Exploring the Voids of All Known Undergrounds
by Byron Coley and Thurston Moore
first published in Arthur No. 10 (May, 2004)
Holy crows of March. The SUN CITY GIRLS, a trio first of Arizona, more recently of Seattle, are amongst the very busiest of bees. There have lately been new recordings by them, archival tapes dubbed to vinyl, associated releases, a series of CDs and DVDs they released documenting Asia non-popular culture. And we’re sure there’s more, because, hey, there’s always more. And the latest package of SCG genius contained the six videos that they have released through Abduction; videos which span from 1990 to 2003, showing the incredible sonic and textual evolutions that have gripped the band in that time. Watching them sequentially makes for a heck of an interesting evening.
The first is Cloaven Theater (:57) and it kinda sets the procedural stage for all that follow. The format is largely based on hand-held cameras, recording both live performances as well as set pieces, random blasts of junk, and plenty else, presented in a way that suggests a post-nuclear vaudeville review. Bits of this, bits of that, all strung together with a specifically-wrecked sense of humor and a genuine urge to confuse. The elements here include lip-synching, live improvisation, beverage guzzling, crudely exotic costuming, video burn, a JFA t-shirt (slyly acknowledging the band’s hardcore roots), noise jams, musical rituals, globe balancing, one-eyed food slurping, chicken puppets and even a dramatic reading of a surrealist cartoon strip. Musically, in the very early ‘90s, the band was in a transitional stage, really beginning to incorporate heavy Asian thinking into their sound for the first time, and this tape gives a fairly swank overview of this period.
The Halcyon Days of Symmetry (:48) includes footage recorded between ’90 and ’00, and is again, all over some maps. It includes film collages, “found” Asian pop music samples, footage from a very stripped-down gig at a record store, manually-conducted studio experiments, and a a great live take of the epochal “Space Prophet Dogon” (from the Torch of the Mystics album). My only caveat would be to those parents who might like to purchase this as a birthday present for some special tot: there is one long collage sequence of a decidedly erotic nature, which may be unsuitable for young children. So take note!
It’s Not Over ‘Till the Skinny Arab Lights the Fuse (:52) is another potpourri. It showcases their first truly sophisticated use of puppet musicians (don’t ask, just watch), an excellent example of the band’s avant-garage approach to the questions raised by gamelan orchestras, another great live take of “Space Prophet Dogon” (with Evynd Kang on violin), and some more extended forays with Alan Bishop’s “Uncle Jim” character, a true king of certain kinds of knowledge. Another parental warning must be issued for this one, however, as one of “Jim”’s soliloquies has a mockery of race-baiting that might not be suitable for tiny ears. In a way, though, this one really seems to revolve around a line from one of the skits: “I’m gonna shoot those birds someday. I don’t like no one singin’ around my house.” In these words lies a mysterious key. Don’t be afraid to burrow for meaning.
If It Blows Up Park It (:52) is much more of a straight live documentation of the band than any of the other tapes. And that may make it one of the better ones to use as an intro for the unfamiliar. Documenting several performances from ’93, this one really shows the band approaching their fulsome and fatty width. The way they combine the dialectics of free-rock with an unsurpassed aptitude for gobbling (and excreting) the music of the world is just stunning. There are, of course, a few comedy routines tossed in, as well as a brief trip to Rick Bishop’s rare book store. Which looks really nice!
The Burning Nerve Ending Magic Trick (:57) has live material from the ’96-’97 season, plus more of a focus on solo forays (in all known dimensions). There’re also dancing statuettes with rather enormous penises, “Uncle Jim” begins to start sounding a bit like Beefheart in terms of word-construction, and Evynd Kang again guests on violin. This is not really one of the more music-heavy entries in the series, though; just so you know. But it does have one of the best smoking puppet scenes on film anywhere (we dare you to name a better one) and there are many confounded laughs to be had here.
Myths and Legends of the Blue West (:45) contains the most recent live stuff, shot just last year. So it is easily the best demonstration of what the band is like currently, and the strength of their mature sound is overwhelming. All of the turf they have stripped really comes together in a big flaming ball. And the sidebars are pretty neat, too. The Saddam mask is a nice touch, as is the Mike Tyson footage, the film collage, and the “Uncle Jim” footage, which is more hardboiled this time around, and includes some of the finest smoking pedantry we’ve seen in a year of goddamn Sundays. So, really, this may be the very best point of entry to their video shelf. And we hope like mackerels that you will take the splash.
