Years ago, the celebrated composer and multi-instrumentalist Elliott Sharp got to know and perform with Tim Wright, the original bassist and co-founder of Cleveland’s ur-punk Pere Ubu, member (with Arto Lindsay) of DNA and solo artist. At one point in their multi-year friendship, Sharp interviewed Wright for a magazine published by Thurston Moore. Moore’s magazine ceased publication, and Sharp’s interview never appeared there. Tim Wright died in 2013. We offer the interview and story, belatedly, on PKM.
Thanks to the release of the No New York compilation, I had become interested in the band DNA and so was quite excited that they would be performing at our local rock dive, Rahar’s, in Northampton, Mass., in the spring of 1979. The gig was organized by The Scientific Americans band and I would join them as guest saxophonist. Live, this version of DNA went far beyond what I’d heard on record thanks to their loudness and physical presence, particularly that of Tim Wright.
Tim’s primordial basslines defined most of the melodic and harmonic structure of the DNA songs. His sound was not limited by the typical confines of rock bass playing but encompassed trebly repetition, coruscating noise created by hitting the strings with a drumstick, reverberation, and feedback. His enigmatic stage presence was encapsulated in ‘dark magic’ dance steps, which provided emotional counterpoint to Arto Lindsay’s voice and noise guitar and Ikue Mori’s shamanic drumming.
Besides DNA, Tim was a songwriter, guitarist, founding member (with Peter Laughner) of Clevelands ur-punk legends Pere Ubu, and author of the unpublished Rise and Fall of Earth. After the show, Tim and I spoke about Pere Ubu and the NYC No Wave scene, a conversation that helped fuel my decision to move to the city later that year where we reconnected through various vectors.
“30 Seconds Over Tokyo”-Pere Ubu:
Our paths would cross often, whether at Squat Theatre, CBGB, the Binibon cafe, or 4 a.m. at the Gem Spa on 2nd Avenue and St. Mark’s. In 1981-82, I was producing the first State Of The Union compilation, a collection on my zOaR label in collaboration with Zone Magazine, of one-minute pieces by artists providing their own “state of the union” as commentary and confrontation to Reagan’s January address. Tim agreed to record his piece, “My Town,” and brought his 12-string electric guitar to the studio. He detuned the instrument so that it left the realm of Western intonation, simultaneously alien and bluesy.
“My Town”-Tim Wright, 1982, from State of the Union:
Our day’s work expanded into conversation and we agreed to meet again.
In late January 1984, I invited Tim to be interviewed for Killer, Thurston Moore’s fanzine. He arrived at my Alphabet City apartment around 10 p.m. for a conversation lasting nearly until sunrise with alternating pots of espresso and ginger tea keeping us fueled. Tim would expound on a wide range of subjects including his time away from New York living in a house in the jungle in Belize. Our meeting was recorded on cassette tapes, now lost. The conversation flowed into many disparate areas, some involving mutual friends and colleagues.
We spoke about performing together though our first gig didn’t occur until July 2003, a beautifully chaotic improvisation together with multi-instrumentalist Doug Wieselman as part of an installation at BPM, a storefront gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. From the original transcription (now also lost), I had edited this version, typed on my ancient Underwood. The magazine ceased publication and so this interview was never before printed.
My last communication from Tim came in February 2012 about an upcoming gig we would play the following July. I didn’t hear from him again. Tim Wright died from cancer on Sunday, August 4, 2013.
WHAT? of course i will provide you with amps and this and that.and nice
sound system too.doug wieselman gets to play one drum.or maybe i bring extra
guitar or you can too.the beauty of this is that i know it needs no
rehearsal and i hope that you trust me enough that i would not invite you
into a sinkhole.i wanna do this before we die. tw
We begin with an excerpt from his notes for an upcoming concert at The Kitchen, Feb. 19, 1984:
I proceeded to attempt an exploratory exploitation of conceptual imagery surrounding the biological aspects of the appreciation guitar playing, which on a most fundamental level involves a sexual undertone in as much as the shape of the instrument and the manner in which is held in the hands against the body provides an easily accessible and socially acceptable phallic image around which the musician and the observer begin to explore the possibilities of expanding the initial pleasure induced by guitar charisma.
