Sunday, March 18, 2007

I Only Live On The Surface, I Don't Think People Are Very Pretty Inside

The music of James Chance has stayed, stubbornly, fiercely, with me since the day I bought a copy of Off White by an odd bunch calling themselves James White and The Blacks in a second hand record shop when I was a teenager ('79 this would be, the year the album was released ... obviously someone had really liked it) - bought it entirely on spec, having no knowledge of the band or what kind of music it might produce but having had my attention caught by the wonderful sleeve; a retro 50s affair with some louche oddity in a white tux and a big greasy quiff (and, wonderful detail this, a Luger tie pin).
Elements of jazz and funk and Beefheart and Voidoids-like punk chopped and channeled into something new; the peculiar vocal and lyrical approach ... I wasn't sure if this music was very beautiful or very ugly, I wasn't sure if I liked it or hated it - but I couldn't stop listening to it. Reader, I was hooked.
James White, I learned quickly, was also James Chance (of whom I had heard); when I bought a copy of Buy, the Contortions album, I was sold. Chance's lyrics - the sarcasm, the spite, the humour, the unerring ability to hit a target where it hurts; his spastic, manic sax-playing (the whine of an angry hornet or a dentist's drill); the oblique song structures; the visual presentation - everything about Chance's approach tickled me.
A sick, skinny white (very white) boy channeling the spirits of James Brown and Ornette Coleman. How could you not love him?

The music of Chance - the sense of dislocation was utterly perfect, the disorientation so right. His lyrics expressed a strangely life-affirming mix of misanthropy, nihilism and self-hatred - they are very, very funny - along with an attitude to black culture (and white attitudes to black culture) both rancorous and envious.
His approach, his lyrical stance, had an unerring ability to show up fault lines in the supposedly liberal mindset ... the titles of the Blacks album raise more questions than they answer ('White Savages', 'Bleached Black') about white liberal attitudes to race and colour; the lyrics to 'Almost Black' ("Well,he's almost black/That nigger's white/Well,he's got some moves/Yeah, but they ain't right") are an astonishing portrayal of what Mailer had termed the White Negro. Chance's reputation for violence (hitting audience members), his misanthropy and penchance for controversial statements got him labeled a bit of a racist and something of a trouble-maker in the small over-heated New York scene he inhabited. I would point out the multiracial and gendered nature of every band he led, in a scene overwhelmingly white and male; I would point out, also, the awareness, in his bands, of musics (jazz, funk, disco, Afro beat, etc.) other than rock in a scene noticeably lumpen.
In his personal life, Chance was said to be a nice, quiet, polite young man, introverted even - his public persona was, perhaps, an opportunity to set free his inner Mr Hyde; the nicest thing a former band-member could find to say about him was that he was "vile-tempered and dictatorial". Which is some distinction. Someone once described him as 'bilious beyond his years'. Which is another.

What, with Chance, snags my interest is his utter contrariness ... his song 'Bedroom Athlete', for instance - "I'm not a bedroom athlete ... you better use a pump!", it's a work of genius and a brilliant upending of the usual macho braggadocio found in rock and funk (Jesus, let's not even start on rap); his theme song 'Contort Yourself' replaces the good time/chill out vibe of disco and funk with a nihilistic hymn to ego-extinction - "Once you forget your affection for the human race, reduce yourself to a zero, then you're gonna fall right in place", indeed. The music nags and whines, his sax screeches and squeals, the lyrics chip away. What strikes me about everything Chance has produced is the utter lack of ingratiation.

I remember Chance's first ever British performance - his band had quit, or had been fired, at JFK airport so he assembled a scratch band, including PiL's Keith Levine, and tried to teach them the rudiments of a set on the afternoon of the gig. An hour or so late on, the band would lock into a basic riff while Chance screamed and cried and played sax and squirmed all over the stage ... it remains one of the greatest concerts I've ever seen.

My long-suffering parents had become inured to The Stooges, The Velvet Underground and The Sex Pistols ... only two records ever made them bolt upstairs screaming "take that off!" - Cabaret Voltaire's Three Mantras and Buy The Contortions.

Chance's music, like that of his No Wave contemporaries, seems to consist of nothing but middle eights. Paradoxically, to a certain extent, the sonic area it inhabits cuts out the middle ground - the bottom end filled by the rhythm sections, the top end by niggling guitar and Chance's atonal sax and shrieked vocals.

Ian Penman loved Chance's music, Paul Morley couldn't stand it.

Someone, God help me it may have been Robert Elms, offered the quite savvy analogy that Chance's music is what Richard Hell would have made had he been obsessed by James Brown instead of Lou Reed (a similar career arc to Hell, too ... early impetus stalled by critical neglect, drugs, paranoia and sheer bloody-mindedness).

'Flip Your Face' was cited by Steve Albini as his favourite song.

The Flaming Demonics album shows something of a Fela Kuti influence, shared (in a weird and minimalist fashion) by late period Blurt ... so Fela was obviously something of a favourite with post-punk atonal anarchic sax-abusers.

It's a crying shame, but Chance's sax playing will never be given due respect by the jazz community - blistering chromatic runs and free-form solos and a melodic but discordant inventiveness. Like Albert Ayler, Chance reunited the avant garde with the simplicity and rawness of folk music ... in Ayler's case, the Negro spirituals and Pentecostal hymns of his youth, in Chance's, punk thrash. Chance's humour and brash attempts at bringing disparate forms together got him thrown out of the jazz club ... although certainly, John Zorn took everything he could from those old Contortions tracks.


Blogger El Duderino said...

'Stained Sheets', dude. Cracking song. So dirty you need a shower after listening to it.

7:16 PM  
Blogger St. Anthony said...

I always liked Chance's nice little phone greeting - "Who is this and what do you want?" ... kept meaning to use that as our answer phone message.
James and Lydia ... the scary twosome.

7:06 AM  
Blogger rockmother said...

Really great piece this Anthony - it expressed everything I've never been able to put into words about how much I love James White and the Blacks. Thank you.

9:54 AM  
Blogger St. Anthony said...

Cheers. Yes, he caused a major paradigm shift in my attitudes to music (to get all theoretical) ... as much as the Velvets had.
I still think the two original albums are absolutely astonishing works ... not that the later stuff is too shabby.

2:57 PM  
Blogger Dominic Zero said...

Chance was indeed out there on his own.
Paul Morley not liking him was probably a good thing.

7:36 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home