LIVE NOW, WISE UP, DIE WELL: AN INTERVIEW WITH JUDY NYLON, PUNK LEGEND
Sophisticated social samurai, ex-glam punk Judy Nylon has been near the center of many storms but has always had a knack for surviving gloriously. Her album, Pal Judy, co-produced in London with legendary On-U Sound producer, Adrian Sherwood in 1982, has the audiophile cachet of being eternally elusive, perhaps heard only on some late-night pirate radio show. In short, Nylon herself, is hardly out there and this is due to any number of factors but is best summed up by the equation: sexy femme + intelligence + self-esteem (speaks mind) -- the good ole boy network = obscurity. Sadly, she is perhaps most famous for an incident that is, by now, one of the most apocryphal incidents in post-modern music. As Brian Eno lay convalescing from an accident, Nylon brought him a record of 18th-century harp music and later, while listening to it half awake with the volume down low, he discovered the magic of background, of ambience -- or so it is told and retold.
Bart Plantenga interviews Judy Nylon
COPYRIGHT © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
Right now in America there are the same number of people who list their occupation as 'artist' as there are incarcerated in the prison system -- Judy Nylon.
My sometime back-up vocalist Judy Nylon's seductive vocals on 'The Man Who Couldn't Afford to Orgy' made Jane Birkin sound like Hayley Mills -- John Cale in What's Welsh For Zen, co-written with Victor Bokris
3AM: We met in 1993 at a spoken word event at the pseudo-hip Fez in NYC. I remember you describing yourself as an anarcho-royalist, something like the spirit of anarchy with the amenities of royalty. You disparaged the entire suffering artist affliction [Van Gogh, Billy Holiday, Cobain, ad nauseum]. You still stand by this assessment?
JN: I absolutely stand by it! Poverty and sanctity are separate issues. I hate suffering for or by anyone or anything ever… There seems to be no rule here. Sometimes inherited wealth or physical beauty even drops on the right people. It gets creepy though when someone misuses what they're given; like when some clown with a 19th-century robber baron trust fund looks at a restaurant bill and informs you that you owe seventy-five cents for the coffee.
3AM: The suffering artist constantly inventing new addictions to overcome to get it up for the muse… Have you learned to dodge the damage of isms and addictions that people seed their roadways with to make their journeys seem more heroic?
JN: Oh, totally, inside I'm still the feral boy in Road Warrior (laughs). I mean a lot of people who go from rock'n'roll, into writing bring a "downtrodden" tone as signifier of "realness". It's unfortunate. I'm not a big fan of that whole beautiful loser scene. Life viewed from the bottom of a beer bottle that's dirty and looks out into a bus station in Atlanta -- no.
3AM: I think of your life as an artistic achievement… Is it OK to live life to the fullest without having it validated by documentation?
JN: It's not your call. I mean, if you're dead and your life ends up resurrected by the culture coroners, it's beyond your control. And if you do come back, you have no memory of it anyway… So the best you can do is to ride it while it's rolling. You know, while it's unfolding, like ribbon candy. All I can say is that I'M NOT BORED.
3AM: In your liner notes to Pal Judy you noted how exciting the late 70s were for transcending clichés and genre prejudices. How do you feel today about the fluidity of culture, oozing and permeating at will, metastatically?
JN: Clichés and genre boundaries are justifications used to reward mediocrity. All music -- all art -- is the collective mind building soul. Right now in America there are the same number of people who list their occupation as "artist" as there are incarcerated in the prison system. The more people involved in building a soulful culture, the fewer left to destroy it in rage.
3AM: You went to London in the early 70s…
JN: You go where people find you attractive and you feel compelled by the culture. London had resonated deeply even in my childhood. At 21, I got off a plane alone with $200 and carry-on luggage. I was embraced by very interesting people and allowed to create my character. Everything seemed possible. I have that very strong constitution that Keith Richards once said was the ante to be in rock 'n' roll. I have a hard head to chop. I'm just a life-long working artist. If I'm stopped in music, I make a lateral move to film or writing. The biggest obstacle of my generation was gender prejudice. Being young, female and foreign was the ultimate music business handicap in England. I remember sitting in Faichna O'Kelly's office (when he was managing Bob Geldof and The Boomtown Rats) weeping with the exhaustion of struggling for an equal chance. It clued him in so that by the time he handled Sinead, she got real support and back-up. She was the first one on a major label to get a producer's credit on her recordings.
