A memoir from music critic Jessica Hopper. Instead of a straightforward timeline of her early days as a burgeoning writer, Hopper presents mini-scene after mini-scene that jumps around from year to year. Hopper drew from her diaries at the time to try and tell a few of her best personal stories from her late twenties and early thirties.
Much of the book takes place in Wicker Park and Ukrainian Village.
Why “Night Moves” by Jessica Hopper?
A few weeks ago, I almost broke my nose trying to get a glimpse of Vladimir Lenin. My job had put me in a fake-hip hotel right inside the heart of New York City’s Lower East Side. The shower in the room had a window with a view of the neighboring rooftops. On one such roof stood an 18-foot-statue of Lenin I’d seen earlier that day.
As I washed my hands in the middle of the night, I decided to look through the window and catch a glimpse of the communist leader. The shower had a glass door that I thought was open and I smashed right into it, causing a bloody nose that lasted an hour.
It served me right for trying to admire Lenin from this incredibly bougie space — a monument to capitalism in a once cool and low-rent area of the city.
Last year, I read the oral history tome of aughts New York City music culture, “Meet Me in the Bathroom,” by Lizzy Goodman. It detailed a scene and community of young artists before my time in the city. I had missed this moment and became jealous of it. Relatively low rents in the city allowed musicians working service jobs to cluster in Lower East Side and Williamsburg apartments — two areas that now only bankers and the like can afford.
When I started visiting the city for “college radio conferences” that were in reality just excuses to hang out in hostels and drink 40s while underage, I fell in love with remnants of this culture — venues and bars and record shops that had somehow survived. By the time I actually graduated college and moved to New York, many places had closed. My first year in New York, almost every DIY venue in the once happening Williamsburg shuttered. Lesser spaces replaced these venues in more far-flung places of the city. They typically had to close too, after rents in even the far-flung places skyrocketed.
I recently watched an HGTV-ripoff on Netflix that featured a makeover of the ratty and cheap hostel I stayed in during college. Every inch of the space looks designed for Instagram now and those beds can no longer be slept on with a student’s budget.
An area that could once foster a tight-knit community now forced artists into exodus. Going to the “cool place” or meeting the “cool friend” now required multiple subway lines and half an hour of walking almost no matter where you were. Moneyed forces made any “scene” impossible.
Jessica Hopper’s wonderful new book, “Night Moves,” approaches this same topic from the Chicago home front. This longtime music critic got her start by making her own music zine, writing for an alternative weekly at just 16 and then eventually writing for The Chicago Reader. In more recent years she has been an editor for publications like The Pitchfork Review, Rookie and MTV News. In 2015, she published the aptly named book, “The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic.” Put simply, she knows what she’s talking about and she was there.
“Night Moves” starts off with a mini-map that details different locations listed in the book. An asterisk goes next to the many locations that no longer exist — typically due to gentrification.
During her recent talk at the Chicago Humanities Festival, the first question in the Q&A came from an older man who accused Hopper and her friends of contributing to this gentrification of the neighborhoods featured in the book. Gentrification that ultimately took the neighborhoods away from other ethnic communities. Hopper agreed. When young artists move to the neighborhoods they can afford, they tend to make these areas seem more accessible and “happening” to those with more money in the city — which causes rents to go up. As long as rents can fluctuate in such a way, these communities have a ticking time bomb as soon as they start and collateral damage becomes inevitable.
As such, “Night Moves” tells of a magical, but doomed era.
Hopper consulted her old diaries to write this book, which makes sense as “Night Moves” consists of short diary-entry-enque stories told as if they just happened.
Most of these stories only last a few pages and provide no context for character names or locations. Noticeable narrative arcs outside of — young people doing young things — are rare. For me, this made getting through the first few entries a bit jarring as I kept re-reading sections with the fear I had missed something. After finishing a few entries though, I felt I understood the rhythms better and could get lost in these snapshots of Hopper’s life. Rather than a history of a time, “Night Moves” is a poetic celebration.
Recalling nightlife from a decade ago could have been even hazier in the details if it hadn’t been for Hopper’s ongoing sobriety. This — combined with what I imagine were exhaustive diaries — seemingly gave Hopper the agency to still pack each story with descriptive specificity that captures the scene. Hopper can recount who did what and where, even in the booziest of places. And at no point does it seem like her choice of sticking to imbibing water (with not too much ice) impedes her fun. This book is a clear-headed party.
Occasionally, these entries do read like more traditional short stories. I found this to be the case with a piece called “There Is A Light On My Bike That Never Goes Out” and then felt justified when Hopper chose to read this passage at the Chicago Humanities Festival.
In this one, Hopper writes of the joy in finding out her vintage bike has a pedal-powered light. Upon learning this, Hopper then feels the need to keep biking around her neighborhood. As she rides, she continuously stumbles upon friends and hands them pieces of chocolate from a bar she bought at the beginning of the entry. In only three-pages, Hopper makes an incredibly strong case for the value of community and the pleasures of living near friends.
I moved to Chicago earlier this year and have found it less spread out and less expensive than New York City. But now when I have to travel that half hour to an hour on the CTA every time I want to meet up with a friend, I think of this story. And it makes me sad that such a place may no longer be possible.
I believe it’s in human nature to desire closeness. One of our era’s greatest tragedies is that given market forces, communities like the one detailed in Hopper’s book feel increasingly far away.
-Interview with The Chicago Reader about “Night Moves”
-Interview with Longreads about “Night Moves”
-Hopper on the Longform podcast in 2015.
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