4 days ago
Saturday, November 22, 2008
CONTORT YOURSELF: No Wave New York
[chapter 9 in the US edition]
>A British invention
The Sex Pistols’s sneery ditty “New York” rubbed salt in the scene’s wounds. The song was equal parts anxiety of influence and kill-your-idols cockiness (the idols in question being the New York Dolls, with Johnny Thunders in particular a huge influence on Steve Jones’s guitar playing and stage poses).
In “A Conservative Impulse in the New Rock Underground”, his report on the CBGB Festival, Village Voice August 18th 1975, Wolcott argued that the drive to create rock was “no longer… revolutionary--i.e. the transformation of oneself and society--but conservative: to carry on the rock tradition…. The landscape is no longer virginal…. It exists not to be transformed but cultivated.’” New York punk was a cause worth championing, he continued, not for reasons of formal innovation or political subversion but as a revolt against stadium rock and superstar culture: “the very unpretentiousness of the bands’ style of musical attack represented a counterthrust to the prevailing baroque theatricality of rock. In opposition to that theatricality, this was a music which suggested a resurgence of communal faith”. He described the three day CBGB festival as the “most important event in New York rock since the Velvet Underground played the Balloon Farm”.
>“Punk is just… Sixties rock”
—Spungen. Quoted in Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (London: Penguin, 1997). P. 260.
Androgyny frissons aside, Patti Smith was a Beat poet rocker in the tradition of Jim Morrison and Bob Dylan, her Horses album an exercise in rock mythography and working through the legacy of the Sixties; her group got more and more MC5-like, a troupe of rock’n’roll soldiers on a rock-my-religion crusade; she eventually married the MC5s’ Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith. The Heartbreakers were an offshoot of The New York Dolls, themselves a camped-up take on the Rolling Stones. Blondie was Sixties pop-rock with punky attitude, ‘power pop’ in the best sense of the word. The Fifties-styled Mink DeVille was obsessed with West Side Story. The Dead Boys were lice on Iggy’s nutsack.
To continue Wolcott’s metaphor: faced with a crowded and over-cultivated rock landscape, the No Waver’s drastic solution was to raze the terrain, a sort of sonic scorched earth policy aiming to begin again from the purity of the tabula rasa.
>No Wave precedents
The primitivist freak-rock of The Godz and Cromagnon and the ESP label’s out-jazz in general http://www.espdisk.com/about.html.... Some of the more extreme krautrock like sloppy primitivists Amon Duul and Neu! at their most noise-sculpture oriented also. In his The Wire primer on No Wave, Alan Licht (who you might call a neo-No Wave musician) cites The Godz’ 1966 tune “White Cat Heat” and the Nihilist Spasm Band’s first album from 1968, No Record; also The Stooges’ “LA Blues” off Funhouse.
Also worthy of mention is a near-contemporary release, “Radio Ethiopia”, the freeform title track of Patti Smiths’ 1976 album, which is described thus in The Sex Revolts:
”a total insurrection against structure. There's only the loosest of rhythmic vertebrae, and even that departs halfway through, leaving unmoored percussion and clustered clouds of cymbal-spray. The guitars quickly abandon the semblance of riffs, dissolve into gouts of freeform noise and graffiti-like scrawls of endless soloing. Patti Smith goes beyond emulating a rock'n'roll shaman like Jim Morrison, with his clear diction and bombastic gravity; she sounds like the genuine article, a shaman from the Amazon, tripping madly on hallucinogenic tree-bark. She gnashes and drools, chokes and gasps strangulated incantations. The closest to this voodoo delirium that any male singer has gotten is Iggy Pop's howls at the climax of 'TV Eye' and Tim Buckley's Starsailor.”
>no ancestors at all
Joe Carducci compares the No Wavers’ conceptualism with the Krautrock groups of the early Seventies, like Can, Faust, Neu!, Cluster, Amon Duul II, Ashra Tempel, Popol Vuh, Tangerine Dream, etc etc : ““NYC has a hard time producing legitimate small band music, but it does encourage interesting anti-rock experiments (Dylan, Velvets, Suicide). This new experiment in error contributed music--especially early on--that was rock music no matter its willful autism. This scene somewhat suggests the earlier German rock scene in its emphasis on concept. The difference was that whereas the German had no rock history, these New Yorkers wished they had none, so determined were they to break out of it and into something new….”
>used rock's tool against itself
Which brings to mind deconstruction, the philosophical project of carefully unravelling a text’s presuppositions and founding assumptions from within. Carducci again: “With the cool of the Velvets but the assaultive instincts of Suicide and the energy of the Ramones, groups like the Contortions, DNA, Dark Day, Mars, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Chain Gang, the Theoretical Girls, and the Static used traditional line ups but effectively turned each instrument in on itself as if each player had to analyse each act of hitting, picking and singing rather than merely attempting to reach a groove with the others and swing with it,” Carducci quips that this “was like staring down at the bicycle’s mechanism while you ride so as to better experience the act of riding”. This reminded me of the similar metaphor used by Gayatri Spivak attempting to explain deconstruction: “like riding a bicycle as slowly as you can without falling off.”
Lunch borrowed the slide technique from Connie Burg
>Handful of recordings
According to No Wave journalist Roy Trakin, who wrote for Soho Weekly News and New York Rocker, “a very important hidden figure, who nurtured the scene and almost singlehandedly championed No Wave back at a time no one else got it, was Charles Ball of Lust/Unlust. He was like an Alan Lomax in the swamps, documenting the scene with field recordings.” Ball had worked alongside Terry Ork at Ork Records, the pioneering New York independent label that put out Television’s first single. Trakin describes Ball as “a real heavy thinker, into French polemical film makers, a real Godard freak”. Ball himself recalls: “I’d spent a year translating Jacques Revet’s film criticism. I was big into French New Wave. I read a lot of Adorno, Benjamin, Marcuse. Also the Situationists. And Lacan. Coming from a film and structuralist perspective, I was very familiar with Roland Barthes and all that kind of thing.” The name Lust/Unlust came from this sort of reading, mostly likely a Lacan text. Ball had left to start his own production company, which is really what Lust/Unlust was, more than a label as such. Ultimately he let the artists choose the names for their labels so it looked like he had a whole stable of different record labels to his credit. The first Lust/Unlust release was a Teenage Jesus & the Jerks single; Lunch called her sub-label Migraine. Ball appears to have been a gifted producer, like Martin Hannett, exploring the potential of the first generation of digital reverbs.
Ball: “It allowed you to do things that you could do before like flanging but go much further with it--you could actually designate a room where the reflections would suddenly become being harmonized--a pitch up above what the original was. When I tried to do a mix I tried to make sure something was changing throughout.” On one Mars EP, he used binaural recording, mixed to simulate the spacing of your ears. “I also added on digital delays and reverbs so there was both the exposed physical space if you were to listen on headphones which sounds uncanily like someone’s behind you or placed somewhere in space, and then all these artificial space and unreal space added by the digital delay. Some of the guitar solos I have on that record are just really extraordinary, it would start like it seemed like you were seeing the amplifier and then suddenly you were in some kind of room or chamber that’s psychological.” But the label was ultimately stymied financially by the lack of really strong local support for No Wave.
>Chance's attacks on the audience
The initial motive was frustration with arty audiences who were impassive and too cool to react. The first incident occurred at a benefit for X magazine, where the audience actually sat down on the floor, the sheer quiescence of which goaded Chance to assault them.In Soho Weekly News 1979 January 4 , Chance explained: “I’ve had times when I was just pummellling people repeatedly and they just sit there and grin in your face. I mean I just give them more of it. But if they keep taking it like that, I get really bored. The ones that get really pissed off I like a bit more. At least they have some spirit…. One time in Toronto, a girl had a chair up in front of her like I was a lion…. Remember that chick I bit on the tit? Well there’s talk that she’s going to sue. Seems the thing got infected. You know what that means? That means I’m… I’m… I’m RABID!”
>Performance art was the hot thing
Pat Place: “People like Duka Delight and Laurie Anderson.” In 1975, there was the first major exhibition of this kind of work at Artists Space, titled Person In Persona.
Co-founder of DNA with Arto Lindsay, Robin Crutchfield was a presence on the Soho performance art world, his activities ranging from impromptu street theater involving abstract dance to participating in an avant-garde festival with his piece "The Death of Sparrow Hart”, in which he became a “part bird, part autistic child” who pecked at a toy piano and lived inside a cage. For his first formally advertised solo performance in January 1976, the gender-bending “Mommy, Me, Bandage”, he wore garish make-up and “dozens and dozens of miniature sexless plastic baby dolls” attached to his body by adhesive tape. A photograph of Crutchfield in this garb appeared in the Soho Weekly News, which then rivaled Village Voice as the downtown newspaper, and in art magazines like File. “It was a really striking image, it appeared everywhere,” recalls Lindsay. “And part of my notion with DNA was to make the most extreme group I could come up with.” Crutchfield, meanwhile, like so many other artists in mid-Seventies New York, was keen to start a band, despite having no prior musical experience, and was already developing his own totally idiosyncratic way of playing keyboards. His idol, musically, was Yoko Ono--proto-No Wave not just in her primal scream meets primitivist rock recordings like Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band (1970) and Fly (1971), but the fact that she started out as an artist (a genre-colliding Fluxus polymath one) who then moved into the rock world.Glenn Branca of the Static and Theoretical
Girls also came from an experimental theater background.
Two releases from Robin Crutchfield's post-DNA band Dark Day, for the Lust/Unlust label
Other alumni included Connie Burg , Gordon Stevenson of Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, and Liz and Bobby Swope of Beirut Slump Cunningham studied theater (“and psychotropics”, he quips) and made up performance pieces that mix’n’matched elements from Dada, Warhol’s underground films, beat poetry and free jazz. Officially studying literature, Lindsay basically designed his own liberal arts course, exploring everything from poetry to dance to theater: “The school was very open, and I wasn’t really sure what art form I would ultimately focus on”.
>Filtered down to us kids
Lindsay: “In such a way that, even though you hadn’t experienced it and didn’t know all the specifics, it gave you a kind of license. The more conceptual aspect as represented by Marcel Duchamp was a huge influence--everybody was kind of redoing his work in one way or another.”
more info here, link and on Seedbed, link and here too link interview with Acconci, link.
Of Seedbed, reporter Sarah Milroy says: “For this, he built a plywood ramp in Sonnabend Gallery in New York and crawled underneath it, masturbating in his underground lair and amplifying, through speakers, his talk-aloud fantasies about the gallery visitors walking overhead. In a public space, he thus enacted the most private of personal pleasures, leaving the viewer with the predicament of how, or if, to maintain the social status quo.”
Momus on Acconci with soundclip from Acconci on “Seedbed”: link
Rudolf Schwarzkogler was another key member of Viennese Aktionismus alongside Gunter Brus, Otto Muehl, and Hermann Nitsch. Acts ranging from from self-crucifixion to butchery to literal blood-baths. Taking a shit on someone’s head. That kind of thing. More here: link A host of Vienna Aktionist films—not for the nervous or frail of constitution—are archived at the marvelous online avant-museum of sound and vision, UbuWeb: link
>Suicide and SoHo
Near to Project of Living Artists in Soho was the gallery OK Harris, where Suicide played their second gig, and the Mercer Arts Center, an off-Broadway theater that had begun booking bands like The New York Dolls. In the early Seventies, that whole area of downtown New York--South of Houston St, North of Canal St, and West of Broadway--was the place for struggling artists or bands to live. Once bustling with manufacture and sweatshops, the area was full of huge lofts that could be rented cheaply and which served both as domicile and studio/rehearsal space. Often it was illegal for the landlords to rent them out as living spaces, since they were zoned for industry, so the renters would have to conceal signs of food preparation, bathing, or domestic life.
