Thurston Moore on Jack Ruby: the forgotten heroes of pre-punk

The former Sonic Youth man explains why a new reissue tells a crucial part of the story of New York's 1970s rock revolution

There were a few simultaneous concurrences of rock'n'roll action during the heyday of 1976-1980 NYC punk. Primarily performed at CBGB, Max’s Kansas City and other more obscurant venues, there were variant disciplines of performance.

One was the held-over street-rock vibe of bands strutting to the tired boogie of Long Island shag hair and glitter trash informed by the crud chords of Kiss, Aerosmith and New York Dolls, but hardly with the genius aplomb of those hot rockers.

Bands like the Brats and the Harlots of 42nd St may have had a genius lick or two but theirs was a fading raunch to the whip smart energy of Talking Heads and Richard Hell and the Voidoids, two outfits that were shocking in their avant-modernist words and music headiness.

Even more straight up bar-rock moves could be transcended by the unique infect of Patti Smith, the fabulous trans-gutter drag of Wayne County or the intelligent sexiness of Debbie Harry, infusing and elevating the 60s fun rock moves of Blondie.

There were indeed even less interesting stink glam bands hitting the boards of clubland all straining at our attention as we awaited the majesty of Television, the Ramones or the Stooge-Nugget wildness of the Dead Boys. There were more lame acts than great ones surely but that seems to be always the case anytime and anywhere.

Of course we were all drawn to the limelight of Patti, Hell, Verlaine, Ramones, Blondie, T Heads, but they already seemed golden and untouchable in a city blasted in exhaustion from speed-addled hippie hangover and Vietnam-Nixon burnout. These bands certainly exemplified the personality and psycho-geo-scuzz of the city but there was another faction of music in coexistence that really was truly fucked and completely off-the boards weirdo.

One antecedent was Suicide, the terrific and terrorcentric duo of Martin Rev straight up pummeling audiences with demented over-amped keyboard electronics and vocalist Alan Vega seemingly scraped off the Union Square subway platform in a state of mental patient-on-acid hysteria assaulting the audience with what seemed like some kind of Agent Orange nervous meltdown. They were bizarre and phenomenal.

Another was the high energy sonic slut-core of transplanted Cleveland band the Dead Boys, formed from the Midwest ashes of Rocket From the Tombs with direct connection to the amazing outré tuneage of Pere Ubu, where a ferocious passion for the punk blueprint of the Stooges, MC5 and arcane sides of lost garage 60s punk snarl 7ins informed their entire approach.

Certainly inspired and informed, though more sub-underground, to these bloodcurdling bands were the No Wave bands. Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, fronted by a teenage runaway poet boy-shredder named Lydia Lunch with Bradley Field on single snare drum (and one stick), a contemporary freak pal to the Cramps (the almighty garage punk noise trio also from the crazoid streets of Cleveland), and Jim Sclavunos on bass, who would later be the drummer in service for Sonic Youth’s Confusion Is Sex LP and these days a mainstay in Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

And most sensationally the Contortions, led by the sax anxiety of James Chance and featuring the stunning pan-androgynous slide guitar of Pat Place. From farthest afield their was the always polarising DNA, with Arto Lindsay as a guitarist’s revelation – or nightmare depending on how open you were to the incineration of trad rock – along with drummer Ikue Mori, a Japanese woman who would evolve into one of the great percussion/sound improvisers of the genre. And the most confounding and sensuously brutalist band Mars, where street scared lyrics, mystery jazz fingerings and art school insolence all swirled in a miasma of transient noise and beauty. Also plugging in and scowling/howling was the fabulous all-in-black Rudolph Grey, an urban nihilist who played guitar as if to penetrate to the place John Coltrane seemed to be nearing on his last sessions in duo with Rashid Ali.

Glenn Branca, a dark imperious and serious player coming from radical theatre, struck a more razor-cutting chord on the scene with his bands Theoretical Girls and the Static, and was later to focus on more ambitious compositional work with a series of high-volume guitar symphonies. As did former piano tuner for minimalist oddball Lamonte Young, Rhys Chatham. Both Glenn and Rhys, once compatriots and later arch rivals, remain active today with completely divisive and distinct sensibilities.

