Remembering a Wave That Was More of a Ripple

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 20, 2008

Alternative-rock godhead Thurston Moore wasn't part of New York's "no wave" music scene in the 1970s. But he was on the periphery, and there's photographic evidence to prove it: a black-and-white shot featuring some of no wave's central figures -- including Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Diego Cortez and Anya Phillips -- gathered outside CBGB, with Moore's Volkswagen Beetle parked across the street.

The picture, taken by punk-rock photographer David Godlis, appears at the front of a new coffee-table book, "No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York. 1976-1980." Compiled and written by Moore and music journalist Byron Coley, the book is part essay, part oral history and part visual documentation of no wave, an ephemeral, extreme, experimental punk-rock subgenre that bubbled up in a seedy section of downtown New York in the late 1970s and evaporated almost as quickly. (Moore and Coley will appear July 29 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art for a discussion and book signing.)

Beginning in 1977, when Moore moved to Manhattan from Connecticut as a teenager, he would follow his avant-garde impulses in various bands, from the Coachmen to Sonic Youth, which remains a vital art-rock force nearly 30 years after its formation.

But while he had noisy aesthetics in common with no-wave acts such as Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, DNA, the Contortions and Mars, all of whom were major influences on Sonic Youth, Moore says he was squarely on the outside of no wave, which came and went without the mainstream ever catching wind.

"I was living in New York on East 13th when no wave started happening," Moore says in a telephone interview.

"Walking around the streets of New York, this filthy slum of a town, I would see those people. We lived in the same neighborhood, and we'd be in the same clubs. But I wasn't intersecting that community in an active sense. I didn't hang out with those people, because I didn't know them.

"And I certainly wasn't going to see their bands. I didn't have any money -- and if I did, I [initially] didn't want to see them. Nobody did, except maybe their friends and a couple of New York rock writers. I'd be saving my money to see the Ramones."

The Ramones were punk rock. The no-wave bands were something else entirely: something more cacophonous, more confrontational, more contemptuous.

Moore recalls reading interviews with several no-wave artists in SoHo Weekly News in which the musicians, such as they were, attacked Patti Smith, Television and other figures on New York's burgeoning punk scene and then scoffed at the notion that making music even mattered. Says Moore, who became a convert: "It was amazing and shocking, because we had just gotten into these punk bands wiping out everything that came before them."

Singer-guitarist Lunch -- who founded Teenage Jesus and multiple other no-wave bands, all of them short-lived -- writes in the new book's foreword that "the anti-everything of no wave was a collective caterwaul that defied categorization, defiled the audience, despised convention, [defecated] in the face of history, and then split."

No wave lasted little more than four years, according to Moore and Coley's definition of the scene (others have cast it more broadly), and it was a localized "little blip," Moore says -- even with Brian Eno producing a genre compilation, "No New York," in 1978, and David Bowie listening closely from afar.

But its commercial impact was negligible. In fact, Moore jokes that there might be more no-wave books on the market now, between his own and Marc Masters's "No Wave," than there were no-wave record sales during the scene's existence.

"Nobody bought those records," he says with a laugh. "And then it was over. As soon as anybody plays any semblance of rock-and-roll or gets involved in any traditional aspects of musicmaking, that scene implodes."

Still, no wave's influence lives on in younger acts such as Liars, Wolf Eyes, Erase Errata and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (along with just about every band that's performed at D.C.'s Velvet Lounge over the past year).

And, of course, it continues to inform the music of Sonic Youth -- though the echo has grown faint over the years.

Moore was reminded of this two years ago when Sonic Youth's self-titled debut EP, from 1982, was reissued with a series of bonus tracks, recorded live in 1981. "The guitar playing sounds so much like Mars or DNA," Moore says. "I'd forgotten how much that was completely our thing."

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