>Alan Vega's art
A piece by me in Village Voice link
The song “Cheree” describes the beloved as “my comic book fantasy”, while the Guavera elegy “Che” transforms the Latin American freedom fighter into a cartoon superhero.
>Lower East Side / L.E.S.
Today the term Lower East Side designates an area of downtown below Houston St stretching down to Chinatown, but in the Seventies and early Eighties it covered a much larger area bounded by 14th Street at its northside and Delancey Street to the south, and between circa 2nd Avenue and Avenue D. In the midst of this large area lies what was later named and is still known as the East Village&a realtors initiative to gentrify the area by paralleling it with the West Village/Greenwich Village. Further adding to the confusion is that Avenue A to Avenue D—the most dangerous, low-rent area of the Lower East Side—was also known as Alphabet City.
The city’s official figures listed 360 abandoned buildings and 310 vacant lots in the area, with the condition of a quarter of the buildings declared poor to critical.
>Letting services deteriorate
Turning off first the heat, then electrity, then water. The hallmark of an arson-for-insurance job was that the fire started on the uppermost levels of the building, so that the occupants--if any remained after the services disappeared--could escape unharmed.
Many derelict properties were filled with garbage (often left by local businesses or small stores who couldn’t afford refuse removal services) and this caught fire easily.
>‘most Regular’ folk had fled
Between 1970 and 1980, the local population dropped 20 percent; school enrollment plummeted as families with kids moved to better neighbourhoods or the suburbs.
>A homeless Lydia Lunch
After living chez Chance, she moved to an apartment above a Chinese movie theater on Delancey Street (below Houston, even deeper into the urban L.E.S. wasteland), a loft-size room which became the shared rehearsal space for several fledging No Wave bands.
>Connie Burg on 10th and B
Burg: “A bit later I moved 28th and 3rd, an apartment with no heat or hot water—a major motivator to go out and do the band!.”
The Ocean Club
The latter—run by Micky Ruskin, the guy who had previously opened Max’s Kansas City—was “the ‘in’ hangout of its time,” says Robin Crutchfield. “Where the art world met the rest of the world, and one could often see celebs from Andy Warhol to John Belushi schmoozing.”
>3rd Street between A and B… The Toilet
A block north from where James Chance lived!
Adele Bertei: “It was just as easy to buy smack as it was a Snickers bar down here”
>”we all succumbed”
Pat Place: “We were all experimenting with various levels of use. I think I got beyond experimenting, I got to be an expert!”
The experimentation extended to gender-bending and polysexuality. Place: “Everyone was sleeping with each other, it was pretty crazy.”
>“I hate Art… assholes”
—Chance. Soho Weekly News 1/4/79.
Located at 484 Broome Street and home of what Arto Lindsay called “the John Rockwell-approved avant-garde”, a reference to the New York Times music critic whose book All American Music: Composition in the Late Twentieth Century (Alfred A. Knopf, 1983) includes essays on several Kitchen-type artists (Robert Ashley, David Behrman, Laurie Anderson) as well as art-into-rock types like Talking Heads.
Lindsay: “We resisted The Kitchen and similar places until they made us offers we couldn’t refuse, and even then we only did it for the money,”
Musically, this downtown milieu of minimalist composers is documented in a June 2nd 1979 feature by Village Voice avant-garde music critic Tom Johnson, which is an overview of the epochal festival “New Music, New York”, a 10 day event hosted by The Kitchen. He describes the event as capturing a transitional moment between the first-wave of downtown composers (Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Meredith Monk, Robert Ashley) and a more postmodern second-wave who often forged a connection between classical and popular/youth music (Branca, Chatham, Laurie Anderson, Peter Gordon, David Van Tieghem, Pauline Oliveros, etc). Johnson notes that the first wave owes much to Cage (and Eastern philosophy) and little to pop culture; the second wave reverses that. The first wave is all synths, electronics, piano; the second wave often used electric guitars and amplification. The commonality between the two generations resided in the fact that the majority of the works were tonal and modal, not atonal; didn’t climax in conventional ways; rarely required virtuoso playing; weren’t conventionally notated; and that the composers typically performed their own works. Brian Eno participated in “New Music, New York”, giving a lecture on “The Studio as a Compositional Tool”, which is available here, link
>“They were failed… musicians”
—overhead audience member, Soho Weekly News, 5/11/78. Report on Artists Space festival.
>Artist's Space festival
Before this epochal festival there had been a kind of dress rehearsal, a benefit for X magazine, on 12th March 1978—another crucial event in the genesis of No Wave.
Line up at Artists Space
Tuesday: The Communists/Terminal (a female synthesiser player who performed with the machine on a coffee table propped up by telephone books!)
Wednesday: Theoretical Girls/The Gynecologists (featuring Nina Canal later of Ut, and Rhys Chatham)
Thursday: Tone Death/Daily Life (the latter Barbara Ess's band before Y Pants, according to Robin Crutchfield)
Saturday: Mars/Teenage Jesus and the Jerks Crutchfield believes that Jules' Baptiste's Red Decade and a group called Boris Policeband also played.
> here is the original text of the poster / flyer for the Artists Space festivals
BANDS at ARTISTS SPACE
Artists Space 105 Hudson Street @ Franklin
Tues May 2 Communists
Wed May 3 Gynecologists
Thurs May 4 Daily Life
Fri May 5 Contortions
Sat May 6 Mars
Teenage Jesus & the Jerks
As a rock critic, a nerdy profession at the best of times, one naturally relishes the notion of the Dean being handy with his fists! “Pummeling the lead Contortion into submission” is how the altercation is described in one book, with James reputedly returning to the stage with blood pouring down his face! The woman was Marylin Herzka, the wife of Bob Stanley (no relation to Saint Etienne’s Bob, who would have been 9 or 10 at the time!), “a very dear friend of mine,” says Christgau. “Chance wasn’t hurting her in a serious way, but was definitely crowding her space and imposing…. To my recollection, that’s all I did--sit on him.”
Never-even-attempted dream project feature of mine, Eno: the New York Years. From More Songs About Buildings And Food and No New York to On Land (basslines from Bill Laswell) and the New York skyline video art installation Mistaken Memories of Medieval Manhattan, via Fear of Music, Remain In Light, and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, phew, that is quite a stellar run of artistic activity. Eno had been hanging out in New York on and off for a while before Artists Space, ever since leaving Roxy Music in fact. He’d produced a reputedly atrocious set of demos for Television.
>“it turned out… started that [5/]”
—Eno, MM 1/12/80.
More from that Richard Williams profile of Eno: “I thought if I go back to London I'll get distracted, so I'll just find a place here for a month”. Not sure if “that place” was the apartment owned by Steve Maas, founder/owner of the Mudd Club, directly above Maas’ own apartment, but certainly Eno lived there for a while. Other projects that Eno had to do as well mixing More Buildings And Food, were to “finish a chapter for a book of essays being edited by his acquaintance Stafford Beer, the cybernetician. It was his intention to leave New York within three weeks of his birthday, May 15. Seven months later he was still there, having been seduced into staying by the vigour of the local art-scene and also (it must be admitted) by the way that scene's members feted him.”
>Little in common with No Wave
Outwardly, No Wave’s atonal assault couldn’t be further from Eno’s own music. The tranquil whimsy and diffuse drift of his solo albums like 1975’s Another Green World along with tape delay projects like Discreet Music and the Robert Fripp collaborations No Pussyfooting and Evening Star had led him towards the first of the ambient series, Music For Airports, actually released in 1978 and regarded by many punks as mere Muzak. Still, there were blasts of rude noise here and there throughout Eno’s discography; with the Fripp albums he’d explored reinvention of the guitar, while his untutored synth irruptions had been a vital component of those first two Roxy Music albums’s “idiot energy”. And as a proud non-musician he certainly had much in common with most of the No Wavers.
>“research bands…. everyone else”
—Eno, Creem, November 1978. Full quote from the interview by Lee Moore.Eno: “What's going on in New York now is one of those seminal situations where there are really a lot of ideas around, and somebody is going to synthesize some of them soon. Somebody is going to put them all together. That's always been the way of rock music as far as I can see, this forming of eclectic little groups of disciplines. What I see happening in New York is that there are a number of bands which have taken deliberately extreme stances that are very interesting because they define the edges of a piece of territory. They say 'This is as far as you can go in this direction'. Now, you might not choose to go that far, but having that territory staked out is very important. You achieve a synthesis by determining your stance in relation to these signposts. There are a lot of research bands in New York who are trying these experiments, and it's very altruistic of them in a sense. It makes things easier for everyone else and gives people some real, solid information to work from." Another quote on No Wave: “The New York bands proceed from a "what would happen if" orientation. The English punk thing is a "feel" situation: "This is our identity, and the music emanates from that." I've always been of the former persuasion. A lot of the British bands now are based on personalities ¬ Graham Parker, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe. With the Velvet Underground and the new New York bands, you're conscious of personality, but it's almost incidental. But there's a difference between me and the New York bands. They carry the experiment to the extreme, I carry it to the point where it stops sounding interesting, and then pull back a little bit. What they do is a rarefied kind of research, it generates a vocabulary that people like me can use. These New York bands are like fence-posts, the real edges of a territory, and one can maneuver within it.” (from John Rockwell, "Odyssey of Two British Rockers," New York Times July 23 1978, piece on Eno and Fripp.)
>No New York
Recording information at link
>”just like a document”
Arto Lindsay: “Eno was reading some studio instrument magazine while we were recording, and I was furious, I wanted to throttle him. I think he was shocked by how far into the music we were”. Walking out with Eno, Crutchfield and DNA drummer Ikue Mori after completing the sessions Lindsay burst into tears, “just from the emotion at having actually got some of the music onto tape”.
>“using the board as an instrument”
Mark Cunningham: “There's things happening in “Helen Fordsdale” from effects saturation that you can’t separate from the playing”.
>more conservative than Eno
Cunningham: “There was a bit of tension, but in the end we were happy with the results, unlike Teenage Jesus or the Contortions”. Connie Burg: “Eno said the day he spent with us recording, was the most difficult day he ever had in the studio. We were always morphing, so it was… taxing.”
