Two new books rummage through the rubble of No Wave New York
LIT An interviewee in Grant Gee's excellent 2007 documentary Joy Division posits that the gloomy Manchester band inverted punk's initial "Fuck you!" to convey a more atmospheric and ultimately unsettling sentiment of "I'm fucked." If so, the contemporaneous No Wave bands from New York City melted down those two approaches to one primal howl. Spiritually indebted to punk but suspicious of the first wave's rockist stance, the No Wavers pursued aggressive detachment and tongue-in-cheek dissonance with the all-in brio of performance artists.
With its loose aesthetic boundaries, abbreviated timeline, and incestuous collaborations, the No Wave years are ripe for the kind of anthropological studies offered by two recent illustrated histories, Marc Masters' No Wave (Black Dog, 205 pages, $29.95) and Thurston Moore and Byron Coley's No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York 1976-1980 (Abrams Image).
No Wave's bylines make for an unwieldy taxonomy: Rhys Chatam studied with LaMonte Young and Tony Conrad; Lydia Lunch was a teenage runaway; Arto Lindsey of DNA and Mark Cunningham and China Burg of Mars all met at Eckard College in St. Petersburg, Fla. Moore and Coley have the most fun with the movement's eclecticism. A No Wave coffee-table book may be a paradox, but they cram a fantastic level of detail into a handsome spread. If you want to learn that the artist Jeff Wall suggested the name of Glenn Branca's group Theoretical Girls, theirs is the tome for you. But Masters gets several broader trends right, like when he makes the crucial point that No Wave filmmakers like Beth and Scott B. were upsetting an established avant-garde just as much as No Wave's musicians were troubling their punk godparents.
Both No Wave overviews go to pains to limit their sphere of focus, though one does wish to read a little more about the movement's literary influences (William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, William Gibson) and outliers (Lizzy Mercier Descloux, please). Likewise, it would help to learn how the same set of city blocks produced Lydia Lunch and Madonna, and what exactly Jean-Michel Basquiat was doing all those nights at the Mudd Club.
But what these books skimp on context, they make up for in their rich detailing of No Wave's internal split between Lower East Side habitués and SoHo aesthetes. There's no question that Glenn Branca has influenced as many Mogwais as James Chance has Liars, but at the time of the movement's heyday, downtown NYC was contested terrain. Brian Eno's 1978 folklorist survey No New York (Phantom) conspicuously ignored the more outwardly intellectual SoHo contingent, and one still senses the bruised egos in Branca's stinging account: "We were doing music that was too similar to what [Eno] was thinking about," the composer explains, elsewhere fuming, "If those East Village bastards had ever come down to Barnabus [a Tribeca bar], they would have found ... as much sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll going on in our scene as theirs."
Never mind the bollocks, there's one clear constant refrain in all the No Wave testimonies: gimme cheap rent. Robert Christgau is right when he muses that No Wave's bundling of nihilism and self-righteousness was "symptomatic of formal exhaustion"; but beneath, one finds an obvious irony. Where the movement's progenitors were reacting to a perceived state of endless urban decay, their actions have, in retrospective, taken shape as an essential pre-gentrification story. As with Weimar Germany, No Wave is compelling for what was and for what followed.