Julian Cope’s Album of the Month
Henry Flynt & the InsurrectionsI Don't Wanna
AOTM #66, November 2005ce
Released 2004 on Locust Music
Recorded in 1966 and first released in 2004CE by Locust Music
- Uncle Sam Do (2.42)
- Goodbye Wall Street (2.54)
- Go Down (2.49)
- Corona Del Max (2.54)
- Missionary Stew (4.25)
- Jumping (2.57)
- Sky Turned Red (2.27)
- I Don’t Wanna (3.12)
- Dreams Away (7.14)
Note: For the purposes of streaming, the inconsequential organ instrumental ‘Corona Del Max’ has been omitted in favour of ‘Blue Sky, Highway & Tyme’, a fifteen minute long solo guitar meditation from Henry Flynt’s solo record BACK PORCH HILLBILLY BLUES VOLUME ONE.
The image of the untrained “folk creature” as avant gardist
When I first heard the New York guitar music on this I DON’T WANNA album just eighteen months ago, I was gobsmacked and derailed by the agitated attack of Henry Flynt’s bluegrass-meets-hillbilly-meets-R&R guitar sound, and the manner in which he took Troggs-simple riffs and upended them into dustbowl dances for tigers on Vaseline. Where had this horseless rodeo been all my life? Contained within these Flyntian grooves was a dehydrated atmosphere of such simultaneously Biblical ancientness and futurist heathenism that it appeared as though some petty sub-Jehovah had chosen to install our man Flynt unfairly and squarely into the darkest episodes ever torn from the pages of J.F.K.’s A NATION OF IMMIGRANTS; if this guy owned a car, it was a kaput Model T drawn by mules for shit damn sure; if this guy owned a chicken coop, it was most likely that same Model T. Furthermore, the manner in which Flynt commandeered his own riffs or even whole tracks for crooning new songs over at a later time (‘Missionary Stew’ IS ‘Uncle Sam Do’) really blew my mind - especially as the artist himself (hardly yet out of adolescence) looked like a cross between Stork from ANIMAL HOUSE and Napoleon Dynamite. Moreover, brothers and sisters, this guy was a true Zelig of the underground – an everywhere and nowhere baby whose name cropped up time and time again in articles about the American Civil Rights Movement, the modern New York art world, and the new Socialist philosophies being thrown up at the cusp of the 50s/60s. And although no real articles appeared to have been written about Henry Flynt, from the various snatches of info that I could discover from biographies of his more celebrated contemporaries, I gleaned that Flynt had always been considered a heavy conceptual artist, nay, for some people THEE original conceptual artist. But even for the few souls who knew Henry Flynt’s work, he never was a guitarist but a violinist, and a musical theorist to boot. Indeed, in an essay written for Yoko Ono’s 1992 boxed CD set ONOBOX, The New York Times rock critic Robert Palmer referred to Henry Flynt as a ‘composer, violinist, and the theorist who coined the term “concept art”’. Palmer went on to include Flynt in his list of the very earliest of the Fluxus artists – John Cage, Yoko Ono, La Monte Young, Richard Maxfield – whose art was so named by the gallery owner George Macunius for having been permanently in a state of flux; that is, forever at the moment of becoming…
And yet the difference between Henry Flynt and most other conceptual artists of his time is that the more you play I DON’T WANNA, the more you need to hear it. I know Flynt initially conceived this album in a flurry of post-EPI excitement, probably as nothing more than an adjunct to his more serious violin drone music. But for listeners who get the picture, repeated plays soon become an emotional and cardiovascular necessity. You wanna steep yourself in his hip spikey yokeldrones and his catch-all pop-art lyrical take on the protest movement, and you wanna blast the fucking world to rights. Flynt’s formulaic approach is the difference between the obnoxious and obsessively listenable genius of Takeshisa Kosugi’s majestic 1975 proto-Martin Rev Ur-drone CATCH WAVE and the excessively intellectual violin-tapping non-muse of that same artist on his LIVE IN NEW YORK album five years later. Or the difference between Bill Nelson’s barely contained and primal ‘70s guitar tantrums with Be Bop Deluxe and his pale David Byrne-worshipping World Music-isms of the following decade. And in terms of being a truly Intuitive Non Career Mover, Henry Flynt really did take the fucking cake, limiting his releases to a few private cassettes from time to time, indeed refusing proper releases for any of his works until the beginning of the 21st century. But while I rant and rave about the epic quality of this music, lay back awhile and let The Insurrections burn a few holes on your Inner Carpet, whilst I relate to y’all how Mr Flynt reached this magically (and timelessly) funky place. Hell, motherfuckers, as George Clinton noted on Funkadelic’s ELECTRIC SPANKING OF WAR BABIES – ‘Funk can sit and sit and never go sour’. Well, Beloveds, this Insurrections stuff is almost 40 years old and (like Captain Scott’s bully beef) it’s still as fresh as the day they laid it down…
Avant-Bumpkin Hillbilly Joyriders of the Coming Revolution
Henry Flynt reading his essay ‘FROM CULTURE TO VERAMUSEMENT’ in Walter De Maria’s New York loft, in February 1963.