>The Gynecologists and Theoretical Girls... Branca
There was some whispering in Eno’s ear going on from certain parties, arguing that the record would be stronger if it was more focused. But there was also LES versus SoHo emnity at work. The Gynecologists was one of several outfits organized by Rhys Chatham, a composer who’d helped found the Kitchen in 1971 and was its music director; his resume included working with such doyens of drone-minimalism as La Monte Young, Tony Conrad and Charlemagne Palestine. Seeing The Ramones early on had turned him onto the noise potential of massively amplified electric guitars, but by 1977 these impulses were coming out in works like ‘Guitar Trio’, a piece based around the clusters of overtones generated by multiple guitars with special tunings strumming a single chord. As for Theoretical Girls Jeffrey Lohn was a proper trained composer but Glenn Branca was self-taught. His background was more experimental theater. His troupe The Bastard Theater performed totally abstract pieces, with the actors playing instruments Branca collected off the streets of Boston: metal pots, broken piano sounding boards, assorted jetsam. After Theoretical Girls, Branca made overwraught art-punk with his girlfriend Barbara Ess as The Static, then took a leaf out of Chatham’s book and started composing his own symphonies, full-blown Works with titles like The Ascension and Symphony No. 1 (Tonal Plexus), based around oddly tuned guitars played at a deafening volume. Like the No Wavers, Branca tried to dramatise the visceral nature of his music from the effete and coldblooded experimentalism of SoHo, calling the latter a “closed-off, insular scene” and describing The Kitchen as “like going to church.” Still, there was a crucial difference between No Wave’s core four and Branca and Chatham, which became more apparent with the music the latter made after Theoretical Girls and The Gynecologists. Despite their allegiance to punk, Chatham and Branca defined rock in terms of the textures of amplified electric guitars, largely jettisoning not just melody, songs, and the human voice, but the role of the rhythm section. When Chatham’s Meltdown ensemble performed “Guitar Trio” at Max’s Kansas City in 1979, there was no bassist and drums were reduced to a single hi-hat. Rhythm, for Branca and Chatham, was not about groove or appealing to the body, but about trance-inducing metronomic repetition. Branca uses the term “pleromas of sound”, borrowed from an astrologer-composer, to describe the phantom harmonies and palimpsest effects created by the furious monochord strumming of his “guitar armies”. “It’s psychoacoustic,” he told Village Voice. “Part of it is the fact the ear is being absolutely overloaded with sound. You start hearing things that aren’t there. The mind starts to invents what’s happening.” The Branca/Chatham sound wall hit you physically but left the body inert. Its ultimate effect was intensely cerebral and/or spiritual, and thus closer in method and intent to the post-John Cage tradition of downtown minimalism (even though Cage legendarily recoiled from Branca’s bombast. In 1982, he attended the New Music America Festival in Chicago, and heard Branca’s Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses performed. Cage declared later: “My feelings were disturbed ... I found in myself a willingness to connect the music with evil and with power. I don't want such a power in my life. If it was something political it would resemble fascism”.
Glenn Branca recalls those times and the intra-scene politics, from an interview in LA Weekly, link “Since age 11, I was planning on being in theater. My parents would buy me these old tape recorders for Christmas and birthdays, and I’d sit there, really immersed, and make these tape collages. But I’d never play them for anyone. I always loved rock music desperately, but for many years, theater is what I lived and dreamed about 24 hours a day. Eventually, that’s what I went to school for at Emerson College. I wasn’t interested in creating plots or writing characters, though. I liked large forces — playing with huge numbers of people and sound and lights and imagery. I was interested in spaces where magical things might happen. The closest influence was Dada. The pieces were about whatever the fuck I wanted them to be about. I wanted to fuck with people’s heads. I was concerned with Richard Wagner’s idea of total theater. Richard Foreman was my hero. “Later, I moved to New York, and in 1977, a year after I arrived, I met Jeffrey Lohn, a composer, performance artist and musician — one of the more brilliant people I’d ever known. He had a 2,500-foot ground-floor loft in Soho. Now it’s a Japanese restaurant, but at the time we painted the whole thing black, and were going to form the Bastard Theater. That’s all we talked about and all we thought about. There was very little music. “Then, one day, I just couldn’t hold back my desire to start a rock band. Both of us were over 30 at the time, so neither of us had any delusions. We weren’t interested in becoming rock stars. We liked the punk ideal. We would write anything we wanted to whether people liked it or not. It’s hard for people to understand now, but this was before hardcore. This was like the Rod Stewart era. Yet for some reason, the more absurd we became, the bigger our audience. At first we were just the local art band. There was a lot of interest in the young female conceptual artists — Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger — and when someone threw out the name The Theoretical Girls, that’s who we became. But I also loved the idea of being part of a movement, and in 1978, No Wave began. There were a bunch of exciting gigs, where all of these noise bands were on the same bill together: Mars, the Contortions, DNA. “Then Brian Eno moved to New York. Very quickly he heard about this scene, and convinced Virgin to release a record. The problem was, he only picked four of the bands when, in fact, there were about 10. Bands like Teenage Jesus and the Jerks convinced him they were the real thing. They were East Village, we were the Soho art fags. That pretty much ended it. No Wave was done by ’79. For me, those two years were like 10. Every day there was something new — a new song, a new idea. I was out there presenting the most evil, vile stuff I could think of, and people were at the edge of the stage licking it up.”
Mars single "3E" bw "11000 Volts"
>Mars... first to form
Also the first to split up. Cunningham: “At one time we did talk about our evolution and described it as a countdown from 10 to 1. When we reached 1 the only direction was to start counting up again. Which could have happened, but didn’t”.
Cunningham: “Originally we were called China but there was another band called that, so we went through an identity crisis during which I had a dream where I saw a marquee where we were playing with Patti Smith and Richard Hell and it said Mars. Once I convinced the rest I hadn’t made it all up we went with it, and Connie took on the name China for herself.” (She went by the name China Burg for much of Mars career).
>Unified tempo... tonality
Burg: “I’ve always been interested in time, I consider it to be an illusion that controls all of us, and I was really interested in playing with time. The song ‘11 Thousand Volts’ is one of the first stabs at that. As for tonality, that went straight out of the window--I knew barre chords and all the other chordings, but I more or less left it all behind”.
Cunningham: “Almost all of us were self-taught, and forging new techniques, many almost in the moment of creation, became essential to our sound.”
A painter, but also an accomplished musician, capable of doing a mean Bukka White impersonation.
Arto Lindsay: “Sumner was a super brilliant guy, older than the rest of us. He’d gone to this art school on 8th Street, the same one where I did some nude modelling, and he’d been a student of Morton Feldman, seen Cage and Feldman debate. Sumner was into Milton Reznik, this artist who put tons of paint on a canvas, to where the painting becomes almost sculptural by dint of being lathered by so much pigment…. He was really into Bukka White, really into Thelonious Monk. He was a really good musician, a really knowledgeable artist, and older than we were. He was a very very good friend of mine and we used to discuss all this stuff endlessly. Ikue Mori lived with him for a while as a couple.” He was also involved with Lydia Lunch at one point. Crane was also a literati, writing songs for the group inspired by Proust and Kierkegaard ("The Immediate Stages of the Erotic", named after a section of Either/Or , and one of Mars’s strangest pieces). And it was Crane who turned his cohorts onto downtown minimalist Charlemagne Palestine.
Cunningham: “His piano concerts cum performances at his loft were incredibly magical and gave us a sense of minimalism that was very linked to the kind of ecstatic trance music we’d been listening to already.”
>great boom of ethnic field recordings
On labels like Folkways and Ocora; also Nonesuch Explorer series
Another black influence came from the loft scene, where free jazz players like Rashied Ali, Sam Rivers, and Milford Graves hosted performances.
>Burg’s and Crane’s vocals
Crane and Burg gibbered and gabbled the lyrics with an atonal indecipherability that had certain resemblances to the free-jazz vocalese of Patty Waters (on the ESP label) or Yoko Ono’s primal screech era of Fly, etc (a sound that Ono initially developed when trying to simulate the backwards-sound of her own recording of herself trying to simulate the pain of childbirth—agony, but etherealized and spooky-weirded). Burg: “I tended to distort my voice”.
Reflected in lyrics like “you throw your fit see who cares your hair in cars your arms detach your eyes fly by your torso in wax”.
A serious sculptor working with plastic resins
>“Flows and… razor blades”
—Lunch, MM 7/28/79.
“I like my own… note I have?”
—Lunch. Force Exposure, issue 10, 1986.
The closest parallel for Teenage Jesus at this point was the regal-glacial hauteur and martial rhythms of their UK contemporaries Siouxsie and The Banshees, but specifically the incarnation of the band featuring McKay and Morris, as heard on The Scream and Join Hands. Compare Siouxsie’s suburban-relapse type lyrics with Lunch’s “I’m in a closet and I can’t breathe/Won’t you just please release me?/I can’t move and my kidneys fail/The size of this room feels like jail/I can’t talk I can’t enunciate/and I’m treated like Sharon Tate/Suburban wealth and middle class well being/All it did was strip my feelings.”
Beirut Slump was “my mental expression”, Lunch told Melody Maker in 1979, with Teenage Jesus as the more visceral/physical one. Lunch cited one of the The Stooges least typical songs, the downered, langorous ballad “Ann”, as her prime inspiration in Beirut Slump. Some years later in the sleevenotes for the Hysterie career retrospective CD, she described it as “a slug with a chip on its shoulder and a thorn in its side"!
>People who'd never played music
Singer Bobby Swope was one of the Florida/Eckerd College crew, and gleaned most of his disturbed lyrics “from bums on the subway”, says Lunch.
>No Wave and the New Cinema
The New Cinema was sometimes described as “punk cinema”. It was a 50 seat space at 12 St Marks Place, and the organizers somehow got funding (either via an arts grant or the patronage of ZE’s Michael Zilka, depending on the account you read) for a videoscreen, which was then new technology. Its B-movie-influenced aesthetic was opposed to the ruling aesthetic of underground film-making i.e. structural and non-narrative, Stan Brakhage etc. As J. Hoberman put it, this DIY/proto-Dogme type movement used Super-8 cameras and a lo-fi, verite feel to stage “a partial return to the rawer values of the underground of the 1960s (Jack Smith, Ron Rice, the Kuchar brothers, early Warhol)”. The B-movie/horror/pulp influenced fixation on antisocial or pathological behavior looks ahead to the mid-Eighties Forced Exposure/Big Black/PURE magazine nexus, but also has high art ancestry: Baudelaire’s “an oasis of horror in a desert of boredom” (the late Seventies being a time of political and cultural flaccidity in the US, from the soft-rock of The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt to the soft left ineffectualism of Jimmy Carter). Lydia Lunch was one of the most in-demand actors on the scene: she played the austistic five year old girl lead in Vivienne Dick’s Beauty Becomes the Beast and the interrogator in Scott and Beth B’s Black Box (named after a torture device manufactured in Texas and shipped to Iran, Chile, and Uruguay for use against dissidents and Communist insurgents). In a slightly later phase of downtown New York underground cinema, she starred in Richard Kern’s art-porn movies like Fingered and Right Side of My Brain, alongside Clint Ruin/Jim Thirlwell.
Kern’s son Fletcher used to be in the same East Village pre-school class as Kieran!
Further reading on the New Cinema — a feature by J. Hoberman, Village Voice May 21st 1979, entitled “No Wavelength: The Para-Punk Underground”
>“I can’t stand… are extreme”
—Chance. Sounds 2/17/79. According to Chance, liberals were "basically cowards"
Nee, James Siegfried. More biographical info: link
A Chance quote from an interview with BBGun fanzine (the link now disappeared into the Ethernet): “At that time, when I first came to New York, I was pretty much obsessed with making it as a jazz musician. I got into hanging out at the clubs, but I really didn't want to play rock. I had all these original compositions that I had written and that whole loft jazz thing was happening. I was also going to jam sessions. It was funny because the rock scene and the jazz scene were, practically, right on top of each other, but there was no communication between the two at all. One of the main clubs was The Tin Palace on 2nd Street and Bowery, half a block from CBGB's. They had free jazz and a jam session every week. My sax- playing wasn't up to the jazz musicians of New York. Besides that, most of the jazz musicians of New York could not relate to me as a person. My whole style didn't fit at all. All the white jazz musicians at that time were stuck in the hippie era. They all acted like they were a bad imitation of a black jazz musician. They would all talk with this phony black accent. I just thought it was pathetic. One day I was playing my sax in Washington Square Park, I was playing this one song off of Charles Bo Bo Shaw's albums, and he walked by. “
Robert Christgau on the Tin Palace: “In 1970, poet Paul Pines opened another jazz club at 310, a haven for loft musicians called the Tin Palace. My mind elsewhere, I rarely visited until Stanley Crouch started booking it in the late '70s; one night, I let Voice writer Roger Trilling climb in through a window and he walked out managing James Blood Ulmer.”
