It’s too easy to draw parallels to the Blank Generation—what Richard Hell dubbed his creative cohorts from the late seventies/early eighties—from our own, but it’s far more tiring to draw nuanced distinctions. The economic downturn, the increasingly astronomic income gap, the proliferation of semi-legal loft dwellings along the vanguards of gentrification, the reestablishment of New York City as a capitol of emergent culture and, lest it go without mention, the post-punk and lo-fi revival of the last decade all give us a great deal in common with that bygone era. But we should still entertain the irony of our unyielding reverence for the irreverent, of the thought that punk is so pop, pop is now punk.
One thing has certainly held true over the past 30 years, and Marvin Taylor said it best. He’s the editor of The Downtown Book and was director of NYU’s Fales Library—probably the coolest special collections library in the nation; a room where you can thumb through a crate of Hell’s personal papers, then move on to Allen Ginsberg’s hand-scribbled manuscript of Kaddish. Taylor said: “They [...] irreverently pushed the limits of traditional artistic categories—visual artists were also writers, writers developed performance pieces, performers incorporated videos into their works, and everyone was in a band.”
That’s where Gray comes in. Formed in 1979 by legendary, late, Brooklyn-born graffiti writer, artist and Downtown denizen, Jean-Michel Basquiat along with Michael Holman, the group begged the eternal question: do you need good musicians to make good music? Though far less (intentionally) vomit-inducing than much the stuff off Brian Eno’s No New York compilation, their “industrial sound band” emerged within the early No Wave craze and often gets this label tacked onto them, along with New Wave—not that they sounded particularly New Wave, but the musicians that made up their early audience did.
Last night at the New Museum —part of a new live music series called “Get Weird”—Gray performed their first set in almost 20 years, walking the fine line between pretentious, post-modern, low-high mashing academic curiosity and simply pure, passionately expressive noise—hence, fundamentally unpretentious music. Holman and Nicolas Taylor, one of the early Gray members who began playing with them circa 1980, were joined by a group of musicians they apparently never met before to put on a tantalizing primary source experience (albeit with an obvious asterisk) in a time when much of the era falls within the covers of a textbook. They were textural, industrial, ambient and electronic; ethereal, haunting, bizarre, eerie, and elated; in sum: unbelievably sprawling. Moving from forceful, sardonic rap, to tearing masking tape off a snare drum—and yes, it sounds fucking cool—to a smooth ballad that would satisfy the crowd at any cologne-drenched, velvet-lined lounge, ending on a stunning, hilarious suicide hotline opera performed over a telephone with a conga line back up.
To call them experimental is unhelpful. Ahead of their time might be more appropriate, and they’ve always been aware of that. “When we first came out, we were over most people’s heads,” Nicolas Taylor once said. “But I think the times have finally caught up. Now our sound is very palatable, pop, while still maintaining our poetic edge.” What follows might annoy the hell out of a lot of people, but the set felt a little like a Panda Bear show, sounded a tad like a John Maus show, which might only lend credence to how incredibly influential Gray became. But odd thing is, they’re still a 30-year old band who’s debut album Shades off… came out in February. Prior to that, only a handful of recorded artifacts existed, mostly off the soundtrack of Glenn O’Brien’s celebrated film, Downtown 81. This raises the question how any contemporary artists could have gotten exposure to their sound and puts them in a very quirky context.
Basquiat’s presence was felt, but not excessively so , even given that his name sold the show. His transient image washed across the screen, his oddly humorous and unsettling voice sampled from an old suicide hotline “prank” call, interspersed between tracks exactly like on Shades of…, tied together the concluding operatic piece. Overall, as seemingly disjointed and far-reaching as the set was, it was still highly structured and contained, surprisingly compelling and captivating. The massive three-channel projector didn’t hurt, and neither did a past that refuses to be forgotten.