Since the 1940’s, the word “science” has competed strongly with the word “sex” for the status of most popularly employed libidinal activator. Concommitantly, the scientific image ensure for the “scientist”, if only superficially, an erogenous place in existing social body. The phrase “Scientific experiment” has a classically post=modern appeal. Tjos seductive appeal is shared by such phrases as “laboratory experiment” and “medical experiment” and is exploited by those who claim to make “experimental music”. Particularly in the case of guitar players who are supposedly experimenting with a sumbolic extension of their bodies, we tend, however modestly, to envision “sexual experimentation.”
To give the impression that the musicians united here in music are crude characters abandoning the world through their own sensual excesses made more calloused by their own delight in soliciting the patronage of strangers while in a moment of abandonment would be a grave injustice to the great hearts that beat passionately in their bodies, palaces of pleasure though they may be.”
Elliott Sharp: What army was in the Trojan guitar?
Tim Wright: The army of love.
Elliott Sharp: And the battle is being waged?
Tim Wright: The battle was won…love prevailed.
Elliott Sharp: And the loveless wrote reviews?
Tim Wright: Edward Rothstein (New York Times) even said I was crude. The program notes say that I am not crude nor are any of the other musicians. He didn’t really study the program or the notes.* [See below for full review].
Elliott Sharp: What [Rothstein] saw was what he wanted to see. How are you characterized here?
Tim Wright: That’s hard for me to say. The reason the show was called Modern Living Guitar Massage was because at the time I was performing physical therapy every day on my girlfriend who was unable to walk. I didn’t feel like a musician; I felt like a masseur. So, somehow the masseur was on stage as a musician and I constructed things around massage. At the time that is what my hands were good at, so I switched the massage over to the guitar and then came the idea of the guitar as phallus.
Elliott Sharp: Does the bass function like the guitar in that way?
Tim Wright: I think a bass is more libidinal than a 6-string guitar mainly because the low tone registers on a larger part of the body. It affects the water in the body more than high frequencies do and a bass player feels that also and bass lines are body rhythms. Good drumming is also. I hate to think of a guitar player seriously dealing with the guitar as a phallic image because the way somebody would play on stage is the same way they would have sex. So I was joking around with that.
(the concert at The Kitchen was split between Tim Wright and Remko Scha – a composer who was at the time a visiting professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Amsterdam).
Elliott Sharp: So, what do you think of this Artificial Intelligence stuff?
Tim Wright: I have no idea what that means.
Elliott Sharp: A school of computer science where they believe they can generate complex enough software and hardware to…
Tim Wright: Okay, then I did have an idea…what I thought. I’m much more interested in human intelligence since I’m a human. Maybe if it was my hobby.
Elliott Sharp: Where do you search for it?
Tim Wright: Only in my own mind but I have to test my own intelligence by interacting with other human minds. It’s too easy to delude yourself: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
Elliott Sharp: So they say. Seems like New York is a very dangerous place right now.
Tim Wright: Yeah, really too many intellectuals and artists now. Junior thinkers and junior humans. I liked putting a sexual topic on a supposedly scientific evening at The Kitchen.
Elliott Sharp: It seems that somebody at some point set up the definitions that the concepts were mutually exclusive, that science implies something other than human.
Tim Wright: Science should be sensual and art should be sensual and artists should be sensual.
Elliott Sharp: Operate on all levels completely and simultaneously?
Tim Wright: Yes they should. No, not simultaneously – they couldn’t.
Elliott Sharp: It’s possible that someone doing something embeds everything else, whether consciously or not.
Tim Wright: Simultaneously exhibiting all human characteristics? Well, you can do that but not for long…well actually you could do that. Actually, you DO do that. Actually you don’t. Actually you could do that…over a period of a lifetime.
Elliott Sharp: Even in the course of a 45-minute set. Actually, it’s encoded cellular knowledge.
