ONLY NOISE: Glenn Branca’s Final Ascension

I wound up at the Kitchen sort of by mistake. It was a Tuesday – February 23rd, 2016 to be precise. It had been a year since the worst week of my life, and sitting at my desk after a long day of designing women’s underwear, I longed for a little culture that evening, a little date with myself. So I scrolled through concert listings on Oh My Rockness, hoping for a name to leap out at me. February is not the most happening time for live music in the city, and my backup plan involved a movie and/or overpriced meal for one. But the backup plan wasn’t necessary; as I scanned through the concert listings, a name did leap out at me, and though I wasn’t positive why I recognized that name, I bought a ticket without hesitation.

That name was Glenn Branca, and in the days since his death last week, headlines, tweets, and obituaries can all agree on one thing: if you weren’t familiar with Branca’s music, there’s no way you have escaped the music he’s influenced. His brash guitar symphonies were loved by the likes of David Bowie, and imitated by Sonic Youth. He was a pioneer of the No Wave movement alongside John Zorn and James Chance, and he pushed the boundaries of music, noise, and everything in between. His first two solo records, 1980’s Lesson No. 1 and The Ascension from the following year demolished and restructured the contemporary approach to the electric guitar, rock’n’roll, and classical composition. Branca’s work was loud, dangerous, and so cutting edge that it moved legendary avant garde composer John Cage to feel “disturbed” by it.

Branca was the man that conducted serrated, unnerving orchestras with 100 electric guitars, slapped punk rock into something more upright and threatening with his early band Theoretical Girls, and released early music by Swans and Sonic Youth on his record label, Neutral. His legacy coincides with the explosive art movement in ‘70s and ‘80s New York, but unlike many of his contemporaries, Branca never lost a scrap of relevancein fact, his mystique and ability to stun an audience only seemed to intensify with age. It must have been some peripheral knowledge of all these accomplishments that congealed in my gut when I saw Branca’s name on the concert listings for the evening. Perhaps it was the faint memory of an interview with him I’d read in a copy of The Believer’s 2014 music issue. Either way, I am glad I trusted my gut.

When I entered the Kitchen in Chelsea, the staff was passing out earplugs as guests took their seats. I remember thinking that I’d never been encouraged to wear ear protection at a venue with bleacher seating and a median age of 58, but I figured they knew best. I sat down with my packet of foam plugs and leafed through the pamphlet I’d been handed, which gave the whole event a whiff of the fine art or theater world. I still wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting myself into. And then Branca and his six-musician ensemble crawled out onto the sunken stage.

It was rapturous. Branca, who had stopped playing guitar years prior during Symphony #1, was a dedicated conductor until the end of his life, though his methods of conducting were unconventional to say the least. He used his entire body to communicate with his ensemble, who that night included one drummer, one bassist, and four electric guitarists (one of whom was Reg Bloor, his widow). That evening’s rendition of the Third Ascension was marked by Branca’s spasmodic movements: flits of the wrist, flicks of his hips, and general shimmying that somehow effectively communicated volume, rhythm, and attitude to his performers. It was in fact loud, and so dissonant that it was blissful, like the moment pain becomes cathartic. I remembered a quote from that Believer interview I’d read two years prior, during which Branca said, “If you don’t like loud music, don’t bother with my music.” This, I learned, was a characteristic thing for Branca to say. He was a fabulous curmudgeon, who wore the same black outfit every day, his blazer pocket crammed full of pens like soldiers standing at attention. His teeth were chipped, and he looked like a more brawny, attractive older brother to Shane MacGowan.

In between songs at the Kitchen, while his group fiddled with odd tunings, Branca felt obligated to talk the crowd. His raspy voice and mischievous demeanor felt instantly familiar, perhaps because he seemed a kindred spirit to Tom Waits, or perhaps because he was simply the embodiment of the crotchety old man I hope to become one day. In an attempt to fill the silence, Branca told the audience, apropos of nothing, about the best hot dog he’d ever eaten. It was on a hoagie roll, not a bun. He talked some trash about John Zorn, and introduced his wife Reg Bloor, who seemed delightfully peeved by his antics.

I left the kitchen that night with my mind completely blown open, a side effect of the shrapnel storm Branca’s ensemble hurled toward the bleachers. Walking to the train I felt like I was floating, or maybe vibrating like a struck tuning fork. It was the same feeling of intoxication I had only experienced once or twice before: watching 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen for the first time; seeing Diamanda Galas live at a temple on Halloween. Considering the weight of my experience at the Kitchen, I checked weekly to see if Branca and his ensemble was playing in town. I did this in 2017, when they performed at BRIC, and I remember feeling particularly lucky to live in a city where one minute I could be sat at my bedroom desk reading, and the next I walking to see one of the most original and exciting musical performances in existence.

