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The Right to Be Wrong

It’s gotten to where just the name does it: Lester Bangs. It makes me happy. It’s like raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. Of course, even apart from the guy it signified, its perfection of pure form is stunning, but what it evokes as the signifier of the person is even better. I think of his innocence and goodwill first, and his compulsion to talk about whatever was going on and to figure out what mattered (starting from music) and it makes me sorry I can’t call him up. It’s strange. I didn’t even like him very much when he was alive. Just five or six years ago when his biographer was asking for stories about him I told him that when I knew Lester I didn’t take him very seriously or pay very much attention to him. That though doubtless my distaste was partly that of the junkie for the lush, I mostly thought he was a buffoon. Lester was this big, swaying, cross-eyed, reeking drooler, smiling and smiling through his crummy stained mustache, trying to corner me with incessant babble somewhere in the dark at CBGB’s, 1976 or so. He was sweet like a big clumsy puppy, but he was always drunk and the sincerity level was pretty near intolerable.

Now I miss him.

Of course it’s easier to like a good-hearted, hardworking dead person, the extremely edited Lester, than the obliviously intrusive physically present one, but Lester has made way more friends than most since he died. Posthumously, he’s become the noncharismatic Elvis of rock writers: obscene provocateur and polite mama’s boy, vulnerable and egotistic, trashily prolific and artistically transcendent, anti-drug and full-time addict (who died young that way); but most of all forgiven everything and adored by his fans while being the most popular model for those who would essay his trade. Well maybe that’s a little strained; probably Jack Kerouac would be a better comparison, if not as much fun. Because Kerouac actually did influence Bangs a lot and the appeal of Lester shares a lot with Kerouac: that innocence and goodwill and drive to describe and be true to what matters in life. People like a writer’s writing because they like the writer’s company. Writing is intimate and finally what draws you to an author’s work is the shape of the mind and quality of feeling you find there, and Lester, like Kerouac, reads like a real good friend to a lot of people.

I have to interrupt and confess how I’m struggling to resist taking revenge on rock critics. I was a musician and I’ve thought a few times of rating the critics the way they do the artists. But I’m really really going to try to restrain myself. How petty would that be, if I were to go after them? Not only have they generally been real good to me but my life is more fun than theirs. I must try to be large I must try to be large. I don’t want to be a jerk. I’ll just say that I believe Lester deserves his supreme popularity (he liked me the most).

But I’ve got to go after the self-importance of the best-known worst of them a little. The rock writers, naturally, want to believe that their genre, like say the movie criticism of the Cahiers du Cinéma writers such as Godard and Rivette, is sometimes actually the work of important artists. In fact Greil Marcus, in the introduction to Bangs’s previous collection of rock journalism, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung (1987), wrote, “Perhaps what this book demands from a reader is a willingness to accept that the best writer in America could write almost nothing but record reviews.” (That line is typical of the way Marcus ruins good things by laying the burden of his pretentiousness on them.) And it’s true that writers as good as Patti Smith and Nick Tosches wrote about pop music seriously, with full respect, and really well. But I don’t see much justification for a line like Marcus’s about Lester. Lester was lovable and perceptive, but the writing is wired thinking-aloud; it’s pure process, and my feeling is that Lester had too many blind spots and neuroses for writing that depends so much for its value on the shapeliness of his mind and reasoning. As with Kerouac, you go to Bangs’s work to be refreshed with your pleasure in the characteristic beauty of his mission and mind, to be reminded of the presence of a certain being that inspires and provokes. But it hardly matters what pages you read—all the appeal is in the tone and ethical/aesthetic values, and you get them immediately, so a little goes a long way.

Nevertheless, of all the most highly regarded rock journalists (say Tosches, Robert Christgau, Marcus, and the execrable and excremental Richard Meltzer) Lester was the only one who valued self-doubt and who actually seemed to like the music more than he liked himself. Lester was a critic who reserved the right to be wrong, which seems to me admirable. Like many rock writers Lester took extreme stances, but unlike the other most flamboyantly contrary of them, he didn’t paint himself into a minuscule corner of supported music, and he didn’t go sour with cynicism and resentment (or maybe he did a little toward the end—1982 for Lester—when punk seemed to end up genuinely, fatally, hopeless). Lester was large and he was interested in doing what was right—which sometimes entailed willfully offending those whose values he opposed—not merely being right in his taste and musical standards. He wanted to learn. What’s appealing about him is the same thing that he valued in the music he wrote about: the life in it—engagement with and responsiveness to the world. To put a positive spin on the spew-and-rant factor, he didn’t care about beauty except as flow. He wanted everything included. He was confrontational but it came from goodwill, from his belief that feelings—sensitivity to what’s going on—are what matter and that if you’re going to really notice things, really perceive, there’s going to be a lot of sadness and horror and filth as well, so to some extent they’re a necessary part of beauty. Basically, Lester always wanted people to care more. That could be really tedious, but when the examples of things due more loving regard are such as White Light/White Heat and Raw Power and Pangaea, it gets interesting.

If you like Lester, you’ll like this new book. It’s a lot like the other one but it has more Miles Davis and Rolling Stones than Lou Reed and Iggy and some big chunks of autobiographical writings.

