Saturday, December 18, 2021

Essay/Review: BUSH TETRAS: Riding the Downtown Epoch

 Originally published in PLEASE KILL ME, December 3, 2021 under the title: 

"BUSH TETRAS: A HAPPY SAD CELEBRATION OF DOWNTOWN GIANTS"

BUSH TETRAS: Riding the Downtown Epoch

Band debuts new line-up, celebrates boxed set ‘Rhythm and Paranoia’ at LPR

by John Pietaro



13 November, Le Poisson Rouge, New York City. As the audience, ranging from 20-somethings to senior citizens, filled the hallowed ground, the DJ was spinning funk through a wall of pulsating woofers, the bar quickly busied, and the Village buzz only swelled. This crowd, yes, this crowd has been ready forever.

But backstage, the mood lingered thick with anticipation and mournfulness. It’s been only weeks since the sad, unexpected passing of Dee Pop and as Bush Tetras prepare for their post-lockdown homecoming, the loss is experienced in ways unique to each member’s history with the late drummer.

Pat Place in 1979 founded the band with Pop, bringing on Cynthia Sley almost immediately thereafter, and the three remained a family over some four decades, altercations, separations and divorces notwithstanding. The guitarist, smiling softly through radiant, moistened eyes, remarked: “We miss Dee so much---not only as a band member but as a dear friend”, while Sley added somberly, “I’m just trying to hold it together.” Even sound-check, she explained, had been painful. “I don’t want to break down on stage.”

Dee’s place in music history, long secured, was reinforced by the release of Rhythm and Paranoia: The Best of Bush Tetras (Wharf Cat Records, 2021), the ultimate BTs historic document. No small irony that “new, permanent drummer” Don Christiansen--a no wave/new music original as well as visual artist--too maintains a connection to Pop; he held the drum chair during the latter’s earlier absence. And bassist R.B. Korbet, underground music stalwart that she is, met Dee while on staff at Coney Island Baby and he later recruited her into the band. Each member of this ensemble holds a valued spot in the city’s downtown heritage, one which reaches back and over through its roots, branches and a prism of foliage.

As the band sat in the club’s green room, participating in a shoot by celebrated photographer Dustin Pop (no relation), the stage was occupied by the youthful performance artist Austin Sley Julian aka ‘Sunk Heaven’. Ensconced in laser lights and vibrantly deafening sound, this son of Cynthia Sley and guitarist/songwriter Ivan Julian may be among the heirs apparent to downtown’s epoch. His set was followed by Public Practice, a compelling band deep in the tradition, though more of the B-52s’ ilk; it was an embarrassingly welcome brand to we aging post-punks in the house. And just as the music drew the crowd into throbbing rhythmicity, Bush Tetras privately gathered for one last collective breath before hitting the lights out front.

Photos of Dee Pop were projected onto a large screen as Pat Place plugged her guitar into its amplifier. Cynthia Sley, already standing at center, told the hungry audience: “We are here to celebrate our new boxed set---and to celebrate Dee”, as Christiansen and Korbet took their places in the line-up. Within moments, however, it became clear that this is indeed a band in the truest sense. They opened with a couple of oldies, “Punch Drunk” being preceded by Sley banter about living in their 1st Street East Village rehearsal room in those early days. This song was recorded at the same session as the three on the BTs’ first 7” E.P. release (99 Records, 1980) but was unissued at the time. As noted in Rhythm and Paranoia’s 46-page biographical insert, this track and those on that first E.P. were actually co-produced by Don Christiansen, who’d been a bandmate of Pat’s in the Contortions. The downtown epoch’s roots hold firm, the reach of its branches remains unyielding. And whole swaths of are contained within the writings and rare photographs in the L.P.-sized booklet of the vinyl boxed set.

