Style Makes the Band.
When it comes to starting a new wave, it takes an East Village. I don't know how long the funky east end of Greenwich Village has been a bohemian enclave and avant-garde hub, but going back to Charlie Parker, jazz at Slug's, the beats, and the immortal Fugs is good enough for me.
When I discovered the East Village, at the outset of the '70s, it was the funkiest place I'd been. It was a neighborhood that looked like it had a love hangover and lysergic acid indigestion. The '60s were wearing off and something was afoot, on platforms. You can tell from the cover of the first New York Dolls album, weird boys in makeup, glitter - a look halfway between drag queen and junkie thug. They were the prophets, a decade early for the waves made by the collision of art and rock 'n' roll.
In the late '70s, the East Village was home to most of the young artists and musicians in New York. Minimal employment or clever unemployment could secure a Manhattan address, and the East Village, as an immigrant neighborhood of long standing, provided the necessities of life and fine Ukrainian cuisine on a frayed shoestring budget. Everything and everybody necessary to overthrow the corporate art and music status quo was within walking distance.
Max's Kansas City, uptown by EV standards between Seventeenth and Eighteenth on Park Avenue South, was hikable, and in the '70s, artists could live on the free hors d'oeuvres Mickey Ruskin provided at "happy hour." The upstairs room provided a venue for new music, introducing to New York bands as diverse as the Wailers and the B-52's. In the middle of the decade, the gruff but agreeable Hilly Kristal opened CBGB, officially CBGB+OMFUG, hoping to live up to the initials - Country, Bluegrass, Blues & Other Music For Uplifting Gourmandizers. But before that dream had a chance, the place was discovered by Televison, one of the first bands to be classified later (and somewhat unfortunately) as New Wave. Pretty soon it was home to young reckless bands such as the Stilettoes (the core of Blondie), Suicide, Wayne County (Jayne County after the sex change), the Dead Boys, the Cramps, Mink de Ville, the Sic F*cks, the Marbles, the Miamis, the Mumps, the Fleshtones, the Fast, the Erasers, the Dictators, and I'm just getting warmed up.
New Wave, as I recall, was a term coined by the advertising department at Sire Records, home of the Talking Heads and other new New York bands. Resonating with the Nouvelle Vague of film-making, it was a more respectable label than punk, which may have derived from Punk, the magazine that covered the downtown-CBGB-Max's scene. There was no difference between punk and New Wave, and any band that considered themselves part of one or the other was generally pitied and ignored.
New Wave was still new when No Wave arrived. This aggressively sham movement was an ironic reaction to New Wave hype and would-be commercialism. No Wave was rude, self-mystifying, and cultivated an aura of existential remove, aesthetic aggression, and glamorous doom. Associated with this brief flash were bands like DNA, Mars, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and the Contortions. (Some of their music is available on an album produced by Brian Eno titled No New York and released by Antilles Records.) "No Wave" might have been taken from Jean-Luc Godard's remark, "There are no new waves, there is only the ocean"; what all these bands had in common was, basically, they had nothing in common with other bands, or musically, with each other. They did have a scene, a kind of free-floating community that included visual artists, performance artists, and con artists.
The thing that is amazing today is that almost all the bands on the scene were original and inventive. Everybody had their own style (and later everybody had their own imitator). For the first time women were included, not just as singers, or backup singers, but as boys in the band. Some of the groups were genre altering. James Chance and the Contortions was a sort of fusion of Ornette Coleman free jazz and James Brown/P-Funk. A similar combo, Defunkt, was led by Joe Bowie, brother of Lester and sometime collaborator with Chance. Both bands mixed up arty kids with jazz and funk vets to achieve a new groove synthesis.
Mars, which featured artist Nancy Arlen and guitarist Sumner Crane, was a pioneer of the art school of avant rock that culminated (?) in Sonic Youth - the power and noise of rock 'n' roll combined with the aesthetic values of modernist art. Lydia Lunch was a postfeminist long before postfeminism, combining blues, jazz, lounge ennui, and pissed-off attitude. Lydia was an artist to the core, and although she might have had a "career," she chose to do exactly what she wanted, in Teenage Jesus, in her later bands, in side projects (such as Harry Crews with Kim Gordon), and in her spoken-word performances and writing.