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Daniel Carter marks his territory by aiming his trumpet at the ground in a virtual circle, and then lunges toward the ceiling with shrill intensity. Moments later, he broods on a clarinet and whines on a tenor sax. Then he gnaws at a flute like it’s a stick of beef jerky, tearing at it with youthful enthusiasm. The 57-year-old performs for a regular CBGB crowd that gravitates downstairs for a piece of the avant-action every Sunday night, but Carter’s not confined to the Bowery.

He’s also at the Brecht Forum (122 West 27th Street), a Marxist center in Chelsea with folding chairs, ceiling fans, wooden floors, and other relics from the ritualized loft days, when the jazz, admission, and sex were often free. Relaxed, he cradles the clarinet and paddles through the middle registers. He then jumps to the tenor, testing one idea that he likes, another that he doesn’t, a third that likes him, and a fourth that prompts further exploration. With eyes shut, fingers ready, and ears to the room, he incorporates a faucet’s drip, listener’s cough, and foot’s tap into his improvisational patterns.

But he’s mellow, not melodramatic. You can hear his trills and triads, or tune them out completely and concentrate on your math homework, which, of course, he won’t help you with. “School and me did not mix too well,” he says, “and that probably extends to my music,” which, he explains, “is about freedom; the space within traditions to blow meaningful shapes that you truly believe in.”

After growing up in New Jersey, moving to Massachusetts, and serving army time in Italy, where he set up turntables and amplifiers in the barracks, Carter moved to New York City in 1970 and began performing weekly, from sunup to sundown, with everyone from Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, and William Parker to David Murray, Oliver Lake, and Sam Rivers. He then joined several hardcore punk bands, nurturing an emotional drive that led him, by the mid ’80s, to play on street corners, subway platforms, and “wherever cops and storekeepers wouldn’t move you,” he says. Since then, he’s been heard with Medeski, Martin and Wood, Yo La Tengo, DJ Logic, Spring Heel Jack, Dee Pop, Reuben Radding, and Matt Lavelle, as well as on his own albums, including his most recent Aum Fidelity release, Luminescence, an incisive, instructive set of soft editorials and tender tantrums.

But he’s not the kind of musician who’s open to ideas without developing any of his own. His hypnotic, breathy solos absorb everything from Abbey Lincoln’s “World Is Falling Down” to John Coltrane’s “Naima,” quoting a collection of treasured tunes that lend salt to his whiskey-sour wounds and, at the same time, heal them.

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A Wiggle in Your Wham

I’ve taken LSD twice in my life, had a blast both times. I’m not likely to do it again, though, since it aestheticizes everything and I’d hate to become an aesthete. Insights parade before my eyes like handsome glorious things, and I’m reduced to waving at them in admiration. Also, the aesthetic judgment can supersede other equally pertinent ones. (John Wójtowicz: “A ‘rule’ that I think LSD might erase by accident is ‘if you leap out of a window or from the top of a high object, you will get killed or maim yourself for life.’ And I can easily imagine myself, while tripping, reasoning, ‘Yes, but after all that’s just one little criterion, and just one single jump!’ “) In any event, this was the first time. I was 24, in New York City.

It’s 1978, and we’re going to see Wire and the Contortions at CBGB. Teresa says, “I’ve got some acid. Want some?” I say sure, which amazes Rich, who a week earlier had chided me for not taking speed with him, for being too careful to do anything new (“Peer pressure! Peer pressure!” Teresa had chanted).

We walk over to CBGB, a bar on the Bowery, not much more than a dive, right by a flophouse for derelicts and drunks and a gated parking lot with a sign consisting of the names of three Jamaican toastmasters: “U USE, U LOCK, OR U R OUT.”

It turns out Wire are held up by immigration, get pushed back to the following week. So the Contortions now top the bill, and a band called the Stumblebunnies sign on to open and close for them. Inside the club, we meet Rob, a sweet-looking fresh-faced 19-year-old who works with me at Strand Book Store, and his sweet fresh-faced girlfriend in a cute quasi-punked-out torn sweatshirt. Rob and girlfriend are trying on punk to see how it fits. (I don’t mean this derogatorily at all, since punk has always worked better as an impulse than an identity, and tentative punks are more truly punk than the real punks. E.g., my non-“punk” friend Lisa, who answered my question “Do you identify with Sid and Nancy?” by saying, “Yes, and I hate myself for it.”) So there’s a light in Rob’s eyes. We’ve seen the Contortions before. We know what’s coming, and we know that most of the audience doesn’t. The Contortions have gotten practically no press, except for a Voice Choice or two. So most people are here because of the Choice, or because they intended to see Wire and decided to stick around, or because CBGB is now world famous—it’s just a dark bar, the toilets often don’t work, and you wouldn’t want to use them anyway, since there are no bathroom or stall doors (this is to deny junkies the privacy to shoot up, I presume), but it’s where the Ramones, Television, Talking Heads, Blondie worked out their riffs a couple of years back and where edgy, creative types lurk (exemplary bathroom graffito: “I Like Girls Bomb Washington”). So you have tourists ready to check a hip “dangerous” scene—again, I don’t mean “tourist” to be derogatory—and music guys willing to try a band that’s nothing but a name on a poster; and of course, the few who know of the band.

The Stumblebunnies get onstage and play subdued bluesy country rock (that’s what I remember, anyway), not bad, but too recessive; I’m thinking they aren’t doing anything with it. Wait, I have to say this right. I’m 24, on acid. And. The. Stumblebunnies. Aren’t. Doing. Anything.

