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Lester Bangs

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James Chance [photo taken from]
James Chance: 'the anteater'
In a New York City nightclub, a skinny little Caucasian whose waterfall hairstyle and set of snout and lips make him look like a sullen anteater takes the stage, backed up by a couple of guitarists, bass, horn section, drummer and bongos. Most of his back-up is black, and they know their stuff: it's pure James Brown funk, with just enough atonal accents to throw you off. The trombone player, in fact, looks familiar, and sounds amazing: you look a bit closer, and of course, that's Joseph Bowie, bother of Lester, both of them avant-garde jazzmen of repute. But then the anteater begins to sing, in ahoarse yowl that sounds more like someone being dragged naked through the broken glass and oily rubble of a back-alley than ever the studied abrasiveness of most punk rock vocalizations. The songs are about contorting yourself, tying other people up and leaving them there, and how the singer doesn't want to be happy. After a while he picks up an alto sax, and out come some of the most hideous flurries of gurgling shrieks heard since the mid-Sixties glory days of ESP-Disk records. The singer/saxophonist's name is James Chance, and you have been watching the Contortions.

Across town in another club, what looks like the standard rock 'n' roll lineup saunters onto a stage set right in the floor, making it impossible for anybody in the room except those at the very front to see. The group consists of two guitars, bass and drums. Then their lead singer wanders out from in back, casting a baleful imperious eye over the crowd. She is short and chubby, filmily dressed with waxy black hair and a ring in one nostril. Her name is Lydia Lunch; she used to play guitar in a way that has been compared with Chilean torture chambers. Now she just sings, and surprisingly enough, what was once confined to a banshee wail to match her guitar work has now broadened, from Ilse-She-Wolf barks to little-girl mewlings and back to banshee wail again. They open with "Diddy Wah Diddy" and run through a contemptuously short set of originals and carefully chosen covers like Nancy Sinatra's "Lightnin's Girl." Interestingly enough, the sound of the band is a lot closer to the jungle than that of the Contortions, less strained and more sensual; one of the guitarists doubles on sax and guitar-synthesizer, and the jams are short and to the point. The name of the group is Eight-Eyed Spy.

Richard Hell and the Voidoids
Richard Hell and the Voidoids
Finally, back home at CBGB's, original spawning ground of the late Seventies punk revolution, Richard Hell and the Voidoids are running through one of the final sets of their career. Ironically, where the group used to put on sloppy sets in front of small but adoring audiences, now they're playing incredibly tight, slashing rock 'n' roll to a packed house consisting mostly of rubbernecking tourists and suburbanite teens who have heard about all this punk stuff and finally found the courage to come down and check it out, and for whom it wouldn't make much difference which band was onstage. But for those who are there to listen, it's obvious that the Voidoids have something more than the usual punk engine-gunnings going for them: in the dense mesh of guitars are, unmistakably, quotes from and elaborations on Miles Davis lines off albums like Agharta and On the Corner; if you listen and look closely, you can tell that this incredible stylistic melding is emanating mainly from the guitarist over stage left, a quiet, balding guy in sunglasses named Robert Quine. When the Voidoids break up, he will make an album of instrumental improvisations with guitarist friend Jody Harris (ex- of the Contortions) and a rhythm machine.

Just what is all this stuff? Well, guess what, folks -- the end of the Seventies, with its apparent exhaustion of forms and general disgust with what has come to be known as "fusion music," has brought us what seems at first glance to be the unlikeliest fusion of all: punk rock and free jazz. But it's been a long time a-borning, and it has antecedents. If you want to know how we got to such a strange common ground, or perhaps if you just want to be pissed off, read on.

But before we get into this thing, I think it might be good for writer and reader to have a little eyeball-to-eyeball chat, if only to clear the air. As a probably regular follower of this magazine, your musical tastes I'd imagine are a little more refined, at least in certain directions, than the average person's. Not trying to butter you up; it's just that, let's face it, for most people the whole subject of music and its relative importance in one's life can be summed up by the sales figures of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. For most people, music, if it's thought about much at all, is thought of as an underscoring for the far more important concerns of day-to-day living: music of any kind is a good thing, as long as it knows its place and stays there.

That leaves the rest of you, or us, depending on exactly what and how much we are going to be able to agree upon. Now, without getting too snobbish about it (snobbery being an affliction unfortunately endemic to a great many jazz fans), I think we can assume that in general good or great jazz is music of a higher caliber than a good deal, if not most, of the more pop-oriented stuff coming out. Duke Ellington was better than Paul Whiteman. Thelonious Monk was better than Roger Williams, comparing John Coltrane to Boots Randolph would be making a bad joke, and so on down the line. The music these figures produced, I further submit, was better not because it was any more technically complicated, or because Ellington and Monk and Trane had the greatest chops of anybody who ever lived (even if they might have), but because of some rare wellspring of feeling inside them that caused them to create art that moved mountains, changed history, has endured and will continue to.

