its own ecosystem, like you’d have future Pitchfork writing stars out selling water or checking wristbands for free.
DeFalco: It just worked. We didn’t really have any competition, so we never altered the formula. One of my favorite quotes from my dad, “Why fuck up a free lunch?”
Campo: One thing that sucked the first summer? The beer lines. You show up, it’s blazing hot, you want a beer. The lines were so long. They had that dumb tedious ticket system. That could’ve been better.
Hooper: The first year was totally summer camp and the most fun I’ve ever had.
The reason the McCarren shows weren’t called the “Jelly Pool Gigs” is because they were much more carnival than concert. It was, by design, a party.
Hooper: The dodgeball players were in McCarren Park all weekend. I got them to come play in the pool just to get people in the building.
Goldstein: I saw an ad on Brooklyn Vegan that Jelly needed volunteers to pick up glass. A couple of weeks in I was manning the dodgeball game, which fit the pool organically and took off to become its own little universe. It was all the best-looking hipster kickball dudes. Those regular guys, and a few girls, who were really into the dodgeball game had fans watching them every week. After the first year, I passed that job onto Shirtless Tom and started doing more with set-up and breakdown, ops manager, and eventually, office manager.
Hooper: We did interesting stuff with brands. One fun thing we came up with was having Saucony sponsor the teams in our dodgeball league.
Jill Menze (former writer/reviewer Billboard): Jelly always sprinkled elements of humor into the parties. By the stage, they put up those big goofy wavy balloon people like you see at car washes. So dumb. So funny.
Kane: We had art projects. One summer, Gibson had a giant 10-foot guitar everyone got to paint, kids loved it.
Finn: The Slip 'N Slide very much seemed like an accident waiting to happen. I didn’t partake.
Johnson: I remember the Slip 'N Slide. One show, couldn’t even tell you who it was, Kim, my brother, and some other friends just hung out watching drunks wipe out over and over. It was America’s Funniest Home Videos in real life. Everyone was too fucked up to land on their feet.
Menze: There were always a few obnoxious asshole hipsters in the mix—the “I’m gonna slip-and-slide really hard” guys—but for the most part the crowds were great.
Image: Copyright Edwina Hay
SUMMER LOVIN’, 2007
By the second summer, Jelly hit their groove. The Pool Parties became a Sunday afternoon staple. The nine free JellyNYC shows brought bigger crowds, as did the handful of paid shows put on by concert behemoth Live Nation.
Menze: I had just graduated from Missouri, been in New York City for less than a month, when I got a freelance assignment to cover the first McCarren show of 2007. The headliner was Superchunk, one of my favorite bands, and I just thought, “This is so cool.” I don’t remember what I did the night before, but I was super super hungover and the afternoon was overwhelmingly hot. They were handing out Red Bull, so half-miserable, I downed one and poisoned my stomach on the baking concrete. I immediately vomited in a trash can. I was 22, so I rallied, but my virgin exposure to the Pool Parties was puking on my first assignment. I’m only now realizing how appropriate Superchunk was.
Chase:Superchunk hadn’t yet ‘officially’ reunited, but were playing behind “Misfits and Mistakes,” the single for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon the Movie soundtrack. The B-side included vocals by Meatwad.
Ryan Kattner a.k.a. “Honus Honus” (Man Man): Man Man has always been an underground band, but our second record Six Demon Bag was well-received and word was getting around that we put on a crazy live show. Positive momentum was building. People were coming to our shows and feeling the music the way we wanted them to, an overall body experience. In those days we were wearing all white, by that stage of the tour probably more off-beige actually, and the McCarren show was the first time fans dressed like us. People in white with face paint. It was awesome and strange and cultish, very Wild Wild Country, totally bonkers.
Chase: The Man Man show was when my +1 discovered free beer in the VIP. The rest is history.
DeFalco: We butted heads over this, but every year, I wanted to have one date to reach out beyond the hipsters, who were going to come anyway. The Ponderosa Stomp show was one of those shows.
Ira Padnos (President, Ponderosa Stomp Foundation, featuring Roy Head, Bobby Patterson, Willie Tee, Tammy Lynn, Ray Sharpe, and Tommy McLain): Ponderosa Stomp is made up of all the unsung heroes from back in the day that you never got a chance to see. Here they are in one spot, backed by a great band, doing the songs you want to hear. It’s musicians from the 1950s through the ‘70s. It’s a little of everything, rock, blues, soul, country, New Orleans, funk, rockabilly, even a bit of jazz. Todd Abramson, who owned Maxwell’s and was the Ponderosa Stomp point man in New York, called me and said I got you a gig inside a Brooklyn pool. From what I understand, it was not exactly the typical McCarren fare.
Hutch Harris (The Thermals): The Sam Quinones book Dreamland opens with him talking about this small Ohio town. In the 1940s-60s there was this huge pool where all the local families would meet up and while away the summer. Quinones uses it as a metaphor for the sense of community in the U.S. back then. It totally reminded me of McCarren. It was kind of creepy when the pool was empty, this enormous husk of what was. By showtime, it was vibrant, but you knew it was a skeleton of the past… It was also the hottest fucking show The Thermals ever played, that’s for damn sure.
Finn: I DJ’ed at The Thermals and Ted Leo and the Pharmacists show. I had no idea what I was doing, so I brought my friend Steve Hahnel and we figured it out as the show went along. We knew the bands playing that day, so it was a good opportunity to play some straightforward rock in between sets. I don’t think I DJ’ed before or since.
Menze: Any time you put people in an unconventional space, it transforms the show, gives it a unique vibe. If I saw Ted Leo—big deal, I’ve seen him a bunch. McCarren gave the performers and the audience a different perspective, a different attitude. “I’m playing music in a fuckin’ pool, what up?”
Campo: Oh man, Ted Leo and The Thermals, what a show. The epitome of summer in the city. Hanging out in a vacant lot, drinking beer, sweating, and listening to loud guitar-based rock. Jelly kicked so much ass with their musical selections.
Padnos: We put together an All-Star Core Band, which included Charles ‘Skip’ Pitts, who was Isaac Hayes’s “‘wacka wacka” guitar guy on Shaft, Teenie Hodges, who wrote and played on a bunch of Al Green’s biggest hits, on the other guitar, and Willie Hall, the Blues Brothers drummer. Then we added the A-Bones for a garage set with Roy Head, and Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley from Yo La Tengo backing Tommy McLain on some swamp pop. It rocked.