Later a big fan and supporter of Chance and the Contortions. And articulator of a theory of rock celebrating it in Dionysian terms, voodoo frenzy and convulsive energy, as captured in his book Rock & Roll: An Unruly History
>“Super Bad, Pts 1 and 2”
In the days before 12 inch singles, James Brown’s extended tracks, running from six to eight minutes or longer, would be broken up as two sides of a 45 rpm 7 inch, but were essentially a single track. The solos that Chance admired would most likely have been played by St. Clair Pinckney, who played tenor and baritone saxophones. According to Kalamu ya Salaam, ““Pink” was particularly enamored of late-period Coltrane, which include playing in the extreme upper register of the tenor.”
>“When it first…teach to play”
Chance. Sounds 2/17/79.
Bertei was another veteran/denizen of the Plaza. She played with Peter Laughner in a band called The Wolves.
>“approached the… keyboard up”
Bertei. East Village Eye, February 1980.
>“Live, James would… play it,” “He couldn’t just… the sound.”
—Christensen/Harris. MM 3/15/80.
impLOG, a project started by ex-Contortions drummer Don Christensen with help from another ex-Contortion, guitarist Jody Harris, and their fabulous 1980 single "Holland Tunnel Dive" , which you can hear here
“levitating above… terribly wrong”
—O’Brien, sleevenotes to James Chance box set Irrresistible Impulse (Tiger Style, 2003)
>DNA… dissassemble themselves
Arto Lindsay’s primary motivation was to sound the opposite of Mars’ amorphous wall of clangour. “They were my best friends and it was my idea of a cool strategy to do something completely different, yet complementary to what they were doing.” Hence the sculptural, spiky, avant-funk sound of DNA.
>A scrabble of texture shards
One inspiration for Lindsay was the twangy percussive sounds of the berimbau, a Brazilian instrument ultimately of African origin, made out of a gourd, a bowed piece of wood, and a wire.
Lindsay was raised in Brazil (his parents were missionaries), where he was exposed to hybrid musics like tropicalia and the Brazilian national ideology of mesticagem (cultural and racial miscegenation).
>Robin Crutchfield… misfit… performance artist
Lindsay: “He was gay and very ambiguous looking sexually and he was heavy. And he took a photo of himself with all these babies, little dolls, taped to his chest. And it was a really striking image, it appeared everywhere. Part of my notion was to make the most extreme group I could come up with—that this was the way to make it big.”
Crutchfield’s own, highly detailed account:“In 1975 and 1976 I became involved in the Soho and Tribeca art worlds, and in particular, the performance art scene. My first performance in New York City, was an impromptu street piece on West Broadway, on a hot night in July of 1975. It consisted of abstract dance gestures and smashing and throwing barriers behind me made of water-filled plastic bags to the haunting musical accompaniment of David playing a recorder. The second was at Charlotte Moorman's "12th Annual Avant Garde Festival", September 27, 1975, amidst dozens of other artists' performances, exhibits and works. I mapped out a perimeter on the Floyd Bennett airfield runway with a stick of chalk and took several objects including a toy piano and a blanket with me to live in a self-imposed cage like an asylum inmate for the day. "The Death of Sparrow Hart" was a persona I took on, part bird, part autistic child, dancing and sobbing and pecking at the piano, hiding under a blanket and so on. David went his own way equipped with a map of the world and a pair of scissors selling countries to passersby for nickels and quarters. My first formally advertised, solo performance occurred on January 29th, 1976, in the storefront space of Stefan Eins' 3 Mercer Street Store. It was a gender-bending, exercise in self-confrontation entitled "Mommy, Me, Bandage", with garish makeup, and props like bevelled mirrors and apron strings, and scissors, and a cutout of a 1950's illustration of a stereotypical nurse, and dozens of miniature sexless plastic baby dolls which encrusted my body, attached by adhesive tape. The apron strings were cut, the nurse's head snipped off and taped to the mirror, then the dolls were removed, one by one, to cover and conceal my reflection in the mirror. All this was done to a tape I had made from an old found-sound phono booth record, on which two young girls sang and giggled their way through a song, which stuck and repeated and skipped and droned in various speeds, the maniacal tune "Tell Me Why I Love You So" giving the whole tableau an unnerving "dark theater" psychodrama edge. In the week that followed, it received a praise review by Mark Savitt for the Soho Weekly News (Soho's then alternative to the Village Voice). Susan Springfield had taken a photograph which they had used for the review (this photo of my body covered in dolls was used later in Toronto's File Magazine and made into a postcard for a boxed set of artists' postcards put out by Vancouver's Image Bank). “At some point during appearances at clubs or perhaps hanging out at Duane Street's Barnabus Rex bar where I met James Chance, I did a performance at Artists' Space called "Nursing Is An Art". It was sort of a combination of dance and gesture execution and lecture set to a slide show of x-rays and contorted body poses. I remember meeting Lydia Lunch with James Chance one night on Canal Street. She complimented me on my announcement card for the Artists' Space performance which showed a stylish 1940's nurse preparing an enormous syringe. Lydia told me about the band that she and James were starting called The Scabs.” Seeing Teenage Jesus live blew him away, and Crutchfield decided to make music. “David had sold me his old Vox electric piano when he had found another more to his liking, and I bought an old amp from filmmaker Amos Poe, who had once been in a band with Ivan Kral David told me that lessons were not the way to go with learning the piano. He said the best way to learn was to sit at the keyboard for hours a day, every day, just banging away, and sooner or later I would come to a method of my own device. He was right. However, I was impatient and my time limited. I couldn't read or write music and developed a crude method of remembering tunes by abbreviated hieroglyphic symbols scribbled on index cards. I couldn't do much more than repeat 5 note sequences over and over alternated against a two or three note bridge. The repetition in the work of Philip Glass and of Marty Rev from Suicide, and the even more minimal simplicity of the structures Lydia was using for her tunes in the CBGB's and Max's club circuit, opened the gate for me and said okay, you can do it too. Now, it's okay. I began rehearsing with Alan Vega's (of Suicide) girlfriend, Anne DeLeon, and her friend Johnny (Dynell), in a basement in Chelsea the summer of Sam and the big blackout.” Then Lydia Lunch pointed him in the direction of Arto: “My favorite album and musical inspiraton of the previous eight years was Yoko Ono's Plastic Ono Band. A wild album a decade or more ahead of its time, I considered it the true precursor to the new school of bands like Teenage Jesus and Mars. It played the tight driving organized rhythm section of Klaus Voorman on bass and Ringo on drums against the seemingly emotionally chaotic and disorganized guitar of John Lennon and vocal of Yoko Ono; a constant struggle of order against chaos. This was what I wanted of DNA. As we were a trio, the balance was achieved, metaphorically, more like a seesaw, with Arto supplying the chaotic bursts and uncontrolled explosion of emotion, while I countered with tight, cold, controlled, confined, suppressed emotions and patterns, both of us balanced on Ikue's fulcrum, which weaved in and out of the two extremes, like a juggler juggling fire in one hand and water in the other, and managing to make steam, without extinguishing either fire or water.”
Another influence: “the Dada voice experiments, but more from imagining what they’d been like than actually hearing them!” He’s talking about the bruitisme and noise-poems of Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco, Richard Huelsenbeck and Kurt Schwitters, which can be heard on Futurism & Dada Reviewed, a compilation released by LTM. On the noise-poem “L’Amiral Cherche Une Maison A Louer”, Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco and Richard Huelsenbeck unleash a polyphonic babble of multilingual nonsense, punctuated with circus-clown irruptions of rude noise, enough to get your blood boiling with excitement almost a century later. Kurt Schwitters’ life-long work-in-process “Die Sonate in Urlauten”, captured for posterity in 1938, is a tour de force of phonetic poetry, peppering your ears with flurries of phonemes and scattering consonants like confetti around your head.
More info at link
>Crutchfield… visual patterns
He’d developed his own crude notational system of hieroglyphic symbols As he said in Search & Destroy #7, “I relate to the piano sculpturally, pretty much in patterns of black and white, in groups of 2 or 3 keys, and I see these symmetrical patterns on the piano and I work a lot with that! Sometimes it doesn’t sound good to the ear but it’s a real nice geometrical pattern I’m using.”
Another Clevelander who’d moved to New York, Wright had been an early member of Pere Ubu, playing the bass
>Closest kin… black New York musicians
Lindsay: “We had a lot of black fans, and jazz musicians respected us. And all through this period I was listening to Al Green and Curtis Mayfield for my own pleasure”. He also “idolized” the postmodern disco group Dr. Buzzard’s Savannah Band and their whole notion of ‘mulatto music’. “There’s no notion of the mulatto in the United States, but that’s the way of life in Brazil”. What DNA resembled most was the idea of “One World” music, as earlier sketched by Yoko Ono, Tim Buckley, Can, and Miles Davis, and later by Don Cherry.
Whose 1977 landmark Dancing In Your Head mashed together jazz, funk, Beefheart, and Moroccan trance music
>James ‘Blood’ Ulmer… Coleman’s theories
Ulmer adapted Coleman’s mysterious “harmolodic” theories (Robert Palmer, yes him again, has a crack at explaining them here: link; see also Vivien Goldman’s Ornette biography link) on albums like Tales of Captain Black (Artists House, 1979), Are You Glad To Be In America? (1980), Free Lancing (Columbia, 1981), Black Rock (Columbia, 1982), all of which collided jazz and funk with a punk ferocity of attack and an underlying bluesiness of feel. Ulmer’s collective Music Revelation Ensemble (featuring David Murray, Amin Ali, Ronald Shannon Jackson) released a reputedly impenetrable album in 1980 actually called No Wave, recorded live in Dusseldorf and released on the Moers Music label. “I used to go to Ulmer’s gigs at lot,” says Lindsay, “That combination of bluesy feel and real ‘out’ playing, it’s very Hendrix. To me he was the most interesting post-Hendrix musician, as opposed to the guys who actually sounded like Jimi”.
>Premeditated and discussed
The emphasis on method and concept made DNA the most Eno-aligned of all the No Wavers, and Arto and Brian got very well apparently.
Lindsay: “This Hungarian underground theater group who operated a performance space on 23rd St. There was a big picture window on the first floor. And the stage was between the window and the audience so you’d be watching the play and behind it would be people on the street staring in from outside. Sometimes there’d be action going on outside the window.” Chronology of concerts at the Squat Theater during 1979-81 by some nutter: link
Lindsay: “We became the Lounge Lizards after running through real obvious phallic names like Rotating Power Tools and the Eels.”
>Punks taking the piss out of jazz
Loung Lizards were suffused in wry retro-neuvo tongue-in-chic humor: Lurie once declared that their music was “funny the way Jayne Mansfield’s breasts are funny”, then admitted “I’m not sure what that is though.” In another interview he declared of the Lounge Lizards’ music that “its defects are its qualities”. Lounge Lizards weren’t quite camp but they rubbed the spiritually earnest jazz custodians of the loft scene up the wrong way. “The ‘fake jazz’ quip haunted Lurie’s whole career,” says Glenn O’Brien. “But it wasn’t fake, they were historically grounded musicians drawing on Thelonius Monk and that whole Ornette Coleman area.”