3AM: You started out working with Brian Eno (see picture of Judy Nylon by Brian Eno).
JN: Yeah, the first time was one "Ooh La La!" on a single called "The Seven Deadly Finns". Somewhere in the vaults at Island, there is an early seventies video of me and Polly Eltes performing my guitar Kama Sutra (cheesy moves from arena rock), edited to the typewriter sound on "Taking Tiger Mountain" , then played back on a pyramid of old TV sets with Eno in a beret standing in front singing his vocal. This was pre-MTV. I would love to see it again; it must be hilarious. The anecdote about the inciting incident [the harp record] that started Eno's Discreet Music series has been told with several slight variations on the sleeve, in interviews and a number of books over almost 30 years and even translated out of English. According to what I remember, it was inaccurately told, even on the first record sleeve. There were two people in the room, him and me. I could recreate it as if it were written by Robbe-Grillet, but not one interviewer or author has ever asked me my version to this day. It would take a truly modern artist to say, "This is what I remember but you might also ask Judy".
JN: So it was pouring rain in Leicester Square, I bought the harp music from a guy in a booth behind the tube station with my last few quid because we communicated in ideas, not flowers and chocolate, and I didn't want to show up empty-handed. Neither of us was into harp music. But, I grew up in America with ambient music. If I was upset as a kid I was allowed to fall asleep listening to a Martin Denny album…I think it was called "Quiet Village". The jungle sounds, played very softly made the room's darkness caressing instead of empty as a void. Pain was more tolerable. Brian had just come out of hospital, his lung was collapsed and he lay immobile on pillows on the floor with a bank of windows looking out at soft rain in the park on Grantully Road, on his right and his sound system on his left. I put the harp music on and balanced it as best as I could from where I stood; he caught on immediately to what I was doing and helped me balance the softness of the rain patter with the faint string sound for where he lay in the room. There was no "ambience by mistake". Neither of us invented ambient music; that he could convince EG Music to finance his putting out a line of very soft sound recordings is something quite different. We both listened to the early seventies German wave and were influenced by them too.
3AM: You also worked with John Cale -- the press called you two the "Sonny and Cher of the Belladonna Set."
JN: Well, when Cale and I toured together... He might have initially thought he was hiring a back-up singer, however … I had started out as a painter so I had no idea what to expect. He was the only guy who ever asked me to be in his band. The only person I had ever seen him work with was Nico, so I assumed that was my job definition… But anyone who doubts you need a certain constitution for rock'n'roll should put in some time on a Cale tour. John, during those years -- 74-92 -- was so ridden by demons and damaged from the Velvet Underground experience that he had no idea what normal human behavior was and often justified cruelty as truth or some kind of brat theater. I'd missed him intellectually over these last years but the time came when I'd outgrown my ability to tolerate such demanding self-centeredness…We're in touch again now on a better wavelength. I'm glad it's worked out.
3AM: Rough to work with?
JN: No, hey, I'd already been in 19 foster homes with Godzilla, so, no, not at all. I had a special tape of all my favorite things he'd ever done and any time I got to where I wanted to take him out I'd go to my room and put on my tape and just chill… No one ever said that people that hold your interest over a long time must remain the same. I'd take difficult over dull any day.
3AM: You've evaded a certain level of fame. You're not mentioned in either She Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Rock, Pop & Soul or The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock. Is that strategy or cultural myopia?
JN: Evaded? My strategy's always been to outlive everyone else. It may not work but no one else will be around to know. But as I've already said, I trust my luck and I'm usually at something at its best point. But I'm the first rat off the boat when it's going down. You stay at something too long and the joy is dead. I think that artistically it's all the same voice whether you're doing film, print, or spectacle…
3AM: You've said that you "find fiction a place where you find yourself not under pressure." Is this reappraisal time -- how your life fits together through writing?
JN: I've just gotten to a certain point where I'm curious as to whether you can learn to like what's good for you.
3AM: What about Eno's song "Back in Judy's Jungle"?
JN: Ah, yes, a tribute to…I'm very orderly; my things form tablescapes and I like ergonomics. It helps me deal with chaotic humanity.
3AM: I listened for references but his Lewis Carroll-esque lyrics made it difficult: "These are your orders / seems like do it or die / so please be sure you read them closely / … I got the job because I was so mean while somehow appearing so kind /… / back at headquarters cocky decisions are made / file under futile, that should give you its main point of reference / it's all so confusing / … there were milkmen every morning / it never used to be this way…"
JN: Well, I'll tell you one little thing about it. This was when Brian [Eno] had been thrown out of Roxy [Music].
