Monday, November 7, 2011

Early History of The Contortions #1

Contortions, circa mid 1978: Christensen, Chance, Bertei, Harris, Place and Scott.
I first heard the Contortions in the spring of 1986. I had read about them in books and magazines on my rabid personal quest for strange, aggressive music beyond the limited confines of the punk aesthetic. At the well-stocked 229-CLUB record store in Rockford, Illinois, I purchased a cut-out $2.99 copy of James White and the Contortions "Second Chance" LP, a complilation of cuts from the Contortions' "BUY" and James White and the Blacks' "Off White". I spun this disc endlessly on my shitty all-in-one stereo system after I got it home. It was weird and thin sounding music with a lot of screaming and hateful lyrics, but with this sick disco and funk overtone that sounded so warped and "wrong" to my teenage ears. I was hooked. I could really relate to what this James White character was expressing, namely contempt and alienation! The wild saxophone playing didn't hurt either. Soon after, I got my mother to drive me back to 229-CLUB to purchase the ROIR cassette, "Live In New York", which had a guy from Ornette Coleman's band on it, so I was sure it would be great. It was! It took me about a year to find used copies of "BUY" and "Off White", but they finally showed up really cheap in the used bins of Toad Hall, the legendary Rockford collector-nerd institution. My father took one look at those records and shook his head in disbelief. He and my friend Erik's dad thought the woman on the cover of "BUY" was a transvestite (she wasn't) and didn't quite know what to make of all the crazy looking people on the back of "Off White", especially the photo of a pair of bound woman's legs in garters and stockings. Another year later, I finally figured out I could buy a retail copy of the mythic "No New York" compilation album from my local independent record store, Appletree, on special order. I paid my 8.98 and went home to savor the rare tracks by Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Mars and DNA. At the time, I had other releases by all the groups, but "No New York" seemed like such a landmark in music, I just had to get a copy. Of course, I still own that dog-eared record today.

From what limited information I had, the Contortions consisted of James Chance/White (née Siegfried) on vocals and saxophone, Jody Harris on guitar, Pat Place on slide guitar, Adele Bertei on organ, George Scott on bass and Don Christensen on drums. At the time there was no way of knowing that neither Scott or Bertei were on "BUY" - there were no credits, save "James White" on the album cover. Back in those days, one had to assume a lot and fill in the blanks however one could. Well, these are different times. Almost 25 years later, much of the real story has finally surfaced. The internet rules, but back in the ‘80s, I constantly dug for more information on the Contortions saga and held onto whatever random tidbits I could find. It might be a photo here; a Rolling Stone review on microfiche there; an obscure discographical reference book or anything I could find. I constantly wrote names of band members down religiously in little notebooks or notecards and taped xerox copies of documents on my bedroom wall.

By early 2002, I was drafting liner notes for a Spanish reissue of the early Contortions/Blacks material and it allowed me to put together all the various threads I had been collecting for so long. I used the excuse to contact most of the living members of the original group, talking on the phone with Pat Place, Don Christensen and early guitarist James Nares, as well as exchanging emails with James Chance himself. Pat Place laughed at one point during our conversation and said, “You remember more about this stuff than I do!” James Nares let me know that he had been in a very, very early lineup with consisted of himself, James Chance, drummer Steve Moses and “Annie”, or Anne DeLeon, who he referred to as “Alan Vega’s girlfriend.” I knew there was more to the story than I was privy too, but after little nuggets of minutiae like this kept getting dropped on me, I wondered if the research would ever end! I know reality is rarely linear, but this Contortions saga seemed to grow by the minute. James Chance wrote me an email saying that the precursor to Contortions was a group he had with Lydia Lunch called “The Scabs” which also featured Reck, the first bass player from Teenage Jesus and Jody Harris. Of course, Jody Harris would leave, Lydia would draft Bradly Field on “drum” and Teenage Jesus proper was born. Awhile after I turned in my finished notes, a James Chance interview in Bob Bert’s “BB Gun” magazine seemed to obliterate all the work I had slaved over! This mag beat the release of the LP reissue by a week or two, not that anybody really noticed the coincidence. I think it happened around late 2002. Luckily research like this is not a competition – it’s an additive process of setting the record straight and people like me and Bob Bert were just trying to get the bigger picture of the music we loved out there.

