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)



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
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

Leave a comment

Recent Work

Fidel Castro: My Life 
A review from Newsday
40 Years of "The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual" 
Marking the anniversary of Harold Cruse's great book
Style and Grace 
A review of a book by the late, great Grace Paley from ... sheesh, almost ten years ago.
Oh, Canada 
National identity -- going south?
The LaRouche Tabernacle Choir 
An interview with me about the LaRouche movement, on Pacifica radio in Los Angeles
Open Library 
An interview with Aaron Swartz, one of the developers....
Sailing From Ithaka 
The new report calling for a digital platform for scholarly publishing deserves a wide audience


Battle of the Titans 
Dinesh D'Souza and Alan Wolfe debating? Imagine a slime mold in conflict with a patch of mildew. It's just that inspiring.
To the Tehran Station 
Not about Edmund Wilson
more picks


About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Quick Study published on June 15, 2008 6:06 PM.

The Conversation Continues was the previous entry in this blog.

An Introduction to Simonist Politics is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

AJ Ads

AJ Blogs

AJBlogCentral | rss

About Last Night
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Artful Manager
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
blog riley
rock culture approximately
critical difference
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dog Days
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
Life's a Pitch
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
Mind the Gap
No genre is the new genre
Performance Monkey
David Jays on theatre and dance
Plain English
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Real Clear Arts
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
Rockwell Matters
John Rockwell on the arts
Straight Up |
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude

Foot in Mouth
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Seeing Things
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...

Jazz Beyond Jazz
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...

Out There
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Serious Popcorn
Martha Bayles on Film...

classical music
Creative Destruction
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
The Future of Classical Music?
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
On the Record
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Slipped Disc
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds

Jerome Weeks on Books
Quick Study
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera

Drama Queen
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
lies like truth
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world

Aesthetic Grounds
Public Art, Public Space
Another Bouncing Ball
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Modern Art Notes
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog
Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.