Really fine little art ‘zine arrived from an Amsterdam club called ANTI STROT. It combines ratty graphics with punky drawings and collages, visual jokes that cross language borders easily, and even some smuts! Hey! Beautiful eye candy also comes in the form of NATIONAL WASTE #5 (Paper Rodeo), edited by LEIF GOLDBERG of Providence, RI. (Mr. Goldberg’s artwork was featured in the last ish of Arthur — see his full-page piece on page 10 — and also in this ish, on page TK.–Ed.) The drawings have a spectral crudity that makes me think a little of Bruce Duncan and also of some guy who used to draw for Arcade. And, as it’s from Paper Rodeo, it naturally has a ginchy silkscreened cover. And don’t forget to ask Paper Rodeo about Goldberg’s National Waste 2004 Calendar! It tweets! Ginchy art is also what one expects from the fantastic GEORGANNE DEEN, and her new book Season of the Western Witch (Perceval Press) has plenty of that, as well as some of her fine fine super-fine poetics, and a goldarn CD as well! LOOK at Georganne’s cracked and visionary art! READ Geoganne’s organic baby-meat wordspew. LISTEN to Georganne’s voice as she decants her lyrics in full-color with music tappling nearby (by Viggo Mortensen & Thurston, no less). It’s a gas, baby! Also got a nice little DIY art/rant ‘zine called DREAMLOGIC, which is another explicit example of how having a friend who works at a copy shop can help feed the revolution to free the souls of humankind. In the same bag, but slicker than fudge, is the first issue of Sleep Tight , which is a sweet little color ‘zine filled with images, drawings, photos and other visual fuckeroo. And it’s only a buck!
Has anyone seen VAMPIRE BELT? They’ve only played twice as far as we know, but both gigs were supposedly ferocious enough to scare even the cops called to the scene to squash the riot. All we know is it’s the first real hardcore exposition of mysterious noise snake Bill Nace and his buddy, Chris Corsano. Chris you know from the multitude of critical slather his liquid fire drumming has demanded these past few years. Bill, on the other hand, no one knows too much about, except for his brief sojourn in the UK wood-shedding with Dylan Nyoukis and Karen Lollypop of Decaer Pinga and Smack Music 7 infamy. Bill ain’t a Brit, but he ain’t anti-Anglo either. He’s a New England boy and he likes to crank out relentless raunch. At least that’s what’s in evidence on the one and only CD release of Vampire Belt, Dead Is OK. It’s released on the way too long dormant Hot Cars Warp Records, Corsano’s label, in conjunction with what is probably Nace’s own label, Open Mouth. The whole affair rocks like congealing lava after a heavy broil, which may be due to the fact it was recorded live in a bait shop.
For psychedelic reading, two of the best ‘zines ever have new issues out. There’s Phil McMullen’s PTOLEMAIC TERRASCOPE #34 with great archival pieces on the Electric Prunes, United States of America, Ill Wind and Quicksilver, amongst others. And contempo coverage of England’s Lazily Spun and Clive Palmer, plus such doughty Americans as Comets on Fire, Steven Wray Lobell, Steve Wynn and plenty more. Plus, of course, a CD featuring many of the above. There’s also George Parson’s DREAM MAGAZINE #4, which mixes good music stuff (Terry Riley, Fursaxa, Tanakh, Volcano the Bear, etc.) with other cultural coverage (Gary Snyder, Rick Veitch, Bernard Stollman, Last Visible Dog), with eight gazillion record reviews, in a way that will keep you glued to the toilet for hours. So get one of those squishy seats and lean back.
