James Chance Remembered: “James would get into a fight with the audience and you’d have to go defend him.”

In memory of James Chance, who has sadly passed away aged 71, MOJO revisits our interview with Chance and his fellow No Wave disruptors

James Chance

by Andrew Male  |
Updated on

“Nasty, harsh, dissonant, crude, feral, brutal, ugly, minimalist”: no wave was punk rock’s even more sociopathic sibling, feeding off funk and jazz and bankrupt New York’s grot and chaos to vomit forth music and performances of astonishing strangeness and violence. In remembrance of prime mover James Chance, who was sadly passed away aged 71, we revisit our 2017 interview with Chance and his fellow heretics. “It had to be brutal,” they tell Andrew Male: “a short sharp stick in the eye...”

“I first came to New York on December 27th 1975,” remembers James Chance. “I’d been playing sax in Milwaukee, with a band called Death. Walls of feedback. Total incomprehension. I read in The Village Voice there was all this free-type loft jazz happening in Soho, plus little ads for ‘Ramones’ and ‘Television’, and what the hell is a ‘CBGBs’? That first night there was a concert with Lester Bowie on Avenue C and Third. I knew nothing about that neighbourhood. I started walking east on Bleecker. There’s CBGBs! Then all of a sudden there’s all these buildings falling down, burned out, vacant lots full of debris, bricks and stones everywhere. Somehow it didn't feel dangerous. In Milwaukee I’d walk around, fantasising about blowing people’s heads off. Here, I’m looking at garbage piled six feet high and I feel at home. I felt like I fit in.”

By the end of 1975, New York was on the brink of collapse. Following industrial decline, middle-class flight, and profligate spending, the heavily-in-debt city had been abandoned by the US government, and was living off bank loans that necessitated drastic municipal cuts. With a diminished police force and fire department, and striking sanitation workers, the city was also coping with an arson epidemic, as tenants and landlords alike torched properties in the hope of being rehoused or recompensed. Yet, as the infrastructure crumbled, something emerged from the ruins. Thanks to cheap rents and cheap gallery spaces, New York’s downtown had become a magnet for art students, looking for somewhere affordable to live and work.

“I arrived in New York in September 1974,” remembers Arto Lindsay. “I was at Eckerd College in Florida, interested in contemporary dance, and following everything in the New York art world; that’s where you went to be an artist.”

Lindsay, who’d grown up in Brazil, where his parents worked as missionaries, arrived in New York with his college room-mate, theatre student Mark Cunningham, and fellow Eckard student Connie Burg. “I was a New Jersey kid listening to rock,” says Cunningham. “Arto turned me onto Brazilian music. We listened to ethnographic music, Velvet Underground, free jazz. I was studying avant-garde theatre; it was all happening in New York. But in the first two months we were already hanging out at CBGBs. We saw Television and the Ramones, both just starting out. The name ‘punk’ wasn't there yet. To us, Ramones were a New York rock band. But none of those bands had an affinity for us, except maybe in the sense of a primitivism. It was more a feeling. Not that it was easy to do, but that it was possible to do.”

At the end of ’75 Cunningham and Burg hooked up with a pair of visual artists, Bronx-born country-blues obsessive Sumner Crane, and resins sculptor Nancy Arlen. The foursome jammed in Arlen’s loft, with Crane playing piano, Cunningham on bass, Burg on acoustic guitar, and Arlen “drumming” on paper bags. Eventually realising there’d be no pianos in the clubs they’d probably end up playing, the group bought some cheap Danelectro-Silvertones and a drum kit and began rehearsing six night a week for the next year.

Called China before they later changed the name to Mars, the group debuted at a CBGBs audition in February 1977. Their early sound was a primal post-Velvets spasm, elevated to the surreal by the sinister speaking-in-tongues vocals of Crane and Burg, and a tribal delirium that grew stronger each gig.

“The madness was there from the beginning,” stresses Cunningham. “It just mutated, and became darker.”

“Connie Burg played slide because she didn’t know chords,” says James Chance, an early Mars witness. “All the other no wave guitarists picked up the slide from her.”

One of Mars’ biggest fans was a mouthy teenage poet called Lydia Anne Koch, who arrived from upstate New York in 1976.

Dubbed Lydia Lunch by CBGB house musician Willy De Ville, because she was so good at stealing food for bands, this “obnoxious, arrogant” 16-year old came determined, as she puts it today, “to shit in the face of history.”

“I was hoping to do spoken word,” explains Lunch. “It was only after seeing Suicide and Mars that I thought a band could work. Punk had been people complaining about ‘issues’, whereas Suicide was living Theatre Of Cruelty, while Mars was these disturbed individuals screaming about their personal insanities. Somewhere between Mars and Suicide young Lydia found a pocket to carve with a knife.”

