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Upchuck the Funk 

Thursday, Mar 6 2003
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JAMES CHANCE IS A GREAT MUSICIAN. Also a philosopher, like the Marquis de Sade or Obaku. Around 1979, when he was most visible in New York clubs, many observers thought he was a joke — this doped-up, snotty little white boy who blew bent sax and sang/danced like the Godfather of Soul. Pile up his records, though, the way Tiger Style’s four-CD Irresistible Impulse box does, and it’s plain he knew exactly what he was doing.

“As much as he seemed like a wild man, he was completely disciplined,” recalls artiste de pop Kristian Hoffman, an early Chance sideman (“Tad Among” on one record) who has long since shacked in L.A. “He wrote out everything. He often thought of the guitar as a percussion instrument, and on the staff paper where you’d expect to see notes, he wrote X’s for it.”

You couldn’t write much else for the kind of guitar Chance liked. He had split from Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, fronted by Lydia Lunch, who scraped a slide around a detuned electric; this role he allotted to Pat Place when he formed the Contortions after he was kicked out of the Jerks because, Hoffman says, “Lydia thought he had too much personality and needed his own band.”

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By phone from his New York digs, Chance describes the accepted local method for filling out an ensemble. “You’d go up to people if they looked good, and ask them if they wanted to be in a band. If they didn’t play anything, you found something for them to play.”

Yeah, sure: Things must be different in New York than in our town, where the best musicians all look like bums. Because the best musicians is what Chance got. Every one of his many bands featured a drummer, a bassist and a guitarist who could slap-pop tight all night, generating that irresistible ass-wiggling impulse that Chance unconditionally demanded. And if you were in the audience, you damn well better dance; if Chance caught you sitting on the floor like an art fag, he’d come down and slap you around, Zen-style.

The dance thing distinguished the Contortions from the other groups Brian Eno put on his 1978 No New York compilation: Teenage Jesus, DNA and Mars. All were noise-crazed, but Chance had crossover potential. He knew what James Brown and Fela Kuti knew: the transcendent power of jittering to one groove on one chord till you puked. The atonal bass and guitar riffs just emphasized the almighty dominance of the rhythm.

Then there was the blackness factor. Punk and new wave had about as much soul as a blancmange; when David Byrne got funky, he just sounded more Caucasian. Though Chance was conservatory-trained, he’d had enough of that art-school shit. “Why don’t you try being stoo-pid/Instead of smart?” he spat. “I prefer the rid-DICK-u-LUSS/To the sublime.” He figured the real brains were in the butt, and played all the stereotypes against each other till they were completely mixed up. He was James Siegfried, the altar boy from Milwaukee gone bad, plus James Chance, James White and James Black from New York — all for real.

There weren’t many contemporaries who compared. Black Randy in Los Angeles, maybe; Blurt in England. And Chance’s drug issues, along with the death of his manager-girlfriend, Anya Phillips, limited his mainstream influence. One notable exception: When he lived in L.A. for a year, a couple of fans named Hillel Slovak and Michael Balzary (Flea) were in his stage outfit. You might know them as half of the original Red Hot Chili Peppers. More indirectly, Chance showed a lot of musicians they better get out of their damn ruts.

Today, Chance has a jazz combo, Terminal City, which doesn’t play much. He says he’s still hostile, “But I find it more amusing to let people think otherwise.”

The new box is boss. Fun liner notes by Glenn O’Brien, and though lacking any No New York cuts, it collects everything from the albums recorded between 1978 and 1983: Buy the Contortions, Off White, Sax Maniac and The Flaming Demonics. Plus there’s mucho rare live and studio material. The early stuff is best, but even as things get slightly more sluggish, less tight and more monotonous, there are electrifying moments: Chance rediscovering his Cecil Taylor keyboard skills (he’s great, honest), or pitting his funk grooves against an Ellington medley, or showing sufficient balls to tackle James Brown’s “Super Bad” and hold his own. Three 1980 tracks from Soul Exorcism, recorded live in Rotterdam, showcase possibly the hottest band he ever had, with bassist Al McDowell (Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time), guitarist Fred Wells (now deceased) and drummer Richie Harrison; regrettable he couldn’t keep that one together. But he never could.

The man admits it: “I’m bad at business.” Super bad.

JAMES CHANCE | Irresistible Impulse | (Tiger Style)

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