Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Bush Tetras / Tribute to Laura Kennedy

Vintage Bush Tetras: Pat Place, Dee Pop, Cynthia Sley, Laura Kennedy (RIP)
Tonight I found myself in the cheesy bowels of Bowery Electric in Manhattan, in the front row watching Bush Tetras sprint through an inspired set of their classic material in tribute to their recently departed original bassist Laura Kennedy. It was a loose, heartfelt performance and it provoked my thoughts. The act of being in a band is an extremely tribal one and an event like the one I witnessed tonight reinforced my notion that when the dust settles, the band itself remains at the core of the ritual when all the hangers-on recede into the woodwork. The crowd was small, but did it really need to be bigger? No.

I first heard Bush Tetras in 1987.  I remember saving my kiddie allowance to get a copy of their excellent ROIR live cassette release "Wild Things" at my local record store. The band were the direct offspring of the original New York no wave scene, with guitarist Pat Place having done time in the classic lineup of James Chance's Contortions. The group were somewhat more dancefloor friendly than the archetypal no wave bands, but maintained a challenging mesh of dissonant, bracing guitar over a bouncy foundation of rock-solid drumming. One of the first things that hit me about Bush Tetras' sound was the unique vocals of Cynthia Sley: her lascivious, off-key yawp is definitely a love-it-or-hate-it proposition and it definitely took time to grow on me. The ROIR tape was full of evocative monosyllabic titles like "Damned", "Voodoo", "Jaws", "Rituals", "Enemies" and "Stare". This was dark, squalid fare. I was hooked.

After their auspicious live debut in February 1980, Bush Tetras quickly rose to the top of the NYC club scene hot on the heels of their debut 7" on 99 Records featuring the hauntingly minimalistic, Billboard-charting hit "Too Many Creeps".  Within a year of forming, the foursome toured Europe and the US extensively. The walloping "Punch Drunk", taken from a live Februrary 1981 UK performance included on the obscure compilation album "Still Swimming" (Stiff Records US), showcased a new-found muscularity and confidence in their sound. Their sketchy, unfinished-sounding 1981 studio EP "Rituals" (Fetish/Stiff Records) was even "produced" by then-Clash drummer Topper Headon. They seemed destined for some degree of stardom, but things started to fizzle out (as sometimes happens to the best of them) around 1983 when the original rhythm section departed. Bush Tetras never made a full-length album in their prime, but luckily numerous compilations of various live and studio tracks exist, including the excellent compendium of rare tracks, "Tetrafied" (Thirsty Ear).

Laura Kennedy. Photo by Joe Stevens

The band reformed in the mid-90s, cutting a grunge-tinged record for Tim/Kerr Records. Soon after, Laura Kennedy was permanently replaced by fledgling four-stringer Julia Murphy and the group continued to re-emerge sporadically, with a significantly higher profile during the last half decade or so. Unfortunately Kennedy fought for a long time against health issues stemming from Hepatitis C, so many of the BT's recent performances took on a benefit-themed air. She passed away on November 14, 2011 in Minneapolis.

One major thing I noticed about Bush Tetras tonight was their inextricable link as friends. They hilariously argued on stage about the set order like brothers and sisters fighting at the dinner table, shooting volleys of eye-rolls and snickers instead of mashed potatoes and peas. In performance, each member of the band operates in their own private microcosm: on either end of the stage, Pat Place wrenched obtuse clusters from her guitar while wandering around impatiently while Julia Murphy headbanged relentlessly, coaxing out angular ostinatos in careful controlled gestures. At the rear position, Dee Pop smashed his drums with barely controlled fury and frontperson Cynthia Sley intoned her macabre lyrics, swaying autonomously with eyes closed or laying down colorful accents on various percussion. The short, but excellent set included "Cowboys In Africa", "Making A Mistake", "Boom", "Too Many Creeps", "Can't Be Funky", "Voodoo" and "(You Taste Like) The Tropics". The music was very driving and loud. Luckily, Dee Pop never forgot that drums exist to be punished and when one does so, rock and roll tends to come roaring out of them a lot easier!

The audience mostly consisted of friends of the band. It was a definite tribute event for Laura and not a routine "gig". I felt lucky to be there. The band's music and legacy are important to me and I was glad I could pay some respects, as meager as that might be (incidentally, I did donate to Kennedy's medical costs a few years ago). After the set, I mostly sat there alone and pondered quietly, despite the fact that it might have been an excellent chance for me to hob-knob with various luminaries and cognoscenti. Ultimately, I don't really try to force myself on people. I'm fine being alone. I'm used to being on the outside looking in. I don't want to insert myself in other people's scenes unless they want me there, and if they want me there, they'll let me know. I'm fine being a bystander in certain situations like this. I too operate in my own weird little microcosm, but sometimes it intersects with others.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Walter

nice piece I appreciate !

say hi next time !


Anonymous said...

It was nice to meet you last night, Walter. I know how it feels to look in from the outside. It can be lonely, so it's special when we meet at those intersections. Drum on!
Dee Pop

Lisa Genet said...

Hey Walter, I wish I knew what you looked like...would have been nice to meet you after all these....Your words are all spot on, and I eye dee (i.d.) with those last few sentences!

Regards, Lisa Genet

Weasel Walter said...

hi guys. we should have another party soon, under happier circumstances.

. . . and by the way, you can call me by my first name, WEASEL!