Stumblebunnies off. We look around. Rob says, “These guys don’t know what’s going to hit them.” The acid makes everything stand out. The mode of dress isn’t slashed shirts and punk jackets but more like “We’re the supercilious netherworld weirdos.” But there are also people dressed in their normal casual “We’re out at a club” or “We’re from Jersey.” Or maybe it’s the ones from Jersey who are dressed like Lower Manhattan netherworld weirdos.

After the usual long wait, the Contortions come on. Jody Harris scrapes his guitar pick along a metal guitar string—makes a grating, insinuating, disturbing sound—and the band jumps in, an onslaught of noise. But it really moves, has an r&b-rock ‘n’ roll undertow that’s propulsive and compelling. (I’ve seen them a number of times already and am starting to learn how they do it—to hear expert counter-rhythms, riffs, tonal relationships in the noise. Jody is my supervisor at the Strand, and I pepper him with questions about what he listens to, what gauge guitar strings he uses, and so forth.) James Chance looks contemptuously at the audience, dances as he sings, and he’s an incredible dancer, fast, and he’s shimmying across stage on one leg, then smashing his body down on the floor but bouncing back up in a sharp motion, elbows and legs out in all directions but always moving. He and his band are in slick dress suits, which I interpret as “We don’t have to dress in the punk or weirdo Disturbance Uniform, since we are disturbed,” though Rich points out later that they’re done up like a mid-’60s r&b outfit. The band is sounding like mayhem, but in double time (I mean, compared to usual regular-speed mayhem). James is putting wiggles into his moves, he squirms and twirls and contorts, on and off the floor with an insect’s ability to move on any surface. And then—we know this is coming, this is part of our delightful fear-energy—he slithers off the front of the stage into the audience, taunting people, cuffing them, slapping them around, while the band continues its rhythmic havoc. First gig I’d seen them, James had let loose a load of snot into his hand and then rubbed it on some tough in a leather jacket, and the tough got enraged and came after James to beat the crap out of him, but the band got between the guy and James, brandishing their instruments as weapons, until the guy finally stalked off.

[






Design to Kill
photo: Anya Phillips
During this summer of ’78, I have wildly ambivalent feelings about James’s act. On the one hand, not only have Iggy and the Stooges done it already, they’ve done it more meaningfully. Sure, James enters into the audience’s territory, challenges us to participate and not just sit around like a bunch of frozen-stiff white people. (Story is that the first time James assaulted an audience, the band was playing an art space, and the audience was just sitting lamely there like, “Come and present your piece for us,” so James waded in and started hitting. I understand his motivation, and if as you’re reading this you suddenly feel a hard whack against your ear, it’s probably me.) But James’s aggression, unlike Iggy’s, seems there as a given, is provoked by nothing we’d done and doesn’t play off our responses, as far as I can tell. He’s taunting us, but the taunts are grade school, boring. E.g., someone yells “Tell us a joke” and he says “You’re a bigger joke than any I could tell.” He’s hitting us with a barrage of contempt and disgust, but I don’t see how it pertains to who I am any more than would a rock that rolls down a hill and knocks me over. (Teresa perceives more here; she interprets him as feeling the world is detestable and we’re sitting around being part of it, so he’s going to hit us in the face with it.) But I like the act far more than I’m repelled by it. For one thing, there’s an incredible wit to his movements, his relation to the surrounding social space. The way James looks, he could be the impish sidekick in a Saturday-morning cartoon. My friend Luc Sante, who like Rob and Jody is working with me at the Strand, tells me, “James is a little runt with red hair, who plays on his utterly unimposing physicality, as well as his whiteness, and whose aggression is both self-parody and the desperate bravado of the perpetually overmatched. James is using himself as, among other things, a sight gag.” James’s taunts are a tease, a threat to the psyche, not the body. So the real danger isn’t in what he’s going to do, but what we might do in response.

The Contortions make almost all other bands seem phony in comparison, not only because other bands play worse, but because those bands hang back on the stage and wait for our judgment and applause. The audience embraces passivity and concedes all the action to the bands, while the bands concede all the judgment to the audience. Why should rock ‘n’ roll put up with that? Jody’d once told me that James had to do something wild, or else the Contortions would be viewed as just another art band.

Michael Hersh, another friend from the Strand: “James seems to have an asshole radar that allows him to focus in on those who need to be attacked for their complacency. Of course, this also reinforces my neurotic need to believe that I’m cool for not being attacked myself—though I’m coming to realize that in a random audience attack, the odds of hitting an asshole are overwhelming.”

My friend Rich is by no means wrong when he types me as someone afraid to step into the unknown. I nonetheless crave shows and bands where what’s to happen to me is as uncertain as what will happen onstage. I think of James’s forays into the audience as his way of acknowledging his dependence on us and of demanding that we make interesting demands on him; it’s his search for a good dance partner (and I assume I’m not up to it, and hang back on the sidelines).

[

So there’s a not-altogether-serene energy in the room. Between the stage and tables is a clear space—small, just a yard or two. James dances down there a lot, and potential fans and enemies work their way toward him. CBGB has a big, broad bouncer in a hard hat who places himself right in that space, as if using his massive front to announce, “Nothing will get out of hand here”—which actually makes the atmosphere more tense, as if fights are expected. So James is slithering around that floor space, and he slithers right up the bouncer, right up the bouncer’s chest, like an insect. This is a brilliant move. The bouncer breaks into laughter and abandons his guard post, decides he can just let things happen.