The week before Glenn Branca died, I typed his name into Oh My Rockness’ search bar to see if he had any upcoming gigs. I didn’t know he had throat cancer, but I wasn’t surprised by the news when I found out. Upon hearing about his death, I felt both devastated that I’d never experience his music live again, and immensely grateful that I got to experience it at all. Glenn Branca was a New York treasure you had to really dig for, if not allow yourself to stumble upon, and like all of the best things New York has to offer, he was liable to disappear at any time. Sadly, that day has comebut while the man is no longer with us, his work will be obliterating musical norms for decades to come.

ONLY NOISE: Mark E. Smith is Dead, Long Live Mark E. Smith!

For years I was certain that the Fall’s 1982 album Hex Enduction Hour was in fact called: Hex Education Hour – perhaps referring to some BBC instructional program for budding witches. An ex had ripped the record onto CD for me and delivered it in a sort of comprehensive British post punk bundle, which contained discs by Gang of Four, New Order, and the Smiths. I would like to blame my misreading of Hex Enduction Hour on the illegible sharpie scrawled across my copy. Unfortunately, I can’t find the CD anywhere. Maybe it was improperly labeled The Hex Education Hour, or maybe the correct name was printed in two-inch block letters and I was simply trying to extract a real word from “Enduction.”

It took almost a decade to realize that I’d been saying the title wrong the whole time, and it was the Fall’s fearless leader Mark E. Smith who corrected me. In a late night YouTube hole I chanced across an interview with Smith and then Fall member Marc Riley circa 1982, right around the release of Hex Enduction Hour. The interviewer – offensively tan next to Smith’s blanched skin – was curious: “Why the title and what does it mean?” “It’s a word I made up,” Smith said. “It’s like an induction into the Fall.”

In one deadpan sentence, Mark E. Smith had righted my error and summed up what Hex Education Enduction Hour had meant to me. It was without a doubt my induction into the Fall. It was also one of those records that changed my perception of music as I knew it. I had never heard anything like the Fall before, and yet it was immediately clear how many bands had Xeroxed their style. The opening seconds of“The Classical” felt revolutionary – the hand drums, the cowbell, the fuzzed-out bass, and of course, the legendary Mark E. Smith, screeching and slighting throughout. There’s no shortage of rage in the history of punk music, but when Smith barked, “Hey there fuck face! Hey there fuck face!” it cut more deeply – and with a serrated knife, to boot. I played that song endlessly, especially while walking, just to marvel at the banshee squeal Smith mustered while shouting, “Too much romantic here/I destroy romantics, actors/Kill it! Kill it! Kill it!” From those jarring first bars of “The Classical,” I was on board.

Smith embodied a rare role within the post-punk arsenal. He was an agent of rage but also a poet. He possessed a wonderfully dark sense of humor, but was volatile and hard to get on with. The only constant member of the Fall, Smith went through roughly 66 bandmates in 40 years, as he was prone to firing musicians – provided they didn’t quit first.

On Wednesday morning, Smith passed away at age 60, after years of failing health. The news circulated in my office while I was at lunch, and I was reminded of how much the world can change in the time it takes to eat a sandwich. Without hesitation, I sought solace in two people: Robert Sietsema, and Marc Riley. Sietsema is the senior critic at Eater NY, and his tenure as a New Yorker, journalist, photographer, and bassist in the skronk band Mofungo allowed him to brush up against some of the city’s most interesting characters in the past few decades. One of them happened to be Mark E. Smith.

“In the early 80s, the Fall was one of the most influential bands on the burgeoning New York punk music scene, and would visit to play at small clubs or even medium size clubs two or three times a year,” Sietsema told me over e-mail. “They would always shack up at the Iroquois Hotel near Times Square. I was working sporadically for the New York Rocker at the time, and got an assignment from editor Andy Schwartz to cover the band, which most of the staff didn’t quite understand or know what to do with.”

Sietsema went on to describe an after-show encounter he had with Smith, during which he invited the Fall to swing by his place before their next gig. “Mark willingly agreed,” he said, “and so I set out a buffet featuring cheese and luncheon meat at my tenement apartment on 14th Street between B and C. At the appointed hour, the buzzer rang, but when I buzzed the visitors in and went to the door, it turned out to be just him. He’d neglected to invite the band. I eventually realized that it was by design, that there was a great gulf between him and his musicians.”