Chase: The Ponderosa Stomp seemed dubious when heading in, being directed at a much older audience than the usual Pool Parties. Instead, it turned out to be one of the most memorable Pool Parties, for being so different and yet so fun. Roy Head joked about remembering where he put his Viagra, but reassured everyone that the comment was only directed at the one much older lady up front.
DeFalco: The Ponderosa Stomp artists weren’t necessarily household names, but they played on some of the biggest records from back in the day. Those shows weren’t the best attended, but the people who worked for us, like PAs, security, whatever, enjoyed those concerts because it was a lot less babysitting. It was an older crowd, so the shows were more laid back. And because we successfully brought them to Brooklyn, the Ponderosa Stomp became regulars at Lincoln Center.
Honus Honus: Watching Dengue Fever, I remember thinking “This is fucking rad. I can’t believe it’s free. No way is it gonna last.” When we went up, I was floored at all the people, from front-to-back, all the way through, just incredible. Fans were going nuts, lots of crowd-surfing, boys and girls, so fucking dope. I contemplated stage-diving… I don’t think I did? So much whiskey. I can’t fathom my bourbon intake in those days.
DeFalco: One week, I was desperately trying to get Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, sadly we never booked her. We ended up having Octopus Project, this weird trippy band, as the headliner. We didn’t have time to curate a lineup, so the show was all over the map, musicians with little in common. The kitchen sink booking worked though. I used the approach a few more times.
Josh Lambert (Octopus Project featuring Peelander-Z): I was surprised, and really excited, when Jelly asked us to do that show. The lineup was pretty weird, I loved it. I didn’t know Mark Ronson was DJ’ing between sets. As we were getting ready for our set, Peelander-Z was helping us throw balloons to the audience, which we wanted to be blown up and released at a certain point in our show. Anyway, people kept blowing them up and letting them go. I grabbed the main mic and told the crowd to hold onto them, explaining what we wanted to do, blah, blah, blah. I had no idea I was completely talking over Ronson’s DJ sets.
Somebody from Jelly came over and told me “Don’t talk! Don’t talk!” I felt really bad for stepping on Mark’s set.
Miranda: Josh totally crashed the vibe. But only for a few minutes… We’d done the balloon thing before in Austin but this was a bigger crowd and we had some trouble scaling up. The plan was going sideways, but it was fine. That’s the point of party experiments.
Lambert: We passed out thousands of balloons, maybe a thousand were blown up and launched? It was awesome. We also thought, who would be animated enough to act as our hype man? The answer, Peelander-Z.
Miranda: Peelander-Z are good friends of ours who were still based in New York back then. They are a ridiculous party in and of themselves. We asked them to show up in costume, they did.
Peelander-Yellow (Octopus Project featuring Peelander-Z): I’ve known Octopus Project for more than 15 years. We met at a small bar in Pittsburgh and we ended up on tour together. Now they are very big. Everyone enjoyed. The Brooklyn show helped Octopus Project get famous. Audience hold the balloons up, countdown 3...2...1… Fly away! Beautiful. I’m so proud.
Chase:Blonde Redhead were overshadowed by opener I’m From Barcelona, who had exploding confetti, a singer crowd-surfing on an inflatable raft, and an invitation for everyone from backstage to come onto the stage. I remember seeing Sarah Hooper up there dancing, a huge smile on her face. Blonde Redhead don’t work as well in the daylight, and it was very sunny outside. I later saw a video of the performance, and could see the back of my head in the photo pit, but the sun made it look like I had a giant bald spot on the top of my head like a monk. I was also hit by a beach ball while shooting. I learned to spot them coming by checking the reflection on my camera’s view screen.
Kane: The worst weeks, the only ones that left us broken, were the rainouts. We had somewhere between five and ten over the years. We’d get washed out and have to pay the band deposits, so the rest of the cash we laid out was gone. We were always losing money, so after the shows would end, we’d kick up the partying to numb ourselves from the darkness. It looked ominous for TV on the Radio, which would’ve sucked, because they were the biggest thing going at the time.
DeFalco: I’d met Kyp Malone while bartending at Yappy before TV on the Radio even formed. I booked them at Southpaw when their EP came out. Initially, we thought the pool was best for dancey party music, but every genre worked. TV on the Radio is all over the place methodically and rhythmically, but they had a huge appeal with a diverse audience that went beyond the Williamsburg kids.
Argue: I’d listened to TV on the Radio obsessively since Return toCookie Mountain. They were hugely influential on my own music. They have a method for a counterpoint of percussion that I ran with on Brooklyn Babylon. McCarren was my first time seeing them live, so I was really stoked. It poured, which gave me a sense memory nostalgia thing of concerts in my Canadian hometown of Vancouver, seeing Buddy Guy as a teenager with a half dozen people. Following the storm, there was a real hardcore energy among the fans. The crowd built back up during the show. TV on the Radio was so tight, the songs soared off the stage.
Kane: Jelly headliners got anywhere from $10-$20,000 max. I know they were offered a lot more to do a paid McCarren show, but they opted to play ours. TV on the Radio was the highest-paid band we ever had, and they were super cool for doing it. It’s exactly who those guys are.
Beans: I was at the TV on the Radio show. I got into a fight with my girlfriend at the time because she was mad I left without her. I got there near the end of the set and hung out, chilled for a little while backstage with everybody, bounced, and went back home. She was still mad at me. The relationship didn’t end that night, but it ended over some other shit. It was one of many grievances.
Padnos: It meant a lot to our guys. Tommy McLain hadn’t been to New York since he had the hit record “Sweet Dreams” in 1966.
Hooper: Year two was fine. Live Nation only put on a handful of shows, so we were cool, but you could sense things were starting to change.
THE BIG TICKETS
The McCarren ticketed shows brought major acts like Wilco, Bob Mould, Modest Mouse, and, for the first time, the three bad brothers who basically wrote the borough’s anthem. They also naturally brought bigger dollars.
Yampolsky: I was against the concerts because they were sponsored by some large corporation and they wanted to kill it from ever being a pool again. It became about these fashionable celebrities showing up. The concerts were for a different part of the neighborhood, I never attended any. I heard the Bush twins were spotted there.
