Dusk settles its dingy blanket over Manhattan’s East Village and the glowing marquee of Webster Hall. Squint just a little, and it might be the ’60s: A fastback Mustang rumbles at the curb. A leather-clad rock band clambers out for its sound check at the historic theater where Bob Dylan made one of his first recordings, playing harmonica on a Harry Belafonte album.
The searing-yellow Mustang glowering in the murk is actually the 435-horse 2015 GT. The equally exuberant, current model rockers are the So So Glos: a Brooklyn band of brothers whose do-it-yourself punk ethos has taken them to the “Late Show With David Letterman” and landed them a spot on Rolling Stone’s annual Top Albums list.
The Ford Mustang, of course, is as rock ’n’ roll as cars get. (They don’t write songs about BMWs, and if they did, they’d feature an oompah beat.) Ford’s legendary pony has been feted in songs from Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” to White Zombie’s “Black Sunshine.”
“Cars and girls,” says the So So Glos’ frontman Alex Levine as his brother and guitarist Ryan Levine pilots the Mustang through tangled Brooklyn streets. “From Howlin’ Wolf on, that stuff got embedded in
rock ’n’ roll.”
Yet as the band notes, unless you’re Bruce Springsteen or of his era, the idea of “songs about cars” seems quaint today. Only hip-hop artists name-check Bentleys and Benzes, which amplifies the truth: Rock, and the American cars it once celebrated, has lost the cultural stranglehold it held for decades. The traditional music business of platinum albums, stadium shows, and radio hits has been washed away in iTunes and Spotify streams. The sales charts, what’s left of them, are dominated by Miley-esque pop, hip-hop, R&B, even country. According to Nielsen figures, artists need to have a song played 1,500 times on Spotify to generate the revenue of one album sale.
Great rock bands like the So So Glos are out there and can build impressive followings through touring, but they’re too often marginalized in the indie-rock ghetto. As AC/DC sang, “It’s a long way to the top,” and it always has been. But compared with any previous era from moptop to grunge, today’s rockers seemingly have to work even harder to find a mass audience.
“Rock has gone underground again,” says Ryan Levine. Alex concurs: “I always dreamed of playing Madison Square Garden. But there’s no MTV, no way to get bands exposed overnight.”
American ponycars are also treading a changed landscape. Cars that once owned the strip now share it with Asian and European rivals. To stage a return from exile, the Dodge Challenger and Chevrolet Camaro were designed and marketed as virtual boomer curios, more niche than mainstream. For all the ink spilled on internecine Detroit combat, barely 200,000 Mustangs, Camaros, and Challengers altogether sold last year. Americans bought more than 680,000 Mustangs in 1965.
Instead of crying about the good old days, the latest Ford Mustang—and this equally fast-and-thunderous band—did something about it instead.
Crafting the Perfect Song
Car writers talk a lot about generations, six and counting for the Ford Mustang since its sensational unveiling at the ’64 World’s Fair in New York. That was two months after the Beatles’ own historic debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” But “generations” also applies to people: An audience hails and nurtures its automotive idols, then—hopefully—passes that love and passion to the next generation.
So it goes in music. The SSGs officially formed in 2007, but their roots stretch to a childhood in blue-collar Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Care to feel old? The band’s latest album, “Blowout,” kicks off with a family recording of the musical brothers—all of age 7 and already bashing drums and slashing guitars—discussing Kurt Cobain’s tragic suicide in 1994.
“We knew all the lyrics to ‘Nevermind,’ ” Ryan says.
The Levines, along with stepbrother and drummer Zach Staggers, were raised on a healthy diet of music. Their father, Danny Levine, who now owns the Brooklyn-nostalgic Five Pennies Creamery on Long Island (named after his favorite bedtime tune by Danny Kaye and Louis Armstrong), is a Kinks fanatic with a huge vinyl collection.
Generations collide: The Brooklyn Stallions Mustang club brought out a 1969 Mach 1 and 1965 fastback to meet the band.
“My whole life is defined by the Kinks,” Ryan says, laughing.