This gulf was evident in the Fall’s rotating cast of members. One of these members – the aforementioned Marc Riley – became an important part of my musical education before I realized that he co-wrote and performed on Hex Enduction Hour. Riley was a member of the Fall from 1979 to 1983, but was kicked out of the band for “dancing to ‘Smoke on the Water,’” as Smith famously put it. In classic Mark E. Smith form, the Fall later released a burn track titled, “Hey Marc Riley,” to the tune of “Hey Bo Diddley.”

Marc Riley has since become a DJ for BBC6 Music, a station I treat like a holy text. It was a bizarre twist of irony that Riley was the BBC6 broadcaster to announce Smith’s death on Wednesday, as the news was confirmed smack in the middle of Riley’s afternoon show. “I’ve just got to say that there’s been rumors flying around all evening about Mark E. Smith, and we’re just getting to grips with it now,” he said while Smith’s passing was not quite confirmed. He played a Sex Pistols song while awaiting the word.

“Sadly,” Riley continued after the last guitar strum of “Pretty Vacant,” “the confirmation seems to have come through that Mark E. Smith has passed away.” Riley went on to play an extended set of Fall songs, including “It’s the New Thing” and “Totally Wired.” He also played “Tropical Hot Dog Night” by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, noting that Smith had turned him on to Beefheart. “I remember vividly going around to Mark’s flat in Prestwich,” he recalled, “and he’d just bought that album and he played it for me – I didn’t know anything about Beefheart really at that point in time, and I fell in love with it as I did lots of other bands that he introduced me to… ” I found it funny that Smith was largely responsible for shaping Riley’s musical tastes, and that now Riley does the same for thousands of listeners as a DJ – a profession Smith has openly mocked.

When speaking to BBC6 colleague Gideon Coe about Smith’s death, Riley offered fond words despite his history with the Fall: “It is strange… I’ve not spoken to Mark for a long time, and of course after I got kicked out of the band it was a pretty unsavory time… but I have to say that I met Mark E. Smith when I was 16… The Fall were my favorite band when I joined, and they were still my favorite band when I got kicked out.”

Mark E. Smith possessed so much charisma, that despite the abuse (whether aural, verbal, or physical), his talent as a songwriter and poet were irrefutable and mesmerizing. His ability to create, not only so much work, but so much great work still baffles most critics. His ability to stay menacing into his final years was a damn near miracle.

It is so rare for music to retain its radical nature over the years. I’ve heard Ramones songs in airports and watched CBGB morph into a John Varvatos store. The revolts of prior generations get fluffed into nostalgia eventually. But the Fall never lost their knack for sonic assault. Tonight I am blaring “The Classical” from my bedroom speakers at maximum volume, and it still feels aggressive and mischievous. I wonder if I’m interrupting a Netflix binge session or dinner party next door. Part of me hopes that I am, and that an angry neighbor will rap on my door any minute to request that I turn it down. And maybe, in the spirit of Mark E. Smith, I’d just sneer and shout, “Hey there fuck face! Hey there fuck face!” I’d like to think that would make the fallen frontman smirk, wherever he is.

ONLY NOISE: Remembering Dolores O’Riordan

When the Cranberries released their debut record Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? I was not quite four years old. It was 1993, and two household DJs named Mom and Dad would determine my musical tastes for at least another five years. Those years passed quickly. By the time we were on the heels of a new millennium, I was finally catching up with the ’90s and the music that had shaped my first decade on Earth. Eventually, I would catch up with the Cranberries, too.

Interestingly enough, my introduction to the Cranberries (and the vast majority of ’90s music) did not come in the form of a mix CD or radio broadcast, but in soundtracks for film and television. Fragments of Cranberries songs must have drifted into my limbic system as I watched Clueless, Charmed, and countless reruns of Beverly Hills 90210. In 1995, 90210 staged a first kiss between oafish Steve Sanders and relative newcomer Clare Arnold while the Cranberries’ hit “Dreams” played softly in the background. “Dreams” made several other cameos, notably on the soundtrack of the 1998 rom-com You’ve Got Mail. This was an era when everyone looked forward to the latest Tom Hanks flick, so there’s no doubt that the movie was a vital text in my Cranberries 101 course.

