A Wiggle in Your Wham

The Electric Kool-Aid Contortions Test

I've taken LSD twice in my life, had a blast both times. I'm not likely to do it again, though, since it aestheticizes everything and I'd hate to become an aesthete. Insights parade before my eyes like handsome glorious things, and I'm reduced to waving at them in admiration. Also, the aesthetic judgment can supersede other equally pertinent ones. (John Wójtowicz: "A 'rule' that I think LSD might erase by accident is 'if you leap out of a window or from the top of a high object, you will get killed or maim yourself for life.' And I can easily imagine myself, while tripping, reasoning, 'Yes, but after all that's just one little criterion, and just one single jump!' ") In any event, this was the first time. I was 24, in New York City.

It's 1978, and we're going to see Wire and the Contortions at CBGB. Teresa says, "I've got some acid. Want some?" I say sure, which amazes Rich, who a week earlier had chided me for not taking speed with him, for being too careful to do anything new ("Peer pressure! Peer pressure!" Teresa had chanted).

We walk over to CBGB, a bar on the Bowery, not much more than a dive, right by a flophouse for derelicts and drunks and a gated parking lot with a sign consisting of the names of three Jamaican toastmasters: "U USE, U LOCK, OR U R OUT."

It turns out Wire are held up by immigration, get pushed back to the following week. So the Contortions now top the bill, and a band called the Stumblebunnies sign on to open and close for them. Inside the club, we meet Rob, a sweet-looking fresh-faced 19-year-old who works with me at Strand Book Store, and his sweet fresh-faced girlfriend in a cute quasi-punked-out torn sweatshirt. Rob and girlfriend are trying on punk to see how it fits. (I don't mean this derogatorily at all, since punk has always worked better as an impulse than an identity, and tentative punks are more truly punk than the real punks. E.g., my non-"punk" friend Lisa, who answered my question "Do you identify with Sid and Nancy?" by saying, "Yes, and I hate myself for it.") So there's a light in Rob's eyes. We've seen the Contortions before. We know what's coming, and we know that most of the audience doesn't. The Contortions have gotten practically no press, except for a Voice Choice or two. So most people are here because of the Choice, or because they intended to see Wire and decided to stick around, or because CBGB is now world famous—it's just a dark bar, the toilets often don't work, and you wouldn't want to use them anyway, since there are no bathroom or stall doors (this is to deny junkies the privacy to shoot up, I presume), but it's where the Ramones, Television, Talking Heads, Blondie worked out their riffs a couple of years back and where edgy, creative types lurk (exemplary bathroom graffito: "I Like Girls Bomb Washington"). So you have tourists ready to check a hip "dangerous" scene—again, I don't mean "tourist" to be derogatory—and music guys willing to try a band that's nothing but a name on a poster; and of course, the few who know of the band.

The Stumblebunnies get onstage and play subdued bluesy country rock (that's what I remember, anyway), not bad, but too recessive; I'm thinking they aren't doing anything with it. Wait, I have to say this right. I'm 24, on acid. And. The. Stumblebunnies. Aren't. Doing. Anything.

Stumblebunnies off. We look around. Rob says, "These guys don't know what's going to hit them." The acid makes everything stand out. The mode of dress isn't slashed shirts and punk jackets but more like "We're the supercilious netherworld weirdos." But there are also people dressed in their normal casual "We're out at a club" or "We're from Jersey." Or maybe it's the ones from Jersey who are dressed like Lower Manhattan netherworld weirdos.

After the usual long wait, the Contortions come on. Jody Harris scrapes his guitar pick along a metal guitar string—makes a grating, insinuating, disturbing sound—and the band jumps in, an onslaught of noise. But it really moves, has an r&b-rock 'n' roll undertow that's propulsive and compelling. (I've seen them a number of times already and am starting to learn how they do it—to hear expert counter-rhythms, riffs, tonal relationships in the noise. Jody is my supervisor at the Strand, and I pepper him with questions about what he listens to, what gauge guitar strings he uses, and so forth.) James Chance looks contemptuously at the audience, dances as he sings, and he's an incredible dancer, fast, and he's shimmying across stage on one leg, then smashing his body down on the floor but bouncing back up in a sharp motion, elbows and legs out in all directions but always moving. He and his band are in slick dress suits, which I interpret as "We don't have to dress in the punk or weirdo Disturbance Uniform, since we are disturbed," though Rich points out later that they're done up like a mid-'60s r&b outfit. The band is sounding like mayhem, but in double time (I mean, compared to usual regular-speed mayhem). James is putting wiggles into his moves, he squirms and twirls and contorts, on and off the floor with an insect's ability to move on any surface. And then—we know this is coming, this is part of our delightful fear-energy—he slithers off the front of the stage into the audience, taunting people, cuffing them, slapping them around, while the band continues its rhythmic havoc. First gig I'd seen them, James had let loose a load of snot into his hand and then rubbed it on some tough in a leather jacket, and the tough got enraged and came after James to beat the crap out of him, but the band got between the guy and James, brandishing their instruments as weapons, until the guy finally stalked off.

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