3AM: For what? Crimes against tasteful haircuts?
JN: More like crimes against Bryan Ferry. All art's somehow autobiographical or self-referential when it's decoded. I was introduced to Brian by The New York Dolls at a party in Blake's Hotel. And since his living arrangements were in complete disarray he moved into mine. He'd been sleeping in a chair at his studio because his fiancée, ceramic artist Carol McNicol (who also designed those costumes for Roxy Music) had thrown him out of the house and Brian Ferry'd thrown him out of the band for what might be politely termed "meanness". He arrived with a small suitcase to move in with me for a few days while he restructured his situation. I lived on the Southside of Redcliff Gardens in a furnished flat owned by Mario Amaya (the dealer shot with [Andy] Warhol), a flat which incidentally Cherry Vanilla would live in later. I look as if I'd be don't care-ish but in fact I'm kind of warrior-style so all of a sudden he moved into a situation where the International Herald Tribune and milk were delivered in the morning… Everything that had to do with the support system was incredibly ordered. I've always lived like a Samurai or at least like Alain Delon in the movie of that name. I already knew how to run a household smoothly. "Don't waste wildness at home, put it in your work". I'm paraphrasing Flaubert here. Presumably "headquarters" was E.G. Music, where Eno went every day to fight for a career after Roxy. Curiously, Brian Ferry lived in a flat on the Eastside of Redcliff Square. We'd make a dash for it leaving the house. I might live like a soldier but it was Brian who was at war.
3AM: Eno comes from the other end of orderliness…
JN: I rule objects. He rules …people?
3AM: In an interview in 1995 on my WFMU [NY/NJ] radio program, "Wreck This Mess" you were doing voiceovers. And when I said, "you're more than a voice!" You responded, "But I like to be a bit of a retired presence. I don't like to physically be there. And now of course, is my time. You don't have to be." Do you still believe this -- a virtual presence, presence by insinuation? Does this suit you?
JN: I guess it suits me. Being louder and more visible would probably make it easier to get projects funded but it's embarrassing to watch people writhe for the spotlight. My relationship to people and music has always been intimate; it's natural to me to work and live that way. I suppose I've always wanted a global audience without the intrusion of really stupid fame, the kind that cuts you off from moving around unobtrusively and impairs your -- I picked up this word "fingerspitzengeful" -- feeling something before you see it. … Probably more important than five bars of anything I ever wrote, is the fact that I asked for the same kind of production support that Fripp, Eno, Bowie and all those guys got … a project budget based on an idea whether or not the record company understood it. It's "risk money", budgeted as the "research and design" end of any commercial business. I'd met Eno right after he got to do "Here Come The Warm Jets" so my expectations for artistic freedom were high. My choice was often between not getting to see my idea realized or doing it with the money and credit going to whatever guy is attached to the package. The "beautiful loser" status on offer to females who self-destruct makes me gag and I don't care how many albums you can milk it for. I never got "jack" but I never backed down; I just had to work in other ends of the arts at the same time and accept the fact that it will take me longer to produce a body of work. But then what's the hurry if you're not going to die at thirty.
3AM: Back to voiceovers … "Hip Tech and High Lit" (1987), was a multimedia presentation by composer Stuart Argabright + Barg at The Caravan of Dreams, Fort Worth, Texas, sponsored by Omni Magazine and meant to, as you say, "introduce cyberpunk when it all of a sudden went mainstream". The text was by William Gibson. You were the voice of street samurai, Sally, from Neuromancer.
JN: I wrote a monologue from the book and spoke it in the first person as Sally, introducing William Gibson, with music by Stuart Argabright who formed Black Rain -- the band that did the connecting music in Johnny Mnemonic -- it could have been a great soundtrack if Sony hadn't loaded with their roster bands. The very first time my name appeared on a sleeve was more or less, voiceover with John Cale. I got the job ("The Man Who Couldn't Afford to Orgy") over the telephone.
3AM: Which utilizes your sultry phone-sex voice…
JN: I was at Eno's house painting the walls. He called Eno who wasn't home and he got me and I was sort of hired over the phone. I wrote everything I say on the spot because there were no words except the chorus and got paid twenty quid and a line of coke from my best friends Brian and John. I thought only the person who wrote the music was the songwriter. By the time I was next in a studio, I'd learned about publishing. I mean, I really think that if something doesn't seem to work for you, maybe you shouldn't be doing it. If you fall into something and it comes that easily it is calling you.