YOUNG PEOPLE are as unassuming-looking a band as we’ve seen since Lovechild came along. They’re two friendly, duppy-esque guys, and a girl who looks like she secretly runs the show. The music they make on their second album, War Prayers (Dim Mak) has a lovely kind of stutter to it. In a way, it’s basic drums + guitar (by Jeff Rosenberg, former tubster for Pink & Brown) + female vocals material (think many bands of the post-K galaxy), but it really kinda avoids cliches of both bigness and smallness, as well as loudness and softness. And yeah, this naif turf has been well worked in the last few years, but there is something really special about the quality this Brooklyn (‘though L.A.-born) trio purveys. The drums click like fingers applauding the play, the strings cavoot with nice little slides and stagger around like skunks fresh from hibernation, the vocals float in and out of everything like silver clouds. People say that their live shows are more like a cross between cracked country and sonic booms, but this whole thing’s as smooth as a butter rub from Jesus’ own fingers. Which is a pretty cool thing. Come on, admit it!
Anyone with a serious interest in the history of underground comix is hereby directed to pick up Bob Levin’s THE PIRATES & THE MOUSE (Fantagraphics). Although Levin writes like the lawyer he is (meaning this is no fast read), the story he tells is so cool you won’t care. In the early 1970s a group of underground cartoonists (some more willing than others) decided to fuck with Disney and copyright law in general by producing a comicbook that used Disney characters in thoroughly counter-culture fashions. Thus Air Pirates was born. Disney ignored them for a while, but eventually went after them and the ensuing lawsuit wound through the courts for years. Levin has written a completely thorough history of the case, the context of its times, and individual portraits of many of the key players. There are good illustrations, tons of oral history about previously-unknown topics, and it’s a great thing to have consumed. Just make sure you have the spare time to tackle it first!
Not since Black Flag jammed with the Minutemen to create Minuteflag has a collaboration between two rock blasts been so anticipated as that of BLACK DICE AND WOLF EYES. As legend has it the Dice, on one of their subterranean jaunts cross country, hit the Club Olson basement and spewed so freaking loud that it created a “quiet center” in the space; all the volume manifested itself as physical “concrete trash” outside the basement doors. I remember seeing BD do this in some sterile gallery scene in Chelsea at a Richard Phillips opening. I was a little put off as BD were wearing gun muffs for protection, but it was nice to see the art poodles blown out into the streets. Anyway, Wolf Eyes were very turned on and the beer bongers from Ypsilanti decided to tie one on with the Northeastern aesthetes. A couple of CDRs appeared on Olson’s American Tapes label but it’s this LP on Fusetron which is a total mindmeld. You would think this was going to be brutal darkness, and sometimes it is, but for the most part it’s a sophisticated study in patient noise unfolding. What could have been a speaker ripping festival of noise gore is instead an emotional soul burn at the speed of death. Up there with Lightning Bolt’s Wonderful Rainbow (Load) for progressive USA noise moves.
Very few combos have the brains, guts or chunks to actually use Richard Hell’s sound as a specific model, no matter how huge his cultural influence has been for the last (almost) 30 years. Well, THE PONYS (of Chicago, Illinois) kinda refute that operational contention once and for all on their debut LP, Laced with Romance (In the Red). Lurking within their mix of garage spumage, ‘60s/70s punk revisionism, and Thunders/Velvets’ mood-cops, there is a huge sprawl of Hell’s unique vision. A certain kind of yelp, a special brand of slur, a way of chopping up guitar riffs, it is all referenced in a buncha places throughout the album. And it sounds hot as fucking tar! In the Red really knows how to sniff out the best current rock & roll on the planet. If you are not hip to their chuff, you are out of some loops, pal. Way out.
It’s good to see John Fell Ryan back on the boards. ‘Though I suppose he never really left. John is the Olympia, Washington rhythm riot rocker who was a founding member of No Neck Blues Band, but had to split cuz well maybe he was just too weird for those guys (if you can imagine such a thing). I do remember first time I saw NNBB live, John really got his head wrapped around playing a lengthy sewing scissor mantra. It was great! As was hearing him play some solo junk machine beatbox wrecked techno damage at a party on Canal Street one summer’s eve. At the end of his NNBB tenure he fancied hisself a lead vocalist, which gave the band a unique twist away from whence they came (improvised instrumental whatsis). Indeed, it was the era of No Neck’s boogie fried research, which culminated in a legendary weirdo tour across the USA with John Fahey. John split and every time I had asked where the lad had disappeared to, all I’d get were shutdown stares. I was doubly curious, as John had published a fascinating graphic staple zine called The Yellow Spade in 1998. But he’s back, or like I said he was never gone, he was in Brooklyn. Hey, Brooklyn is a thriving zone, but we don’t walk the streets there too often and maybe we’re too old and too tall and maybe we just didn’t “see” John ambling about. Nevertheless he’s in goddamned Brooklyn and he’s mixing it up with a pretty hot clam collective called EXCEPTER. They have a 12” called KA (Excepter Records 01) available thru the sleepless Fusetron enterprise. The music is fluid yet bleeping electronic improvisation with definite cosmic swoops in titles such as “Breast of the Wave Offering”. The exquisite Caitlin Cook lassoes yr brain with siren improv-vox, whilst Ryan and pals Dan Hougland, Macrae Semans and Calder Martine dance in gleeful psychosia.
