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James Chance, 1953–2024

In memory of the jazz-punk contortionist

James Chance, né Siegfried, sometimes known as James White, has died, aged seventy-one, after a long illness. He was best known as the leader of the Contortions, one of the bands that defined the no wave, which could be said to have been punk rock’s punk rock.

It was somewhere around 1978 that the face of punk rock in lower Manhattan began to change. New York City, unlike London and Los Angeles, never had a punk moment; the important bands that played at CBGB and Max’s all predated the Sex Pistols and their aesthetic of gleeful outrage. Patti Smith, Television, the Ramones, Blondie, and Talking Heads each contributed to that aesthetic but were not of it. They were minimal, or three-chord, or rough-and-ready, or they drew upon the garage bands of the mid-1960s, or they wore tattered clothing and hacked-off haircuts—but they weren’t angry and didn’t display any particular attitude toward society. The stratum under the top bands, meanwhile, was made up of glam-rock retreads, hard-rock laborers, and novelty acts—you’ve never heard of any of them. Once the top bands started getting record contracts and playing larger venues, the downtown scene listed toward stagnation.

I saw the shift that occurred around 1978 from a privileged position: as an employee of the Strand Bookstore, a popular place of employment for downtown scenesters and trainee bohemians with a literary bent (the equivalent for visual artists was Pearl Paint on Canal Street). As the cheap and underpopulated Lower East Side began filling up with people from around the country who were drawn by the mystique of CBGB and Max’s, new currents blew in. At the Strand, where we’d assemble to take in one another’s performances of music, poetry, dance, and theater, we saw these new currents taking shape among our colleagues. Robin Lee Crutchfield, a performance artist who worked in the typing pool and had one of the new cheap synthesizers, started a band called DNA with Arto Lindsay, who sang in a strangulated voice and played abstract-expressionist guitar, and Ikue Mori, who was developing an elliptical style of drumming all her own; the off-kilter, radically foreshortened, chorus-free songs alluded to rock and roll but pointed toward terra incognita. Bradley Field, who worked in shipping and had like so many others come from northeast Ohio, played drum—with one stick—behind a feral teenager from Buffalo who called herself Lydia Lunch. Their band, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, was snarling and primal and more abrasive than anything punk rock had so far managed. Then Jody Harris, a guitarist who purchased review copies in a corner of the basement, and Adele Bertei, a shelf-stocker recently arrived from Cleveland, both joined an outfit called the Contortions.

When Jody joined, the band was in its second iteration, a remarkable lineup. Jody, bassist George Scott, and drummer Donnie Christensen were all seasoned players. On Acetone organ Adele, who had played with ex-Pere Ubu legend Peter Laughner back in Cleveland, and guitarist Pat Place, who was primarily a painter, approached their instruments as if they’d found them in the woods, making wild, dissonant textures that sliced against the rhythm section, which played crisp but ragged-edged rhythm and blues. The frontman was something else again. James Siegfried, a sax player from Milwaukee who now called himself James Chance, seemed to model himself on some combination of James Brown and Albert Ayler. He strutted, shuffled, whirled, dropped to his knees, barked into the mic, and played passionate, honking, screaming crescendos and disputatious soliloquies on his alto. He was also white as marzipan and weighed maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet. The sight gag precluded any imputation of blackface. He was a James arrived at by chance, who could only ever be who he was.

The punk scene was very white, musically and otherwise. In 1979 Lester Bangs published a famous piece, “The White Noise Supremacists,” in the Village Voice, exposing the racism, overt or implicit, within the CBGB scene. He quotes an appreciation of the Ramones in a punk fanzine: “This is the celebration of everything American—everything teenaged and wonderful and white and urban.” The CBGB bands did not, unlike the mainstream rock bands of their day, draw upon the blues, nor did they derive inspiration from the Black music of their own time. In 1979, Disco Demolition Night was staged at Comiskey Park in Chicago, and the racist and homophobic sentiment was widely shared among the New York punks. Bangs doesn’t spare James Chance, who used to “plead for [Robert Quine] to play him his Charlie Parker records. Now, in a New York Rocker interview, James dismisses the magical qualities of black music as ‘just a bunch of [n-word] bullshit.’ Why? Because James wants to be famous, and ripping off Albert Ayler wasn’t enough. My, isn’t he outrageous?”

But people can be complicated. Chance was a serious sax player and student of jazz, who upon arriving in New York had spent significant time in the jazz lofts—places like Ali’s Alley, the Ladies’ Fort, and Studio Rivbea, where jazz musicians lived and worked. Audience members sat on couches or on the floor, and if you wanted a beer you’d go to the kitchen, where a wife or a child would sell you one out of the fridge. The shows were open-ended jams where anything could happen, and featured the most cutting-edge players of the time, from Ornette Coleman’s constellation of musicians to the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Music. Chance also briefly studied with the great tenor saxophonist David Murray, himself just starting out in New York; his first record, in 1976, featured a tribute to Albert Ayler, recorded live at the Ladies’ Fort. Ayler, who died in 1970, was a totemic figure by then, an extreme player of transcendent noise who also tried repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) to marry his sound to more accessible popular music.

Finally there was punk rock you could dance to.

