Banana Nutrament

Noise Fest (Part 1 of 3)

This past summer the non-profit art gallery White Columns took a look back at two seminal art/music events they had hosted,1981's Noise Fest, curated by Thuston Moore, and 1983's Speed Trials, a sequel of sorts. The retrospective included a nice photocopied zine, which I am going to borrow liberally from:

Noise Trip: memoriez of Noise Fest

by Thurston Moore

We had just changed our name to Sonic Youth. Before that it was the Arcadians, named after the ancient Greeks or whatever who communicated through song. And before that we were called Red Milk. Not sure where that came from. Did a few gigs at Arleen Schloss' A-Space on Broome St between Chrystie and Bowery. The Arcadians did a couple of sorta exciting gigs at CBGB, once on the bill with a group led by an ex-girlfriend of Robert Fripp's. That was pretty heavy (not). And a gig at Great Gildersleeves a predominantly heavy metal hangout that hosted an evening as presented by The Kitchen. We went on first before Glenn Branca and some ensemble led by Bill Obrecht and others. We were trying to get gigs at other joints most notably Hurrahs as that was the hot joint to go to then. Big room, loud DJing by the kid brother of Ed Bahlman from 99 Records - the only record store that had the sides we dug and a great alternative to the 70s punk bloat of Bleeker Blobs, hot mix of people. Saw some amazing gigs there. Young Marble Giants, Y-Pants, The Slits, Pop Group, Bush Tetras when they were for a while there the best band on the planet. It became even tougher to get gigs when Hurrah closed which made no sense. The owner issued a statement in Soho Weekly News that there weren't any good bands in the city they all just seemed to make a lot of noise. What the fuck. As if that was such a bad thing.

Kim Gordon, a beautiful artist girl who had relocated from LA. to NYC, and I started hanging out. We began Sonic Youth from the loose jamming I had going on with Anne DeMarinis who was living with Vito Acconci. We rehearsed at Vito's in Brooklyn. Kim was working at Annina Nosei Gallery, had curated a show there. White Columns was a gallery directed by Josh Baer, son of white canvas painter Jo Baer. Not sure how Kim met him or why she became involved with his new White Columns scene but she did and curated a show there called the Record Cover show where artists displayed record covers. Around this time (this is all 1979-81 period I'd hazard to guess) she mentioned to me that Josh would like to do a music event at the space and would I like to pick the bands. Yes I would. Especially in light of the Hurrahs dude thinking there was nothing happening. I knew there was. There was a lot of weird experimental avant activity coming out of A-Space alone. There was the whole Mofungo gang of lower east side hepsters referencing Beefheart before Lamonte Young (Lamonte was more Rhys Chatham territory and to a more remote extent Branca). There was the whole conflux of Soho-ites involved with the Chatham/Branca guitar plexus axis: Rudolph Grey, Jules Baptiste, Lee Ranaldo (who wasn't in SY yet - he came in the band pretty much immediately after Noise Fest - in fact our first rehearsal as such with Lee was at White Columns in preparation for some weird gig at a Just Above Midtown/Downtown Gallery opening - Barbara Ess played bongos w/us for that gig(!)).