James White and the Blacks? Chance, Kristian Hoffman,
Pat Place and Anya Phillips
From early 2004 on, I have sporadically presented a video lecture on No Wave, using various footage I’ve been stockpiling since the late ‘90s. I have made the presentation in Louisville, Austin, San Francisco (three times), Montreal, and Brooklyn as well as at Bard College in upstate New York. I show works by Contortions, Teenage Jesus, DNA, Von LMO, 8-Eyed Spy, Bush Tetras, Raybeats, Lounge Lizards, Friction and Suicide; a little clip of early Lydia and James from a documentary called “Punking Out”; and sometimes little clips from some of the early No Wave cinema if the audience is feeling particularly masochistic. I know there’s more footage out there, but getting a hold of it is tricky. There were plenty of people shooting film and video back then, but the matter of rights is a serious grey area. Does the footage belong to the band or the person who pointed the camera at them? I’m not sure. I do know that without the band, the footage would generally be pretty fucking boring though. At one point around the early 2000s I had dubbed a few copies of my no-wave video mix for a few select pals – most famously Aaron Dilloway of Hanson Records/Wolf Eyes infamy – and at some point nth degree copies wound up selling on Ebay to whomever would pay the price. I never sold the footage I have. I don’t own it, and it’s not mine to make money with. I have been approached by several parties in the last decade about trying to assemble legitimate compilations of no-wave era footage, but the thing that always nips it in the bud is the hassle of obtaining legal rights. It’s a mess and will probably stay that way. Another approach is the kind Lydia Lunch takes: if she gets a hold of it and she wants to release it, she just does it! Ha ha ha. More power to her. Ultimately, I think the musicians should be in the position of power in these matters.

During 2007, I helped Marc Masters on his epic tome entitled “No Wave”. People always told me I should have written the book, but I’m no writer! I’m glad Marc took the initiative and I helped him however I could, from sharing my print and video archives to vigilant proofreading (I found out the hard way that even when you think you caught all the mistakes, there’s still a few more. Ha ha ha.) I tried hard to help Marc fete his publisher’s apathetic approach to editing and photo selection. Sometimes it got really hairy and it seemed like outside factors were going to run the book completely. Luckily, despite the fact that the publisher was too lazy to research or pay for more images and their editors kept insisting on changing confirmed facts into extreme typos or mistakes, Marc’s book came together pretty well. Ironically, it is the smelliest book I’ve ever owned – it reeks of chemicals for some reason. Oddly apropos, given the nihilistic slant of the subject! Some people have complained that “No Wave” is too “dry” or “boring”: in Marc’s defense, I think he was more interested in getting some of these hidden facts straight for the first time, rather than reading like a Harlequin romance novel! Six months later, in mid 2008, Thurston Moore and Byron Coley’s “No Wave” tome emerged and helped round out the documentation with tons of killer photos and anecdotes. I still believe these two works are absolutely complementary and should be used together in tandem to get a real picture of the scene. I’m thanked in Byron and Thurston’s book, but I don’t remember doing much. Ha ha ha. I’ll take whatever credit I can get though! I definitely got a free copy, and that was enough for me!

Lately more and more recordings of period No Wave gigs have surfaced. Luckily I have had privileged access to many of them and access to the these rarities has allowed me to tie together even more threads. Over the next week, I will present a blow-by-blow chronology of the rise and fall of the early Contortions line-ups, describing the changes in personnel and sound from month to month starting in December 1977 and wrapping up in late 1979 with a little more context ending in 1981. Come visit every day this week and geek out with me. I welcome comments and corrections. If anybody from the bands have any feedback or anything to add, please do so!

-Weasel Walter, 11.7.11

Early History of The Contortions #2 (Dec 1977-May 1978)


Special Lord B. said...

can't wait

Anonymous said...

There are TONS of people who would love to see your collection of No Wave sonic misery and all its abomiNational visual trimmings.

russelforster said...

I've used both of the books listed above in my radio shows highlighting the best original No Wave acts, and I found them both fascinating and revealing. Like the great punk tomes, I don't expect all the "facts" printed to ultimately pan out, but who cares? The stories are wild and cool and point to a time and a scene that Brian Eno quite rightly pegged as important to document and remember (though arguably the scene was already spent by the time he got to it). The music has held up better than most of the time, and has inspired countless bands and movements since. Keep feeding us music history geeks, Mr. Walters!

Tim Wrong said...

Yes, thank you, Mr. Walters, also for being one of the few people who can correctly spell Bradly Field! I am looking forward to reading more on the Contortions; I only saw them one time, in 1978 at the Paradise Garage (!) on a bill with TJ&J and R. Hell and the Void-oids. Some day, I will get my super-8 footage digitized...

dooflow said...

This is great, Weasel. Please keep it up!

Weasel Walter said...

thanks for the feedback, everybody. probably by the time you get this reply, the first chapter will be posted.

mr. wrong: as a guy named "weasel walter" i know what it's like to have people mess up my name, so i have a special motivation to spell bradly's name correctly! i will discuss the disaster known as the june 1978 paradise garage gig asap. ha ha ha. i talked to ivan julian about this just a few months ago and he was rolling his eyes remembering how crazy the whole thing was . . .