I'm discounting chops and the technical end because as far as I'm concerned that sort of thing has basically nothing to do with what's in a player's heart, and expression of passion was basically why music was invented in the first place. A lot of people don't see it in quite those terms, of course; their absolutism takes another form: they think you have to "know how to play" your instrument according to some preset and as far as I can see arbitrary standards before anyone can even begin to take you seriously. They further think that the more technically proficient a player you become, ipso facto the better music maker, or let's say maker of better music you become. Why do they nurse this curious notion? Probably because they have been brainwashed, but who picked up the first bar of soap? It seems to me that this kind of thinking is by definition quantitative rather qualitative: you can sling arpeggios all over the place, you can freeze the baby in the bathwater and mail the ice to Siberia, but the fact remains that if you take one note, any note, and let two different people play it, what comes out of one's ax just might be nothing more than the note, whereas through some magic the other's note might be just a little more expressive, probably because there was something, a kind of inner urgency and yearning, behind it. And all the conservatories and theory books and virtuoso chop-flashings in the world aren't gonna make one iota of difference in regard to that one humble note.

A good example of this dichotomy is the old argument (which never should have been an argument in the first place) about who was better, Miles David or Dizzy Gillespie. Now, I would be the last person in the world to say anything against Dizzy Gillespie. I will concede that technically Dizzy from the starting gate could wipe the floor with Miles and everybody knew it, but Miles has always had something so emotionally compelling in his playing that he changed our lives in ways that Dizzy, magnificent as he is, never really did. I'd say put it down to the fact that they must make two different kinds of music, both valid, but it has been observed more than once that, at least until On the Corner, Miles' playing never seemed to change so much as its context; Miles likes the middle register, apparently because it's where he can best summon his quiet fire, and has seldom gone for cascades of notes where a few with optimum soul would suffice. But let it be remembered that when Miles first appeared with Charlie Parker in the late Forties, a lot of people said he couldn't play, was a downright embarrassment to Bird. And you know something? If you listen to some of those old sides, you can hear Miles flubbing up here and there, an adolescent fumblingly finding his way. Obviously Bird heard something in Miles that all those detractors didn't, and obviously he was right. What's perhaps even more interesting is that when John Coltrane, the "sheets of sound" man himself, first joined Miles' band about ten years later, people said the same thing about him: "Coltrane can't play."

Maybe it was because he had a bit of R&B in his background, and a lot of people into jazz that was strictly anathema at the time: you could hear them imperiously snooting about the presence of Chuck Berry and Big Maybelle in the movie Jazz on a Summer's Day, things like that. Hell, Coltrane used to walk the bar in, I believe it was Philadelphia: can't you just see him, the author of Om and A Love Supreme and Meditations, Ohnedaruth Himself, strutting the length of that thing kicking over whiskey glasses, probably sloppy drunk himself, driving the crowd to a frenzy with those raw, fartlike, obscenely load and unquestionably tasteless and vulgar "HONKs!" and "SQUEEEs!" immortalized by Flip Phillips and Illinois Jacquet in the old Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts? And people called Phillips and Jacquet "tasteless" and "unmusical" too. But the way I always saw it, all that honk-squee stuff was just one part of rock 'n' roll getting ready to be born, a great cry of freedom from the constraints of "good" music, perhaps even the cerebral conceits of bebop. And a decade later you could hear that same gutbucket approach resurrected in things like Roland Kirk's solo on "Hog Callin' Blues" from Charles Mingus' classic Oh Yeah album. Its great that Kirk and Mingus had all the technique to let their eruptions slide on through, but as far as I'm concerned all the technique in the world is never going to make somebody like Al Dimeola or Stanley Clarke or Chick Corea or Herbie Hancock at this point, or almost any of those fusion cats matter a damn once their latest little space opera slides off the charts, 'cause if they ever had any soul they lost it by now. So now you know at least part of my prejudices in front.