The collection befittingly presents the music in chronological order, with the celebrated arch-funk and razor accents of “Too Many Creeps” right up top. All of the selections, however, were artfully remastered, bringing to life each slash of Place’s guitar, the tremble of Pop’s bass drum and his every walloping rimshot. But, listening still more intently, Laura Kennedy’s unbridled bass rings out, her slap punctuations sting through radical picking in extended harmony. Her bassline, wrapped about Sley’s hyper, rhythmic vocal, is the core of the piece, carrying it through the angular guitar assault and relentless pulse. It can be said that Kennedy’s extra-tonal concept was the no wave within Bush Tetras. Rhythm and Paranoia (a 1981 term of Kennedy’s when asked to describe the band’s sound) is comprised of three L.P.s pressed onto 180-gram vinyl, assuring a stunning balance among the studio and live recordings which tell the BTs’ story. Of course, the set is also available as a download, or as a pair of CDs (with a disc-sized booklet).

PAT PLACE, A NATIVE CHICAGOAN, MOVED TO NEW YORK IN 1975 after earning a BFA at Skidmore. At the time her relocation was based purely on the pursuit of a visual art career, and this period included the prerequisite day job at Pearl Paint. “We could afford to live here as the city was bankrupt. We were paying $160 per month on East 6th Street then”, she stated, citing NYC’s deep-freeze brittle years, as then-President Ford infamously extended a conclusive ‘drop dead’ in place of a federal bail-out.

Concurrently, a wealth of artists flocked not only to the city, but specifically to the creative mecca downtown, one that had been attracting artists and Lefties since the bohemian 1910s. But in the 1970s-80s, what with the poverty, burnt-out buildings, crime, and heroin and then crack in its midst, the creative community was of the underground, albeit a far more urgent underground built on rampant experimentalism and amalgamation among genres and disciplines. “It was all melding at that time”, Place explained. “We were a bunch of art-damaged kids and these little art bands started. They were anti-everything, didn’t want to sound like anything done before. It was anarchistic”.

She’d studied piano as a child and played some guitar during adolescence, so after stepping into this fertile setting, Place decided to re-examine the latter. Within weeks of obtaining an electric guitar, she was invited by James Chance (who liked her hair) to join his new band, the Contortions. “The no wave bands made me realize I could do this too”, she said. “They were coming from other art genres, very conceptual. Bands like DNA and Teenage Jesus were quite brilliant. Lydia (Lunch) had 10-minute sets! It was a new way”. The Contortions also included Christiansen, keyboard player Adele Bertei, guitarist Jody Harris and bassist George Scott III.

Simultaneously, Place came to the attention of no wave film makers Vivienne Dick and Beth and Scott B who included her in their experimental films being exhibited in the same spaces that were growing the music. Such a fusion was far beyond mere emulsion.

The guitarist has stated that her limitations on the instrument were clear, so she began by playing an instinctual brand of slide guitar, similar to that of Lydia Lunch. “I remember James early on playing with jazz musicians. I wasn’t involved in that. I can’t believe I had the balls to ever do it”, she said, laughing. Still, she developed a free-reign style, casting sound art as much as ‘music’ throughout arthouses and clubs, most of which have sadly since faded. But this elusive moment was captured by Brian Eno on the revered No New York album. The Contortions, along with Mars, DNA and Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, indeed made history with those sessions, even if none thought the album would make a dent. “Eno was very lovely and nice and professional. We were well aware of him, and I was a bit intimidated, but once you’re in it, it becomes about the work”. Place said that the band felt highly motivated to enter the studio with the auteur, but “we didn’t really expect (No New York) to go anywhere. We had no idea it would be historic.” Barely suppressing laughter, she added: “Adele and I drew all over the back of the album cover, over all of our faces. Moustaches and scars on everyone!”




The tenuous career of the original Contortions wouldn’t outlive even the brief no wave movement. “There was a huge fight in the band where Anya (Phillips, manager) fired (bassist) George (Scott III) during the session, and hired Dave Hofstra to recut his tracks. Jody was really pissed about that. I was just trying to hold up my own. A lot of drugs were being thrown around those sessions”. Phillips, Chance’s partner and girlfriend, sought to create a solo career for the sensationalistic saxophonist and asked only Place to remain in their fold, “but I was friends with the boys”, she added conclusively. Scott went on to work with downtown luminary John Cale and joined Lunch’s 8-Eyed Spy before co-founding the Raybeats with Jody Harris and Don Christiansen. Scott would tragically die of an overdose by 1980.

