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Lester Bangs

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I'll be the first to admit that I know next to nothing about music technically, but the way I always looked at it, it made perfect sense that you could take one guy playing two moronic chords over and over again, let one other guy whoop and swoop all around him in Ornettish free flight, and if the two players were blessed with that magic extra element of conviction and the kind of inspiration that produces immense energy if nothing else, then hell, they could only complement each other. Because, to get just a little cosmic about it (any free jazz critic has a right to at least once in each article), the two principles of metronomic or even stumblethud repetition and its ostensible converse of endless flight through measureless nebulae should by the very laws of nature meet right in the middle like yin-yang, etc.

All of this, of course, relates intimately to the search for new forms and absolutely open-ended freedom of expression that all the arts were undergoing in the dear, dead Sixties. I can recall my own shivers of delight when, in early 1965, I first heard the Yardbirds and the Who unleash their celebrated deluges of searing feedback. It struck me immediately that this was one element which perhaps more than any other gave the rock renaissance of the day a full-fledged shot at matching the experimental forays that jazz had been experiencing since the turn of the decade.

Of course, the Yardbirds and the Who were, almost from the beginning, relatively accomplished musicians in the rock arena, which was increasingly falling prey to the sort of chops-mania which would eventually give us such abominations as the worship of guitar players who got compared with jazz giants just because they had the stamina to play scales for an hour or two at a time (in other words, to hell with Duane Allman and the Grateful Dead).

No, what I wanted to hear was "Louie, Louie" with Albert Ayler sitting in (which should not be confused with Ayler's own rather pathetic attempts at crossbreeding/crossover like New Grass; he had the right idea, but went about it all wrong).

Ornette Coleman double Quartet - Free Jazz cover
Free Jazz: 'psychotic'
Again, since a lot of you probably think I was out of my mind then and have obviously degenerated even more by now, let me remind you of two things. Number One is that for the first couple of years he was playing sax, Ornette Coleman was misreading the bar clef by a third, mistaking C for A, which many people feel accounts for his "freaky" sound then and now. (It might also be instructive for those who think the whole idea of punk rock a hideous upchuck in the face of all musical values held by right-thinking citizens to recall that almost exactly the same things were said about Ornette, Cecil Taylor, et al. when they debuted: Downbeat critics regularly slagged off classic albums like Africa/Brass, Coltrane Live at the Village Vanguard and Eric Dolphy Live at the Five Spot Vol. One, and one of them called Ornette's Free Jazz album "psychotic.")

The second little story I'd like to dig up comes from A.B. Spellman's beautiful book Black Music: Four Lives, wherein Cecil Taylor recalled jamming once with a schized-out bassist who just happened to wander into the club one night, played a set and then ran out in a typical paranoid spasm after the set but before Cecil could ask him who he was, where he lived and maybe get his phone number. Cecil said that this guy didn't really know how to play the bass at all, but that because of that he did things that more schooled musicians wouldn't even think of trying because they had been taught that there were immutably fixed "right" and "wrong" ways to do everything. Which Cecil felt was a crock -- he said that if this guy had stuck around, he might have had a shot at being one of the great free bass players.

A quantum leap in terms of rock 'n' roll freedom occurred in the late Sixties, with the appearance of the aforementioned Velvet Underground. Building on the possibilities opened up by the Yardbirds and the Who, the Velvets, perhaps even more than someone like Jimi Hendrix, redefined the meaning of noise in rock. Lou Reed's solo in "Heard Her Call My Name" in 1967 was so ahead of its time that even I found it a little abrasive, whereas now it sounds right up to date and totally fresh; and the collective improvisation that he and the rest of the Velvets (who were all musical primitives except for a conservatory-trained Welshman named John Cale who studied under Cage and Xenakis before abandoning "serious" music to form the Velvets with Lou) laid down in the 17-minute "Sister Ray" is probably the finest example of extended jamming anybody in rock has put on record to this day.

One band they inspired was the Stooges, who in their 1970 album Funhouse (still available on import, as are the Velvets' experiments in repackaged anthologies) let a young Ann Arbor saxophonist named Steve McKay honk and squawk and shriek his way through a whole side of the most primitive, grinding fuzztone-feedback punk. Obviously McKay had been listening to people like Ornette and Ayler, and other rock 'n' rollers of atonal bent have not been shy about crediting their influence. Captain Beefheart, Tom Verlaine and the Contortions' James Chance have all attested at one time or another to the effect on their playing of Ayler specifically; around the time he was cutting things like "I Heard Her Call My Name" Lou Reed said in interviews that he'd been listening to Ornette and Cecil a lot, and he's recently returned to jazz-rock amalgams in a big way, collaborating with Don Cherry on last year's The Bells.

Captain Beefheart - Trout Mask Replica
Trout Mask Replica
As for Beefheart, the Ayler influence is unmistakable in tracks like "Hair Pie: Bake One" on his monolithic masterpiece from the late Sixties, Trout Mask Replica. When Beefheart put together his Magic Band for that album and its successors, he taught everyone else in the group how to play their instruments according to the logic of his own revolutionary musical conception: some he taught from the ground up, others he had to force to unlearn everything they had ever been taught. Drawing equally on Delta blues, Howlin' Wolf, free jazz and the whole gutbucket rock 'n' roll tradition, Beefheart created a unique new musical language. In a way, he stands outside not only styles but time -- I saw him a year or so ago in New York, and his approach, while it has not changed startlingly in the last decade, remains as uncompromising, unduplicated and unduplicatable as ever. It swings, it rocks, it's filled with wildly unpredictable hairpins turns through blues, dissonance, atonality and sonic dada, yet through all this it remains so distinctively earthy you can dance to it. But then, you can dance to an awful lot of Ornette's stuff, too.

