All Tomorrow's Parties - James Chance And The Contortions
Sam Frank: I’d never been to L.A. before, but I found what I was expecting, based on my time spent at and with the movies: We drove to an all-night diner, staffed by Sunset Boulevard Waxworks, that looks like the one in Mulholland Drive. And on Sunday we saw James Chance, on break from his late shift out back behind the dumpster. The Contortions sounded good enough, though the rhythms aren’t nearly as fresh and fuckt. Still, the ugliness never quite faded away, especially since it’s been embalmed.
We talked to Jody Harris, guitarist in the original Contortions, and Eric Sanko, current bassist and late of Skeleton Key.
Sam Frank: You are a real Contortion.
Jody Harris: Yes, I am a real Contortion. Not a contortionist, though, nothing like that.
SF: Real Contortion meaning you were on No New York, Buy the Contortions.
SF: Were you ever punched, or did you ever punch?
JH: You know what? None of us ever punched except for James. And few of us were ever punched. In the beginning, the first thing I remember about this is that we had a gig at someplace called Artists’ Space in New York, and James went out in the audience and punched out Robert Christgau of the Village Voice.
SF: Why ever would he do such a thing? He’s the greatest rock critic of our time.
JH: I don’t know, but he went right for him and smacked him around. And ever after—yes, he knew what he was doing—and ever after that Christgau loved him. He could do no wrong. “James Chance is an asshole! But he’s a genius!” And that went on for several shows and then James started getting really hurt. There were bloody incidents, and he backed off on it. Also, we stopped saving him, after a certain point, because it was ridiculous.
ES: By the first time I started playing with him, which was, like, in ’86, I think he had so many lawsuits pending that he had to be very cautious about what he did. And there was some woman in the audience really provoking him, and he kind of, in a fit of frustration, took a mic stand and very gingerly tapped her on the head with it. “It’s the best I can do.”
SF: When was the last time you played as the Contortions?
ES: About two months ago.
JH: We played in Austria, a jazz festival in Austria this summer.
SF: Have you been doing a whole series this year?
JH: No. Over the last few years, it’s kind of hard to sort this out chronologically, we’ve played with James a few times, we did a show in San Francisco several years ago which was the first time we all got back together more or less. We did a couple of shows in New York, two years ago, three years ago, at the Cooler, something at Irving Plaza—there hasn’t been anything since then.
ES: How long elapsed between the original Contortions shows and these?
JH: It must have been in 1980 when the band broke up. We did some shows in Paris, and the whole situation was awful. Everything went wrong simultaneously. There was a big band stew, everybody shouting, and we all left. We got other bands after that.
SF: Do you find—people are paying $30 for a copy of a No New York reissue from Japan—is that sort of relatively newfound fame interesting to you?
JH: God! I wish…
ES: He wishes he had saved a bunch of copies.
JH: When James called me about doing the show in San Francisco, the show was being booked by a 23-year-old girl who was not born when these things were happening. So it is, it’s odd, but it has its little niche, there’s nothing else quite like it I think.
ES: I’ve tried on many occasions to describe what it’s like, and it’s pretty impossible. I would say that, I guess in some weird way that James could be considered the grandfather of what is now considered punk-funk. But I’m sure if you’d ask him, he’d insist on a blood test.
Ben Tausig: Do you think ATP speaks to a generation of music listeners who appreciate the music of the past more than the punk generation appreciated the music of the past?
JH: Actually, at the time the Contortions were contemporaneous with the punk generation. It all happened at the same time. He just sort of took it into funk…
ES: It seemed to have the attitude of punk.
JH: …the total attitude, like massacres and mosh pits and all that kind of stuff before they existed. But it was funk, and it wasn’t based on power chords and all that kind of stuff. It’s really just James Brown stuff, twice as fast
ES: In no key.
JH: In no key at all. Except I always play an F. In case anyone wants to know.
SF: The keyboardist tonight [Adele Bertei, an original Contortion, who plays the instrument with her fists] hadn’t played with you for a really long time.
JH: No. She left. I know we all quit, and then Adele went to California. The nice part of it is that we’re all friends now. After all that hoohah that went on. You live long enough, you figure out what’s important and isn’t.
ES: And dispense with the crap.
SF: Together forever?
JH: Um, no. No. Just as long as the money keeps coming in.
ES: We’ll be together for another half hour, until we get paid.
JH: We’ll do more stuff. We just need to be selective, because everyone’s everywhere else. Plus, James has a million bands; this is only one James experience that you can have. In fact he’s leaving here tomorrow and he’s going to Chicago to play with a very young band who know all the original Contortions songs. So he really is James Brown.
ES: Yeah, he’s got a pick-up band in every town. Mark Ribot—he’s actually played with Chuck Berry. Chuck Berry had a band in every town like that; Ribot was one of the guitar players. Said all you have to do is [sings riff]. Play the Chuck Berry riffs, that’s it. That’s all he wanted them to do. Pay ’em, that’s it, see ya.
JH: See ya.
By Dusted Magazine