Interview by Jack Partain
Jody Harris is most well known as the second guitarist for James Chance's no-wave psycho circus The Contortions, but his imprint is all over underground music in New York in the early and mid-1980's. A close friend and collaborator of legendary guitarist Robert Quine (whom Harris eulogized here at PSF in May of 2007), Harris has recorded with the likes of Lester Bangs (on the 1977 "Let It Blurt!" single), The Golden Palominos, John Zorn, and Richard Hell among others. His solo work, work with Quine, and as a founding member of surf rock weirdos The Raybeats has earned him a reputation as one of the most solid guitarists out there. Quine himself even praised Harris here, calling him "tragically underrated" and "so far advanced" (PSF, November, 1997). Today, Harris contributes regularly to Radio Free Song Club (“a group of writers with a monthly song deadline"). This interview was conducted by email (Facebook messaging actually) between January and April 2012. Thanks to Jeff Calder for the idea.
Perfect Sound Forever: Where are you from in kansas and when did you move to New York?
Jody Harris: I lived in Coffeyville, KS from the age of five until I graduated from high school. I moved to New York in late 1974 after a half-hearted attempt at higher education (I spent most of my time playing in a terrible Top 40 band, which will remain nameless. I was actually the worst one in the band, which is saying something).
PSF: What were your earliest musical influences?
JH: My earliest musical influence was really the Baptist Church - those old cowboy-type hymns. The first stuff that blew me away was ‘Aha Take It Away Leon McAuliffe,' live from the Cimarron Ballroom on KVOO Channel 2 in Tulsa (I think it was Channel 2). I still love the guy. My older brother started buying rock 'n roll records in the late ‘50's and I flipped for the Everly Brothers and Ricky Nelson, so I guess James Burton was my first electric guitar hero, although I was too dumb to find out what his name was. Went on from there to Elvis and then the Beach Boys. I started messing around with folk guitar when I was about 14, discovered Dylan and then the Byrds, and headed out into strange territory.
PSF: Why did you move to New York and what was it like in 1974? How long did it take you to get hooked up with a band?
JH: I came to New York in '74 to see my friend James Grauerholz (another Coffeyvillian), who had come out the year before, met William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, and stayed to become William's secretary. I wasn't burning up the track in Kansas, so I thought, hell, why not? Got a job at the Strand Bookstore right away.
New York in '74 was falling down right in front of your eyes. The big garbage strike was on when I got here and the streets were lined with 10-foot high stacks of garbage. There were bums setting fires in trash cans all up and down the Lower East side. Living was cheap, CB's and Max's were going, there were lots of kids like me looking to get famous. Perfect.
The first person I met at the Strand (which was proud of itself for having employed Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell) was the then-unknown Bob Quine. We bonded over Miles Davis records and were tight friends for the next 30 years (minus the five years when he wasn't speaking to me), until his death in 2004.
PSF: I assume that you've already assumed that I'm going to ask you about Lester Bangs, so do you want to get it out of the way now? How did you get involved with Bangs? What was he like as a musician and how did the recording sessions for "Let it Blurt" go?
JH: Eventually I met Lester through Quine. We all hung out together a fair amount. Lester's writing was so over the top (he actually used the word "rodomontade" in one piece), and so suicidally opinionated, you couldn't help loving him, plus he was such a big goofball. He invited Quine and me over for Thanksgiving one year and when we got there he was passed out on Romilar and Thanksgiving dinner was the size of a hockey puck in the oven, smoke everywhere. Quine was pissed - you didn't want to get between him and food. Lester adored Quine and he was mad to have a band with him. Why not? If I remember correctly Robert Palmer (of the New York Times) was jamming with the Rolling Stones at the time. Quine wanted me in, I got my old bandmate David Hofstra (Leavenworth, Kansas!) and Lester pulled in Jay Dee (from the Patti Smith Group). At one point Lester was going to call it either "Army Men" or "Pup Tent," and I still think he should have stuck with one of those. We got together a bunch of songs at my place. Terry Ork offered to do the record, with (John) Cale producing. It wasn't a comfortable session and I don't remember much about it, sorry. There was friction between Quine and Jay and between me and Cale, usual piss-ant stuff.
