There are books on child rearing that suggest that there are benefits to playing classical music to a child in utero. This stimulates the mind, the argument goes, and the child will have an advantage over all those unfortunate children that had to settle for the sounds of top 40 radio and game show themes. Possibly against what would have been every pediatrician's recommendation, I was exposed to regular live performances of the Nihilist Spasm Band.
How this has manifested itself in my intellect and personality, I'm sure, will never be determined, but listening to the Nihilist Spasm Band at the Gordon Best Theatre on September 30th, 2001, did make me want to run around the room like a six year old. The cacophony produced by those strange men puts my mind at ease and takes me back to a time in my life when things were simple, when music and instrument were made at home and there was no way of dancing to it, so you might as well just put in the ear plugs and run around.
The Nihilist Spasm Band is a self titled "Noise Band." The band plays both traditional and home made instruments that include modified kazoos, Murray Favro's handmade, left-handed, electric guitars, and Art Pratten's bowed, violin like "Pratt-a-various." First forming in 1965 to create the sound track to the late Greg Curnoe's "No Film," a documentary about the Nihilist Party of London, the group continued to play and focused their efforts on creating "No Music," or maybe "anti-music."
You can spend time, if you'd like, trying to contextualise the creation of anti-music at a time when the music industry was beginning to develop the science of commercialising popular music. Or you can discuss the artistic validity of a band whose members choose to create music for themselves and their immediate audience with no concern for satisfying a wider demographic. You can even spend a lot of time arguing about whether what the Nihilist Spasm Band creates is music or not. Most people, though, would just call it noise.
The few people for whom I have played CDs or tapes of the Nihilist Spasm Band laugh and say "That's kind of interesting." Or they comment about how the sound generated by this practised group can only be described as noise. Often adding that it's kind of astonishing that they can make such noise without breaking into something recognizable, like rhythm. Very few people ask where they can get a hold of the recordings or ask where and when the band is playing next. Indeed, the Nihilist Spasm Band is not for all tastes.
There are those, however, who are fans. In Japan, Chicago, and New York the band has a following. An American college radio station lists them among their most frequently played. Noise bands in Germany and Japan hold the NSB as the originators of an entire genre. These odd gentlemen, over their more than three decades together, have accumulated a large and growing base of admirers.
Zev Asher, an independent film-maker, decided to chronicle the band's stardom in a recent film entitled What About Me: The Rise of the Nihilist Spasm Band..The film, which played that night before the band performed, is a surprisingly comprehensive and balanced look at a quirky bunch of nonsense peddlers who have managed to play their instruments for thirty-five years and not learn how to play them.
It is mentioned in the film that this is, in fact, a skill and that it takes effort and practice. This is evident when actual musicians jam with the band. Inevitably music creeps in and the noise starts to sound too tidy, too rhythmic or too melodic. Put the original members together and you can be assured that nothing like a time or key signature will bring order to the discord.
This is, I think, what my brain enjoys so much about the NSB. Combined with the sheer volume, the unadulterated noise rolls over me and sets me into a stupor unlike anything any other kind of mindless entertainment has to offer. And if I'm in the mood to focus and pay attention, there is plenty to pick up on. There are many layers. I can follow the sound of Murray Favro's guitar as it clashes with John Boyle's drumming, or kazoo, briefly synchronizes with Art Pratten's Pratt-a-various, and filters off into the background while Bill Exley winds himself up for a thunderous rant. It's more than enough to keep me happy for a night.
I was a little surprised by the band on the night at the Best. They didn't seem as loud as I was expecting and they only played for an hour. It might have seemed quiet because of missing members John Clement (guitar) and Hugh McIntyre (bass), but they were competently replaced by Aya Ohnishi and Tim Glasgow. But no, in those heady childhood days, and on into my teenage years, I remember listening to the Spasm Band play until the wee hours of the morning and my ears ringing for days after. These events usually happened at the Forest City Gallery, in London, Ontario. This is home ice, where the band was, and still is, allowed to play as long and as loud as they feel like playing, which they still do every Monday night. The last Monday night practice I attended, many years ago, people who had shown up as audience ended up sitting in, and the band grew to the point where it seemed everyone in the room was contributing something.
Out here in the world of rock and roll, however, there are protocols, structures. There are things like sets and start times and audiences that have only so much time to listen to noise. I think these things gave the Sunday night performance at the Best a sense of limitation, of being reigned in. There was a little chord of home grown Nihilist pride struck in me when I learned that the band was louder than the music downstairs in the Only Cafe, but the bone rattling, gut rumbling, ear stinging wall of sound didn't seem as potent as I remembered. Of course, all that time in my youth spent with ringing in my ears probably did a little damage to my hearing, which may very well not be as sensitive as it once was...
I was pleasantly surprised to see so many people there. As much as news of their notoriety and fans reach me, (on trip to New York, just weeks ago, a staff member at the Metropolitan Museum of Art recognised Bill Exley's voice and offered free tickets into the museum) I still often find it difficult to believe that anyone other than the band themselves actually wants to listen. I also know that even though the band has acclaim in a few select parts of the world, most of the world's population has not only not heard of the NSB, but has never even considered such a thing as possible, or maybe even desirable. To find out that people I know are fans was just a bit much for me to take. Frankly, I was a bit disturbed by this unusual facet of my childhood entering my adult world. It was like having a bunch of your drunken, Elvis-singing uncles from Christmas parties arrive in your favourite bar and start singing to your friends. Except these uncles have recordings and a following and are touring the world.
Watching Asher's film was just as, if not more unsettling for me as having the NSB in Peterborough. The members of the Spasm Band are in very many ways, just ordinary guys, like anybody's uncles. But as much as these men work in relatively common professions, they are not common men. Speak to any one of these fellows for more than a few minutes and you realise there's something else going on. They will discuss just about any subject, but in a conversation of any length, eventually the ridiculous creeps in. These men are connoisseurs of the ridiculous. They are practitioners of the absurd. They are fully conscious of the fact that they are making noise and that to expect people to sit politely and admire the intonations of that noise is ridiculous. But they do it anyway. And people do sit politely and admire the intonation.
Seeing in the film that these guys cause line ups at some of their gigs and have interview schedules seems, to me, like just another part of the absurd joke. But even after thirty five years, the joke is still funny. And the more anyone tries to figure out what's so funny about it, the less we know and the funnier it gets. If you ask the guys in the band about whether or not they are making some kind of serious commentary on life, if what they do is music, or if it's art, they just laugh it all off and say that they're just a bunch of guys having fun. And to watch the band play together on their best nights is to watch them have a lot of fun, to laugh at each other as they stumble over each others sounds and to play games with each other. Often the game seems to be "anything you can do I can do louder," but there's always a sense of play, of goofing off, of just getting together to make some noise.
If there's anything that I learned from my in utero Nihilist Spasm training, it is to try to incorporate that same sense of play, of seeing the ridiculous, in the things I do. I have a constant humming in my brain; part of it, I'm sure, is the ringing that is still in my ears, and part of it is the echo of what, for me, is the Nihilist Spasm Band's message - have fun, make noise, make stuff, don't care who listens or who watches. It doesn't have to make sense. You just have to make it, and make it together.