Tim Wright: But I mean subjectively it could go through all passions, all emotions, all states of mind, all states of consciousness and unconsciousness in 45 minutes. It could, I’m sure it happens a lot. It could be a dangerous mistake to think you have done so when you haven’t. You could be leaving something out. That’s why you have to check your intelligence against the intelligence of other people. That’s why I was interested in forming skulls because if right now we are actually genetically ripped off because of bone formation and are not getting everything out of our brains that we could then what is it that we’re missing?
Elliott Sharp: The Neanderthals had a larger brain-size, larger cranium.
Tim Wright: The skull manipulation being present in peak ancient cultures, disappearing when these cultures declined, for better or worse. Whether you like it or not, there’s something else to be had that’s intangible.
Elliott Sharp: Did your friend in Belize have any knowledge of skull forming or trepanning? Aware of its tradition?
[Note: skull deformation dating back to the 4th Century BC has been documented in cultures across the world and found especially in Central Asia, South Pacific islands, the Americas, and Africa. There are various theories regarding why it is practiced ranging from tribal identity and class status to enhancement of intelligence and connection to the “spirit world”.]
Tim Wright: No, a lot of traditions he’s unaware of because he’s spent all of his life in a very small radius and all of his knowledge he’s gotten first-hand from someone or from visionary experience. His practice, aside from herbal medicine, involves a complex system of astrological magic, astral projection, the classic shamanic experiences, invocation of supernatural sights and sounds.. He has had some experience with people who do teleportation or appear to do so.
Elliott Sharp: Did you find it difficult to make contact, get accepted by people involved in these systems of knowledge?
Tim Wright: It took a lot of luck. Since people knew what I was interested in eventually I found out about someone who was practicing magic and healing and so on and so forth. I had to think of a reason to see him. I had some pain in my chest that I’ve had for many years, couldn’t figure out what the source of it was, plus a large black spot on the outside of my ankle – I didn’t like that either. I had someone set up a meeting so I could explain the situation The man said he could cure me, it would take a week to make the medicine. I had to get there at sundown, walk onto his property 15 miles away. I go to get my liaison, he’s nowhere to be found, his wife doesn’t know where he is. I realize he’s completely freaked out because he’s told me this guy has conversations with devils and spirits. This brujo or whatever seemed like a charming person. This bush doctor is a Mayan. He doesn’t practice Obeah but some people thought he did. He obviously can do some things and he can heal. Obeah’s used as a tool of oppression, that’s certainly not his bag. He took care of my sickness. We had an instant liking to each other. He’s a very good guitar player. We set up a cover system where I was never seen leaving his house without a bottle of medicine or a guitar. He played Mexican-Spanish music. He improvised, plays and sings like any other person but also he uses the instrument to help him stay up all night and observe the stars, their placement. Last time I was there I gave him an electric guitar and battery-powered amp. He likes it at top volume and distortion and feedback other than that something’s wrong and it doesn’t work. So he’ll get up at 3AM and go down to the riverbank where he has a concrete platform and crank it up full blast and wake the whole village and nobody complains. A couple of Protestant church missions moved in, he’ll do that on the nights they don’t sing. We were going to make a tape before I left but he had a sore throat. Another time we were both completely broke with no batteries. He’d rescued me from a life-death situation, let me live in a house on his property. We’ve promised each other we’d do some recording and a book and a video documentary before one of us dies.
Elliott Sharp: There’s none of the ancient Mayan music in existence?
Tim Wright: Not that I’m aware of personally in that area. Maybe that’s one reason why its possible for me to have this relationship there. People have lost interest. Nothing tangible is left of the Mayans for the young people. They see the old people as being bush-happy, just rustic loons, which IS what they are!
Elliott Sharp: Fortunately!
I get the most pleasure in live music if it makes me remember various ecstatic feelings even it’s stupid-ass heavy metal if there’s something ecstatic and pleasurable in the idiots that are playing it.
Tim Wright: An interesting outlook which every year becomes more and more a minority.
Elliott Sharp: Do you think there’s a parallel with the activities of these people and say, your own work here?
