Graded on a Curve: Teenage Jesus and
the Jerks,
Live 1977–1979

In 1979 I was living out my lifelong dream of a being a failed painter in a rat-infected loft on the Lower East Side when I first saw Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. Their 3-minute 78-song set changed my life.

The next day I gathered up the money I was going to spend on bread and bologna and put down a deposit on a guitar and a blown amp. I went home and tuned the guitar to the key of dreadful, tortured it with a pair of plyers until it confessed, then dropped it into my bathtub where it sizzled, blacking out the entirety of Alphabet City.

And just like that I was a No Wave Star.

Except I wasn’t and Lydia Lunch told me so. I played her something and she said, “Look, I appreciate all the bologna you’ve given me over the years, but there’s a big difference between good shit and bad shit and your shit is probably the worst shit I’ve heard in my entire life.”

I was so hurt I cut off her bologna supply and moped around the loft pretending to be a nihilist. After nine hours of deliberation I decided I was going to buy some heroin and become a junkie, but ended up spending the money on a TV Guide instead.

After returning to the loft I tried to figure out what I was doing wrong. I practiced for exactly 13 minutes per day just like everybody else, and owned the exact same La Monte Young album they owned but never listened to. I used mine as an impromptu lap table.

A couple of days later I went back to Max’s Kansas City to check out Teenage Jesus and the Jerks again and realized that what set me apart from Lydia Lunch was she sounded like she was really angry about something. For a moment I wondered if it wasn’t my cutting off her bologna allowance. But that couldn’t be it because she’d sounded just the same when the old bologna pipeline was still open and flowing.

I went home and tried to work myself into a lather, but the only thing I could get angry about was my total inability to get angry. This terrible human failing enraged me, and I might well have put it to good use were in not for the fact that when I get angry I don’t scream and rave but instead fall into a silent funk.

I went to see Lydia and company a third time, and my take away was that the drummer sounded like a guy pounding on your door to complain that his own music was too loud. And it struck me that the best way to make a bold statement was to give up on the pounding altogether.

So I went to see my friend Todd who’d lost both arms in a terrible collage accident, but I couldn’t stop him from banging his head on the floor tom. So I dropped in on my pal Joey Weird who lives in Patti Smith’s coal chute and found out loud noises make him whimper and curl up in a little ball. Perfect, I thought.

Still, I needed a guitarist seeing as how the best I could do was kill the electricity in all of Lower Manhattan and I was still paying back the city of New York for the first time I’d done it. So I looked around but had no luck until I ran into this girl named Despairette who lived in a nice apartment paid for by her dad, who was David Byrne’s dentist.

When I asked her if she’d ever played guitar she said no, but she’d been arrested for playing the ukelele. So I gave her an audition and she hung the guitar around her neck and played the G chord for maybe 15 minutes before launching into a long diatribe about how fish should wear raincoats and Andy Warhol should be ashamed of himself for exploiting Campbell’s Soup cans. Everything was coming together quite nicely.

All that was left to do was come up with a band name, which was hard because the No Wave community is very picky about names. Pick the wrong name and you may as well go back to college and get an accounting degree. We were at a loss until I tripped over this bum in the Bowery who spoke fluent gibberish, and he suggested Soup Kitchen, Dead Air, and, in a moment of inspiration, Garfunkel Kommando. But it turned out he had copyrights on all of them so we finally went with Mantooth because we were all big Emergency fans.

Our first rehearsal was cut short when the landlord showed up with two lesbians wielding Louisville sluggers and threatened to break our knees if we didn’t shut up and pay back rent. But we figured why practice since we’d already landed our first gig at CBGB opening for the Contortions. We could hardly contain our existential despair.

We were exactly three seconds into our first song when James Chance jumped on stage and crowned me with his saxophone. I was lying on the stage, cartoon slices of bologna circling my head, when Thurston Moore leaned down to me, gave me a kindly pat on the shoulder, and said, “Congratulations kid. You’re a No Wave star.”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C-

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