Power trio: Lydia Lunch, Bertei and Anya Phillips.
If you lived in downtown New York City during the late 1970s and were a fan of new music, the odds are you encountered Adele Bertei. She was a member of seminal No Wave band The Contortions and could be seen performing and hanging out at the Mudd Club, Pep Lounge and CBGB’s, along with a formidable number of musicians and artists that made those clubs their second homes.
Petite and powerful, Bertei is a renaissance woman, much like her hero Patti Smith, who can operate within the worlds of music, literature, dance and film with a fine-tuned ferocity and grace. Moving from the unhinged funk of The Contortions to dance floor hits produced by Jelly Bean Benitez, Arthur Baker and Thomas Dolby weren’t no big thang for the mercurial Bertei. The transition from No Wave to New Wave and disco may have had a commercial design but Bertei did it all without selling her soul. Along with a number of downtown bands (Blondie, Talking Heads) she expanded her range, infiltrating the discotheques with bohemian raps riding big beats. Even her slicker stuff had a knowing quality that said “I can do this stuff too. So, why not.” The walls between uptown and downtown were crumbling, along with the bridges, subways and ghettos.
Bertei is working on a memoir, No New York: Adventures in the Town of Empty, which will chronicle her experiences in New York City from 1977 to the late-1980’s. Those were amazing years to be in Manhattan and if anyone can get at the heart of what made it such a wildly creative time, Bertei is the person to do it. She’s developed into a very fine writer - precise, heartfelt, tough and delicate. Her life story is the story of a city in flux and the people who rode the crest of a very tumultuous pop culture wave. Her early years alone include a stint as Brian Eno’s personal assistant through the Contortions and her all-girl band The Bloods to being a major label artist and collaborator with musicians as diverse as Matthew Sweet, Lydia Lunch, John Lurie, Scritti Politti and Sparks. If you’re interested in learning more about No New York: Adventures in the Town of Empty check this out.
My own experiences of Bertei were the several occasions on which I saw the Contortions and The Bloods. Uncompromising as hell, both bands took traditional funk and rock styles and played them with an aggressively manic edge that mirrored the vibes of a city hovering between decay and resurrection while also serving as a kind of curative - a headshot to the zombies that lurked at the edges of night.
It is arguable that artists and musicians did far more to exorcise the dark spirits embedded in New York City of the Seventies than the useless politicians helplessly choking on clots of meaningless rhetoric and the cops randomly arresting harmless panhandlers while heroin dealers ruled the Lower East Side with impunity. In clubs like CBGB’s, we gathered to re-fuel our engines before returning to the garbage-strewn streets, with their wall-to-wall carpeting of glassine bags, dessicated condoms and dog shit, to look the dead-eyed rat of reality straight in its big fucking smirk of a face. Within this doomsday scenario, we chose to contort ourselves into shapes that hieroglyphed our inner urgency to drown out, with the beat of drums and clang of metal, the grim wails of sirens that tore through the dank poisonous air like sonic razorblades. We had come to make a bigger noise. We weren’t going to take the shit of civilization lying down. We were going out fighting or at least fucking things up. As it is, some of us made art that cooled the jets of the degenerate culture of death. While Rome burned, we did more than fiddle. We rocked.
The videos I’ve included here give testimony to Bertei’s range and musical spirit. Stiff Records’ motto “fuck art, let’s dance” was good to be sure. But in Adele Bertei’s world, you can create art while dancing because they’re the same fucking thing. I know Stiff was trying to make a point about pretentiousness in music, and No Wave was an easy target for that argument, but when the Mudd Club (co-founded by Anya Phillips, Contortionist James Chance’s lover) opened its doors in 1978 and punkers had a dance club they could call their own it was amazing how quickly we went from cretin hopping to eventually burning down the house. The demonization of disco seemed like a waste of time. And segueing from “Le Freak” to “I Wanna Be Sedated” was as smooth as the seats on the L train.
“Jackie is a punk, Judy is a runt
They went down to the Mudd Club
And they both got drunk
As many times as you may tell your story, it is true that it will never be the same as you are never the same. Memory is flux as is life, although some people may tell you you never change. Stay away from those people. Weed the snakes from your garden. Navigate always toward the love. No matter how much they tell you we are born alone and die alone, it doesn’t make the need for love any less necessary to the in-between.” A. Bertei.
I for one can’t wait to read Adele’s story.
A multiplicity of Adeles after the jump…