In the early months of 1966, during Andy Warhol’s EXPLODING PLASTIC INEVITABLE performances at The Dom, and just before The Velvet Underground recorded their first LP, John Cale became so sick from the group’s unhealthy lifestyle that he was forced to take some time away from their performances. Determined to replace himself with a valid substitute capable of understanding the Ur-drones necessary for fulfilling The Velvet’s highly specific metaphor, Cale asked his friend and fellow LaMonte Young acolyte Henry Flynt to fill in for him. Unfortunately, this young experimental violinist and early Fluxus member was himself currently obsessed with re-awakening his North Carolina roots. And so Flynt brought to the Velvets not the removed and numbing sophistication of Cale’s wind tunnel viola, but a brutally hickish and highly volatile hoedown that brought the young southerner to physical blows with Lou Reed. Henry Flynt says of the experience:
“Reed taught me their repertoire in about five minutes, because basically he just wanted me to be in the right key. At one point I got in a fight with him onstage because I was playing a very hillybilly-influenced style on the violin and that upset him very much. He wanted a very sophisticated sound; he didn’t want rural references in what was supposed to be this very decadent S&M image that they were projecting.”1
However, disastrous though the experience was, Flynt struggled through several further performances with the band, and – in lieu of payment – received six hour long lessons of guitar tuition by Lou Reed himself. Taking this apprenticeship extremely seriously, and stimulated by Bob Dylan’s recent adoption of rock’n’roll in the face of huge criticism, Henry Flynt decided immediately to process and utilise this new sonic information as a vehicle for his other main obsession – political activism. Or, as he wrote later:
“Given my political engagement, I had been waiting for an impetus to try songs with ‘revolution’ lyrics.”2
Initially comprised of only Flynt on vocals and electric guitar accompanied by his sculptor friend Walter De Maria on drums, the duo was nevertheless a superb and highly volatile agit-punk outfit that soon went by the name of Henry Flynt & the Insurrections. Rehearsals initially took place at De Maria’s downtown loft, where the duo swung rhythms around against each other and battered smart 13/8 and 5/4 tempos so hard that they sounded like old vinyl caught in a locked groove. Released temporarily from his LaMonte Young-fixated violin drones, but still determined “to reject the claim of cultural superiority which musicology made for European classical music”3, Flynt’s spangly and disorientating guitar licks and tumultuous Reedian rhythm playing came on like Armand Schaubroeck’s Churchmice playing frenetic Bulgarian wedding music, or John Fahey as fed through the Boards of Canada filter. Moreover, this neo-New Yorker’s refusenik motor-mouthed verbal onslaughts were delivered in an ultra southern preacher twang said to have been far stronger than when he’d first stepped off the train from North Carolina several years previously. Behind Flynt, Walter De Maria’s drumming was a swirling and bruising snare-led dervish dance, inspired by a desire to jettison the indolent thuggery of his previous band The Primitives, whose now legendary 45 ‘The Ostrich’ had almost been an accidental hit in 1965 for its writers Lou Reed and John Cale.4 And such was the musical effect of Henry Flynt & the Insurrections on its protagonists that they soon attempted to validate their group in the eyes of the New York art community by adding a bass player and organist. However, both Flynt and De Maria were overtly paranoid of the possible unbalances that could be wrought by unsympathetic playing from any new members. And so it was with some trepidation that they asked their friends organist Art Murphy and upright bassist Paul Breslin to extend The Insurrections into a quartet. We shall never know, however, quite how the four piece incarnation of The Insurrections would have fared in a live situation, for, due to Flynt’s wariness of the commercial music business, they were disbanded after recording just one LP’s worth of material in 1966. Flynt would later claim that it was the music hall approach of The Beatles that was to rid pop music of the essential ethnic qualities that had attracted him in the first place, whilst the assassination of Martin Luther King would – for Flynt – be the final nail in the coffin of the civil rights movement that was to drive this delicate soul underground forever.
Flynt’s assumption that his ‘playing would entail commercial success as a by product’ was severely battered by the absolute commercial failure of The Velvet Underground, so recently championed as the New York avant gardists’ answer to The Rolling Stones. It all seemed evidence enough to Flynt that popular rock’n’roll had become “uniformly loud in a way which was vulgar, mechanical, and bloated.5” Here was a perfect excuse for Henry Flynt to bow out of mainstream culture entirely and disappear for good, rather than “competing with musicians for whom the last step in composing a piece is the sale—musicians for whom a bad piece that sells is a good piece.” Thereafter, this marginalised (and highly shell-shocked) artist chose a strictly non-combative path, still quietly exploring his theory of a new American ethnic music in the face of what he called the ‘Youth Disintegration Industry’, but damning all post-’69 rock’n’roll as a ‘one-way march towards grotesquerie and defilement.’ By 1984, Henry Flynt had given up playing music of any kind and had retired inwards into his art theories. He appears to have gained some kind of solace in the notion that all Western art movements were equally pervasive, equally brutal and equally unjust.