“I met Lydia at CBGBs,” remembers Chance. “CBs and Max’s had no dance floors. Punk had removed dancing from the equation. Everyone just stood around trying to look cool. That’s why I noticed Lydia. She was dancing in the aisle. I started talking to her. She showed me this long prose poem she’d written. I was very impressed, so I let her move in with me. She had an old beat-up acoustic guitar and started banging on it, playing these songs she’d written.”

“I told him I was starting a band called Teenage Jesus And The Jerks,” says Lunch. “The name came from Bradley Field, who’d been part of the Cleveland punk scene. I met him when he was setting fire to a homeless person outside CBGBs. I stamped that person out, and asked Bradley to join my band. He absolutely did not want to. He just wanted to drink himself into oblivion.”

“Lydia had a brilliant idea of Bradley playing just snare and cymbal,” says Chance, “Which was all he could play anyway. He was scary. He’d get completely drunk, pick fights and get beaten up, because he was, like, my size. And she had this bass player, Reck, who looked like a little Japanese Richard Hell.”

Teenage Jesus’ first gig was a CBGB audition on June 27, 1977. It was ten minutes long. Too short by regular gig standards but a lifetime in the boxing ring of Field’s zombie-slugged cymbal-snare and Reck’s gut-punch bass backing Lunch’s “hateful aggressive brat-rants” and razor-saw whirlpool of broken bottleneck slide. Chance skronked on sax, spiralling around as the rest stood terrifying still.

“We were precise, tight, disciplined. It had to be brutal,” says Lunch. “A short sharp stick in the eye. James wanted to mingle. I wanted to put up a fucking wall.”

Jim Sclavunos, then an NYU film student who ran a punk fanzine called No as a way to promote his band and get into gigs free, remembers his first Teenage Jesus experience.

“I’d imagined what punk might be,” he says. “And Ramones and Richard Hell were great, but never felt extreme enough. Suicide came close, but there still seemed to be a step beyond. Then I saw Teenage Jesus: this nasty, harsh, dissonant, crude, feral, brutal, ugly, minimalist… thing. None of those adjectives were something I’d ever thought I wanted to hear. But there it was.”

Surplus to requirements, Chance, a child piano prodigy who’d spent three years at Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, irking instructors with Thelonius Monk and Cecil Taylor abstractions, set about recruiting his own band. Pat Place, a 24-year-old visual arts student from Chicago, drawn to New York’s downtown chaos following the premature death of her older brother, still remembers the hiring process.

“I was going to CBGBs and Max’s every night,” says Place. “I felt life was short and I needed the urgency. James literally came up and said, ‘Uh, I was in Teenage Jesus, but I’m starting my own band. I really like your hair. Do you play an instrument?’”

Place was invited to rehearsals at a loft space on Delancey Street, an old vaudeville theatre, where Lunch was now living with Sumner Crane.

“I showed up with a borrowed bass and of course I couldn't play,” says Place, laughing. “So James said, Well why don't you try guitar!? I’d seen Connie Burg and Lydia play slide so I said, I can do that.”

Also in the Contortions mix was Adele Bertei, a Cleveland punk alumnus like Bradley Field who’d moved to New York following the death of her friend and collaborator, Pere Ubu founder Peter Laughner.

“James said, ‘Sit in on drums,” remembers Bertei. “‘Hey, you’ve got natural rhythm! Play the Acetone organ.’ He wanted me to play tone clusters. It was all about playing these odd syncopated polyrhythms off each other, very aggressively.”

“Adele looked like this tough little female pimp,” says Chance. “Very swaggering. None of them could really play the music I’d written, but they came up with their version of it.”

The Contortions’ first show was at Max’s Kansas City on December 4, 1977. By the middle of 1978, supplemented by Jack Ruby bassist George Scott III, Don Christensen and Jody Harris, drummer and guitarist from local neo-surf abstractionists, Raybeats, they’d become formidable: brittle, amphetamine-wired polyrhythms, coloured by Place and Bertei’s atonal abstractions, all backing Chance’s outbursts of pained croon, skronk-jazz and physical violence.

“They were unbelievable,” says future Lounge Lizard John Lurie, who’d moved to New York with his saxophone in 1974. “Jody Harris, George Scott and Donny Christensen were in the pocket, really nailing this James Brown stuff. And Pat Place was doing her sort of Joan Of Arc thing, with this ascending, rising apocalypse guitar sound. Adele would be banging away on that organ, and James was almost like watching an autistic James Brown. Then he’d get into a fight with people in the audience, and you’d have to go defend him. Then Anya Phillips came in, and they were just rude to everybody. It was already over, you know?”

