Friday, April 15, 2005

Bongwater: Breaking No New Ground

Shimmy-Disc EP, 1987

Back... then (you know when)... I'llhaveyouknow...classic rock was the bane of our existence, blaring at us from, like, everywhere -- reinforced by the smug Boomers from their ever increasingly crowded perches in the mainstream media, the recording industry and the academic hallways. We were constantly reminded of how supeeeeerior "their" music was. Some of us even believed it - I remember a poll in the 80's reporting a good deal of college students felt they had "missed out" on the '60's and wished they had been born 20 years earlier. Kids increasingly embraced the infantile aimlessness of retro and the recycled garbage that was being foisted on them as "new" music. What. Ever. Its a wonder we didn't go collectively mad. Maybe we did, though.

A couple of our (hey, they started it) artists embraced some of the recent past - fur instants - X identified with the trippy misfitism of The Doors (and it didn't hurt when you are sucking up to Ray Manzarak to play some of his songs) and then there was the ever contrarian minutemen and their beloved fellow working-class BOC (bleecch). OK, The Ramones covered scads of the "classic rockers" but then they covered everyone with mindless abandon and rarely took it that seriously. And nearly everyone covered The Stooges or a Nuggets garage classic or VU - I point out now eruditely that none of these bands were ever embraced by the classic rock playlists and Rolling Stone and all, just saying. FOR... the most part, when we covered a real "classic rock" tune, it was done with a sneer and followed with a set of middle fingers. Think Dead Kennedys and their version of "Back in the USSR" or those chucklehead Dickies packaging "Nights In White Satin" 7" in a KKK robe.

Bongwater made it cool again to love those "old" uncool songs by taking them apart and smooshing them back together into something cooler, stronger, better, lo-fi, immediate, direct and with muchus sonicus maximus. We so expected a goof band when I came home with this - I mean Kramer had been down here hanging out with 1/2 Japanese and seemed like one of us even with that Wierd Al haircut thing going.

Much to my surprise, however, Bongwater picked up these old discarded and dusty tunes and reowned them. In most cases, the covers that appeared on the album reflected whatever the "concept" was that they were trying to explore - in the case of Breaking No New Ground, Double Bummer and even (to lesser extent) Too Much Sleep, they seemed to be songs about picking up from the wreckage of their post-punk lives. By putting on a sixties' pose, they were able to be somewhat removed from the present day. It was also easy to make clear associations with the death of the 60's rock and the implosion of new wave. Although comparisons stopped when you looked around to take a toll of the dead. Hard drugs just never had the impact that the AIDS plague had on that world. Ann Magnuson once estimated that she lost a full third of her "surrogate family" and associates from the Club 57 days - her friends Keith Haring and Klaus Nomi among the notable dead - but many many more.

In happier sadder times... (courtesy AMG)

Their original songs here beat that theme home. "Barely Coping," the second song on this album isAnn in the white walled room, beating her head against the doors asking to be taken out of her misery. This is certainly a gem out of all the cuts. Magnuson's performance artist tendencies are held at bay on this cut and it's reminiscent, perhaps a prophecy of the reverb heavy slow-core sound Kramer would become famous for in his records with Low and Galaxie 500, although its hardly characteristic of the minimalism that genre expressed - instead its healthily embroidered with unfettered acid jazz guitar and snippets of organ and all sorts of noise.

The second side's "His New Look", another original, is a recounting of a dream of Magnuson's ostensibly wigging out over a boyfriend who left her. She ends it with a primal scream of "total" devastation and abandonment that goes beyond some mere old boyfriend issue. Even "U.S.O." which on the surface seems like just a sludgey acid screed against Marines and the go-go girls who fuck them ( it also recalls Apocalypse Now! - another look back at the '60s). The refrain is the USO chick demanding "bloody sex" and the song is laced with automatic gunfire, helicopters and falling bodies. Maybe it is just an anti-military song, callously mocking a military service that had only recently (Lebanon) sacrificed so many of their own, but I'd like to think its more of a self-critical atonement for the abandonment and carelessness of those early '80s. Something that would have been hard to put into explicit words. So, yeah, Bongwater as a post-AIDS band. Sure, Jim. (hey, it's my website - editor)