Table of the Elements’ recent RHYS CHATHAM box set seemed pretty definitive, but the new LP they helped with, Piano Music: Echo Solo (Azoth Schallplatten) is totally unlike anything else in Rhys’ previously known bag. The two piano pieces on this album are wonderful blends of different modernist threads, combining a somewhat percussive attack based on post-Cage dynamics, and a lyrical compositional voice rooted in early 20C French guys like Satie and Poulenc. The pieces are spacious and lovely, with lots of breathing room and a wonderful weightless quality that comes from somewhat unresolved melodic motifs. They hang on the air like tendrils of opium smoke and are just as comforting to breathe. If we could find that old Jefferey Lohn solo LP, we could check to see if this reminds us of that, too; but it’s filed in a country far away. Sorry!
WOODEN WAND & THE VANISHING VOICE are arisen from the ashy grave of the Golden Calves Band (prime progenitors. Along with Tower Recordings, of the Hudson Valley Mystique) and their debut LP, XIAO (De Stijl) takes things in all kindsa fine and lost directions, somewhat in the style of ESP-Disk legends, All That The Name Implies. Flute, piano, percussion, voices and strings combine in gently anarchic ways, sheering great hunks of hair from all available heads with soft, blunt clippers. The band is listed as an octet and it sounds like there might be even more of them, lurking in the shadows, panting through their noses and waiting for their turn to pounce out of the pumpkin patch and scare the heck out of improvisational thinkers everywhere. But truly, the table manners of this set are as mild as toast. Even babies will love it. Honest. And if you like the lighter side of underground free-though action, you will too!
LISA JARNOT is a fairly young poet, younger than us at least, from the intensive workshops of the 1980s/’90s years at St. Mark’s Poetry Project. She’s just published her third collection of verse, Black Dog Songs (Flood Editions), which collects early and contemporary work of hers in fast sharp economic relief. As a student of Robert Creeley’s you can feel Lisa’s poetic eye drawing spare and heartbeat fast word action to paper. The poems are off-putting and sometimes crazy/funny, which lifts them from heavy mind spew. With high recommendations from John Ashbery and the late Stan Brakhage she is very much worth checking out. She’s currently hunkered down writing a book-length bio of Robert Duncan.
Damn, what a great record! We are talking, of course, about JEFF FUCCKILLO’s Disturbed Strings LP (Roaratorio). Jeff has previously tooled for Wham-o, the Irving Klaw Trio and others, but this is solo acoustic guitar stuff, not unlike that of the great Alvarius B. That would be enough to raise the temperature here. The hepness of the way this guy bends and hammers strings makes it impossible to peg stylistically, seeming as it does, to owe equal debts to Derek Bailey, Robbie Basho and that Jandek. But what makes our personal air even warmer is the accompanying sound effects, which arose from John Fahey’s garbage bag of tricks. Fahey, it seems, had met Jeff and proposed an LP session. When Fahey showed up, he was laden with cassettes of all sortsa junk, and he feeds those sonics into the mix like the possessed maniac he most surely was. There are antic similarities to Parachute-era Chadbourne, and maybe that’s why Fahey deemed the session “too nice” to be released on Revenant, but we have no such qualms and you shouldn’t either.
