Up on the chilly roof of The Iron Monkey in downtown Jersey City on Sunday night, surrounded by a constellation of auto-on lights of the towering office buildings, I was gripped by doubt. Were we alone out here? Had we crossed the Jersey border for nothing?
Nina and I had PATH-trained it out there, lured by a "tweet" that I'd seen on Tom Scharpling's Twitter feed to the effect that he was going to be shooting a music video for the estimable Titus Andronicus: a marathon, single-day guided tour of the Garden State, that was gonna finish up at what looked like a fairly un-punk rock fancy beer bar. I'd been in a panic about being late, and we'd power-walked from the Exchange Pl. stop, only to find that the Monkey was hosting an event for something called Beer Club NJ, a gathering of people wearing khakis and club-branded t-shirts. With increasing bewilderment, we followed the signs pointing us to up to the roof: If the event were for real, why wasn't the place mobbed with angry young beardos in too-tight jeans? The roof was cold, dark, and abandoned, but even empty it didn't look like a place you'd wanna film a video for a rock song: There was a wooden bar, some wrought-iron patio furniture, some unused wooden trellises leaning up against a wall. We parked ourselves on a pair of cold chairs by the edge of the roof and checked and double-checked that we were in the right place.
Eventually we were joined by another young-ish couple, a beardy ginger and his girlfriend, who at least assured us that we weren't crazy. The guy and I fussed with our smart-phones and complained about the punctuality of Scharpling's video producer, Rob Hatch-Miller, as if we knew him personally.
Some more time went by, and finally an Iron Monkey staffer came through the roof door and told us we had to go downstairs, although she did confirm that the shoot was still on track to happen.
When I was a kid I had one of those EC horror comics with a story in it ("Midnight Mess") about a guy who goes to eat at a restaurant in a part of town that's unfamiliar to him. The place is busy but the decor is strange, and there are all these blood-based (!) dishes on the menu. Eventually he realizes that all the other patrons in the restaurant are vampires and that he's the only alive dude in the place -- they realize it, too, of course, and, you know, do their thing on him. Going back downstairs to the bar kind of reminded me of that story, except that I was recognizing my fellow vampires: Those pale geeks at the bar -- they're wearing Titus Andronicus t-shirts under their hoodies! That guy nursing a pint over his duck confit on the second floor -- he's got a WFMU sticker on his briefcase! After that I felt a whole lot better about the situation. Nina and I ordered some fancy beers that came with orange slices in them. And it wasn't too much longer before the band and film crew did show up.
I was watching the street out the window, but what actually tipped me off was Tom Scharpling walking by our table and up the stairs to the roof. He's a big guy in person, bear-like, even, and his voice and mannerisms ("Oh. Well, thank you. You're sweet to say so.") are unmistakable from hearing him on his radio show. He was with his wife, Terre T (much taller than I expected), host of the excellent Cherry Blossom Clinic, also on FMU.
After another interminable wait, they started herding us upstairs. The roof had been transformed by bright lights and bustling PAs, and right where we'd be sitting in the cold and dark a few hours earlier, the band had set up. We were in the first batch of audience members to get up the stairs, and so they kind of herded us around the side of the bar to the far side of the roof. Too late we (I) realized that this would put us out of sight of the cameras, but I was too busy trying to be a good extra to resist the film crew's directions. No matter: We wound up huddled on top of the bar with a bunch of rowdy, friendly people who were as excited to sing along and pump their mittened fists as we were.
After warming us up with the beginning of A More Perfect Union, the band launched into the first of several takes of the song they were doing for the video, No Future Part III: Escape From No Future. Only a few people in the audience seemed to know the long and meandering verses, but everybody sure knew the chorus. "You will always be a loser; you will always be...j a loser."
"I always feel bad about singing along to this part," Nina confessed to the girl sitting next to her. "This can't be good for his self-esteem."
"I know," said the girl. "Our mom goes over his lyrics with a fine-toothed comb."
It turned out we were sitting right next to Mr. Stickles' sister! Nina and I disagree about the meaning of the song's lyrics -- I think it's an affirmation, while she only hears the sad stuff in it -- but either way it's a personal enough song that it's a little unsettling to have it repeated and deconstructed for the purposes of making the video.
A few minutes into the filming, one of the revelers in the part of the roof directly in front of the band took an unlucky stomp on a weak part of the wooden deck and put his foot right through it. There was a pause while the damage was assessed, and then the producers announced that they were going to have to cut the filming a bit short. As a consolation prize of sorts, though, they recorded a very long audience-participatory version of the breakdown during the end of the song. "You'll always! Be a loser!" So I don't think we're gonna be visible in the video, but we might be audible -- and someone behind us took a pretty awesome shot of Nina's gloved and cheering hands that evokes the experience pretty well.
And then it was over and we had to go downstairs. Tom and Terre lingered around by the bathrooms on the top floor, anxiously attempting to triangulate the position of the dude who'd fucked up the deck to see if there was any damage to The Iron Monkey's ceiling that Tom'd have to cover out of pocket. Fortunately, there wasn't any. Nonetheless, when Nina and I finally decided to pack up and head home, we found him lolling on a bench outside the bar, fretting about the incident to the band and an assembled crowd of admirers.
"I'm never going to another Tom Scharpling video shoot ever again," I whined, play-acting an injured deck-stepper.
"Me neither!" he said. But he looked pretty happy.