The other covers are "Four Sticks" and "Julia." The former is a very loose acid jam take-off on the Led Zeppelin original (from Led Zep IV). I dug this song out of the archives and the original sounds REAL flat by comparison (and I have like the 20th remastered version, nyah). It seems more like it was thrown in for fun -- Kramer wrote that those early years in Bongwater and at the original Noise New York were mostly an excuse to get together with musicians he admired. One gripe about this record and others is worth bringing up. I wish someone, upon the next re-release, would go back and provide some liner notes as to who plays where. I sure would like to know which cuts Frith plays on and which cuts Chris Cochrane is playing. Just a nit.

Ann Magnuson's singing on "Four Sticks" is worth noting, too. Sure, she's given an assist by the one or several of the black boxes that Kramer loves to employ but she shows the wide range that would characterize the new few albums. Although I (and most everyone) never saw them live, from the recordings I've concluded that this was no performance artist pretending to be a rock star. She was genuine.

The final cut is Lennon's "Julia" - I'm pretty sure that is Kramer singing in falsetto (does anyone know? it's hard to tell with the processing). It begins with an angry phone message (the whole record is peppered with tapes of radio and phone machines from mostly sad people). It's one of those messages from a fuming landlord that make you want to go hide in a closet in shame. Or at least it would I would want to do that.

"Julia" like "Barely Coping" and "His New Look" is a song about abandonment - Lennon's dead mother was named "Julia" but it's also a song of hope as it references, however obliquely, Yoko. It has some incredible chord changes (lots of minor 7ths) and a non-traditional song structure which Kramer takes full advantage of. In a way this song, is a rosetta stone for some of his future work. Totally sublime.

It ends with a smidgen of hope - a young girl - we assume its Kramer's daughter saying hello to her Daddy.

"Barely Coping"

All cuts adapted from original vinyl with as minimal post-processing as I can handle. Not for commercial purposes. All copyright is retained by the original holder. Links to MP3s are to engender discussion and encourage further research into our shared culture. Space is limited so songs only are available for about two weeks after the original date of the posting.

Magnuson sleeps in Scharf's closet


Yes, I am aware of the sordid and long lawsuit brought about by the break-up of the band. By most accounts, it ended up with Shimmy Disc being taken over by Knitting Factory and Noise New York/New Jersey closing. All I have heard is hearsay and gossip on the matter, so I choose to just ignore it and concentrate on the great music and art Bongwater made.

  • With the exception of their Power of Pussy release, Bongwater is currently hard to find new - even though there was a box set released a few years back - Check Gemm Records.


bvsc said...

Managed to catch Bongwater on the Power of Pussy of tour and was hit by a piece gum spit by the lovely Ms. Magnuson. Their break-up and subsequent litigation was saddening, as was her solo follow-up "The Luv Show."

Box of Bongwater is a must, as is her '80s HBO special 'Vandemonium.' You can borrow our copy if you want.

Jim H said...

Did you keep the gum and encase it in ember so future generations can clone her for the "Anything But Love" revival in the year 2525? I hope so.

I'll be right over to pick up "Vandemonium" - what's yer address? Justi kidding, I have seen

R-Robot said...

I stumbled across 'Breaking no new ground' kind of by accident. I had been told about Bongwater from friends and had been on the look-out for them (ah, those heady pre-internet days).

By chance, I found a mysterious unclaimed cassette in a friends apartment that contained this EP and the Redd Kross EP where they did all covers.
A clever pairing. I made a copy for myself and proceeded to basically play the tape to death.
It's such a great EP.
"I'm a hippy now" has been part of my personal lexicon.

I then became a very active mail-order customer of ShimmyDisc.