Adding to the millstone effect of “fake jazz” was a piece, headlined “ESTHETIC OF THE FAKE STIRS ROCK WORLD” in the New York Times February 13, 1981 by our old mucker Robert Palmer, who pegged the Lounge Lizards as pioneers of an esthetic of inauthenticity and artifice dominating the music scene in New York., (other exponents included Blondie). Palmer wrote: “There has always been a certain amount of fakery in rock. Elvis Presley was a fake guitarist; he knew how to play the instrument, but found that it was more effective slung over his shoulder as a prop. Most rock performances these days are carefully orchestrated set pieces that give the illusion of spontaneity, but which are repeated exactly night after night. …… But the exponents of the esthetic of the fake are members of a younger generation of rock performers who have chosen to emphasize the fakery that was always inherent in rock. Their intent is partly satirical; the Lounge Lizards affectionately recreate the cliches of 1950's jazz and then explode them with startling bursts of electronic noise. But these musicians are also searching for fresh sounds and novel juxtapositions, using an existing body of American popular music as their raw materials. In effect, they are conceptual artists who enjoy toying with the form and content of musical idioms and sometimes satirizing the associated behavioral stances - the Lounge Lizards don't just sound like a 1950's jazz band gone berserk, for example; they even look like one…. These musicians seem to be saying that rock, which was originally a reaction against the musical and social cliches of an earlier era, has itself become a cliche. To them, is no longer a symbol of youthful rebellion; it is a style that can be dissected and analyzed like any other style, and groups like the Lounge Lizards are musical laboratories for this kind of analysis.”Bizarrely Palmer also contended that DNA played "fake heavy metal" while Mars had recorded a “fake opera” called 'John Gavanti' based on Mozart's "Don Giovanni".
Me on John Lurie and Jim Jarmusch's collaboration in Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law:
STRANGER THAN PARADISE (1984)
During the late Seventies and early Eighties, New York City was a cauldron of experimentation and hybrid creativity. Artists moved back and forth across the suddenly porous boundaries between postpunk rock, the visual arts, the worlds of underground cinema and theater, and the emerging hip hop scene. If anything was central, though, it was rock, which became the cultural hot spot with the arrival of punk and flourished further with the confrontational No Wave movement and then the more colorful, playful genre known as mutant disco. There was a time when almost every artist was also in a band: painter Jean-Michel Basquiat and future actor/director Vincent Gallo, for instance, were both in the weird noise outfit Gray, while Jim Jarmusch sang and played keyboards in The Del-Byzanteens. "At that time everyone in New York had a band," Jarmusch recalled in 1984. "The idea was that you didn't have to be a virtuoso musician to have a band. The spirit was more important than having technical expertise."
It was while he was moving through the incestuous downtown Manhattan scene that Jarmusch became friends with John Lurie, who would not only star in Stranger Than Paradise but score the film and help the director come up with the idea for the story's first part. Lurie fronted The Lounge Lizards, whose scrawny mutant take on bebop he described as "fake jazz" in an unguarded interview moment. The quip became a millstone but actually fits the Lounge Lizards musically and sartorially: their retro-tinged sound and suave suits harked back to some bygone pre-rock era but subtly warped it. Much the same could be said for Stranger Than Paradise, which seems to be set in some indefinable era that's neither present nor past. Being shot in black-and-white contributes to this effect, as do the old-fashioned clothes worn by Lurie's character Willy and his buddy Eddie (pork pie hats, suspenders and jackets that seem to come straight out of The Hustler), the quaint household appliances , the vintage TV and movies on the portable B/W television, and the one non-Lurie composition on the soundtrack, Screamin' Jay Hawkins's ghoulish R&B classic "I Put A Spell On You". The movie is suffused in Americana (at one point Willy tries to explain the football on TV to Eva, his visiting Hungarian cousin, only to give up) and in some sense is about America as a mythic wonderland that somehow eludes the grasp even of those born in the USA. Lurie's score, though, avoids jazz or R&B for a faux-European vibe: a neurotic chamber music of cello and violins that sometimes sounds agitated and highly-strung, sometimes subdued and achingly melodic. It's perfect for the uncanny way Jarmusch's movie makes middle America (a snow-covered and shadowy Cleveland, a blizzard-shrouded Lake Erie) look like Mittel Europa. Even Florida, which Willy, Eddy and Eva visit on a disastrous vacation, is made to feel chilly, bleached of color and cheer by cinematographer Tom DiCillo.
DOWN BY LAW (1986)
Jarmusch's second movie to feature Lurie's on-screen charisma and atmospheric score, Down by Law was actually born of the director's musical obsession with New Orleans, the city in and around which the film is set. Jarmusch had never been there, but felt that he had gleaned "a very strong sense---maybe abstract, maybe inaccurate--of New Orleans from its music culture." By this he didn't mean jazz so much as the city's 1950s and '60s rhythm-and-blues and early funk, figures like Professor Longhair, The Meters, Irma Thomas, Dr John, Allen Toussaint, Ernie K. Doe, and Irma Thomas (whose "It's Raining" appears as a jukebox tune at one point). This music, along with the Louisiana port city's historical associations with voodoo and pirates, and its unique architecture and food, gave New Orleans a pungent mystique for Jarmusch. Like Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law has a curious time-out-of-joint, twilight zone atmosphere, the sense of a present almost oppressively haunted by the past's ghosts. Lurie plays Jack, a pimp who ends up sharing a jail cell with a deejay called Zack and Bob, a mysterious Italian buffoon. Zack was played by Lurie and Jarmusch's friend Tom Waits, recently relocated to New York after a long period in Los Angeles where he'd become a cult singer-songwriter with his beatnik -barfly image and huskily drawled vignettes. Probably influenced by the New York postpunk scene that the Lounge Lizards belonged to, Waits music shifted in an experimental direction with the albums Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs. The latter album contributed two tunes to Down by Law's soundtrack, the blues-tinged but dissonant "Jockey Full of Bourbon" and "Tango Till They're Sore." Lurie's own compositions come from a similar place-- a mongrel sound midway between the art house and the burlesque hall--and use some of the same musicians who played on Rain Dogs. The style is a gumbo of American bohemian and lowlife musics, all clanking percussion, low blares of lugubriously sleazy trumpet, cold-turkey scrapes of guitar, and plinky sounds that recall the invented instruments of hobo composer Harry Partch. Defective yet affecting, moodily atmospheric yet somehow audibly in quotation marks, it's the perfect soundtrack for a movie that deliberately skips the narrative's most dramatic moment (the escape from prison) and cuts to the Louisiana swampland, where Bob announces "we have escaped, like in the American movies".
>“White Noise Supremacists”
Published in Village Voice, April 30, 1979, and one of Bangs finest, most self-searching and thoughtful pieces. Here’s a chunk of it:
"I don't discriminate," I used to laugh, "I'm prejudiced against everybody!" I thought it made for a nicely charismatic mix of Lenny Bruce freespleen and W.C. Fields misanthropy, conveniently ignoring Lenny's delirious, nigh-psychopathic inability to resolve the contradictions between his idealism and his infantile, scatological exhibitionism, as well as the fact that W.C. Fields's racism was as real and vile as—or more real and vile than—anybody else's. But when I got to New York in 1976 I discovered that some kind of bridge had been crossed by a lot of the people I thought were my peers in this emergent Cretins' Lib generation. This was stuff even I had to recognize as utterly repellent. I first noticed it the first time I threw a party. The staff of Punk magazine came, as well as members of several of the hottest CBGB's bands, and when I did what we always used to do at parties in Detroit—put on soul records so everybody could dance—I began to hear this: "What're you playing all that nigger disco shit for, Lester?" "That's not nigger disco shit," I snarled, "that's Otis Redding, you assholes!" But they didn't want to hear about it, and now I wonder if in any way I hadn't dug my own grave, or at least helped contribute to their ugliness and the new schism between us. The music editor of this paper [Robert Christgau] has theorized that one of the most important things about New Wave is how much of it is almost purely white music, and what a massive departure that represents from the almost universally blues-derived rock of the past. I don't necessarily agree with that, it ignores the reggae influence running through music as diverse as that of the Clash, Pere Ubu, Public Image Ltd., and the Police, not to mention the Chuck Berry licks at the core of Steve Jones's attack. But there is at least a grain of truth there—the Contortions' James Brown/Albert Ayler spasms aside, most of the SoHo bands are as white as John Cage, and there's an evolution of sound, rhythm, and stance running from the Velvets through the Stooges to the Ramones and their children that takes us farther and farther from the black-stud postures of Mick Jagger that Lou Reed and Iggy partake in but that Joey Ramone certainly doesn't. I respect Joey for that, for having the courage to be himself, especially at the sacrifice of a whole passel of macho defenses. Joey is a white American kid from Forest Hills, and as such his cultural inputs have been white, from "The Jetsons" through Alice Cooper. But none of this cancels out the fact that most of the greatest, deepest music America has produced has been, when not entirely black, the product of miscegenation.”
To read the whole thing, link
Shortly before Bangs piece was published, Christgau had discussed the question of New Wave music as an eradication of musical blackness from rock in the Voice’s Pazz’n’Jop best-records-of-1978 issue:
“John Piccarrella has asserted in these pages that the essence of new wave is what he calls "forced rhythm," a term that evokes the frenzied effect achieved by many otherwise dissimilar bands. And once again, that sounds right to me. But here's another obverse: Charlie Parker swung with a vengeance, whereas most new wavers—unlike Guy Lombardo or Linda Ronstadt, who simply don't swing—don't swing with a vengeance. Oddly enough, though, turned-off listeners have complained about the "frantic" quality of both musics. The main reason I've never bought that stuff about new wave reviving the rock-'n'-roll verities is that new wave doesn't sound very much like (good ol') rock 'n' roll. It's too "forced," too "frantic." It's this--combined with its disquieting way of coming on both wild (hot) and detached (cool), rather than straightforwardly emotional and expressive, another effect it often shares with bebop--that limits its audience, and it's this that makes it so inspiring aesthetically. This isn't just (blues-based) white music--it's White Music, or maybe even WHITE MUSIC. Which brings us back, strangely enough, to new wave hegemony. “I believe new wave's aggressive whiteness is a strength; I like its extremism, its honesty, its self-knowledge. But like the English punks, who love reggae as much as their own music, I'd consider myself some kind of robot if that was where my desires ended. And though I've made a case for all the black subgenres already, let me close with a zinger. Maybe, just maybe, if new wave is bebop, then disco is rhythm-and-blues. Once again, the analogy may be, er, slightly flawed--disco is a worldwide pop music, whereas r&b took a decade just to get beyond the juke joints and the "race market." But both hard funk to the left of pop disco and Eurodisco to the right resemble, in their patterns of pro- [XXXX] largely self-referential styles (reggae, for instance) that have contributed so much to the general vitality of popular music. And this is not least because the relationship of both styles to their audiences is unmediated by detailed attention from the mass media or informed critical scrutiny. In the '50s, r&b coalesced with bebop ideas in styles called "hard bop" and "soul jazz." What do you think new wave disco might sound like? “
>“We were all white… black experience”
—McNeill, quoted in Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming (see bibliography).
P. 138 More from the quote: “We had nothing in common with black people at that time: we’d had ten years of being politically correct and we were going to have fun, like kids are supposed to.”