During the trio’s rebellious teen years, their parents bought them real instruments.
“That really saved us,” Zach says. “Music kept us at home at least, making trouble in the basement.”
The boys paid dues and took lumps in the New York rock world, enough to know that they needed to create their own scene from scratch. Now in their late 20s, virtual elder statesmen for the next crop of the original, obscure, and up-and-coming, the SSGs are passing it down: Somewhere between desperation and ingenuity, they’ve helped found two pillars of Brooklyn’s world-renowned DIY music scene. First was the now-defunct Market Hotel, an exercise in Rooney and Garland “let’s put on a show” spirit. Mickey and Judy, however, might have run screaming from the graffiti-strewn, never-quite-legal space beneath the JMZ subway tracks.
“We just wanted a place to live and work in New York, but we only had $375 a month,” Ryan recalls. “The plan was: Find a place with no neighbors, build rooms and a stage, then pay the rent with money from shows.”
I drive the Mustang down a desolate industrial lane of East Williamsburg to the SSGs’ latest rock dive: Shea Stadium, aptly named for the former home of the perennial-underdog Mets. The New York Times described Shea as “a lawless house party,” with musicians sometimes crashing on battered, beer-scented couches after shows. A stuffed blue marlin perches on one wall, facing a low stage, a disco ball, and a makeshift bar for people who forgot to BYOB.
Climbing the narrow stairwell, I hear the band rehearsing and recording a holiday song for online sale and radio release. Adam Reich of Titus Andronicus, the SSGs’ producer and sometimes guitarist (the band’s primary axman, Matt Elkin, is on hiatus), mans the board that helps area bands record shows and tracks. With pile-driving, metronomic efficiency, the SSGs rip through “Father Christmas.” It’s the Kinks’ classic 1977 holiday number, narrated by a department store Santa set upon by a gang of, well, punk kids:
Father Christmas, give us some money/
Don’t mess around with those silly toys/
We’ll beat you up if you don’t hand it over/
We want your bread, so don’t make us annoyed
Driving the Mustang days later, I’m boggled to hear the just-completed song on SiriusXM Radio’s XMU channel, the rare radio outlet for the SSGs. These rock omnivores bring an encyclopedic knowledge of music to bear, and you can hear lipstick traces of their forebears—the Sex Pistols and the Clash, the Replacements and Green Day—in their music. Yet the SSGs feel entirely of-the-moment. They’ve got a sneaky subversive streak, commenting on materialism or soul-sapping technology, yet they’re never preachy. Instead, the band’s songs are spiky, propulsive, and infernally catchy, complete with “whoa-oh-oh” choruses that get the Webster Hall crowd singing and stomping along.
Alex, with a wiry build and thoughtful manner that turns avid and charismatic on stage, believes “the hardest thing to do is craft the perfect three-minute song,” citing examples from Woody Guthrie to the
Ramones. “We’re naturally inclined to write pop songs. We want to reach the kids, the ones who might be saved (by music), not someone who’s too much of a snob to get it.”
That sounds so, well, Mustang, now marking a half-century as an unpretentious, everyone’s-invited ride. And for all the homages to the Ford’s heavy-metal street-fighting models, the Mustang has always been as much mainstream pop as rock. The new generation’s Taylor Swift edition, if you will, has a surprisingly robust backbeat: a 2.3-liter turbo-four with 310 hp.
As for questions of authenticity, the iconic Mustang has always had to balance boomer nostalgia with modern imperatives. The 2015 model, finally, throws off retro shackles that were holding it back.
The Ford Mustang’s brand manager, Melanie Banker, acknowledges as much: “We wouldn’t have gotten here without the previous 50 years, but now we’re focusing on the next 50 years.”
Soon the Mustang’s foreign fans will be able to get closer to their hero, with sales planned in 120 countries in all. More spotlight-worthy is the independent rear suspension, replacing the solid rear axle that was yesterday’s news back when Wilson Pickett sang about the Ford in 1966.
