Avant-Garde at the End of the American Empire

Note from the Editors: This essay is included in our 2nd print edition “Florida: Blood & Sunshine”.

A History of the Miami 90s’ Underground

Miami is a special city. There’s no other American metropolis where you can be luxuriating on the pure white sands of a tropical paradise a block away from methheads, alcoholic petty criminals, and prostitutes. The city’s median income is seven grand less than the national average, which makes its enormous waterfront mansions almost a dark joke on the broken-down housing projects right across the bay. The city’s jarring contradiction emanates a most peculiar unreality. It feels synthetic. Plastic. Fake.

Even though Miami has emerged as a major cultural and artistic hub it has never managed to shed this plasticity. On the contrary. Miami’s version of culture is vulgar. But where one kind of artist might feel imprisoned by this vulgarity another might feel liberated.

In the Miami of the 1990s, a singularly sleazy and hypnotically extreme avant-garde began to materialize in the form of a regional music scene. At the tail end of Miami’s reign as the Scarface cocaine capital of America and its ascendancy as an art world destination, Miami was still a poor city, a weird city, one of the few major American cities that was almost entirely shut out of the first and second-wave movements of American punk.

When punk swept through America in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, it mutated with every city it hit. In New York City, punk was the Ramones, the American punk archetype, but it was also Television, Patti Smith, and whoever played at CBGBs. When punk emerged in Los Angeles, it came through bands like the Germs and the Screamers. The ferocious minimalism of the music was intact, but the genre had queered itself, finding its figurehead in the boy genius faggot that was the Germs’ lead singer Darby Crash. In San Francisco, punk absorbed the city’s art school dropout bohemia, incorporating elements of performance art and avant-gardism into a mangled rockist sound that at times barely resembled rock’n roll at all. Arty punk bands like Crime and The Avengers gave way to hyper-provocative noise-punk duo Black Humor, the industrial-leaning sounds of Factrix, and the extremely weird post-punk group German Shepards.

Greil Marcus once wrote that “punk immediately discredited the music that preceded it. In destroying one tradition, punk revealed a new one.” The punk sensibility birthed an ethos of destruction and reconstruction and by the time that Miami had its own scene carrying that ethos, punk itself had already been destroyed and reconstructed several times over. The Miami underground was as bizarre, idiosyncratic, and contradictory as the city itself, with over 15 years of punk destruction and reconstruction behind it. The bands that defined it not only barely resembled punk rock, they could barely even be described as music.

Every avant-garde needs a base where artists can meet, trade ideas, and develop similar sensibilities and a shared artistic language: Dada had the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. The Abstract Expressionists had the Cedar Tavern, the OG punks had CBGBs and No Wave had the Mudd Club. The center of the subterranean avant-garde music of Miami in the 1990s was Churchill’s Pub, the facsimile of an English bar that opened on a corner of Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood in 1979. If museums are places where art goes to die,” remarked writer and musician Rob Goyanes, “then Churchill’s is the place where art goes to get sloppy drunk, make a loud, hostile scene, and end up akimbo under a table, staring into its dark, gum-ridden underside. Then die.”

Legendary for hideous bathrooms covered in graffiti, shit and piss, a horrendous smell, and a lurid atmosphere defined by extreme debauchery, Churchill’s was a perfect locale for the formation of Miami’s underground art scene, because a total rejection of the spectacle of the city itself. Whereas on the surface Miami is glamorous and Bolivian cocaine-powered, its underbelly is trashy and cheap, Mexican methamphetamine-powered. For an artistic underground to materialize, there needed to be a space that embodied the Lynchian shadow of the city.

The birth of Churchill’s as Miami’s temple of avant-sleaze can largely be attributed to the dedication of one man. An artist as synonymous with the Miami underground as Scarface is with Miami cocaine, his legal name is Frank Falestra, but he’s better known as Rat Bastard. Rat began his career playing in a noise punk band called Scraping Teeth that Spin Magazine declared to be “the worst band in America” in 1993, and followed up by opening a record store and a studio called Sync that started to attract Miami music freaks of varying levels of ambition.

Among the most ambitious was producer, singer, and poet Tom Smith, a bonafide poet of libidinal materialism and hedonistic excess. Smith grew up in Georgia obsessed with music like King Crimson, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and electric era Miles Davis, as well as writers like Poe, Baudelaire, Burroughs, and Joyce. All these influences would manifest in his early projects. In the late ‘70s, after a brief immersion in New York punk, Smith formed the Georgia band Boat Of — a project that at one point featured a young, green-haired Michael Stipe. The group laid the aesthetic foundations of the American noise scene with bizarre amalgamations of musiqué concrete, Burroughs/Gysin-esque audio cut-ups, and Smith’s burgeoning talent as an avant turntablist (Smith once told me that Christian Marclay, now famous for his own turntable experiments, ripped him off.)

