A Wiggle in Your Wham

The Electric Kool-Aid Contortions Test

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Design to Kill
photo: Anya Phillips
During this summer of '78, I have wildly ambivalent feelings about James's act. On the one hand, not only have Iggy and the Stooges done it already, they've done it more meaningfully. Sure, James enters into the audience's territory, challenges us to participate and not just sit around like a bunch of frozen-stiff white people. (Story is that the first time James assaulted an audience, the band was playing an art space, and the audience was just sitting lamely there like, "Come and present your piece for us," so James waded in and started hitting. I understand his motivation, and if as you're reading this you suddenly feel a hard whack against your ear, it's probably me.) But James's aggression, unlike Iggy's, seems there as a given, is provoked by nothing we'd done and doesn't play off our responses, as far as I can tell. He's taunting us, but the taunts are grade school, boring. E.g., someone yells "Tell us a joke" and he says "You're a bigger joke than any I could tell." He's hitting us with a barrage of contempt and disgust, but I don't see how it pertains to who I am any more than would a rock that rolls down a hill and knocks me over. (Teresa perceives more here; she interprets him as feeling the world is detestable and we're sitting around being part of it, so he's going to hit us in the face with it.) But I like the act far more than I'm repelled by it. For one thing, there's an incredible wit to his movements, his relation to the surrounding social space. The way James looks, he could be the impish sidekick in a Saturday-morning cartoon. My friend Luc Sante, who like Rob and Jody is working with me at the Strand, tells me, "James is a little runt with red hair, who plays on his utterly unimposing physicality, as well as his whiteness, and whose aggression is both self-parody and the desperate bravado of the perpetually overmatched. James is using himself as, among other things, a sight gag." James's taunts are a tease, a threat to the psyche, not the body. So the real danger isn't in what he's going to do, but what we might do in response.

The Contortions make almost all other bands seem phony in comparison, not only because other bands play worse, but because those bands hang back on the stage and wait for our judgment and applause. The audience embraces passivity and concedes all the action to the bands, while the bands concede all the judgment to the audience. Why should rock 'n' roll put up with that? Jody'd once told me that James had to do something wild, or else the Contortions would be viewed as just another art band.

Michael Hersh, another friend from the Strand: "James seems to have an asshole radar that allows him to focus in on those who need to be attacked for their complacency. Of course, this also reinforces my neurotic need to believe that I'm cool for not being attacked myself—though I'm coming to realize that in a random audience attack, the odds of hitting an asshole are overwhelming."

My friend Rich is by no means wrong when he types me as someone afraid to step into the unknown. I nonetheless crave shows and bands where what's to happen to me is as uncertain as what will happen onstage. I think of James's forays into the audience as his way of acknowledging his dependence on us and of demanding that we make interesting demands on him; it's his search for a good dance partner (and I assume I'm not up to it, and hang back on the sidelines).

So there's a not-altogether-serene energy in the room. Between the stage and tables is a clear space—small, just a yard or two. James dances down there a lot, and potential fans and enemies work their way toward him. CBGB has a big, broad bouncer in a hard hat who places himself right in that space, as if using his massive front to announce, "Nothing will get out of hand here"—which actually makes the atmosphere more tense, as if fights are expected. So James is slithering around that floor space, and he slithers right up the bouncer, right up the bouncer's chest, like an insect. This is a brilliant move. The bouncer breaks into laughter and abandons his guard post, decides he can just let things happen.

Off to the side, not far from the stage, is a frat boy, bouncing along to the music. He's built like a rugby player, no pretense to hip style, and he thinks the whole thing is great! He's just dancing away there with a grin on his face, no edge to him at all, and you wonder, watching him get a kick out of this show, if there's any real edge to it, since he—normal frat guy—can take it so casually. Sitting behind us is a downtown freak, who's got multi-hued hair and plucked eyebrows and absurdly long, thin arms and legs. He must be thinking, "How dare this happy frat boy enjoy our music," so he winds his way to the front and launches himself at the frat boy, wraps spider arms and legs around him and tries to wrestle him down. Frat Boy squares his shoulders a little, causing Spider Guy to fall off, and the bouncer is there immediately to step between them. Spider Guy wends his way back to his seat, so Happy Fratty, who's fairly soused and still full of goodwill, goes to the lip of the stage and reaches his hand out to shake with James, no hard feelings. James kicks the hand, and Fratty shrugs and goes back to bouncing along with the beat, as happy as ever.

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