The Lounge Lizards were kind of a bebop-revisited-with-guitar band, although their founder, John Lurie, made a mistake early on in calling the band "fake jazz," which was enough to fool a lot of the jazz community into thinking they were goofing on jazz. They weren't. They were reviving it with energy and wit. The downtown music scene was very involved with the artistic edge of jazz. There was a lot of interest in Ornette Coleman, and Sun Ra, who since the '40s had defined the outer reaches of jazz, shared the same venues as the Lizards and the Contortions. (The Lounge Lizards are celebrating their twentieth anniversary this year. They can no longer be construed as bebop revisited or fake anything, but are a remarkable, large jazz ensemble playing Lurie's compositions, which echo Africa, klezmer, Blue Note, Barry White, and Unified Field Theory.)
Arto Lindsay was another key figure on the scene, playing his detuned twelve-string Dan Electro guitar with an arrhythmic fury that recalled Coltrane's "sheets of sound." Arto played in the Lounge Lizards and sang and played with DNA, a cubist power trio with noncymbalic drummer Ikue Mori, organist Robin Crutchfield, and later the eccentric and wildly inventive bassist Tim Wright.
Many visual artists were involved in bands in the late '70s and early '80s. Jean-Michel Basquiat was in a band that started out being called Test Pattern, then became Gray. Basquiat, Michael Holman, Wayne Clifford, Nick Taylor, and Vincent Gallo made music that sounded like art. Basquiat knew something about jazz, and Gray had a sensibility indebted to electric-period Miles Davis, but the basis of their aesthetic was simply the fun of fooling around. In an era before sampling, they played with prerecorded tapes and sound effects, and they approached traditional instruments creatively. I remember that they got an incredible sound by pulling adhesive tape off the head of a snare drum.
Another Fun Gallery artist, Steven Kramer, was a wild accordionist who led a band called the Wallets, while James Nares played with an outfit called the Rotating Power Tools, with John Lurie and filmmakers Eric Mitchell and Seth Tillet. Walter Steding, a painter who worked as Andy Warhol's assistant at the time, was a solo act who often opened for Blondie. He played amplified violin and a synthesizer belt that he built himself, and he wore goggles that strobed in time with the music. Suicide, one of the most powerful bands on the scene, was a duo, with Martin Rev on electronics and Alan Vega on vocals. Vega was and is a sculptor who often collaborated with Edit deAk on Art Rite, the most important unknown art magazine of the time. Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch was in an odd, popular band called the Del-Byzanteens, described by John Lurie as "sort of halfway between Kraftwerk and R & B." A few years later artist David Wojnarowicz was part of a band called 3 Teens Kill 4. They played the Pyramid Club regularly and developed quite a following, with unique stylings of summer-camp songs and Rufus and Chaka Khan covers. Like Basquiat, Wojnarowicz used cassette tapes to produce ambient sound effects and his band had a fondness for toy instruments.
Other artists and art-world figures included: Frank Schroeder and Taro Suzuki (Youth in Asia); Barbara Ess (Y Pants); Dan Cameron (Infra Dig, which he describes as "thrash bubblegum"); and David Humphries (Details at II). Keiko Bonk was the singer for His Master's Voice, a popular East Village band that included the Patti Smith Group's Jay Dee Daugherty on drums. Keiko, who looked and sounded great, even threatened to be a commercial success for a while, but then seemed to prefer to remain an artist rather than make the transition to pop commodity.
There were any number of extraordinary performers on the scene. A guy named Zev, a very odd and intensely athletic man, did musical performances that consisted entirely of twirling large pieces of metal through the air, producing exotic rhythmic whirs. Rudolph Gray created architectural walls of noise on guitar. David Van Tieghem, the drummer for Peter Gordon's modernist art/pop/jazz band, the Love of Life Orchestra, did an amazing musical act involving a tableful of toys. Boris Policeband performed weird songs with violin and distortion, while slightly to the west of the East Village, in ol' Tribeca, Charlemagne Palestine performed long, intricate twelve-tone piano pieces. Later, Copernicus, performing astral-projection free music in the Sun Ra tradition, was a fixture on the East Village scene.
Glenn Branca was probably more a SoHo than an East Village figure, but he personified the artistic ambition of the '80s downtown music scene, performing "symphonies" with a variety of combos. One of the most notable was an electric-guitar ensemble featuring a dozen or so instruments plugged into a big array of amps and generating a kind of monumental orchestral noise fury. Artists were often members of the Branca combos - including, I believe, Robert Longo, Paul McMahon, and Richard Prince - as were a bunch of interesting musicians, including Sonic Youth founder Thurston Moore, Bronco and many other performers associated with the East Village were also affiliated with the scene at the Kitchen, the artists' space then located in SoHo, which was the site of many unique performances, including an opera by Sumner Crane of Mars, based on Don Giovanni and titled John Gavanti.
