Saturday, October 15, 2005

Too Damn Lengthy Piece Ostensibly about the Nihilist Spasm Band at the Western Front

My apologies to those who just want to read about the Nihilist Spasm Band show. I feel uncommonly reflective tonight, and am going to take awhile to come around to it; consider what follows a kind of roundabout dedication.

My own hard detective work aside, I believe I could fairly say that I owe my current Out-There tastes in music to about three people. (Victoria, Dan, Blake – I’m sorry that you aren’t on this list; you’ve all shared wonderful music with me – and Vic, introducing me to Zoviet France was a big deal, if your mention here puzzles you – but my tastes were already well-formed and ready for the music you turned me onto; I’m talkin’ about formative experiences here). The first of these three people was Ian Cochrane, a friend of my painter friend Thomas Ziorjen (Thomas, you also get points, but mostly for bein’ the guy I could share some of the stuff I was seeking out with – there wasn’t that much you introduced me to that stuck, tho’ I owe you my great love of the early albums of Brian Eno; it was more as co-traveller and articulate sounding-board that you played your role, not as music-introducer; in fact, my being able to introduce you to music is what I owe you the most credit for!). Ian was a former habituĂ© of the Funnel in Toronto, a filmmaker, painter, and all-round nice guy, who, because his work as a treeplanter made lugging records around too difficult, and because I’d made so many tapes for him of music I liked at the time (Sonic Youth, 80% of the SST roster, Sebadoh, and stuff like that, back in the 1980’s) decided to give me his record collection – about 40 slabs of vinyl, as I recall. Ian was responsible for my first hearing Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, James Blood Ulmer, the Vienna Art Orchestra, Meredith Monk, Marilyn Crispell, and a fair number of other artists, the like of whose sounds I had little or no conception of at that time (my early 20s). As a former punk rocker, hunting down odd music was like a connect-the-dots kind of experience, where one band I’d heard and liked would mention or pay tribute to another – the Minutemen’s cover of the Meat Puppets “Lost” led me to buying Meat Puppets II, for instance, something like 10 years before that other guy made them briefly famous and set them up for their eventual collapse... Henry Rollins really helped, too, with an article in an early issue of Spin where he praised the Stooges Fun House and, more significantly, the Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat, neither of which I knew at the time. Mostly, tho', I still was sitting pretty close to popular music; I remember referring to Dinosaur Jr. as “noisy,” in conversation with Keith at Scratch (he also turned me on to a few good things now and then), but they sound positively top-40 compared to music I now consume. Ian’s gift radically resituated me outside the envelope of the music I’d been listening to and brought me into the world of art music, avant-garde music, experimental music, free jazz, noise – call it what you will, his gift changed my life, musically. (By the way, Ian has recorded his own CD, Vancouver Bridges: Six Sound Compositions Honoring the Bridges of Vancouver, which is quite a treat for Those Who Hear, tho' damned if I know how you can get a hold of it (ambient sound freaks are welcome to make requests here, though... the only references to Ian I can find on the web are a couple of mentions on Emily Carr sites and this curiosity
here, the minutes of an experimental film group from 1980; Ian has low web visibility). I delightfully ran into him during his collection of source sounds for the project, squatting at 11 PM on Burrard Bridge with his gear, gesturing to me to be quiet because he was recording – it was quite a surprise to meet him thus, but it’s a whole ‘nuther story, so we’ll have to set it aside).

The second person who I owe my music to, I do not personally know: a former jazz promoter named Mary Lou. I knew by hearsay that she’d been at Charles Mingus’ funeral (or was it Eric Dolphy’s?) and that she’d been on the jazz scene during 1960’s, in both New York and, primarily, I think, Chicago. Because of Ian, I was hunting for free jazz; because of Mary Lou, I found it. When she sold a big chunk of her free jazz collection, I bought it, including stacks of BYG/Actuel originals and
AACM related stuff (including Maurice McIntyre’s Humility in the Light of Creator, which is one of my favourite pieces from that time, tho’ o’ course it was the Art Ensemble of Chicago that were the major discovery, for me). It was her collection that turned me on to Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Sonny Simmons, Muhal Richard Abrams, Dave Burrell, Alan Silva, Marion Brown, Anthony Braxton, and more; I basically bought any and everything from the Mary Lou collection that I could afford, and it was all I listened to for years (deluging poor Thomas with tape after tape after tape of stuff that just mostly registered as unlistenable noise to him). Ian’s collection whetted my appetite; Mary Lou’s fed it.

