The Aging and Eternal Youth of Industrial Punk: a memior in real time
by Marc Olmsted & Dion Olivier
It was the 15th anniversary of “Pranks!” – just one of the wacky books put out by ReSearch, that cutting edge hipsterzine. Vale, editor and publisher speaks about the best reviews online and was also known for his punk journal Search & Destroy, from which ReSearch (get it?) surfaced. There was a time when a few of Vale’s books had to be on your shelf if you were pierced, tattoo’d, owned a punk album or were friends with someone who fit this description – the books noting Burroughs, Ballard, Throbbing Gristle, incredibly strange trashola movies or modern primitives of branding and scarification fame hanging on hooks like A Man Called Horse.
This event: “A Night of Industrial Music” on Dec. 5, 2003, at the Lab on 16th Street. I had the pleasure of taking a teenage hipster of my own, an informal foster son now making the transition to independent living by staying in the front room of the flat I shared with my wife. I had been Dion’s legal guardian at a Tibetan Buddhist summer retreat, an annual event where I had known a number of kids over the years; sharp, bright artistic types, as one might expect, the definite hope for a future that seemed otherwise grim. Suzi & I had no kids of our own by design, and since both of us had the maturity of teenagers, we seemed to draw them. Dion, a young black man from L.A. with virtually zero interest in hip-hop and an incredible thirst for all things Beat and beyond, was one of them – a bass player with chemically straightened hair altered into an anime cartoon of sharp angles, a kind of African-American Astroboy with horn rim glasses.
From my own era, I’d played Dion Pil’s Second Edition and a compilation of my favorite local art band of the 80’s, Tuxedo Moon’s Solve et Coagula. He’d played me a variety of synthesizer bands and I was amazed how much it sounded like what I was listening to back then, his with names like the Icarus Line, Wolfeyes, and the Rapture.
The woman at the door took my money and told me to hold on to my ticket – I “might win something at the raffle” because I was all dressed in black. I appreciated her humor when I turned to see the room full of people dressed in black. Upon further inspection, many were my age, around 50, with the attendant decay of graying hair and paunches.
Yet there was the mysterious young all-in-black raven-haired femme fatale in the corner by herself. “There’s always one,” said Dion. He was right. Unapproachable, serious, waiting. She was tired of waiting before much of anything happened and left – perhaps more of a review than anything I could say.
I chatted with editor Vale, whom I’d really only known personally since the 21st Century (some Burroughs footage of mine might show up in an up-coming ReSearch DVD). I introduced Dion as we looked over the table of Vale’s wares, including back issues of the seminal punk newspaper that Allen Ginsberg had helped start with $100.00. Vale surreptitiously took our photo as I leafed through a Bob Flannagan book, masochist performance artist now deceased. Vale’s wife Marian flew around the room with a drink, getting things started.
Above Vale, maybe original to the Lab itself, 3’x3’ mosaic-style portraits of Timothy Leary (gaunt with final cancer, bearded skull philosopher) and Albert Hoffman, accidental inventor of LSD (recognized only in context, unassuming bald scientist). Closer inspection showed the images were made up of big sheets of acid blotter. Dion didn’t know who Timothy Leary was. He had, however, read Ginsberg and Burroughs, and knew of Kerouac and Ginsberg’s Tibetan guru Chogyam Trungpa. Natural selection was already thinning the wheat from the historical chaff, it seemed.
I asked Dion to write his own impressions on the evening because it seemed a natural evolution from many of our conversations and music exchanges:
Aftershock, to remember the ReSearch event held in the Lab, a space complete with an elder elite bent on recovering sounds from their past, and attempting to chronicle new. Least, whatever penetrates jaded ears, or to say more flattering: weathered. More connected to current musical reverb, my duty to inform the seniors of these recent bands sharing genre threads brings to mind a few.
