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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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.

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.)

The four Contortions cuts on 1978's No New York compilation (not included in the new Irresistible Impulse James Chance box) got the Contortions' sound, but Eno mixed the thing onto tissue paper, and it's too damn thin. It's still jarring and extraordinary, and by far the best record of what the band actually sounded like. James had lots of good ideas for 1979's Off White and Buy the Contortions, but he botched the production by making everything too clear. Those albums are crawling with inspiration nonetheless. Among other things, James throws in disco moves and camp silliness, adding the sha-la-la-la spirit of pop music rather than just playing tough. Those two albums are the first half of Irresistible Impulse. The rest is James with sidemen, mostly recorded in the early '80s after the Contortions broke up, and it's far too legit—expert jazz and funk musicians, complex horn arrangements. James is singing and playing better (his voice had been ragged in the early days), but what's lost is the Contortions' ferocious welding of sound and spewing it out. On record you can discern the lyrics, however, which are smart where his stage patter was dumb. It's as if he'd heard the Stones' "Under my thumb is the girl who once had me down" and understood that "had me down" was the greater part of it.

The Contortions' sound was unique: The rhythm had a push like no jazz band and a speed like no rock band, so it kicked the music into contortedness years before rave and jungle. And it brought the noise a decade before Public Enemy, and anticipated lots that's going on in hip-hop right now. Neptunes fans: Go listen to "Jump" on Mystikal's Let's Get Ready, but imagine the riffs doubling up on themselves with nightmares thrown on top. That's what the Contortions sounded like. Except no one else really sounds like the Contortions. Their two guitarists had this beautifully fucked playing, Jody splattering us with hard notes while Pat unsettled us with eerie slides. The band provided momentum that James undercut when he resorted to overdubs, and which none of the "real" jazzbos and funkbos (Bern Nix, Joe Bowie) could give him post-Contortions. But James gave the Contortions its center, its reach into our hearts and guts and minds, and a lot of its form. Definitely a whole-beats-sum-of-parts deal, and I'm sad that the band members weren't all shanghaied into band counseling and forced to stick with one another. (I should talk; I never stayed in a band more than a year.) There's much beauty in the solo sets—in clearing out the band sound, James made room for horn charts and jazzy interplay. But he didn't have to clear out the band sound to do this.

Someone once asked Jody what he thought Miles would think of the Contortions. "He'd call it a third-rate version of what he'd done several years earlier." I jumped to the Contortions' defense: "No. Miles is too diffuse. You guys are rock 'n' roll."

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