There’s a house in Far Rockaway that’s business in the front, party in the back—an unassuming ranch with curb appeal that’s worthy of an HGTV revamp. With a stone facade, it’s nestled on a half-acre parcel of fluffy green grass on a quiet bayside street. At night, street lamps spray the asphalt with a non-offensive buzz of incandescence.
On a muggy, Saturday evening in July, no one uses the front door. Matting down a path from the driveway to a stone patio, people enter shows at the Red Light District through the back, where aquamarine spotlights reflect off two big trees, and tomatoes and rhubarb grow out of pots on the patio. An eclectic group of twenty-somethings (many possibly older, but shrouded in thift-store fountain of youth) convened around lawn furniture, taking short drags from cigarettes. They all seem to know each other. After all, you only get to the Red Light District if you know how.
The back door swings open as sweaty humans shuffle in and out. Inside, the walls are doused with scarlet — it’s lighting that you’d see in a photography class dark room or Buffalo Bill’s basement. Plodding down the basement stairs requires assuredness, and once you’re there, you’re confronted with the mixed stench of lentils and onions, a brand of body odor that’s offensively hip. A small television plays a porno VHS, genitals thrusting in black and white as the tape skips a few frames.
Frank Ludovico’s at the bar with a headset on, pouring a signature cocktail and slinging Modelos. He’s been living here since 2008, when he and some friends from Long Island needed a home base for their noise trio, Yellow Tears. Many musicians have come through this house with acts like Pharmakon and DJ Dog Dick being spawned on location. Halflings, dYsgeniX, Diaphragm, Narwhalz, John Mannion, Teeny Bopper, Hands Rendered Useless and Red Light Rock N Roll Jukebox have either lived here in the past or still take up residence. Tonight, Frank plays emcee for the activities, hence the headset. When he takes bar orders, his voice booms throughout the basement.
Red Light District has eight acts scheduled for that night, and Ñaka Ñaka is one of them. Fog slips into the low-ceilinged room as the Brooklyn audio toggler entrances 20 people intensely focused on the beat he’s growing. Some — shirtless or not — bounce erratically and uncomfortably, as if they don’t have a choice. The sound quality of the set-up is unbelievably clear for a DIY show, and much of the room is hypnotized by the noise, focusing on the guy behind the laptop with an unwavering stare. It’s a moment.
Afterward, the lights are lifted and Frank continues bartending. Ñaka Ñaka retreats to the corner for an extended makeout session.
In the past, Far Rockaway in Queens has been romanticized as the sweltering, carefree party spot in the Ramones’ song “Rockaway Beach.” It’s a retreat that removes you from the rest of New York City, like traveling back in time. You can ride the subway all the way to the end to get there, or shell out for a bus that gives you beer on your journey from Williamsburg, past JFK Airport, over the causeway, and into a beach town. Many natives make a living by catering to the weekenders, who come to play in the summer, but usually ignore Far Rockaway come wintertime. The truly dedicated stick through the snow.
It’s not hard, not far to reach, we can hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach
Up on the roof, out on the street
Down in the playground, the hot concrete
Bus ride is too slow, they blast out the disco on the radio
Rockaway still has that ‘70s appeal. Twenty miles from the headache-inducing Manhattan rush hour, Rockaways buses move at their own pace. In the summer, sand, hot-to-the-touch from the unrelenting sun, spills over onto asphalt. The streets are cracked, and the parking lots are abandoned. It’s where legendary rock poet Patti Smith found peace in a new bungalow just weeks before Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012. It’s where the community of families, artists and beach bums rebuilt their town after Sandy’s floods wrecked everything.
Nearly 40 years after the Ramones sang about hitching a ride to Rockaway Beach, many artists are doing just the same. They escape to quiet apartments and find concentration in isolation, while banding together and lifting up other artists in the community. Musicians have found a haven in Rockaway.
Earlier this summer, Natalie Mering, the smooth-voiced folk musician better known as Weyes Blood, suggested I visit Red Light District. “It only appeals to a certain die-hard music fanatic,” she said as we sat by the Atlantic Ocean on a near-perfect afternoon. Although now she’s currently living in Southern California, where she grew up, she used to hang out at Red Light when she took up residence on the beachside of Far Rockaway. When we met up, she was visiting New York City for a one-off show and crashing with her friend Mac Demarco, who lives not too far away from Red Light. She was a bit hung over from her birthday party the night before, which called for some light beach grub and freshly blended green juice.
Mering moved to Rockaway a few years ago after hearing romantic stories about surfing and making music near the beach from MGMT’s Andrew VanWyngarden, who has his own house and studio set-up just one block from the ocean. It was around these parts where she recorded her 2015 album Cardamom Times (and on Oct. 21, she’ll be releasing Front Row Seat to Earth on Mexican Summer).
“It’s like Venice in the 1970s,” Mering says from the boardwalk, gently spearing her styrofoam bowl of ceviche with a plastic fork. “It’s still kind of affordable. There’s still more run-down zones where anything goes. There will be like a busted basketball court and then a beautiful beach. You can go surf, but then you go to the bodega and get a hoagie. And that’s something that doesn’t exist anywhere.”
Once she rented out a basement apartment, she quickly threw herself into the community. Her roommates were pure Rockaway die-hards who had climbed on the roof to wait out Superstorm Sandy. She’s pals with the guys selling juice on the boardwalk. She befriended Demarco and the musicians at Red Light. On a tight peninsula, you get to know your neighbors swiftly.
“I got really hooked in with the culture pretty immediately because it’s such a small scene,” she said. “There’s bayside people–people more into boats on the other side of the peninsula– and then there’s the beachside people. The bayside has its own special, weird vibe. It’s pretty blown out. There’s a couple hidden spots where there’s bonfires. You have to know who’s who.”
Of course, there are the more advertised areas of Rockaway too, like hipster weekend paradise Playland, Rippers and beachgoers’ favorite spot, Jacob Riis Park. And even with DIY venues like Red Light District, Mering knew that it was inevitable that Rockaway would open itself up for music-lovers tourism. But she warned: let tourism stay tourism.
“Brooklyn should not move here,” she said. “There’s already too many people who are from here and have been here forever.” She points East, where there are new condominiums being built. In 2015, the $1 billion Arverne by the Sea development started bringing up to 10,000 new people to the area, and as The New York Times reported then, it created a land grab for surfable sections of the beach and deepened the rift between outsiders who claimed to rejuvenate the area and the people who were there all along.
The discussion of gentrification is unavoidable and necessary when talking about retreating to a town that’s not your own. Take it from Oso Blaise, a rapper whose hometown pride and disdain for the Bushwick bougies spills out into two tracks: “Che Guevera” and “Fuck Out the Rock.”
“Fuck FEMA, fuck your image, fuck the nazi pizzeria, fuck Playland Motel and fuck the media forgiving credence to your contrived, faux-bohemia,” Blaise raps of “FOTR.” (For the record, Playland manager Daniel Cipriani told Gothamist in 2015, “Some 19-year-old kid with a bad rap album isn’t going to make me change my business plan.”) On “Che Guevera,” he spits, “Fuck Vice Media, you can’t come to Riis when you don’t even pay your damn journalists properly.” He’d rather take the bus than see another fixie spiraling down the street.
Mering and I walk back toward the A train that carts visitors in and out — the train that delivered me here. As we approach Mering’s old place, a modest two-story house with a side garden and porch, her low-toned voice wakes an orange cat, which stretches and saunters lazily down to the sidewalk. Mering crouches down to pet her and introduces me to her old friend. It was in that house where she recorded Cardamom Times, the cover of which features a photo of Jamaica Bay a few miles from here. The water, she said, hugely influenced her music, along with the sun. But most importantly it was her proximity to both nature and garbage that got her inspired.
“It put me in a dialogue with the ocean and how it reflects,” she said. “It was very sunny. The album I made was a little bit more on the brighter side. So if it were a color, it’d be, like, orange, like, neon and all these colors that are pastel and very much of the ocean. And also a busted-out Rockaway vibe, especially bayside, Jamaica Bay. It’s kind of like, it’s like a decay dichotomy/majestic oceanic beauty, like 230 years ago, this was the most fertile, most beautiful, most prized land of all time, and because of that, that’s why one of the biggest cities in the world kind of rose up from that. It’s kind of that polarity, where’s it’s the best land in the world but it becomes the most polluted. Which I think is very much the human condition. It’s self-sabotage.
“Jamaica Bay probably used to be crystal clear and now it’s full of sewage and airplane fuel. But to me, in that decay, there’s still a lot of beauty.”
You’ll find Danny Miller and Max Harwood from folk rock band Lewis Del Mar tackling waves on the Atlantic on a winter day. Their shared bungalow is less than 500 feet from the shore, so it’s easy to strap on their wetsuits and run back and forth to the water when it’s freezing.
Danny and Max are childhood friends from Washington, D.C., and came to Rockaway to make their debut album about two and a half years ago. They’d been touring the country with a Stevie Ray Vaughn-esque rock band, sleeping on floors and living in a van, when they decided they needed to buckle down on their music. They moved into a bungalow (which can be seen in their “Loud(y)” video), and just like Weyes Blood, they honed in on that duality of industrial and nature.
We’re sitting in their house now. It’s the end of July, and Max is lounging at their computer where toddler-sized speakers flank the monitor. Just beyond his newly bleached hair, I can see the files to their debut self-titled album, out Oct. 7. Danny crosses his leg over the other in his chair and lets his unbuttoned shirt fall open. Sun streams in the windows by bouncing off their neighbors’ matching white bungalows. You can’t see the sand, but you can smell it. Many houses in their neighborhood are vacation homes, Danny says, but they live there year-round.
“Rockaway is one piece of the equation for our music and just the identity of the project,” Harwood says. “It’s not ‘Lewis del Mar: The Rockaway Band.’ It has a lot of the elements that we’re trying to take in. It’s like, one part ocean, one part city. A mix of different people. It has a little bit of those, all the elements that’s we’re trying to bring together.”
There’s a banner hanging over their abode that reads “Such is life in the tropics” in all-caps (made by their friend Daniela Silva). Single stacks of paperbacks tower in each corner of their living room. Their kitchen is merely a hallway to the bathroom, where their wetsuits casually wait for their next outing. Some soft jazz filters out of their very deliberate sound system set-up. Harwood puts it on pause to play some new tracks off their album, and their bold percussive folk jams blast out from all nooks of the place (he knows most people will probably be listening to their music on headphones, he says sadly). This house itself has everything to do with how the album’s rawness and acoustics, and in fact, when they recorded songs at a studio in Greenpoint, they ended up rerecording them back in their house to get the DIY effect.
“It’s the fundamental premise that the recordings themselves and the textures you get from the recording process play into the meaning and emotion of the song,” Harwood says. And it makes sense. The songs on Lewis Del Mar are about their personal journey from D.C. to Rockaway and all the chaos that goes along with their crazy life in the past few years. Why wouldn’t they record in their own home?
At the end of their album, they’ve recorded the bell tolling from the church down the street — a few blocks from their favorite pizza joint. The bell rings into silence. Silence happens much more easily in Rockaway, where much of the time, you’ll just hear planes humming overhead after taking off from JFK and the constant purr of the ocean.
“It is also funny that this community is super small and we’re close with a lot of people here,” Miller says. “It’s just a beautiful group of people who have chosen to make their lives out here. And I was, right before you came, I was getting coffee down there and I ran into this guy that works and Max and I’s favorite restaurant down the corner and he plays in this punk band and he has this underground radio show, and he’s like, I always spin you guys’ shit on it. He’s like, you guys are one of the ones that we claim.”
