new york - mark mcclusky
geeks to the white courtesy telephone
The parole of a hacker rarely leads to the formation of a rock band. But when Echo, the New York-based online conferencing system, needed entertainment for a party in January 1995 welcoming Phiber Optik back from his stay in prison, White Courtesy Telephone was born. Several Echoids threw together a band for the evening and played for the 400 folks gathered at Irving Plaza in New York.
That gig, which was planned as a one shot deal, has turned into a creature with a life of its own. Almost two years later, WCT has released its first album, Everything is Fun, on the Internet-based Monster Island label run by WCT guitarist Mike Caffrey. What we have here, folks, is a genuine cyber-band, one that met online and uses the web to distribute its material, not only by taking orders online but also by encouraging people to download their material and copy it to cassette.
The band recently celebrated the album's release with a party and performance at Coney Island High on St. Mark's Place in the East Village. They're a loud, scary band, a band that caused the crowd at the release party to cower at the back of the club in a vain attempt to avoid tinnitus. But beyond volume, WCT's songs are a stew of sexual, violent, pop culture and technological imagery. Imagine if the guys in Judas Priest were all computer geeks who scored 1300 on their SAT's, and you're moving closer to understanding what WCT is like.
WCT is fronted by two men on very different ends of the spectrum. Garbled Uplink, a former child actor who appeared on the Patty Duke Show, former High Times columnist and a circus roustabout, is all focused rage and intensity. On the other hand, Rob Tannenbaum, a contributing editor at Details magazine and a music critic who has written for Rolling Stone and the Village Voice, is all suave sexuality and polish.
With Uplink, WCT has the violence, and with Tannenbaum, they cover the sex--hell, that's the eternal fodder of hard rock. But WCT has a very different take on these subjects.
Two songs best illustrate the band's approach. In Uplink's "Killing Spree," he fantasizes about a multi-state rampage of death. When he sings, "I wanna go on a six state killing spree with you," somehow, it sounds like a genuine sentiment.
"I understand that I'm a rock poser," says Tannenbaum. "Garbled is authentic. He would like to go on a killing spree. It's a scenario that he very much wishes that he could execute, no pun intended. I think that's why he has such a gift for explicit detail. It would take a novelist days to imagine the specific fantasy that Garbled unravels in "Killing Spree." He has the most direct access to his subconscious of anyone that I've ever met."
Tannenbaum also has access to his desires. In "Use Your Hand," he's a horny boyfriend pleading for sexual gratification, trying to overcome his girlfriend's discomfort with oral and penetrative sex. "With all of the sex songs that have been written, most of them are macho and grandiose," says Tannenbaum. "They have these lyrics that make outrageous claims about sexuality. But as a skinny neurotic Jew, I can't make those claims."
"Rock songs don't accurately reflect what goes on in real-life adult bedrooms," Tannenbaum continues. "I mean, proportional to its real-world prevalence, the handjob is under represented in sex songs. I think most people are embarrassed to step up and say they like them. I'm not embarrassed to say that. I like a good hand job. I don't think it's an ironic song. It's a very specific expression of desire."
The band has received a great deal of publicity, much of it stemming from their online connections. But to the members of the band, being an outgrowth of an online community has very real ramifications. "Online is, arguably, an artistic medium that involves identity," says Tannenbaum. "That's why I think the band grew out of that online experience."
"For me, much of this has been therapeutic," Tannenbaum continues. "Except for the time on stage, there aren't many places that you can stand and rave about your desires. If we did this on the subway, we'd be arrested."
They would be arrested in the subway. But they could express the same sentiments online, and perhaps this is why, above all else, they feel like the first band born in a virtual garage.
I'm still a long way from taking the leap to calling myself a San Franciscan. I still feel like I'm just visiting, and I'll always be a New Yorker. My good use for a displaced NYer? Well, that's easy! A displaced NYer can always be counted on to give it to you straight when everyone else is doing the placating, non-confronational, "don't forget to breathe" schpiel.
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