The timelessness of I DON’T WANNA
But where does this leave Flynt’s sole recorded statement made with The Insurrections? At times, this guy is as much of a Zoroaster staring down the Iranian charioteers as is Van Der Graaf Generator’s Peter Hammill, and – after eighteen months of repeated listening - I personally consider the record to be a truly dislocated and barbarian classic. Moreover, although I’ve attempted several times to make I DON’T WANNA into Album of the Month, I have always previously backed down at the last minute in case it was just my ultra-compassionate, or overly romantic side talking. But still I’d come back for one more spin and fall in love all over again.
The recorded evidence contained within the grooves of this album reveals such an astonishing quicksilver energy of interplay between the guitar and drums that it all sounds contemporary even today. Whilst De Maria’s drumming ricochets around the heavens and, at times, makes no more attempt to keep down the beat than did Mickey ‘Circle Sky’ Dolenz at Monkees concerts, Henry Flynt’s guitar melds Sterling Morrison’s cyclical mantras to Lou Reed’s freerock abandon with effortless ease, all the while his vocalising conjuring up a bucolic and Biblical imagery utterly at odds with the downtown New Yorkscape in which the recordings were made. Except for the seven minutes of ‘Dream Away’, each of the songs is concise – most being under three minutes in length - and each inevitably sounds somewhat reminiscent of L. Reed’s playing in his pre-Velvets groups (which I could never get enough of anyway). But does I DON’T WANNA truly qualify as having been made by a group? Perhaps not. For “Jumping” is a duel between Guitar Henry and an overdubbed Violin Henry with ne’er a thought for the other three guys in the band, whilst “Dreams Away” is virtually solo Henry throughout its entire seven minutes. It seems that, in choosing a double bass jazzer such as Paul Breslin over an electric bassist, Flynt was clearly intending his sideman to be seen (for credibility’s sake) and not heard (as Leo Fender commented in 1951, the double bass was always ‘the doghouse’ – inaudible to all but the front rows of the audience and NEVER in tune). Perhaps the highly-respected Breslin was put in place to make the Insurrections FEEL more like a ‘proper’ group to outsiders. But you can strain your ears all you wish and barely hear a pulse from that double bass, other than the occasional boogie down on ‘Sky Turned Red’. Furthermore, that Art Murphy’s organ playing was equally secondary to the powerhouse of Flynt and De Maria is also clearly evidenced on I DON’T WANNA, being audible only during the unnecessary and slight instrumental ‘Corona del Max’ (which sounds more like the work of a typical organ-led garage rock band such as The E-Types than hefty musical dudes from a NY seminary). However, as Murphy went on to play with both Steve Reich and Philip Glass in the 1970s, perhaps he too was added to the line-up to infuse a psychic heftiness to this otherwise guitar’n’drums-only ‘quartet’.
But whatever his reasons, Henry made his single most magical statement with this self-styled ‘protest band’ The Insurrections, and mighty thankful should we be for the release of this hitherto unknown gem. Indeed, so should our man Flynt. For, with such a substantial statement now in place, much of Henry Flynt’s other performance work (from the ‘Dreamweapon’ appearances with LaMonte Young to the recent slew of releases via the Locust Music label) will be much easier to access by utilising this record as the gateway to his skewed and elliptical underworld. My compassion for this anguished theorist grows with everything new I learn about the man, especially as his own writings reveal no anger at his lack of commercial success, but instead betray all the compassion for modern humanity of a prophetic voice truly crying out in the desert. As Mr Flynt so percipiently commented back in 1980:
“I have to believe that the audiences which support the deluge of crass, gross music experience a far greater misfortune than I… Under the circumstances, the horrible symbiosis represented by mass culture cannot be upstaged by one iconoclast.”
- Victor Bockris, TRANSFORMER: THE LOU REED STORY (Simon & Schuster 1994) Search out the ten minute long violin drone entitled ‘Jamboree’ from BACK PORCH HILLBILLY BLUES, and you will belly laugh at the sheer preposterousness of such a violent violin style having been foisted upon the unfortunate Velvets.
- Henry Flynt, ‘The Meaning of My Avant-Garde Hillbilly and Blues Music’ (essay 1980)
- Incredibly, such was the incestuous nature of New York’s early 1960s art and music scene that Walter De Maria’s first attempt at making music had taken place in his New York loft back in 1963 with Andy Warhol and LaMonte Young. It was during this same period and in this same loft space that Flynt was working on his ‘new American ethnic music’ project snappily entitled FROM CULTURE TO VERAMUSEMENT.
- Henry Flynt, ‘The Meaning of My Avant-Garde Hillbilly and Blues Music’ (essay 1980)
BACK PORCH HILLBILLY BLUES 1&2 (Recorded throughout the 60s, Released BoWeavil 2004)
RAGA ELECTRIC (Recorded 1963-71, Released Locust 2002)
I DON’T WANNA (Recorded 1966, Released Locust 2004)
HILLBILLY TAPE MUSIC (recorded 1971-78, Released Locust 2003)
C TUNE (Recorded 1980, Released Locust 2002)
GRADUATION (Recorded 1981, Released Ampersand 2001)
PURIFIED BY THE FIRE (Recorded 1981, Released Locust 2005)