Alas, a few have died. Bradley Field, mostly from personal neglect. And Sumner Crane, the dark genius light of from Mars, possibly from the same malaise as Bradley. And George Scott, central to so much of this scene with his bass playing in the Contortions as well as Lydia Lunch’s post Teenage Jesus band 8-Eyed Spy and his no-surf combo the Raybeats, and later with one of John Cale’s rowdier NYC-centric line-ups. George exuded a historical glamour for having been in a band that most of us only had heard about but had never heard or seen, a mysterious deep-in-the-vault entity known as Jack Ruby.

This was a band whispered about from the most inner circle of no-wave knowledge, as they pre-dated a lot of the aesthetic weirdness and wild style of so much of that scene. Lydia had seen them (she saw everything) and they left her, while not so breathless as some things, with at least a lump in her throat. Rudolph Grey would always recount hearing Jack Ruby at Max’s and being very intrigued by the long gloves the singer wore while the guitarist, Chris Gray, played with a mix of James Williamson, Sonny Sharrock and Mick Ronson.

The legend of Jack Ruby became a sacred stone of sorts in retrospect to this scene’s history. While Byron Coley and I were working on the book No Wave. Post-Punk. Underground. New York. 1976-1980 we realised it was tantamount to impossible to find info on this group. The only eyewitnesses we knew – Lydia, Rudolph and James Chance – shed a bit of light on something of what Jack Ruby may have been like but their recollections were at war with so much other chaos from 1975 onwards. Fair enough. What we suspected and later found out to be actual was that the various band members were around, to some degree, working straight jobs, nothing too out of the ordinary. George Scott had died way too young, before the 1980s could even progress into anything, from ingesting some crapola into his blood, seriously bumming everyone on the scene completely out.

I was in awe of George. Byron was pals with him. Before he died I met him and we talked about maybe playing together. He was one of the first music heroes I had some contact with where there could be some potential collaboration. I had moved to NYC late 1976 and would see these no-wavers in my East 13th Street neighborhood and I was at all the same shows, the early Dead Boys and Cramps gigs, but I never ingratiated myself into their zone, or whatever loose collective gang brain trust they had. I was on the same wavelength, though in a less desperate lifestyle, I suppose. Lydia would have chained me to the radiator in her East Village boudoir basement anyway and I’d probably be in a no wave crisis ward right now (maybe I am).

Jack Ruby were young and wild early 70s rock'n’roll intellectuals. They knew the real deal of emotional expressionistic text was in the underpinnings of the avant-garde – the NYC lineage of William Burroughs and the Velvet Underground, the poetry and radical high energy of Detroit’s John Sinclair and the MC5, and the questioning neo-noir visionaries of European art-house cinema.

They only played a few gigs, all recounted in the fabulous oral history liner notes of this comprehensive CD on Saint Cecilia Knows (and double LP from Feeding Tube, a US record-store label as run by Ted Lee and Byron Coley, with minimal input from myself). Jon Savage is correct in placing them in a continuum where they may very well be one the last of the lost truly significant rock'n’roll groups to further the history of one of the most potent music revolutions in our lifetime.

In their oral history, also recounted in the liners, they bring to light what the downtown NYC scene around the advent of CBGB/punk rock was truly like. The image of a teenage Lydia Lunch banging on the closed grates of Bleecker Bob's record store to get the attention of these nether-culture aesthetes is the real story of 1976 underground rock. It comes from the moment, the ground zero of what alien voidoids like Hell, Smith, Byrne, Ubu, Verlaine et al delivered from an earlier 70s urbanity (no regard for country hippie CSN&Y bunk) and the promise of savage amusement is intoxicating.

It was only a matter of time after Byron and I published our no wave tome that the internet brought forth some peeps from the Jack Ruby days; and lo and behold, pictures were found and recordings were located. The sound of this band is flooring. Chris Gray presages the unorthodox and to-hell-with-rules-'n'-regulations guitar playing of every no wave and post-no wave band, almost all who never laid eyes or ears on this group. It’s insane. It’s beautiful. It’s astounding.

And then there’s the legend of Boris Policeband, an original short-term member of Jack Ruby who wore an array of police walkie-talkies around his waist and sported weirdo-punk shades and only communicated through squawks (a solo 7in was released in '77 – I suggest you locate it).

1976: I can still see those guys hanging out behind the bins of overpriced LPs at Bleecker Bobs, interacting with the daily energy of what was becoming the most important movement in rock'n'roll for our age. Who knew?

Hit and Run by Jack Ruby is released on Saint Cecilia Knows on 28 April.

Thurston Moore

The GuardianTramp

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