“I was born in New York and, though I’ve tried other places, I’m gonna stay through the storm,” Jesse Malin says on a warm fall evening, as he sits under a newly erected outdoor-dining structure in front of Bowery Electric. “I’ve lived through September 11, the blackouts, the junkies and the Son of Sam, but I don’t remember a time like this.”
Malin was in Europe supporting his 2019 LP, the Lucinda Williams-produced Sunset Kids, when the novel coronavirus cut his world tour short. He returned to New York on March 14 and after, as he says, “a week of laying in bed, just in shock, but thinking pretty optimistically like I tend to do,” his manager suggested he try his luck with streaming.
“I didn’t want to be some guy bent over his laptop moaning some acoustic guitar songs, and I’m not a technical person—I can barely work a DVD player—but I decided to try it,” he admits. “I was alone in my apartment and it was just dead outside—a little scary. I put my iPhone on a tripod, stood up at a mic stand and started talking about all this stuff in my room and playing some songs. It turned into show and tell—this punk-rock, Mr. Rogers thing.” The couch concert, which he dubbed The Fine Art of Self Distancing as a nod to his 2002 solo debut, quickly caught on and grew into a weekly variety show featuring a mix of performances and conversations. The sessions eventually moved to Bowery Electric, one of the many clubs and bars in his portfolio, and have already featured in-person and remote guests like Williams, Debbie Harry, The Sopranos’ Michael Imperioli, Pete Yorn, Joseph Arthur and DMC of RunDMC, among others. “I’ve watched a lot of Dick Cavett on YouTube recently,” Malin says. “But we break character, we tell stories, we tell jokes and I share what I’m listening to. Everyone is just looking for a way to stay connected—whether it’s a phone call or a walk in the park. It’s important for your sanity.”
As he stays busy checking in on his different New York establishments, and continues to safely work toward his next studio project, Malin recounts some highlights from The Fine Art of Self Distancing ’s first year, accompanied by David Stekert’s photos.
“I have really missed my friends during this heavy time. These chats really helped me not feel so isolated. Lucinda Williams and many others had great albums come out during the pandemic and could not tour to promote them, like they usually do. Here, Lucinda was telling me how she made the best of doing promo from her living room and embraced it full-on.”
“Craig Finn is one of my favorite writers out there. I really look up to him and I am a fan of all he does solo and with The Hold Steady. He also loves hardcore punk and loves to talk about the bands from that scene. He is always writing and working hard. He is a true artist. This interview was done just a couple of days after the horrible murder of George Floyd. We were both pretty destroyed. I really hope we, as human beings, learn from these terrible times, care more about each other and hold the planet in a much higher regard going forward.”
“Talking to DMC from Run DMC at a 6-foot distance (that’s one Joey Ramone length away) was a pleasure. Two guys from Queens reminiscing about all those cool shows we saw growing up. He is a super-positive soul, and playing ‘Walk This Way’ with him was surreal and a rockin’ experience.”
“Michael is a music fan and a guitar player as well. He is also very New York, in the best ways. I love talking with the actors even more than the musicians, somehow. I am a big movie buff and consider The Sopranos to be the best TV show ever. Michael is very open and free with his experiences, and his journey as an actor. We’ve spent many nights over the years yakking at bars about Lou Reed, Johnny Thunders, Al Pacino and Goodfellas. So this was a loose and easy hang.”
“I grew up with Blondie’s music and the super-cool lifestyle that they brought into my little world as a teenager. Debbie has done and seen so much but still remains very real and down to earth. It was interesting to hear her perspective on what was happening in the world this year, knowing how much she has lived through, especially in NYC. She is so beautiful, smart and charming that it was hard not to get mesmerized.”
“Danny Clinch isn’t just one of the greatest photographers, but is also a mean harp player. Having him join us on Dylan’s ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’ really lifted my spirits. Rock-and-roll, like jazz, is an interactive sport. In this shot, Danny is telling me his photography secrets and tricks. He really lives his art 24/7 and possesses this mojo that we don’t often see in our heroes.”
“I had jammed with Fred Armisen before, at our yearly Strummer Foundation charity event, but I had no idea how rich his music and punk-rock knowledge was. This was one of my favorite conversations, especially when he brought up The Plasmatics. He’s such a sweet and giving guy.”