Off to the side, not far from the stage, is a frat boy, bouncing along to the music. He’s built like a rugby player, no pretense to hip style, and he thinks the whole thing is great! He’s just dancing away there with a grin on his face, no edge to him at all, and you wonder, watching him get a kick out of this show, if there’s any real edge to it, since he—normal frat guy—can take it so casually. Sitting behind us is a downtown freak, who’s got multi-hued hair and plucked eyebrows and absurdly long, thin arms and legs. He must be thinking, “How dare this happy frat boy enjoy our music,” so he winds his way to the front and launches himself at the frat boy, wraps spider arms and legs around him and tries to wrestle him down. Frat Boy squares his shoulders a little, causing Spider Guy to fall off, and the bouncer is there immediately to step between them. Spider Guy wends his way back to his seat, so Happy Fratty, who’s fairly soused and still full of goodwill, goes to the lip of the stage and reaches his hand out to shake with James, no hard feelings. James kicks the hand, and Fratty shrugs and goes back to bouncing along with the beat, as happy as ever.

Everyone but Fratty remains on edge. James, a sax player as well as a singer, plays in scraggly, flapping squawks. Someone throws a shot glass; James grabs it, flings it down, smashing it on the stage floor. There’s some ruckus back at the bar. I don’t recall much else. Keyboardist Adele Bertei tells me when I meet her a couple of months later that this had been one of the most depressing evenings of her life, and Jody tells me the day after the show that musically the thing was ragged. I myself had not noticed any musical letdown.

Anyway, the band’s set is over, they’re backstage, but suddenly James is onstage again, blood running in lines down his face, and he shouts into the mic, “I don’t care if you guys are cowards, I’ll take ’em on by myself.” Then he throws down the mic and stomps off. (The next day, I describe this to my friend Jay, and she says, “Oh, that happens all the time on acid; I’m always seeing blood crisscrossing people’s faces.” “No, no. You don’t understand. It was real blood.”) Seeing James’s bloodstreams, electric fear runs through me. I’m extra alert, my vision is double sharp, I think to myself, “It finally happened! Someone went back there and smashed a bottle into James’s face.” And a realization is stretching itself in front of my eyes. “This is a human being! People whom I know associate with him! And care about him! And every time he performs, he goes out there to get hurt!” Rich and Teresa are ready to leave, but I insist we stay. “We’ve just seen something incredible.” But why stay on? “No. We’ve seen something incredible. People have to take it into account.” They look at me doubtfully. I tell them, “The Stumblebunnies’ final set, they can’t just do it normally.” The Stumblebunnies? Anyway, we stay, we wait (me, Rich, and Teresa). I insist there will be an effect. Finally, the Stumblebunnies shuffle themselves back out, the singer says something sardonic, “Broke up three fights in the last half-hour,” and now they’re playing like before, but even more subdued, their reaction to the preceding strife being nothing more than to dull themselves out and detach. This bores me. They’re not doing anything. Teresa looks at me like, “What’d you expect?” After two numbers I say, “Let’s go,” apologize for making them stay.

[

(The next day at work, Jody tells us that no one had attacked James with any bottle; James had accidentally cut himself on pieces of that smashed shot glass, while throwing himself around the stage. And afterward, blood had seeped out. “So James was just grandstanding?” asks Rob. Jody nods.)

We clear out of CBGB, head back to Rich and Teresa’s, feeling let loose. Rich is talking animatedly and walks right into a signpost, conking himself on the head but not hurting himself badly. Back at his place, he sits me in front of a record player and puts on James Brown and says, “Listen. This is what the Contortions are doing.” I’d barely heard James Brown up until then, Brown having had no impact on white Connecticut where I grew up. Rich wants to form a band with me, and he wants me to deepen my sense of music. He explains, “When white guys fuck they just go straight in wham wham wham, while black guys put a wiggle in it.” (And then the Contortions put a contortion into the wiggle.)

James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” had reconfigured r&b and soul and reggae and was working its way into jazz via Miles Davis and into African music via high life, but despite rock-leaning funkers like Funkadelic and Sly (and even David Bowie, of all people), rock really didn’t know funk. But rock was a vanguard in one way: To overdraw the distinction, r&b is a dance among musical elements (and among the people who participate in it), while rock can also be a battle among musical elements (and among the people who participate in it). The Contortions took in jazz as well as funk, and jazz already had battle experience, musicians cutting each other onstage and turning their backs on the listeners. But James Chance was playing off of r&b and rock rhythms, not jazz, and Jody Harris drew heavily on Miles’s guitarists David Creamer (On the Corner) and Pete Cosey (Pangaea), who were doing the same. Guitarist Pat Place and keyboardist Adele Bertei were officially “nonmusicians,” but Adele had sung in soul bands and rock bands, and she and Pat obviously knew rhythm and funk. James was improvising into noise from a bedrock of r&b honking, squawking, and riffing rather than from a tradition of jazz melodic soloing, even if he drew on jazz-soloing-into-noise as inspiration. He steered clear of legato, played the sax like a drum. It’s no surprise that in the wake of the Contortions, jazz guys like James “Blood” Ulmer were inspired by the “no wave” scene of which the Contortions were a part, since it seemed an alternative to jazz’s relentless descent into being just a fine-art music for critics or make-out music for what was left of its public. No wave promised to take the jazz battle back to the people, back to the dancefloor. (Then, of course, hip-hop superseded everything.)