DeFalco: At first when Live Nation came in there was a feeling of “This goes against everything we stand for,” but we figured out pretty quickly that the production values made everyone up their game. It looked better and sounded better.
Kane: I worked closely with Live Nation and Bowery Presents and they helped develop a lot of the pool infrastructure, including a real stage. Honestly, I never had a problem with the paid shows.
Gerald Casale (Devo): Devo was founded in 1973, so it’s been a long time, but my memory is pretty good and I have no recollection of playing a venue in Brooklyn, going back to the early days. We’d read about McCarren in Rolling Stone, and it sounded like there were some legendary shows, so we were glad to get the chance. Mark [Mothersbaugh] was in a mode where he was agreeing to play some gigs and there was an opening at the pool, so it was a bit of serendipity. We’ve played festivals with a condensed version of our set, which we were going to do. We certainly didn’t plan on playing for only an hour, or depriving the audience of the traditional Devo finale.
Borcherdt (Holy Fuck, opener M.I.A.): We’d been out for a while with M.I.A., but for the McCarren show, she really mixed it up. She brought in a bunch of tropical props, palm trees and shit, so that show had a super cool vibe like the Les Savy Fav gig. We got the benefit of her dedicated open-minded followers who hung with us. It was right before “Paper Planes” hit. I’m not sure that it would’ve happened for us a couple months later….
At the M.I.A. show, one of the security guards thought our bass player was Wes Anderson. He talked to him for five minutes, telling him how much he admired his films. We got a good laugh out of it, but it was a big difference between the Beans and the M.I.A. show, which was a happening. It seemed possible, even perhaps likely, that Wes Anderson would be there.
Campo: I was interested in the concerts as experiments in appropriated semi-official space with transgressive activity, the hidden liminal city, which is what I teach and study. I was also excited as a music fan. The first year was the best. Jelly had a great ear for music.The novelty of the whole thing—”This is happening every weekend”—made it so cool. I get that people were excited to see Sonic Youth, but the paid shows changed the whole tenor of the pool concerts.
Chase: I bought tickets off Craigslist for the sold-out Sonic Youth playing Daydream Nationshow. The album had been re-released in expanded double-disc just before, and entered in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry. Mark Ibold didn’t join them when they played Daydream, supposedly at his own insistence, but popped in for encores. Friends of mine came down from Boston for it, I almost didn’t make it into the photo pit because I was on line for beer, which I left on the side of the pool before entering the pit. It was still there after shooting.
DeFalco: Jelly booked a benefit show for the ASPCA at Hiro Ballroom and we were shocked when the Beastie Boys agreed to play it. I’ve been listening to them my whole life, they’re one of the best bands ever. I didn’t have much time for the Live Nation shows, but I made time for the Beastie Boys. It was off the charts good.
Kane: I only took in two paid shows. Wilco, who were as good as always, and the Beastie Boys who were mind-blowing. I’ll never get over seeing their one and only Brooklyn performance.
Casale: At the end of every Devo show, the band comes out with Mark wearing the Booji Boy mask and we do “Beautiful World.” The sound always comes down and Booji Boy does a faux-Springsteen satire telling long drawn-out stories, but not at McCarren. The pool had a ridiculously early curfew of 10 p.m., but we didn’t think it was a hard and fast rule. Before we started, the mics and the amplification went dead thanks to the long arm of the law. I’m screaming at the sound guys on the side of the stage, the audience is booing and hissing, it’s getting ugly. Two security guards walk out on the stage and tell Booji Boy he’s got to go. In his high-pitched voice he’s saying, “I just want to talk to them,” and the guards grab him by the arms and walk him off the stage. We thought, “We’re the headliners, they have to let us finish our set.” We couldn’t believe it. All those radiation suits and energy domes became sad clown outfits.
Walsh: It had been a long tour, so we’d gotten to know all of M.I.A.’s people. Her crew was very sweet and we’d become friends. That night, we learned it was our last show with them. M.I.A. was supposed to be heading to Europe, but she found out she was pregnant. From the McCarren stage, she announced the tour was over. None of her people knew beforehand, everyone was confused, and a little down because now they needed gigs.
Borcherdt: It settled in for a bunch of people that they were out of jobs, but selfishly, in my head I was still like, “Funnest night ever!”
Casale: Going past 10 p.m. meant big fines would be handed out, so our tour manager was also screaming at us to get off the stage. There’s always money punishments to be handed down. It was unfortunate because it was a great throwback crowd, like from our club days, and there was a real feeling of intimacy and raucousness. The production was limited and we had these bright 1970s lights, so we could actually see faces in the audience, reacting, yelling, dancing. Dads and sons, moms and daughters, a great mix... It was a terrible coitus interruptus denouement.
Adam Robinson (PA at McCarren for Bowery Presents, Live Nation): The Beastie Boys opening with “Hello Brooklyn” and closing with “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” was epic. I did a few Beasties shows that summer and McCarren was different. They were excited to be playing Brooklyn. You could totally feel it.
SUMMER MADNESS, 2008
In November 2007, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a $50-million renovation to McCarren Pool, meaning the following summer would be its end as a concert venue. Once again, JellyNYC put on nine gratis gigs, including their most legendary wheels-are-coming-off event. But storm clouds continued to form, literally and metaphorically.
Hooper: The rains could be coming, we were going to push it until somebody makes us stop. Or until we saw lightning, the deadly dealbreaker.
DeFalco: Alex and I were huge fans of The Hold Steady, so we were bummed it poured that afternoon.
Finn: The rain just crushed the earlier bands and went on right up until our set time. It was a serious storm that afternoon, a massive concern. We might have even been delayed, but it did clear up for The Hold Steady. It’s one of those things where you get into rock ‘n’ roll because you want the thrill of being in a band and then you realize you’ve become an expert in van travel and weather patterns. Everyone becomes an amateur meteorologist.
DeFalco: I’d say the crowd was only down 800 people, which is respectable following a major thunderstorm.
Finn: The Stay Positive album came out on July 15, 2008, and we were heading to the U.K. for the release. The pool show basically introduced the record. I know we opened with “Constructive Summer” because it was just so damn appropriate.
Ronnie Spector: I've played a lot of different places and events, trust me. From dancing the hula in the window of a Hawaiian restaurant when I was underage, to bar mitzvahs, to sock hops, even a roller skating rink with the Ronettes, but never a pool. I remember thinking to myself, “An empty swimming pool in Brooklyn, huh?”