If Beefheart still seems to stand alone, he has spawned a whole generation of musicians who credit him as a major influence: the Ohio art-school conceptualist group Devo, Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols (now back to his real name John Lydon in his new band Public Image Ltd.) and the Clash have all credited him as a major formative factor in each of them finally stepping out to make that godawful racket. From the same neck of the woods as Devo come Pere Ubu, who combine Ornette/Ayler sax flurries, synthesizer murk, guitar distortion, and a deep industrial rhythmic force somewhere between clank and drone. They claim to be heavily influenced as well by the sounds issuing from the factories all around their native Cleveland/Akron grounds. Probably because of that, Pere Ubu's music has a rhythmic quality that doesn't flow in the sense to which most rock and all blues-derived musics have accustomed us. When you first hear them, what they're doing may well sound upside down and backwards, and it may keep on sounding that way. For my money, their best work is their earliest, on the import EP Datapanik in the Year Zero, though if you like that you might want to check out their three albums, The Modern Dance, Dub Housing and New Picnic Time.

Almost certainly the most interesting experiments at what I like to think of as the real fusion music have occurred in New York City. A lot of people credit the late Television and their leader Tom Verlaine in this department, although for my money Verlaine's guitar playing always sounded more like John Cipollina of old San Francisco acid-hippie band Quicksilver Messenger Service than anybody else. The first real-deal punk-jazz mix I heard around this town came from the recently disbanded Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and mainly from their lead guitarist Robert Quine, a brilliant musician who has somehow figured out a way to combine what Lou Reed was up to in "I Heard Her Call My Name," James Williamson's [guitar] work on Iggy and the Stooges' Raw Power, and a heavy dose of the Miles Davis sound that began with On the Corner into something genuinely new.

In the past couple of years there have been almost too many experimental bands in New York to keep track of. The one that's gotten the most publicity is the Contortions, led by Ayler/James Brown devotee James Chance, who plays what is, according to your taste, either the most godawful or most interesting new sax around. Certainly at its best his playing, primitive as it is, has an edge and fury that's missing from the recent work of most of the holdover "free" players from the Sixties. Unfortunately recently he's [James Chance] cut back on his sax work to concentrate on perfecting his James Brown imitation, which isn't too convincing. He's released two albums, Buy Contortions and Off-White, under the name James White and the Blacks, the former more interesting than the latter, but the best work by the original Contortions (who were canned last year, owing to certain unfortunate aspects of Chance's temperament) is still on Brian Eno's 1978 anthology of Lower Manhattan "no-wave" bands, No New York. And come to think of it, his sax work has a precursor in James Brown, too: that guy who stood up in the middle of the title cut on Brown's Super Bad album and took that horrible raggedy solo which probably got him fired.

The last time I saw Chance he seemed to have paled (no pun intended) considerably, though his new band had a trombone player who was an absolute motherfucker. Later I found out that this was Joseph Bowie, brother of Lester Bowie, and he has been leading a somewhat more funk than punk group of his own called Defunkt around the New Wave clubs recently. Also more on the jazz side, though he plays some of the same venues, is the much-publicized James "Blood" Ulmer, a musician who obviously has lots of ideas that in my opinion he hasn't worked out to their fullest yet. (Though maybe that's the point with all his stuff.)

Eight-Eyed Spy, rereleased by
Eight-Eyed Spy
More interesting than Chance's current work is Eight-Eyed Spy, led by former Teenage Jesus and the Jerks lead singer/guitarist Lydia Lunch. This time she's just singing, and her band, which includes some ex-Contortions, is probably the most interesting group in town right now -- certainly they're the closest thing I've heard to what Beefheart was up to. You can also hear Lydia singing with some entertainingly Kenton-like charts behind her on her recent album Queen of Siam, which also features several guitar solos by Robert Quine.

I don't know if Arto Lindsay of D.N.A. and the Lounge Lizards has learned a C chord yet, but I do know that he's listened to "I Heard Her Call My Name," and that D.N.A. (also on No New York) carry that particular form of aural sandpaper to new extremes, which is a compliment. The Lounge Lizards, a group also featuring horns, play what they call "fake jazz" -- i.e., they don't really know the changes in the traditional sense, but they maintain a beatniky cool that never comes off camp and their instrumental explorations are interesting and refreshingly free of the oppressive solemnity that mires so many experimental groups.

There are more new bands of this ilk forming as I write these words, and where all this will end up is anybody's guess. Me, I keep nursing this suspicion that since almost nothing new has been going on in the American popular arts in general for a good while and a nostalgia-addicted nation keeps cannabalizing its own past (cf. Grease etc.), free jazz just might be the next big mass produced, promoted and consumed musical fad. I have distinctly mixed feelings about that, but as far as I'm concerned almost anything is better than the kind of fusion music we've been served endless courses of the past few years. And I do know that from Frank Zappa to Pere Ubu is not so vast a step, that experimental music has never been more alive than at the beginning of the Eighties, and that if I were you I'd waste no time in getting the hell out there and checking all this stuff out.

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Written by Lester Bangs, published by Musician Magazine towards the end of 1979, and unfortunately not re-printed in Greil Marcus, editor, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, Vintage Books, 1987. Born in 1948, Lester Bangs died of an accidental drug overdose in 1982.

This piece also appears on Not Bored!, which describes itself as "an anarchist, situationist-inspired, low-budget, irregularly published, photocopied journal."

There is a brief introduction to the piece by Bill brown at

No-Neck Blues Band

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

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