A Wiggle in Your Wham

The Electric Kool-Aid Contortions Test

Everyone but Fratty remains on edge. James, a sax player as well as a singer, plays in scraggly, flapping squawks. Someone throws a shot glass; James grabs it, flings it down, smashing it on the stage floor. There's some ruckus back at the bar. I don't recall much else. Keyboardist Adele Bertei tells me when I meet her a couple of months later that this had been one of the most depressing evenings of her life, and Jody tells me the day after the show that musically the thing was ragged. I myself had not noticed any musical letdown.

Anyway, the band's set is over, they're backstage, but suddenly James is onstage again, blood running in lines down his face, and he shouts into the mic, "I don't care if you guys are cowards, I'll take 'em on by myself." Then he throws down the mic and stomps off. (The next day, I describe this to my friend Jay, and she says, "Oh, that happens all the time on acid; I'm always seeing blood crisscrossing people's faces." "No, no. You don't understand. It was real blood.") Seeing James's bloodstreams, electric fear runs through me. I'm extra alert, my vision is double sharp, I think to myself, "It finally happened! Someone went back there and smashed a bottle into James's face." And a realization is stretching itself in front of my eyes. "This is a human being! People whom I know associate with him! And care about him! And every time he performs, he goes out there to get hurt!" Rich and Teresa are ready to leave, but I insist we stay. "We've just seen something incredible." But why stay on? "No. We've seen something incredible. People have to take it into account." They look at me doubtfully. I tell them, "The Stumblebunnies' final set, they can't just do it normally." The Stumblebunnies? Anyway, we stay, we wait (me, Rich, and Teresa). I insist there will be an effect. Finally, the Stumblebunnies shuffle themselves back out, the singer says something sardonic, "Broke up three fights in the last half-hour," and now they're playing like before, but even more subdued, their reaction to the preceding strife being nothing more than to dull themselves out and detach. This bores me. They're not doing anything. Teresa looks at me like, "What'd you expect?" After two numbers I say, "Let's go," apologize for making them stay.

(The next day at work, Jody tells us that no one had attacked James with any bottle; James had accidentally cut himself on pieces of that smashed shot glass, while throwing himself around the stage. And afterward, blood had seeped out. "So James was just grandstanding?" asks Rob. Jody nods.)

We clear out of CBGB, head back to Rich and Teresa's, feeling let loose. Rich is talking animatedly and walks right into a signpost, conking himself on the head but not hurting himself badly. Back at his place, he sits me in front of a record player and puts on James Brown and says, "Listen. This is what the Contortions are doing." I'd barely heard James Brown up until then, Brown having had no impact on white Connecticut where I grew up. Rich wants to form a band with me, and he wants me to deepen my sense of music. He explains, "When white guys fuck they just go straight in wham wham wham, while black guys put a wiggle in it." (And then the Contortions put a contortion into the wiggle.)

James Brown's "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" had reconfigured r&b and soul and reggae and was working its way into jazz via Miles Davis and into African music via high life, but despite rock-leaning funkers like Funkadelic and Sly (and even David Bowie, of all people), rock really didn't know funk. But rock was a vanguard in one way: To overdraw the distinction, r&b is a dance among musical elements (and among the people who participate in it), while rock can also be a battle among musical elements (and among the people who participate in it). The Contortions took in jazz as well as funk, and jazz already had battle experience, musicians cutting each other onstage and turning their backs on the listeners. But James Chance was playing off of r&b and rock rhythms, not jazz, and Jody Harris drew heavily on Miles's guitarists David Creamer (On the Corner) and Pete Cosey (Pangaea), who were doing the same. Guitarist Pat Place and keyboardist Adele Bertei were officially "nonmusicians," but Adele had sung in soul bands and rock bands, and she and Pat obviously knew rhythm and funk. James was improvising into noise from a bedrock of r&b honking, squawking, and riffing rather than from a tradition of jazz melodic soloing, even if he drew on jazz-soloing-into-noise as inspiration. He steered clear of legato, played the sax like a drum. It's no surprise that in the wake of the Contortions, jazz guys like James "Blood" Ulmer were inspired by the "no wave" scene of which the Contortions were a part, since it seemed an alternative to jazz's relentless descent into being just a fine-art music for critics or make-out music for what was left of its public. No wave promised to take the jazz battle back to the people, back to the dancefloor. (Then, of course, hip-hop superseded everything.)

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