Hooper: Ronnie Spector sang “Be My Baby” in my face. That’s never forget type of stuff. I actually wish I remembered more of the shows.
Spector: The thing that sticks out in my mind about that show was just how hot a day it was. Too hot to be on stage. Every so often, there was a tiny bit of a breeze, but not enough. The cool thing was the audience, a bunch of families, some Brooklyn folk, mixed with a bunch of hipsters. What I remember most is the crowd loved when I sang Johnny Thunders "You Can't Put Your Arm Around a Memory." Now that was the biggest pool I've ever seen in my life.
Johnson: The McCarren gig was huge for Matt and Kim. We were from Williamsburg and had written lyrics in the park. Adult loitering in McCarren Park was an entire day for us. Kim and I would sit outside the dog park and be like “Oooohhh, look at the coat on that one.” We’d played every loft, basement, living room, whatever in Williamsburg. I listened to the Bloc Party show in the park because I couldn’t afford a ticket. The pool was our home turf and all our friends were going to be there. Plus, we’d never opened for a big band like the Breeders, one I grew up listening to. It called out for a marching band.
Chase: The Breeders were touring off the unimpressive Mountain Battles, but played a lot from classic Last Splash. Kelley Deal asked the crowd who wanted the pool to stay a venue, and who wanted to go back to being a pool. She was surprised that the crowd wanted the venue, not realizing that they weren’t the locals who would actually go swimming.
Hooper: The bands would work with us, but a lot of the bookings, like the Breeders, were honestly based on straight-up begging. We worked all our relationships, friends of friends of friends, and got some mega-mega plays from bands who took a lot less.
Johnson: I think one time at South by Southwest, Erykah Badu wandered on stage and was hitting Kim’s drum set, but the only time we’ve ever formally had musicians on stage with us was the McCarren Pool show when we invited the Rude Mechanical Orchestra. Kim and I knew the size of the pool, so we wanted to make it special. We’d seen RMO at a protest event, which is totally their vibe, and thought it would be cool to have them play with us. We had one rehearsal. I’m happy we did. Now, I feel like it would be terrifying to try something you’ve never done before in front of an audience because like now, we’re under a microscope if we’re fucking up things really bad. I bet we had 25 musicians on stage, but it was still loose.
Kane:The MGMT show was absolutely nuts.
Hooper: We booked MGMT before they blew up. That show was absolute lunacy. Actual capacity was 5,500, we might’ve had 10,000. By 9 a.m., seven hours before the show, there was a line. "Time to Pretend" had been released that spring and the girls were going insane, scaling the fences, jumping onto Port-a-Potties and down into the pool, crying at every entrance because it was at capacity.
Goldstein: It looked like busloads of Connecticut teenagers had rolled in and they’d all already taken all their drugs. People were offering me $100 bills to get in.
DeFalco: We had between 2,000-4,000 people per show. MGMT went well over that when kids started climbing the gates. We didn’t have the manpower to stop them. It was tough to pull off that show, but once it started, I guess it calmed down enough because nobody got seriously hurt.
Moeller: By 2008, I was the assistant to the project manager at Columbia Records and we were working with MGMT. I told Jelly they absolutely had to book them for the pool. I moved to New York wanting to be a part of something and Jelly gave me autonomy to do my thing, which was amazing considering I wasn’t even a paid employee. Anyway, the show happened to fall on my 24th birthday. I ran around like I was Queen of McCarren, pulling my friends out of line and letting them into the VIP I was such a brat about it. The Dewar’s team took very good care of me, so I was blissfully unaware the show went off the rails.
Chase: Supposedly Kirsten Dunst and Alex Kapranos were backstage at MGMT in a “super-VIP” together, which put a whole new spin on “models for wives.”
Hooper: At the end of the MGMT night, we were all completely worn out from battling the freaked-out masses. Nearly everyone tried to quit that day. A P.A. came up to me and said she found a handbag, asked what she should do. I told her to see if there was an I.D. inside. She opened it and screamed. “It’s shit! Someone shit in their handbag and left it in the pool!”
Chase: The final free pool show was New Jersey-heavy with Yo La Tengo and Titus Andronicus. Ira Kaplan joked that, now that Brooklyn’s “over,” New Jersey is the place to be. Patrick Stickles came out during the Yo La Tengo set waving the Garden State flag. It all wrapped up with Titus joining Tengo on a cover of the Misfits “Where Eagles Dare.”
Image: Copyright Edwina Hay
Although there were the occasional naked women running around screaming, the Pool Parties weren’t the sexual free-for-all the original Woodstock was rumored to be. Of the Holy Trinity, sex was way behind the drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
Goldstein: I guess somebody could’ve gotten a handjob in a porta-potty, but other than that, the pool was all out in the open. There wasn’t a lot of privacy.
Kane: Topless slip ‘n sliding? Probably happened.
Honus Honus: I heard Vincent Gallo and Lou Reed were at our show together on a man date. I can only imagine what it was like for every young boy and girl having to walk past that pair on the sidewalk, the sexual prowess of that older gentlemen bro-hang.
Moeller: I used to try and smooch the Captain America dodgeball guy, but I always struck out. He was too focused on the game.
McMicken: I was going to keep this to myself… I had gotten this sweet old three-piece Italian suit at a thrift store, but unless I was going to a wedding, I mostly just wore the pants. The pants had an old-school metal zipper, long with some weight to it. It was an issue. If I wasn’t on the zipper constantly, gravity would pull it down. Well, it’s summer right? So I’m not wearing anything under the pants and during the show, at the mic singing to the crowd, I start feeling a breeze. I had a hunch, but didn’t want to believe what was happening was happening, so I just kept going. After the song, I turned around, hunched over, and I could see it all right then and there. My hunch was correct. Nobody laughed or pointed, so I have no conclusive evidence, but by accident, I’m 99% sure I exposed myself to the crowd. Someone at McCarren probably got an eyeful.
Chase: When the Black Lips headlined, opener King Khan and the Shrines stole the show. King Khan encouraged the crowd to throw trash on the stage, then threw it back, and did the same with bananas. He wore a garbage bag, tore up dollar bills and a Spin cover with Duff, which he made into a mask, played his guitar like a violin and went running into the crowd with his penis tucked between his legs on “I Wanna Be a Girl.”
