Scum Rock in Excelsis: An Ode to Pussy Galore

If you walk down Orchard Street these days, you see “Store for Rent” signs where, just a couple of months ago, the final remnants of 100 years of immigrant culture-a garment district that had dwindled down to Gucci knockoffs and half-price tube socks-used to line the sidewalks. Surrounding the rent signs are bars-many, many bars-filled with post-adolescents sporting the shiny, immaculately messy post-rave look that dominates the Lower East Side now. If you want a slightly less coifed environment, you have to walk a block over, to Ludlow Street, just as laden with drinking establishments but a bit more aged. You can still smell the junkies, and the teenage tattoos are more cartoony, less tribal. The youth, for better or worse, listen to and play rock music there, and they seem to enjoy imagining the poverty that once enveloped the neighborhood. On Orchard, they pretend to be Japanese tourists mimicking Third Worlders imitating Jamaicans, and occasionally they are .

Oddly enough, the demographic skewering of Ludlow and Orchard constitutes the battle for the spendthrift soul of the East Village right now, the constituency of the former being the scum-rockers and 80’s No-Wave remnants (the Reagan-haters and fans of the cinder block), and the latter being Web page designers dressed up like racing cars in their $250 sneakers. You can still buy a leather jacket on Orchard, of course, but you wear it on Ludlow.

Every generation wishes to not grow up in a different manner, and in the 1980’s Ludlow Street was home to a posse of rich, artsy kids, dwelling halfway between the infantilism of punk and the adolescence of hip-hop, who threw their expensive toys and moneyed pedigree over for junk and forced slumming. The roots of the East Village scum rock scene are really before Ludlow, but you know what I mean-the crowd around the Mudd Club, Downtown Beirut and such. Raised during the brief period of post-Lyndon Johnson social optimism (back before the touchy-feely “Be All That You Can Be” was adopted by the military-industrial complex), many of these post-punks felt utterly turned upon by the very concept of maturity.

Such posturing may seem comical today, but a lot of good work came out of it. The dullness of wealth can sometimes be a greater artistic catalyst than the need to escape poverty. Is it fair to point out the financial backgrounds of the musicians? I think so because, at the time, rich white kids seemed to be attracted to the merger of narcoticized industrial anger and clanging, de-tuned guitars. (This does not explain baby-brother bands like Jonathan Fire-Eater, however.) More importantly, they were self-hating enough to turn against the status quo. Art needs more class traitors. Look at Harvard boy-turned-Okie Pete Seeger-we’re still singing about the “Eensy Weensy Spider,” aren’t we? Wasn’t that spider supposed to be Mao?

Aside from Sonic Youth, which continues to inspire successive crops of musicians without adjusting to fashion, almost all of the bands in question have become historical footnotes. Listening to Foetus now gives me the same warm, fuzzy feeling as hearing “Seasons in the Sun.” But one band seems to have grown in stature since its demise, and that’s Pussy Galore.

Three records covering Pussy Galore’s 1987-89 period- Right Now! , Sugarshit Sharp and Dial M for Motherfucker -have just been reissued on Matador, in addition to a new recording of the band’s last concert, Live: In the Red , on the record label In the Red. No doubt this re-release (and reappreciation) jag has much to do with the continued existence of various members of the band in their own spinoff groups-Jon Spencer in the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Neil Hagerty in Royal Trux, Julia Cafritz in the not very successful Free Kitten. But this is only part of it. No, I think Pussy Galore holds up because the values it embodied are falling out of fashion.

Values? We all know that at the heart of every nihilist is a hurt bourgeois, and both Pussy Galore and Royal Trux were and are serious trash autodidacts. (Mr. Spencer didn’t attend Brown University’s semiotics department just for the Mary Ann Doane lectures.) During the mid-80’s, hip-hop and Nuggets-era garage rock were the rage among disaffected No-Wave types. The members of Pussy Galore were richer than most (Julia Cafritz’s family owns about half the real estate in Washington, D.C.), and thus could afford to delve deeper. Only trust-fund kids can afford to immerse themselves in trash culture-the clothes, the drugs, the lamps. I do not begrudge this; there is always good reason to find distaste in one’s upbringing.