Old-school touches remain, including the GT’s new electronic line-lock, whose tire-roasting glory we sample outside of Lenny Shiller’s garage in Brooklyn. Like something out of a Scorsese film, Shiller’s time-warping garage houses about 40 cars. The band stops to admire a yellow Chrysler New Yorker convertible, used in the B-52s’ “Love Shack” video. There’s a Checker Cab, a ’47 International soda truck, a pink ’57 Caddy convertible, a Jaguar XK120, Hudsons, and Nashes.
Generations come together when a local Mustang club, the Brooklyn Stallions, bring their own pride-and-joys for a photo shoot. Zach, whose puckish manner and looks recall a Beastie Boy in training, is soon talking music with John Russo, a 72-year-old who regales with tales of Aerosmith and Kiss in concert.
“It’s definitely got a rock ’n’ roll vibe. It feels like an event rather than the usual pain in the ass of driving around New York.”
Louie Gentile arrives with his lovingly restored ’69 Mach 1, a replacement for one that was swallowed up by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Assessing the new Mustang, Gentile says, “Don’t get me wrong; it’s a beautiful car. But it’s too European for my liking. But it will appeal to the younger crowd and accomplish what they’re trying to do.”
At this moment, the “younger crowd” is climbing atop the yellow Mustang in their Doc Martens boots. This immediately causes the Stallions, like overprotective parents, to try to shoo them off.
Nancy Montalti, who with her husband, Bart, has brought a Poppy Red ’65 fastback, has actually fallen hard for the new 2015 baby.
“There’s a feminine side to her, but she’s tough,” Montalti says. “But I did cringe when those boys stood on it. I thought my heart was going to stop!”
A New Beginning
I’m taking one last Brooklyn spin with the band through Bushwick, the Mustang’s V-8 echoing off the elevated subway tracks. The ’Stang’s cool factor jumps exponentially with the rockers aboard, including Ryan, a soulful type whose hair is dark again after years of Billy Idol-bleaching.
“I’d get in a lot of trouble in this car,” Ryan observes, shooting past traffic. “It’s definitely got a rock ’n’ roll vibe. It feels like an event rather than the usual pain in the ass of driving around New York.”
The boys spot a friend walking, and we offer her a ride. Greem Jellyfish is a Korean-American artist and budding rocker who played her first-ever show at Shea Stadium.
“All the So So Glos are like brothers to me, and they all encourage me,” she says.
Ryan punches the gas and roars from a light, tossing Greem back into her seat. She squeals with un-self-conscious pleasure. “It’s so fast!” she exclaims.
For now, cars don’t exactly fit the band’s New York lifestyle. Ryan had to unload his Jeep Wrangler for quick cash before one tour. Zach misses his first car, a ’71 El Camino that he ran into the ground. There is one Ford in the band’s life: an appliance-white Econoline van with custom-installed porthole windows that’s about to turn 200,000 miles after relentless touring.
I drop Ryan and Alex at Music Hall of Williamsburg, where the SSGs are opening for the Hold Steady, the Minneapolis-bred band that like so many peers has moved to Brooklyn. A few hours later, the band rips through an inspired set, including “Wrecking Ball” and “Lost Weekend.” With midnight approaching, the SSGs join the Hold Steady onstage for a joyous, rave-up cover of the Violent Femmes’ “American Music.”
The crowd goes wild, and an old line pops into my head: Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. For the Mustang, this new beginning is on track to whip the Camaro in ponycar sales for the first time since 2010, if last December’s tally is any indication. For the So So Glos, 2015 may also bring a brighter spotlight and new fans: The band is preparing to record a new album, perhaps at noted singer-songwriter Conor Oberst’s studio in Omaha, Nebraska.
Listen to “Blowout,” and a hidden track steps back in time, to the precocious, pre-teen brothers playing a composition called “Let’s Rock ’Til We Die.” Music or Mustang, that earnest sentiment would no doubt get a thumbs up from Joey Ramone and Carroll Shelby alike. Alex seems to have it in mind when he grabs the mic to kick off one last song:
“We’ve been playing together since we were little kids,” he says, the crowd cheering. “And we’re going to keep playing until we’re little kids again.”