IF YOU CAME HERE FOR MUSIC, LEAVE NOW! [2010-01-17]
Seeing this band live, it's like they change the lighting in a room without any kind of special effects. It's less a performance and more an exhibition of raw, soulful splendor, unmiterated by any gimmickry, appeasement, or fake bad boy attitudes. A wall of sound and song will delineate into an instrumental industrial ballad; organ, guitar, lap steel, electric drill, and sheet metal will interlace, sparks will fly, and just when you might think there may not have been a plan, a ghostly sort of crooning that could fit into a David Lynch movie might emerge from out of the fog, and you will find that you've just seen a triumphant epic sewn together in front of your very eyes, yet no secrets have been revealed. An experience like this had drawn me further to this group, and spurred me to find out more. On a brisk but sunny Sunday afternoon in November (09), at lead singer travis's marvelous home on the south side of Chicago, I was fortunate enough to be blessed by their hospitality and gather some information during a wholesome feast much like the one described in this Roctober article
, on one of the days that they regularly meet for rehearsal.
Formed in 1980, ONO, which stands for Onomatopoeia, is influenced by Eastern music, The Stooges, Velvet Underground, Bobby Womack, and a gospel singer named Sallie Martin, who reputedly incorporated power drills and saws into her music. Its core members are P. Michael Grego and travis, a collaborative kinship tied by chance from the very beginning, a random meeting at a gas station meant to be a pit stop for a trip to New Mexico with the intention of giving up all earthly belongings. While their backgrounds are widely varied, the two seem to meet at a drastically skewed departure from the axis of R & B, and a reluctance to play an instrument the way that it is "supposed to be played". travis used to play piano in church as a child with blocks or pieces of wood tied to his fingers, P. Michael would memorize music while being taught, so that he didn't have to follow along or read the music as he was playing, and he played in a percussive way. The intent was apparently always to dismantle the music, to capture the essence of what the right music did to people, and to discard the insincerity of many bands. But this isn't to paint them in any kind of stuffy or academic light in the manner that one might to that of an avante garde composer.
Previous to ONO, and predating punk, P-Michael grew up in a south side Chicago neighborhood rich with soul music history, played in bands that did funk tunes interspersed with prog, and sometimes played at strip clubs. After leaving the navy in 1969, travis spent a lot of time in NY gay bars, which seemed to be the only fun loving and spirited places that would host nights oriented to what would later be called "punk". *He also had a strong, non-musical friendship with Peter Laughner (Pere Ubu, Dead Boys), which he went into colorful detail about in an addendum below*. ONO has never had a regular drummer, so more recent member Rebecca Pavlatos often plays percussion sounds with her keyboard along with, or instead of their drum machine, and Jesse Thomas will sometimes play a big metal garbage pail if he's not busy making sparks come out of his guitar. So their sound is still strongly rooted in the influence of playing pianos and other things like percussion instruments, but the focus behind the music seems to be more about expression and catharsis than many an experimental artist or straight rock band.
Around 1980, ONO were playing in factories, art spaces, classrooms, and on a few sequential engagements, the burned out ruins of smoldering buildings, with few peripheral artists to accompany their strange fits of chaotic, spirited incantation. travis would often wear something like a wedding gown or priest's vestments and a jester's mask, along with a jock strap, and swing around chains with hubcaps attached to them. Their performances were known to have several 100 watt amplifiers stacked into a pyramid, white lace altars, candles, broken sheets of glass, and altar boys. The extensive and alarmingly detailed bio covering 30 years or so, reads like this: 17NOV84... ...Louanne Ponder enters stage from lower level with ceremonial size US flag, joining three other flags decorating the stage floor. Ponder as Honor Guard wears black vinyl hip-length boots, athletic supporter, oversized brassiere (2ft-3ft "breasts," all white) and pale Ponder body covered in chalky paste of paint and white powder. Then, the final Procession: Ric and P.Michael with shiny new garbage cans, heavy metals into "Taps" played on brass. There's a video of travis with ONO in 1984, singing the national anthem in a tutu behind a backwards American flag as walls of dark, screwed up guitar and wirey lap steel twang go writhing about.