The four Contortions cuts on 1978’s No New York compilation (not included in the new Irresistible Impulse James Chance box) got the Contortions’ sound, but Eno mixed the thing onto tissue paper, and it’s too damn thin. It’s still jarring and extraordinary, and by far the best record of what the band actually sounded like. James had lots of good ideas for 1979’s Off White and Buy the Contortions, but he botched the production by making everything too clear. Those albums are crawling with inspiration nonetheless. Among other things, James throws in disco moves and camp silliness, adding the sha-la-la-la spirit of pop music rather than just playing tough. Those two albums are the first half of Irresistible Impulse. The rest is James with sidemen, mostly recorded in the early ’80s after the Contortions broke up, and it’s far too legit—expert jazz and funk musicians, complex horn arrangements. James is singing and playing better (his voice had been ragged in the early days), but what’s lost is the Contortions’ ferocious welding of sound and spewing it out. On record you can discern the lyrics, however, which are smart where his stage patter was dumb. It’s as if he’d heard the Stones’ “Under my thumb is the girl who once had me down” and understood that “had me down” was the greater part of it.

The Contortions’ sound was unique: The rhythm had a push like no jazz band and a speed like no rock band, so it kicked the music into contortedness years before rave and jungle. And it brought the noise a decade before Public Enemy, and anticipated lots that’s going on in hip-hop right now. Neptunes fans: Go listen to “Jump” on Mystikal’s Let’s Get Ready, but imagine the riffs doubling up on themselves with nightmares thrown on top. That’s what the Contortions sounded like. Except no one else really sounds like the Contortions. Their two guitarists had this beautifully fucked playing, Jody splattering us with hard notes while Pat unsettled us with eerie slides. The band provided momentum that James undercut when he resorted to overdubs, and which none of the “real” jazzbos and funkbos (Bern Nix, Joe Bowie) could give him post-Contortions. But James gave the Contortions its center, its reach into our hearts and guts and minds, and a lot of its form. Definitely a whole-beats-sum-of-parts deal, and I’m sad that the band members weren’t all shanghaied into band counseling and forced to stick with one another. (I should talk; I never stayed in a band more than a year.) There’s much beauty in the solo sets—in clearing out the band sound, James made room for horn charts and jazzy interplay. But he didn’t have to clear out the band sound to do this.

[

Someone once asked Jody what he thought Miles would think of the Contortions. “He’d call it a third-rate version of what he’d done several years earlier.” I jumped to the Contortions’ defense: “No. Miles is too diffuse. You guys are rock ‘n’ roll.”

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Easy Listening

The city’s got live music happening every night—good live music, and lots of it. But you need to know where you’re going, or you could end up sipping a $6 ginger ale and wishing you were back home listening to your roommate phone Mom. Here’s our cheat sheet for some major local venues: who plays there, what the scene’s like, how likely you are to get in if you’re underage or flat broke, and sample smooth talk to impress habitués.


Arlene Grocery

95 Stanton Street, 358-1633

What’s onstage
Earnest singer-songwriters and local bands building mailing lists and waiting for their big industry break.

Vibe
Collegial, clubby, self-celebrating, tiny, hopeful. Bands and audiences tend to be regulars, both on and off the stage.

Tips
Bands get paid by passing the hat, so be generous. Best drinking game: “Spot the A&R Guy.”

Too young to rock?
Yes—they’re pretty serious about carding.

Best pickup line to use
“These guys have some great tunes on MP3.com—I can download them for you if you’d like.”

How to get in free
Show up with a convincing ID—it’s always free to get in (unless there’s some kind of shmancy industry showcase going on).


Bowery Ballroom

6 Delancey Street, 533-2111

What’s onstage
Their bread and butter is big-name indie rock, but they’ll try anything: jam bands, DJs, even the odd tribute act.

Vibe
A weird cross between posh and bohemian—brick walls and fancy drapes. Excellent sound system. Crowd is young but not excessively hipster-y.

Tips
The balcony looks like it has better sight lines, but doesn’t. If you just want to sit down, the velvet-curtained chambers upstairs are comfortable.

Too young to rock?
Most shows are 16+ or 18+, but the bouncers are badasses, so check the listings first.

Best pickup line to use
“Didn’t you used to go see these guys play at Brownies, too?”

How to get in free
Arrive in a stretch limo, with bodyguards who look like even bigger badasses than the bouncers.


Brownies
169 Avenue A, 420-8392

What’s onstage
Touring indie rockers, emo kings, and locals with a stable following, punctuated with the occasional industry showcase.

Vibe
Relatively personality-free, which can be a good thing: You buy your drinks, the bands play, you leave.

Tips
Make sure you’re not in the Corridor of Visibility Hell between the bar and the wall when the show starts.

Too young to rock?
They do all-ages shows once or twice a week, but are hardasses about ID, since they’ve gotten some police pressure.

Best pickup line to use
“This band sucks. Wanna play Ms. Pac-Man?”

How to get in free
Befriend the opening band.


CBGB
315 Bowery, 982-4052

What’s onstage
Generic, anonymous rock bands sniffing at the remains of the Cradle of Punk. There’s still an occasional good hardcore show, though.

