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PRINT Summer 2018

TOY SOLDIERS

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Burning House), 1982, spray paint on paper, 24 × 17 7/8". © The Estate of David Wojnarowicz.

NEW YORK POST-PUNK was not a sound. It was sounds—plural, and loud enough to be visceral. The music of this polyglot city spoke in tongues: forked tongues in cheek, the alien admixed into the familiar, like something too slippery for language and better conveyed in the furtive, desperate gestures of absurd and random sonic violence. Yet the silence that descended on the city at night with the hush of a criminal was in turns haunting, liberating, and scary as hell. From deep inside this absence rose new kinds of music in the late 1970s and early ’80s that at once caught the quietude in the rustle of some perpetual insomnia—making more of John Cage’s silence than could be imagined—and echoed the din of the dying day. If there was an “aesthetic,” it was happenstance: the sum of neighbors arguing, car horns screaming their urban impatience, trucks downshifting, a chaotic array of boom boxes ambling by in a Doppler effect both intrusive and uncertain. With some sounds, you just didn’t want to know the source. It all made sense in the same way that watching a muted TV while listening to a record seemed to then.

3 Teens Kill 4 was like many bands in New York at the time, which is also to say that they didn’t sound like anyone else, which was pretty much the point. They chose their appellation from a list of band names generated by the great downtown bard Max Blagg, a transplant from England but vintage NYC since 1971. Blagg also performed with 3TK4 at their first gig, on December 2, 1980, alongside others from the staff of the first Danceteria, at a benefit show at Tier 3 for their bedraggled lot. (The club they worked at, which never bothered to get a liquor license, had the temerity to take out ads in the local paper stating that it was open until 10 AM—and instead of the mobbed-up owners, it was the kids in their employ who got arrested.) The name was ripped from one of those shrieking headlines the New York Post has been producing since 1976, when Rupert Murdoch purchased the once-proud paper (founded by Alexander Hamilton in 1801) and turned it into the kind of sensationalist right-wing tabloid he’d mastered with The Sun, which he bought in 1969. As a metaphor, this fall from grace befit our town’s debasement. But for sheer semiotic audacity, the proto-Trump fearmongering (the most famous Post headline has to be the front-page banner of April 15, 1983: “Headless Body in Topless Bar”) proffered a vernacular as over-the-top as the Wild Style graffiti that dominated our trains.

Good bands create a collective persona greater than the sum of their individual identities. This was especially true of 3TK4 in both its ideology and musical sensibility: The group had decided from the start to forgo a lead singer and the typical trappings of virtuoso solos. So while we have come to celebrate them today for David Wojnarowicz’s indelible contributions, it is worth considering the band’s distinct components: Doug Bressler, a proper muso who subsumed his abilities to fit the group’s inspired DIY amateurism; Julie Hair, whose Korg rhythm machine, so contrary to the ruling guitar ethos of the era, made 3TK4 more punk than Punk; Jesse Hultberg, the creator of melancholic bass sounds—presciently seductive and ominous—that captured the party turning into a wake for this aids-era band; and Brian Butterick, aka drag doyenneHattie Hathaway, the genius behind the seminal, queer (yet hetero-friendly) Pyramid Club and an important early Wojnarowicz collaborator, who operated a Casio drum machine. Influenced by the electronic aggressions of ’70s Suicide (and, to a lesser degree, the Welsh band Young Marble Giants, misfit contemporaries of Wojnarowicz, Bressler, et al., who also subverted punk with homemade synthesizers), 3TK4 exemplified the zeitgeist: that anyone could play an instrument just as anyone could be an artist—with a stripped-down, jagged, art-damaged minimalism that unspooled like the deranged version of Pop you might expect from a talent show in a kindergarten run by sociopaths. Evocative of a larger but then-nascent East Village sensibility, in which alienation and menace were sugarcoated with infantile regression, among the most distinctive attributes of 3TK4 was that they often used toy instruments, partly because David never had learned to play anything. Wojnarowicz’s art was fundamental to the band’s irascible urban agitprop and sense of mischievous disobedience. His work appeared on their posters and in the stencils with which he and Hair covered the buildings of the Lower East Side (a burning house, one of the band’s most famous images, was its de facto logo). But Wojnarowicz’s most radical contribution to 3TK4 was the barrage of purloined sounds he produced via a handheld tape recorder, from which spewed the bilious rancor of our spectacle society. It was akin to the sampling of hip-hop’s pioneering DJs, but Wojnarowicz’s pastiche of media sound bites was even more low-tech, stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster. He was, in every way, more postmodern than the postmodernism of art-world affectations.

No Motive, 3 Teens Kill 4’s classic seven-song mini-album, was reissued in June 2017 by Dark Entries.

Carlo McCormick is a critic and curator based in New York.