Scientists recently confirmed that Americans who spend their youth as part of a movement or creative community are at double the risk of coming down with an incurable case of Glory Days Syndrome, in which the afflicted is unable to recount stories from their youth later in life without discrediting the current cultural landscape as inferior.
Matthew Conboy — co-founder of Brooklyn’s DIY music venue Death By Audio — is acutely aware that his near-decade-long residence in that artists’ collective/experimental music space leaves him at a greater risk of contracting Glory Days Syndrome, especially in the two years since Vice Media controversially took over Death By Audio’s building, effectively snuffing it out. But Brooklyn counterculture has always been relentlessly self-aware, and so Conboy’s documentary about demise of the DIY venue, Goodnight Brooklyn: The Story of Death By Audio, strikes a delicate balance between homage and hagiography. Or as he himself says in the film, speaking directly to camera, “I hope I don’t turn into one of those people who talks about how much better things were in their day. Those people are really boring.”
On Friday (Dec. 2), Goodnight Brooklyn began its run at Brooklyn’s Alamo Drafthouse, with Conboy and BrooklynVegan’s Bill Pearis conducting a post-show Q&A followed by an afterparty at the movie theater’s House of Wax bar, featuring a performance by a new band of Brooklyn music veterans called Drawing Boards.
Based on the cheers of recognition that greeted Death By Audio’s central players as they appeared on screen — in addition to Conboy, that would be A Place to Bury Strangers‘ Oliver Ackermann and Death By Audio sound guru/music superfan Edan Wilber — and the post-show questions, it was clear the premiere night audience consisted of people well familiar with the venue over the years.
If all that sounds rather insular, well, it is — after all, a dilapidated space housing punk, experimental electronica and drone music isn’t going to appeal to everyone. But part of what made Death By Audio so special during its 2007-2014 lifetime was how inclusive it was. While Williamsburg record store clerks might superciliously eye customers to gauge their indie acumen, the people who frequented Death By Audio were at best welcoming, at worst indifferent, but never judgmental or competitive.
And while Glasslands (another now-shuttered nearby Williamsburg venue) might have been a more visually stimulating space, it was also more ‘scene’ — people went there to be looked at, to drink and to hook up. Anyone milling around in Death By Audio on a given night was there for one reason: to be overwhelmed by the regenerative power of loud-as-hell music in a live setting. After all, the venue was sweaty, poorly lit, the beer was warm and the bathrooms didn’t lock (or have soap). If you were there, it was for love of live music, and Death By Audio hosted many of the premier indie acts of its period well before they broke, from A Place to Bury Strangers (obviously, given the frontman co-founded it) to Future Islands to Ty Segall to Jeff the Brotherhood.
So yes, the audience who came to Goodnight Brooklyn’s Alamo Drafthouse premiere night were certainly patrons of Death By Audio looking to recapture memories of that venue’s spark and purity. The whole night could have felt like a collective perusal of a Ghosts of Williamsburg Past scrapbook, but thankfully, Conboy’s documentary serves as a rallying cry, too. In addition to explaining Death By Audio’s role in the Williamsburg scene explosion (which ironically lead to its doom, as Williamsburg’s hipster crowd became itself out-gentrified by Manhattan professionals seeking identity by association with the ‘cool’ neighborhood), Goodnight Brooklyn is a testament to people who simply and purely love music — and an open invitation for the next generation of twentysomethings to take up the DIY mantle in any city. ‘Start Your Own Fucking Show Space’ is a challenge issued toward the end of the film (and the name of a triple vinyl soundtrack accompanying the documentary), and for any person interested in providing their city with a self-sustaining cultural space, Goodnight Brooklyn is an inspiring, instructive blueprint.
That’s not to say it’s all good vibes. Given that the documentary focuses on the whirlwind final few months of the venue, Vice Media – an early champion of Death By Audio whose chic Williamsburg headquarters took over DBA’s building, forcing it to shut down in 2014 — is given a fair share of scorn during the documentary. But as Conboy said during the post-show Q&A, he’s not consumed with bitterness: He has friends who work at Vice, and he doesn’t hold anything against them.
Despite the irony of a counterculture-servicing corporation unceremoniously quashing a nonprofit artist space it previously lavished praised upon, the story of Death By Audio isn’t a sad one. As Edan Wilber — a man whose face radiates deep satisfaction as he watches live music — says toward the end of the film, his trove of experiences at Death by Audio are irreplaceable internal riches.
Sure, the inevitable David and Goliath metaphor is tossed around in the film, but the story of Death By Audio shouldn’t be seen as the tragedy of David losing to Goliath. It’s about the unlikely true story that for years, punk rock David was able to do his thing on his own terms before corporate Goliath finally knocked him over. And in a city like New York, where Goliath’s cash rules everything, that’s a triumph worth documenting.