The three-night stand that we did at CB's stands out in memory as the loudest sound I have ever heard. I remember Hofstra sitting beside his amp and just kind of rolling over on the floor behind it.
Lester wasn't a musician at all but he loved music and he was a real, live, writer. He just sort of worked himself farther and farther out on a limb, until he was writing things like "This record is shit, and if you like it you're wrong." The fact that I can quote him after all these years says it all.
PSF: Gotta ask since you mentioned it that Quine stopped talking to you for five year.Why?
JH: Quine was given to "terminating" people (his term) for various infractions of his code. Around the time of the first Raybeats gigs, he decided that I was getting uppity, and maybe I was. The specific occasion was an article I did for NY Rocker where I included him in a list of great guitar players but made the mistake of prefacing it by saying (tongue in cheek) "I'm including this guy because I want to help him out" (he was already rehearsing with Lou Reed) and ending with a quote from a useless alleged early Jimi Hendrix bootleg whose perpetrator said something like "Under my patient tutelage, Jimi blossomed." We both loved it. So I said, "Thanks for the patient tutelage, Bob." It was heartfelt on my part but he thought he was being fucked with. So he terminated me, saying "maybe in 5 years I'll talk to you again." I was stunned.
Hanging out at Quine's, listening to records and banging on guitars was a big part of my life, but I knew him well enough to know that nothing I could say would make any difference. 4 years later, Pat Irwin and I did a Guitar Player interview where I talked mostly about him. He called me and we took up where we left off. He could dish it out (he had the most advanced sense of humor of anybody I've ever known) but he couldn't necessarily take it.
PSF: How did you come to join The Contortions? How would you describe the differences between you and first guitarist James Nares?
JH: I knew James Chance from hanging out and actually rehearsing for a while with Mars. Nancy Arlen was his off-and-on girlfriend ("Jaded" = Nancy). I only saw the original Contortions once, at CB's. James Nares and I were friendly but I don't really remember anything about his playing - it was performance art for him I think. After he and Chico and Wreck split, James asked Don Christensen and me to be in the band. Our first gig was at [can't remember the name of the club - it's in Byron (Coley)'s No Wave book] (AUTHOR NOTE: ugExplode lists the first Contortions gig with Harris as May 4, 1978 at CBGB's). There was some Australian or English punk band on the bill who took a sharp dislike to James and tried to rearrange his map. We discouraged them, paving the way for future hijinks. Fun in a way - at first it was like the Jets vs. the Sharks, and the gigs were like a car wreck anyway, but as things went bad in the band, we just let him get his head kicked in. It was enjoyable to be talked about as the coolest band in the world for a minute. Musically, I dunno. In the late ‘90's, we started going out again occasionally, and that has been superb sometimes - I will play with Donnie Bill and Pat Place anywhere, any time.
PSF: How much of The Contortions' repertoire was, I guess, set by the time you joined the band? How did the band work as a songwriting unit? What were rehearsals like?
JH: I don't know the repertoire before I got in the band. Like I said, I saw the Contortions once at CB's, and I don't remember what they played, but they were good (the name came from a Robert Palmer article about James's out-jazz band Flaming Youth in which he descried "the sax player's contortions" (bass player David Hofstra!).)
What I remember is that James had a rhythmic scheme for Pat, and wrote Adele's parts on keys and George's bass lines. James didn't have hair enough to tell me what to play so I threw in my new James Brown licks (key of F, seemed to work no matter what), which ultimately led to "I Can't Stand Myself." Good story there, we were in the studio doing No New York, down time, and I started playing that riff, which I had just learned, wrong, check it out, typical (around the same time, Quine and I had a wild weekend with Iggy where we wound up playing that same tune with him at Warren Street, with Donnie Bill on drums). George fell in with his great bass line immediately and Brian Eno came dancing into the studio going, "This is great, keep it up." Bang, first take. You can hear me run out of gas at the end of my solo, my only regret, but we play that tune to death to this day.
How did you ever get the idea that the Contortions was a songwriting unit? It was James's show all the way. Lyrically, cool, "My idea of fun/isn't having a son/but being whipped on the backs of my thighs."