3AM: How'd you get from here to there?
JN: I'm a Bostonian by birth, like the street Samurai in Neuromancer. Boston townie, series of foster homes, completely feral youth, slowly constructing an exterior that would pass for civilized from scraps of film and books. Following instinct. Retrained my accent. I was in Miami for the Cuban exodus and then went to England. I always had a working culture antenna.
3AM: Not a street urchin then?
JN: Oh no, not at all. I was an adult child. I mean, I was in jazz clubs when I was a child if they couldn't find a babysitter. My uncle had a rockabilly band. And a lot of this I totally submerged for all of those years in music and would just not -- I mean punk was good to me. I already knew what you get and what you give up for a lifetime of making music or any art. So, of course I was gonna get there and be there. But at a certain point in your life you have to go back and sort of find things in the closet you didn't wanna see.
3AM: Foster homes…
JN: It was unusual at the time because the 50s were portrayed as all Mom, Dad, Dick, Jane, prosperity. For most people in the suburbs…. I was the only white foster child they'd ever seen. I spent the weekends in Boston at my aunt's and had an urban style. We were not poor but we were complexly dysfunctional and totally indifferent to mainstream cultural customs.
3AM: Did that give you cache? Freedom?
JN: It made me an "other". I had to go back and see how I felt about that when I started writing fiction because I'm not sure there's ever such a thing as pure fiction. It's always shaped by what you reluctantly admit you actually know. Which means that it's inevitably somewhat autobiographical, even some of the sci-fi stuff I've written.
3AM: "Gingerbread Boy" (from Truth is a Cubist Thing) is a story about a young girl who assumes all the life responsibilities of her hemophiliac brother. It illustrates the power of the imagination to fantasize and yet render -- strangely enough -- a reality very real in all its askewness. It describes life as a foster child…
JN: You're brought into these homes like a very odd version of Heidi. If there was anything the slightest bit wrong with you, you'd be difficult to place. I was easy to place. I could actually pass as the perfect little doll-like thing. However, inside, once they got to know me, they would start making cracks about like -- do you remember those movies Village of the Damned etc? -- a bit like that. I was chilly. I knew I was just passing through.
3AM: That was based on your life? (Judy Nylon laughs.) They were pretty scary kids.
JN: Not really.
3AM: On Pal Judy you also remark that there weren't enough angry woman documents in the late 70s. Thurston Moore, on some Sonic Youth website, reminisces about going with members of his early band, the Coachmen and Sid Vicious -- who he claims was a friend of yours -- to see you play CBGB's. Moore states "Judy wasn't super popular but she was rad…" What I want to know is, did this "rad-ness"-- read a know-it-all uncompromising 'bitch' -- keep you away from the controls?
JN: Of course it did. Rage slowed me down and made it impossible for me to see opportunities. I was stressed almost to death most of the time. I'd seen too much to opt for the oblivion of sedation as a solution. Coiled violence, rumbling just beneath the surface was my resort beyond reason. On the other hand, being 5'10" and capable of such rage protected me from things worse than not having a big-time music career. I felt protective of Sid. I'd taken him to my doctor (an emergency in a cab to the doctor's house on a Sunday, his surgery was downstairs from where he lived) in London one time when he had a really scary asthma attack. He was also diagnosed as malnourished. At that point Malcolm [MacLaren] wouldn't pay the bill and was allowing the Pistols only 50 pounds a week. Sid lived on candy bars and was covered with infected wounds. I saw him and his new girlfriend (after Nancy's death) a day before he died. But he was already a "thrown away youth" way back in London when he couldn't get medical help in spite of the money he was generating.
3AM: OK, but I still can't figure out why you never hit it big like Chrissie Hynde, the Slits, Raincoats, Lydia Lunch, or Patti Smith.
JN: Bart, how many records of the Slits and the Raincoats do you think ever existed? They never really had a chance either. Siouxsie toured for several years before she was offered a contract on Polydor. Chrissie, who has the most honest voice of her generation and made classic radio rock, was still knocking around until she was about 30 before she got into the studio with a contract and got a decent shot at a career. Lydia is just plain heroic; she marketed her own work on her mail order company "Widowspeak" long before Ani Difranco had her success. Patti Smith, too, is important as an artist, but was very lucky to fall on Lenny Kaye as a bandleader willing to support her vision. I'm grateful to have what I have...it's all cake. An interesting life counts.
