Just over a hundred years ago at a clothing factory in lower Manhattan near New York University, one hundred and forty-six factory workers died grisly and excruciatingly painful deaths after a fire broke out in the building twenty minutes before everyone was due to knock off for the day. Most of the victims were immigrant girls or women from Eastern Europe. They were either roasted alive, suffocated or crushed to death after leaping from the eighth floor of this supposedly fire-proof building owned by the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Many were charred so completely that they barely passed for human. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire became one of the most famous work-place tragedies in U.S history. It helped to trigger regulatory action on vocational safety and solidified sympathy for American labour unions for a few generations. If you know the story of capitalist America however, it is unsurprising to hear that the company owners who had locked many of the doors to stop alleged theft of company property got off scot free despite public outrage and resulting litigation.
Today, U.S high schools spend between one and forty minutes on the topic during their year-long U.S history curriculum, and so every American walking the streets today should have some dim recollection of this heart-breaking event, although most have probably completely forgotten it. This lack of awareness is hardly surprising when you visit the site today. The building actually hasn’t changed much since it was built; it probably looks almost identical to how it did on that Saturday afternoon on March 25, 1911 a few minutes before some piece of discarded clothing material caught fire in a waste basket and triggered the carnage. The owners had said that the building was fire-proof and they were right. However, human lungs and flesh weren’t part of the building. Stone survived, humans perished. When you read the eye-witness accounts you’re shocked by the unimaginable horror.
It is a sad statement on our society that the building only has three small plaques attached to its lower walls where the building sits on the quiet corners of Washington Place and Greene Street. Three small, nondescript plaques, that’s it. 146 lives lost due to industrialist greed, incompetence and hubris. I was expecting a towering memorial in the middle of the street with wreaths of flowers placed there annually by city dignitaries and union representatives. Was my touching of the fire-proof stone a symbolic gesture or to re-balance myself from the surprise of such an inadequate testimonial?
Adding insult to injury, on the more public side of the building where it over-looks Washington Square, a beautiful public park and a major cultural icon in the heart of the New York University campus, a much more visible and imposing plaque celebrates the philanthropic largesse of Julius Silver, a corporate executive, whose “generosity” made it possible for this building to become the Silver Center for Arts and Science at the University. With this plaque, hypocrisy is complete and the deprivation of the poor and destitute has been guaranteed ad infinitum. A University really should know better.
I left this sad historic site behind and walked about a mile to the “City Winery, a modern and refined restaurant, winery and music venue, on Varrick Street. The venue boasts high ceilings, tasteful artwork, strong wooden beams, and distressed brick chimneys. Communal dining tables where you meet and eat with strangers surround a slightly elevated stage with a black, mournful back-drop and a cluster of wall-mounted wine barrels. Here, “The Cowboy Junkies” were scheduled to play their third and final show across two evenings.
This mature alternative-rock/ alternative-country band from Toronto with additional nods to blues and folk was formed in 1985. As a unit they’re as stout and steady as the ancient forests of Prince Rupert’s Land. All four band members were there at the band’s formation and have remained ever since. Three of them are siblings. Michael Timmins, the guitarist and primary song-writer, and Alan Anton the bassist, asked Michael’s sister Margo Timmins to be the lead singer of a new project after their previous band had split up, and the three of them were immediately joined by Michael and Margo’s younger brother, Peter Timmins on drums. That new project developed into “The Cowboy Junkies” and over thirty years later, with a loyal cult following, they continue to tour and record haunting songs about people, relationships, love, betrayal and tragedy. Tonight, as ever, they were joined on stage by Jeff Bird, a multi-instrumentalist who plays accordion, mandolin, harmonica and guitar, and who is so integral to their live and studio sound that it’s baffling as to why he isn’t actually in the band.