First act immediately I notice common sights, aesthetic points in the current submerged trends: ties, sport coats,, tight attire, never forget the black mop skulls. The two males are aloof in their age, the female has hints of gothic finesse. All clamors to a new wave with slight abrasive punk influence. Next: abundance of keys, one guitar in sight: disjointed crude blips scattered along drone drum machine during their test. Expecting a dirty Kraftwerk clone. Narcissistic long sound check: 30 min. they eventually begin with tip toe, I don’t blame them considering the cynicism of ‘been done before’ they’re up against, wall of sound begins to kick in, drum machine thump thump, indistinguishable vocals over the F+ punk rock sound system. I’m immediately thinking oh, dare I say it: electroclash due to the lack of traditional instruments, artists like Peaches or more directly similar local bay area scene sisters: Crack: W.A.R, The Vanishing, and Ghost Orchids, though more coarse with the noise guitar, and all around gritty sound.
The Sixteens were the opening act and we both liked them. “Does this sound like what you’ve been seeing?” “Yeah, sure,” said Dion. “It sounds like what I used to see, too.” He was genuinely surprised. We both were.
They end, next on the bill is a spoken word/stand up performance complete with mediocre techno backing. Some humorous lines are pronounced along with interpretive dancers and simple film projection of military themes. Prostitute appearance to the harshest non-daydream extent. I’m reminded by the performance of BARR, man I once saw perform at Los Angeles’ mecca of experimentation, the Smell (he described himself as ‘talk over beats)’, or more so connective ramblings with political subjects. Her exit is as instantaneous as her entrance, ‘moving along’.
This was Monique Magdalena. Her slow peeling off of panties was reminiscent of Mommy’s Panty Boy, that obscure underground film classic. There were layers and layers. Still, no jamming of yams up her ass ala’ Karen Finley or Johanna Went tossing pig’s eyes into the audience, as I had seen in my day of the Mesozoic Era known as the 80’s. Hard to do anything but go back to square one if you weren’t driving a nail into your scrotum skin like Bob Flannagan had done.
The big event of the evening was a band (without name) formed from the pieces of the Units, Factrix and Tuxedo Moon. Well, Winston Tong was actually the only component of Tuxedo Moon, and his role in the 80’s art band had been relatively peripheral. I had followed Tong over the years – he’d done some fabulous performance art, even won an Obie for his earlier puppet theater work, such as “Bound Feet” and “Against Nature.” Later he contributed some quirky vocals and musical ideas to this truly original (and personal favorite) band Tuxedo Moon who had to move to Belgium to survive. I am reminded of Strother Martin’s character Dr. Poe in the film Hard Times, who drawled “I have a weakness…for opiates.” Such rumors had long swirled around most if not all involved with Tuxedo Moon. Tong’s own appearances had gotten increasingly slipshod and “improvised.” His show at the local Tsunami Festival in the latter 90’s had received such a bad review they actually posted it at the box office so you couldn’t get pissed off. I went in anyway and caught Tong in what appeared to be an early rehearsal with a band and dancers that seemed to barely know each other. An interesting if outrageously unprepared act. Tong disappeared from my radar after that, showing up only in an amateur Marin production of the life of Tibetan saint Padmasambhava. I knew some of the people in this show that was rumored to be so excruciating that I skipped it. However, I did hear that Winston was great in a role that he improvised every time he was on stage.
So here he was, at first mysterious and unrecognizable in a black hoody drifting around the side of the stage. His eyes were riveting. If he wore eyeliner, he had just enough to make you wonder. As he took the stage, I gasped. He could easily be 20 pounds thinner than when I’d seen him at the Tsunami Festival. Gaunt and vampiric, he began croaking away in a voice he hadn’t seemed to have bothered to warm up. The distinct lack of any solid beat was not helping his drowsy, blissful delivery, rubbery in syncopation. Tong looked like he thought he was doing very well, and the crowd, already tanked themselves, showed what I could only observe as an enormously overgenerous enthusiasm.