In the Contortions’ wake, Place organized the Bush Tetras’ first line-up, uniting Kennedy and Pop (“When I met Dee”, Place recalled, “he was drumming but was also a rock writer”) with guitarist Jimmy Uliano, and Adele Bertei as vocalist. Following the band’s outing at Artist Space, Bertei and Uliano moved on, and Cynthia Sley took over vocal duties. This classic line-up debuted at another gallery, Tier 3, but soon began filling Irving Plaza, Danceteria, the Mudd Club and the Peppermint Lounge, among others. As stated in Marc Masters’ introductory article in the boxed set booklet, Sley’s “Too Many Creeps” was written just the day prior to the band’s first victorious Irving Plaza gig, opening for the Feelies.

“MY CAREER HAS BEEN KIND OF ALL OVER THE MAP”, Dee Pop explained in an interview with this reporter just months ago. “I like so much music and have just delved into things. I’d spend three or four years playing free jazz, blues or Greek music”. The son of a Downbeat magazine photographer, Pop was exposed to a wide range of jazz, rock and classical music throughout his formative years. “Mom taught me that some of the music of her generation was great. She said I needed to realize—as Ellington said—there is only good and bad music. If you don’t see that, you nullify everything that happened before”. Resultantly, Pop was imbedded into the music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, as well as the Beatles and Stones, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, and earlier traditional jazz. “My grandfather was Louis Armstrong’s florist, so I met him when I was a little kid. I used to ride with my grandfather’s delivery man to his house in Flushing”.

Dee began playing a rudimentary drumset within a childhood vocal group, but never studied the instrument formerly. “I’m a self-taught drummer but studied both flute and clarinet for ten years. And I still play these instruments!”, he said, clarifying that such occasions are never before an audience.

With the guidance of the music around him, Dee’s explorations on drums eventually saw his travel from Queens to the East Village. “In 1979-80, I was squatting on 7th Street by the corner of Ave C. My two running buddies were Bobo Shaw and Dennis Charles. Dennis was sitting on the corner of 6th Street playing with an old crappy snare and a box for a bass drum. For a year, I didn’t realize it was Dennis Charles. I would hang out with Bobo, and we worked on drum shit together. Bobo had been with Defunkt. There was so much cross-pollination. No wave and out jazz made sense (to rock and rollers)”. In this period, playing on the burgeoning punk scene, Pop was well aware of Pat Place and became the natural choice to be her new band’s drummer.

“We liked that avant edge”, Pop said. “And the funk part of it, where Pat was coming from at the time. But I guess I kind of destroyed no wave by putting a 4/4 (beat) to it. That’s what made the Bush Tetras a little more possible; listeners could figure out where the “1” was”, he wryly added.

Akin to rest of the scene, the fledgling band actually thrived within its own limitations and restrictions. “Pat had never played music before the Contortions. Laura was self-learned. I knew how to play a backbeat and recognized the standard form of a song and tried to hold them together. We practiced a lot, but it was all very organic.”

CYNTHIA SLEY, VISUAL ARTIST, POET, WOULD-BE CLOTHING DESIGNER, moved from Cleveland to downtown Manhattan just in time. The relocation was inspired by a visit to the city to see Jim Jarmusch, an old friend. But by then, plans to attend FIT were all but left behind. “New York was a real free city then”, she recently told Grand Life, still speaking with enthusiasm for the inter-connectedness of artists and genres in the time and place. She’d known Laura Kennedy back home; the two were even in a Cleveland performance piece together which featured a pseudo-band built around Sley’s poetry. The combined encouragement of Kennedy and Place, a new close friend, rendered her somewhat willing to become their frontperson.

Joining Bush Tetras at its dawn, Sley was central to the band’s creative process, which at that point probably owed more to William Burroughs than any contemporary rock songwriter. “We used to work on lyrics together by cutting up notebooks we had written in and pasting them kind of Dada style”, she told Grand Life.