>Death to Disco
To give the discophobes their due, in the context of mid-Seventies America, disco might be forgiveably be regarded as a facet of a retreat from the Sixties era of resistance and cultural dissent into a new depoliticized complacency, narcissism and vapid hedonism. By the time disco reached the mainstream, its origins in gay subculture (which had its own ancestry in late Sixties gay liberation movements and psychedelia, more than a trace of which survived in the trippy lights and trance rhythms, in its the hippie-dippie rhetoric of love-peace-and-understanding) were largely erased. The music did seem outwardly to be materialistic, superficial, glamour-obsessed, and escapist.
This is captured in an excellent Village Voice thinkpiece on disco by Alex Kopkind (February 12th 1979), which is sympathetic to the new nightclub music and its culture but notes how it leaves Sixties veterans aghast. Here’s a chunk of it:
“Disco is the word. It is more than music, beyond a beat, deeper than the dancers and their dance. Disco names the sensibility of a generation, as jazz and rock—and silence—announced the sum of styles, attitudes, and intent of other ages. The mindless material of the new disco culture—its songs, steps, ballrooms, movies, drugs, and drag—are denounced and adored with equal exaggeration. But the consciousness that lies beneath the trendy tastes is a serious subject and can hardly be ignored: for it points precisely where popular culture is headed at the end of the American '70s. Disco is phenomenal—unpredicted and unpredictable, contradictory and controversial. It has spawned a $4 billion music industry, new genres in film and theatre, new radio stations, a new elite of promoters and producers, and a new attitude about the possibilities of party going. It has also sparked major conflicts. "Death to Disco" is written on SoHo walls and "Disco Sucks!" rises from the throats of beleaguered partisans of rock, punk, or jazz who find their cultural identity threatened by disco's enormous commercial power. Scenes from the disco wars erupt across the landscape. Gangs of rockers and hustlers (the dancing kind) fight furiously in the streets outside disco clubs in provincial cities. When Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart "goes disco" (with "Miss You" and "Do You Think I'm Sexy?" respectively), their cultural conversion is debated in hip salons as well as The New York Times. The rock critical establishment still treats disco music as an adolescent aberration, at best; many cultural commentators look on the whole sensibility as a metaphor for the end of humanism and the decline of the West... History hardly stops. Disco in the '70s is in revolt against rock in the '60s. It is the anti-thesis of the "natural" look, the real feelings, the seriousness, the confessions, the struggles, the sincerity, pretensions, and pain of the last generation. Disco is "unreal," artificial, and exaggerated. It affirms the fantasies, fashions, gossip, frivolity, and fun of an evasive era. The '60s were braless, lumpy, heavy, rough, and romantic; disco is stylish, sleek, smooth, contrived, and controlled. Disco places surface over substance, mood over meaning, action over thought. The '60s were a mind trip (marijuana, acid): Disco is a body trip (Quaaludes, cocaine). The '60s were cheap; disco is expensive. On a '60s trip, you saw God in a grain of sand; on a disco trip, you see Jackie O. at Studio 54.”
Of course many discophobes were outright homophobes and racists, or just rock-chauvinist.
>Zilkha approached Chance
Arto Lindsay: “During the making of No New York, I remember James Chance showed Eno a contract that Zilka or somebody offered him, and Eno said ‘nobody would sign that but a desperate man’. James immediately signed it!’”
“I’ve always been… primitive”
—Chance. Soho Weekly News 1/4/79.
Discussing his enthusiasm for Haitian voodoo drum music, Chance added; “I like the idea of putting people in a trance.”
>“I’m not interested… artist”
—Chance. Sounds 2/17/79.
Chance: “What I do, I do for money. I don’t do it for art’s sake or anything like that”
>“Anyone with any… get slick… voodoo funk.“ “Money bought… on standby”
—Chance (here, James White)/Philips, East Village Eye, May 1979.
“Slick” was Chance’s big praise word of this period! Philips had masterminded Chance’s career to the point where he had two record contracts and they’d moved uptown from the Lower East Side to a marginally more salubrious area called Murray Hill. She wrote: “When the New Cinema opened across the street from us on St Marks and everyone we hated was standing outside staring at us when we went for dinner, we knew it was time to abandon a diseased ship. When confronted with the choice of crisp, green bills or envious green faces, we knew who we wanted to keep company with--Franklin & Grant.” There were grandiose plans for selling out and cashing in, with the model now being George Clinton and his multiple groups with different record deals, rather than James Brown as before. There would be Anya's Ginger Lee album (totally discoid, no live shows, just lip syncing), a Brides of Funkenstein-style album with the The Disco Lolitas, and so forth.
Even those who felt affection for her tend to describe her in language similar to Glenn O’Brien’s: ”If she had lived Anya might have become America’s top fashion designer or a successful dictator.”
James Chance and (I'm pretty certain) Anya Philips in the foreground
>Lydia Lunch… “Stained Sheets”
On the album she is billed as the alter-ego Stella Rico
Not actual phone sex, but a booty call of sorts: Lunch/Rico wants to come round for some nookie, Chance is bored and jaded with the usual sexual action, and holds out until she’s forced to make a kinky, self-abasing offer he can’t refuse. The track has a phone sex like vibe, though, in so far as his whispering of inaudible threats and satanic-tiger growls makes her come before she even leaves her house. A truly soiling listen all round!
A/k/a Terrence Sellers, a friend of Anya’s. The Correct Sadist was actually published in 1983. Biography here: link Portrait gallery here, link. An account that includes her No Wave-era days and photographs of her from that time is here, link
The girls played by Adele Bertei and Anya Phillips, not sure which one played the “black” girl!
>cynicism… hammered the same idea
A cynic famously defined by somebody or other as “someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” From “Contort Yourself”, some lyrics: “once you take out all the garbage that’s in your brain/forget about your future/shatter your frame” “once you forget your affection for the human race/reduce yourself to a zero”… See also “Jaded”—“my pleasure turns to disgust… your every touch thrills me right now, soon I’ll feel nothing” ; ‘I Don’t Want To Be Happy’: “I like living a lie — I only live on the surface/I don’t think people are very pretty inside…. My idea of fun is being whipped on the back of the thighs — I prefer the ridiculous to the sublime” And so on… you could basically take any lyric from his songbook at random. They’re great lyrics but he doesn’t exactly have thematic range!
>“It’s ridiculous… absurdity”
—Chance. New York Rocker January 1979
See also, “I try not to sit around pondering. I try not to think”. “How can anyone be interesting when they’re comfortable? When they’re comfortable , they’re just vegetating and getting fat!!!” (Also refers to having a song called “The Twitch” that is pro-discomfort, all about scratching that itch.) “I like being anxious” (in the Alan Platt piece cited earlier, he also says I like to be irritated”)
>“I do not relate… on earth”
—Chance. New York Rocker January 1979.
See also, "My attitude is anti-humanistic. i don’t basically care about the human race… I'm glad there's all the pollution and radiation and everything in America, 'cos i just want to see them all get killed off." NME, June 23 1979
The scene’s great journalistic champion, first in Soho Weekly News and then in New York Rocker. Trakin used terms like “organized noise” and ‘sturm und drone” to talk about No Wave’s imperative to “reduce rock’n’roll to its lowest common denominators, its primary building blocks.”
>Sex kittenish… sick little girl out to play… Queen of Siam
Zilkha: “For the poster we took her to F.A.O. Schwartz and bought her all the toys she wanted.” Lunch: “This evil sickly girl, a seductive murderess. I was still pretty young when we did Queen of Siam.” Despite featuring a genuinely cute cover of Classic IV’s Sixties bubblegum hit “Spooky” and a harrowing version of the Billy Holiday torch song “Gloomy Sunday,” Lunch’s foray into schmaltz noir didn’t propel her to stardom.
>No Wave could only exhaust itself
DNA was the band that carried on the longest, still playing and recording in 1981, before splitting; Lindsay went on to do the more melodic/sensual/rhythm-oriented The Ambitious Lovers project and a long, varied and interesting solo career. Mars’s aftermath and extensions is discussed in the Esoteric Discography as linked elsewhere in this site.
>Chance and endless line-up changes
More info here, link
Here virtually defined by Chance talking to Rolling Stone in January 24 1980. “People say disco records sound the same. But it’s New Wave records that all sound the same. Disco is all the same beat, but what they put on top of it is totally off the wall.” If disco did this anything-goes thing almost unconsciously as part of its commitment to entertain/have hits, the mutant disco groups turned this esoterica + groove into a self-conscious aesthetic.
>No New York
Eno apparently designed the cover and did the photograph and check out back cover or is it inner sleeve they all look like murderers or Baadher-Meinhof!
Not spelled Eight Eyed Spy as it is in the first UK edition (sigh). A great band, actually, especially doing cover versions: Creedence’s “Run Through The Jungle,” and also Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy” and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” (Lydia was doing a lot of acid at that point) (c.f. Siouxsie Sioux, there’s a definite touch of Grace Slick to Lunch’s piercing Munch-lady vocals). “'Dead You Me Beside” , the least typical 8-Eyed song, is the best thing they did (it’s a joke title: it’s the B-side to the 7 inch single “Diddy Wah Diddy”), and sounds like a more composed version of Beirut Slump’s abjection s(pl)urge.
The ROIR 8-Eyed live album is better than the studio one put out by Fetish
>Lunch… self-confounding musical trajectory
Immediately after 8-Eyed Spy, Lunch moved to Los Angeles, and formed the bad-trippy psychedelic-sounding 13: 13. From The Wire, July 1998:“The sound of that was really dictated by LA. It was the time of the Night Stalker, who’d murdered someone a few blocks away from my house. A very paranoid album. I was in a chronic state of paranoia at the time, waiting for the Night Stalker.”
“I Fell In Love With a Ghost” was the last song ever written for 13: 13 but she ended up doing it with Rowland S. Howard of her new buddies the Birthday Party as the fabulous B-side of their fabulous cover of “Some Velvet Morning” (originally by Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra)
This extract from the Sex Revolts gives some sense of both the divagations and the continuity in her later output:
From her early days at the forefront of the late '70s New York No Wave Scene in bands like Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and 8-Eyed Spy, through collaborations with Foetus, Rowland Howard, Thurston Moore, and a plethora of solo albums and spoken word projects, Lunch has gotten under the listener's skin by pulling back her own skin to reveal the morbid processes within. Her work invites and confounds voyeurism. The title of her retrospective Hysterie captured these ambiguities by playing both on the idea of hysteria (the female psychosomatic 'disorder' turned into a spectacle by nineteenth century psychiatrist Jean-Martin Charcot for the edification/entertainment of male physicians) and the notion of writing the secret history (or her-story) of a woman's life.
Exploding the decorous format of autobiography, Lunch's work is an archaeology of self-knowledge, excavating through the strata to uncover the primal wound that compels her to be an artist (like Sinead O'Connor, Lunch suffered sexual abuse as a child). In a 1988 interview with Melody Maker, she said: 'I'm here to explain and document what goes on in my life knowing that other women have gone through the same thing. I'm not finding solutions to the problem, I'm not saying there is a solution, I'm merely underlining the problem so everyone can see it as obviously as I do.'
Lunch's work is a kind of assault course of therapy: getting it out of her system by imposing it on the audience. Her early music was highly-disciplined and tightly channelled; she wanted Teenage Jesus and the Jerks to be 'a very rigid regiment of almost military precision', rather than 'a spontaneous combustion'. In songs of this period, she explores the dynamics of victim and victimizer--most explicitly in 'In the Closet', where she compares herself to Manson victim Sharon Tate and complains of being unable to express herself or 'enunciate'.