PSF: Sorry, I should have worded that "songwriting unit" question differently. I guess what I'm actually wondering is how much control did James have over the band? You said that it was James's show all the way but that he didn't tell you what to play - can you clear that up a bit? I mean, the whole No Wave thing seems to be dominated by personalities like James Chance, Lydia Lunch, etc, but it seems that the real importance of the movement was what the people behind the vocalists were up to. Any thoughts?
JH: James wrote the songs and put together the persona, and we all sold it onstage. In the band, Pat and George and Adele had the show and Donnie, Bill and I were the rhythm section and it worked like ringin' a bell. I can't analyze it.
PSF: Pat Place sort of touched on this in a recent interview with PSF, so I thought I'd ask - at what point did "The Contortions" become "James Chance and The Contortions"?
JH: Eventually James/Anya succumbed to the delusion that James was going to be a disco star. I don't remember it being "James Chance and" until we did "James White and the Blacks." Once he signed with ZE, we were officially sidemen and basically twisting in the wind. Record companies are in the business of breaking up bands. It's like, "um, would you rather deal with one narcissistic monster or a gang, Clive?"
I think that that band was James's high-water mark, naturally. Anyway, I do know that the first roughs of Buy with George on bass were just smoking hot, and ZE hated them - it was a rock record - and the rest is history.
PSF: I have to ask about that "wild weekend" with Quine and Iggy. How wild was it?
JH: It wasn't wild at all, actually. We were chauffeured around to clubs (when you're a rock star in town you're on the job 24-7). He was cool, smart, and extremely freaked out by the record business.
PSF: You said that "record companies are in the business of breaking up bands." Can you expound on that?
JH: I don't know how much better I can put it than I did in my last email. Record companies think it's in their interest to split the star off from the band if they can. Cheaper to deal with one person (one habit instead of four or five, etc.), plus it's a lot easier to do a Svengali on one, now friendless, naif. The classic example is Big Brother. Start out with one of the great loose and weird bands of all time, make a classic record, split off Janis, and wind up with Janis Joplin and Full Tilt Boogie (which I saw at Soldiers and Sailors in KC and it made me sick, as young and ignorant as I was). Stooges? Same thing basically, except they couldn't make Iggy do right. James? Same thing as Iggy. 10,000 Maniacs? Palominos opened for them once and I was stunned by what a great band they were live. What happened?
PSF: Let's move on to the Raybeats - how did the Raybeats form?
JH: The Raybeats came out of the breakup of the Contortions. I figured that James owned punk funk, so that was a dead end for me.
As it so happened, I was learning Shadows songs with Quine for a CB's gig that we chickened out on. I was totally in love with Hank Marvin's tone. A Stratocaster and an AC 30 (Clean. Major key. Why did nobody ever tell me about this?).
Meanwhile, George was doing 8-Eyed Spy with Pat. They were ultimate music wonks together and into obscure instrumentals. George wrote a song called "Cowboy Bass" (never recorded) and they brought it over to Donnie's studio, and we went on to write a few more tunes just for the hell of it. None of us knew very much about ‘How to Write a Song.' Eventually, we did a some gigs and then George up and died. Which, besides being a stupid tragedy that I can cry about to this day, meant curtains for 8-Eyed Spy. We decided to keep doing the Raybeats, got Danny in (knew him already from playing in Minneapolis), and the rest, as they say, is history.
We never were as cool as the real noise guys in New York (remember them? two days' growth, sport jacket with the sleeves pushed up, tweed overcoat?) and we sort of played that up. We used to clean up dressing rooms after our gigs. We had a lot of encouragement from Bob Palmer, who was our buddy and who is missed, and we just ambled along, kind of in a groove between parody and halfway serious. Our shows were much more outside than the records and that kept the attention of the hoi polloi for a while.
PSF: I almost hate to ask about this but I feel a bit obligated- how pervasive was drug use in the No-Wave crowd?
JH: Drugs? I hate to spring it on you like this, Jack, but musicians do drugs. You're supposed to--it's dumb and extremely dangerous.
PSF: I get the impression that you never really bought into the whole no wave thing, that you were just along for the ride. Accurate?
