I got a strange e-mail from amigo Michael Holman last weekend. It said "Gray has been bootlegged." Gray is the band that he and Jean-Michel Basquiat played in back in the day, which has recently released a wonderful new CD Shades of Gray. This message seemed bizarre. Bootlegged? How can you bootleg a band nobody knows yet?
It's amazing that you can sell nothing for a lifetime of being too smart for the room, and then suddenly, wham, you're being bootlegged. That would piss me off. Bob Dylan can afford to get bootlegged, but Gray is still trying to get into the black. Can't the bootleggers at least wait till you're rich. (Oh, excuse me a second while I take TV Party down from YouTube again).
But let me back up. Gray is a thirty-year-old band that's just starting to get famous, from back when art bands were really art. You ought to know about them.
When I first arrived in New York it was the unquestioned capital of Bohemia. You had the Warhol Factory, the genius of Rauschenberg, the vision of Johns, the profusion of pop art masters Lichtenstein, Olderburg, Dine, Wesselman etc.. You had the next generation of abstraction with John Chamberlain, Larry Poons, Richard Serra. You had the avant-garde dance scene— Merce Cunningham, Meredith Monk, Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown. Bob Wilson was redefining "opera" and performance with Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds. You had Ray Johnson and the New York Correspondence School of Art. You had a jazz scene with Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Pharoah Sanders, Sonny Rollins and all, still going strong and Sun Ra heading for Outer Space. You had crazy rock bands like the Velvet Underground and The Fugs. You had actual poets (who were then not stand-up comedians) like Ted Berrigan, James Schuyler, Joe Brainard. And every off-beat kid from every city where culture had been shipped out was arriving with a suitcase and big plans.
Why all that creativity? We could afford to be poor!
You could live in a big funky space here for next to nothing if you were willing to run for your life. You could work one day a week for walking-around money and spend the rest of your time painting, making music, writing, or fucking and getting high, or all of the above. You could eat by going to Max's at happy hour for free hors d'oeuvres.
Everybody went to Max's Kansas City. The abstract expressionists drank heavily in the front by the bar, as you walked into the depths of the joint you'd encounter more artists, the city's young fashion designers, rock musicians, poets, dancers, actors and directors, and just plain freaks. Today we are all specialists with each discipline (or lack of one) gathering in its own tribal enclave, but back then all the scenes wanted to be one scene and they fed off each other. I think part of it was that the rock musicians wanted to have mystique and be taken seriously like the artists and the artists wanted to have groupies and fans like the musicians.
To my generation the answer was obvious. You had to be an artist and a musician. And maybe an actor and a director too. And so we were all generalists—playing in bands, making movies, acting in each other's movies, starting fly by night magazines and reading poems. I don't sit around thinking about this stuff, but last week I saw a movie called Blank City, which documents the underground film scene of the late seventies early eighties in New York. Directed by a young French filmmaker, it presents many graying and balding talking heads recalling the glorious follies and artistic frenzies of their youth.
One thing that sticks is that everybody did everything. Director Jim Jarmusch was in the Del-Byzanteens, James Nares was a founder of the Contortions, the Contortions wild sax playing leader James Chance acted in Eric Mitchell films. Debbie Harry acted in Amos Poe's films, James Chance, Fab Five Freddy and Futura 2000 rapped when they weren't painting on walls, John Lurie painted, had a band, directed film, and acted. I wrote, acted in underground films, started a socialist-realist rock band, and then produced and hosted a TV show and made a movie. It just seemed like what we were supposed to do. I must admit, it still seems like that. I'm always saying to old friends, "should we start a band?"
Anyway, all of this is sort of an intro to a band few know called Gray. It was the brainchild of Jean-Michel Basquiat, painter, poet, actor and musician, and a varying cast of his friends Michael Holman—a filmmaker, Nick Taylor, Wayne Clifford (who inexplicably changed his name to Justin Thyme), Shannon Dawson (who went with the band Konk and later played with G.Love) and Vincent Gallo—who has also done some painting, acting and directing.
I think Gray was originally called "Test Pattern." I have at least one show flier with that name on it. Gray was for "Gray's Anatomy," the medical book that was Jean-Michel's favorite visual reference. They played around New York in the usual places, like the Mudd Club, and unusual places, like One University, Mickey Ruskin's post-Max's restaurant where the art crowd had migrated. (Julian Schnabel worked there as a cook at one point.)
