Most of Charles Atlas’ movies cover the world of dance, but in the late 1980s he put together a diverting documentary about the New York sound of the moment, with special focus on two budding stars from that scene, John Zorn and Sonic Youth. The movie is called Put Blood in the Music; the title derives from a comment made by Glenn Branca.
Atlas’ playful methods involve some minor video trickery—his illustrious list of talking heads, about which more later, are always superimposed over footage of NYC street scenes. Atlas’ thesis, one voiced by most of his guests who discuss the matter in the movie, is that the special conditions only New York City can provide are responsible for the particular qualities of the music produced by its citizens—bracing, dissonant, heterogeneous.
Put Blood in the Music has a very impressive roster of participants, including Branca, Lydia Lunch, John Cale, Kramer, Christian Marclay, Vernon Reid, Arto Lindsay, Hal Willner, Richard Edson, Karen Finley, and Lenny Kaye. Obviously we see a lot of Zorn and the SY people as well.
Karen Finley in ‘Put Blood in the Music’
Zorn is a more engaging presence than Sonic Youth, who at a distance of about three decades, are also far more familiar these days. Zorn was about 25 when this was filmed, but he seems even younger than that. He’s the kind of music nerd who has distinct, serious phases of getting “obsessed” with hardcore or obscure Japanese pop; can converse insightfully about the music of Carl Stalling, composer for the old Warner Bros. cartoon shorts; and as a teen was quite taken by the music of Argentinian experimental composer Mauricio Kagel.
The Sonic Youth section is no less impressive—the high point may be the glimpse we get of Ciccone Youth covering Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love,” a subject already discussed at length here. Sonic Youth are arguably at the peak of their powers—they had just recorded Daydream Nation.
Actually, I just realized that I saw Zorn and Sonic Youth play the same show—the WFMU benefit of 1991 that also featured the Dim Stars, which was a kind of no-wave supergroup with Thurston, Steve Shelley, Richard Hell, and Don Fleming from Gumball. That was a good show, for sure (IMO Zorn was by far the best thing in it).
I don’t know if this is a truncated version of a longer movie. Some sources list Put Blood in the Music at 75 minutes—in any case this cut is a bit shorter than an hour, just the right length for an episode of The South Bank Show, which cheerfully presents it for your delectation.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
‘Kool Thing’: Kim Gordon’s 1989 interview with LL Cool J that inspired the Sonic Youth song