Numerous songs came together immediately though she’d never imagined herself a vocalist. Bush Tetras’ tendency to write material grown in jam sessions allowed for a looser approach with Sley’s sprechgesang vocal style, bridging the sung to the spoken, affording poetic space as well as room for repetitive, splintered fragments perfectly countering Place’s sawtooth guitarisms; both remain compelling signatures of the BTs sound.

The band’s following built rapidly over numerous, ongoing tours, both national and global. Perhaps the greatest support, outside of New York, was found in the UK and they quickly became darlings of the Brit punk and post-punk circle. They’d opened for the Clash’s historic Bond’s residency in New York, and then, in London, were recorded live for Stiff Records’ 1981Start Swimming compilation. The BTs’ ominous rendition of John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey” in this setting takes on innate urgency reflective of the drug culture plaguing the Lower East Side as well as the band itself. Listening to this cut on Rhythm and Paranoia, the contemporary ear catches “Cold Turkey” at its despondent and dejected core. None of Lennon’s primal scream therapy, however, is attempted here, let alone replicated in Sley’s vocal. Instead, it’s relived in Place’s guttural, shrieking guitar lamentations.

The London performances proved fortuitous as British label Fetish Records signed the band for the single “Things That Go Boom in the Night”, the guitar riff of which bears a resemblance to that of “Cold Turkey” but is all the more biting on this re-mastered collection. More so, the Clash’s Topper Headon had developed a close relationship with the BTs, Dee Pop in particular, and acted as producer on their next E.P., Rituals (1981), recorded at Electric Lady Studio back in the Village. Later, Pop would return the favor by subbing for Headon when the bands toured together. He was later considered for membership in the Clash before Headon’s return. “Cowboys in Africa” came from this E.P. set and remains a perennial; brimming with enthusiasm when played at Le Poisson Rouge on 11/13, the room was left pulsating.

In 1982, Cynthia Sley married Ivan Julian, downtown denizen and a founding member of Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Within the year, both Pop and Kennedy, spent from the relentless touring, left the band. Dee explained “I felt that the Bush Tetras had gone as far as we could, and I wanted to do more”, in which time he both explored free jazz, and played with the Gun Club. When not out with that band, or his own units Floor Kiss and Radio I-Ching, Pop collaborated with a dizzying array on all sides of the seeming musical divide, including Billy Bang, John Sinclair, Borah Bergman, Gary Lucas, James Chance, Chuck Berry, the Shams, Roy Campbell, Jayne County, Can, Freedomland (with Daniel Carter, Dave Sewelson, William Parker and Dave Hofstra), Richard Lloyd, Odetta, Darlene Love, the Waldos, Nona Hendryx, Lenny Kaye, Marc Ribot, and the Slits.

Place and Sley attempted to keep the band together, recruiting Christensen (who was by then one of the Raybeats) and Bob Albertson, on drums and bass respectively, and while this line-up-maintained performance dates, it would not prove lasting. Later that year, Bush Tetras officially disbanded. In the interim, Cynthia Sley and Ivan Julian worked together in the Lovelies, recording one album, and in 1989 their son Austin was born. Into the 1990s, following the couple’s divorce, Sley returned to graduate studies in education and embarked on a career as a public school teacher.

Pat Place, meanwhile, re-focused her attention on visual art before recording with Brian Kelly, and then considered a major change. “I’d gotten sober, and decided to go back to school—to study social work. I was at NYU for one semester but then Maggie Estep called and offered $10,000 to go one the road”, she said, referring to the ‘90s spoken word celebrity. The Maggie Estep Combo recorded No More Mr. Nice Girl (1994). In addition to the guitarist it included multi-instrumentalist Knox Chandler, and drummer Steve Dansiger of John S. Hall’s King Missile. “Maggie was having her moment on MTV, so we put this band together to play nine dates with Hole and did The Arsenio Hall Show. But she’s really a writer—six books were published—she’s not really a performer”. Within a decade, Estep would sadly die of a heart attack at age 50.