The writing scene in Baltimore, MD continues the left-of-reality vibe that area has been warping with since John Waters scripted Hag in a Black Leather Jacket in 1964. Local scribe Blaster Al Ackerman’s motto for lit life in Baltimore is, “live unknown, die unknown, but bun a knee.” And those are words any of us should only hope to measure up to. Ackerman is a great writer, some say as good as heavy American stalwarts Fredric Brown and Theodore Sturgeon, for depicting reality drop-out in daily bizarro life. He, and other like-minded folk (such as the long running, always happening John M. Bennett and the frighteningly surrealist Mary Knott), throw down little pieces strewn about in Balto lit journal SHATTERED WIG REVIEW–now on it’s 23rd ish. SWR is edited by Rupert Wondolowski, himself an interesting writer, particularly in short form broken synapse pieces. His latest sole effort is The Whispering Of Ice Cubes (Shattered Wig Press) and like the journal is very ready for yr bedside endtable.
Sheesh. Just realized it’s been 30 years since I first heard THE RESIDENTS and, while that makes me feel even more codger-like than usual, it also gives me a chance to get excited (as a mature adult) about their new DVD, Demons Dance Alone. Although I did not see the tour, the Demons album was one of my favorites of the band’s recent ouevre. It is a suite of short, rather poppy songs that recalls their classic Duck Stab/Buster & Glen-era in all its glory. The DVD is a live document of the tour, and although it is fairly straight-ahead (for the Residents, anyway) it has a damn peculiar look and feel. Shot in infrared, everything has a rather odd glow to it, and this makes the way that the characters interact on stage seems especially sinister. Which is good! The music is superb. In Eric “Kitabu Black Jew” Feldman, the Residents have found a wonderful collusionist, and other key players include guitarist Nolan Cook (the goddamn second coming of Snakefinger) and vocalist Molly Harvey (who sounds at times like she’s channeling Jandek’s partner Nancy). Watching everyone cavort around the stage set, with bizarre dancing lights accompaniment, and the fart-joking demon, is really a nice visual cocktail after a long day spent shoveling snow. Let the Residents tend to yr sore muscles, their fingers might work even better than Jesus’s!
Austin has been a veritable hotbed of small press poetry these recent weird years and a new one has just hit called EFFING PRESS. The first two chapbooks they’ve published are Isle of Asphalt by Travis Catsull and Underpony by Doug Warriner. We’ve ripped through Catsull’s book and it’s a killer. His thoughts wing their way through burning tire smoke all in search of sweet rejoinding sleep. Or at least a baked snack. Effing Press also has a po’ journal called effing magazine natch which presents a rollicking selection of young word snappers, local and beyond. Of note is Dale Smith, co-editor of Austin’s Skanky Possum Press which we hipped you to a few issues back. Remember?
Token “regular” CD of this issue, is an artistic set that is credited to NIAGARA, although is really a little more broad-based than that. Beyond the Pale (Amphetamine Reptile) is a glorious 3CD block in deluxe silk-screened packaging that was put together for a recent show of paintings by the Michigan songstress, hosted at one of Tom Hazelmyer’s booze emporiums. And there is a bunch of Destroy All Monsters on it (mostly stemming from the band’s Asheton era), an equal amount of Dark Carnival (the band Niagara and Ron Asheton formed subsequent to DAM), and a few tracks by Venus in Furs (Niagara’s newest unit). The DAM material includes their singles and some other tracks (most of which were on a French LP a while back), plus a few live things previously unheard, including a small selection from a reunion of the band’s proto-art-rock-devils-line-up (with Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw in the ranks). DAM were a great band in all their incarnations. Much as we love the rugged sloth of the early unit, the Asheton version had some great Stooge/5 power, and Niagara’s vocals always have a total chirp-sex edge. Hard to resist. Dark Carnival we have had less contact with, but the disc with their live set, recorded at the Knit in ’95 is pretty cool, too. They’re slower than DAM, but tackle the same sorta material (indeed, many of the same tunes) with swell abandon. The third disk has the reunion stuff, some more Dark Carnival live tracks and a handful by Venus in Furs. These are all pretty good, but perhaps not as nice as the package itself, which is signed by Niagara in an edition of 200, and packed to gills with visual beauty. But hey, take a bow, all you dudes.
