:: Article

Resist, rebel, relax…ahh: The Offbeats at the KGB Bar

By Chris Killen.


On the 2nd of May, I saw Tony O’Neill, Tao Lin, Lee Rourke and Zachary German read at the KGB Bar in New York.

Before the night of the reading, I’d already met Tao Lin and Kendra Grant Malone. Tao told me that a group called The Jaguar Uprising were planning to come to the reading and sabotage it.

The KGB Bar was on three floors, I think. Inside was what looked like a theatre lobby, and I said something like ‘We’re here for the poetry reading,’ to the woman in the box office and she didn’t know what I was talking about, but said it was probably upstairs.

There were lots of people in the lobby and out on the steps to the building, and I thought, ‘Wow. They’re all here for the reading. People in New York are really passionate about ‘alternative literature’. I wish I lived in New York, maybe.’

We went up some stairs and peered at a small bar through a doorway. It didn’t look like a reading was going on in there.

We went up some more stairs and saw another bar that just looked like a bar.

We went up some more stairs and found a quiet wooden corridor with a door at the end. ‘This is it,’ we thought. We heard noises coming from behind the door. I opened the door very carefully and looked in and saw people in costumes performing something. I closed the door, feeling like I’d ruined whatever it was they were doing, and whispered, ‘It must be back downstairs,’ to my friends.

We went into the bar on the second floor. There were maybe thirty or forty people there. We stood at the bar and bought expensive beers and then stood near the door and took our coats off and pretended to look busy. I saw Kendra and Tao and someone who looked like Zachary German and someone who looked like Catherine Lacey sitting at a table at the opposite wall. I didn’t know whether to go over or not. Kendra noticed me and shouted ‘Chris!’ so I went over. I can’t remember what I said, but I shook hands with Zachary and Catherine, and then tried to shake Tao’s hand in a crap-joke way like, ‘Hello, we haven’t met before,’ and he avoided my hand, and I thought, ‘No, it’s okay. Don’t worry. Forget about it,’ and quickly buried the experience in my subconscious.

Tony O’Neill read first. It was either a short story or an excerpt from his new novel, but it worked like a short story. It was funny and people laughed in the correct places. He had a laid-back way of reading which was urgent at the same time, and his accent was strange and interesting to listen to. His story was about working in a porn shop, and it reminded me a bit of Charles Bukowski, but if Charles Bukowski was more sensitive and had grown up partly in England.

Next, Tony O’Neil introduced Tao Lin, who read three movie reviews. One was a review of a documentary about playing Donkey Kong (I think), one was a review of another documentary, maybe about breakdancers, and one was a review of a trailer for Baghead. When I heard the name Baghead, I thought, ‘Is that a real film?’ but later looked it up on the internet, and found that it was. People laughed a lot, and occasionally Tao laughed too, although I think he was attempting a ‘disinterested monotone.’

Then a short break. It was confusing that The Jaguar Uprising hadn’t turned up to sabotage anything. I stood on the steps outside with Kendra for a while. Back in the bar, I talked to Lee Rourke. He was surprised to see me – I’d met him once before, working at Waterstone’s – and I felt bad that I hadn’t let him know I was coming. He said he was nervous, and I tried to say things to calm him down.

He read first after the break; a short story from his collection Everyday (published by Social Disease). It was about a person persuading another person to leave their job, and the monotony of daily life. Lee Rourke had a very emphatic reading style: he sounded pissed off and consumed by the story, and it worked well in contrast to Tao’s reading style. At various points during the readings, the sound of the people performing something on the floor above carried down the stairs and through the doors, but it was loudest during Lee’s story. Near the end, it sounded like a large group of people singing a long, deep ‘Ahhhhhh,’ which grew in volume and then stopped abruptly. Lee Rourke, however, was a ‘trooper’ and didn’t pay attention to the noise or comment on it.

Zachary German read last. During the break Kendra told me that they’d found some rotten spring onions in a bin on the way there, and she and Tao planned to throw them at Zachary while he read. He read about fifteen short poems from The Name of This Band is the Talking Heads in a disinterested fashion, and didn’t laugh or smile much. Everyone else laughed a lot. It felt like Zachary German was playing around with monotony and finding something new in it. The spring onions got thrown near the end, but missed.

The reading was over by about nine o clock. I don’t think anyone read for over ten minutes. There was a small feeling of ‘Oh is that it?’ afterwards. I guess I was expecting it to be more of a ‘main event’: a bigger room, more people, and for it to go on for longer. It was exciting, certainly, and I enjoyed it and it even inspired me to start up a similar reading night in Manchester (‘There’s no point in not being friends’). But it also made me think, ‘Okay, maybe spoken-word ‘alternative literature’ doesn’t solicit huge crowds after all, even in Greenwich Village.’

(It transpired that the Jaguar Uprising’s car broke down on their way to New York.)


Chris Killen‘s first novel, The Bird Room, will be published by Canongate in January 2009.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, July 11th, 2008.