“There was this thick, mechanic grease of frustration and hopelessness that covered New York at the time. That desperation was what everyone was getting drunk, fucked, and making music to get away from. There sums up Jack Ruby.” Iconoclastic, no-wave skank goddess Lydia Lunch is dredging up putrid images of New York City in 1973 as a way of giving context to Jack Ruby, a group of Velvet Underground- and Stooges-obsessed wasteoid progressives making groundbreaking noise around New York at the time.
Oozing heinously noisy, sludge-dipped epics like “Bored Stiff” and “Bad Teeth” that portended no wave, art-punk, and noise, synthesizer-skronking brainiac (and future New York Times columnist) Randy Cohen, Contortions bassist-to-be George Scott (deceased, 1980), Iggy-copping singer Robbie Hall, violist Boris Policeband (deceased, 2001), drummer “Nick,” and guitarist Chris Gray managed to pillage NYC’s rock underground despite playing five gigs total. The band duped Epic Records hotshots into backing a demo, then faded into oblivion, barely meriting a footnote in pre-punk lore.
Until now. A collection of demos and rehearsal tapes, unearthed by Scott’s roommate Gary Reese then restored by ugEXPLODE Records honcho Weasel Walter, gives Jack Ruby its 35-years-later due. “Good luck trying to figure out what to call them,” Lunch says. “It’s really contradictory, post-garage, pre-punk, twisted pop psychedelia. That nails it.” Here, members of Jack Ruby (and Lunch, who was 14 when she strutted into Bleecker Bob’s and befriended Gray) tell the band’s story.
Robbie Hall: I was going to college and dropped out to work at a record store in Albany. The first day I started, Chris Gray walked in. We instantly started talking about the Stooges. He was a music major at Albany State. Randy had gone to Cal Arts and worked on the Serge synthesizer. So Chris and I moved to New York together. Randy had graduated from Cal Arts and came to New York with his synthesizer. Boris, who also had gone to Cal Arts, was already in New York. It was this synergistic thing.
Randy Cohen: The level of sophistication with the synthesizers was not typical of what bands were doing, and certainly Boris was a really gifted violist. It wasn’t this sort of thing where bands were routinely showing up and playing this style of music—although there were great players around, but not with this particular kind of background.
Lydia Lunch: I walked into Bleecker Bob’s and saw this really tall, really freaky-looking white Jimi Hendrix dude who had an Afro bigger than the doorway. I was like, “All right, he’s going to be my friend.” That was Chris Gray.
Chris Gray: I was working on the stock and getting ready to open up. This girl comes by and shoves a note under the door. It said: “I’m new in New York, I need a job, and I’m really good with music, blah, blah, blah.” And that’s how I met Lydia.
Cohen: The Ramones were starting to play; Television was around. And Lydia. There was this great feeling that something was happening.
Gray: I ran an ad in The Village Voice. It read: “Drummer Wanted: Detroit raunch-schooled preferred. Must be fast, tight, and tasteless.”
Hall: I didn’t know anybody doing the noise stuff we were doing. There was a lot of internal anger that was being expressed. But we also felt there was beauty in that noise. The way we used the synthesizer was really pre-versions of sampling because Randy would take these sound-effects records and run them through the synthesizer and create rhythm tracks out of it.
Gray: The only other person doing anything vaguely close (with synthesizers) was Eno in Roxy Music. Randy got the first college degree in North America in electronic music. The stuff I liked was noisemaking, and that goes in with my aesthetic perfectly. At that time, it was the Velvet’s White Light/White Heat—that’s the closest you’re going to come on record to anything that sounds like me. I never heard guitar that savage.
Lunch: I got into one of their rehearsals in some shithole in Midtown. It was Robbie, Chris and George, and a drummer. The combination of this really tall, gawky, white-Afro’d beast skulking over his tiny guitar—only tiny by his immensely tall frame—and George Scott, who is such an intense character and an alcoholic who would often rip the receivers off of public telephones. That’s how strong he was when he was drunk. He would rip the fucking receiver off of phone booths. I remember once he cut his hand almost in half. [Laughs.]
Gray: We had two (studio-recorded) tracks, and Randy and I took the phone book and starting going to record companies. One of the places was Epic. We both looked alike—really scary weird, incredibly arrogant and cocky. We just walked right past the receptionist, said we needed to speak to someone in A&R and that we have a very important demo.
Gray: We played out five times, and one was at the Village Gate with Teenage Jesus and the Fleshtones. The first gig we played—me, George, and Nick—was at a bar called Copperfields on 8th Street. It was a basement-club, tourist-trap dive. We opened for a topless dancer that worked with a python.
Hall: It was New York in the ’70s. Drinking and drugging wasn’t abnormal. That’s what you did. I left the band in May of ’77. I had a drug problem, and it was something I needed to do: Get away, and do something about it. If this CD came out when I was 22, I’d probably be dead now.
Lunch: ’73 was such a bleak fucking period in New York when they started—just desperately poor and dark and dirty. That bleak frustration and hatred really comes out in the music. But yet it’s cloaked in this catchy garage facade. It occupies its own genre, for sure.