A Pre-History of Live Experimental Music in Brooklyn
The timing of this article may be perfect. As I write, the New York Times has just published a piece about the renaissance of rock clubs in New York City in the post-CBGB era, citing Brooklyn as “the biggest growth area.” Well, twenty years ago there may have been musicians living in Brooklyn, but you certainly couldn’t get anyone to come into Brooklyn to see music. How do I know? We tried.
In 1985, after some time living on the West Coast, I moved back to the ancestral home of Brooklyn. In 1986 Doug Walker of the post-spacerock group Alien Planetscapes began having concerts in his third-floor walkup over a fish store on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope. (Sadly, Doug died this past April.) These were the days of the cassette network, where you found out from magazines like Op, Sound Choice, and Option about who was making and trading interesting music without commercial considerations worldwide—by mail. (Among the almost–household names who have come through the cassette scene are Merzbow, Jim O’Rourke, Amy Denio, Francisco Lopez, John Hudak, and many others.)
To quote cassette-network pioneer Carl Howard: “In the mid-1980s, the explosion of alternative music networking through things called audio cassettes was at its peak. Doug Walker had already offered the world both duet and trio versions of Alien Planetscapes with fellow-traveller performers such as Louis Boone (Born to Go; The Land of Guilt and Blarney; Friends of Mescalito) and David Prescott. Performances usually occurred in whatever Brooklyn apartment Doug happened to be living in at the time, due to the inherent bulkiness of the musical equipment, as well as due to the extreme age of some of the analog synthesizers and mixers.
“Doug contacted me early in 1986 because he had seen my alternative and self-published music magazine ARTITUDE, and may have been aware that I had been running the cassette label audiofile tapes as well. While Doug had been a cassette trader of live rock and jazz for years, he had also begun trading Alien Planetscapes tapes internationally with like-minded producers of low-budget, self-released music on cassette. It further helped matters that Al Margolis, whose Sound of Pig cassette label was already in high gear by 1986, lived locally as well. Doug began contacting people throughout this DIY network ambitiously.”
There was a small scene happening, and Doug’s was a place to see interesting music and either trade ideas with old friends or meet new ones. Dave Prescott, Arnold Mathes, Barney Jones, Cheryl Sobas, Pat Gillick—some of these people I played with, and some just made music I enjoyed, but the connections, both personal and musical, were invaluable. For example: I had met Cheryl through reading about her in Sound Choice. We got together, then started going to Doug’s. I did a performance with her there along with guitarist Larry Olsen and drummer Paul Richard, and then we all began to play and record in various combinations. Cheryl met Pat, who she still lives with to this day, who was a friend of Ron Anderson of the Molecules, and—well, you get the picture.
Somehow, in 1987, myself, Carl Howard, husband-and-wife experimentalists Dan and Detta Andreana, woodwind player Brian Charles, and bassist/DJ Dave Mandl hooked up with fellow musician David Chevan, who was running a weekly concert series called Bar None at Lauterbach’s, a neighborhood bar in Park Slope. They had a live rock series on weekends and, probably trying to make some extra dough during the week, they gave Chevan a spot. He was busy working on his masters degree and having a kid, so at some point he had to back out, and he passed the series to us. So for seven months in 1987 and 1988 we found ourselves in charge of a weekly new music series. In South Park Slope, Brooklyn.
And it was fun. We all got a chance to play and present not just music but dance and poetry. There was jazz and free-improvisation and electronic experimentation. Musicians who were traveling wanted to play there. An audience? I can never remember ever having more that twenty people (if that many). The series was constantly shifting days—from Wednesday to Thursday to Tuesday. We got some press. We presented, among many others, Amy Denio, Ron Anderson and Yellow Tang, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, Judy Dunaway, Alien Planetscapes, Sue Ann Harkey, Ellen Christi, Jack Wright, Davey Williams, David Fulton, and Charles Gayle, not to mention a long list of poets and dancers.
I think the performances by Demo Moe—a really loud rock improv trio—and E. J. Vodka, who was loud and industrial, and had a real goat’s head that he kicked around, and smashed the place and left it a mess, were the death of the series. The local neighbors were complaining, most of the audience who did come didn’t drink, and I think the owners felt that they could make as much money with a new dartboard as they did with all this “art.” And it would be quieter. So in April 1988 what might have been the only weekly new-music series in Brooklyn died.
We had fun. And now that I no longer live in Brooklyn, and the old neighborhood has Issue Project Room and Barbès and all the other venues—well, it happened before. Just so you know.
Al MARGOLIS has performed and recorded for the past twenty-two years as sound-artist If, Bwana.