A few nights ago Teenage Jesus and the Jerks played New York, at the Knitting Factory. It was kind of like "old home week," especially if your old home was a home for disturbed children or the criminally insane. The place was packed with a multi-generational mob of black-clothed, dyed-black-haired, sunglasses-after-dark-wearing hipsters. They were here to see something you can't see anymore, and hear something live that lives only on record. And Teenage Jesus, headed by Lydia Lunch, this ancient, gnarly band of refusenik revolutionaries, unseen in these precincts for… could it be 27 years?… put on a show the likes of which belong mostly to memory and its dumb nephew, history.
The No Wave was back for a night, and it was a bad mother. There I was, watching a band I watched generations ago, in the company of a bunch of old people who look kind of like my friends of that period—Diego Cortez, Michael Zilkha, Seth Tillet. And there was Marty Rev of Suicide, and James Chance of the Contortions. It was like a reunion of legendary outlaws and their inlaws. And the band, well, this was no nostalgia show. They were really powerful, aged but unchanged, angry as adolescents, and out of step with the pop world as ever. It was a guilty pleasure. Or a guilty pain. Part triumph and part regret for the road not taken far enough. But some background…
Teenage Jesus was the original band of Lydia Lunch, a notorious performer historically linked with what is known as No Wave. And, at her peak, Lydia Lunch was more No than anyone, with the possible exception of James Chance and his girlfriend/manager Anya Phillips. Lydia was to entertainment's star system what black holes are to the astronomical star systems.
The term No Wave started as a joke on New Wave, a rather wimpy catch-all which I believe was created by a copywriter at Sire Records who perhaps felt he was stretching it to lump the Ramones and Talking Heads under the same category or rubric. Clearly Talking Heads and many of the other bands who played the C.B.G.B./Max's circuit did not wear leather jackets, play fast, or write songs about being sedated. So, New Wave, with its sexy French connotations of Godard, Belmondo, Anna Karina, Gitanes, and existentialism had a certain appeal. But it also seemed a little wimpy. What about the bands who were genuinely avant-garde and who came out of some weird fusion of pop art, abstract expressionism, serialism, film noir, rhythm and blues, free jazz, and juvenile delinquency?
Well, No Wave seemed like a fun thing to call the bands working the frontiers of bohemianism, and it caught on with the public, a rather small but determined public, mainly through Brian Eno's seminal compilation album No New York, which came out in 1978 on Antilles Records and introduced the talents of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, the Contortions, DNA, and Mars. James Chance appeared on the Teenage Jesus tracks on No New York, and Lydia would appear on several James Chance tracks on his Ze Records album Off White, guest starring as vocalist "Stella Rico."
Lydia also worked with Michael Zilkha's groundbreaking Ze Records, making with house producer Bob Blank one spectacular album, the Queen of Siam LP. One of Lydia's best quotes is, "I would be humiliated if I found out that anything I did actually became a commercial success." Yet Queen of Siam flirted with popularity, playing up her extreme sultriness and ball-busting sexiness.
Where Teenage Jesus had made music with raw power and rough edges, Queen of Siam was polished and professional, with amazing horn arrangements by Billy ver Plank, and material like the classic Billie Holiday number "Gloomy Sunday" and the Classics IV's 1968 hit "Spooky." It was a record that said, "I could be a big star if I condescended to that," and proved that if Lydia didn't become a pop star it wasn't because she didn't have the chops.
In fact, although she was known for a very rough, anarchic vocal style, she could sing with edgy pleasantness, and her guitar-playing style was simply riveting. Two of the most interesting instrumentalists on the scene were women playing slide guitar: Lydia and Pat Place of the Contortions.
The original Teenage Jesus had a Japanese guy named Reck on bass (who was also in an early version of the Contortions); when he returned to Japan he was replaced by Gordon Stevenson on bass. Bradley Field was featured on "drum," (yes, not drums but drum) an instrument he sometimes played with the Contortions and James White and the Blacks. James Chance, aka White, of course, blew manic sax on the early tracks. Jim Sclavunos joined the band on bass after Gordon, and he stuck with Lydia through her other bands, Beirut Slump and 8-Eyed Spy.
They might not have gotten famous back in the day, but they were plenty infamous. It was the usual too-much-too-soon, ahead of the time, too smart for the room thing, wedded to a healthy dose of refusenikism. Lydia just refused to water herself down for general consumption, an act of integrity that few artists of the last half-century can lay any claim to. And she made spurning look sexy, in a sort of magnificently bitchy and cosmically unreceptive way. The No Wave was a joke, of course, but today it looks better than ever and my main reaction to seeing Lydia front a band in New York again was delighted laughter.
The occasion of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks playing New York was the publication of the book No Wave by Byron Coley and Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, who has also worked with Lydia on a number of projects, including a 1984 EP, In Limbo, a 1986 12" called Death Valley '69, and another 12" in 1987, The Crumb. I haven't picked up a copy of Thurston's book yet, but I read it at James Nares's apartment, and it's really good. I'm going to buy several copies. It is filled with delightful documents and information and is worth the price on the Robert Christgau/James Chance fistfight alone.
So anyway, it was only unnatural that the '08 version of T.J.&T.J. would feature Thurston on bass and Sclavunos on drum. I would have given anything to see the late, lamented Bradley Field, one of the great genii of the period, on drum, but I must say Mr. Sclavunos did a superb, almost flawless job with a drum, a cymbal, and two sticks. He was spare, elegant, and in time. Flawless wouldn't have been appropriate, anyway.
And the band's new bass player, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, gave this old-but-more-energetic-than-the-kids band its very powerful sound, modern but perfectly appropriate in power and edge. But there was no doubt who was the star of the show. Lydia brought a refreshing breeze of bile to a community where lilied livers are endemic.
I'm not going to do a play by play, but I had a grand time. I loved every second. Maybe I shouldn't have, according to some make-believe critics. I was picking up some paper to clean up after my dog on the street when I happened to find this from the New York Press, a rag that advertises massage parlors: "Just because Lydia can still kick out the classics, however, doesn't necessarily mean this show should have happened. No Wave, the movement, the people, even the music to some extent, has been retrospectively fetishized to the extent that any resurgence of its key players is bound to get tangled up in the tawdry middle ground between boho nostalgia and historical meretriciousness."
Got that, the show shouldn't have happened according to this theorist. Now let me see, the evils we would avoid thus are boho nostalgia and historical meretriciousness. Hmm. Those abstractoids almost sound yummy to me. Maybe that's why I had such a good time at the show. Boho nostalgia is so powerful at the moment that it would seem to be almost on the verge of giving the culture a boner. And meretriciousness is all about boners too, isn't it? And a historical boner is better than no wood at all, I'd say.
Dopes like this may be the reason Lydia lives in Barcelona, or someplace like that. But it was great, for one evening, to witness a replay of the fantastic promise of negation that Lydia and her erstwhile cohorts offered almost nightly. Those weren't the days. Neither are these. But it was fantastic fun and I must say the nasty old bitch looked gorgeous and sounded absolutely, terrifyingly right on. Twenty minutes. No encore. Perfect.