New York City’s storied music underground has presented us with some pretty vexing concerns:
• Was Nico really necessary? (I mean, really?)
• If noise architect Glenn Branca is so all-fired influential, then why couldn’t he keep protege Alan Licht from writing prose?
• Did Joey Ramone’s mother have a chin?
Pause to discuss. Fight amongst yourselves. But know that you can’t ever really nail down history once it’s turned into myth.
And yet in the very immediate future in Asheville, you have the rare opportunity to settle once and for all two even more fundamental questions about Gotham’s trendy past:
• In music, isn’t emotion just overrated?
• What’s the worst thing you can do to a guitar?
Because The Orange Peel has booked, a mere three days apart, two of the leading lights from the second and third generations, respectively, of NYC’s avant-rock underground: Blondie, and Sonic Youth.
So break out some dancin’ shoes and a sneer, and let’s travel to where wildly tuned guitars get strung with baling wire, and where the air smells of sweat, arrogance, vomit and the old new future of rock ‘n’ roll.
Worms in the Big Apple
Must be something in the polluted water.
“The best bands come from New York,” Walter Schiefels of influential hardcore label Some Records has stated. “Not necessarily the biggest, but the most wonderful, innovative, influential bands, the real s••t for American music.”
What’s unsaid there is that, since as far back as the days of nightclub jazz, most of these influential musicians first came to NYC from Podunk, Wherever.
The Big Apple is where the Next Big Thing is always happening, to be replaced within a musical measure by the Next, Next Big Thing. So much incestuous talent, so rare the commercial success.
And nowhere has that been truer than in the Empire City’s avant-rock underground.
In the mid-’60s, the Velvet Underground formed around college friends Lou Reed (an actual New Yawker) and John Cale (a transplanted Welshman), quickly becoming the dark counterpoint to the folk forays going on over in Greenwich Village.
Next up, the vastly influential but mildly talented New York Dolls, in whom sleaze and glam collided (their look said cheap transvestite all over). David Johansen and the “boys” heralded the second wave of the late ’70s, the Lower East Side CBGB set: The Ramones, Television, Suicide, Talking Heads, The Theoretical Girls (with Branca, whose own record label would later release the first Sonic Youth EP).
And Blondie. The most commercially successful of the bunch.
But over the next decade, the New Wave artiness of David Byrne and Tom Verlaine was to be drowned out by the imploded art of No Wave — a return to the Velvets’ sonic squall, with bands like The Swans, Pussy Galore and DNA, and later, Love Child (with Licht) and Helmet.
And, of course, Sonic Youth. The most commercially successful of the bunch.
Your roots are showing
Is emotion overrated in music? Go back and listen to Blondie’s 1978 hit “Heart of Glass” before you answer.
Deborah “Debbie” Harry is rock ‘n’ roll’s quintessential Ice Queen, with a high voice full of freeze and a dismissive air you can dance to.
Not surprisingly, Blondie formed around her. Guitarist Chris Stein caught Harry — a peroxided ex-Playboy Bunny — performing as one-third of girl-group send-up act The Stillettos in NYC’s Boburn Tavern in ’73.
By ’75, the band’s core had jelled, with the addition of drummer Clem Burke and keyboardist Jimmy Destri. Two years later, there were hits in Britain; two more years, and chart success back at home.
Blondie was consistently a bigger deal in England, which makes great fodder for ethnocentric cliches.
A new British mate recently e-mailed me of his “terrible crush” on Debbie Harry as a kid.