Like many bands of that time Gray was not made up of highly schooled musicians, but they proved that all you really need is an ear. They were all great listeners. Basquiat knew funk, jazz and what was up. How many people were equally versed in Miles Davis and Funkadelic, Charlie Parker and Bootsy Collins, Thelonious Monk and the JBs? Answer, only a secret society of downtown DJs.
Gray has been described as a noise band, industrial, experimental. Those labels, along with punk, new wave, are beside the point. Florian from Kraftwerk once said to me "all music is experimental." I like the genre "no wave," only because it's based on negation. There really was (is) no band similar to Gray, although some may have passed like ships in the night.
Gray's approach to music was having heard music, to approach instruments and sound systems the way one would pick up a strange machine and try to intuit its operation and function. Since Basquiat didn't know guitar technique, it seemed like a good idea to play one with a steel file. Michael Holman discovered that you could achieve a very nice effect by pulling masking tape off the skin of a snare drum. Wayne/Justin knew that a cassette recorder was a kind of instrument. And they had a lot of really cheap little Canal Street keyboards that sounded better than really expensive Sam Ash keyboards. Hey, you can make music on a Casio watch. And then there was the clarinet that Basquiat liked to walk around with, that was as much a scepter and wand as wind instrument.
The band's secret weapon was Nick Taylor, who may have actually had musical training and who grounded the whole sound with elegant context. Nick could play the guitar. But all of them had knowledge, and a big part of that was understanding the essential function of silence in music. It's like the black void between the stars that makes the zodiac go round. I think this was learned from Miles, from the interstellar serenities of his electric band on "In a Silent Way." Gray's groves tend to live in an echo chamber halfway between Lee Perry's echo machine and Plato's cave. You know that infinity is involved.
You can hear this splendid black-velvety use of quiet on "Drum Mode," which was recorded at Blank Tapes Studios for the film Downtown 81. It's ironic that Gray has been termed a noise band because their usual mode is ultra cool. It's quirky and sometimes pushes the envelope of musical mode, but it's the symmetrical, harmonic core that holds the rough edges together into something that moves with power and grace.
Shades of Gray (Plush Safe Records), the best compilation of Gray yet, contains material from way back when and more recent efforts, but it all works seamlessly outside the constraints of time and history. It's a mix of prank poetry phonecalls by Basquiat, There's even a guest vocal by the great artist émigré Ashley Bickerton who answers a droll questionnaire supplied by a sexy French girl DJ on "The Mysterious Ashley Bickerton."
"Is your work subversive Mr. Bickerton?"
All this mysterious dramatics is set to a cool school groove of drum, bass, guitar, and flute, persistently establishing a sense of indomitable universal copacetic-ness. But Shades of Gray stretches out into weirder realms, mixed up with touch tones, beeps, sine wave drones, gab snatches, kitchen sink percussion, jazz guitar, and free samples.
This utterly charming 27-track album is chock full of the road not taken, which sounds so right just now. It is refreshingly stripped of flagrant virtuosity but it is conceived brilliantly, played perfectly, and arranged impeccably. The words stick to your ribs. The mood music melodies transport you into pleasant interzones of the Leone/Rota cine-music sector. It's the soundtrack of a better world. While much contemporary music is rash and in your face, this collection is witty, contemplative, ironic, sexy, sweet, and profoundly unexpected. If a wine can have notes of chocolate, leather, licorice, and tobacco, then this record can have notes of William DeVaughn, Willie Hutch, Marcel Duchamp, Larry Coryell, the Modernaires, Sergio Mendez, the Tube Bar Tape, Chet Baker, Melvin Van Peebles, Gilberto/Jobim, and Dragnet. Some of this music is undoubtedly from 31 years ago, but it sounds like 31 years from now, and today in 2011 on the car stereo it sounds like the right direction, like the interstellar navigation system. By the way, whoever bootlegged Gray, I have suggested that these gentlemen avail themselves of Interpol and track you down to whatever backwater you inhabit and strip you of your passports. Michael Holman just sent me this picture. It's the instrument Basquiat played with Gray when I got them a gig at Leo Castelli's birthday party.