Bloodletting, an ancient healing practice, becomes a central metaphor in Lunch's work. Blood is pain made visible, a transgression of the boundaries between inner and outer, private and public. In 'I Woke Up Dreaming', she describes her lover as 'my razor'; 'Baby Doll' pleads with her mother for permission to 'bleed just once'. Queen of Siam, Lunch's 1980 solo album, teems with imagery of bodies dissolving into streams of blood and tears: this is negative jouissance, agony-as-ecstasy, pain libidinised. In 'Tied and Twist',she intones nursery-rhyme imagery of drowning in 'a million tears'. 'Knives in the Drain' is a horrific sexual metaphor that plays on the analogous images of wound and vagina, weapon and phallus: Lunch is 'split and unbled'. On this same album, she also harks back to a tradition of female catharsis--the torch song genre--by covering Billie Holliday's 'Gloomy Sunday'.
As the '80s progressed, Lunch's work would divide between the allegorical (the burnt-out psychic wasteland of Honeymoon in Red, the apocalyptic visions of Stinkfist) and full-on, assaultive autobiography (spoken-word albums like The Uncensored Lydia Lunch and Oral Fixation). Where other female singers wanting to express the extremities of pain or rapture have bypassed language for non-verbal expression (Patti Smith, Yoko Ono, Diamanda Galas), Lunch's solo vocal performances remain coherent and decipherable, even at her highest pitch of rapid-fire rage. Her insights and anguish are too important to be garbled into glossolalia; instead she sprays the audience with logorrhoea, machine-gun style. For her harrowing harangues, Lunch adopts the persona of the bitch, the shrew, the harridan: patriarchy's great fear, the woman who will not shut up. In an interview in the book Angry Women, Lunch describes herself as the raging voice of the silenced, suffering majority of women: 'I'm only using my own example for the benefit of all who suffer the same multiple frustrations: fear, horror, anger, hatred... And the stories aren't just personal--often they're very political.' 'Daddy Dearest' (from Oral Fixation) takes the form of a letter to the father who abused her. The graphic, unsparing details, coming from a girl of six or seven, only three and a half feet tall, are devastating. She recounts how he regularly tried to burn off a freckle on her ass; vividly describes his invasion of her body, with particular attention to the way the stench of his breath--Bourbon, nicotine, onion--mingled with the smell of her own violated 'baby pussy'. With a degree of restrained vitriol redolent of Sylvia Plath's famous poem 'Daddy', Lunch finally exposes her father for his crime of imposing his 'stink and filth' upon her sweet innocence, for derailing the natural development of her life. In the title monologue, 'Oral Fixation', she confesses that she's frustrated by the compulsive nature of her art. She says she's locked into a cycle of self-abuse (drinking, drugging) and abusiveness (bitching, whining), and she wants out. But for the moment, her abuse (of us!) is the first step towards healing: not so much a talking-cure as a shrieking-cure. In a 1986 interview with Sounds, she wondered aloud about her affliction: 'I don't know why I have to slit my guts and hope somebody will stick their filthy, stupid head inside and take one small breath and grasp what the fuck it's like to exist in someone else's shoes.' Lunch isn't always the victim in her songs. In her 'Black Romeo' monologue, Lunch plays the part of the torturer. It's the tale of a couple, a man and woman, who are driven by boredom and desperation to kill their pet cat. As so often in the Romantic imagination, murder becomes the zenith of a desire that spirals upwards implacably, until violence offers the only hope of release. Thinking about life, Lunch's alter-ego realises that both she and her lover are voraciously hungry for 'MORE'; the only way to satisfy him is for her to gift him with another creature's life. The description of the cat killing is horribly graphic, a little like the Rodney King video--blow after blow. Finally, her shoes are dripping with blood but there's 'no more naggin'' from Black Romeo. She identifies with both the torturer and the victim: the nagging black cat sounds suspiciously similar to her description of herself as a whining nag in other monologues, or to her mimicry of an imaginary, disgruntled, male member of the audience who complains that he didn't pay good money to be harangued by a woman 'on the rag'. Aside from echoing the case of Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, the 'Moors Murderers' who sealed their love for each other by killing children, 'Black Romeo' also seems to be a story of displaced and externalised self-hatred: the black cat standing in for the dark side of the woman that she has to stamp down. On 'Oral Fixation' itself, Lunch moves away from the intensely personal to a wider, political frame, with a coruscating, impressionistic view of the battle of the sexes. She takes on the voice of masculinity, exaggerates and parodies, singling out in particular the Outlaw/Rebel--very familiar to her through associations with the likes of Nick Cave and Clint Ruin. The neo-Nazi with his 'nightstick dick', the Clint Eastwood-style gunslinger/vigilante, cult leaders Jim Jones and Charles Manson, the Dionysian rebel Jim Morrison, serial killers like Ted Bundy, mass assassins--all occupy different positions on the same spectrum of death-worshipping masculinism. Her diatribe recalls Gore Vidal's notion of M3, the Miller-Mailer-Manson Man: the American frontier spirit frustrated and perverted into a 'death-machine' drive to the End of the Night. As her derision gets ever more acrid, she parodies the excuses spouted by the sociopath, who pleads exemption because he can't control himself. Where Lunch's 'lack of control' takes the form of verbal diarrhoea, the inability to stop speaking her hurt and humiliation, with the Macho Man it's an inability to deny his 'nature', to stop hurting and humiliating others. The implacable onrush of her monologue parallels the uncontrollable necro-logue of the lowly male specimens she examines under her microscope.
FURTHER READING AND LISTENING
Site dedicated to the Squat Theatre with photos of No Wave era bands and much else beside
Lydia Lunch’s website
Arto Lindsay’s website
No Wave photo archive
Weasel Walter’s No Wave site
http://nowave.pair.com/including this extensive photo archivehttp://nowave.pair.com/no_wave/nycnowave_index.html
Confessions of one of James White’s “Blacks”
Great No Wave mix by Optimo
Piece at Perfect Sound Forever on Tier 3, a New York No Wave era club
A useful compilation on the reactivated ZE label that pulls some of the interesting minor figures (Rosa Yemen) and side projects (Arto’s Arto/Neto collaboration)
Lester Bangs’ October 1981 Village Voice piece A Reasonable Guide To Horrible Noise, although not wholly about No Wave, gives its acts more love than any actually contemporaneous Voice article on the scene. Bangs sources Lunch’s “Orphans” lyrically in Ono’s “Don’t worry Kyoko, mummy’s only looking for a hand in the snow’ (Side Two of Live Peace in Toronto, and flipside of “Cold Turkey” single). He hails Mars The Mars EP (Infidelity, 1980): “this piece of beyond-lyrics, often beyond-discernible-instrumentation psychotic noise is their absolute masterpiece” and mentions the rumour that the master tapes were dropped accidentally in water.
A crucial mover-and-shaker character: a journalist (for Interview, where he was an editor), a DJ (at the Mudd Club), a hob-nobber, and patron of the artists (buddy to Jean-Michel Basquiat, to John Lurie, Debbie and Chris from Blondie. etc etc). Also ran the crucial cable TV show TV Party, which started in December 1978 and had the slogan “the cocktail party that could also be a political party” and semi-seriously espoused the political belief that New York should secede from the union and become an independent port city-state like Hong Kong.
I quote in its entirety the following piece Party Out of Bounds, by my wife Joy Press, from the Voice, April 26th 2005:
"I really sincerely believe cable TV in New York City can become a viable force that will compete with The Village Voice, really mean something," Blondie's Chris Stein declared during an episode of TV Party, the post-punk public access television series he hosted with writer Glenn O'Brien from 1978 to 1982.
The show's life span just happened to coincide with the golden age of Manhattan Cable, a halcyon period when public access TV seemed like the vanguard of a new democratic art form. It was an open pulpit that beckoned to neighborhood freaks, visionaries, show-offs, paranoiacs—pretty much anyone who had the gumption to ask for airtime. And back in the days before MTV and the zillion other networks we have now, New York couch potatoes like me watched it voraciously, lapping up everything from Telepsychic and The Robin Byrd Show to Ugly George and TV Party, never quite sure what unscripted nuttiness would erupt from the screen. "This is not a test! This is an actual show!" O'Brien once assured his TV Party audience, shouting amid the melee.
This moment appears in a new documentary about the series being screened at Tribeca Film Festival this week. O'Brien hopes the doc will eventually be released on DVD along with several episodes of the original show, and that's a very good thing because TV Party offers us a glimpse of a lost cultural moment. This is not the same slick retro-vision of '70s and '80s new wave you'll find on VH1, but TV made by artists and addicts. O'Brien, always dapper with his shorn hair, wayfarer sunglasses, and skinny suits, played the ringleader of a wayward downtown hipster posse that included Stein, independent filmmaker Amos Poe, graffiti artist-rapper Fab Five Freddy (introduced on the debut episode as "the token black"), one-man-band Walter Steding, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who liked to sit in the control room and type poetic graffiti across the screen.
It's the spirit of the Mudd Club brought to the small screen with all its neo-dadaist playfulness intact. TV Party's archives are a trove of priceless footage—unusual performances by David Byrne and Debbie Harry, interviews with David Bowie and George Clinton, and most importantly, live appearances by such barely documented entities as DNA and Tuxedomoon. On any given week, you might've been treated to a makeover by photographer Steven Meisel, a cooking lesson with Klaus Nomi, or a call-in session in which cantankerous New Yorkers kvetched to a surprised Mick Jones of the Clash. One caller claimed to be Atlantic Records founder Jerry Wexler; rather than being awed, Basquiat dismissed him as "an art pimp" before blithely disconnecting the call.
"You could think of it as early reality television, but it was a whole different reality," O'Brien says now, looking much the same as he did 25 years ago, only with whiter hair and straighter teeth. "It wasn't about becoming a celebrity in the sense that it is today. It was about starting your own system." In some ways TV Party is like Warhol's Factory meets the cathode-ray tube, and in fact, O'Brien spent his formative years working for Warhol. (He was one of the first editors of Interview. "I always thought of Andy's philosophy as taking art out of the ghetto into the public consciousness," he says. "That's what we were trying to do with TV Party."
There was always a vaguely political whiff to the series: O'Brien introduced each episode with the tagline "the TV show that's a cocktail party that could be a political party," and posters of Mao and Lenin adorned the studio walls. O'Brien's fantasy was to see New York secede from the union and become an independent city-state. He even talked about running for mayor but says wryly, "No one could ever get up early enough to circulate the petitions." George Clinton once dubbed the program "Anarchy Howdy Doody Guerrilla TV," which nicely sums up its Groucho Marx-ist blend of rebellion and silliness. The series epitomized the best and worst excesses of the era: chaotic, entertaining, amateurish, defiant, and disorienting—both intentionally and unintentionally. Amos Poe, who served as the show's director, loved to play visual games by zooming in and out randomly or switching between cameras at migraine-inducing speed, a habit that made it "toxic to look at," as Debbie Harry points out in the doc. The sound quality was often terrible, and there were plenty of longueurs. Guests blew pot smoke into the cameras, and O'Brien once served psilocybin margaritas. Sometimes you get the feeling the show was more fun to make than it is to watch. I
n the last few years, a generation of new bands, like LCD Soundsystem, has taken inspiration from the no-wave-mutant-disco nightlife era, but the milieu is surprisingly hard to capture, as visitors to the New Museum's recent East Village show discovered. O'Brien's own film Downtown 81, which starred Basquiat and was made back in the day but only just released in 2000, did communicate the ambient seediness and roiling crosscurrents of the downtown art-music scene. But TV Party, with its meandering lo-fi quality and self-conscious artiness, conveys the grain of the era even better. It is unpretty and uncompromising, just as no-wave artists like Lydia Lunch and the Contortions were.
