Downtown 81, a newly released film (though the bulk of the footage was shot 25 years ago), presents a dramatic subset of New York art, fashion, and pop music that retains a darkly lit mysteriousness. The film, which stars the late Brooklyn-born painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, looks like a documentary, but is instead a fictionalized account of what it felt like to create and scheme and party as a charismatic downtown Manhattan scenester as the end of the laid-back ’70s raced into the more frenetic ’80s. Inevitably, the Basquiat character is surrounded by the unpretty sound of experimental bands; he even has a drummy, dubby one of his own, the real-life Gray.
Listening to these sharp, often live recordings—the deceptive, Latinized high jinks of Kid Creole and the Coconuts, the knife-edged funk of James Chance, the bursts of DNA, the scroungy jazz of the Lounge Lizards, even the silken early rap of Melle Mel—is to hear ambitious music-making free of agendas past or present. They’re not only free of the dogmatic guitars of punk; they’re operating without reference to the music industry or subsequent indie-rock etiquette or even history. When they make noise, as DNA do on “Blonde Redhead,” it’s only about the sheer sensation; when they essay blues, as the Lounge Lizards do on “I’m a Doggy,” they highlight the sex, not the form; when they mix candy and haze, as Suicide do on “Cheree,” they’re not shoe-gazing. Drugs and parties and thousands of black-leather jackets all played their parts. But the music—jagged, wrecked, or playful—sounds like it was about the music and little else.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 6, 2007