In the mid-’80s, Smith moved to Washington D.C, initially to be a member of his friend and record producer Don Fleming’s band The Velvet Monkeys before getting kicked out of the band for having sex with its drummer’s girlfriend. This led to the birth of his project Peach of Immortality: a power trio that delighted in the sleaziest of atonal noise and briefly shared a practice space with the iconic band Pussy Galore. Smith in fact briefly joined Pussy Galore, but was kicked out by band leader Jon Spencer, who feared that Smith’s seismic charisma might result in his having a toxic Malcolm McLaren-esque cult influence over the band.

After Smith followed a girl to Miami in 1991, he needed a new musical outlet, and found it when he met Rat Bastard and began recording at his studio. The Miami underground had established its two pillars. Rat Bastard: its regional figurehead. Tom Smith: its conceptual druid.

In 1992, Smith and Rat started To Live and Shave in LA – both a band and a roving art collective that at different times incorporated the talents of an all-star cast of outsider artists and musician maniacs from across America including Weasel Walter of The Flying Luttenbachers, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Andrew WK, Emil Hagstrom of Cock ESP, Nandor Névai of Hatewave, Bill Orcutt of Harry Pussy, the aforementioned Don Fleming, and more. The band cut a very striking image on stage: Smith looked like a lounge singer warped by a ketamine visual distortion: clean cut with short hair, but smeared eye makeup and a fishnet shirt. Rat was his disheveled antonym, tousled hair peaking out of his skull cap, and a body shaped by alcohol consumption and the rigors of touring. Performing behind these men were an assortment of brolic modern pagans and scantily clad women. By relentlessly touring their bacchanalian, violent live performances, they came to be invested with a mythological allure.

Although generally associated with the history of American noise music, TLASILA differed from other important noise acts such as Macronympha, Black Leather Jesus, and Emil Beaulieau. For one thing, TLASILA demonstrated a clear lineage in the avant-garde and underground music. In its chaotic sound, one could detect the negationist revolutionary tendencies of the Dadaists and the Situationists, as well as the stylistic diversity of post-punk bands like Public Image Ltd and bizarro outsider outfits of the ‘70s like Smegma. For another, the group had a prominent contrarian streak. Smith seemed contemptuous of being thought of as a noise artist — during his life, he publicly denounced Japanese noise godhead figure Merzbow repeatedly — and preferred instead to present himself as a shamanic glam rock frontman idol. A nightmare inversion of Bryan Ferry, if you will: He had the vocal pipes to earn this title. And I haven’t mentioned his lyrical brilliance yet:

Flaming out of your stumps and knots
Mouthing the penis of an optimist
Heard his Dublin days of joy propos’d
Failed to double-glass the count-struck soil

Unknown Band plays at Churchill’s Pub (1990s)

A declared admirer of Henry Miller, Smith’s lyrics reaffirmed Miller’s rebellion against moral and aesthetic censorship. Nick Land’s description of the “jagged and meandering” character of Miller’s writing attesting to its “torrential emancipatory energy” in his book The Thirst for Annihilation is also a perfect description of Smith’s lyrics and his style of performance. Smith liked to joke that he was “PoMo” (or, postmodern) before PoMo was even a thing, meaning he created a space in which the boundaries between high and low culture had disintegrated.

TLASILA shunned the concept of noise music in favor of an idea of noise as a ritualistic force through which the signifiers of the genre could be liquidated: glam rock, dub, noise, musiqué concrete, no wave, and good old-fashioned American rock sleaze disrupt and reorganize meaning in TLASILA, devolving into a revoltingly beautiful pandemonium. He further emphasized this idea with his mantra, “Genre is Obsolete.” As academic Ray Brassier once put it, “Shave construct songs over an overwhelming plethora of sonic data, counterweighting noise’s form destroying entropy through a negentropic overload that destroys noise-as-genre and challenges the listener to engage with a surfeit of information.”

TLASILA’s best album and the greatest testament to Smith’s talent, 2002’s The Wigmaker in 18th Century Williamsburg, also functions as a retrospective of the American subterranean underground music scene of the 1990s and, by extension, a celebration of Miami’s contribution. No matter how far out the music went, TLASILA remained intertwined with the city that birthed them. Miami’s sleaze, hedonism, perversity, and embrace of low culture courses through the veins of the band and documents what is possible when the historical ethos of the avant-garde emerges in a region that has historically nothing to do with that ethos. Smith even acted in the later films of Miami-based sexploitation filmmaker Doris Wishman. To understand the Miami avant-garde music scene of the 1990s, you must first understand To Live and Shave in LA.

TLASILA’s debut, 30-Minuten Männercreme incorporated the talents of two Miami-based musicians to fill out its sound: Bill Orcutt, a thin, long-haired young man often seen wearing oversized button-down shirts and black jeans, provided guitar work, and Adris Hoyos, a small but feral and fierce looking young woman, played drums and sang – and by “sang,” I mean screamed, as if clawing the eyes out of a barely overpowered attacker. Orcutt and Hoyos were the two members of the other beloved Miami noise punk institution and TLASILA’s frenemy band Harry Pussy. Emphasizing the incestuous collaborative nature of the Miami underground, Smith engineered Harry Pussy’s self-titled debut.

