Weird At My School: 135 Grand Street

A couple weeks ago, during a brief visit to New York, my friend Scott and I were introduced to sax maniac James Chance (aka James Black) at a show. Despite having built much of his initial infamy on brawling with audience members, the leader of the influential combo the Contortions turned out to be surprisingly low-key and charming. Being as big of a mouth-breathing fan-boy music geek as myself, Scott breathlessly confessed to Chance that as an adolescent he’d gone to great lengths to get his mitts on No New York, the 1978 compilation album that thrust the Contortions—as well as Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, D.N.A., and Mars—onto a largely uncaring world. The sales clerk told Scott his purchase was non-returnable, because it was a special order and they couldn’t imagine why anybody else would want it. James looked especially amused at that last bit of info.

These days, there is ample documentation of the explosive original No Wave scene, which took the D.I.Y. aesthetic of punk to arty, experimental extremes—even as punk was being co-opted and repackaged by major labels as “new wave.” Marc Masters published No Wave in 2007, followed rapidly by Thurston Moore and Byron Coley’s No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York. 1976-1980., both of them teeming with rarely seen photographs and myriad reminiscences. Simon Reynolds dedicates a whole chapter to it in his postpunk primer Rip It Up And Start Again. Labels including Acute, No More, Mute and ZE have lovingly reissued albums by Mars, Theoretical Girls, Glenn Branca, UT, and the Contortions.

So I can understand if some folks feel like No Wave is a little played out. But Scott and I hail from a different era -- when 8-track tapes were still a viable medium for recorded music, and you could get a piece of pie and a cup of coffee for a quarter at the automat, yadda-yadda-yadda. Scott told James Chance he paid for that copy of No New York with some soiled singles and a lot of change; real punks didn’t have big bills. We were starved for genuinely new music in a world where the Knack was considered cutting-edge, which is why I still snap up just about every new No Wave-related artifact I stumble across.* The latest of which is 135 Grand Street New York 1979, a film by Ericka Beckman (available now on Soul Jazz).

Shot with handheld cameras, this DVD preserves performances by Theoretical Girls, UT, Rhys Chatham, Jill Kroesen, and many others, all filmed in the same downtown loft. At least, the liner notes say it’s a loft. We never really see more than a tiny corner of it, bands crammed onto a red-and-black checkerboard floor. The footage is raw and shaky and minimal—just like the music. “Sand and Sea” by A Band sounds like a bunch of preschoolers trying to pound out the theme to Mission Impossible, while the excerpt of “The Spectacular Commodity” by the Static should please folks who think Sonic Youth started losing their edge after, oh, their 1982 self-titled album.

I know this stuff isn’t for everyone. I don’t expect the listener who asked me to never play “Favorite Sweater” by Y Pants (featured on Volume 2 of the excellent New York Noise series) ever again to dance a merry jig when they hear Morales’ abrasive yet hilarious “Gay Girl in a Gay Bar.” But you owe it to yourself to give this sample clip by Youth In Asia a peek. Do it for all the kids like Scott and I who never enjoyed your embarrassment of media riches. Even if you don’t like what you hear or see, it’s still better than a punch in the face.

135 Grand St from Soul Jazz Records on Vimeo.

* Don’t get me wrong: I got the Knack. I’ve started arguments with idiots who refer to them as one-hit wonders. Does “Good Girls Don’t” ring any bells, bozo? Plus front man Doug Fieger wrote “Ticket to the Tropics” for my beloved mutant disco diva Cristina. But they were a power-pop band, not even remotely punk. End of story.

DJ El Toro hosts the variety mix show on Wednesday nights from 9 PM to 1 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org. His column, “Weird At My School,” appears every Monday on the KEXP Blog. Please follow DJ El Toro (aka Kurt B. Reighley) on Twitter!

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