On Sunday, December 9th, Zebulon will close its doors in Williamsburg. Kyp Malone from TV on the Radio will be one of the last musicians playing and it will surely be packed, as it has every night this week, another great night of music at the neighborhood’s best venue. But it’ll be tinged with sadness, the final night and end of an era.
Zebulon is the work of two French bothers, Jef and Joce Soubiran, who have run the bar/music venue for ten years. Recently, rumors of its closing have circulated amongst the regulars. Word of increasing noise complaints from the new condominium next door and hefty fines were taking a toll. Jef and Joce are closing up rather than try to fight harder as some of us have urged them too. Underneath that resignation is likely a sense of futility and deep annoyance that they would suddenly have to battle to continue running a vibrant business, one that has been an essential part of the community for a decade, after a luxury building opens and its residents decide that they don’t like living next to a music venue.
It feels like personal loss to me because I moved where I did partly because of Zebulon.
I used to come back to NY on visits when I was living abroad and be taken to Williamsburg, and Zebulon specifically, to see some of the new music that my friends were making and checking out. I always left NY missing access to that scene and when I began to feel that I was ready to come home it was in no small part because of that.
So I came back to NY and moved to Williamsburg. I eventually bought an apartment in one of the neighborhood’s new buildings where I could easily get to my job in midtown and have easy access to everything I loved about Williamsburg, in particular Zebulon, which was only a few blocks away.
For a few years that was exactly what I got. I’d spend my days in Manhattan advising clients about the risks of doing business in China. By night I’d be out in Williamsburg playing or listening to music, more often than anywhere, at Zeb.
With generally no cover charge (donation only after a performer’s set), you could just stop by Zebulon and see what was going on. I stopped in one night and saw Bill Gillim of Megafortress sitting cross-legged in front of a row of pedals, chanting Gregorian monk-like vocals mixing with waves of gorgeous ambient keyboard sounds, the crowd quiet and reverent. At Zebulon people would really come to listen to the music.
They also came to be challenged by the avant-garde, whether it was jazz band like Pulverize the Sound or the electronic compositions of Dave Buddin, the atonal and dissonant had a home at Zebulon if they had something interesting to say.
And then there were the cult heroes that played shows or had residencies. Anyone who saw one of the shows a few summers ago when Sir Richard Bishop had a Sunday night residency will recall a packed, sweaty bar, with people spilled outside, hanging on every note, as the guitarist deftly slipped between eastern modalities and post-modern Americana.
I played Zebulon at the end of September and Jef was there to run sound. As I was setting up he said, “I’m here for you, tell me what you need.” Any musician who plays around NY regularly will tell you that isn’t the standard thing you hear from a soundman upon arrival. Zebulon was the kind of place musicians want to play.
I’d go solo on random nights, grab a bar stool and listen. In addition to often hearing cutting-edge music I’d frequently have intense conversations with an assortment of odd-balls and artists.
The night I heard Zeb was closing I had stopped by to see Future Shuttle. There had been some talk of a show I might play with Future Shuttle headlining. When I stopped by the bar was crowded and I didn’t see anyone I knew. I made my way towards the door when a girl grabbed me and said, “You’re the guy with the brain tumor!”
I didn’t remember her at first and I was a little taken aback as all her friends stared at me. But she reminded me we had been sitting at the bar maybe six months ago and talking. I probably asked her to move so I could hear out of my left ear as an acoustic neuroma had recently cost me the hearing on the right side. When I told her about the experience she related that she had a tingling on the side of her face and thought maybe she should get an MRI. I guess she did and it turned out fine, but it was clearly a big deal to her and here I was in the middle of Zebulon trying to make sense of it.
We chatted a bit more and it turns out I was talking to Jessa Farkas, the keyboardist/vocalist of Future Shuttles. We’re talking about doing a show together in January, just wish it could be at Zebulon.
I feel conflicted living in one of Williamsburg’s new buildings. I’m sometimes self-deprecating when it comes up, and when I first moved to the neighborhood I thought I was going to be lynched by angry hipsters when I was getting off the Bedford L stop in a suit.
I don’t think you have to live a certain way to create art and I’m drawn to artists like Charles Ives, or writers like T.S. Elliot or Lawrence Durrell, who had vibrant careers and their creative lives. My life in Williamsburg has offered me the best of both worlds in a way that I could imagine nowhere else.
But construction in Williamsburg is going on at breakneck speed, with new shops and restaurants opening all the time, and the neighborhood is changing rapidly. And I wonder if the balance I’ve enjoyed is subtly shifting. A friend jokes that a Gap will replace Zebulon. But more likely it will be another bar or café, maybe a boutique clothing store, something “fashionable”. But nothing that will replace what Zebulon meant.
I’m not anti-gentrification; I don’t think we can expect cities to exist in a static way. Living in Prague and Shanghai as both cities changed rapidly, perhaps I feel like there are larger forces at work, not just rapacious capitalists out to make a quick buck. For Prague and Shanghai it was about recovering from distorted histories. For Williamsburg, perhaps it’ll be about a place that is the victim of its own success.