McMicken: I don’t know if other people suffer from this problem, but I invented a thing called the zipper gripper. It’s a simple contraption where you feed a rubber band through your zipper, then when you pull up your zipper, you latch the band to the button before buttoning the pants. Being a performer you have to be loose. Especially in the summer, I don’t want anything on underneath. I use the zipper gripper on all my pants.
DeFalco: I remember being on stage with Alex and Sarah and laughing, “I wonder how many people we’re getting laid today.” Over the years, I’ve heard so many hookup stories. Pre-Tinder, McCarren was a great place to meet people and go nuts. It still feels really good knowing we were there for the horny kids of Brooklyn.
Mind- and mood-altering chemicals, on the other hand…
DeFalco: It was my idea to throw the parties on Sunday afternoon. This was before the brunch hysteria we’re living through now, and it felt like the perfect time because people were looking for something to do to shake off the hangovers in the sun. A couple years ago, a bartender, who shall remain nameless, told me his Sundays back then consisted of his roommate waking him up at noon with a big plate of cocaine, snorting it, and heading to the pool to drink away the day.
Harris: We were on tour with The Hold Steady once in Alabama and we were hanging out at the Bottle Tree in Birmingham and Craig says, “I’m bored.” And Tad [Kubler] emphatically responded, “Do drugs!” We never stopped quoting that line and it was pretty much how I approached the Pool Party. The promoter had weed delivered for us, which was fucking amazing. Pot delivery was such a cool Brooklyn thing to us, it hadn’t hit Portland yet. Also, our agent brought edibles, I think she and a friend had made brownies for us. They didn’t kick in until right when our gig was ending, so I just spent the Ted Leo set sitting there melting into the asphalt. Finally, I came to and made my way to the VIP. Spent the rest of the afternoon getting drunk with Craig.
Finn: I wanted to DJ mainly to hang out with my friends backstage. I don’t know what went on the night before, but I showed up feeling lousy. There was free beer. I got straightened out during the sets and launched into some stupidity with Hutch.
Padnos: Right next to the stage was a little booth where cute young girls in bikinis handing out Dewar’s and ginger beer. I was wondering how this was going to go over with the Ponderosa Stomp. Is this another show-and-tell where we don’t know if the too cool crowd is going to get into the act or not? Within a couple of songs after the band started playing, I look over and the girls are going crazy. I said, “So you like it?” They replied, “Thank you! We’ve been waiting all summer to dance. We’re so tired of all the alternative shit!”
Chase: In 2008, there was no more free beer in VIP. There was free Dewar’s whiskey, usually served with Red Bull. While that sounds terrible, the Red Bull overwhelmed the whiskey taste. Whiskey isn’t what one wants to drink in the August heat.
Kane: Brown liquor on tap mixed with ginger beer on the hottest days of the summer? Things are bound to get weird. After a few shows it was just, “Dude, we’re pulling this off.”
Argue: The pool had a communal vibe. We were all repurposing this city property that lay fallow for so many years together. It was always good-natured, not aggressive. Sure, a lot of people got their drink on, but if someone fell, the crowd would pick them right back up.
Harris: I never loved touring, but flying out to New York City to do a one-off show then eat pot brownies all day? That was the dream right there.
Kane: It felt like we created a new day of the weekend. I’d like to apologize for all the Monday morning hangovers we brought to New York City worklife.
The fun rarely ended with the concert. The young, sunbaked, well-lubricated McCarren crowds kept the party going.
Finn: Once the Sunday shows got started up, it was hard to turn it off. The bars were always packed well into the night.
Casale: After the Booji Boy debacle, we got out of there as quick as we could to avoid getting caught up in traffic. I told our driver to go straight to Blue Ribbon in SoHo and drowned my sorrows in a nice steak tartar and a pinot noir.
Allen: I tried to help get Broken Social Scene on the first bill. We had a budget of, I dunno $5,000-$10,000. Their booking agent said they really wanted to do it but they had to get $25,000. I thought that was weird because the agent said they really wanted to do it. So why not just play the pool? Brian from Holy Fuck comes up during Les Savy Fav and invites me to go see Broken Social Scene that night in Manhattan, some crazy private event for Miller Beer. It was for international fans, felt like two people from every country, many of whom didn’t speak English, so I shouted out individual songs like “It’s All Gonna Break.” My own concert. Then a woman sent me upstairs where DJ Premier was spinning. None of the winners followed. I was on the dancefloor by myself. It was fucking awesome. I went back downstairs and got Metric, Broken Social Scene, and Holy Fuck. They brought some very attractive ladies along and we shut the place down. Best night of my life.
Borcherdt: We met up with other Toronto bands, Metric and Broken Social Scene, who were doing this corporate gig they were embarrassed about, so we bum-rushed it… Unforgettable. Nobody gets that lucky. A totally inaccurate snapshot of what touring life is really like.
Finn: The McCarren show fell on Tad Kubler’s birthday, so we were also preparing a party for after the show that night. The party went well, we had dinner at a big long table somewhere on Greenpoint Ave. The only problem was I had a college buddy hanging out with me who had become a suburban dad. He couldn’t keep up with us, I had to take him out of the restaurant. We were good though.
Padnos: After the gig, some of the band and all the women who were with us got picked up by a friend to go back to the hotel in Manhattan. Somehow, a bunch of us got dropped off under the Williamsburg Bridge and I thought, “Are we even going to get a cab?” It felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. In what seemed like forever, but was probably 15 minutes, a cab came by. The whole experience was very much Ponderosa Stomp, nothing else like it.
Allen: After leaving one show, a local Mr. Softee’s truck, or whatever, cut me off. The owner jumped out with a baseball bat, threatened to beat me up for encroaching on his territory. I told him I wasn’t selling on the street and he wasn’t getting into the Pool Parties either way. It was a mixture of being petrified and not giving a shit. I did see him selling in the McCarren crowd one time, which was fine by me because we were set up by the VIP area.
Menze: Lazy Sundays led to late nights that ended god knows wherever.
Goldstein: One of my jobs as office manager was to count the cash on Mondays. One week, the dude from Future Islands came in and said we owed him like $200 for an after-party show at Union Pool. I guess everyone got drunk and forgot to pay the band, who was headed out on the road. I was in the office by myself and I just said, “Sorry, man but I just can’t really do that…” I hope somebody gave them their money.
