Tribeca’s Cortlandt Alley runs behind a gigantic bar with a few dozen TVs. Now, trademark orange banners draped on the scaffolding above the building announce it to be HARLEY DAVIDSON OF NYC (the various motorcycle trailers clogging the side streets are a clue, too). Not too long ago, it was the MLB Fan Cave, a weird venture from Major League Baseball that seemed to exist mainly to host live sets from bands like the Goo Goo Dolls, who’d perform in front of banks of floodlights under swooping crane cameras; the kind of thing sports broadcasters would cut to for a few seconds to pad their intros and outros.
Just about half a block away, something decidedly smaller-scale is happening at Mmuseumm, a place for which the word “quirky” seems to have been invented. Located entirely inside a disused service elevator about halfway down that alley, Mmuseum’s current display includes tubes of toothpastes from around the world, plastic spoons, peepshow tokens, and what appears to be a circular tray of someone’s lunch balancing on top of a Corona, all numbered and carefully pinned like butterflies in a collection (all except the lunch, which was sitting on the floor. Maybe it actually was someone’s lunch).
Through July, also on display is Brooklyn musician Grey Gersten (aka Eternal Lips). Every 20 minutes, between 7 pm and 10 pm, Gersten stands in his tiny booth, behind a piece of Plexiglas, and writes personalized pop songs for the people who’ve made appointments (uninvited passers-by who stop will be shooed away and advised to make their own appointment).
Walking up to the Mmuseum, the first thing you notice is a young woman, seated very businesslike in front of a small folding table covered in papers. “I’ll need you to complete all these forms,” the woman, who gave her name as Laura, told me on my trip this past weekend. “Please press hard for the carbon copy. You have 15 minutes to fill them out, but do not feel time pressured; please fill them out with depth.”
The form is somewhere at the intersection of the bureaucratic and bizarre, with a dash of psychotherapy; Marina Abramovoic meets applying for an apartment in Soviet Russia. Questions include:
Are you allergic to any of the following musical genres?
For what reason did you last get goosebumps?
What is your earliest memory?
Briefly describe a recent or recurring dream.
Mixed in, there’s a long yes or no section that wants to know if you’ve even been involved in the occult, saved someone’s life, lost old friends, consider yourself sentimental, if it’s difficult to get you excited, if you know your limits yet, if you’ve ever felt possessed, on and on. This is followed by a sketching section where you’re asked to draw the hands on a clock and the eyebrows on a face. By the time I’d finished, I felt totally exposed as the banal milquetoast I know myself to be (the last time I got goosebumps was when I sneezed). I couldn’t believe that I’d let someone else see the sheet of paper, much less that they would write a song on based upon it.
Much to my horror, after completing your forms (and having them stamped), you’re told to present them to the artist, who reads them in front of you and peppers you with questions about them. “I see you have some musical allergies—could you tell me what happens if you’re exposed to these genres?” being his lead question.
“Nothing much, just mild nausea,” I told him, trying to play my part in our doctor-patient pantomime.
Luckily, Gersten has a kind face, and smiled indulgently as I told him about the time my father saved me from a rip tide, and the time I read books on Wicca while taking tweens to the beach as a day camp counselor. It was strange how much intimacy the situation demands, and how quickly. Gersten eventually zeroed in on a recent dream I had, wherein an imaginary boss is furious at me for eating his cookies. “Hrm,” he mumbled as I finished my description. “I think this is the key to the whole thing.”
At this point, and without much warning, Gersten began playing on an assortment of instruments. At first I thought this was the song: a wordless, improvisational mix of guitars, sequencers, and drum machines. Eventually, it became clear that this was just the first step; he was finding the melody. Next, I was induced to sing some lines (even after expressly marking on my form that I do not like the sound of my own voice), which turned out to be the entirety of the song’s lyrics.
“Pop song,” is putting a bit strongly the piece of music that emerged, but it was a pleasantly noodly bit of early-00s-vintage electronic independent music. A slightly more accessible Takako Minekawa, maybe? I felt strangely wrung-out by the time it was all over, as if I’d been judged on a deeply intimate level, and had the results reflected back at me.
“How was it?” Laura asked, as I walked back out of the alley.
“It made me very nervous,” I told her.
“Oh. It shouldn’t have,” she replied.