Pop: Manhattan transfer

New York's creatives are heading for the suburbs. Rock rebels Oneida blaze the trail.
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It's Saturday night, and we're in a predominately Puerto Rican area of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Crack dealers hover near the 24-hour bodega directly opposite a derelict chapel. In a scuzzy garage-come-loft, the Good/Bad art collective is hosting a performance by incendiary art-rockers, Oneida. The mood is ritualistic, and 275 nutters, ready to "bounce with it", have been shoe-horned in.

As the band's MC5-meets-Devo onslaught gets under way, a go-go dancing girl is doing something obscene with a foam plastic bone. The frontman, Papa Crazy, seems inspired, and soon he's leading the audience in some organ-related carnage. Looking on, I'm reminded of the promise that the keyboard-player Bobby Matador makes on Oneida's press-release: "Come and be that freaky person you want to be, and we will love you for it." The go-go girl has got the message.

Earlier that day, a less destructive Papa had explained the DIY ethic of Brooklyn's burgeoning loft-party scene: "Essentially, it's a reaction against the indie circuit in Manhattan," he told me. "At some venues, seeing a couple of bands over a few beers can turn into a $50 night." His point was simply that rock should be accessible and cheap. To this end, entry to a typical loft party costs just $3, and the audience help themselves to free beer supplied by the band. "It's not particularly lucrative, but you're virtually guaranteed a great night," Bobby had concluded.

The downside is that a loft party takes a lot of organising. The 24 hours before Saturday's gig had been a whirlwind of fly-posting, bone-making and beer keg shifting. With just two hours to go, Papa was painting the venue's walls with pro-Oneida graffiti while the bass-player, Hanoi Jane, hung fur drapes from the ceiling. Bobby and drummer Kid Millions were out doing "other stuff". Oneida have a work ethic that puts most British bands to shame.

The Independent's photographer, Tom Craig, and I, warmed to this work- hard/ play-hard philosophy and, over the course of a long weekend, we became honorary members of the band. We watched them rehearse like it was their last night on earth. We listened to Hanoi Jane wax eloquent on the joys and pitfalls of cross-dressing. We even offered Bobby hard cash for his Daisy Duke belt-buckle. Nothing doing.

Initially, we found those cartoonish band names hard to swallow, but soon we were using them without a hint of irony. Oneida brought out our rock'n'roll side.

The band confirmed that artists in New York are becoming less willing to kow-tow to the pompous aesthetes in Manhattan. And, as Brooklyn gentrifies and rents in Manhattan increase, it seems creatives of all types are moving to the suburbs. Papa and Bobby led us around Forte Green, an increasingly affluent and largely Afro-Caribbean part of Brooklyn. We visited a characterful Brownstone where Papa used to live. The rent was $1,600 a month. But it would cost up to $4,000 to rent a similar space in Manhattan.

Next, Kid, Bobby and Jane took us to a vast complex in another part of Williamsburg. Owned by a collective called The Heavy Cultural Authority, it was right on the East River with a stunning view of Manhattan. Bobby told us the collective had taken out a 15-year lease and "busted their asses" to make the building shipshape. "Now they sub-let to rich people from Manhattan, and they're making enough to live rent-free," he added.

The most striking arts centre we saw was on Long Island, near the border of Brooklyn and Queens. Formerly a public school, PS1 features a monolithic steel courtyard, a vast gallery, and an open-air stage. "It's got a kind of Club MTV vibe," Papa joked. Suffice to say, these punters were a different species from the average loft-party kid.

In and around Brooklyn's art community, Oneida get on with business, but it's never "as usual". Hanoi Jane runs a gynaecological think-tank. Papa describes Bobby and himself as "failed hairdressers". Over a beer, Papa also told me of a male friend who earns up to $650 a day providing manual relief for some of Manhattan's elderly gays.

It was while we were driving to PS1 that Kid Millions revealed the origin of the band's name. Turns out Oneida is a small town upstate where an eccentric named John Humphrey Noyes formed a Utopian community in the 1850's. "They practised communal marriage, and it was totally sexist in the way that free-love was in the 1960's," Kid explained. Apparently the whole thing floundered around 1890, when followers objected to Noyes' penchant for deflowering virgins.

By 11.30pm on Friday, we were on the freeway towards Coney Island. Earlier, we'd made a pit-stop at Papa and Bobby's house. When Papa clambered back on board, we noticed he had had a makeover. His bare chest twinkled with glitter and he was wearing strawberry lipstick. In the back of the van, Hanoi Jane supped red wine, then showed us one of his favourite mini- skirts. It seemed like a good moment to ask him about his sobriquet. "It's a tribute to Jane Fonda" he told me. "When she posed on that tank with the North Vietnamese army, she became a political poster child."

In his novel Dreamland, Kevin Baker eulogises about a time when you had to visit Coney Island to get any real understanding of what it is was to be American. At its peak, circa 1920, Coney would draw daily crowds of 90,000. Now, Bobby and Papa claim, this magical old amusement park is making a comeback.

The prime example of Coney's "architecture of exhilaration" is The Cyclone, a rickety, 75-year-old rollercoaster held together by the grace of Satan. Naturally, Papa and Bobby were determined to freak us out before we rode it. "Two people were killed down here last month", Papa said, casually, as we began our assent. It was more information than I needed.

Riding the beast, the only comforting thought was that it would soon be over. The hellish drops were all but vertical and you could feel the wooden tracks give a little. When we eventually trundled to a halt, my adrenaline gland was pumping fit to burst. Papa shouted: "Ride again - $3 !" His tone suggesting "bargain". From somewhere up near my oesophagus, my heart sank. In the ensuing moments the whole Oneida experience was crystallised. What was The Cyclone if not the precursor to rock'n'roll? Who were Oneida if not The Cyclone's successors? Once again, Papa and company were laying down the gauntlet.

We rode again.

Oneida's album `Enemy Hogs' is released by Turnbuckle records on 4 Oct

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