The person who sold me much of Mary Lou’s free jazz collection was the late Ty Scammell, who used to sell records in back of the Vancouver Flea Market, and he’s the reason for this roundabout dedication; he is actually the second most important person on the list, after Ian, but I wanted to build up to it, because I've been thinking about Ty all the way back from the Western Front, where the gig occured. This is in fact the second tribute to Ty on the web -- you can also read about his role in salvaging from permanent obscurity the sole LP, pressed in an initial run of 100, of the BC-based "outsider music"/"Godcore" project
the New Creation, in this bloggish thing here -- skip down to the paragraph that begins "In the 1970's..." if you're impatient). Ty was an elfin, friendly, self-described old hippie who knew I liked weird music and wanted to oblige me, because I was a regular customer. It was probably me he was thinking of when he bought Mary Lou’s collection; he brought me to his home so I could look through it, smoke a joint with him, and even invited me to join him to watch some hockey, tho' I declined; and it was my pleasure and enjoyment (and, well, his profit, too, but business isn’t always evil!) that led to him turning me on to a whole lot of other stuff, including Fred Frith (I still remember the copy of Skeleton Crew’s Learn to Talk that I bought off him – and Thomas could get off on that one, too! -- or, say, Bob Ostertag, Phil Minton, and Frith's Voice of America -- there were no other record dealers in Vancouver who were turning me on to stuff like that; when I'm at Mr. Frith's concert on the 19th, I'll have to tip my hat to Ty). And it was from Ty that I first heard of the Nihilist Spasm Band. I remember him deepening his voice and reciting, “No Canada! Home of the beaver!” as an illustration of their art – it didn’t, at the time, actually sell me on them, though his description of the music sounded interesting. Ty died a couple years ago of cancer, and I must admit I copped out on wishing him well the one time I had a chance to do so – I was at the flea market on one of the days when he was packing up, but I knew he had cancer, and I wanted to spare both myself and him the awkwardness that might ensue, if I approached him in public and tried to wish him well, particularly if it was obvious that I knew what was going on. Ty wasn’t telling people he was sick, I’d heard it from someone else; I didn't feel close enough to intrude into whatever he might have been going through, tho' I kind of regret it. I wish I’d run into Ty some other way, after that, in a less public spot. His life affected mine, and I liked him -- his sincerity, enthusiasm, his humour, and, well, his LPs... damn he had some good ones. Anyhow, I’m dedicating this blog entry to him, since he was the man who placed the words “Nihilist Spasm Band” in my ear all those years ago.