I called the event Noise Fest in reaction to what the Hurrah jerko had said and to reclaim the term noise from its derisive status. I made a short list of bands. Branca was of advice leading me to people like John Rehberger and Mark Cunningham, who was mythological to us as he was in the group Mars, probably the most notoriously "out" no wave group of the 70s. All the musicians and bands responded and were ready to play. A lot of them knew of each other but not everyone had really ever cohabitated so much together and, as such, Noise Fest was a watermark event in that a community of disparate yet contemporary avant garde post no wave punk experimentalists got to hang out, meet each other, and feel connected. It was great. Bands started calling me to be involved. Just about anyone who did call I said yes to. The fest grew from a one to two to four to five to six to nine day event. Insane. Some band from Georgia called Vietnam strode in because they heard about this thing brewing and asked to play. Sure, why not. The female drum machinist was a young Sue Garner who stayed in NYC and has continued creating fantastic music. Kim curated the attendant wall art show which had its own opening I believe. A lot of this is fuzzy I tell ya. I remember one afternoon during some kind of soundcheck when John Belushi and some pals walked in to see what was happening. Belushi's hang out was this 2nd story party joint in a building on Spring and Varick, a block or two away. He was chomping on a cigar and looked bemused, but not fully sold. When Lee Ranaldo and David Linton played as Avoidance Behavior their music was so harsh and shattering that the entire audience sat on the floor with their fingers in their ears. A woman who lived up the street came over in her bare feet, shaking, and complained about the din. She was incredulous as to how this was happening unregulated on her block. In tears she pointed to the ear plugged audience watching Lee and David kill. "What the hell is this?"- she was so confused. Elliot Sharp called me to play and I said sure though I had not known of Elliot at that point. He was more part of whatever free improv scene existed along with a young John Zorn and others. This was a group not represented only because of my not being too aware of it. But I granted Elliot a gig on the night Branca was to play. Glenn had put together his evening pretty much and wasn't into the intrusion of someone he hadn't chosen being stuck in he middle of it. So I had to call Elliot and say it wasn't going to happen. Highly unprofessional, but what did I know? The etiquette of booking was not exactly something I had experience with. Certainly Elliot was bummed by such crapola and in retrospect it's a damn shame he wasn't there - or Zorn, or any number of avant loft jazz improv cats. Whatever, it was loose, and it all just happened. Me, Kim, Anne, Josh and Barbara Ess sat around White Columns daily and had fun just coming up with ideas. Barbara did a t-shirt design, flyers were made, sometimes in editions of one. There was a main poster which went through two permutations as the roster was adjusted. Some staple zine catalogue of the art show which I don't even recall (Lee says he has one). I tried to get some of the new first generation hardcore bands but they were so young they couldn't seem to dial the phone. I liked the Beastie Boys who had done a couple of gigs around the art world but they were way scattered. But their friends the Primitives responded and they became the representatives of that scene. They were amazing in their very unschooled attack. The 14 year old lead singer with a mohawk had a lot to say about Ronald Reagan. Innocent times.

Lester Bangs called me from a phone booth and said he wanted to write about Noise Fest because if there was one thing he knew about it was noise. I invited him down, not only to see the bands, but for himself to play. I told him he could do anything he wanted. He was billed on the last night, on the makeshift marquee outside, as The Lester Bangs Explosion. He showed up after we had locked the doors of the gallery and were strolling east on Spring St., really young and lost in the glory of what went down the entire time. I recognized him as he came galomping down the street, he had a record under his arm. "Lester! it's over! Yr too late!" all smiles. He seemed a little inebriated but certainly not fall down drunk. He was real happy about the record he had just got: A Taste of DNA. He loved DNA. I was impressed, we walked together towards somewhere, Lester split to god knows where.

Anne DeMarinis taped everything, or at least almost everything (John Rehberger's music was performed off a boat just down the street on the Hudson River). Josh had a connection with Rosetta Brooks at ZG Magazine, a new UK contempo-art essay zine and ZG agreed to release the tapes as a cassette. When Branca started up Neutral Records, Sonic Youth were his first release. Plus I got asked to work there calling distributors and stores to see if they'd carry our records. I was replaced by a UK refugee from Rough Trade called Peter Wright who had a much better handle on such biz. I just wanted to rock. One of the last things I did at Neutral was distribute the Noise Fest cassette. I remember we had them all in a big garbage bag. I would haul the bag from record store to record store - there weren't that many - maybe ten stores at the most - some of them took one or two on consignment. The rest I gave to the artists and to whoever wanted one. I kept one for myself which I lost for years but finally found. I think I have the Barbara Ess t-shirt buried somewhere though it's been ages since I've peeped it. If the Noise Fest did anything it brought noise home to the artist punks who utilized it. The downtown art/music scene was activated and energized by it and a certain collective camaraderie was established. A lot of us still maintain good friends and memories from it. There was one weird band from Brooklyn called Fakir who had this really messed up sounding 7" which they brought in and asked if they could play. They were kind of young and hippiesh and how they came to find me in White Columns I'll never know. I said they could play and they were awesome, odd and sensual, as opposed to some of the mostly stringent angularities being projected by the Soho heavy squad (tho Glenn B and yeh Kim G had complete boner popping stylez). I wonder whatever happened to those kids. Anyone know?

thurston moore 2005

Sonic Youth - Live at Noise Fest '81
If this doesn't sound like the Sonic Youth you're used to, it's because Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley had yet to suit up. The inclusion of
Anne DeMarinis and the experimental bent of this fledgling quartet left them with a feline no-wavey bounce undistinguished from other bands of that era. But not too long thereafter the shredding commenced.

The Primitives - Live at Noise Fest '81
Moore mentions the 14 year old lead singer in his piece above. Pretty good hardcore racket for a buncha politically aware teenagers.

Fakir - Live at Noise Fest '81
Possibly the best recording to emerge from this Noise summit in terms of both fidelity and substance. Some serious paranoid feedback cityscapes married to disorienting synth bloops and squiggles.