Peelander-Yellow: Next day we hung out playing frisbee with Octopus Project in McCarren Park. We still play together, we did SXSW a few years back. It was crazy. Big time. I didn’t even play music. I jumped from the second floor, audience caught me. I cut my hair on stage with scissors. Human bowling. Everyone likes the Octopus. We are family.
Borcherdt: The M.I.A. show was the night I slept in a Brooklyn construction site. We played Music Hall of Williamsburg after McCarren, a true career highlight. Afterward, the rest of the band was beat and wanted to go back to our Manhattan hotel, so I went out with friends. Graham had inadvertently given me the wrong address and I couldn’t call him because my phone died. I went back to MHOW to charge my phone, but nobody was there. I wasn’t even drunk. I’d sobered up by then, but I had no money and just decided to crash across the street. The band was coming back there in the morning, so I crawled under the fence, covered myself with some plywood, and slept for four hours. I woke up at 6 a.m. in the hot sun, covered in garbage. From the highest high to the lowest low…
Allen: We parked the truck in a few different places, often near a bus driver named Wolf. One Sunday, Wolf said it took him forever to get there because a Mercedes tried to pass him on the right. Wolf cut the driver off around a corner, banged into the Mercedes, two guys got out with guns drawn, and one guy put it in his mouth, said he was going to kill him. People were freaking out. Wolf told him to take it out, and since the cops had already been called, they took off. Wolf said, “That really sucked.” I replied, “At least you know the day you got a gun shoved in your mouth is the worst day of your life.” Wolf laughed, “Nah, man. Not even close.”
THE DEAD GUY
McCarren had a lot of nooks and crannies, hidden spaces for people who didn’t want to be found, or had nowhere else to go.
Robinson: I found the dead body.
Johnson: I’ve remained curious about this for years. Was there ever any more on what happened?
Robinson: There was a smell. I’m a New Yorker and if you live here long enough, you know the funky smell of a dead rat. One week it was dead rat, the next week maybe dead cat, and maybe three weeks later, ‘Is it a big dog?’ The smell was getting worse and we didn’t know what it was. Finally, one morning we were loading in a DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist show and a stagehand called the police because it had gotten so bad.
The police showed up and I told them we think the smell is coming from a small concrete pool house that flanked the stage. Myself, a police officer, and a security guard moved a big metal plate that looked like it was permanent, but up close, it could be slid off to the side to sneak in through the hole. We walked into a dark, nasty place with two feet of garbage piled up, like the trash compactor in Star Wars. It was disgusting. It was a gag reflex stink in there.
The cop said there was nothing in there but trash, but then the security guard pulled back another metal plate… I just saw from the waist down, a guy’s legs sticking out, his pants were flat. You could tell he decomposed… We immediately left the area. And then it was just like Law & Order, the coroner showed up, there was an investigation, and the cops found a couple of pill bottles next to him. There was a doctor's note and one of the cops said, “Guess he’s not making this appointment.” By the time they brought the body out in a bag, there were helicopters flying overhead, NY1 came on the scene… I had to go up to a detective, “Excuse me, this is going to sound completely insensitive given there’s a dead man, but we’re expecting 5,000 people in a few hours, are we good to put on a show?” He told us we’d be fine. They re-sealed the metal plate and the smell dissipated. I didn’t personally tell them, but DJ Shadow had tech people in McCarren in the morning. I’m sure the artists knew. The show must, and did, go on.
I felt so bad for the guy. I tried to find out some information, but all I got was that he was an older homeless man. I don’t know if he died of natural causes or overdosed. When you’re homeless, you have to do whatever you have to do for shelter, but it was extreme to be sleeping in that gnarly room. It had been three or four weeks. His situation was so sad. Here we are having the best times of the summer and this poor guy is lying close by, dead. Life moves forward, but for me, the rest of the summer wasn’t the same. It was hard not to look stage left and think about the poor dude who died in there.
Johnson: At some point later on, it became clear to me that there was a dead guy while we were playing. That’s insane.
Robinson: It’s surreal to think of…. But I should note, Matt and Kim put on one hell of a show.
Image: Copyright Edwina Hay
THE CRUEL SUMMER(S), 2009-10
After McCarren, the concert series moved a few blocks south to the Waterfront, a venue in East River State Park where JellyNYC had little control. It wasn’t the same as the Pool Parties, but the shows provided a few indelible moments, including a visit from America’s favorite couple.
DeFalco: I left after the pool closed. I was really burned out. I’m not playing a big violin solo here, but I never made any money there. It was tough to survive. The last year I booked shows and from January-to-August, I slept on couches. It felt like things were changing. I wanted to do something else. I went back to Southpaw.
Hooper: In 2008, Jelly still wasn’t a full-time job, and we were still scraping by trying to get bands paid. Budweiser offered us $100K, which was huge because most of our money came from beer sales. We wanted to stick with Brooklyn Brewery and would’ve given a neighborhood discount, but their offer wasn’t even close to Bud. It marked the beginning of the intense political climate to come.
Kane: Things got a lot worse when Budweiser became our main beer sponsor over Brooklyn Brewery, but we didn’t really have a choice. Waterfront shows at the state park cost a lot more. There were new fees applied all the time. We needed serious dollars. Bud offered us a lot more money than Brooklyn Brewery.
Kane: We got more professional each summer, but every year it got harder to put on shows. I don’t want to point fingers because I’m sure we could have done better, but there was a resentment towards Jelly that festered over time. At one point, Chuck Schumer had ridden his bike past our show, stopped, got off, and taken it all in. His people asked if he could address the audience from the stage at a later show, which we ignored. At first. Eventually, it got so bad, we called Senator Schumer and had him speak on our behalf.
Goldstein: It really felt like Brooklyn Brewery declared war on Jelly.
Hooper:Schumer became our champion, insisted Jelly be the promoter of the still-free shows at the Waterfront. He has clout and it turns out, he’s an indie rock fan of bands like Grizzly Bear.
Kane: We butted heads with the Open Space Alliance, an organization that had ties to the Parks Department and Brooklyn Brewery. The first summer, OSA had a six-foot table at the Jelly shows to let people know what they were about. They were a formal city thing and I get why they became the arbiters of what went down at the space, but I don’t know why it got so hostile. What are we doing? Throwing free shows for kids. Why did it have to get so hard?