The Nihilist Spasm Band just played their first and probably (based on things Bill Exley was saying) their only Vancouver gig in their 40 year history. I am wearing a Nihilist Spasm Band t-shirt as I type this (see photo). I have a lyric from a Nihilist Spasm Band scribbled in Sharpie on my right hand, too (also visible in the photo, tho’ mirrored): it reads: “I care about what you think – it’s just wrong.” I would be listening to one of their CDs, but my ears are still ringing, so there’s no need. The band took the stage late -- Bill Exley dressed somewhat formally, his beard well trimmed and spectacles glinting, with a little pin on his sweater with a crossed out musical note on it, the symbol of the band -- and began the night with "What About Me?", with his deep booming baritone pushing at the outer ranges of his vocal control: "You say the CN Tower is the largest freestanding structure in the world? What about me?" It was one of the things that surprised me about the night: I recognized quite a few of the songs; I only own one of their CDs, but I must have listened to it (and the previous one of theirs I had for awhile in Japan, before deciding "one was enough," which decision I definitely went back on last night) more often than I realized. They did "Stupidity," "No Canada," "Indecision of the Night" and the piece about how the band have (or Exley has?) "Nothing to Say" but can say it very well, which actually seems more the band's satire of academia than a joke about themselves, tho' the band do joke about themelves a fair bit. (Exley at one point explained that they used to answer their critics by saying, very gravely, "It's the best that we can do.") Mostly they made noise. Art Pratten played the Prat-O-Various, a stringless violin-like thing that we assume he designed, and something else that they called a "water pipe," tho' no, it's not like that; it looked like the neck of some reeded instrument, tapering down into what may well have been a portion of a broomstick, apparently with pickups on it somewhere, since, tho' Pratten blew into it like a sax, it appeared not to have much of a chamber for the sound to resonate in, nor any visible opening for the sound to emerge from (I didn't examine it closely, tho'). John Boyle, the most playful-looking member, played a really big and complex kazoo (which you can see near the bottom of
this cool page on the band), a thumb piano, and sometimes drums; John Clement played guitar and drums; Murray Favro -- the most musicianly-looking member of the band, visible on the right, here -- played guitar and drums; and two guests appeared, replacing the late Hugh McIntyre and Greg Curnoe. I'm not sure of the name of the young guitarist -- Tim Classen, maybe (I'm trying to read the signature where I pestered him -- he's not on the band's website's "Member's Page"). The other, Aya Onishi, was a cute-but-not-too-cute (which, when you're talking about Japanese girls, is a Very Good Thing, because Japanese girls who are "too cute" tend to look like cartoon characters) drummer who also doubled on something identified merely as "pipe," a long horn with a weird extra chamber that seemed basically to operate on the principle of the kazoo, without sounding too much like a kazoo. Actually, from what I heard when she was manning the kit, Aya is probably the best "musician" of the band, ironically enough -- given how they've been playing together nearly-weekly since 1965, mostly at art galleries, clubs, and coffee shops, the maybe 30 year old Aya brought a hell of a lot of force to the music they played, and made some superb drummerly choices, bringing an edge of tribalistic fury to their racket, while still being damned noisy in her own right (I hope I don't get in trouble for praising the musicianship of an NSB member, given their feelings about amateurism!). We gather she's a member of the Osaka band Sekiri (not much English web visibility but I think you can find some of their CDs for sale on the Japanese-only Alchemy Reords site -- good luck!). My apologies to the rest of the band for doting on Aya, but damn, she's cute and female and she kind of stands out, you know? Apparently she started playing with the band in 1996, during their first tour of Japan...

Then, of course, there was Bill Exley. He played the cooking pot, or sometimes things in the cooking pot, at various points during the night -- holding it dramatically up to the microphone and dropping ball bearings into it, say, or closing the lid repeatedly, or sometimes shaking it with the ball-bearings inside. Sometimes he picked up a regular-type kazoo or other little instruments. Mostly he sang; usually songs began with him declaiming lyrics with a perfect balance of mockery and bombast, so that it at times could be difficult to tell what, exactly, he was serious about, other than the value of art; I'm pretty sure in "Meat Eater" that when he sings that "dolphin is delicious" and denounces the consumption of his plant brothers, he is joking, but the majority of the politically-sensitive Vancouver crowd didn't seem to think it safe to laugh too loudly at that one. (Similar humour can be found on their No Borders collaboration with Joe McPhee, on the track "United Nations," wherein Salvador Allende is called "worse than Hitler" but Pinochet "not so bad.") He looks more like a professor, which he is, than a noise musician; oh to have Bill Exley as a professor! He probably got his bigget cheers for performing a song the name of which I do not know, which the band used to leave from their set for being "too anti-American," but now -- he explained -- are including -- a piece that praises America's prowess and ends with Exley bellowing "Fuck me, America!" After such declamations, Exley would mostly moan into the microphone, sometimes with an arm raised to the sky. Often he would just stand back and grin at what the rest of the band were doing.