While they had plenty of friends in the music scene, received no small amount of press, and did share stages with Snakefinger, Boy Dirt Car, Naked Raygun, Lydia Lunch, and Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, their music was not often taken gracefully. They didn't always play with bands that would bring out a receptive crowd for something like an ONO performance, and with the photos in the press, people would often times assume that they played reggae or something, so one might've heard them start shows by saying "IF YOU CAME HERE FOR MUSIC, LEAVE NOW!". However, they were also good friends with a young Al Jourgenson (of Ministry, in Special Affect and Immune System, around that time), who produced their first album, introduced them to their future accordion/saxophone player, his girlfriend at the time, Shannon Rose, and was instrumental in getting them a record deal with Thermidor, mainly a punk label. On this label, they shared company with SPK, Flipper, Minutemen, and Gerechtigkeits Liga for their only two official releases to date: Machines That Kill People (1983) and Ennui (1986).
This and heading photo by Anna Gregoline
Around when the 2nd LP came out, there was a magazine that often featured ONO, which was headed by travis's landlady, Louanne Ponder, along with husband Ronald Zisook. It was called John, That Hurts My Vagina and it was known to be raunchy; it featured imagery of sex and ejaculation, and was distributed by friends at bus terminals or in the seat pockets of airplanes, among other places. This was about when ONO did not break up; only "became quiet" as P. Michael puts it. He wrote for the zine, and on top of being a full time member of No Wave forefathers End Result for a while, he was active in a band called X Meets Y For The Evening. You can hear a track from a 7 inch by them on Andy Ortmann's podcast, The Eternal Now, where, incidentally, there is a sample of a woman saying "John, That Hurts My Vagina" over and over. In addition to this, P. Michael made a film called "Mama's Good Boy" which was directed by Ronald Zisook and starred Louanne Ponder. P. Michael tells me that X Meets Y was good friends with My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult, and was sampled prominently in TKK's song for the Cool World Soundtrack, Her Sassy Kiss. Irrespective of this, while ONO was too weird for Wax Trax Records, X Meets Y was sought after by Larry Sherman's dance label, Trax Records, and wasn't willing to make an agreeable offer. The band ended up changing their name to Precious Sweet, moving to Los Angeles to act on another record offer, and staying for some time. Meanwhile, travis was furthering his presence as a visual artist, and performing solo. His art has been shown internationally while at the same time being rejected by many members of the black culture community. travis, along with current ONO member Rebecca Pavlatos, also spent some time in a sort of mystical electronic band called Art Fiction, and a group called Laboratorio del Arte. Among his list of accomplishments are singing "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" at Rockefeller Chapel for the commemoration Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., where then Senator Barack Obama also spoke, and singing “America the Beautiful” at the event “Mayor Daley Salutes LGBT Veterans". The Garden at travis's home was once adorned with lots of scrap metal, and I remember him telling me that there were several pieces of sheet metal that he urinated upon and left to rust in the sun for the effect it had on the material. I also recall hearing something of an installation where copious amounts of sheet metal were hung around the space and used for sound in a large, surely momentous group effort.
Courtesy of Plastic Crimewave
In 2007, Steve Krakow/Plastic Crimewave featured ONO in his Secret History of Chicago Music series and he wanted to see if ONO would play out again. At that time, travis was friends with The End of The World Band, whom he had performed with on the spur of the moment before, so they put together the "End of The World ONO Band". Jesse Thomas of that band ended up joining ONO and Rebecca Pavlatos came on shortly after. They did a performance on Chica-Go-Go, a public access television show, and Shannon Rose Riley travelled in for the production after 25 years of absence. Ric Graham, who is one of the original ONO members, and is still considered a member although he has retired from live performance, keeps an extensive archive of ONO recordings and apparently still takes part in visuals to some degree. Since re-establishing themselves, ONO have shown a ceaseless and snowballing source of momentum: steadily playing live more than once a month, being featured on numerous radio stations, a Nina Simone Tribute, a No Wave Fest along with End Result on the bill, and sometimes teaming up with duo Piss Piss Piss Moan Moan Moan.
The aforementioned rehearsal was also recorded, and the band was gracious enough to share it: Four raw tracks capped off by an earth-shattering cover of Velvet Underground's Heroin. John Help US.
Danger, Fatima Police, Prayer For Heroin, Heroin
(scan courtesy of P. Michael)
Right around when this article was in its final stages, I stumbled on an email that I had accidentally overlooked before, and upon pursuing further, travis shared more information about his experience before 1977, particularly about his close friendship with Peter Laughner and how he relates to the song "Heroin". Here it is in its entirety, unedited.