If TLASILA embodied Miami in its avant-garde deconstruction of the city’s low culture, Harry Pussy embodied Miami as a ferocious, feral racket. Hoyos and Orcutt were both lovers and ex-lovers throughout the band’s run, undercutting the group’s energy with a palpable libidinal charge. The possibility of either fighting or fucking always felt present. Harry Pussy is usually described as a noise band, but that isn’t an apt description. They didn’t use electronics or synths, they used a guitar and drums – the skeleton of a rock’n roll band. They weren’t solely dedicated to the exploration of mountainous feedback but to blowing out rock music to the point where it sounds like an implosion. Their sonic precedents are the legacy of what I have started calling “avant-Americana,” or bands that explored rock’n nroll as formal material to annihilate, deconstruct, and reconstruct to reveal the pure primal energy that animates it. The long, disorientating live performances of “Sister Ray” by the Velvet Underground, the fragmented no-wave of Mars, the warped Rolling Stones deconstructions of Pussy Galore, and the collages of stripped-down boogie rock, free jazz, and funk on Royal Trux’s Twin Infinitives are the sounds that make sense in the assessment of Harry Pussy’s lineage.

Harry Pussy only released four albums and only lasted about five years. But, when Thurston Moore shouted out the group on an episode of MTV’s 120 Minutes that he hosted, he signaled to all of America that Miami was now ground zero for fertile musical and artistic freedom.

The final side of the unholy trinity of the Miami underground is bizarro group Kreamy ‘Lectric Santa, a group formed in 1991 by Priya Ray, Andrew Ross Powell, and Robert Price. If Miami is a true cultural blender — beach bum culture, drug lords, abject poverty, Cuban culture, Haitian culture, bodybuilders, clubs, luxury lifestyle, and the gaudiest trappings of extreme wealth all brought together in one relatively small urban metropolis — then KLS is its mirror sonic blender. With much less grounding in straightforward noise music than TLASILA, Harry Pussy and most of the other groups who made Churchill’s their home, Kreamy ‘Lectric Santa instead derived influences from the ‘70s Parisian prog rock of Gong, the anarcho-punk collective Crass, the minimalist and angular krautrock of Faust, and the libidinal acid rock of Mothers of Invention. If one could detect any through line in these influences, it isn’t sonic consistency – but a sense of the anarchic and expansive freedom that comes from the rejection of order.

For an artist to live in Miami they have to divorce themselves from intellectual pretensions. Miami isn’t New York, or London, or Paris, or even LA. It does not have a natural fluency with art, philosophy, or the avant-garde. For an artist to thrive in Miami, they need to be like the poet Moon Dog in Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum and wallow in South Florida’s regional peculiarities, its burnout culture, its trashy neon-lit cityscapes, and its obscene natural beauty. They need to just feel it, man, and leave good taste behind. What made Kreamy’s Lectric Santa so special is that they followed Moon Dog’s philosophy to an extreme degree.

KLS was a party band. They embraced pop music more than any of their peers, even employing the sample approach of the then still-emergent hip-hop music coming out of New York and Los Angeles. It was a house party band for the Miami weirdos who felt alienated by the on-the-nose nightlife of South Beach, singing about drugs and sex and the breezy joy of American youth at the end of the New Millennium. KLS was a fitting counterpoint to the chaotic evil of their scene counterparts Harry Pussy and TLASILA, keeping the inherent synthetic bliss of Miami intact while kinking it with the potent magic of modernist artistic production. They made the avant-garde fun again.

The Miami underground music scene was all but dead by the new millennium, its stars dispersed to different cities, different projects, or both. Kreamy ‘Lectric Santa moved to San Francisco. Harry Pussy broke up – Hoyos continued to make experimental music and Orcutt disappeared until 2009 when he reinvented himself as an experimentalist of folk guitar music. TLASILA was going strong until last year but, sadly, Smith passed away in early 2022. I was lucky enough to become acquainted with him at the end of his life and was amazed by the extent to which he continued to produce great music. He is as close to a legend as the subterranean noise scene ever produced; a persona as admired and loathed as Johnny Rotten or André Breton, if on a much smaller scale. Only Rat Bastard has continued carrying the torch for the Miami avant-garde and still hosts his annual International Noise Conference at Churchill’s.

What made the Miami scene happen? Apolitical hedonism had something to do with it. It’s not that the individual artists of Miami were necessarily not liberal. But the Miami underground was far more dedicated to the revolution of form than any revolution of politics. John of Leyden, the 16th Century Anabaptist leader, told his followers that he was permitted decadence because he was dead to the world and to the flesh and soon so would be all. Miami is itself a kind of symbol of the end of the American empire – an echo of the degeneracy that marked the end of Rome and could signal the end of the West. The city’s artists implicitly recognized that they were making their art during the End Times. Miami’s brief flourishing of avant-garde cultural production reveled in the Dionysian merriment of the end of the world. It was a joyous apocalypticism: drugs and fucking and noise drowning out the mourning of the end of the 20th Century, the West, if not civilization itself.

Adam Lehrer is an artist based in New York and the host of the System of Systems podcast. He can be followed @SafetyPropagan1.

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