Friday, January 18, 2008

Review: Missing Foundation

originally posted on, 3/20/06

Anyone living in the bottom quarter of Manhattan in the late 1980's or early 1990's is probably familiar with an eerie bit of graffiti that, for a few years, seemed to earmark every building on the lower east side. This Pynchonesque insignia - an inverted martini over a three pronged tally - often accompanied equally cryptic slogans: "Your House Is Mine", "1988 = 1933", "The Party's Over". In both design and placement, the logo seemed less like the cartoony tags of graffiti gangs than the cryptic markings utilities crews leave each other. These markings meant something.

Having moved to New York in mid 1987, it took me an embarrassing six months to learn that the symbol actually was an upside down cocktail glass, its author the industrial band Missing Foundation. MF claimed the logo as a tool of uglification ("property devaluation"), in a campaign to halt the high downtown rents creeping out towards both rivers. It's unknown if the tagging ever hindered a single real estate deal; would a true or even prospective New Yorker balk at a spot of spray paint? But as guerilla marketing, it was magic ,the kind emulated by thousands of corporate “street teams” in the years since. For two or three years, Missing Foundation was the scariest band in the city. Their early shows occurred in vacant lots, powered by generators and abandoned, Viet Cong style, at the first whiff of police. In January 1988 the band trashed CBGB, setting fire to its stage and destroying some or most of its sound system. Actual damage, in dollar amounts, has been lost to rumor. As dealers of confusion, Missing Foundation were hard to beat.

As musicians, however, MF have been handicapped by all that has come since. The songs could be called “Neubautenish”, if one (like me) doesn’t know much about German band Einst├╝rzende Neubauten. Two decades ago, the use of oil drums and found percussion seemed somehow bold. In 2006, their music comes filtered through Burning Man and Venice Beach drum circles and the trash can showtunes of "Stomp". Although some of their shtick was born of necessity – frontman Pete Missing used a megaphone because no club would trust him with a mic - it takes some mental footwork to remember that this genre once felt subversive.

Also, their songs need context. New York in 1988 was still the city of Mayor Ed Koch. This was the grimy Manhattan of "Death Wish" and "The Warriors", its subway cars vandalized, its streets full of perverts and vigilantes and burning station wagons. Missing Foundation sounded like this city. When the band played Tompkins Square Park on August 6, 1988, they preceded a riot. It would be incorrect to say "caused a riot", although the NYPD ruthlessly pursued them as scapegoats. After the local CBS affiliate accused the band of Satanic cultism in a bizarre three-part(!) series, Pete Missing found himself tailed by the FBI.

That I only learned of the riot from the Wall Street Journal, from the safety of a flight to the west coast, made this band ten times scarier to me. I'd never seen Missing Foundation live; when I returned to New York later that month I avoided their concerts with the same diligence I'd shown as a tenth grader evading punk shows. The following summer arrived heavy with anticipation for the Lower East Side. "The next riot" seemed a strangely forgone conclusion. I spent most of that year working at a health food store whose glass front faced First Avenue. Although equidistant from ninth precinct headquarters on Avenue C, and thus on the exact opposite side of the park, my store was treated to an almost weekly display of police cruisers and urban assault vehicles taking the bend down St. Marks Place, racing towards some minor disturbance in Tompkins Square, as if they'd gone the long route as a sheer display of military power.

The Riot of '89 never came to pass, but the tone of conflict seeped into the neighboring music scenes. The early '90s punk circuit ran concurrent to the squatter world, an underground of grubby adults that smelled of heroism and bullshit in equal parts. The squatters seemed interchangeable to me, but something important to mankind was always transpiring in one of their buildings three blocks over. And they were organized, and talented. Where my crowd had fanzines, theirs had local newspaper The Shadow, and World War Three, the arts magazine run by Peter Kuper, (later of MAD Magazine) and Eric Drooker (later of The New Yorker).

Four years after the riot, