A local haven for invigorating, cutting-edge, off-beat music is about to fall victim to the realities of exorbitant New York real estate.
Tonic, located in an ex-wine factory on the Lower East Side, has been pushing the boundaries of music-making since 1998, serving as religious sanctuary for those who worship the progressive and the avant-garde. Similar to the recent uprooting of legendary venues like the Bottom Line and the Luna Lounge, Tonic has been struggling with the obscene rise of real estate prices; and so yet again New York City is in grave danger of losing a renowned performance spot.
To find Tonic you have to spot the cluster of smokers on the curb, be able to count to 107 from the other buildings on the street, or just know where it is. There are no outdoor signs on the cement stucco building, besides a “Lansky’s Grill” logo painted on its left side. There’s nothing to signify that this little shack helps keep New York’s underground music scene alive.
Melissa Caruso Scott, who owns Tonic with her husband John, said when they snagged the building seven years ago, it was in really bad shape. Since then, insurance costs have tripled, money has been stolen, and Melissa and John have invested a great deal into the repair of the old garage-like shack. The breakdown of the main sewer line is one of the “circumstances beyond Tonic’s control” cited in the signs explaining why the hell there are two Mr. Johns sitting in the lobby next to the ticket booth. For those of you who don’t know what a “Mr. John” is, maybe you should head to Tonic and see for yourself.
Inside the main space, soft red Christmas lights line the ceiling and add a warm glow to the cement and brick walls enclosing the single upstairs room, which is about the size of a comfortable studio. Patrons pay for their $8 admission stamp and crowd behind the rows of loose chairs in front. And tonight, the Dime Store Dance Band is volunteering their efforts in raising revenue and response for their vital and energetic musical niche. Zeke Healy, who has been exhibiting his slide-guitar work at Tonic for six years now, can’t even begin to list all of the projects he’s been involved in here. “It’s such a capacious place in terms of style,” he noted, as he’s played everything on Tonic’s red-curtained stage, from the more “quiet” jazzy music of the Dime Store Dance Band to old fashioned, distortion-filled gritty rock ‘n’ roll.
Front man Jack Martin announces a song in memory of Pandora, his “one-time love, full-time used-to-be.” Martin’s between-song romantic stories and his inspiration for his music are sincere and inspired; the audience practically expects an explanation of art in such an intimate setting.
Jude Webre, Dime Store’s bassist, recognizes the importance of a tiny spot like Tonic. “Everyone here treats you well, and you don’t find that at most venues — most places treat you like you’re lucky they even gave you a time slot.” Perhaps the friendly outlook towards musicians is because Tonic didn’t begin as a competitive music venue. Melissa and John didn’t even know what exactly they wanted to do with the building when they got it, they just loved the space. “When we started out, we had film, comedy, everything, but it turned out that the music series we did once a week was what people wanted,” says Melissa. “It just evolved by itself.”
The democratic development of Tonic fits in nicely with the venue’s credo, which for the Scotts has become a commitment to keeping a distinctive kind of place for New Yorkers.
“It’s such a sad thing for the landscape of the city not to maintain its creative integrity and have a space outside of the mainstream for music,” says Melissa. Adds Webre, “This place is about music and musicians; most places are about selling beer.”
After a waltzy dance number by the Dime Store boys, warm and pleasant comments float around the room. A young woman returns to her seat and exclaims, “That was the cleanest port-a-potty I’ve ever been in!” to the delight of the audience. Jack appreciates her allusion and takes the opportunity to initiate some serious Tonic talk.
“Tonight has become a benefit of sorts, so I suggest that after we’re done you go out and pay again for the next band,” he recommends. “There’s really no place like this — no one else will hire us.” Laughter amongst the audience and his band mates ensues, but Jack remains solemn. Everyone quiets, and he adds, “Thank God for that.”
The Dime Store Dance Band was one of several Benefit for Tonic concerts Melissa has been organizing for the upcoming weeks, to attempt to hit the “upwards of $100,000” goal for Tonic to stay afloat. Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon are even coming out on February 19, to do their part.
Even if you’ve never been to Tonic, read the website testimonials and you’ll be inspired. Tonic has built its own legend worldwide, representative of independent music and the people that keep it alive, in New York and elsewhere. In a world of corporate-crafted cabaret, Tonic needs to remain what it is: a beacon for creative variety, where anyone can walk in and see good tunes for cheap. The suffocation of small venues in this town is not inevitable, no matter where the trend is heading. So if you care about original music, make sure to get involved.
Benefit For Tonic, with Sean Lennon and Yoko Ono, February 19, 8:00pm, 107 Norfolk St.