Vibe
Well-preserved—the walls are practically an anthropological landmark—but also dismally nostalgic in a please-shut-up-about-the-‘Nam way.

Tips
Don’t go down to the bathroom! Never, ever go down to the bathroom!

Too young to rock?
Door is usually 16+; bar might give you a hard time if they’re up to it.

Best pickup line to use
“You know, Johnny Thunders once OD’d in my kitchen.”

How to get in free
Hope ancient biker guy/CB’s founder Hilly Krystal is at the door; engage him in a conversation about electric violins.


The Cooler
416 West 14th Street, 229-0785

What’s onstage
Good local rock bands, weirdo ambient DJs, and whatever else might fill the room without making people dance (cabaret license problems).

Vibe
A former meat locker with rickety tables, making for a strange underworld experience.

Tips
If you’re looking for fresh-baked bagels or transsexual prostitutes, they’re conveniently available mere steps from the club’s door.

Too young to rock?
They card, but the lighting is dim enough that a reasonable fake ID will do.

Best pickup line to use
“You used to come here on Vampyros Lesbos nights, didn’t you?”

How to get in free
Show up Monday nights, when the lineup is usually decent and all you need to get in is a pulse.


Continental
25 Third Avenue, 529-6924

What’s onstage
Punk Fucking Rock: third-generation acolytes of the Ramones, and very occasionally an actual ex-Ramone.

Vibe
Iggy photos on the walls, too much leather on the crowd, paint-peeling volumes, a gratifyingly seedy atmosphere.

Tips
If you sit down, they’ll make you order a drink.

Too young to rock?
Aside from all-ages weekend matinees, they’re 21+ and mean it.

Best pickup line to use
“Nice vintage Docs. Wanna fuck?”

How to get in free
Come on a Monday or Tuesday night. Alternately, sit on St. Marks Place and ask for “spare change.”


Knitting Factory
74 Leonard Street, 219-3006

What’s onstage
Nonsmooth jazz types, some of them quite famous, as well as nifty indie rockers, oddballs, and cult performers from all over the place.

Vibe
Self-consciously eclectic—in decor, booking, and clientele—and overwhelming (four stages going simultaneously), with self-promoting/look-how-wired-we-are undertones.

Tips
Befriend the (exceedingly nice) bartenders, and the Knit is your oyster. Also, get there early if you want a seat on the balcony.

Too young to rock?
Nah. They sometimes card at the bar, rarely at the door.

Best pickup line to use
None. Knit audiences think sex is so 1994.

How to get in free
The downstairs Tap Bar is always free—small jazz groups play there after 11. You need a ticket for the other rooms, and the Old Office has a drink minimum.


Irving Plaza
17 Irving Place, 777-6800

What’s onstage
Second-tier commercial radio bands, road warriors with big followings but no recent hits, occasional huge stars looking for a relatively intimate one-off.

Vibe
Pretty slick—shows actually start on time!—and pretty large, but just small enough that you can find friends who’ve wandered off.

Tips
Pain-in-the-ass lines, both coming and going; obligatory bag check. Don’t stand anywhere near the speakers if you want to hear tomorrow.

Too young to rock?
Merciful 16+ policy only requires ID if you want a wristband to drink.

Best pickup line to use
“So, how many of those free Lifebeat condoms are you planning on using tonight?”

How to get in free
Radio stations give away tickets to Irving shows like candy.


S.O.B.’s
204 Varick Street, 243-4940

What’s onstage
International groove music: The name stands for Sounds of Brazil, but there’s also reggae, soca, charanga, and occasionally funk and hip-hop.

Vibe
Part Brooklyn-bohemian, part touristy, part beat-freak central. Straw-thatch/quasi-tiki-hut motif is a little unnerving.

Tips
Dress to sweat. Not dancing is de rigueur at most NYC live-music clubs; it is unforgivable here.

Too young to rock?
They rely heavily on the bar, so they’re careful about who gets in; there are often long lines, anyway.

Best pickup line to use
“Do you dance merengue? . . . No, I know that’s not what they’re playing.”

How to get in free
Difficult. Tickets are superpricey to begin with, and they’re into getting people to make dinner reservations, too.


Tonic
107 Norfolk Street, 358-7503

What’s onstage
Improv, postjazz, and experimental music, much of it from the orbit of John Zorn and pals. Quirky electronics in the Subtonic lounge. Klezmer and songwriters on Sundays.

Vibe
A pleasant, laid-back, international mix of young skronkmaniacs and old jazz hands. Many audience members own cell phones, but refrain from using them.

Tips
Early birds get good seats. Tonic is also the only music club in town where the food is both a good deal and tasty.

Too young to rock?
Now that they’ve got a liquor license, they do tend to card.

Best pickup line to use
“Is that an Other Music bag?”

How to get in free
Show up with an electric tuba and claim you’re sitting in with the headliners.


Wetlands

161 Hudson Street, 386-3600

What’s onstage
Jam bands, plus the occasional dose of hip-hop, metal, and reggae. Musicians who really love pot, basically.

Vibe
Hippie heaven, with a converted VW bus and lots of free political literature, much of it about hemp.

Tips
Downstairs lounge is dim, cushy, and make-out heaven. Shows inevitably run very late.

Too young to rock?
Almost everything’s 18+.

Best pickup line to use
” . . . Jerry, man . . . ”

How to get in free
Hang around out front, waving and yelling, “I need a miracle!” On second thought, don’t.