At some point, the songs I’d heard coalesced, and a whole record came into focus. Scrolling past the plastic spines in my parents’ CD collection, I found Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?. Now that I think about it, that copy must have belonged to my stepmother – she had a small store of Cranberries’ albums wedged between my dad’s Chris Isaak and Crowded House discs. Listening to Everybody Else in full allowed me to acknowledge the Cranberries as something other than film score footnotes. Only a decade late to the party, I finally recognized Everybody Else for what it truly was: a downright masterpiece. Now, days after losing the Cranberries’ heart and soul Dolores O’Riordan, I turn to that masterpiece in remembrance.

Given the concealed details of 46-year-old O’Riordan’s sudden death, it’s difficult not to speculate on what may have happened. The singer/songwriter had a history of mental heath issues, and it’s easy to jump to conclusions when that factor hints at contextualizing her unexplained death. For the sake of respect I will not make any assumptions. However O’Riordan’s passing does draw a darker shade on her body of work. She was the band’s chief lyricist, and the words she sang on the Cranberries’ first record – the one I hold the most dear – often clashed with the gorgeous melodies her band was so adept at crafting. Songs like “I Still Do” and chart topper “Linger” were studies in the bittersweet; the latter frequently passed off as a honeyed love ballad despite its gut-wrenching testimony of desire and rejection. “You know I’m such a fool for you/You got me wrapped around your finger,” O’Riordan cries in the song’s well-known chorus. “Do you have to let it linger?” The song’s striking arrangement was matched only by those universal words.

Thinking of the word “bittersweet,” I am only now realizing its relevance to everything about the Cranberries – their music, their end, even their name. Though it’s unlikely that the band had conceptual coherence in mind when they chose the name (they were first billed as The Cranberry Saw Us), nothing could be more apt a title than the tart and astringent fruit, one that only sweetens with added sugar. This sugarcoating revealed itself on “Dreams,” which reached #42 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1994. “Dreams” is the outlier on Everybody Else, its blissed out major chords amplifying O’Riordan’s firsthand account of falling in love. There is nothing snide or ironic in her lyrics, just occasional caution. O’Riordan first dips a toe in the pool to test the temperature before splashing head first into a new relationship. “And now I tell you openly/You have my heart so don’t hurt me,” she warns, before yielding “Oh my life is changing everyday… /’Cause you’re a dream to me.” It is a rare moment of un-soured hope, the kind we’ve all cradled when following our hearts into uncharted territory.

O’Riordan and the Cranberries possessed a rare voice in music, one that was instantly recognizable from the moment they began. It was a timeless voice, too. Listening to Everybody Else today does not feel like I’ve boarded a time machine to 1993. The record retains an uncommon relevance, sounding at once of and beyond its time. If any of its songs were released today, they would sound just as fresh, honest, and gorgeous as they did 25 years ago. Dolores O’Riordan left behind a legacy of exceptional art in those 25 years. While art is no substitute for a human being, it is an eternal gift by which to remember one.

ONLY NOISE: Memento Mori-Alan Vega

alan vega

“I think all art comes out of conflict.” It was the American novelist Joyce Carol Oates who spoke these words, but it was Alan Vega who lived them.

Vega, who fronted the indescribable proto-punk duo Suicide from 1970 to Saturday, has unfortunately passed away over the weekend at 78. His death lengthens a devastating list of artists we’ve lost this year. Henry Rollins broke the news with a statement from Vega’s family.

I woke Sunday morning to word of his death, and instantly that phrase sprang to mind: “all art comes out of conflict.” Art is not only born of chaos, it is chaos. Art is conflict. And what artist exemplified this truth more than Alan Vega? His 46-year partnership with Martin Rev as Suicide (they never called it quits) produced a body of work that is sublimely discordant-like an Edgerton snapshot of fruit being eviscerated by a bullet. An explosion made delicate by means of destruction.

Vega’s music is a monument to the avant garde, the dark, and the soulful. And it is, for me, the embodiment of everything I look for in art. Something dangerous, yet repulsively gorgeous. Something that makes you fear for your own sanity. Suicide’s eponymous debut from 1977 is as awash with this kind of dissonance as it is sounds of the future. Its severity is matched only by its simplicity-Vega’s croons and shrieks loping over Rev’s unrelenting synths and drum machine. That record predicted post punk before punk had learned how to spell its own name. You can hear its influence in Throbbing Gristle’s work, and Sonic Youth’s and even Bruce Springsteen’s; the latter admittedly an enormous Suicide fan. The Boss has not only attributed “State Trooper” off of 1982’s Nebraska to Suicide’s influence-he also covered the duo’s song “Dream Baby Dream” throughout his career.

