Years ago, singer/songwriter Jesse Malin approached Joe Strummer to ask for an autograph. Strummer, the late great frontman of fountainhead British punk band The Clash, compiled by signing Malin's ticket stub with an exhortation: "Love It to Life." The phrase has stuck with Malin over the years, until he finally decided to use it as the title of his latest album.
"I went through a lot of titles for this record and decided on that as indicative of resurrection and rebirth," Malin says over the phone from his home in New York. "It's been a weird couple of years, very weird. So that seemed an appropriate title."
Malin has never had the most conventional career track, going back to his '90s days leading the glam-punk band D Generation alongside Raleigh's Richard Bacchus. The weirdness of which he speaks began with some health problems, a staph infection picked up on tour that laid him out for a couple of months. That contributed to some money woes, and before he knew it, Malin was in the midst of a crisis of faith.
"The whole world was going broke and so was I," he says. "I was staying on my sister's couch on the Upper East Side, in this 'Seinfeld'-'Friends' sort of neighborhood, riding the bus with the old ladies. I was really second-guessing what I should do - become a standup comic? Businessman?? Deejay at weddings? I started working on a documentary about [the Washington, D.C., punk band] Bad Brains, and then I was asked to write some songs for a film about J.D. Salinger. That started me writing again and it broke the spell. I realized I wanted to make more records."
That led to "Live It to Life," his fifth studio full-length album since the demise of D Generation. It has plenty of Springsteen-styled fist-wavers and revved-up Chuck Berry guitar riffing, plus the occasional bit of cool atmosphere ("Lowlife in a Highrise" sounds like perfect soundtrack music for a time-lapse urban montage shot).
It's also very much steeped in New York. "Lowlife in a Highrise" was inspired by the billionaire swindler Bernie Madoff after Malin saw his wife at a grocery store. "All the Way from Moscow" voices the post-9/11 paranoid despair many New Yorkers still feel almost a decade later. And the anthemic opening track "Burning the Bowery" pays tribute to Malin's old stomping grounds around the fabled '70s punk landmark CBGB, which closed in 2006.
"I found myself back on the Bowery by CBGB, where I grew up," he says. "Except there was no more CBGB. Instead, it's all art galleries and clothing stores and Whole Foods there now. I found myself in a loft doing some writing while watching all these fancy stores come in.
"Yeah, New York City's always a good backdrop," he concludes. "Woody Allen says it's a dying city, but it always gets reborn. Whether it's from gentrification or terrorist attacks or recession, New York always comes back. This record is about that. It's like a phoenix coming back out of the flames."