Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Flying high and flailing

Two new books take on worlds of big bucks and loud bangs

Posted By on Wed, Jul 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Seduced by Suicide's damnable, synthesized roar and Lester Bangs' rapturous downtown screeds, they flocked to New York City's seedier neighborhoods, seemingly by the hundreds: writers, filmmakers, artists, scenesters, punks, students and dropouts. What they'd find was a fertile scene in the midst of urban decay where just about anything seemed possible. In her introduction to NO WAVE, Lydia Lunch — who ran away from home as a baby-faced teen to check out what was happening — puts it thus: "The anti-everything of No Wave was a collective caterwaul that defied categorization, defiled the audience, despised convention, shit in the face of history, and then split."

Co-authors Thurston Moore and Byron Coley haven't so much written a No Wave tome as compiled a coffee-table guide and conversational history of this scene; the pair rounded up fliers and archival black-and-white photographs and interviewed everybody from avant-garde rock composer Glenn Branca to DNA drummer Ikue Mori to No New York producer Brian Eno to former Village Voice staffer Robert Christgau. What emerges in these pages is a sense of how tenuous and happenstance everything was; these bands — typically banging out noisy, crude songs — often coalesced and combusted on a dime; a group could last three shows or three years with nothing more to show for its efforts than a 7-inch; an audition for an open musician slot often was considered a clincher if the auditionee had little to no musical experience. Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, for example, began as a group centered around Lunch and James Chance, who were a couple at the time. But before long, Chance absconded to form high-turnover funk outfit James Chance and the Contortions, and Lunch was left to burn through several tumultuous Jerks iterations before calling it a day.

For all the pre-Reagan hipster lore recounted here — and make no mistake, this book will fill a lot of continuity blanks for today's noise/out/experimental fetishists — NO WAVE's strongest selling point is its immortalizing, iconoclastic photography. These snapshots arrest: the Gynecologists caught in grim, police-lineup countenance; the Bush Tetras in biker chick/gang bonhomie, looking as though they're about to beat the shutterbug down; Chance and Christgau tussling in the audience at a Contortions show; an agitated Branca attacking his guitar with a mic stand during a Theoretical Girls set. The uncompromising starkness of these images almost matches that of the music.

Ah, the idle rich: Lacking the structure that toil and responsibility confer, they more often than not drift into mindless self-indulgence and total self-destruction. Sebastian Horsley's life story reads like an exercise in ambitious ambivalence; in Dandy in the Underworld, this Marc Bolan-worshipping scion of Northern Foods chair Nicholas Horsley finds himself involved in horrible, short-lived punk bands (the Void, most notably), dabbles in and is eventually swallowed whole by narcotics abuse, flunks out of art school, acquires ostentatious wardrobes louder than Elton John's, makes a mint playing the stock market, and, of course, has himself crucified in the Philippines. He's like a more driven, flesh-and-blood version of a Bret Easton Ellis character.

Born in 1962 to alcoholic, emotionally absent parents and raised in his native England, the OCD-suffering Horsley drifted into attention-grabbing misadventures: intentionally cutting himself on glass, setting fire to haystacks, searching blindly for a suitable father-figure and finding a short-lived one in Scottish murderer-artist Jimmy Boyle, worshipping obsessively at the altars of KISS and the Sex Pistols. In Johnny Rotten's persona, the author finds himself: "Elusive, ironic, sarcastic, he was a serial enigma. A cool narcissist, detached, self-contained and disdaining displays of emotion."

Each of Horsley's attempts to define himself seem to fall flat, and Dandy would make for astoundingly harrowing reading were it not for the author's tendency to poke fun at himself, his surroundings and everyone he comes into contact with. It's as much a collection of sub-Warholian aphorisms and contrary sentiments as it is a proper autobiography. Of the painful aftermath of a parachute jump, he writes: "As I hit the ground I felt my leg snap in two like a freshly cut sapling. I lay prostrate, listening to the ambulance wailing towards me through a speed haze. But inwardly I was smiling. At last, I thought, something has happened to me."

Raymond Cummings is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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