The mid-90s would bring some new attention to not only Bush Tetras, but other post-punk artists who’d foreseen the “grunge” genre. The market demanded a compendium of the BTs 1980s work, Boom in the Night, which had briefly been seen on cassette under the title Better Late Than Never (ROIR). 1995 found the quartet ready to move forward, so they began writing new material and recorded Beauty Lies (Tim/Kerr), produced by Nona Hendryx, a giant of R&B who’d also been active with Material and Talking Heads. Henry Rollins, always a BTs fan, also produced a track for a new 7” single, “Page 18”. On this recording, Sley’s voice takes on a newfound intensity, a thicker alto that grasps at the primal scream she hadn’t mustered in years prior. Place’s buzzsaw guitar also attains this higher level of distortion, a melding of her earlier chordal bare-knuckle punches and lengthier grunge rock sound. (NOTE: the download includes yet another piece from the Rollins sessions, the harsh “Cutting Floor”, thought lost for decades.)

Happy, a second album, was also recorded (this with Don Fleming as producer), but the label was then purchased by Polygram and the new parent company coldly abandoned the project. “When Bush Tetras was dropped by Polygram in ’98”, Dee Pop stated pensively, “all I wanted to do was play jazz. My friend had been booking avant-garde jazz shows at the Internet Café and when he left, I took it over. I wanted to play with guys like William Parker and Sabir Mateen. I knew that if I booked the place, I’d get to know them.” After the Internet Café closed, Pop established his beloved series at CBGB that lasted several years. Later still, he moved it to Brooklyn.

Place, thoroughly outraged by corporate rock, went on to perform in several indie outfits, including Fat with Don Christensen, and then, much too briefly within the reunion of Chance’s original Contortions: “We played in Tokyo, sold out night. England, Leone, Barcelona. It was great to have the band together. I remember thinking this could be amazing, but things fell apart”, she recalled.

Having accomplished important growth in their personal lives, by 2005, the BTs were anxious to try it again, but Kennedy’s ongoing health concerns saw the need to call on replacements. She’d been living with and suffering from the effects of Hepatitis C for some years and as the band finalized plans for a European tour, she recognized the need to step down. Kennedy died of liver disease in 2011, a crushing blow to the others. The boxed set booklet includes a page of photos featuring several significant bassists who’ve played in her stead over the decades and offers a poetic, telling quote from Felice Rosser: “…I started learning Laura Kennedy’s basslines…I marveled at how they wove in and out and around keys, and always locked to the groove. Rhythm King. Rhythm Queens. The bass like a street with black tar that we all walked down. Dee Pop and Pat Place painted drum and guitars.”

Through the recording of 2018’s Take the Fall E.P. (Wharf Cat), the release party at Bowery Electric, and the band’s 40th anniversary show later at Le Poisson Rouge, the members of Bush Tetras have only strengthened as artists and individuals. The latter two shows were victories best described as visceral, with loving hometown crowds only seeking more, but then all were sidelined by the covid beast. During lockdown, Dee Pop experienced many difficult hours, expressing bouts of dysphoria in his isolation, ironically alternating with a tenacious sense of survival.

“This reminds me of where AIDS was,” he said. “How many millions could have been saved? But I’m looking for silver linings in this. I’m not dead and I’m not sick, and there are good things. So, we have to sit around and be patient.” Dee looked forward to resuming his latest free jazz series, at Truest in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, as well as going back on the road with Bush Tetras.

THIS YEAR, AS PLANS DEVELOPED FOR THE BOXED SET, BASSIST RB KORBET WAS BROUGHT INTO THE FOLD. A multi-instrumentalist as well as a visual artist, she moved to the East Village in 1980 and soon found herself at the helm of proto-hardcore band Even Worse, documented on the ROIR compilation New York Thrash. She then began an important and lasting collaboration with John S. Hall including as drummer of his band King Missile. “I really love working with John in any guise, whenever we get the chance. We've been friends such a long time, it's a really comfortable and fun relationship”, she told this reporter in a recent interview.