JH: That's fair actually, from the outside. You have to remember that Donnie and I were older than everybody else, another generation really. Donnie was in a legendary mid-western band, the Showmen, in the early 60s when he was just a kid. I didn't fit into any of the No Wave categories. My idea of noise was and is On the Corner. We were both happy to be in the Contortions at first because it was sort of based on R&B, which we understood, it was crazed, and it was Happening. True No Wavers pretty much thought that the Velvets were actually the first band.
But musically the Contortions didn't really happen for me until we started going out again 20 years later, with Donnie and Pat Place (my favorite guitar partner) and Erik Sanko. James has acknowledged that the Underground in London in April of 2005 was the best show of his life. We played "Super Bad" for, like, a half hour, in our fucked up way. Packed out, delirious kids. It was marvelous.
Curiously enough, the show for Danny at Maxwell's last summer was easily the best Raybeats show ever. Kind of restores my faith in something or other.
PSF: How would you describe a Raybeats show?
JH: A Raybeats show now is pretty much a mixture of what we think is the best stuff we did live. “Doin' the Dishes," “Tone Zone," “Rise and Fall of Flingel Bunt," “Banzai Pipeline," “Intoxica/Soul Beat," “Big Country," “Jack the Ripper." Having Steve Almaas with us is the best. He's got a great energy and presence, and he plays a Danno.
PSF: What was implog? Was it more art project than band?
JH: Implog was Donnie's project all the way. I vaguely remember putting down a guitar track. Donnie Bill has always been into robotics, for want of a better word (he used to keep 40 or 50 toy robots running around the floor of his loft all the time). Somewhere around that time, he played me a DAT that he had made by putting a contact mike on the Brooklyn Bridge, which was mind-bending, to say the least. I've never forgotten it. I think he used that sound on the record.
PSF: Which guitartists do you admire most? Any new guitarists you like?
JH: My guitar heroes are kind of predictable and there's way too many of them: Link Wray, Hendricks, Hank Marvin, Ike Turner, Ralph Mooney, Bobby Womack, Eddie Cochrane, Joao Gilberto, Cropper - I can't stop. My favorite new guitar player is a young Brazilian guy I heard on the subway, doing some kind of heavily arpeggiated Afro-Brazilian thing that just knocked me down. Spooky deep. I've never heard anything like it. I don't know his name - I was scared to talk to him.
PSF: What can you tell me about how Escape developed and was recorded?
JH: Escape came about because Charles Ball wanted a Quine record. Quine and I were sitting around his place for years there, banging on guitars and making little cassette recordings, and he wanted my "Martian" sensibility in on it. So he bought a Dokorder reel-to-reel 4-track and a mixer and we went to town, sort of. We were both so technically inept that we spent way more time cussing the tape recorder than we did playing. I had the guitar riff from "Up in Daisy's Penthouse" and we got a couple of tracks out of that. The "concept" was, Turn the Tape On and Play - there are no edits. And we did the overdubs without listening to the other guitar tracks. Amazing how that works out.
We got the tune titles from Three Stooges shorts. And the record, as Quine liked to say, cost $7.00 to make - two reels of tape. It was going to be called "Roping Wild Bears" but Charles Ball rebelled.
PSF: How would you categorize Escape if you had to?
JH: The best way to categorize it is ‘Art Brut,' right? Downbeat did a little piece where they played weird stuff to mental patients, and, you guessed it, Escape was their fave.
PSF: How is your solo record It Happened One Night different from your other work?
JH: It Happened One Night is different, all right. I wrote all the tunes in one night, and you can tell. The follies of youth. "Read Before You Sign" is a pretty good song that I might do again some time.
PSF: Of all the records you've worked on which is your favorite?
JH: Working with Joe Blaney the Raybeats' It's Only a Movie was great, the only time we really did well in the studio. "Jack the Ripper" is my favorite, with that wonderful video by the "Atomic Cafe" people, but there's a bunch of good stuff on it. Also really like "Boy(Go)" on Visions of Excess (The Golden Palominos).
PSF: What are you up to these days?
JH: The main thing I do these days is Radio Free Song Club (radiofreesongclub.com), a more or less monthly webcast (or live show) hosted by Nick Hill and Kate Jacobs, featuring a rotating cast of songwriters with new songs. Great people - check it out on the web, murderous studio bands.
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