Tim Wright: Several years ago I had to test that out myself. It has something to do with why I started playing guitar at all, making music. I became satisfied that what I was doing was worth starving for or worth taking abuse for and actually had some sort of relevance, made more sense out of my life. As far as being relevant to how these people live, their work is like any serious thinkers or artists work requiring a certain degree of faith in their own intelligence, their own talents, risks everything to do everything they feel they should intuitively do. That kind of inspiration is common to all creative activity. Trying to become aware of things and trying to imagine how you can use that awareness, how that can be beneficial, how you can not make an idiot of yourself and not to ruin yourself or other people because you have to be idiosyncratic or eccentric or whatever.
Elliott Sharp: Do you think its getting harder to do that now and here?
Tim Wright: Well, yeah, because it’s getting harder to basically live.
Elliott Sharp: Plus deviancy is less tolerated in America, even in NYC which seems to be one of the most diversely deviant places.
Tim Wright: I only feel safe in NYC because apart from the rest of the States, I can disappear in the variety. There’s deviations here that make me look like a koala bear. It’s definitely getting harder all over the world.
Elliott Sharp: It seems to be clearer now what any of our activities are about.
Tim Wright: Where you stand. Maybe because things are more obvious now, it is getting harder just to get by. It affects things because you waste so much time. Right now I’m a poor person so I waste a lot of time just trying to cope with food and money and a place to live and…any person that’s doing that it takes time away from more…uh…imaginative luxuries, to have the freedom to engage in anything other than worker activity, that’s a real luxury.
Elliott Sharp: Do you think doing music is an analogy of skull forming?
Tim Wright: I wouldn’t say that.
Elliott Sharp: Can it be for the musicians?
Tim Wright: I can’t really say that because I don’t want to fall into a trap of pretending I know something I don’t. I know people who have holes in their heads that they’ve put in their heads to attain beneficial effects, people I know personally, they can talk. They can tell me how they feel. I can think about it and come to as much of an understanding as I can. I can even think that I know what’s being talked about and that I can ascertain in my own changes of consciousness what they’re talking about. [Note: Trepanning is a surgical procedure in which a hole is drilled or scraped into the human skull. This cranial perforation exposes the membrane surrounding the brain to treat various health problems. In ancient times, trepanation was used for spiritual purposes and to cure persons displaying abnormal behavior, perhaps possession by evil spirits. Evidence of trepanation has been found in human remains from Neolithic times onward.]
Elliott Sharp: What I should have said: Does it produce temporary or permanent changes in your psychochemistry?
Tim Wright: What I think is that we’re talking about varieties of human consciousness that you could display or that you have. Some of these are ecstatic. If you make music that has to do with that mental set and you can construct music in that mental setting of trying to recall that feeling then if you can make that music and play it in public with the right impact then it should also remind people in the audience, make them remember that consciousness and feel a bit of that ecstatic feeling. If they have an open mind, a good sense of humor…I get the most pleasure in live music if it makes me remember various ecstatic feelings even it’s stupid-ass heavy metal if there’s something ecstatic and pleasurable in the idiots that are playing it. Same thing for Beethoven or Vivaldi when he’s not being a hack. The only time I write a good song is when I really feel something, even if it’s bad.
Elliott Sharp: I’ve found I could never set out to write a good song – the good ones seem to come out fully formed.
Tim Wright: Right. If not fully formed, at least you know where to go. Also I was thinking, getting back to “is this a good environment for trying to literally exist through imagination?”, what really upsets me, makes me want to keep running away from NYC is the…obviously, until five years ago there was always shifting scenes where people go to just to get involved in fun/art/music/whatever. The last place where that sort of activity shifted to was here and so there was a time I could think if I’m in New York out of all the people in the country, the ones that come to New York will be the people with a lot of nerve and who believe in themselves and have a strong enough desire to do something creative, that they leave wherever they are to come here to do that, to find other people to work with and so on. So you could always be assured of a good time. If things got boring, in a year there would be fresh things. But for the last few years since the economic situation is so bad you can be sure that the people who are coming here are not coming because they have lot of nerve and imagination, they’re coming because they can afford to. It’s out the window.
Elliott Sharp: Are there any scenes of note here now?
Tim Wright: No, it might as well be the Forties.
Elliott Sharp: It’s going backwards: 50’s, 40’s, 30’s. The next Dust Bowl will be The Big One.