Their attitude, says O'Brien, "was like: We're not just going to hand it to you." And if you look at what people are wearing, you won't see much in the way of designer labels. "Everyone looks great but they're all individuals—they picked through a lot of garbage to come up with that outfit!"
TV Party quietly disappeared in 1982. The gang dissolved along with the scene itself: O'Brien got distracted by Downtown 81, Stein got sick, Basquiat got famous, and a bunch of people went into rehab. Plus, says O'Brien, "It got harder to live on no money in New York." It almost seems like a hallucination now, an idyll before the '80s art and real estate booms kicked in. As Poe wonders in the documentary, "Was it some kind of folly or some kind of genius?"
Simon Reynolds entry on Suicide's discography, written 1995, for the Spin Guide to Alternative Rock
and i quote:
Suicide (Red Star, 1977) 
Alan Vega and Martin Rev: Suicide
(Ze, 1980) 
1/2 Alive (ROIR, 1981) 
Ghost Riders (ROIR, 1986) 
A Way Of Life (Wax Trax, 1989) 
Suicide/Alan Vega and Martin Rev:
Suicide (rec 1977 and 1980;
Restless, 1990) 
Why Be Blue (Brake Out/Enemy, 1992) 
Suicide should have been the American Kraftwerk. The parallels are striking: both bands shared roots in the mantra-minimalism of the Velvets and Stooges, both renounced guitars and groove for synths and metronomic beats, both shared a facility for hymnal melodies. But where Kraftwerk changed the face of
European pop, siring everything from Moroder's electro-disco to synth-pop to
techno-rave, Suicide collided with the brick wall of America's guitar-fixated, Luddite rockism. Singer Alan Vega and synth-man Martin Rev spent seven years languishing in Lower East Side sub-bohemia,interrupted by the occasional live
performance to baffled, hostile audiences, before they got to cut their first record. And Suicide's ideas found their most fertile reception outside
America, sprouting forth in the form of Soft Cell's electro-torch songs,
the Woodentops' hypno-grooves, Spacemen 3's trance-rock and Sigue
Sigue Sputnik's cyber-punk.
Yet--despite the fact they favored two-note keyboard oscillations over three
chord guitar riffs, and inflexible pre-set drum patterns over a swinging
backbeat--Suicide were a rock'n'roll band, and American to the core.
Admittedly, that spirit resided almost entirely in Vega's mannered, almost
ciphered rockabilly vocals, which, in a deliberate echo of early Presley, were
haloed in unearthly reverb. In fact, with his 1980 solo single "Jukebox Babe", Vega's sci-fi Elvis shtick made him a star in France, where rock'n'roll has always been appreciated more for its stylisation (the leather, the quiff,
the sneer) than its substance.
Throughout Suicide's oeuvre, there's a Warhol-like appreciation of the two-dimensional myths, cheap dreams and pulp fictions of American
pop culture. Nuance and ambivalence have no place in Vega's cartoon aesthetic, and he constantly risks cliche and corn in his quest for the Epic and Iconic.
Suicide establishes the two poles of the band's emotional spectrum: psychosis and sentimentality. In the first vein, there's the apocalyptic "Rocket USA", with its Stooges-gone-electro propulsion and imagery of "speeding down the skyway"; Vega's heavily reverbed shrieks and gasps leave a trail of aural after-images in their wake. In the second strain, there's "Cheree", in whose churchy organ trills and devotional aura one can hear the 'ambient gospel' of Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized. Vega gets around his vocal limitations by exploiting a
fabulous repertoire of whimpers, whoops, shudders, stutters and tics. The epic psychologue "Frankie Teardrop"--the story of wage-slave who cracks, and
kills his wife and child before blowing his own brains out--is possibly the singer's finest 10 minutes. Vega's bloodcurdling howl rivals Iggy's in "TV Eye"
as Most Hair-Raising Rock Scream Ever; the panicky blurts and tremulous jitters he issues as Frankie hesitates with his finger on the trigger are method-acting in
excelsis. All the while, Rev's sensory-deprivation synth-drones simulate the soul-destroying routine and claustrophobia that drove Frankie over the brink.
Produced by die-hard fan Ric Ocasek of The Cars, the second album Alan Vega and Martin Rev is cleaner, crisper and more conventionally 'beautiful'. Suicide
are now maxi-minimalists, i.e. the motifs are still simple, but there's more of them. Ranging from the glacial grace of "Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne"
and the stealthy tenderness of "Touch Me" to the twitchy, street-punk hustle of "Fast Money Music", the album perfect blends avant-garde edge and pop accessibility. The highpoints are the extremities, however: "Harlem", with Rev's whirring and buzzing hypertension framing Vega's multi-tracked paranoia-babble, and the Martian disco soundscape of "Dance".
1/2 Alive consists of live tracks circa 1978, plus a handful of unreleased lo-fi studio gems from 1974-5. On "Long Talk" and "Speed Queen", Rev
reaches beneath minimalism and achieves a Sun Ra-like muzak-of-the-spheres, while Vega's brokenhearted echo-chamber murmurings on "Space Blue" poignantly conjure the astronaut's loneliness. There's also an early, chorus-free
version of "Dream Baby Dream", the 1980 12 inch that is possibly Suicide's prettiest synth-psalm ever.
Ghost Riders is live'n'murky, notable mainly for otherwise unreleased ditties like "Rock'n'Roll Is Killing My Life" and the anti-heroin sermon
"Sweet White Lady", plus a version of "Harlem", where Rev's killer-bee drone-swarm of sound is at its most Throbbing Gristle-meets-Aphex abrasive.
For most of the '80s, Suicide went their separate ways. Vega was busiest, pursuing a solo career that started superbly with the robotic rockabilly of Alan Vega and Collision Drive, then degenerated into Billy Idol-ish disco-metal. When Suicide reconvened for A Way Of Life and Why Be Blue, their music mostly conformed to the sterile Noo Wave contours of Vega's solo LPs, leavened by the occasional sickly-sweet ballad (the Angelo Badalamenti-like "Surrender" even featured female backing vocals!). Despite a few glimmers of yesteryear's controlled mania, the comeback LP's offer scant indications as to why Suicide warrant legend-status. For that, stick with the first two studio LP's and 1/2 Alive.
an interview by me with Alan Vega around the Suicide comeback album in 1989
The Observer, 19 February 1989
"New York is getting dull," says Suicide's Alan Vega. "The downtown New York of the Seventies has gone. But there's still something here, an electricity, a charge that keeps you nervous... A lot of ghosts maybe. It's hard to get bored hare. Just the noise and the pace of the place keeps the juices flowing."
Suicide exemplify one sound of New York, coming out of the downtown art/fashion crossover that spawned the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls. They began in 1972 as a two-man performance art group, with Alan Vega's psychotic vocals backed up by Martin Rev's brutally simple use of the synthesiser and the drum machine.
Despite being, in the words of legendary critic Lester Bangs, "the first real IRT-lurking move since the Velvet Underground", Suicide initially played to near-total incomprehension. It took them five years to make their first record.
Like other groups whose influence outweighs their sales, Suicide were critically reviled and ignored by the general public in their day. In Britain and Europe, Suicide's strict adherence to the fundamental precepts of minimalism and monotony, together with Alan Vega's confrontational stage act, were too much even for the punk crowd. A 1978 tour supporting the Clash saw them provoking a sequence of audience riots.
After recording two excellents albums in the late Seventies Rev and Vega went their separate ways, recording six solo LPs between them. While Rev concentrated on synthetic, instrumental textures, Vega returned to his first love, rockabilly. "There's a lot of rockabilly in Suicide. Rev does the same thing with synthesisers that the early rock 'n' rollers did with the guitar. I've always loved Elvis Presley, but I wanted to do it in a modern way."
Meanwhile, Suicide's reputation was increasing. In the nine-year gap between trial separation and official reunion, their stature has snowballed. Soft Cell have admitted to being inspired by Suicide's combination of cybernetic sound and lyrical sleaze. Sigue Sigue Sputnik and Transvision Vamp frankly plagiarised Vega's Pop Art fascination with the cheap beauty and two-dimensional dreams of US pop culture, while groups like Loop and Spacemen 3 aspire to Suicide's hypnotic intensity.
All this flattery has its down side, however. Surrounded by, disciples. Suicide don't stand out, any more, and their new album, A Way Of Life, has been poorly received as a modest reiteration of past achievements. Alan Vega is irritated: "Everyone in the business tries to give you your chunk of time and then that's the end."
In a way Suicide are now of the time instead of ahead of it. As Vega adds: "Maybe with these groups like Loop and Spacemen 3, something's going to happen at last. And House music has something going for it in bringing back the repetition. But Rap was maybe the only radical thing this decade, a new beat, a new minimalism, weird sounds floating around in there."
a review by Simon Reynolds of some James Chance reissues/live album for Mojo probably 1995
JAMES WHITE AND THE BLACKS
Off White (Infinite Zero/American)
JAMES CHANCE & THE CONTORTIONS
Lost Chance (ROIR)
After the nihilism and noise of No Wave came the era of mulatto,
mutant disco. For one short moment, England and New York were in sync.
On both sides of the Atlantic the sharpest ex-punks were cooking up piquant
hybrids of funk, punk, freeform jazz and dub. A Certain Ratio, Pop Group, Gang of
Four, Bush Tetras, Defunkt, ESG--all briefly belonged to an international
Sick muthafunker James White was a key player in all this miscegenated
mayhem. Swiftly following up the 1979 debut Buy, White changed his band's name
from the Contortions to the Blacks, and released Off White on the ultra-hip Ze
label. The opener Contort Yourself encapsulates White's sonic and lyrical shtick. Over brittle funk guitar, neurotic bass and a hissing
hi-hat disco beat, James spurted the infantile squall of his bebop sax and
rapped nihilistic nursery rhymes: "now is the time/to lose all control/distort
your body/and twist your soul". Next came the vile misogny of Stained Sheets, a
duet juxtaposing Stella Rico's needy, orgasmic whimpers with White's sadistic
contempt. A blankly ironic cover of Irving Berlin's (Tropical) Heatwave segues
into Almost Black, the most dubious homage to blackness-as-primitivism since
Norman Mailer's 1957 essay The White Negro. That said, Off White's febrile funk
remains queerly compelling, even if you're left feeling so soiled you have to take a
Lost Chance was recorded two years later, when White had changed his
name to Chance and hooked up with a brand new bunch of sidemen. Live and lo-fi,
this 1981 set showcases Jimbo's unhealthy James Brown fixation, with covers of I Got
You (I Feel Good) and King Heroin, alongside Contort Yourself rehashes like Melt Yourself Down. As with ACR, Pop Group et al, funk figured in Chance's white
bohemian imagination as voodoo possession, a cold-fever compulsion, which in turn
made it the ideal vehicle for the avant-funksters themes of addiction, obsession
and control. Of course, nobody noticed that Michael Jackson was at that exact
same moment working the fascist groove thang in far more convulsively thrilling
and spooky fashion, with Off The Wall, Triumph and Thriller, and in a million-selling pop context to boot. Now, that's really sick...
All non-pictorial contents copyright Simon Reynolds unless otherwise indicated