Jesse Malin's Mission to Save New York City Rock

Singer takes on "spiritual gentrification" with new LP — and still sees hope for his city

Jesse Malin has put his money where his heart is, investing in his neighborhood's rock & roll soul. Credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty

Jesse Malin sees a lot of ghosts on the once-bohemian streets of New York's East Village: late icons, all neighborhood regulars, like Allen Ginsberg, Joey Ramone and Lou Reed. Malin, a local fixture who has just released the powerful street-wise-rock album New York Before the War, also sees a lot of possibility amid the boutique hotels and velvet-rope clubs now lining the Bowery.

"I walk around here and still get ideas," the singer, 47, says, sitting in a First Avenue cafe a few blocks from the old space where his first band, Heart Attack, lived on outdated yogurt and slept on lawn chairs during the Eighties-hardcore explosion. New skyscrapers are "destroying the city," Malin concedes. He refers to a nearby Whole Foods as "Whole Paycheck." But Malin says the war on his new LP, in songs like "Addicted" and "Turn Up the Mains," is against "spiritual gentrification. We're all infiltrated by the same corporate, disposable stuff. It's about holding on to what you value, the culture you come from."

Malin has put his money where his heart is, investing in his neighborhood's rock & roll soul. In the mid-Nineties, while in the glam-punk band D Generation, he used part of a record-deal advance to open Coney Island High, a garage-rock haven on St. Mark's Place. After high rent and legal action by the city (based on an old cabaret law that banned dancing) forced the venue to close in 1999, Malin and Ryan Adams drummer Johnny T opened Niagara, a now-popular bar on the site of the fabled punk club A7. They are also partners in the live-music club Bowery Electric, founded in 2009 up the street from the former CBGB.

Born in Queens, raised by a single mom, Malin says he is a high school graduate with "a seventh-grade education. I don't know if I have any business sense. I do what I like. Somehow it's worked out by need and passion." Malin, who ends the new album with the ballad "Bar Life," notes that on tour, after a show, he always looks "for a place to hear a good DJ, have a couple of beers and talk to people about what's happening on the street. That's part of rock & roll for me. There's dark stuff in the world. But we find a way to own it, sing about it and have a place to defuse it."