Tuesday, July 8, 2008

No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York. 1976-1980

Someone gave me this great new book called No Wave Post-Punk. Underground. New York. 1976-1980 by Thurston Moore and Byron Coley. The first thing I had to ask myself as I plunged into this book was why oh why did I not just move to New York back then. This particular era and anti-genre held the artiest noise ever made. Even Brian Eno says so.

Well, I do recall my first visit to New York in 1975 – a real shocker and every bit like Taxi Driver, which on film looks great but isn’t exactly easygoing in the flesh. And you do feel like nothing but vulnerable flesh when you land at 18, clearly some goof from elsewhere. Even though I had just spent four months in Europe, the visual violence of New York was unnerving. At least no one, even the police, had guns in London.

The book is sewn together as oral history from the likes of Lydia Lunch, Arto Lindsay, James Chance and the rest of No Wave, with a few wise words from Eno. As you can imagine, he’s the cool and removed observer while Lydia Lunch is the impassioned instigator.

Here’s an interview in which she’s asked: People say you’re a bitch. Are you? To create what came out of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, could there be any other way? This is not about walks on the beach. You’ve got to joyously hate so much to make what she made.

What I am most nostalgic for is not the art or music per se. It’s that land of possibility found in the rubble, something which exists mostly within our imaginations and will. New York was abandoned, often a shell. “Tribeca, before it was Tribeca,” as it is recalled here, had buildings of no heat and no electricity, there for the taking, a place to make noise – not even really Rock or Jazz or “New Music” but something else. Without heat in the winter, these artists stayed in the bars all night until they had to leave. All of those places are the homes of hedge-funders now.

There was still a bit of that spirit when I moved to NYC in the 80s. The squalor I do not miss, but this thing called possibility I miss very much. You have to work at it as you get older and try your best to not get settled into patterns and expectations.

Someone on boingboing commented that so many of these books of this time are oral histories. I think this is because a lot of it didn’t get written about in any official way at that time. The people who are telling the story are the ones who know about it; they are the experts. It came and went very quickly. Someone else made the comment that Post-Punk seems to be happening earlier and earlier. Again, I think that goes back to the same lack of an official record. The whole thing was fairly extreme and often dismissed. Journalists were just catching on to Punk when this tide just came and went. We tend to think cool things are always recognizable to the savvy but that’s not true. Here's an excerpt.


Sheree Rensel said...

Hmmmm....I am trying to figure out if these are good memories or bad. I remember being in front of the Mudd Club in NY circa 1978ish. I was with "people" but the doorman was still hestitant. I remember it well. I had my hair in bleach blond braids and had on a Hansel and Gretel sweater. He waved us in. Besides being totally shaken off my own ground as I walked through the crowd, the clincher was when I had to go pee. I walked into the unisex john and was met with things I was not ready for at all. I just stood there, then sheepishly pushed my way through because I had to go "potty". LOL LOL LOL
I often think about my NY 70-80s experiences. I am not sure if they are grand or a product of reinventing history. I am not sure which. All I know is now I feel safe and REAL. LOL LOL LOL I am not sure I felt that way back then.

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S.A. said...

Sheree raises an key question about revisionist history. I haven't read Thurston's book yet, but I have seen many of the previous "oral histories" that have been published in the past few years. While it's all fascinating reading -- the historical accuracy is highly suspect. Thurston and Lydia et al are writing THEIR OWN histories or legacies in a way that is really a kind of mythmaking. I'm not saying it isn't true -- just that it's only a sliver of the truth.

Nevertheless -- it was a very charged time and scene. Regardless of the specifics, there was a lot of raw living and serious experimentation going on -- some good fun too. One thing that is worth mentioning is that for the most part, the communication among bands and artists was only through the work (music) -- it was all very competitive - not alot of artists hanging out together making a scene. The scene was made by each artist or band making the most extreme statement they could come up with.

Eva said...

HEY SA and Sheree,

No doubt it is a history written by the participants. I find that more interesting that the outside commenters - though this book has a part towards the end which is written by observant journalists of the time and it is fascinating. So it looks like just about everyone had their say.

I have found a lot of revisionist history as regards punk. So when I write my story, yeah, I am writing the story as much as anyone, fuck it. What I liked about No Wave was how many women were there; you can't erase them or put them in the groupie catergory with glamorous pictures. That's a big reason to love Ms. Lunch - she doesn't even try to be sweet and do-able. Women get a lot of perks for being that, for going down that road. It's admirable that she never veers from her path. She's not Blondie. I am not saying I dislike Blondie; it was however not a new model for a woman and there's no getting around it. Some of us females were very conscious of that at the time....

I like what you say about the competition, SA. No reason really to believe it was some kind of utopia time because it wasn't. Perhaps there was some kind of brief race towards the extreme. Unity within crazed individuals with a very specific art agenda - that's the real myth.

Anonymous said...

Also, guys have been writing myth as history about punk since it began. So I think it's great that Lydia is writing the story, her story - and we can call it a myth of you want. Spin it girl is all I can say. She's as much a Prime Mover as any of them, myth or not.

I'm sensitive to this as I have ran across guys from my time who want to spin me down to how I could shake my ass on stage. Yes, I've heard it just like that. Of course they were jealous because I wrote the lyrics and had some power and sense of self. But they were already down for the count on how to rewrite the history and reduce me down.


S.A. said...

Let me say this about Lydia --- Teenage Jesus live was as raw and abrasive as it gets - absolutely amazing, unrelenting, and...scary really. That was the extreme, then came 8-Eyed Spy -- which very few people actually saw live -- Lydia in front with George Scott on bass and some other great players from other bands. It was Lydia's "pop group" (just before the Queen of Siam recordings), and it was brilliant.

I absolutely agree that she has earned the right to write her own history. Thurston and everyone else who is still carrying on (who is still invested in that history) has that right. Those of us who moved on to other endeavors relinquished our voices to a large extent.

Eva said...

First, SA, thank you.

Second, I am jealous you saw Teenage Jesus then. I saw the Siousxie and the Bansees in early 78 - can only imagine that it was similar. I hated and loved her at the same time. But I think even Lydia Lunch is in many ways a more significant artist. Your last sentence in this past comment is also very significant - because I think I did that too - relinquished - and now I am backtracking....

harold hollingsworth said...

well I say let the markets fall and we can play in the buildings that the hedge funders bail out of!

Eva said...

That's what I say Harold.

I don't think there's anything so far in that Winckleman thread on what good could come out of a collapsing art market. Most of the commenters think having more places to show in Chelsea is always more in general. But that's not really true. When people have fewer options, they start creating a new model altogether.