East of Amsterdam

For a college town that houses a university of such cultural clout, Morningside Heights is, in many ways, culturally deficient.  Music-wise, there aren’t many concert halls near – and those within a conceivable walking distance are all either confined by genre or by steep price tag.

Since 2001, Ding Dong Lounge has served the Upper West Side, Manhattan Valley, and Morningside Heights neighborhoods as their lone dive-bar.  Nights at Ding Dong have been known to be devoid of the pretention and overcrowding that allegedly mars more traditional campus hotspots.  The space is usually soundtracked by punk rock and its close descendants, and over the past decade, the bar would occasionally invite a punk band to play in its long room.  However, due to a management shift, the venue has booked shows with increasing frequency and through a wide spectrum of genres over the past year.  In February, the venue was headlined by Gary War, a major figure in NYC’s psych rock scene – in March, a double bill of Gary Higgins and Ed Askew, two born-again folk singers from decades past.  A string of shows booked by Columbia’s own Josh Faber, GS ’12, stretched its arm into the vibrant New Jersey punk scene as well.

The ability to enjoy new and exciting concerts for cheap has generally been relegated to trips downtown or to Brooklyn, leaving Columbia students to deal with late-night, subway-construction-lengthened journeys.  While those scenes to the south are lively and exciting, we remain entirely dependent on them – Ding Dong Lounge represents a means for our neighborhood to assert itself culturally.

“I think scenes can happen anywhere where there is interest and effort.  We have a community and I find that encouraging,” says Johnny Lee, Ding Dong’s primary concert booker.  “This neighborhood has just as many musically oriented people as other neighborhoods – maybe just fewer people who ‘look’ like they are in bands.”

As for the dearth of other neighborhood venues, Lee cites the heavy population density of the Upper West Side, as opposed to the industrial sprawl of venue-laden areas of Brooklyn.  “Venues, and nightlife spots in general, are primarily in areas with few residences or in rowdy neighborhoods to mitigate intrusion from ‘the Man’.  A regular neighborhood bar can be noisy but a snare drum crack carries way farther than a loud stereo system,” Lee says.  “I think our neighborhood can be pretty rowdy and our brand of rowdiness is, for the most part, in a positive spirit.”

This positive spirit, one would hope, will continue to push the venue towards booking exciting shows in the months and years to come.

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Saturday, July 9’s show at Ding Dong proved to be one of the more zeitgeisty shows there in recent memory.  The night featured a headline set by Austin’s Pure X, whose recent debut album has been garnering quite a bit of rave.  Strong support came via a wild set from Fungi Girls, a youthful punk trio also from Texas.  Pure X took the stage just before 1AM, playing the stunning “You’re In It Now” off of their first EP, recently re-released by Acephale Records.  Nate Grace, singer and guitarist of Pure X, ran his guitar through a heavily filtered distortion effect loop, creating a sense of confused stasis; although the sounds he plays on guitar are indeed harsh, the familiar physicality of a distorted guitar is removed by a filter, creating a much more subdued sound that only references a big and booming electric sound.  His rhythm section of a bass and drum played repetitive, quiet – almost lounge-y – lines, further creating a sense of tension that would never be released over the course of Pure X’s short set.  The band did not even seek to release that tension.  The focus was squared on the immobile struggle of each song, communicated by Grace’s cry – which, like his guitar, was intentionally blanketed by machines.  After a short, <30 minute set, they closed with “Easy”, which might have one of the most elegant outros in any song that I’ve ever heard.  A wise closer.

And within minutes, and by foot, I was back on Columbia’s campus, home safe.

Ding Dong Lounge is located on Columbus Avenue between 105th and 106th street, dingdonglounge.com

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Nathan Albert
CC’13

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