Hooper: There were a lot more caveats, but Jelly was willing to jump through hoops to make it happen. It was tough because we had to use new bar people, PAs, and security guards, one of whom grabbed a kid by the arm and threw him to the ground for crowd-surfing. What the fuck are you doing?
Moeller: When the shows moved to the Waterfront, an official PR team got involved. I remember them explaining to me how the VIP list would work. “You know I’ve been handling this for three years, right?” My ego was bruised, for a day. I still went to the shows. The Waterfront was fun in its own way, but it was way more of the good-looking kids than the misshapen ones who populated the pool.
Hooper: In 2009, it had become impossible to make money with all the new rules and fees, but we gave it one more shot. Come 2010, more and more of our autonomy had been taken away by OSA, including running every artist by them. It was mere weeks until the summer concert season, so we couldn’t try and find a new spot. We were fighting a losing battle, a far cry from when we got the whole thing started. We’d show up on Sundays and the gates would be locked until we paid a new fee.
Goldstein: Here’s the difference between McCarren and the Waterfront. Breaking down and moving that 25-foot Slip 'N Slide every week was a huge pain in the ass. At the pool, we had to keep it in some weird on-site park guy’s shed. He was drunk every weekend, busting balls, making our life harder, but it didn’t take too long. At the Waterfront, we had to put it in a box truck and I had to enlist my loser friends to haul it back to the office in interior Williamsburg.
Kane: We always missed the pool shows, but the Waterfront had its crazy-ass moments too. The rider for Girl Talk said he was allowed to bring 25 people on stage, a few songs into the set, the stage was packed front-to-back. Fifty people or more. The stage started to collapse, the cinder blocks were crumbling and buckling. We had to stop the show.
Goldstein: At the Girl Talk show, I was filming, trying to kick people off the stage while they climbed up like a zombie apocalypse.
Moeller: I walked Beyonce and Jay-Z into the Grizzly Bear show. I’m rather chatty and I walk really fast, so I wasn’t paying attention. I turned around and they were a solid 40 feet behind me, walking slowly, taking pictures with fans. I assumed being that famous you’d want to move quickly, but they were lackadaisical. My takeaway: Beyonce and Jay-Z are slow-walkers for the people.
Menze: I have a fond memory of taking photos of Beyonce on my crappy Blackberry, but we weren’t all super-glued to our phones then. We didn’t really have social media documentation, there aren’t 700 selfies of me at the Of Montreal gig. It felt communal, like we were all in the moment a little more. It’s so sad to say, but to remember the shows, I didn’t scroll through my phone. I scrolled through my brain.
Hooper: Late at that show, I distinctly remember looking out as the sun went down while Grizzly Bear played thinking, “For all the shit we’ve put up with it, this is a really cool moment.”
Goldstein: The Future Islands thing came full circle when they played the Waterfront, but I had to watch it from a VIP section from behind the stage in a random space owned by this Russian dude. The Parks Department banned me from the Waterfront for throwing bicycle barricades around after a Cap’n Jazz reunion show was canceled and moved to Brooklyn Bowl. I distributed the wristbands and knew we would lose out on $10,000 worth of beer money because the crowd shrunk by thousands. I was just blowing off steam and the barricades were nowhere near the woman from OSA, but it came off really bad.
Hooper: Come 2010, things were more onerous and we noticed OSA was shooting down all of our hip-hop proposals. Near the end, we were beaten, and knew it was over. Alex and I decided to go out with a bang, with a big fuck you. We turned in a fake artist list, which said it was going to be Les Savy Fav doing a Run-D.M.C. cover band thing. That actually ended up happening, with DMC, Andrew W.K., and Tim Harrington doing "Walk This Way," but the real star of our show was Gucci Mane. This was when “Lemonade” was everywhere, not long after Gucci had gotten out of jail. We kept him away from the trailers and the VIP, holed him up outside a bar owned by this cool old Polish guy, which was fairly close to backstage. Gucci got out of a car with his armed bodyguards. Someone started yelling at me, I said, “Go ahead and stop him,” pointing at the guard with the AK.
Kane: The most rock ‘n’ roll thing of all five years was handing Gucci Mane a McDonald’s bag filled with $20K.
Hooper: As Gucci took the stage, I said something to the crowd like, “Don’t ever let people tell you what to fucking do with yourself.” I tore up the artists list, threw it in the air… I was done. I didn’t care. It wasn’t fun anymore.
Moeller: Usually, important times in our lives fade out and you don’t realize what it meant until years later… When the last little Jelly rattle shook at the Waterfront, I tangibly felt the last call.
THE END OF WILLIAMSBURG AS THEY KNEW IT
The artsy, creative Williamsburg gave way to the upscale playground it’s become in much the same fashion as the pool venue gave way to one surrounded by glassy apartment towers.
Johnson: Not too make light of the situation, but I do think a man overdosing alone shows the change from old to new Williamsburg, where the pool was a forgotten place to break into to do drugs or whatever, to that bridge period where 5,000 people showed up for these crazy parties, to the unrecognizable neighborhood it is today.
Allen: You would think mid-2000s New York City would be on lockdown, that corporate players, promoters, and ticketing companies would have a stranglehold, but it was the opposite. There was so much free underground cool stuff going on that scrappy hustlers could make it happen. Jelly started as a handful of people. I don’t think you could pull that off now.
Goldstein: It was the last Williamsburg stand before all the condos lined Kent and Wythe. A lot of people came to Brooklyn at that time to have new experiences, create stuff, and try and figure some shit out. People needed a place to go and meet each other, and it’s the people that made the Pool Parties great. I made a promo video called "Fraudsters," laying a rant of neighborhood right-winger Jay Mundy trashing all of us over footage of a Jelly party. It captures something of that era.
Menze: As the summers went on, more and more of these high-rise condos were being built, and I wondered, “Who would live down here? It just seems so far from the other side of the park.” LOL. The development along the water is so absurd now.
Hooper: Before the high-rises came, Williamsburg felt like an incredible arts community where you never knew what was coming next. What the neighborhood has lost is truly tragic. Even on my dumb privileged indie scale, it hurt. There was a lot of wonder and a lot of heartbreak. Whenever I go back, I don’t recognize it all.
