The ending is the beginning of Matt Conboy’s documentary, Goodnight Brooklyn-The Story of Death by Audio. The film starts on a blistering cold night in Brooklyn. The wind whips off the water chilling the bones and souls of young and old alike who stand in a line that extends beyond the brick, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, warehouse and wraps around corners. It is November 22, 2014, the last night to celebrate a gathering of bands (Lighting Bolt, Deerhoof,, GROOMS and more), that got their first start at a vibrant, gobsmacking DIY underground music club, Death By Audio.
After an emotional “Thanks for your support,” the deeply apologetic announcement is made that most of the fans will be turned away. The first in the line enter the club’s lighted warmth. Hearts broken, the rest stand in the frigid air, looking wistfully at their fortunate compatriots. It’s hard to leave what has become holy ground without saying goodbye to honored friends, musicians and beloved club hosts and organizers, Matt Conboy, Edan Wilber, and Oliver Ackermann.
Everyone who made it into the club that fateful night and especially those who built up the community spirit of Death By Audio, will have treasured memories to last 30 lifetimes. After this poignant opening, Conboy flashes back to the ground zero origination of Death By Audio that was spun out in the dilapidated warehouse on Second Avenue Williamsburg in one of the sleezier, run-down, no man’s land areas of NYC that no one wanted to be in and no one conceived would ever amount to anything. That is no one except Oliver Ackermann and others who were looking for a large space to begin a pedal business.
Using video clips from that time to the present, Conboy chronicles the extent that the core group and others gradually transformed the space from dingy uninhabitable to one of the coolest places in Brooklyn. In this fine documentary Conboy uses personal video and photographs cobbled from the club’s inception to chronicle the rise of this DIY venue as a unique, one-of-a-kind, living organism. He interviews musicians, writers, staff, friends, roommates, commentators. Each contribute their unique understanding of how this place at that time became a phenomenon.
With clips of the construction evolution and commentary from some of the 40 individuals who lived there during its heyday, we understand and empathize with what the founders built up and why its vanishing is so incredibly painful to all those whose time, effort, and love were invested there. Conboy includes clips of the trials and tribulations of the life they had made for themselves from leaking feces sewage pipes that they had to repair while the landlord blithely threw up his hands, to fears of raids by police or fire inspectors if someone complained about the noise or the crowds. Packed in dancing, cheering fans raised the heat to a mere 98 degrees with air conditioning. Before the founders became settled in, the heat got up a lot higher during the excitement, dancing and fun as bands sweated, dreamed and rocked.
Because Conboy organizes the film (after the initial set up), as a countdown to closing night, we are on edge and in anticipation as he enumerates the days: twenty-six days left, twenty days left, ten days left, etc. With great enthusiasm and triumphant attitude, the founders decided to invite bands in, celebrate and rock the last month before the end, even adding a bang up art exhibit entitled Death By Art. It is a testament to the joy and love of who they are and how they manifest the creative spirit as it struggles under the siege of corporate hegemony. We feel inspired at their exploits and saddened that all negotiated attempts to deal with what happened were called off. The space was deemed to be worth so much more than what it was taking in with Death By Audio’s presence there. The rental lease went to someone else, Vice Media, who evicted them.
With each enumeration of waning days, our interest is heightened. This countback organization is a great choice by Conboy, who even includes how Vice Media’s demolition above them gravely impacts their living space with falling dust, noise (not music), plaster, etc., mold and other rot. When a pipe bursts and destroys their belongings (Ackermann’s predominately), with water damage, Vice Media’s sanguine response (it has not paid damages to this day), and subsequent threatening reactions to graffiti about Shane Smith, sets the founders into a panic. They want to make it to November 22nd and not be evicted by Vice Media’s complaints to the NYC Building Department, et. al.
The irony in all of this is that the artistic founders were idealists who just wanted to explore their love of music and art and create; it was not to make fistfulls of dollars. If they could take care of the rent while the pedal business supplied their needs and they could provide innovative, alternative music for a very reasonable price, they were happy. As Death By Video became “the cool place to be,” the founders realized the artistic gold being expressed there and expanded their vision as part of an amazing individualistic creation and community that is impossible to duplicate. In recalling how he, Ackermann, and Wilber built up the indie music venue into a place of fun and genius, Conboy underscores the major theme of his film: in its undemocratic and calculating assassination of Death By Audio, Vice Media is another example of artists being bulldozed and bled out by greedy and mindless Philistine media oligarchs.
Various media conglomerates Hearst Corporation, Disney, News Corp purchased a stake in Vice Media, allowing it to take over the building. They chose the second avenue warehouse out of all of the choices available to them in the city and evicted Death By Audio, who originally had rented from a landlord thrilled that someone was willing to do anything to offset and collect rent from his uninhabitable, slum space of derelict negligence.
At one time Vice articles had bestowed worthy praise on Death By Audio and was seen as a friend. But whopping amounts of money changed all that. It was one more lousy story of Goliath trampling artists, musicians, and creatives who built a utopia with their blood, sweat and tears. Vice Media’s incalculable damage to the creative spirit is all the more inhuman and heartless because they never would have even thought to take over the building if Conboy, Ackermann and Wilber, countless fans and others who contributed their essence and love had not made it a hot property and enviable treasure. Of all those who should understand what the alternative, underground scene is about, it should have been Vice Media. The curtain of truth is lifted; for Vice it’s about the bottom line, not supporting artists and musicians with a symbolic act.
Conboy interviews most of the bands that got their start at the underground oasis like JEFF The Brotherhood, Lightening Bolt, GROOMS, Ty Segall, Lauren Stern of the Splinters, Deerhoof. Ackermann’s band, A Place to Bury Strangers, and Thurston Moore performed at Death by Audio as did Vivian Girls and Future Islands. The musicians share their view of the injustice and black irony of what Vice Media is doing and then they play their hearts out during the last days.
Conboy’s film reveals the lesson in all of this. Predators and artists will never understand one another. For artists it’s about expressing what they love and showcasing their talent. For those who prey on them, it becomes just “show me the money” and “leave me alone to count it.” Vice Media mainstreamed itself. Its mission is dangerously perishable as its size increases. Like Goliath whose dim vision didn’t see David coming and whose person was too arrogant and unwieldy to imagine he would be dead when the slingshot spun around David’s head, Vice Media may turn into a duplicate of its wealthy progenitors. And then it may lose its fan respect and edge. Though the venue Death by Audio has died, with death comes the possibility of resurrection.
As Conboy lays out his chronicle he painstakingly edits and threads how and why this apotheosis of a New York underground artists’ and musicians scene should matter to all of us, even if we didn’t ever get to Second Avenue Williamsburg. The warehouse was a burgeoning, democratic work space for artists and musicians. Most importantly it also served as a recording studio, effects pedal factory (founded by Oliver Ackerman in 2002), and an alternative/underground art and music venue. Its loss is a loss for all who aspire to create, all who are artists, all who are frustrated by the over-development of a city which should be indemnified for allowing money to negatively trump the creative spirit and the welfare of New Yorkers.