The ‘70s outburst of new bands that were called punk, then new wave, and finally indie can be traced to a beginning (or beginnings), and here’s what’s too-little recognized about that: it started with poets and writers.
Some who know that punk didn’t start with Johnny Rotten, say that it all can be traced back a band that called itself Television who convinced a desperate bar owner that his Bowery bar called CBGB should let them play music there in 1974. Television wasn’t a gigging band, rather it was the idea of two poets, friends since high school who had moved to New York City and started to call themselves by suitably poetic names: Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell.
But even before that, two other NYC writers were combining poetry with rock’n’roll: Lenny Kaye, a guitarist and rock critic with tendencies to musicology, and Patti Smith, a poet who thought that if she wanted rock’n’roll to be a fit subject and context for poetry, maybe the sound of rock should come along explicitly. In 1971, the pair linked up to perform at St. Marks in the Bowery with Kaye on electric guitar, at a long-standing reading series (instigated by Paul Blackburn, who we’ve met here previously). Eventually there would be a band, the Patti Smith Group, but that band started as an idea of two writers, and for awhile it was just Kaye’s guitar and a piano player with Smith’s chanted vocals.
So how far back does that idea go, two poets or two writers, imagining a rock band? Let’s set the New York wayback machine 7 years further back, to 1964. Two poets and well-rounded Greenwich Village bohemians Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg looked at the folk music scene, understood that the term means what it says, that any odd folk were allowed to make music, and so they gathered some handy musicians and imagined a band they called The Fugs. Their first recording was called on its first pressing on Folkways “The Fugs Sing Ballads of Contemporary Protest, Point of Views, and General Dissatisfaction,” and it was produced by Harry Smith, the important folk anthologist, but they eventually became a rock band touring with an irregular accumulation of Village musicians. Besides having the foundational indie spirit of we’re going to make music without asking for permission, The Fugs were also sometimes gleefully obscene—something that bohemian poets had already done, and they brought this with them to music. In today’s world of autotuned rappers, their sexual hijinks may not shock as much now as their naked-to-the-world out of tune vocals.
And what bridges the Fugs to the ‘70s NYC punk-rock poets? Poet Lou Reed, musician John Cale, and eventual English Literature PhD Sterling Morrison formed the Velvet Underground. Like the other poet bands, the idea of forming a group preceded any complete organization into a band. The Velvet’s original drummer famously quit when the band got its first gig, because he thought accepting any gig would be selling out.
Do you notice a rhyme scheme here? None of these situations started with a full band of musicians looking for their chance. These weren’t musicians looking to get poetic, these were poets looking to get musical. Of the seven writers above, I believe only Kaye and Reed had ever played a gig before they dreamed their bands. What musicians were recruited, what musical skills would be developed or obtained, all came after the idea, an idea that was launched in performance before it became fully-formed rock band.
I’m not suggesting this is the best way to start a band or establish a career, because this is pretty much the way the LYL Band started. Dave remembers that Fine Art had looked to him for words, and once asked, the words that could be songs started building up in him. I had been writing songs for a year or so before I came to the Twin Cities. I had an acoustic and electric guitar, Dave had old upright piano in his living room. Sometime a few months after Fine Art got underway, in 1979, we started playing together, a two-person version of the traditional song pull. He’d do a song and I do a song and we’d try to figure out what went with what the other was playing.
Whose idea was it to form a band? I think it was likely Dave’s. Dave’s not entirely sure. The broader gestalt of punk and indie breaking out was part of it, including the example of Fine Art of course. We both shared an appreciation of The Fugs, and that anarchic idea of band that would perform any idea for a song, even if their musical execution might be imperfect. Hell, their LP title “Ballads of Contemporary Protest, Point of Views, and General Dissatisfaction” could have been our tagline too.
The idea of just an acoustic piano and a single guitar as a band was incomplete and we knew it. Even in the loosest standard in the era, we couldn’t be a rock band. As Dave’s songs built up, we performed at a few open mics acoustically as a duo, and we started to call ourselves “punk-folk.” We played several midday informal gigs at the Modern Times restaurant on Chicago Avenue (I worked nights, which cut into more conventional times) and from this short-lived noon-time schedule we named ourselves The Lose Your Lunch Band.
Still a duo in 1982 we recorded our only “official” release, the mostly electric (Dave had bought an old Farfisa organ) “Driving the Porcelain Bus.” Recorded by Colin Mansfield on what was probably the same 4 track open-reel deck that recorded those Husker Du demos. You can see that we weren’t shy about the emetic band name, but it had nothing to do with the songs we were singing. We sang songs about political subjects, blue-color experiences, and satirized the Me generation. “Driving the Porcelain Bus” was probably the first cassette-only release in the Twin Cities indie scene, but it came before there was a regular distribution method for pre-recorded cassettes. Besides the usual direct sales, I reverse-shoplifted the cassettes (each packaged in a folded brown-paper lunch sack with the track list printed on the paper) dropping them into spaces in the LP bins of record stores. I wonder if any clerks remember being asked to ring up a strange recording that wasn’t actually in inventory?
It was the Reagan decade, the rise of the new affabulatory GOP. Dave had lots of song material. We’ll continue the story of Dave’s new-found songwriting in another post, but here’s today’s audio piece: Dave Moore performing his song “Evil Man” live at the Modern Times sometime in the early ‘80s with the two-person LYL Band. Dave is pounding the house piano within an inch of its life and has a vocal mic. The MT sound system had one more channel which meant that I’m trying to get my little guitar to be heard over the piano while shouting backing vocals into the mic halfway down my body to where the guitar was. I believe I recorded this on a portable cassette recorder sitting somewhere on one of the restaurant’s side tables. As they say in collector’s circles: archival interest sound quality.