Walsh: It’s really weird to think we played McCarren twice and there are just a few grainy YouTube clips. Technology changes so quickly, the MySpace generation was that long ago.
Campo: The area is fully gentrified and there are major implications for how much people spend on housing. It’s no joke, but one interesting thing is that against all odds, the music industry is thriving in Williamsburg. There is still a concentration of venues, even a few new ones that have opened up, which is kind of unbelievable. I saw Dead Meadow at the second McCarren Pool show in 2006 and I saw them a couple years ago at Rough Trade. The DIY vibe is gone, but amazingly, the scene has endured and so many of those McCarren bands still make it a stop.
Beans: It was a really good time to be in New York City, things were hot. I hung out in the Williamsburg bars a lot back then. Meet girls, see bands. Music was everywhere.
It’s been more than a decade since McCarren pool and the Waterfront were the coolest joints in town… Although it can easily make the same case today, when the summer winds come blowing in, most everyone who ever got in on those abandoned ramshackle is-this-really-happening Pool Parties looks back upon it fondly.
Yampolsky: When the pool finally reopened in 2012, I was ecstatic. Overcoming the idea of it becoming a permanent concert venue was an unexpected conclusion. We won.
Beans: It’s back to being a pool, now? Huh. Seems kind of wack, but I guess it’s good for the kids.
Ramirez: They turned the entire thing back into a public pool? Wow! How many lifeguards do they have? If kids are in the middle of the pool, the bathrooms are still far right? I know kids, man. They wait until the last minute. It has to be the biggest pee pool anywhere, right? The next time the Detroit Cobras come to Brooklyn, I have to see the place in action.
Casale: There’s something both cool and sad about a drained pool. It was strange to play an abandoned space, but it really worked.
DeFalco: I haven’t been to the pool since it reopened, I just can’t. There’s too many memories…
Kane: I’d produced video shoots, but never events attended by some 6,000 people. We made so many mistakes, like hiring a dozen security guards when we probably needed forty. Although I should say, our crowds were cool and didn’t want to fuck up a good thing. We didn’t have a single fight at a Jelly show.
Moeller: I’d wake up on Sundays thinking, “Yes! The best day is about to happen!”
Campo: There are free shows all over New York City throughout the summer. The programming for the big stages in Prospect and Central Parks has to be wide-ranging and represent a panoply of genres and styles. Jelly went the opposite way and didn’t try to please everyone. They united a community of people who wanted to be together in that weird space. They circumvented the time-tested way of doing things in public, bringing various voices around the table to voice concerns. It has value, but it also means you have to start crossing things off the list right away. Jelly stuck to their guns and it’s why the shows remain so memorable.
Finn: Summer in New York is always sticky, sweaty fun. There was a lot of excitement around playing the empty neighborhood pool, sort of this acknowledgement every Sunday that, “Oh yeah, there are a lot of people around here just like us.”
Harris: The McCarren show took place at a peak time for us. The Body, The Blood, The Machine was our biggest record, our shows were selling out, and we toured constantly from 2006-09. New York always treated us really well, which was kind of a surprise, because we’re such nerds. Brooklyn audiences digging us on that scorcher of a day was the best.
Lambert: I’m still so happy we got to play there. Playing McCarren made it feel like we’d been accepted in the coolest place around. It was an honor.
Peelander-Yellow: I can’t believe that was 13 years ago, I thought it was five. I’m getting old.
Honus Honus: In our relative infancy, Jelly took a chance on a strange word-of-mouth band from Philly and gave us a beautiful experience. It was one of those situations where I walked on stage, looked out, and knew I would appreciate and cherish it forever. That show made the perseverance and persistence worth it, I felt like, “I do have a purpose, at least a little bit.” Man Man did our damndest to freak those sweaty drunk Brooklyn kids the fuck out. I hope someone at our show was inspired to do something the way the crowd inspired us.
McMicken: Thinking back on that McCarren show gives me a weird chilling sense of how far we’ve come. We existed with that lineup for seven years, but it’s been more than ten years since. I forget what it was like to operate as Dr. Dog back when it was essentially a different group of people. It pulls my mind back to when we were a much scrappier, dysfunctional, intense operation.
Borcherdt: Oddly, as I get older, that time feels more like yesterday, like any minute I’m going to get an email inviting us to come play McCarren, like all the fun we had on that beautiful day is still possible … Awwww man, why can’t we do this every summer?
Robinson: What Jelly did was special. I didn’t really have to work the free shows, so I’d ride my bike there every Sunday and soak up the party. I was fortunate to have a little trailer with air conditioning and an unlimited supply of beer. It’s all a blur, but I feel like I was there every week. I was a fixture.
Goldstein: I don’t know that Jelly was the first branded free concert series, but it sure seems like every city and town has some similar summer festival.
Allen: Ice Cream Man was perfect for the Pool Parties. It was summer and we were all a bunch of hobos throwing shit against the brick wall and making a little magic happen.
Argue: To me, Return to Cookie Mountain was clearly about living in year six of the Bush administration, the dystopian cloud hanging over America. The TV on the Radio show, actually all the McCarren shows I went to, offered a welcoming Brooklyn refuge from that reality. In those years, I founded my own 18-piece band, Secret Society. Obviously, Big Band isn’t the same as indie rock, but being part of the community made those years a special part of my existence. It felt like people doing truly different things, even on a shoestring budget, had an honest shot to make it.
Lafrance: The city didn’t see what McCarren could be, just as an eyesore and a drain on taxpayers. The rejuvenation of the pool was almost more intellectual and emotional than physical. I introduced the concept that the space remained beautiful, interesting, and tied to neighborhood history.
DeFalco: The Pool Parties are a great time capsule. Both personally because they’re the biggest shows I’ve ever been a part of, and for a really fun era in Brooklyn. It took its toll financially and psychologically, but I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. It was the end of lawlessness in Williamsburg. Our first four shows were held on collapsable rickety mini-stages, who on Earth would let kids do that today?
Kane: We don’t have a support group for survivors of the Pool Parties, but maybe we should. Get together and reminisce. At least there should be a photo book out there.
Hooper: We threw such great parties, we made a girl poop in her purse. Now that’s a fucking legacy.
Image: Copyright 2020 Larry Racioppo
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