But Pussy Galore’s talent was in its multifariousness. It pulled its pop-culture oatmeal from myriad sources, i.e., blaxploitation flicks, the ennui of European fashion designers, Midwestern 60’s garage rock and, of course, the Rolling Stones. Its oft-noted lineup-four scraggly guitars (Mr. Spencer, Mr. Hagerty, Ms. Cafritz and Kurt Wolf, on the Matador reissues), Bob Bert banging on metal car parts, no bass-was merely another tool toward the sound they were trying for. Those garage bands of yore were poorly recorded, but infused in that “poor” sound was a natural reactionary anger that was lacking in pop music then as now. Pussy Galore’s duplication of the scratches on old Sonics L.P.’s, on songs like “Pig Sweat” or “Sweet Little Hi-Fi,” was transformed into a noise-for-noise’s-sake ethic that was often confused with mere fuck-you-ism. The band did not offend so much as reference offensiveness. Its pop scholarship was confused by the Tracy Chapman types and DIYers with a lack of authenticity. And when the band members glammed up for the cover of the Sugarshit Sharp E.P., it was utterly at odds with the flannel-flying culture of alterna-rock at the time-just like their book-learning showed them.

Alas, everything Pussy Galore tried to do for years, N.W.A. did on its first album, Straight Outta Compton , in 1988. Pussy Galore spent the rest of its career trying to live it down, referencing Public Enemy on their cover of Einst├╝rzende Neubauten’s “Y├╝ Gung,” or mumbling, as Mr. Spencer does on Live: In the Red , “This is straight outta Compton.” After breaking up, Mr. Spencer turned to mock a dead, instead of dying, art form-the blues. Blues Explosion is a band of resignation. You want mere fuck? You got mere fuck.

When Mr. Hagerty teamed up with Jennifer Herrema in Royal Trux, they took an obsession with cultural flotsam to the nth degree. Their own flotsam has just been collected on Drag City’s two-CD Singles, Live, Unreleased , and it reveals a singularly eccentric mindset. Like the Village People, Mr. Hagerty and Ms. Herrema are so set on playing tough fashion aliens that we tend to forget what goofballs they are, turning the “Theme From M*A*S*H ” into a Death Rock-Neil Young lovefest or covering Milton Nascimiento. Ms. Herrema is one of rock’s finest lyricists, a fact that is often overlooked in favor of her unfortunate hair. Royal Trux has held onto its theological belief in specific types of oxymoronic style (i.e., junkie glamour) for so long that they are now charmingly antiquated, as opposed to deliberately so. Their latest album, Accelerator , also on Drag City, is a helluva musical comeback after the (no doubt intentionally) cheeky cock-rock of their two albums for Virgin. Intriguingly, Mr. Hagerty claims that the last three Trux records have been specific explorations into the music of the last 30 years, decade by decade. Others may disagree, but the little grad students understand.

Pussy Galore’s members may have been primitivists on stage, but they were archivists on tape, favoring the Seeds-Stones ethos, yet jumping from style to style with a deejay’s glee. Royal Trux is not as intellectually skittish. But the way to Royal Trux can be seen in Pussy Galore’s finest hour, the groundbreaking Dial M for Motherfucker , which has as much to do with the trend of “lo-fi as high-tech” as Sonic Youth’s Sister did. Dial M has become a much-desired Rosetta stone, with the vinyl version going for upward of $70 at Other Music. On “Hang On,” the young Mr. Spencer manages to recite the title with the proper Jaggerish slur. Then come the ping-pong electronics-and didn’t Mick Jagger, the original self-hating, self-loving middle-class kid, once have an infatuation with that early techno stuff as well, on the soundtrack to Kenneth Anger’s Invocation of My Demon Brother ? See, there’s a jumbled history there.

Dial M is Pussy Galore’s best L.P.

because its careful construction shows how garage trash is an esthetic choice, not a social document. In fact, the manner in which it mixed ragged gutter rock with the seamless slice-and-dice of sampling may have held the seeds to the slow cultural demise of Ludlow Street’s once fecund scene. At least we got an album out of it. Better that someone should benefit besides Sion Misrahi Realty.