Springsteen recently paid homage to Vega with a eulogy he published on his website:

“Over here on E Street, we are saddened to hear of the passing of Alan Vega, one of the great revolutionary voices in rock and roll. The bravery and passion he showed throughout his career was deeply influential to me. I was lucky enough to get to know Alan slightly and he was always a generous and sweet spirit. The blunt force power of his greatest music both with Suicide and on his solo records can still shock and inspire today. There was simply no one else remotely like him.”

It might seem a stretch that one of America’s most successful musicians would have such obscure tastes, but if you listen to Suicide tracks like “Ghost Rider” and “Frankie Teardrop,” the influence might not be so shocking. Springsteen is known for his pointblank narratives of working class drudgery. That same desolation can be found in “Frankie Teardrop,” a disturbing tale of a disgruntled factory worker who massacres his family in a fit of insanity.

Suicide is an album that still sounds treacherous today. This cannot be said of much from its era. It is a difficult thing to admit, as it was an exceptional period in American music. However, I am aware of its historical relevance-that perhaps a Television gig in 2016 might not be as reckless as it was in ’77. Suicide on the other hand, has remained a lung-splintering scream frozen in time. A photograph taken with a rapatronic shutter. But don’t take my word for it. Go ahead. Cut the jams at your next party and put on “Frankie Teardrop” instead. See what happens.

It is important for music, or at least some music to incite panic. In their earlier years Vega and Rev did just that, and drank up the repercussions firsthand. Their shows bear the deviant legacy of hell raisers like Iggy Pop and GG Allin. In 2008, Vega recounted an especially perilous gig to The Guardian:

“That would be the show in Glasgow in 1978 when someone threw an axe at my head. We were supporting the Clash and I guess we were too punk even for the punk crowd. They hated us. I taunted them with, ‘You fuckers have to live through us to get to the main band.’ That’s when the axe came towards my head, missing me by a whisker. It was surreal, man. I felt like I was in a 3-D John Wayne movie. But that was nothing unusual. Every Suicide show felt like world war three in those days. Every night I thought I was going to get killed. The longer it went on, the more I’d be thinking, ‘Odds are it’s going to be tonight.'”

I sometimes feel that Suicide were the Dylan-going-electric of punk rock. And while I suspect that thought would cause Vega to roll in his grave, it’s a comparison I find comfort in. When the world cried “Judas!” at Dylan’s new noise, it wasn’t the sound they were screaming at-it was the icon he burned and the bird that rose from it. Punk was so busy edifying its defiant image that it was out-defied by Vega and Rev…the ultimate prank. It’s pretty funny, if you think about it.

But despite all the mayhem in Suicide’s history, all the near-death evenings and endless assaults, Vega remained a sincere artist, a loving family man, and a hilarious interviewee. In the same interview from ’08 he recalled the shift between being public enemy #1 and becoming an “entertainer”:

“People were looking to be entertained, but I hated the idea of going to a concert in search of fun. Our attitude was, ‘Fuck you buddy, you’re getting the street right back in your face. And some.’

The axe in Glasgow was just one of many weapons hurled at us. When we played in Metz, someone scored a direct hit on me with a monkey wrench. I’ve still got the scar on my head. Supporting Elvis Costello in Brussels, we provoked a full-scale riot and the venue was stormed by police letting off tear-gas canisters. Then something very strange happened. We headlined our own tour of Britain and ended up in Edinburgh. Two songs in and there was no riot, which was very, very unusual. Then we started to see people move around. I turned to Marty and said, ‘Here we go – watch out for flying objects.’ To my amazement, people started dancing. I turned back to Marty and said, ‘We’re finished, our career is over.’

We’ve turned into fucking entertainers. It was never meant to turn out that way. But what can you do? People are completely unshockable now. Even if you brought a fresh corpse out on stage and started eating it with a fork, no one would bat an eyelid. Still, one of the things about playing live these days is that at least we know we’re not going to die on stage. That’s kinda nice, man.”

Vega’s wry sense of humor always peeked through his work, even when veiled with the most hideous snarl. It surprisingly wasn’t always doom and gloom with Suicide; their fragility surfaced on cuts like “Girl,” “Dream Baby Dream,” and “Child, It’s a New World.” The former being my personal favorite-and not a bad tune for a romp might I add. In spite of the band’s propensity for violence and distortion, they were also vulnerable…far more than they’d have liked you to believe. This diversity was apparent to those who took time to listen between the crashing beer bottles. For them, Suicide were a beacon of possibility; a manifesto for undefined sound.

Alan Vega may have not wanted to be an entertainer; that’s just what happened over time. More accurately, Vega was an artist. A real conflicted motherfucker.

R.I.P Alan. Thank you for the noise.