Tuesday, February 16, 2010

No New York

"Let me spin you a tale of yesteryear ... a godforsaken time when sometimes you actually had to wait years (!) to hear certain kinds of music because you couldn't find a copy of the goddamn record!

By spring of 1986, I had deduced from my research at the public library that there was something weirder and better than good ol' Punk: it was a disjointed, surrealistic deconstruction of rock perpetrated by antisocial characters with names like Lydia Lunch and James Chance called No Wave. The rhetoric and pictures sure looked good in books and magazines, so the search began. By the summer of that year I had procured used copies of the Contortions and James White and the Blacks albums (four dollars each) as well as ROIR cassette-only releases by the Contortions and 8 Eyed Spy.

James Chance was an ornery character. His shrill, dissonant saxophone playing and petulant vocal tirades reeked of nihilism and lent a clearly sadomasochistic edge to the thin, jarring mutant funk of his backing bands. I used to stare at the back of James White and the Blacks (the Contortions 'disco' alter-ego) LP and wonder who the hell these weird people were: Pat Place, Tad Among (actually Kristian Hoffman, the keyboardist from the Mumps), Anya Phillips, George Scott, Stella Rico (Lydia Lunch incognito, her portrait consisting only of a set of bound, black stockinged legs) ... the whole milieu just seemed so goddamn PUERILE! As a kid, this was all very 'New York City' in my mind - a fucked up, sleazy place where outcasts gravitated and did their misanthropic thangs and actually thrived ... of course, now, NYC is merely a haven for the rich and debauched, a mere shell culturally of what it was once, but at the time the city's allure was dangerous and perverse in nature.

Lydia Lunch fascinated me. She was an exotic creature - only 18 years old in '78, sexually smouldering, with raven-black tresses - who seemed to utterly despise everything on the planet and did so with unerring articulation and intensity. The ultimate babe! Her 'rock mama' vocals on the 8 Eyed Spy tape were cool, but the shit hit the fan in early 1987 when I ordered her 2 LP Hysterie retrospective album from CD Presents Records. Teenage Jesus and the Jerks sounded exactly the way I knew they'd sound: minimal, cacophonous and terrifying. One reviewer once likened her ultra-assaultive guitar tone to 'a Chilean torture chamber', and I found that comparison completely accurate. Lydia's lyrics were completely alienated and nightmarish visions of abuse and death. Teenage Jesus was a slasher movie as music. I was hooked.

I read about DNA and Mars as footnotes in various geeky rock reference guides from the period. Both group's releases would prove much more difficult to track down. Luckily, Lydia's Widowspeak Productions imprint issued a rather lo-fi and reverb-laden Mars anthology entitled 78, which I got at my local record store in early '88. Mars seemed to be the result of waaaay too much LSD taking. Their lyrics shifted from reality straight into hallucinatory vision and their music corroborated this. Their drummer Nancy Arlen was bordering on inept and couldn't (or wouldn't) play anything resembling a rock backbeat; the guitars buzzed and reeked of filth and decay; and the inhuman, retarded vocals pushed the whole thing past the point of no return: Mars made ANTI-music with sociopathic glee. The DNA EP A Taste of DNA turned out to be in stock at a New York based indie distributor called NMDS (or New Music Distribution Service). I think i paid $8.98 for it via mail order in March '88. I was extremely pleased when it arrived. This 12" EP had 6 'songs' on it and barely lasted 10 minutes, but I couldn't have been happier with the chaotic guitar raking, tumbling drums and oddly lyrical bass playing holding the whole mess together. Once again, the band looked like a bunch of disparate freaks: an Asian woman on drums, some really nerdy guy on vocals and guitar and a lecherous looking bass player. I could strongly relate to the motley crew element of the No Wavers ... this was true individualism without the dress code of punk ...

The elusive No Wave Holy Grail remained the classic 1978 compilation No New York, produced by Brian Eno. I had read so much about it and heard all the bands, but my lust for more of this warped noise was hitting fever pitch. I wised the fuck up around early '89, walked into my local record store, flipped through the pages of the Schwann catalog (at the time, a reference guide to what was readily available from record distributors), pointed at a listing for the album and asked the clerk, 'Can i order this?' They said, 'Yeah, it'll be here on Tuesday.' I couldn't believe it was that EASY. For a long time, most people just assumed No New York was completely out-of-print: well, I know it was available until - at least - the late '90s, just sitting there in the warehouse, waiting to be ordered. I came back the next week, plunked down my $9.98 and that was that. I'm not going to say much more about it, but it's a great fucking record. If you like weird rock music, this is one of the foundations and it still sounds fresh and iconoclastic to this very day. There is a real grittiness here that is mostly lacking from today's neo-no wave experience - it think it has to do with eating fucking DIRT, not graduating from a liberal arts college ... Go ahead, listen to it. Those were different times.

By the late '90s, Antilles Records - the label which released No New York and a division of Island Records - was owned by Polygram Records and due to a technicality, the rights to No New York languished in the 'jazz' division of the daddy label. People like Atavistic Records and Henry Rollins were interested in acquiring the rights to the album, but Polygram's Jazz wing thought they had something to be ransomed off and kept raising the asking price every time someone new inquired about it. Now there's a legit Japanese CD version (far superior sounding to the original vinyl) and a few sketchy 'Russian' bootlegs, but for a while, it seemed like this seminal release was in serious limbo.

Now with the interweb, we have nothing but instant gratification ... but if it's all free and instantaneous, is it really worth anything? No New York is a slice of a bygone era - I ask you downloaders, what does it mean to you right now? Can it possibly mean as much to you as it did to me back in '89? I'm not claiming that struggling and searching to have to find music makes the experience innately better, but does all this free music floating around actually have an impact, or is it all just another download waiting around on the old iPod waiting to be listened to cursorily before moving on to the next thing? I would hate to think that's all this revolutionary music means now. This is not a challenge; it's a discourse. Leave a comment.