In addition to work with the noted downtown spoken word artist, Korbet was a prominent member of the Missing Foundation, both the 1980s band and radical movement, led by Peter Missing. She played guitar for their performances, many of which were at the scene of agitated demonstrations and designed their incendiary flyers. “We really blasted the LES with our propaganda”, that which called for affordable housing and relief for the poor as millionaires’ condo buildings like the Christodora grew around them. The ensemble, with its two tribal drummers, thrived on the revolutionary fervor and propelled crowds into a frenzy. “My guitar sound consistent largely of feedback and metal riffs played through a huge bass amp”, she said. During a performance at the original afterhours site of the Fort, facilitated by anti-folk founder Lach, the over-burdened amplifier blew up and caught fire, causing an abrupt end to the show when the fire department arrived in force. “Crazy night.”

Korbet’s activities in the downtown underground never ceased, though she did spend a period of time as a member of the celebrated Pussy Galore and also lived in the UK for some years. Still, her place within Bush Tetras seems to have been waiting all along.

FLIPPING THROUGH THE RHYTHM AND PARANOIA BOOKLET, even the casual reader will recognize names and faces beyond those of the BTs’ members. Greetings from Thurston Moore, Nona Hendryx, Topper Headon, Ann Magnuson and Gang of Four’s Hugo Burnham are a testament to the band’s vital standing. Note in particular Burnham’s very British recollection: “Bush Tetras rather scared us. We were all shouty and angular and interesting, but they were shouty, angular and interesting from New York City. Far cooler.”

The band’s compelling history daily feeds its own legacy. The roots, the branches, are always spawning, and downtown, even in light of the bistros and shining glass towers now in place of bodegas and illegal afterhours joints, lives on in the music, poetry, film, paintings, journalism, performance art and theater which simply refuses to go away.

IN THE EARLIEST HOURS OF OCTOBER 9, THE DAY OF THE BOXED SET LAUNCH AT HOWL HAPPENING, DEE POP UNEXPECTEDLY DIED. The event served largely as a remembrance and memorial. As they recalled their drummer and close friend, Pat Place and Cynthia Sley announced that they would continue with performance plans, returning to Le Poisson Rouge on November 13 — “and it will be for Dee.”

With only three weeks’ prep time before the performance, Don Christensen took on the role. Backstage at the club, in the company of Place, Sley and Korbet, Christensen appeared assured. “Don is one of us”, Sley said warmly.

He’d first arrived in New York City in 1971, another aspiring painter though back in Kansas City he’d been for years drumming in R&B bands. His Big Apple welcome was the theft of half his drumkit, yet Christensen managed to begin working Manhattan’s busy circuit, and was soon befriended by Dave Hofstra and Jody Harris. The latter would help usher the drummer into the Contortions where both worked with bassist George Scott III, whom Christensen has referred to as “a visionary musician”. Scott later brought the guitarist and the drummer into the Raybeats but also encouraged Christensen to engage in sessions of solo improvisational music. The drummer, in turn, went on to produce the “impLOG” recording series featuring his own multi-instrumental excursions, and score numerous indie films. He also had a long-term friendship with Philip Glass and played with the noted composer in several performances including Glass’s well-recalled spot on Saturday Night Live.

In more recent times, Christensen has refocused his creativity on fine art and painting in particular (see his website, fully dedicated to post-modern works!), saving the music gigs for occasional Contortions reunions (this writer is hoping for more of those) and outings with Harris and Hofstra. Apparently, when he received the call from Place and Sley, his priorities again expanded. Even with Pop’s insistent drumming now at rest, the pulse will continuously rumble into each groove. Downtown is never truly out of reach.

Luc Sante, prodigious author and chronicler of LES arts, declared in the boxed set’s closing statement: “They’re Our Band’. Rhythm and Paranoia, declared dead many times over the past 40 years, has again risen in the land, and Bush Tetras are here to blast you through.” Grunge got nothin’ on this.

BY THE TIME BUSH TETRAS’ SHOW AT LE POISSON ROUGE had reached its zenith with “Too Many Creeps”, the stage quaked with dancing audience members pogoing in place and gliding among the quartet. Pat Place’s razor-wire fretboard stabs ran through Cynthia Sley’s severed vocalese like butter. Korbet’s classic Kennedy line taunted the tonality as Christensen’s bass drum ripped a four-to-the-floor hole in the atmosphere.

And the Village Gate spirits emitted a deep sigh of times gone and downtown vibes newly woke
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