3AM: Is there an undiscovered body of work waiting to be discovered?
JN: Yes and no. Many things I've done, left no artefact, maybe a review, maybe not. Which doesn't devalue their importance, if only to me. I was inspired by the people at De Appel and spent time whenever I could in their reading room. Also I cannibalize my own work; if a project never got beyond a prototype/demo for lack of funding, I dismembered it for other projects… There are a couple of books written and a few bits of film...this and that and more to come. Stuff resurfaces. When Search & Destroy magazine was reprinted as a book, I was reminded that my version of "Cyberpunk" (called "Post-Technical Savagery") which was only printed as a one page childish manifesto with pictures, predated Neuromancer by three or four years. There's always "word" waiting to be rediscovered, mine and everybody else's. You just have to be open and instinctive in your search.
3AM: Inspired by the people at De Appel? The Amsterdam art gallery?
JN: Yeah, it was then a gallery that found sponsorship for conceptual projects like walking the equator and making art en route. They were also a collecting point of information about the work of a multitude of artists. It was through two artists [they worked with], that I was directed to the tape solicitations of the police in Germany, accessed by dialing 1166 on the phone in Cologne and discussions on the dubious ethics of wiretapping of lawyers of suspected terrorists gave rise to the idea of juxtaposing edited audio layers to recreate a 1979 time piece montage of disco, news, and transgression both by government and citizen revolutionaries ("R.A.F."). Yeah, Eno, Bowie and Iggy were also in Germany but not at street level and not with artists. I explained the idea to Eno back in London because he could get studio time at Basing Street and have this record on the street in a day or two. We used instrumental tapes that Brian had of a Brand X studio jam and we produced it together with his favorite engineer in four hours. Patti Palladin worked with me on the intimate, very present layer referring to a hijacked plane on the tarmac at Mogadishu and joined me in giving a good solid kick to the metal studio door, which was used for the gunshot at the end. The recordings from the tapes taken from the telephone became the top-layer source tapes on "R.A.F." I was disappointed not to be included in the project utilizing the audio montage idea, which became "My Life In The Bush of Ghosts" and felt disappointed again years later to find "R.A.F." in Eno's boxed-set without ever having been contacted. I still have the original police tape material and several other "found sound" pieces that I never got to use.["R.A.F. was released in 1977 by Polydor as the B-side of Eno's "King's Lead Hat".]
3AM: Anything you'd like to address regarding the issue of "free" music where others have licensed your work and "residuals and royalties" is the name of a hit comedy … mp3 anyone?
JN: Maybe this is a good mid-step to clear the music world of bottom-feeders. I'm guessing that I lost maybe 30% of my royalties. I've never even gotten a royalty statement from Bomp, Cherry Red, Fetish, Connoisseur Editions, Demon, or Lightning…and ROIR will claim to sell "old stock" until half a dozen artists chip in and pay for an audit. I don't mind losing money to the public while cultivating a much more inclusive music history. I am also "the public" and my interest in electronica has only increased from using Napster. I 'd much rather buy directly from the artist.
3AM: Where do you go from here?
JN: Right now I'm reorganizing, I need more space. I'm tired of working so cramped in New York that I have to shift trunks to get out my jewelry. I have some projects to finish. Then I seem to hang in France. We're building [a studio with husband, Yan, an artist]. I'd like to play around with some remixes. I threw a lot of stuff out in the eighties when I stopped recording and performing. I just read Beckett and listened to world music. I was grieving for my friends who died of AIDS and everything seemed pointless. I stopped working, hung out in restaurants and lived like Eurotrash. I tried to keep everything moving so light and fast that I wouldn't have time to think. I don't even dare to speculate on how much of my own pain I created and how I might have conducted my life differently. What's the point?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Judy Nylon grew up among the Boston Irish in the fifties when a tinker's damn not only existed but was scientifically measured. She became an ex-pat in London in 1971 and was one of only four Yanks included in the first days of British punk. She is still interested in time, space, money, sound, text, dogs, technology, and inexplicable grace. She prefers design problems to crosswords and thinks of all art as participant sport. Her motto remains "Live Now, Wise Up and Die Well". See Bart Plantenga's column, Radiophotogram: Visual Radio in 3am Magazine.