- Weasel Walter, 2.11.10"

Thanks to Alice Cohen for lending me her own well-worn copy of this record. I've been collecting records since the mid 90s and I have yet to see one for sale at any price.

Ladies and gentlemen, for your listening pleasure, No New York.

No New York (Antilles)
1. Dish It Out (Contortions)
2. Flip Your Face (Contortions)
3. Jaded (Contortions)
4. I Can't Stand Myself (Contortions)
5. Burning Rubber (Teenage Jesus and the Jerks)
6. The Closet (Teenage Jesus and the Jerks)
7. Red Alert (Teenage Jesus and the Jerks)
8. I Woke Up Dreaming (Teenage Jesus and the Jerks)
9. Helen Forsdale (Mars)
10. Hairwaves (Mars)
11. Tunnel (Mars)
12. Puerto Rican Ghost (Mars)
13. Egomaniac's Kiss (DNA)
14. Lionel (DNA)
15. Not Moving (DNA)
16. Size (DNA)


Erwin VL said...

great eye opener, actually it was the no wave tape you made me years back, when we first got in touch. it made me hunt down all the vinyls, also ordered the japanse reissue cd, but it never arrived. most of the first generation of no wave bands gave/give me the thrills. It's a pity not much of the same or like feeling is hardly around anymore, while we still live in fucked up times, but different area. this music has become a major part of life and an enormous inspiration, and i feel very related too the feel of it all. genuine above trend or fashion, real, maybe too real.

Anonymous said...

i'll never forget when my brother came home from college on christmas break and he played me the dna tracks from downtown '81, that really knocked me on my 14 year old ass. are there versions of the songs from the teenage jesus pink ep that don't suck?

Wren said...

Great article!

But since I'm in a litigious mood...

No Wave always struck me as intellectual and "liberal arts"ish from its roots. Yeah, downtown Manhattan's squalor and frustration was in that music, but so were Henry Flynt, Andy Warhol and Ornette Coleman. If you just want "eating dirt", you won't get any further than first wave punk -- the sex pistols or whatever gave you that much. Power chords are for frustrated anti-intellectuals. No-Wave is the high-art take on punk.

Which is not to mention that stuff like violence, frustration, eating dirt, being pissed off, etc. are reliable criteria for good music in the first place.

Re: ipods and the instant availability of music. Kids are still really fucking passionate about music. You can't tell it from looking at the internet itself. But people still do really fucking care about music. Wouldn't say the internet's a bad thing.

Serena WmS. Burroughs said...

"There is a real grittiness here that is mostly lacking from today's neo-no wave experience - I think it has to do with eating fucking DIRT, not graduating from a liberal arts college ..."

Yes, but didn't Arto and most of Mars go to Eckerd? (from Wiki.:
"Eckerd College is a private 4-year coeducational liberal arts college at the southernmost tip of St. Petersburg, Florida, in the Tampa Bay metropolitan area." Wikipedia lists Dennis Lehane in their list of notable alumni, but not the No Wavers...)

But, no doubt, the original No Wave groups were 4 Real ("That doesn't even SAY T. Rex!")

eleroi said...

Did these performers all listen to the Fugs first album?

gharju said...

ok it's obvious to me that you haven't really thought this no wave contra sex pistols argument through. "Power chords are for frustrated anti-intellectuals. No-Wave is the high-art take on punk." well, lets say a frustrated anti-intellectual monkey got a hold of a guitar. surely it wouldn't play power chords. rather it would be something that sounds just like no wave skronk. so the intellectual part of no wave is the choice of being more primal than punk, by for example rejecting parts of human culture such as rock n' roll or subgenre dresscodes.

Unknown said...

I would say that purchasing music back in the day leant a lot more meaning to the music itself. The excitement I used to feel when a record arrived in the mail still reverberates in me, and I can't say I've experienced that feeling from a download. I used to save money up for a trip to Duluth (!) and load up on records that I'd purchase based on the cover alone, and that method yielded great results almost every time. Media glut has erased that method as viable.

gtascona said...

This is an argument I've been struggling with for a long time. I have consumer way more music through downloading than I could afford. For years I only used torrents and not through any invite only site, so the selection wasn't the greatest but nothing to complain about. Once I finally moved to Soulseek I couldn't believe what I had been missing. All of a sudden 95 percent of the albums on my 'to get' list were instantly available.

Before I used Soulseek if I couldn't find the torrent of an album that I must have I would make the 'splurge', as I did for No New York. Actually now that I think of it, I got my friend to buy it and I ripped the CD. Needless to say I loved it and although I don't feel buying an album will make you appreciate the music more, there is something special about it.

Like a lot of things I generally have two opposing and unrealized opinions on the matter. On the one hand I believe there is too much idolizing in music (and generally all art forms). We tend to put artists on pedestals and all the aspects of purchasing music (the limited number of albums you can afford, waiting for an album, trading the money you earned, having a physical copy that you can peruse) only accentuates this. Part of me agrees with the Dada/Fluxus/Post-Modern idea of taking the author (of a work) out of the equation of appreciation and analysis.

On the other hand, not only do I believe in the importance of (considering) the history of a work or of art, but also of the inclusion of the author in such history. As this post argues, and as others have doubtless observed in themselves, buying an album adds value to an album that is not just monetary, and this value resonates in one's experience with the album.

While most of my favourite albums I do not even own, I wouldn't even have them as favourite albums if perpetual and pervasive downloading did not exist.