Tim Wright: As far as I’m concerned, people are so straight now I can’t believe it. Especially new bands and musicians…I’m gonna have a band of people that look like me, not like The Ramones. Act Wright, Walk Wright, Talk Wright, and Think Wright.
Elliott Sharp: Are you in communication with people in other areas doing creative things, any networks?
Tim Wright: No, I’m ignorant of what’s going on. The impression I have now is it’s “every man for himself”. I don’t think there’s any gathering place. Networks? Probably…but of anything that amounts to anything?
Elliott Sharp: It seems to be a time of seclusion.
Tim Wright: That’s what I think. Basically, I don’t care about networks. I’d rather be left alone until the exact time I want to do something. Any time any band plays it’s a network. Any live band is an extension of a small community of people. That’s what’s meaningful about real bands that reflect the people in the audience. It’s what’s missing in product bands, a big thing that’s missing in this town, grassroots bands that are part of a community.
Elliott Sharp: What we’re seeing is communities but of plastic people and plastic bands, communities to be avoided.
Tim Wright: When you have a consumer culture, certain images are fed to people to identify with. It’s assumed that they identify, assumed there is a community behind this presentation of an image. It’s completely opposite to a community of people creating and exhibiting what is indigenously part of their thinking, part of their lives, friends’ lives. The friends of these musicians make it possible for these musicians’ situations to occur. That’s where new music can be meaningful, a real cultural statement; if it reflects a new consciousness, some change in consciousness of people, reflects their desires. There’s a problem in this city and in general for anybody who wants to do anything idiosyncratic. It’s hard to feel secure about doing that because most peoples’ minds are just picking up images that are thrown at them instead of investigating themselves and deciding what they are, what they want.
Elliott Sharp: Your work here now?
Tim Wright: My basic problem is usually just finding one or two other people to work something with and as far as music goes, as of the last year, the last couple of years, I haven’t wanted to work with anyone on anything very much and basically, that is what I wanted to do, fit myself into a different kind of scene and different kind of method. It’s why I left the country. Now it’s extremely important for me to get involved with other people, make some music. Right now the only really satisfying thing has been playing with Rudolph Grey. That’s showing promise.
Elliott Sharp: There’s a trio with him and Z’ev?
Tim Wright: Yeah, we did a little bit of playing last year, nothing in public, and we’ve talked about playing together for years but psychologically it wasn’t possible and now it is. That’s going to be difficult to start and it’s going to be a lot of responsibilities. It’s going to have to be very involved. All three people are individualistic enough, it’s not something you want to do unless the time is right in all these peoples’ lives. It could be too insane, too fast, a pressure situation. It would have to be high pressure and good humor. I played with Rudolph at The Kitchen and we sounded better and worked together better live.
* Feb. 22, 1984, Section C, Page 18 of the New York Times with the headline: AVANT-GARDE: 2 COMPOSERS by Edward Rothstein:
The concert presented Sunday night at the Kitchen was a duel of sorts. On one side of intermission was Remko Scha, a composer who is visiting professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Amsterdam, who is interested in ”the spontaneous emergence of musical and visual form” out of natural and mechanical systems. His composition was ”Guitar Mural 5,” composed of seven electric guitars suspended between metal bars; ropes, vibrated in wave patterns by motors, hit the strings of the guitars. On the other side of intermission was Tim Wright, who proposed to denigrate the power of the electric guitar as machine, and celebrate it instead with what he called a ”manual-phallic-libidinal” approach – the guitar as sex organ.
So there it was: the mechanist vs. the humanist, the scientist vs. the Luddite, the rational vs. the physical – a grand duel indeed.
But the confrontation was more on paper than in sound. For Mr. Wright, changing his program, presented his musical works unadorned with sexual imagery. And his music was not only free of any sort of imagination or sensitivity (constructed of repeated ”minimal” patterns accompanied by shrieking accompaniments), but was played with blank effect and mechanical crudity. Meanwhile, the thudding sonic patter of Mr. Scha’s construction even had some charm as the composer shifted the frequencies of the motoric vibrations – at least until, after a half hour or so, whatever intelligence there was in this mural also began to seem highly artificial.”