The UK music magazine The Wire has a back-page column called "Epiphanies," in which writers wax poetic/nostalgic about a major musical moment in their lives. In the October 2005 issue, it was my turn, and I chose to discuss Borbetomagus's cassette-only Live In Allentown release. Jim Sauter, a very good guy as well as 1/3 of Borbetomagus, saw it (as I kinda figured he would) and got in touch with me. Seems they'd been planning to reissue the long-vanished Allentown on CD, but the project had run out of steam...until they saw my piece and got re-enthused. They even wanted to use my piece as the liner notes. So of course I said yes, and sent them the following very slightly revised version, which will show up in a CD store near you probably sometime in 2006. In the meantime, enjoy the piece.
BORBETOMAGUS – Live In Allentown
Original version from The Wire 260, October 2005
Like many music journalists/critics, my listening habits are in continual flux, my tastes evolving and mutating day by day. There are some constants – anything that could be called Metal will get at least an idly curious half-listen, anything that could be called Indie will get binned without a backward glance. Jazz of the “free” variety (however one defines that), particularly 60s reissues, will get a warm welcome; post-bop or smooth fusion will have to argue much more strenuously for itself. But I’m always willing to be surprised. I was recently blindsided by the Kompakt label compilation Total 6, after years of ignoring techno. It’s important to always be ready to hear something that will totally change the way you think about music.
The first record I can remember pressuring my father to buy for me was Judas Priest’s Screaming For Vengeance, in 1982, when I was about to turn eleven. By 1987, I was a metalhead to the marrow of my bones, making an occasional side trip into punk – Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Flipper, Bad Brains, the Minutemen. (Remember, this was America – suburban New Jersey, to be precise. To this day, I have not heard Never Mind The Bollocks in its entirety, and the only version of the Clash’s debut I know is the one with “I Fought The Law” on it.) I owned exactly five jazz records: Miles Davis’s Kind Of Blue, Bitches Brew and Tutu, and John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Meditations.
Spin magazine, which had recently supplanted Rolling Stone as my primary source for information about new music, featured Byron Coley’s “Underground” column in its record review section. It was the most interesting thing in the magazine by a long stretch. I couldn’t always decipher his prose to figure out what he was praising about the acts he discussed, and anyhow I’d never heard of a single one of them, but it was a fascinating, must-read section, month after month. It was there that I read about Borbetomagus, specifically their cassette-only release Live In Allentown. I don’t have the magazine anymore, so I can’t quote Coley’s prose, but whatever he wrote about this sax-sax-guitar trio from upstate New York, I had to hear them.
I knew there was no way my local record store was going to be able to get Live In Allentown for me. I was going to have to go somewhere that really catered to the obscure and outré – Bleecker Bob’s, in Greenwich Village. I’d never been there before, only walking past a few times on the way to a nearby comic store. But somehow I was certain that they would have this thing, if anyone would. So I made the tremulous journey into what I thought was the very beating heart of underground music. I walked in the store, awed by the vinyl sleeves that covered the walls and the surly, leather-and-black-denim-clad clerks who I was certain would beat my suburban ass and throw me back to the sidewalk, knowing how unworthy I was to sully their punk rock shrine with my presence. But they didn’t. And sure enough, in the glass case where they kept their cassettes, there it was. Red-and-black construction paper cover, white plastic case. I think I paid six dollars. I put it in my battered Walkman on the way out the door.
When the first hideously distorted shrieks and roars hit my ears, I almost fell over from the raw force of it. That couldn’t be a saxophone – it sounded like someone being torn limb from limb. Was that a guitar, or someone revving up a gigantic engine to the brink of explosion? In truth, it was hard to even discern one sound from the others. Nothing on the tape had any obvious reference points in anything else I owned, or had ever heard. Even Meditations, the screechiest album in my collection, sounded like lounge music compared to this. I was terrified, but I couldn’t stop listening. I had to hear what came next.
The first side of the tape contains a single long piece, ending in tape slice. The second side picks up with what might be the same piece. After eight minutes or so, there’s a brief burst of applause, and some shouts of “Encore!” from a very enthusiastic woman, then the next (and final) section begins. The Borbetomagus lineup documented is a quartet, with Adam Nodelman on bass in addition to saxophonists Jim Sauter and Don Dietrich and guitarist Donald Miller. Nodelman actually plays some fairly straight low chords near the end of the second side, as though attempting to anchor the music and keep it from becoming total noise. Toward the end, someone (maybe a Borbetomagus member) begins vocalizing in a manner reminiscent of early Butthole Surfers, as Miller’s guitar and at least one of the saxophones continue to sputter, snarl and squeal.
I listened to Live In Allentown almost daily for a couple of years, even forcing it on friends who wanted no part. I began to memorize the subtle, almost intuitive shifts in what had initially seemed like an unceasing, undifferentiated roar. The interplay between group members revealed itself. And this repeated close listening began to alter the way I heard other music. I sought out harsher and more punishing sounds in general, yes, but I also started to pick apart all the music I heard, trying to understand what each player was contributing to the whole, rather than hearing a record as a solid mass with the vocalist slapped on top like a pizza topping. Live In Allentown taught me to listen like a critic.
I’ve still got my original cassette copy of Live In Allentown (which until now has been ridiculously rare, not even listed in many Borbeto discographies). To my amazement, it’s never melted down or spooled out of its case. I recently took it out and converted it to CD-R, and stuffed its two long tracks into my iPod. To this day, it’s my favorite Borbetomagus recording, and to my ear the best thing they’ve ever done. Now that it’s been reissued on disc, I can go back anytime I want and get whacked in the head by it all over again, just like when I was fifteen and first discovering that there was more to music than metal.