THROUGH THE PAST STARKLY
Looking at Music: Side 2, MoMA
As soon as I walked through the door of the Museum of Modern Art’s Looking at Music: Side 2 exhibit, I had to seek out the video for Sonic Youth’s Death Valley ’69. The band’s album covers have long featured the work of highbrow visual artists like Gerhard Richter and Richard Prince, making them an obvious starting point for a show about the interplay between the Lower East Side’s music and the New York art scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s. And the group’s rendition of that particular song at United Palace in July had been the musical highlight of my summer.
I found the clip at one of the television-sized video stations placed throughout the gallery, and immediately grabbed a pair of headphones. About two minutes later, a young woman decided to watch along with me. I craned my neck to see past her, then—slam! She threw down her headphones after about 30 seconds, jumping back as if struck by an invisible fist. The video kept going; I started bobbing my head. A couple of minutes passed, and then some guy in a blue shirt was stepping in front of me. I craned my neck again, kept watching, then—slam! Blue Shirt fled as if he thought the people onscreen were going to jump out and eat him.
The thing is, I don’t blame them for hating it. Death Valley is loosely based on the Manson killings, which means the video is very noisy and very, very violent. I had fun with it—I like noise, and I don’t mind movie gore. But those things repel a lot of people. They’re supposed to. Now that Sonic Youth’s music appears in TV shows like “Gossip Girl” it’s easy to forget that people like Village Voice critic Robert Christgau once derided their “pigfucker” music. A large part of the band’s early appeal was that their use of feedback and alternate tunings made them sound, well, scary. At least to some people.
In fact, that was once true of almost the entire downtown New York music scene. Just listen to Suicide’s 1977 song “Frankie Teardrop,” another featured video in Looking at Music, which makes “Death Valley ’69” sound friendly. But punks aren’t really outsiders anymore, and haven’t been for a long time. In fact, Patti Smith, Blondie, Talking Heads, and the Ramones—all spotlighted in the MoMA show—have all been eagerly embraced by the very temple of uncool, Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Putting everybody on display in yet another museum only serves to reinforce just how mainstream these folks have become.
As a result, MoMA’s biggest challenge was to spotlight these bands in a way that won’t merely evoke some punk documentary on VH1. And that’s where the “looking” comes in. While audio stations—featuring tracks such as Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel,” the Ramones’ “Beat on the Brat,” and Richard Hell’s “Blank Generation”—anchor the show, the exhibit is rounded out with lots of videos, album covers, flyers, old copies of Punk and other like-minded magazines, and punk-influenced photography by the likes of Nan Goldin and Richard Prince.
These supplemental materials are reminders of a pre-digital age, when music was more local, organic, and visual—and they help underscore what made this period so fascinating. For instance, when listening to Patti Smith’s debut single, “Hey Joe/Piss Factory,” the listener is almost forced to stare at the album cover to her 1975 LP Horses, which features a famous portrait of the singer by Robert Mapplethorpe. The defiance Smith exhibits in that picture—chin up, eyes intense—makes lines like “I refuse to lose / I refuse to fall down” that much more powerful.
It’s oddly appropriate, then, that another visual artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, is the biggest musical revelation here. His early rap single “Beat Bop,” a collaboration with graffiti artist Rammellzee, is practically the sole representative of New York’s early hip-hop scene. (The video for Blondie’s disco-influenced take on the genre, “Rapture,” appears as well.) A ten-minute mixture of laid-back beats, back-and-forth rapping, and strange ambient noise, it stacks up well against the better-known stuff here—and chances are you won’t already have it on your iPod. A suitably gritty untitled Basquiat painting from 1981 cements his place as the star of the show.
An adjacent wall features something a little less exalted—a collage of old magazine photos that looks like something from 1979’s coolest teenage bedroom. Clipped from Creem and Rolling Stone, among other publications, the pictures were all originally taken by the ubiquitous 70s rock photographer Bob Gruen. It’s easy to scoff at when you first see it, but the collage captures a bit of the obsessive loyalty these artists generated. And the fact that, 35 years later, images of underground bands like the New York Dolls don’t look out of place next to ones of the decidedly un-punk Kiss and Led Zeppelin is a reminder of what a great unifying force rock ’n’ roll is.
Blue Shirt notwithstanding, Looking at Music: Side 2, which runs through the end of November, is not the scariest thing you’ll see all year. But it’s a lot of fun. After all, this is still great music.
ContributorGuy Patrick Cunningham
Guy Patrick Cunningham is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn.