The Art of Noise

Following up a stray reference in a recent post here about Bo Diddley,* Oliver from Cult Punk points me to a recent article in the Times about the most recent book on No Wave.

The fact that there are other recent books on the subject is pretty amazing.** I was very heavily into No circa 1982, when my nerves were young and impressionable -- and have with some effort over the years managed to collect a decent collection of pertinent CDs which I can only play when Rita is not around. Because, seriously, this is not something most people can endure. After five minutes of Glenn Branca, the cats start hopping around in strange ways.

But sometimes you just crave Arto Lindsay use his untuned 12 string as a percussion instrument, or I do anyway, as in this scene*** of DNA performing circa 1980:

* Speaking of which, see my friend Alex's obituary from the Socialist Worker website.

** See also, from six years ago, Bernard Gendron's Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-Garde. This was one of the books I covered in a piece for the Chronicle, during a previous lifetime.

*** Yes, that is Jean-Michel Basquiat in the opening shot and spraypainting graffiti at various points throughout.

June 15, 2008 6:06 PM | | Comments (8)

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the NYT article troubled me and so does what the review says of Gendron's book, for completely ignoring the at-least-equally revolutionary and significantly more substantive '80s free funk of black musicians and integrated ensembles busy in NYC and touring influentially. Ornette Coleman's Prime Time, Oliver Lake's Jump Up!, Defunkt and any group with guitarists Vernon Reid -- these band played the same clubs as the Lounge Lizards and James Chance, hit the rhythms like the punkers didn't bother to, and were style-setters for urban mixes in fruition now. Bo Diddley was a progenitor of earthy, immediate rock, but at the Black Rock Coaltion has stressed, all rock is black (starting even before Chuck Berry, Little Richard - Louis Jordan! Fats Waller! Jelly Roll Morton! -- and including the transformations wrought by Elvis & Co, assumed by subsequent energized showpeople, but embodied by instrumentalists who can really, truly play and have something besides stylish nihilism to say.

That's a bunch of horse-hockey that "all rock is black." I thought we'd all finally progressed beyond such feckless reverse racism. Honky tonk country has just as much to do with rock & roll as any other kind of music. Might as well thrown in Wagner and Stravinsky while we're at it. And as cool as Oliver Lake and Ornette Coleman were, they made, as you yourself called it, "free funk," not No Wave. Would you have put Prince in a book about the mid '80s punk scene in Minneapolis? Same thing. Sheesh.

Well now, Howard, if all I wanted from music were "instrumentalists who can really, truly play and have something besides stylish nihilism to say," do you think I would be listening to No Wave? Get a clue, man. Sometimes the "stylish nihilism" of people who can't even tune their instruments, let alone play them, is pretty damned awesome.

The question of the racial blindspots of punk discourse is something I have written about before. So being given a lesson on this matter is not so much irritating (that, too) as unnecessary. You should be careful who you wax pedantic with. If it seemed like you'd at least read the essay "White Noise Supremacy" by Lester Bangs then maybe I'd give you a pass on this, but it doesn't, so I won't.

The topic did not come up in my discussion of Gendron because -- guess what? -- you cannot, in fact, cover every single potentially relevant aspect of a subject in a short newspaper article. Seriously, you just can't. I have tried, more than once, and it does not work. Not with the best shoehorn in the world.

The article covering Gendron's book, among others, was not a "review" of any of them. But I have more or less given up trying to persuade anyone of the value of making, or even of comprehending, such distinctions. It is hopeless.

Maldo is absolutely correct to make each of his or her points. Essentialism is, for the most part, a chump's game.

This discussion reminds me of something Cole Springer (who gave a very favorable review to the first Contortions LP in Trouser Press in 1979) told me about seeing The Contortions, and some guy from the audience yelling, "If you're going to play 'out' you have to play it right!"

That struck Cole as funny, that there was a "right" way to play out.

BTW, Cole remains a perfect example of someone equally at home w/Beefheart, punk rock, jazz, noir and no wave.

I think its kind of funny that, back in the day, out here in the provinces anyway, the EXACT SAME TINY AUDIENCE that was interested in No Wave were the only people who showed up at the black funk/jazz shows as well.

The black radio station in Seattle never once played Defunkt, or James Blood Ulmer, or Ornette Coleman, or Ronald Shannon Jackson, or anything by Vernon Reid. Matter of fact, at that time, (1978 to 1981 or so) the mainstream black station wouldnt even play rap. Only the college stations that played no wave and punk would play those first 12" rap singles by Kurtis Blow, and Grandmaster Flash, and the Treacherous Three.

And when those bands came to town, it was the same nerdy punk audience that crowded in to see DNA play in an art gallery that actually showed up.

Certainly, there is institutional racism in the radio and recording industries. Certainly, those funk/jazz hybrid bands have not been given the respect they deserve.

But in many cases, the same goofy music nerds like me, who loved no wave, were the big buyers of their music as well.

I would also like to point out that no wave, far from being dead, has consistently inspired a fresh crop (tiny, but fresh) of similar bands ever since.

Bands like Lightning Bolt are undoubtedly the spiritual descendents of DNA and the early noise stuff. There are whole genres of loud noise music out there today.

Teenagers LOVE music that offends. They always have, and they always will. So the heritage of no wave is safe, the basic genre is reinterpreted and reinvented every year.

Thanks, Ries. That certainly squares with my own recollections from Austin in the 1980s. (Back when the Big Boys had a funk horn section sit in sometimes, and covered Kool and the Gang.) I'm told the same was the case of the scene in DC at the time -- that you'd go see hardcore bands and hear hip-hop and go-go played before the show.

Good to know that people are keeping No Wave alive. I've seen the occasional band over the years that had obviously been influenced by Mars or DNA or what have you, but the nature of such experiments is that they tend to have a pretty small following.

I was surfing and came across this...excuse me for jumping in late.

I have to say I basically agree with Howard on this one.
The "whitewashing" of the early 80's scene is something I definately find problematic personally.
The line between no wave and free funk is in fact a false one in musical terms. It is a "slice and dice" tactic as BHO would say.
a quick story:
At the end of my audition/first rehearsal with James Chance (I played in his various combos from 79 to 82) I said to him "your music reminds me of Fela". His reply was "you're the first person who's ever noticed that. He's a big influence on me." That observation (along with my wardrobe ;-) ) got me in the group.

And it is a fact that EVERYBODY in that scene (with the possible exception of Branca and his crew) was influenced by the 70's Miles records.
And yes, to discuss the no wave scene in N.Y without mentioning the loft jazz scene (including Ornette's loft, btw) or Fashion Moda in the Bronx
http://www.lehman.cuny.edu/vpadvance/artgallery/gallery/talkback/fmsusan.html
is engaging in revisionist history in my not so humble opinion.

one more thing...

for the record:
I think stylistic nihilism and virtuosity
both have their place-
and can even exist simultaneously in the same piece of music or musician

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