Arvo: Thank you.Regarding Peter Laughner. YES. I truly loved Peter.My deep regard, respect and love for Peter had no relationship to music,nor to sex, or drugs. Many people thought my "extreme" appearance,my "extreme" poetry performances, and my "top security" job; plus thefact that no one really knew me, and I was always! always! always!
alone; arriving and departing alone, driving a bright yellow MG(B) GTsports car. Well, for many people all this added up to the life of anundercover agent. Rock people especially entertained this gossip.That was the 1970s.
I will try to briefly describe my last two years inCleveland (1975-1976) relative to Peter. These were transitional years,and Peter's performance of Reed's "Heroin" relates directly to mysense of the power of presentation on the Rock stage. No less importantto me was the work of Crocus (David Thomas) and Cheetah Chrome.Crocus's character; Cheetah because he talked to me. At this time,I actually met Lou Reed (on Prospect Avenue). Before the meeting,I saw him perform "Heroin." This was the Rock And Roll Animal tour.Peter's version was more direct, more emotional, more compelling.Likewise, the Reed meeting, at the Holiday Inn (22nd & Prospect),left Lou Reed momentarily stunned, and interested; however, he wasin a very peculiar state of mind. The guitarist Steve Hunter tookLou Reed by the arm and led him away from me, saying:"Come on Lou, this is a local crazy." The locals knew better,including Holiday Inn management. I maintained paid parking therefrom (ca. 1970-71) to 1976. The Holiday Inn regularly listed myname in their staff newsletter, indicating "What Travis Wore LastWeekend." I lived across the street. Members of Pere Ubu livednearby.
^^^I digress. Back to Peter.Peter Laughner introduced himself to me in 1975 at Cleveland’s Eastman Reading Gardens, where I performed poetry. Peter worked nearby in a record shop on Public Square, adjacent to Terminal Tower. My bank, Society National, was next door. As now, I had no interest and no time for a personal attachment to music. I bought bands with a commitment to live presentation. I performed spoken word from Karamu House to Case Western Reserve University, to Cleveland State. I studied Kun Tao at the American KungFu Karate Foundation., I studied Kundalini at the Ram Das Ashram, and, sporadically, Theosophy and Krishna Consciousness. I have no clue what Peter saw in me, a 28-year-old Black male who wore velvet suits, 4” open-toed heels, ladies lingerie, capes of silk and of lace, or even train-length capes of double-crochet knots, chain-stitched during theatre classes at the University of Akron. Not to mention silver stars pasted onto my cheeks glittering atop perfect circles of acne crème, and which silver stars refracted light from the large plastic goggles on my head. Add to that, Helene Curtis "Patent Leather Black" fingernail polish overlaid my half-inch fingernails (natural) with square terminations. Nobody wanted to talk to me! Peter was an exception, and for that I instantly loved him. What did we talk about? Mississippi preachers. How/Why I became a Viet Nam Vet. Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Invisibility. Martial Arts training in water. Acoustic (DIS)Orientation. My “aloneness.” ^^^ We spoke ABSOLUTELY NOTHING of music. Perhaps he thought my performance work fit the Rock stage. I gave it no thought; I did what I did. After the military, civilian life for me was dull, trifling and useless. Nevertheless, Peter sent me exquisitely-written announcements: “Miss Cinderella Backstreet requests the presence of your company at a performance at Case Western Reserve University….” He probably deconstructed a certain persona that I am only recently willing to define. At the moment Rocket From The Tombs morphed into Pere Ubu and Dead Boys, I opened the show (Agora Ballroom), at Peter’s request, as “Travis, man about town.” That show, and one other (denial of my (prepaid) NYC hotel room and denied admittance to CBGB, for a Pere Ubu show), defined Rock culture for me.
After the Agora show a menacing, White, sound man cornered me and DEMANDED $100 (1975 dollars) for a microphone he said I broke. I paid, without question, and never challenged or mentioned the incident again, as fit my demeanor back in the day. However, I am sure I could identify his image today in an obituary. Later, something clicked when Pere Ubu played a high school in suburban Cleveland. I opened with spoken word. Pere Ubu followed, without a beat, with a show that included Reed’s “Heroin.” Peter on vocals. I had to adjust my Mississippi Black COGIC/Christian values to include enlightened high schoolers! I was stunned. Peter’s character, commitment and the outrageous sonic accompaniment, defined presentation for me. Night life on Prospect Avenue took on new urgency. I left my job as a Data Communications Supervisor in a (top-security) Dept. of Defense communications center, and headed for New Mexico to commit my life to Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji. My relationship to Peter Laughner had NOTHING to do with music.= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =Delirious Insomniac