The final act. The main attraction; initially I see a skeletal figure, the years could’ve had a heart, however it is clear Winston wishes to use this to his advantage and it works well stretched along the bleak wail that follows. Appears goth attire birthed a trickle down effect that lingers, black etc. He encompasses his sound – unfortunately the other members of this rag-tag do not. No, I’m reminded of hippies, lost in the color disasters of the early 90’s psychedelic grunge. ‘Alternative’ I suppose? Possibly too old to care. Winston and his voice seem to be two separate entities, each without control over the other, sense of clinging unto a younger doppelganger of yourself hanging from a cliff through vocal chords. I shudder. Meanwhile the others carry similarly, a dimension to each his own, fragile spinal column of bass line the only unifying force, awkwardly sawing and ebbing along drowsily. Some art school film projection in the background injects slight anxiety, I’m told it’s Winston’s, intelligent decision. The bass player, the most annoying on the eyes of them all, a schoolteacher in an car crash with some kind of bobbing ‘let’s just jam it man’ sensibility. Keyboardist ain’t too bad, he wears a suit, safe move. I can’t distinguish gaps between songs, amorphous movement. Tong moans on. Those too clueless to understand the mortification at play waltz along in almost a mockery. My foot refuses to tap. Eventually Winston grasps his dignity and leaves the stage to the others, little time passes before a drunk presents us with a karaoke disaster. They finish up and the audience is high school talent-show-merciful. Only category manages to stick is ‘psychedelic’. Clean way to state: ‘a mess’. Well, perhaps the terms ‘ghostly’, ‘shapeless’, and well, ‘frightening’ suffice as well.
We head on home, catching a 33 bus the way I would’ve when I was Dion’s age. Certain questions came to mind after we talked over the night.
What is electroclash?
There you’ve done it. Ninety percent of the music journalist world immediately turns upon you in the saloon with aristocratic scorn. ‘Now just where were you in 2002?’ Los Angeles and New York snicker at you in unison. Excuse me, well, a collapse of the term: “electro” – a grave digging of earlier 80’s synth acts – from Missing Persons to Corey Hart. Now, “clash”: faint lifeline of punk beats through this vein, ‘don’t give a shit’ mind state, ‘now not then not when’, all the while incestuously sharing haircuts with early punk styles. Adjectives: decadent, sleazy-horny, snobbish, ultimately: fleeting. “Is” should be replaced with “was”. Nice return of hypersexual air to contemporary music. The term-scene-however you want to call it suffers the fate of hypemongers intent on declaring any moderately fresh acts as revolutionary. While the scene has marked another chapter in the tome of electronic music, still suffers the nostalgia lust of the current 60’s-80’s rebirth mistake. Highly danceable. Trash and class in flux. Artists?: A.R.E Weapons, Fischerspooner, Whatever It Takes, Peaches, Adult, Mount Sims. Fashion over substance, minimalism in its most conceited dress, as short lived as a one nite stand.
What is dark wave?
Ejected prematurely from the womb of electroclash uncoils darkwave. Acts have yet to define-flesh out the term/scene; however, in description: electronic beats often highlighted with subtle industrial noise / faux opera vocals. New wave sensibility/goth wave nihilism. Depeche Mode/Bauhaus/Joy Division the principal role models. Introspection more possible than it’s electroclash parent, as understood depression permits. Tearful beats to find your mascara running on your chin. Artists, again artists? The Faint / XOXOXO / Crack: W.A.R / Playgroup / I Am Spoonbender.
Any other pertinent sub-genres?
The meat grinder of journalist cutting edge ache never rests, millions exist, most interesting as innovative without ’revivalist’ necrophilia; the current expansion of industrial, dance-punk [although suffering Siamese dicksuck to Gang of Four] psych metal, noir wave, ambient, IDM [intelligent dance music], noise, noise pop, screamo, the combinations are as endless & ravenous as SPIN or alternative press magazines’ appetite.
Thank you, Astroboy & good night.
A couple of days later found us in my kitchen, talking film. I was giving Dennis Hopper’s directorial career in a nutshell, and mentioned how Colors was his director’s comeback, for better or worse, after being untouchable in the Industry for his notorious drug prehistory. It was well directed, but the plot was basically the old cowboy and the young cowboy (albeit Robert Duvall & Sean Penn), reworked as old cop/young cop, the elder and the youth.
“ You know,” I said. “Like us.”
Marc Olmsted & Dion Olivier