James Chance, No-Wave Wonder - OZY | A Modern Media Company

James Chance, No-Wave Wonder

James Chance, No-Wave Wonder

By Eugene S. Robinson



Because when they call someone the “bad boy” of anything, this is probably the guy they had in mind.

By Eugene S. Robinson

“You people are like fucking sponges.” And with that, the diminutive James Chance, occasionally also known as James White (though born James Siegfried in 1953), fired a mic stand into the chest of an audience member before launching into one of his signature tunes, “Contort Yourself.”

Musicians with a mean streak are nothing new. Bass player Charles Mingus was famous for punching his players in the face when they screwed up, and Buddy Rich’s antiband rants are the stuff of legend. But attacking audience members? Even the Sex Pistols only did that on video (Sid Vicious famously in his “My Way” video shoots his audience). Chance didn’t do it expressly to serve up spectacle, but more because New York audiences were just too cool for school, and Chance wasn’t about polite applause and ice tinkling in drinks.

There’s one of me, baby, and a million of you.

”Maybe it was a bit of him originally being a Midwesterner,” said publisher of music journal The Big Takeover and punk historian Jack Rabid, referring to Chance’s Milwaukee, Wisc., upbringing. ”But he lit into them with a fury.” Tables being overturned, people scrambling and ducking — and then the music would start. A syncopated James Brown-esque white boy funk, with Chance spasmodically dancing or free jazzing it on sax while spitting out lines like “There’s one of me, baby, and a million of you.” The late 1970s had arrived.

It was a wonderfully dark antidote to what had been the silly sort of “fun” proffered by the Ramones or the chilly art school pretensions of the Talking Heads. This No Wave, as it came to be called in response to New Wave, much more succinctly matched the times: New York City was in the grips of a serious problem with junk and junkies, coke, stressed-out Vietnam vets and a kind of urban collapse now remembered only in film. 

He wasn’t above a little play — he after all did have records that sent up his stage name, Second Chance and Lost Chance. Chance still performs, has more than 20 records out, appears in bit parts in other people’s movies and records, and still has his edge. “When he thought people started coming for the fights,” said Rabid, “he just stopped.”

Fighting, but not anything else. Through band breakups, personnel changes due to everything from ODs to changing musical tastes, and changing audiences, Chance abides. 

And even if he didn’t? He’s still got this moment of crazy chaos.

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