That dude is Tommy Jodice, whose number is saved in Danny’s phone as Tommy Whits. The “Whits” is for Whit’s End, the said pizza joint where Tommy works.
When he’s not playing with his band Arson Welles, working his two jobs or helping his friend Max Powers set up the shows at Jacob Riis Park as part of the Brooklyn Bazaar, Jodice is running a radio station, Rockawaves Radio, dedicated to all the garage bands formed on the peninsula. He plays little, unknown bands, along with major-label outfits like Lewis Del Mar, and while he just does one radio show online, he’s looking to made Rockawaves a full-time gig, by scheduling a list of DJs, shows, interviews with artists, acoustic sessions and 24-hour logs, so you can immerse yourself in Rockaway music whenever you feel the need.
“It’s showing that 1: Rockaway definitely supports the arts a million percent, and 2: we’re a destination spot for bands now,” Jodice tells me over the phone. “They can see that there’s a culture and a scene behind it and there’s a lot of support and people love to hear new stuff.”
Jodice sounds like a Rockaway original, but he only moved to the neighborhood in 2014, after going to school in Potsdam, New York, and living in Flushing most of his life.
“When I was growing up, my dad was a big fan of the Ramones and he used to live in New York too so he used to hang out with Joey at CBGBs and all this and so I basically thought of Rockaway as some punk-rock wasteland and there was all these likeminded people down here,” he said. “But when I came down here, there was a lot of it, just dispersed. And so we really started to create a community and a scene and I think that’s, with destruction, there’s a form of creation. After Sandy, people really started looking for that community. We all stick together and help each other out.”
For the Rockaway beginner, Jodice recommends checking out Playland, where he helps book shows. And while Rockaway is teetering toward its off-season, he’s trying to keep the music scene bustling into the winter. With many Williamsburg venues closing, he sees an opportunity for Rockaway to become even more iconic when it comes to live music. “I do believe that this place is a cultural gold mine, and I’m breaking out the pick axe,” he said.
Mac DeMarco, indie rock’s favorite hipster, is a boat person. He has his own vessel that he likes to take out on Jamaica Bay. “I think living by the water does something weird to me,” he tells me over the phone. Strangely enough, he was hungover as well during our conversation. “I grew up in the prairies in Canada, so it’s like flat, flat, flat. There’s land everywhere. I get excited by a body of water.”
You can see the ocean in the background for his “Another One” video, where he wears a Michael Jackson T-shirt on the coast while playing keyboard. In another video, you can see his in-house set-up, where he hoards instruments.
“For me, the place where I live is always determined by the drum set,” he said. “I don’t want my neighbors to get pissed off with the noise or if I’m doing whatever. Rockaways does it for me. Rockaway is the one place in New York where it’s actually affordable.”
He’s lived in Rockaway for three years with his girlfriend, and although he says “I just like to be alone,” photos of him and MGMT’s VanWyngarden found their way online, leading many to believe a collab was on the way. However, the two just like to jam in Andrew’s house, and any rumor of a duet is “total baloney,” DeMarco said.
Red Light District’s DJ Dog Dick convinced DeMarco to move to Rockaway in the first place. “I met him when I first moved to New York.. He kind of planted the seed in my head when I first moved to New York, I was like, yeah, Rockaway,” he said. “That’s what’s up.”
Now, DeMarco is content in “My House by the Water,” which he sings about in the last song of his mini-album Another One. “6802 Bayfield Ave… Stop on by. I’ll make you a cup of coffee. See you later.”
In the daytime, the Red Light District is not the Red Light District at all. It’s a gray house with a yard and no trace of the gathering the night before. You’d probably drive right past it. The key to living in Rockaway is not taking advantage of the low rent only to open a $15 taco joint; it’s laying low and fitting in. Visit RLD or DeMarco in his house by the water or Playland if Rockaway is calling to you. Find your peace for the day, but make sure to leave it the way you found it.
Photos (sans Mac DeMarco) by Cole Giordano and Emillee Lindner