Chance’s sax playing was steeped in the free-jazz tradition, and he had the chops to pull it off. His stage act was derived from James Brown, whose career was peaking right around then. Sight gag or not, Chance was a riveting dancer, who threw himself into the moves with an impressive balance of abandon and discipline. A 1981 clip available on YouTube, which seems to come from Dutch TV, shows him repeatedly, melodramatically starting to collapse, while a Black woman in a pink cocktail dress picks him up and steadies him, time after time, as he continues playing. That may be his version of James Brown’s cape routine, wherein Brown, during “Please, Please, Please,” would fall to his knees, trembling, drained, and Danny Ray would cover him with a cape—and a few beats later Brown would tear off the cape and rush back to the mic. James Chance had the chops, the moves, and the drama, for real. His singing was about good enough for punk rock, but it wasn’t really the point.

His first New York band was a jazz-rock outfit called Flaming Youth, after which he briefly played in the first incarnation of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. He started the Contortions in 1977 with a fleeting lineup of no wave primitives before cannily signing an experienced rhythm section. The music was startling—nobody downtown was playing like that—and an immediate sensation with those of us who were getting tired of rock and roll and spent as much time in discos as we did in punk clubs. Finally there was punk rock you could dance to. But what made the band famous was Chance’s violations of the proscenium. While dancing he would wheel out into the audience and slap or kiss people, or just dance into them, forcing them out of their seats. It took audiences a while to react, but then came a notable gig at the Artists Space gallery, a festival of no wave bands, during which audience members, including the critic Robert Christgau, tackled Chance and held him down. The story quickly made the rounds, and people started coming to the shows expecting violence. I witnessed various brawls that year: at the X Magazine benefit at the La MaMa Theater Annex; at a chaotic show with the British anarchists Crass at C.U.A.N.D.O.; and one time at Max’s I saw Chance kick an ashtray at Brian Eno from atop the first row of tables.

Eno had been present at the Artists Space festival, and he had recorded his four favorite outfits (the Contortions, Teenage Jesus, DNA, and Mars) and given them four cuts apiece on a compilation called No New York, which came to define the phenomenon. Despite Eno’s fame as a sculptor of recorded sound, he did little more than turn on the tape machine while the band played live in the studio. It worked in the band’s favor, representing the Contortions’ dynamic more faithfully than the rather bloodless studio album Buy the following year. Chance by then was a presence, a paradoxically striking figure—he was small and could look sixteen years old, with a bright red pompadour—and, as importantly, half of a striking couple with his Taiwanese-born girlfriend, Anya Phillips, the band’s manager, who affected a glamorously sinister, meticulously constructed dragon-lady persona. They appeared at all the important occasions, radiating menace and unapproachable cool.

Phillips died of cancer in 1981. At some point during her illness, personality conflicts that had always vexed the band finally erupted, and Chance sacked the Contortions, began calling himself James White, proclaimed himself King of Disco, and started a band called James White and the Blacks. That band was entirely made up of crack professionals, but they were hirelings, not collaborators; the discrepancy shows on their records, which lack the warmth and singular wildness of the Contortions. I remember a gig at a fancy midtown disco called New York New York, where Chance’s tux fit the decor all too well and the music sounded like mere disco, his bleating sax reduced to a novelty prop. Something came out of that lineup anyway, when trombonist Joseph Bowie, brother of Lester Bowie of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, broke off to start his own “punk jazz” band, Defunkt, which still exists today. That led to an efflorescence of such bands, made up of avant-garde jazz musicians playing punk-inflected dance music: Oliver Lake’s Jump Up, Luther Thomas’s Dizzaz, and more ephemeral outfits led by Olu Dara and Charles “Bobo” Shaw—not to mention their inverse, the Lounge Lizards, erstwhile punks who played sophisticated retro jazz.

In 1982 Chance launched a second version of the Blacks with his brother, David Siegfried, playing around David’s turf in the midwest. After that came a string of names—James White’s Flaming Demonics, James Chance and the Sardonic Symphonics, James Chance and Pill Factory, James Chance and Terminal City, James Chance and les Contortions—few of which seem to have made it to the recording studio. The last time I saw him was at a testimonial occasion at the Kitchen ten or twelve years ago, when Nan Goldin and Lydia Lunch were being honored for their services to the avant garde. In a room full of smug young art-world professionals, Lydia attempted a no wave performance, knocking over mic stands and insulting the audience, to little effect. Then Chance emerged with his sax, looking much the worse for wear, aswim in a suit three sizes too large, exuding an aura of Mob-run New Jersey cocktail lounges circa 1960. He might have been a guest on a Jerry Lewis Telethon, taken out of mothballs for the occasion. The pathos was major. He could still play, though.

I can only hope that some savvy producer with full access to the scattered recordings he made, as well as the bootlegs floating around, will eventually put together a compilation emphasizing his musical gifts. Chance was not well served by recordings in general, and the anecdotes surrounding him tend to focus on his more extreme behavior. He was a significant innovator in his day, but his innovations were contingent on the state of downtown culture at specific times, in ways that can hardly be reproduced.

Hearing about him in years to come may be like hearing of the glories of vaudeville performers whose acts were never captured on film. As Lester Bangs suggested, Chance triggered his own downfall by wanting to be too famous too fast. Becoming James White was his power move, and by all measures it failed. The implicit racial politics of his career have aged badly in particular; young people today might find him guilty of cultural appropriation, while those of tomorrow might simply be baffled. You will just have to take my word for it that in his own time he was indelible, a positive shock to the system, an opener of doors for others (if not always wittingly), and above all the heroic figure of someone ill-favored by nature whose rampaging id pushed him to the front of the stage.