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No New York: A Jade Anniversary

By Logan K. Young.

“(You mean you don’t own a copy? What are you, sick or something?)”
- Lester Bangs, “A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise

May 5-6, 1978. For once, it really did happen so fast. All of it. Rather literally, too. Blink, bat an eye or go take a piss, and you probably missed it. (Those things worth remembering, anyways.) What a bummer. Indeed. If you weren’t there, then you just don’t know. Alas, such is life; you have to seize it while ye may. But even if you were around (and you truly were doing it right) you still don’t remember. (Or at least you shouldn’t.) The ones that claim total recall, well, suffice it to say they’re lying. They have to be. For No Wave was the one, true Blank Generation. Yes. It took Aristotle’s tabula rasa, and with one flailing swipe per Attali, all the rest was noise. Noise being code for negation — a deliberate dithering of all things affirmative — No Wave is then best described not by what it was, but instead by what it wasn’t: no shirt, no shoes, no problem. No fucking future. None at all.

But what’s really in a name? No, seriously? It’s a simple enough inquisition. The line is straight, ‘tis the answer what’s crooked. Ensconced in the void plied by these otherwise nameless, at-risk kids, that inquiry becomes a near tautology. Is the thing now the name? Dunno. Is its name just a thing now? Ibid. So, like Beckett’s L’innommable, perhaps anything longform on No New York is primordially flawed. We shan’t go on; we shall go on. On y va! After all, there’s music, movies and mores left to kill. Still. Janie, get your gun.

To be fair, such existential quandaries didn’t matter to a group like Mars. Meanwhile, a band such as D.N.A. couldn’t be bothered. Likewise, not a single epistemological shit was given by Teenage Jesus & the Jerks. And The Contortions, umm, they were just too cool. Sorry. Basically, they were all looking only for a light. But what we’ve come to call ‘No Wave’ wasn’t anyone’s beacon. That’s for damn sure. A raging burnout in a left-for-dead New York City, nah, it was not built to last the night. Everything about it (the look, the feel, the lifestyle…the savagery) was ephemeral. On purpose, no less.

In fact, No Wave wasn’t made to last at all. It was but a flash in the mire, a non-movement of mass transience — Dada gone nihilistic. (Nada?) With certifiable crazies like Sumner Crane, Arto Lindsay, Lydia Lunch and James Chance at the helm, how could it be anything else? It couldn’t. Their time was borrowed at such an unhealthy interest rate, it made the most sense to fold. Pli selon pli, quoth Mallarmé. And during that time, affirmation of any kind — any creed that need be screed — was akin to bullshit. Not in their backyard, naw.

Listening now, 35 years later, one of the most striking things about No New York is how none of the four bands contained herein sound anything alike. At all. The bop-seared caterwaul of The Contortions squeals worlds apart from Teenage Jesus’ draconian coronach. The dual-action, proto-pigfuckings of Mars aren’t even in the same ballpark (much less the same vinyl side) as D.N.A.’s out-of-pocket riddims. And of course, this quartet of East Village-cum-Lower East Side n’er-do-wells sounded nothing like their supposed brethren down in SoHo (Glenn Branca’s Theoretical Girls, Rhys Chatham’s Gynecologists), much less back east in Brooklyn (Red Transistor’s Von LMO). Insofar as a prevailing, immediately recognizable sound at least, there’s no such thing as ‘No Wave.’ There never was. It simply did not exist.

You see, it harkens back to how No Wave was named. Standard convention notwithstanding, the thing soon became sentient. One better, it’s been told that its name means something hence. What started as a self-effacing simulacrum has since become a bona fide title of self-aggrandizement. Case in point: Nowadays, “no wave” gets bandied about as an adjective as often as it does in nominative form. There’s no stopping it. Period. (N.B. Peek at any publication, be it in print, online or via app, from the last six months. You’ll see.) Lowercase, “no wave” is a cheap and easy shorthand tied to the toe of any band that sounds like a deathwish. Hell, they needn’t even hail from the Big Apple. But guess what? That’s totally fine. Honestly, it is. ‘No Wave’ never meant anything in its own lifetime; it should stand for nothing but the same today. Proudly.

As if the name alone weren’t troubling enough, the fact that No New York is, was and forever shall be a compilation proves equally as troublous. More so than anyone else, it was Brian Eno who committed these four bands to wax. So, yet again, an essay explicitly devoted to what’s essentially his mix tape might be a goof from the get-go. At best, a compilation will always be a subjective singles club — a rounding up solitary songs. At worst, it’s just another solipsistic memento mori. It’s a congenital issue. The compilation, itself, can’t help it. No matter how curated the selections, how thoughtful the sequencing, it will forever be less than the sum of its parts. And as anyone who’s ever given a mix tape (or was gifted a Muxtape) knows, an aggregate does not an album make. No, No New York, you are definitely not an album.