They were all dressed in black. Anton stood prominently out front and a little to the left holding his bass guitar, hovering above the winery’s best placed tables. Immediately and without any introduction, he calmly began rattling the first of many very cool bass hooks; the opening track was “Just Want to See” from my favourite album of theirs, 1996’s “Lay It Down”. Tall with scruffy hair, he swayed slowly throughout the night and looked as stoic as a condemned revolutionary staring off into the middle distance with a melancholy air. Michael Timmins sat stage right on a rickety chair hunched over his guitar and throughout the night he only looked up to nod or wave affably when the crowd applauded one of his country-tinged guitar solos. At the centre of the stage, a little further back than the other two was Margo Timmins, wearing a long, dark dress; most of the evening she sat on a high stool next to an arrangement of flowers, but occasionally she walked slowly around to get the blood pumping a little. Behind Anton was Peter Timmins at the drum kit, artfully combining soft and subtle brush work with chops and rolls from wooden drum-sticks; he was bald and looked very much like Bruce Willis, except that he wasn’t wearing a self-satisfied smirk. I couldn’t actually see Bird because of the acute angle of my vantage point, but this didn’t impact the sound.
“The Junkies” are an extremely well put together band; of course after 31 years they should be. Their songs are mostly slow in tempo, the music (and seemingly the band) is quiet and gentle. (Undeniably, some would find them dreadfully boring). Margo’s voice is extremely clear and beautiful with a sultry ingredient and I could listen to it forever. It was being tested tonight because this was their second gig of the evening (and their third across two nights), and she drank cool water on and off, but it remained strong and arresting throughout. She complained of a runny nose, perhaps summer allergies. I felt bad for her having to do the talking between songs, and perhaps someone else will need to help her in this area. Despite her long experience as a front woman, her natural shyness remains. Apparently when she started out, she often stood with her back to the audience. Bustling New York City doesn’t immediately seem like a natural environment for them. You’d more likely place them on a prairie, Margo looking mournfully out of the window through the over-grown weeds, with a gaunt expression on her face, worried about her love who’s a few days late from his sojourn on the cattle trail, the rest of the band lounging with their instruments in dark, dusty corners of their ramshackle hut. She said as much too when she spoke diffidently about her usual anxiety on trips to this vast, ever-changing city, where she says there are too many people and too many cars, but she added how quickly she’s reminded how kind and friendly people are here. Yay us!! Maybe we won’t mug these pale lost poets later down the subway after all.
Their songs are about love and loss, struggle and death, poverty and bonds of kinship, deceit and alcoholism, all the time with slide guitar and an accordion or a harmonica lulling you off into a dream world where you can postpone the harshness of this world until tomorrow. One song, Margo explained was about belonging to the “middle generation”, where you’ve just finished raising children and you’re watching them go out into the world and you’re both fearing for them and celebrating their successes, whilst at the same time trying to assist your parents and their advancement into old age and eventual death, and how all of these commitments can be terrifying and exhausting but also profound and beautiful too. If this all sounds morbid and terrifying to you, and if you can’t work out what such topics have got to do with a night out on the town in search of entertainment, then you probably wouldn’t enjoy “The Cowboy Junkies”. But if you’re a reflective adult who knows you can’t escape these timeless themes and if you can decipher groovy music beneath a voice that could silence a busy subway station, and if you can resist the urge to lock yourself back in to your hopeless little screens for a bit, then they could be just what you need, perhaps in this giant city more than anywhere else.
Half way through the set, Anton, Bird and Peter Timmins left the stage and the two older siblings played three songs; Michael Timmins temporarily switching his electric guitar for an acoustic one. When the others returned, the drummer began a powerful, tribal beat and they embarked on a ten minute version of what is probably their most famous song and their first single, “Sweet Jane”, a Velvet Underground cover written by Lou Reed. As soon as the bass line joined the drums the crowd’s excitement was notched up a level, but in all honestly it doesn’t do anything for me. It’s a song that repeats a few chords over and over and Margo sings “Sweet, sweet Jane” dozens of times and I can’t really see the point of it. To be honest, I think it’s a poorly chosen song but they probably love it, or did at one point.
One other cover song, which they played for an encore, was to me at least completely unexpected; it was Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”. Margo explained that it’s a song that helps her make sense of this summer’s horrific news headlines. As a huge Neil Young fan this was only going to be a winner in my book, and she was right, it is completely relevant to our latest disasters, and so I can only conclude that as human beings we want to engage in and ponder and process sad events together that impact real people, and I wanted to remember not only today’s victims of terrorism in Europe, but also those forgotten souls who died needlessly about a mile away over a hundred years ago.
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