Another part is that I love rock 'n' roll in its basest, crudest, most paleolithically rudimentary form. That's right, I love punk rock, and I'm not apologizing to anyone. As far as I can see, what Philips and Jacquet were doing on those Jazz at the Philharmonic sides was kind of the punk rock of its day. What's more, I don't give a good goddamn if somebody can barely play their instruments or even not at all, as long as they've got something to express and do it in a compelling way. Because to me music is any kind of sound made by one human being that moves another one. I suppose that validates a lot of stuff I consider total rubbish, like the aforementioned DiMeolas, Clarkes and Hancocks of the world as well as all the Jethro Tulls and Emerson, Lake and Palmers. But any musician is only as good as his [sic] attitude, chops be damned or fall where they may, and rock 'n' roll is all attitude. It was originally conceived as an outburst of inchoate obnoxious noise and that's what most of the best of it has remained. In other words, punk rock is as venerable as Little Richard. Admittedly, there have been some people over the years who have made rock that was technically (more often technologically) complex and musicologically erudite and still not be worthless -- the Byrds come to mind -- but trying to turn the blare of the outcasts into something arty and thereby respectable is as sick as the attempts made over the years to "upgrade" jazz by polluting it with all sorts of European classicist elements (the efforts of John Lewis and Gunther Schuller, few others, excepted).

Okay: by any standards of "good" music, rock 'n' roll is just a lot of garbage noise, always has been and always will be or it's not rock 'n' roll anymore (cf Billy Joel). Great jazz is great art. But I submit that, when it's not arty, garbage noise can also be great art. Because great art is anything that stirs the human breast in profound ways that may even have deeper psychological and social implications, and that's just exactly what, say, the Sex Pistols did. You may despise them, but they can't be denied their impact. Who cares if they had no talent (a contention I consider debatable anyway)? Their talent was for aural carnage and rabble rousing.

Roscoe Mitchell
Roscoe Mitchell
The reason for all this blather is that I'm just about to try and convince you that punk rock and the very best jazz can not only coexist among one group of musicians performing together at one time, but that successful examples of said mutant hybrid already exist in abundance. That's right, Iggy and the Stooges was every bit as good as Archie Schepp, and John Coltrane could have played with the Velvet Underground. (I more or less proved this contention the other night when I went on WPIX-FM in Manhattan and simultaneously played "Race Mixing" by Teenage Jesus and the Jerks on one turntable and the short version of "Nonaah" by Roscoe Mitchell on another, saying "Get ready all you tape hounds, because we have here a vintage unreleased take of Roscoe jamming with Lydia Lunch and the Jerks at the last Montreux Festival," and most people apparently believed it.) It's all music, and has more qualities in common than many fans of either genre might at first think.

For instance, both free jazz (which, with rare and minor exceptions, is probably the only kind of jazz which should ever be mixed with rock 'n' roll -- things like Blood, Sweat and Tears were Vegas lounge acts) and punk rock are musics with no explicit existing fundamental rules. That's why Ralph Gleason once more or less admitted to me that he had no idea whether Archie's Three For a Quarter, One For a Dime was a great album, a good album or an abortion, and that's why we currently have the highly laughable spectacle of punk partisans from all over the map claiming that this or that favorite group of theirs is great, while the other guy's is obviously garbage, and hardly anyone can ever seem to agree on which is which.

Also, beyond a certain point both punk rock and free jazz give up all sense of structure. Result: atonal anarchic spew. Now if somebody told me that some new group was nothing but a bunch of horrible atonal noise, I'd be the first in line for tickets, but like everybody else I have my own highly subjective places where I finally draw the line. I love Teenage Jesus and the Jerks but can't stand Siouxsee and the Banshees (their classic fourteen-minute version of "The Lord's Prayer" excepted). I lived for Africa/Brass and Ascension, never could quite make up my mind about Meditations, and found Om totally unlistenable. I told old Ralph that on sheer quality of a fairly easily perceivable emotional authenticity, Fire Music be recognized as a masterpiece and Three For a Quarter, One For a Dime as masturbation. On the other hand, since we had that conversation, it has become common knowledge if not conventional wisdom (The Hite Report, etc.) that masturbation is good for you, so if I still owned a copy I might re-audition Three For a Quarter now and discover that Archie was up to a wank there ten years ago I wasn't experienced enough to appreciate yet. I do know that I put on Om the other night for the first time in about a decade, and found that I actually liked it, but I suspect that this may be due to my conditioning by all the punk rock I've listened to over the past few years having broken down my resistance to welters of squawl.

What fascinates me, has in fact since the late Sixties, is the points of intersection. That you could take a bunch of guys who had just held guitars in their hands for the first time in their lives yesterday, put them together with someone who'd mastered tenor saxophone over a 25-year span of rigorous discipline and dues-paying, and come out with something that was not only not oil and water, but aesthetically valid and emotionally compelling.

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No-Neck Blues Band

 Hong Chulki, Choi Joonyong and Jung Eunju at RELAY 04, 2005

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