Farewell to the White Improvisers

If you will, indulge me in these two recollections:
(1) Sometime in the hot summer of 1993, three friends and I were sucking down beers at the local punk club in Memphis, Tennessee, a scummy little stinkpit called the Antenna. Between band sets an acquaintance of ours -- a hustler of sorts who fancied himself as something of a one-man, indie-label clearing house -- approached our table with a handful of new arrivals. Avant-garde stuff, mostly, by screwball racketeers like Caroliner and Couch, as well as some pricey import screech from Japan. One single stood out among all the hand-painted and collage-art sleeves: On the front cover was a Xeroxed black-and-white photo of an early incarnation of Nirvana; on the other side was a similarly reproduced shot of a beaming Grand Funk Railroad. We all agreed it was a brilliant juxtaposition, but I don't think any of us really knew why. It just looked good. Along the fold in the sleeve was a paragraph lifted from Lord knows where, with a reference to the need to "write in a new way." Whatever. Below the Nirvana photo was a song title presented in a simple typeface: "Please Don't Come Back from the Moon." Above the Railroad was another: "Nazi USA." The band's name, presented in the same font in the upper right-hand corner, was Harry Pussy. Also brilliant, we decided. In a way, almost too perfect.

"This is a weird one," said the hustler, handing the record -- an issue by the BlackJack label out of Oakland -- to my friend Richard, who eyeballed the front and back covers one more time and offered him four wrinkled one-dollar bills. It was the only copy the hustler had.

A few days later Richard gave me a call. When I asked him about the Harry Pussy record -- how it was, what it sounded like -- my normally verbose friend seemed taken aback, and chose his words carefully. "That," he said with genuine surprise, astonishment, and a little bit of authority, "is one fucked-up record." In other words, he loved it.

In his pick-up truck later that night, on the way to hear the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Richard played me a tape of the Harry Pussy single. The two songs, he explained, were divided into halves -- the first cut opened side one and concluded at the end of side two; the second song closed side one and picked up at the beginning of the flip side. The first song featured two guitars droning randomly, mournfully, while drums thumped and cymbals splashed in the background; it made me think of avant-jazz composer Anthony Braxton's convention-shattering work. The second song, though, was a ferocious piece of art-punk stomp, with incessant, pounding drums, furious, staccato guitars, and a yelping vocal submerged deeply into the mix. I don't know if Richard was hearing what I was hearing, but when "Please Don't Come Back from the Moon" ended, I knew he was right: This was one fucked-up record.

(2) It was a cool September night in 1994 and Harry Pussy was in Shreveport, Louisiana, to play an opening set for the Demolition Doll Rods (a garage-rock group from Detroit) and a bunch of San Francisco goofballs who performed under the name Three Day Stubble. I was working in that tiny, sleepy burg as an entertainment writer and general-assignment reporter at The Times newspaper. Though I had been in Shreveport barely three months, I was already very lonely and very homesick. The underground music scene was almost nonexistent; the few bands around had not yet shaken their Pearl Jam fixations, and the city lacked even one store that carried independent-label releases. The best it could do for a punk club was the unfortunately named Cellblock, a former gay bar where a local black-clad guy named Drac (yes, as in Dracula) booked goth and industrial-dance shows. This was where Harry Pussy would make its northwest Louisiana live debut. When I wrote a blurb in the newspaper to plug the show, my editors eighty-sixed the reference to Harry Pussy.

By this time I was keenly aware of Harry Pussy, and if I hadn't figured out exactly what they were doing, I knew I liked it. An eponymous album had been released on Siltbreeze since I first encountered the BlackJack single, and the band was featured in a then-recent issue of Bananafish, a fringe-music rag based in San Francisco and a bible of sorts for aficionados of experimental noise and aural terrorism. I had seen a clip of an HP live performance played by Thurston Moore during his guest stint as an MTV VJ. I learned through Bananafish that there were two self-released singles preceding the one I first heard in Memphis; there was also an intriguing double-single on the New York-based Audible Hiss label, with four versions of the song "Zero de Conduite." As is typical in the postpunk underworld of small pressings and limited distribution, all three had gone out of print before I had even heard of them. But on the basis of the album and that BlackJack single, I had sufficient material for the building of an obsession.

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