“I’d met Anya at this benefit for X Magazine, in March, 1978,” says Chance. “She’d gone there with her friend [art curator and scenester] Diego Cortez. Everybody was just sat on the floor. All these arty types. Real intellectual. Couldn't stand them. I wanted to take them down a few pegs. I got mad and waded in. Then I got inspired, started slapping a few around.”

Chance fought his way to the back of the room. Sitting in front of him was Phillips. A photographer, clothes designer, dominatrix at CBGBs and exotic dancer at a burlesque club in Times Square, whose father had been a general under Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, she was the formidable ace face on the punk scene, and the co-founder, with Cortez, of The Molotov Cocktail Lounge, soon to be renamed The Mudd Club.

“I thought, Ooh, shall I attack Anya?” remembers Chance. “But, no, discretion is the better part of valour. She came up after the show. We ended up hanging out. A little later she decided she wanted to manage the Contortions. She’d been in Germany, was impressed by the Baader-Meinhof thing, and said she had a choice between becoming a terrorist or a capitalist. So she decided to manage the Contortions and do both.”

“Anya was my girlfriend before she met James,” says Adele Bertei, “and she was adorable. A beautiful young girl who arrived with her eyes wide open, ready for everything. But with James it became this strange power couple. They were very much in love, and it influenced the dynamic of the band greatly.”

As well as introducing James Chance to Anya Phillips, the X Magazine benefit highlighted the tensions between the more visceral East Village bands like Mars, Teenage Jesus and Contortions, and the “arty types” who congregated around The Kitchen art centre, in SoHo. Very much at the art end was 25-year-old New Yorker Rhys Chatham. A former piano tuner for Glenn Gould, who’d studied under La Monte Young, and founded the Kitchen's experimental music program in 1971 while still a teenager, Chatham’s first ever rock gig was The Ramones, at CBGBs in May 1976.

“It was far more complex than what I was doing,” he says, laughing. “They were working with three chords. I was working with one. But I felt an affinity. The next day I got a Fender Telecaster.”

After playing out with London art students Nina Canal and Robert Appleton in The Gynecologists, Chatham started messing with guitar harmonics. With the encouragement of Canal, and the help of guitarist Glenn Branca of SoHo art-noise quartet Theoretical Girls, Chatham unveiled his Guitar Trio at Max’s Kansas City in 1978. “I was scared,” says Chatham. “This secret agent in a foreign country. ‘SoHo Person!’ I thought I’d get lynched because we were going to play one E chord, for TWENTY MINUTES! Then DO IT AGAIN! But we turned the amplifier up to eleven, and, because of the overtones, people were asking the sound person, Where are you hiding the singers? When I heard that I felt good. They loved it.”

Somewhere in the middle of this SoHo/East Village divide was Arto Lindsay’s DNA. Formed in 1978, and consciously intended as the dyspeptic doinky antithesis to Mars’ relentless post-Velvets glossolalia, DNA purposefully shunned the SoHo art-spaces yet approached their music very much as art project.

“We appreciated rock’n’roll as theatre,” says Lindsay. “It was very self-conscious. I’d stand in the middle of the stage, shout in a bluesy vibe, then do a falsetto woman’s part, then step away from the microphone and stare out the audience, acknowledging that the whole thing involved masks.”

Central to DNA’s sonic and visual aesthetic was the ritualistic metronomic drumming of Ikue Mori, who’d arrived from Tokyo with her boyfriend Reck and, says Adele Bertei, is an integral part of the missing “her-story” of no wave.

“Women like Ikue, China Burg, Nina Canal of Ut, all had ways of playing that had never been heard before,” says Bertei. “When Brian Eno arrived in New York, he was very drawn to the scene because of the women. He found that exciting. In all senses of the word.”

According to legend, Eno arrived in New York in April 1978 to produce Talking Heads’ second album, More Songs About Buildings And Food. He saw a number of downtown bands at Artists Space that May, recording four of them at Big Apple Studio a few weeks later, for an album to be called No New York. “I have to debunk that,” says Mark Cunningham. “We started recording late June. He’d have had to hear us, propose the album to Island, and get us all into the studio in one month. Does that sound possible? Eno first saw us at CBGB’s Theatre in December ’77. Maybe he came and went, but he was there for two years.”

Another story still up for debate is how the Eno project went from whole scene sampler - one track per band - to a showcase for just the East Village acts: Mars, Teenage Jesus, Contortions, and DNA contributing four tracks each.

“Anya and I convinced him to do that,” insists Arto Lindsay. “It would have been nice if Rhys or Glenn’s bands had been on there but it wasn't about keeping SoHo bands off. It was more about doing better for ourselves.”

No New York was released in November 1978. Compared to live recordings that have surfaced subsequently, Eno’s album barely does justice to the sonic extremities each band was capable of. But what it did do was provide a lasting studio document of a scene about to implode.

The first band to sense the finality was Mars. Following the release of No New York Mars cut their final four tracks, released as an EP, in 1980. “That was the last time we played together,” says Cunningham. “We were aware of a deconstruction process, of going down to something primal and basic, until there was nowhere to go.”

“The Eno album encouraged a hierarchical thing,” says Ut’s Nina Camp. “Mars were notably not interested, but Lydia didn't say no. James didn't say no. Anya definitely didn't say no.”

Following the recording of No New York Lydia Lunch sacked her bassist, Gordon Stevenson, and recruited Jim Sclavunos, first taking his virginity. “She announced that from the outset,” he says. Once in the band, Sclavunos and fellow No mag scribe Chris Nelson invited Lydia and James to move into their brownstone. “It turned into the hell-house,” says Sclavunos. “It was the apotheosis of our LSD intake. Heavy objects through glass windows. Animal House meets the Manson Family. Lydia set up this self-destruct thing: when she was no longer a teenager the band would cease to exist. She kicked Bradley out and recruited her boyfriend Johnny O’Kane. A very troubled man. [In 2012 O’Kane made headlines in San Pedro by shooting his girlfriend to death, calling the police, then turning the gun on himself.] I do remember he was far more interested in smoking his cigarette than playing the drums.”

Simultaneously to Teenage Jesus’ slow collapse, Lunch and Sclavunos formed Beirut Slump, the "slow, torturous bloody drag [to] Teenage Jesus’ hate fuck” best experienced on the Bobby Berkowitz 7” from March, 1979.

“Named after The Son Of Sam,” says Sclavunos, laughing. “Cultural despair permeated everything, and Son Of Sam was like a kind of crucible. The nihilism wasn’t just coming from nowhere.”

“We were living in this junkyard dystopia,” says Adele Bertei. “There was a fearlessness. Then, almost overnight, you couldn't swing a dead cat without running into a heroin dealer. Things suddenly devolved. I walked away.”

“Everything changed when we recorded [Buy], the first Contortions album for Ze Records,” says Pat Place. “Money came into the picture. Heroin came into the picture. Anya wanted to make James the star, James went along with it. We all quit after this gig in Paris where they blew all the money, and didn't pay the band.”

“There’d been tensions before Anya joined,” admits Chance. “Yes, she was extremely uncompromising, but she knew what she was doing. They thought she had these dark designs on making the band commercial, but it wasn't the music Anya wanted to change, it was the image. We bought everyone these really nice sharkskin jackets, but no-one seemed interested.”

“She was his girlfriend,” says Arto Lindsay, “And it’s easier to bitch about the girlfriend. But she pushed them. She had persuasive abilities. DNA certainly hoped we’d be a success, but we were naive about what that involved. Anya was more aware.”

Following the devolution of the Buy line-up, Chance assembled a new Contortions, incorporating musicians from the downtown jazz scene, including Lester Bowie’s younger brother Joseph.

“Punks hated jazz,” says Chance. “The first black faces in No Wave were in my band. We became the top live draw in New York, Anya was going to manage the Mudd Club, but then she had a huge feud with the co-owner. Then our Ze Records relationship got destroyed because [label boss] Michael Zilkha hired someone who took a personal grudge against us. We started recording for Chris Stein’s label, then Anya got sick. Then Blondie broke up and Chrysalis dropped Chris’ label. I called my agent one day and there was no agent.”

Anya Phillips died of cancer in June of 1981. The Mudd Club, along with Danceteria, which had opened in 1979, transformed the downtown scene from war zone to party central, signalling, for many, the end of a scene borne of community in austerity.

“Everything changed with Danceteria,” says Rhys Chatham. “At GBGBs I once did a gig with eight people and got paid five dollars. Danceteria said, We’re making all kinds of money, we should share it. Suddenly bands were making $1000 a night.”

“Danceteria were paying a lot of money,” says Pat Place. “Plus, heroin and cocaine were huge. Everyone was partying, people were dying. It was ending.”

“There wasn’t any official end of no wave,” says Jim Sclavunos. “DNA and Contortions carried on, but changed their sound. The club scene changed, but not in a negative way – bigger venues, more diverse crowds. I didn't see anything negative about it.”

“That scene did end,” says Mark Cunningham, “and it was abrupt. 1980. Cocaine, heroin, and money. It made everything more competitive, egotistical. The integrity reconstituted itself around Swans, Sonic Youth, and the improv scene. A few years later but…”

“I was never into heroin, so that saved me,” says Lydia Lunch. “I was ostracised for not being a junkie, but I still consider myself no wave. I don’t feel comfortable in any other term. No Wave wasn’t a style. It’s an attitude, or an application. No wave was based on insanity and extreme dissidence, being outside of just about everything. I still consider myself no wave because it fits nowhere else.”

This feature originally appeared in MOJO 279

Photograph: Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images

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