But that’s not a denigration. Per se. What’s so great about an album, anyways? What makes it so freakin’ special? That, too, is a question certainly worth begging. An LP is forever. Sure. Spinning 33.333 times right ‘round the unit circle, its Euclidean uniformity is borderline pathological — a record of the utmost compliance. But as an idée affixed to the Cartesian plane, the long-player’s a folly wont of Molière (especially so for No New York’s cruel theatre of sound.) For the foursome Eno picked to grace its grooves, their collective skronk was the epitome of careening; at any moment, things could not only fall apart, they would be decimated. Obliterated, rent asunder. Scorched from the earth. Entirely. In short, there could be no definitive No Wave album. If No New York was to be at all, it had to exist as a compilation. There was just no other way.

Past tense is perfect tense here because none of the bands actually on No New York survived into adulthood. Furthermore, every single No Wave group, circa 1976 to 1980, was more or less stillborn. It’s a sobering fact. Parts of them had to die to keep on living, and, thankfully, the great ones were long gone before they got old. Of course, the immortality rate for sonic immorality always has been high. To wit, four of No New York’s enfants terribles — bass Contortion George Scott, Jerk drummer Bradley Field, Mars drummer Nancy Arlen and even lead Martian himself, Sumner Crane — are dead. Gone. They tell their no tales no longer. Scott, Field, Arlen, Crane, et al. gave us enough nope, and then they hung themselves with it: out to lunch, out to dry. Out, out dark, depraved spot.

Given the clinical sheen of present-day lower Manhattan, yup, said stain is tempting to fetishize. The heart lusts after what the loins hath had. That’s how hindsight works, after all. Remember, though, that nostalgia was initially catalogued as a disease. It was a malady. First. But foremost, if No Wave’s got a tint at all, it ain’t exactly colored up roses. Its vision is far too jaundiced. Any would-be patina would have to consist one-part gut, two-parts grime. Again, that’s for damn sure. And just as No Wave never liked its name while alive, we shouldn’t come to praise the No New York compilation now. No, that wouldn’t be prudent. If anything, No Wave should be razed. Wholesale. Truthfully, that’s probably what No New York would’ve wanted — four vacant bands, 16 condemned tracks.

Obviously, this cannot be done. Why’s that, you ask? For starters, it seems No New York’s been spared the zoning board. Somehow, an edifice that never was concrete got designated as a landmark, an official preserve. And in a city at constant war with real estate marquises and guerilla gentrifiers of every stripe, that’s no small feat of ghost engineering. But really, it’s mostly because it’s been too long. Three-and-a-half decades into the future, No Wave — as an aesthetic proper — can’t be undone. Nay, not even if you sued. The statute remains upheld. What’s wrought is wrought.

It’s the grossest kind of irony, à la O. Henry’s “Magi.” Despite No Wave’s best efforts, its innate intent even, this damned anti-movement ultimately proved too lasting, its Magna Non-Carta of 1978 too important. Not thinking twice, then, would be tantamount to treason. Or, better yet, boho heresy. Apropos of Lot’s wife fleeing Sodom, in acknowledging the carnage that was No Wave, yes, we run the pomo risk of not hearing No New York at all. Ideologically. If ever there were a tribe that didn’t want redemption, then this 40-minute record of their demagogy at its most base would most assuredly be it. But as far as saving No Wave’s best surviving relic goes, looking back is a chance we’re going to have to take. Losing but a pinch of No New York now would be a fate worse than the briniest pillar of salt.

Yes. Bromides, like the taxonomical vampires that catalyze them, suck. But we have to dispense them, if for nothing more than posterity might not have our same apothecary. Stunted in real-time, No Wave’s idiomatic idea of progress nevertheless proved a giant leap forward. Wagons west, destiny manifest. Ho! But in a hundred years time, the apparent glasnost of the World Wide Web’s open-table administration will have surrendered to a thousand more despots — each one less enlightened, more stentorian than the last. Moreover, since takeovers are inherently hostile coups, we can’t exactly arm a militia to stand up to a medium we can’t even fathom coming. So, in light of the menschen-machines that will eventually stop us in our tracks, we have to make sure that future generations will have access to No New York. If we teach them well, maybe one will serve as our children’s protest song. Antichrist, meet your archivist…

Logan K. Young is the author of Mauricio Kagel: A Semic Life. He has written for NPR, taken pictures for Maximum Rock’n'roll, drawn for Double Scribble, and recorded for Mabson Enterprises. Last summer, he was a student in Thurston Moore’s seminar at the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics. Come winter, Young had won a fellowship to the USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program. His favorite track off No New York is “I Can’t Stand Myself”.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, March 12th, 2013.