Other performers used music as a pretext for something more conceptual. Ann Magnuson, queen of the Club 57 crowd and a "performance artist" who regularly regaled crowds in the East Village, organized a succession of satirical "bands," from the proto-girl power Pulsallama, to the heavy-irony metal group Vulcan Death Grip, to the hippy-dippy stylings of Bongwater. There was also a "New Wave Vaudeville" featuring a number of wacko performers, such as the retro spectacles of painter David McDermott, the androgynous opera of Klaus Nomi, and a "band" called Art (and maybe also Art-Less), which combined minimal musicianship with tongue-in-cheek extremism. Later the freak-show, amateur-night torch was taken up by Howie Montaug's Cabaret, from which emerged (or didn't) numerous mad artistes.
Many bands of mid-lower Manhattan seemed to exist solely for the sake of deconstructing the idea of the band. A pioneer "joke band" was Half Japanese, two neo-Dada artist brothers who visited New York regularly to perform their anti-rock 'n' roll routines. They generally employed a rhythm section, Workdogs (Rob Kennedy and Scott Jarvis), who also backed any number of jokey and/or strange players, including Purple Geezus (an outfit put together by Velvet Underground drummer Me Tucker and gallerist Mike Osterhout) and the Velvet Monkeys. Probably the culmination of the idea of a joke band was They Might Be Giants, who started as tiny and jokey as the rest and then sort of lived up to their name, becoming a cult favorite among real rock stars.
The East Village scene was less a movement than a nonstop festival of everything from the avant-garde to the blatantly pop. It had radical musicians who looked to John Cage, Merce Cunningham, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman, and it had the Fleshtones, arguably America's most intelligent garage band, who looked to Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. It was where Madonna came from (see the TV movie). It was a community of cultured, ambitious youth, and in the space of ten years or so it had several "generations" of performers. It was always destined to "go uptown," and a lot of it wound up dead or in Brooklyn. I remember wistfully the controversy stirred up by an interview in the East Village Eye with the late Anya Phillips, manager and mate of the notorious James Chance, who announced that she and James had moved uptown to get away from the pot-smoking hippie fans of the band Television who were taking over the East Village. Uptown, to Anya, was East Thirty-first Street. This was around the time that James transformed the Contortions into James White and the Blacks, which was a sort of free jazz-disco fusion, guaranteed to alienate all but the most alienated of the alienated.
It was a time and a place when and where commerce was not really an issue, when and where notoriety was more valued than fame. Everything was about art, whether it was painting, music, writing, filmmaking, video, or getting dressed in the afternoon (there was no morning). The musicians and artists were seldom virtuosos, even in one area, but it's surprising how often that fact was made up for in style and concept. The Mudd Club, the Pyramid, Club 57, and 8BC were venues for art - or were themselves art. It's a world I have a genuine nostalgia for because it was so pure and smart at the same time, but in a way it's still here because we've got records and cassettes that document all the brilliant things that happened and all the brilliant things that didn't.
My favorite comedian, the great B.S. Pully, who played Big Jule in Guys and Dolls and punched Frank Sinatra in the stomach in A Hole in the Head. had a great expression he used when one of his lines failed to get a laugh in a cabaret. "I'm too smart for the room," he'd lament. The state of music today, and the state of art, for that matter, often leads me to mutter softly to myself. "We were too smart for the room." I miss the local hothouse atmosphere, the frantic scene that produced such wild hybridization in art and music. I miss the irony, the satire, the amateur bravado, and the sheer love of sound we encountered in the clubs, I miss ambitious ambiguity, I miss the renaissance-dude and -chick atmosphere where everybody painted, wrote, acted, directed, and played something. Often the results were mediocre, but what spectacular and risky mediocrity it was, and when it was genius it was genius. I miss the way it mattered more to be a cause celebre in the art community than an internationally renowned pap star. The Philly Sound is gone. The Motown Sound is gone. Nashville is Hollywood. There is no locality anymore, And the art locality was the best locality of all, because you were never too smart for the room. It was a Gong Show for geniuses. Its artistic legacy puts the music bottled and canned for Viacom distribution to shame - if there is such a thing.
Glenn O'Brien used to play CBGB as the singer in Konelrad, the world's first socialist realist rock band. He later recorded with David Johansen as Chad and Sudan. He currently lives in midtown Manhattan.
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|Date:||Oct 1, 1999|
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