In the high, hot years of the early '80s, a scene was born on what was then the Lower East Side, before capitalism made it the East Village. They called the scene Antifolk. It was mostly made up of young people with guitars, writing angry songs about how fucked up the world is and sad songs about how hard it is to really love. In the beginning, they just played music for each other. Then some of them began to get noticed, to get record deals, and, yes, boys and girls, they even had a movie made about them! But unlike most lefty fairy tales that meet with reality, this one hasn't rotted in the center or crashed and burned in kamikaze flames. No, despite (or because of) the pierced, the evicted, the trust-funded, and the Gapped, despite (or because of) being discovered and forgotten at least twice already, Antifolk is still, 12 years later, going strong, in the back room of a restaurant on Avenue A. Antifolk's club the Fort is firmly rooted at Sidewalk Cafe seven big nights a week, and a compilation CD from those nights, Lach's Antihoot: Live From the Fort at Sidewalk Cafe, was released last month on Antifolk's own label.
You may think, What the fuck is Antifolk? Lach, its founder, tries to get that question out of the way on the CD's first track, ''Hey,'' answering ''Hey Lach, what's Antifolk? Hey Lach, what's Antifolk? Hey Lach, what's Antifolk?'' with a punk burst of amped-up guitar in an acoustic song. Guess he gets asked that a lot. ''Okay,'' he sighs, ''the night I opened the Fort, they were holding the New York Folk Festival, and I was like, 'If that's folk music, this must be Antifolk.''' Paula Carino, who contributes the dog's-nose-view song ''Cages'' to Lach's Antihoot, says, ''Yeah, a lot of it is about boys with acoustic guitars, but I'm about a girl with an electric guitar, and there's been room for me too. Stylistically, I'd say Antifolk is mainly music about lyrics, and such a burning desire to communicate that technique can get eclipsed by ideas.'' This girl I rode on the train with after the CD release party--nose-ringed, around 16--remarked, ''If folk music sounds like a sparrow, Antifolk sounds like sparrows on acid.'' Charlie Dahan, the Fort's champion at Shanachie, says, ''Antifolk is whatever it wants to be.''
Whatever it is, some Fort singer-songwriters get signed and drift away. Lach can recite the Litany of the Successful like a bored kid at Mass: ''Beck, Michelle Shocked, Cindy Lee Berryhill, King Missile....'' Two others, Brenda Kahn and Paleface, both just released new discs--Kahn's Destination Anywhere (Shanachie) and Paleface's Get Off (Elektra). ''I do feel kinda removed from that scene now,'' admits Kahn (who has a cut on Lach's Antihoot nonetheless), ''though the Fort was the first gig I ever did.'' As to whether she was or is Antifolk, Kahn says, ''I never wanted to be 'anti' anything.''
Paleface's manager, Danny Fields, wants so vehemently to disassociate Paleface from the Fort that he refuses to let me interview him. ''Paleface has moved on,'' Fields says firmly. ''Like Dylan--it took a lot of work for him to shed that early skin and become known as Bob Dylan, not Bob Dylan the folksinger.'' Paleface's press release, on the other hand, bends over backward to associate him with Beck, another ex-Antifolkie, stressing that they were once best friends and implying, as does Get Off's ''Sorry That You're Lame,'' that Beck stole Paleface's ideas.
Back at the Fort (named for Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress), Lach is patiently explaining things. ''Okay, 'folk music' means the traditional music of a people, right? But for whatever reason, acoustic songwriters took on that label in the '60s, and it stuck. I tried to play in those West Village clubs, but since my stuff is as influenced by the Sex Pistols and the Clash as by Woody Guthrie, they just kept throwing me out. I was like, 'What's the problem? I'm a boring white guy with a guitar....' That's when I knew I'd have to start my own club.''
But can the music still be ''anti'' after so long, after so much success? Was it ever? Lach cuts to the heart of the question. ''Antifolk is to folk what punk was to rock--to paraphrase Johnny Rotten, we showed that folk was dead, that you don't need all the trappings of the industry to make your art. And real rock or folk or punk is never about rebellion, anyway--it's about telling the truth. Sure, it can still be 'anti' now that we've taken over the castle; in fact, it can get totally huge, as long as it stays honest. I mean, if Elvis had written songs about being a fat millionaire in a mansion, maybe he'd still be a great artist today.''
Lach's Antihoot drips with honesty, and though a lot of it sounds like folk music to me, there's clearly an openness to styles and subjects not parochially folk. The CD is structured like a Monday night open mike at the Fort (''Noooooo! Not an 'open mike,''' moans Lach, ''an antihootenany!''), with selections recorded on two of those evenings. A typical Monday antihoot includes lots of dumb jokes from Lach, including promos for stores like Eddie's Air Guitars and Nick's Paling Salon (''Get that death-grunge pallor back in no time''), supportive heckling from the crowd, and roughly 20 performers. Lach is a natural MC, creating a nice family feeling for misfits, and the real antihoot experience reaches off the CD's plastic.
Tom Nishioka's painful, building ''He Comes Unglued'' is about a man trying to lose control. Jane Brody sings herself to ecstasy. The Humans, giant, well-dressed twins, talk about how weird it is to open for hardcore bands, rhyming ''alienation'' with ''masturbation'' and making sounds that break out of any white-guy-with-guitar ghetto. ''Bill's Song,'' by Mr. Scarecrow, may be the most beautiful song--rock, punk, folk, or anti--ever written about AIDS. Prince Lach himself has three cuts that are epics of unpretentiousness. The songwriting throughout is characterized by surprising, smart lyrics, the performances free of gimmicks (and dullness).
Maybe it's honesty that's let Antifolk change with its world, maybe that's why it's lived so long. It sure doesn't hurt that new talent arrives in the pond all the time, replacing those who inevitably swim upstream to screw and get screwed by Big Rock. Hey, that's okay, although personally I'm with Major Matt Mason as he sings it in ''Little Dog Shuffle'': ''Just like an elephant in outer space/Size is always relative.'' Maybe that's the moral of this anti-fairy tale, if there is one.