The great thing about the Nihilist Spasm Band is that, even tho' they have a hell of a sense of humour and humility, they actually make very interesting noise! (I at times tried to bliss out by closing my eyes, the best way to listen to noise being in the dark, but they were just too interesting to watch, so I didn't make it). For all their mock-intensity and clear self-confidence, I'm not sure, given their ironic approach to what they do, how seriously they could receive the standing ovation they received at the end of the night -- perhaps it was strange for them, given that they've had somewhat less warm receptions at other times in their long career... The band have to know that for some of us, seeing the Nihilist Spasm Band play was a pretty precious and unique experience, not something to be taken lightly; that they actually have an important place in the history of a certain kind of music, and that it's actually damned cool that a Canadian band occupies that space; that when Bill Exley said that art is "the only true vocation," those of us who agree with him (and can't make it to London, Ontario every Monday night) felt great privilige to be sitting in a room hearing him say it (tho' it's kind of unfortunate that Japan and Europe would see these guys tour before they'd come Vancouver -- but that's a can of worms I don't really want to open here, albeit a very Canadian one). There's probably a whole essay to be written on the role a sort of nationalist pride played during the gig, which in its own way would be full of irony, too, since much that Exley says about Canada (like that, unlike the US, it doesn't need to be destroyed, because "it's dead already") is fairly, uh, self-effacing...

Which brings me to the definite high point of the show, from an ironic nationalist point of view (tho' not from a noise-music one): at midway through the night, the band conferred behind the drum kit and decided, because a) he was in attendance, as his earlier raffle-win testified; b) because his birthday is coming up; and c) because he might not make it to his birthday, given "how old" he is -- the band are sometimes other-effacing in their humour, too -- they should invite George Bowering, the (I feel the desire to say "fucking" for emphasis here but don't want to offend anyone) Poet Laureate of Canada, to get on stage (or, well, given the level floor of the Western Front, to move to the front of the room) and jam with them, which George did, blushing and grinning in about equal measure as he a) spent about five minutes trying to figure out how to strap on his guitar; b) got up some confidence to start working out on the thing; and c) progressed to adopting for-fun rockstar poses, wiggling his hips, hitting cymbals with the neck, trading riffs with Murray Favro, and finally playing his instrument with his teeth (the broadness of George's irony actually points out something somewhat subtle about the rest of the bands approach to irony, but it seems weird to describe the Nihilist Spasm Band as subtle about anything, so I don't think I'll pursue the thought). Art Pratten (and a few members of the audience, myself included) broke into laughter over Bill's introduction to the first piece they did -- the idea of the Poet Laureate performing "Destroy the Nation" (including the bit about Canada being dead) was pretty satisfying. They then moved on to what I believe was one of their late bassist, Hugh McIntyre's, compositions, called "Hurting." George stayed onstage for about fifteen minutes and got a good workout. If he'd stuck around after the show, I would have gotten to sign the CD I bought, which I had the rest of the band autograph (I even asked Mr. Exley's wife, up at the merch table, but she didn't feel she belonged on it).

So... What about me? I was the guy who bought a copy of No Borders then won another at the raffle, which I later got to exchange for this neat t-shirt. I was the guy who borrowed a Sharpie off Anna, lent it to that guy from the Magic Flute that I always see, and proceeded, when he returned it (having gotten them in the interval to sign the repress of their first LP) to bug the whole band to sign my CD (asking Aya in polite Japanese, of course, which she got a kick out of). (By the way, Anna, I gave your Sharpie back to DB -- you were gone!). I was the guy sitting in the second row who initiated more applause than anyone else, who was one of the first five people to get the standing ovation going. I made contact with a couple of the guys from Psychform, who drove for seven hours up from Seattle to see this show, and got to chat with Heather of the Creaking Planks a bit (thanks, Dan, for directing me to their website). Mostly, I was the guy who went home after the show and wrote this, mostly while eating pizza I had delivered. I was a happy guy, last night.

So thanks to the Nihilist Spasm Band for coming to Vancouver for the first time in 40 years, and thanks to Ty of the Flea Market for having whispered their name to me so many years ago, so that I would know, when I saw their Alchemy CDs in Japan, that I needed to check them out.

Too bad I can't be at the tribute to Al Neil tonight... DB tells me he won't actually be playing, though!

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