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Synthpop Flocks Like Seagulls

I forget who might’ve said it, but I remember the occasion well: It was the summer of 1983, with postpunk a receding memory and Euro-synthpop sprawling out all over the college radio playlists. A bunch of us spiker kids were sitting around at the designated hangout spot outside CBGB, griping about the whole state of affairs. “Aah,” someone essayed, “mark my words: This whole electronic fad is bound to blow over soon.”


Okay, that was me with the big prediction. We were all young once—and boy is my face red, etc. In subsequent years, of course, the canonical synthpop formula (dancy drum machine with moderate-to-heavy science over the top) would metastasize into modern hip-hop and r&b, techno and industrial, Disney soundtracks, teen-pop, Broadway show tunes, and pretty much the entire rest of the world’s pop-musical corpus, straight through to Lebanese club music and Chinese MOR. Taken unit by unit, worldwide, it’s pretty much all synthpop now. But what’s even harder to live down is the fact that the original ‘wavo variety never blew over either—it turned into punk. Although you never hear anything about it, purebred synthpop went DIY after its currency finally crashed, and began evolving in parallel, marsupial fashion alongside the techno-dance mainstream.


That doesn’t just mean a dozen stalwart bands, and the occasional new Alphaville CD. It’s more like a couple hundred bands, new and veteran; a comprehensive scene infrastructure; and a unique, binding aesthetic. The crucial distinction between technopop and techno is that if the latter tends to be about whomping rooms of people over the head with sheer technik and whirling them gaping off to Oz, the former has always been more about human-scale experiences and individual style—about playing dress-up and mirror-tag.


In the European context, that sort of sensibility generally registers as elegance—such that multitudes of Young Werthers lofted Germany’s spectacular Wolfsheim onto the continental top-40 charts as recently as this summer. In America, on the other hand, it just tends to come off as fagginess, which most kids don’t get into. Synthpop’s last great stand in the States was around the turn of the last decade, when the gay audience helped launch tracks by Erasure, Information Society, Anything Box, and Seven Red Seven onto the domestic dance charts. But barring that sort of anomaly (and demographic spikes like the one responsible for Savage Garden), synthpop is thoroughly, unredeemably out of fashion in America. It’s true punk in that its effetism and grandiloquence, its emotional vulnerability and unalloyed pretense, are about the most shockingly wrong things that a band could try to pull off these days—and because nobody involved seems to give a shit. When song-based synth music does blip now and then onto the stateside radar, it’s generally in some kind of tee-hee boho-camp context: as with the Moog Cookbook, or the gentler self-ironicism of the Rentals. But the real synthpop scene nowadays isn’t even any good as retro. It’s a living tradition; and as such, there aren’t any huge, winged haircuts or ruffled Fauntleroy suits to giggle at. Nobody here does the robot with a big, cheesy smirk, or arrives onstage in Gary Numan’s golf cart. All of which invites the question: What’s the stuff good for, anyway?


It’s good for Anything Box’s Elektrodelica, on Jarrett Records, a sprawling, multifarious pileup of an album, part Polyrock and part Krautrock, with some of the loveliest and most cunningly arranged pop music around today. It’s good for Sweden’s intermittently awesome S.P.O.C.K., welterweight stars on that country’s charts, and something like a European Man . . . Or Astro-Man?, except the ultimate referent isn’t Devo, but Mister Mister. The band De/Vision, owners of the Synthetic Product label, do edgy, somewhat Teutonic pop; while Synthphony Records (home of many Erasure and Depeche Commode knockoffs) has No Decay, a winningly tuneful, low-tech East German ensemble with a hint of early OMD. Different Drum Records puts out great, jam-packed CD compilations (such as the current Mix, Rinse, and Spin Vol. II) and carries an unfathomable number of releases. Seven Red Seven, also on Jarrett, have been drifting toward drum’n’bass for quite a while now, but still let the hooks do the talking.


At a packed CMJ synthpop showcase last month at Manhattan’s Downtime, Sweden’s KieTheVez, big wheels on the scene, rated a near-10 for the husky, Saxonoid singer’s emotive croon and flowing hand-dances. Hometown act Carol Masters didn’t quite live up to their Do You Hear It EP, where their cool New Ordery soulpop isn’t hampered by sloppy guitar playing. And anything Box, once suave Jersey goths, are now little California techno trolls: short, swarthy, and balding in a jaunty working-class sort of way, and clowned-out in thrift-shop athletic wear. Their set was loose around the edges, like a casual homecoming gig, but record-perfect as soon as the sequencers came on. The crowd blew up like a bomb. It’s hopeless, though: when singer Claude warmed up into “Living in Oblivion” with an a cappella chorus, bobbling around like a Jersey teamster while falsettoing, “I’m so afraid,” it was way too cool for the big leagues. Call it faggy; it was elegant. It was punk.

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Bowery Mission

While hundreds
of thousands of young people greeted the last year of the
millennium in Times Square, waiting for the
ball to drop before scurrying home along Giuliani’s squeaky-clean streets, a rather more bohemian crowd gathered
at another landmark: Downtown’s venerable CBGB. Where icons like Debbie Harry and the Ramones
and Richard Hell and the Voidoids once ruled the stage, Japanese pop-punk band Cibo Matto held sway over the Bowery night.