KEVIN DAVIES is a poet from Vancouver. Nanaimo actually, homeplate of Jack T, you know the big dude who sells rare garage and psych records at the WFMU fair and runs Lance Rock Records? Kevin has a new book out which is amazing and Jack has issued a new Lance Rock 7”, first one in like ten years, by a slashing group of Texas oldster punks called the Ka-nives. Whether Kevin, who has since moved to Brooklyn, or Jack, who still resides in Nanaimo ever met up is hard to say, but they both have a magic grip on the intangible thought-world of today’s rocket riding youth. Davies blew open minds when he published the volume Comp. (Edge Books) in 2000. Comp. took the fearsome breath of Charles Olson and the (let’s say) playful breath of Frank O’Hara, and shot it through with a very approachable blend of the experimental and straight-ahead. It was modestly exhilarating and he’s taken it to an even keener climb with Lateral Argument (Barretta Books). Funny (“Refusing to work requires great discipline. Waiting in troll clothes under a bridge requires great discipline.”), angry (“Send a ham to the widow Cheney”) and musically alive, this guy Davies has got a killer beat. As do the goddamned Ka-nives, ex members of Houston garage grunts 1-4-5’s, Junior Varsity and sister group, The Jewws. And one guy supposedly is the son of Jandek. Whatever. I you dig the wayward snarl of protop-unkers Joe and The Furies’ “Weasel” and Chuck Berry’s schlong-bonging “Dear Dad” then yr in luck cuz both masterpieces are ripped into bloody shreds on this 7”.
Ben Chasny, better known as SIX ORGANS OF ADMITTANCE, has been creating singular vistas of acoustic guitar suspension for a good while now. And some of his releases have been more obscure than ancient doughnuts. One such is the Nightly Trembling LP, originally issued as a lathe-cut in an edition of 30. Now Time-Lag has put it out in a populist version of 500 or so. And it is as lovely as stone–a juggle of gorgeous flourishes, vocals drawn from the well of mystery, and even some passages of refined raunch. There’s plenty of other Chasny around these days, too, especially now that he’s part of the Comets on Fire juggernaut. (Six Organs and Comets On Fire were profiled in Arthur No. 7, out last November, still available for five bucks from arthurmag.com – Ed.) So grab yr ankles and take a whiff. On us!
But, perhaps, maybe the most amazing record this time out is the picture disk LP, Iconic Distortions by THE GUITARS PROJECT (Box Media). Hampshire College grad, Jenny Sheppard (also a member of Bride of No No and Metalux) was doing investigative art work with elderly women, some of them suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, when she decided to lead six of them in an experiment in improvisational guitar. And it is nothing short of astounding. Rhythmic, minimal, flowing and wild, the pieces here are immediately stripped of any novelty aspect by their sheer beauty and otherness. This could easily be the work of several avant garde composers and like all such works, really raises a lot of questions about technique and art in the post-Duchamp’s universe. Easily the best LP by a Hampshire grad since Orchid Spangiafor’s Flee Past’s Ape Efl, and that’s saying something!
Like, so long!
HAVE YOU SOMETHING NICE TO SEND? PITCH TWO (2) COPIES TOWARDS:
PO BOX 627
NORTHAMPTOM MA 01061 USA
American Tapes: http://www.geocities.com/americantapes/index.html
Amphetamine Reptile: http://www.ox-op.com
Anti Strot: http://www.antistrot.com
Azoth Schallplatten: via http://www.forcedexposure.com
Barretta Books: http://www.barrettabooks.com
Box Media: http://www.boxmedia.com
De Stijl: via fuestron
Dim Mak: http://www.dimmak.com
Dreamlogic: 910 West 17 Ave., Eugene OR 97402
Edge Books: http://www.aerialedge.com/edgebooks.htm
Effing Press: http://www.effingpress.com
Flood Editions: http://www.floodeditions.com
Lisa Jarnot: http://www.connectotel.com/jarnot/
Lance Rock: http://www.lancerock.com
Paper Rodeo: Po Box 321, Providence RI 02901
Perceval Press: http://www.percevalpress.com
Ptolemaic Terrascope: http://www.terrascope.org
Shattered Wig: http://www.normals.com/wig.html
Sleep Tight: c/o Easy Subcult, PO Box 37, Virginville PA 19634-0037
Vampire Belt: http://www.yod.com/vampirebelt