“Is seeing Jesse Malin carrying a guitar on Avenue A the most New York thing I could possibly see?” drummer and Best Show co-host Jon Wurster tweeted this week. In fact, Malin has been a part of the New York City fabric since he joined his first hardcore band Heart Attack at 14, eventually forming the influential punk outfit D Generation before turning down the volume as a singer-songwriter solo act on 2002’s Ryan Adams-produced The Fine Art of Self Destruction, an album that would fit squarely in the Americana genre if released today.
Earlier this year, Malin unveiled the EP Meet Me at the End of the World, a mix of Lower East Side grit and Simon & Garfunkel Americana pop that serves as a bridge between his next album and 2015’s Outsiders LP. For the video to the title track, directed by Dave Stekert, the singer returned to the streets he’s so closely associated with to play dress-up and capture the reactions of people on the corner. It’s a response, Malin says, to the heavy vibes we’re all struggling through.
“I talk a lot about P.M.A. – positive mental attitude – but these are dark times. I was somehow fortunate enough to see the last Tom Petty show,” Malin says, recalling the late rocker’s final live performance, at the Hollywood Bowl, before his death on October 2nd. “It was the most wonderful show I’ve seen him do. I got back to New York and was really happy I had seen him and I was home working on a new song, and then I see all this crap: Sunday night, Marilyn Manson, something falls on him; the next morning, the stuff in Vegas; and then the Petty news. It hit me that we really have to give each other the love and stick together.”
Malin aims for the human connection in the video for “Meet Me at the End of the World,” donning outrageous get-ups, from shark masks to fake mustaches, to get a rise out of passersby. It’s gonzo video-making with a heart. “We drove to Williamsburg at rush hour, and stood by the train, with everybody coming out of work miserable, and all the hipsters. We went all over New York, putting on the different outfits and getting random people to interact, to dance, to smile, to get pissed off. It became a fun thing, like an experiment,” he says. “Everything that happens is spontaneous.”
Which can also describe Malin’s transition into an Americana troubadour, an organic move that other punk frontmen, like Social Distortion’s Mike Ness, Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin and the Loved Ones’ Dave Hause, have all explored on their own stripped-down projects.
“It’s always been about telling stories. Hardcore for me was about an urgency and a rawness, but when hardcore got to be too macho and too metal for me, I stepped out of that and went looking for other things. In the end of the D Generation days, nobody would care about my lyrics. I could have been singing a phone book and they just wanted to mosh around in a circle, so I’d sit on the bus and listen to Steve Earle, Graham Parker, Wilco and Whiskeytown.”
These days, Malin is also palling around with Lucinda Williams. He’ll open the Americana queen’s October 29th show in Red Bank, New Jersey, and the two have been toying with the idea of writing together. Malin first discovered Williams not via her own albums, but through her singing on Steve Earle’s I Feel Alright LP, and was surprised that a punk godfather was already hip to his find.
“In those days, I would talk to Joey Ramone pretty often about music. We’d wake up and go, ‘What are you listening to?’ I said, ‘I heard this woman, Lucinda Williams,’ and Joey goes, ‘Oh, I know her. I was at a songwriter thing with her at the Bottom Line,'” Malin recalls. “I was like, ‘Really?’ Joey knew a lot of stuff.”
Like Ramone, who recorded a cover of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” for his posthumously released 2002 solo album, Malin continues to search for those rare bright spots in a world seemingly gone mad. And if he can deliver a message in the process – his rallying cry of “Keep the P.M.A.” – all the better.
“I always want stuff to be fun,” he says, nodding to the “Meet Me at the End of the World” video. “If music is just total rhetoric, you might as well have pamphlets and posters. My favorite band’s songs were a combination of having something that feels good and makes you question your environment.”