Café society


I am a camera.

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Hell Is Other Bands

My first thought, entering CBGB for the first of “two nights of crust, grind, and doom at the birthplace of underground rock,” was, How fucking refreshing. A club in the East Village where no one is wearing Prada. And now that cute eclecticism is the order of the day, a monolithic aesthetic might be purifying, like a Color Field painting or one of those meditation rooms recently featured in the Times‘s Home section.


CBs was packed when Anal Cunt went on, and in a classic speedmetal moment bandleader Seth Putnam leapt into the audience the first song out. Only his fans were shouting for “Song Number Eight,” which authentically dates back to an early album: as Anal Cunt’s transgressive / “transgressive” name suggests, they’re a takeoff on conventional metal’s literalism–one album, Top Forty Hits, has 40 (extremely brief) songs. But they also begin from the fact of pain, and how you make art that acknowledges pain but gives pleasure. And they’re hilarious. One song intro went: “The street life in New York is rough… I’ve bought Biohazard albums, I know what it’s like”; another, “This song is called ‘Face It, You’re a Metal Band,’ and it’s about Brutal Truth.” The burly, beer-bellied singer asked, “How many of you have weight-loss problems?” by way of introducing “Body by Auschwitz.”


Most of AC’s songs embody a parody of the verse-chorus pattern: Seth shouts the title line over drum rolls and guitar runs, the drummer and guitarist focus on an austere, speedy “metal” guitar pattern, then Seth shouts the title line again, and these two sections repeat for 20 or 40 or 60 seconds. On record (most of AC’s oeuvre is available on Earache), you can turn down the volume so it sounds like something you’d hear at Bang on a Can, or raise the volume and act out your bad day. It’s metal in quotes, but with its thrill: everyone in the band is really good at what they do, the speed and passion work better for being so carefully rationed, and the real potential for violence keeps it from being too easy.


Unable to disguise his pleasure in performing, Seth seemed like the sweet guy he’s been in our brief offstage talks. But the last time AC played CBGB I’d seen him haul one of the weighty restaurant tables from the floor to the stage and then toss it into the audience. Some of his rage is parodistic, but some is real. And some of the songs are just jokes, but some of them create the sickening vertigo of real art. When you watch kids slam to “Women–nature’s punching bag” you tend to aestheticize what you hear, because the lyrics are almost indecipherable, and Anal Cunt make screaming seem like just another instrument, but finally you do have to acknowledge both the lyrical content and your complicity in it and your pleasure in the signs of pain from which this band has decided to make art. They’ll probably hate me for saying it, but Anal Cunt are more like Barbara Kruger and David Wojnarowicz than any musical equivalents I can think of, and they deserve to be as famous. Keep an eye out for the release Earache wouldn’t do, their “sensitive folk album,” Picnic of Love, forthcoming on Miami-based Off the Record.


Anal Cunt are Yankees, but the best nonironic bands on this bill were from the South, where all manner of archaic traditions are preserved, from barbeque to quilting to fundamentalism to death metal. The last two are probably related; how much radio evangelism does it take to make writing songs about the devil or naming your band Eyehategod seem cool? Despite their dreadlocks, dog collars, and black band T-shirts, Buzzoven and Eyehategod look like they grew up knowing how to fix a car and clean a gun, listening to country radio–which shares death metal’s artistic conservatism.


Buzzoven insist on their regionalism in their sarcastic slogan, “The New South,” but they clearly have listened to their share of Other music. With their four guitarists (including bass) and obsession with droney low-end overtone effects, Buzzoven are closer to Glenn Branca than Slayer, Sabbath, or Motorhead–admittedly Branca as filtered through his protégé Paige Hamilton’s Helmet. Their heaviness comes from guitar sonics, the same place Sonic Youth got it, and transcends “metal” coding–if you close your eyes and don’t happen to open them while the singer is miming garroting himself with his mic cord.


Eyehategod, from whom hints of the Allman Brothers and even the country blues seep forth agreeably, have no avant influences that I can find, and their heaviness comes from the usual metal clichés. When I saw them a couple of years ago, I alone in the crowd found them really boring, but either I have become more open-minded or they have grown into the authority implicit in those clichés and the hubris of their name.


In other news, Today is the Day feature Slayer-esque guitar riffs in a vaguely grunge context, a metal band for kids who listen to Unsane or Jesus Lizard and make fun of Sepultura and Metallica as too mainstream. I don’t think I could tell a tape of Today Is the Day from Dissociate, and I could only tell Crisis apart because they have a female vocalist. Dissociate and Crisis are painfully well-intentioned and literal to a fault. This is metal all the way down–baroque, operatic, enormously loud, and, to my ears, fossilized. Crisis, who organized the two-day event, are marginally more interesting because they have a charismatic, if overly dramatic, frontwoman, but except for the few songs on which former Swans guitarist Norman Westberg joined the band, the bass-guitar-drum ensemble sounded thin.


These bands can’t possibly live up to their names because nothing comes with the force of revelation, or even shock, anymore. In music, this can all be summarized in one sentence: the sampler has a sound like TV has a look. All “content” has been leveled and is equally dramatic or undramatic. Power chords and thunderous double bass drums have no more undiluted signification than screams, or whispers. Perhaps this is why, after all the bands I saw except Anal Cunt, the brief return of silence at set’s end sucked all the energy out of the room. As in: now what?