Sometimes it's easy to get complacent as a fan of anything. When you're immersed in something, it's easy to forget the boundaries, and easy to forget that there are very few innovators in any given field. I listen to a lot of music, so sometimes, it takes something extreme, something that I rarely listen to, to shake me out of my jaded state and really make me perk up. Quality is not the issue, as it's easy to hear and appreciate a great record that still fits within the boundaries of "normal" music.
I put on some James Chance & The Contortions today and it was like I'd never heard anything so aggressive in my life. Now, the funniest thing is that yesterday, I was listening to The Birthday Party (R.I.P. Rowland S. Howard), and felt the same way. I often forget that sometimes I need a brain cleansing. So many "confrontational" bands or musicians are simply "confrontation signifiers", throwing out all the established imagery, conjuring up an image of danger or confrontation without actually being so. And there's really nothing wrong with that. Art is art, it is not life. Art is a representation of aspects of life. However, when (specifically) music is authentically confrontational, there is a certain "magic ingredient" that is almost palpable, but hidden in the spaces between the notes - it can't be quantified, but it's obvious when it's present.
It's easy to get wrapped up in this world of signifiers, but it makes it incredibly powerful when dosed with the real deal. And No New York, the compilation of No Wave heavy hitters, sounds like the real deal. So does the Birthday Party's Prayers On Fire, but it's Chance and his ilk that I'm listening to right now, and it's so disconcerting that I'm having trouble keeping my thoughts straight enough to type. It's not the knowledge that early shows often ended in actual physical confrontations, sparked by Chance himself, in an attempt to shake the jaded NYC audiences out of their complacency - it's that this music often sounds dangerously close to coming apart at the seams. "Dish It Out" is the sound of frantic, sweating fear.
On Thanksgiving, my mom makes a cranberry walnut salad that I love. It's tasty, but so tart that it completely cleanses the palate... something that this raw nerve, live-wire music can do. After hearing something this harrowing, it's easy to lean back and just enjoy the nuances of something that's not so intense.
And while I'm listening to these records now 30 years out, this is not the only era to generate bands like this. However, it is a rare occurrence. If you ever spot one live (and it will most likely be live, since bands this electrifying aren't usually around long enough to properly document), take heed. Both in the cycle of rock music and one's listening habits, palate-cleansing, cranberry salad moments like this are like forest fires... clearing the debris for something new and fresh to grow. Which is why it's serendipitous when the universe draws me to music like this at the same time it presents me with the sonic alternative, which we'll be discussing next time on Central Target, in Part Two...