Considering that the Gowanus Canal runs 2 miles through Brooklyn and Queens, it’s weirdly low-profile. Ask a New Yorker how to get there and you’ll likely get, “Oh, is that a bar or something?” The Mob used to throw bodies in it. Even today, the water is fouled with sewage and toxic waste. It looks ugly. It smells nearly as bad as it looks.
A trip down the Gowanus – a ghost town of rusted-out industry of yore, towering heaps of flattened autos and trucks, abandoned barges but also the occasional, spooky, still-inhabited house boat -is a passage through a secret New York. The Canal leads you through a landscape strangely quiet, strange, enchanting.
Like the music of Catherine McRae and Todd Griffin – the Quavers. They make music that feels both beat-up and pretty, haunted and sweet, old and unprecedented. They seemed the perfect soundtrack for the Gowanus as much as the Gowanus was an ideal backdrop for their songs. We wanted to get close to that viscous nastiness. We all got in canoes. We pointed the camera. They played.
The famed New York experimental filmmaker and friend of the Quavers Jem Cohen gamely agreed to paddle the canoe carrying Catherine, Todd, and Dennis Cronin, the Quavers’ multi-instrumentalist. Todd played fearless, Dennis quiet-terrified and Catherine more overtly afraid (“I’m scared! I’m scared!,” she’s heard saying). Only reluctantly did Catherine and Dennis bring along their violin, vintage trumpet and home-styled, tube-powered melodica.
They were not wrong to be afraid. Both film crew and band nearly capsized getting everybody in the boats at our put-in point. As we paddled away from shore, we watched a flotilla of used condoms and discarded pizza boxes and other disposables slide past us. But soon Catherine and Todd’s tightly knitted harmonies, the rust-tinted twilight, and the very un-New York stillness wove a spell around all of us. It was all more magical than we had imagined.
Then Jem. Such a trusty oarsman. You could say that Jem lost control. But Jem is so in control. Jem drove the band full-steam into the Canal’s concrete sidewall. No one understands how this happened. Dennis held on to his melodica, Todd miraculously remained on his very unsteady perch in the middle of the canoe, and even more astounding, the Quavers barely skipped a measure, plowing right back into the song. It was the moment we couldn’t have planned or wished for, hence THE moment. And right in the middle of “The Sea Won’t Take Long.” Too perfect.
We hadn’t recognized the water theme in the Quavers catalogue, but “Submarine” felt like the proper companion to “The Sea Won’t Take Long,” faster tempoed if not exactly more “upbeat.” We were grateful Dennis brought both trumpet and melodica along, as he made good use of both in this one. The F train almost silently slithers over our heads at the beginning of the song and as the last chords fade, we’re facing a graffiti-splashed, boarded-up factory, an old iron bridge, and the old Kentile Floors sign, the sky staining all of it a lovely, dirty peach. When taken in all at once, you could forget the toxic sludge beneath us, forget that you were in New York City. On the Gowanus with the Quavers, grime, grit, and decay looked and sounded beautiful.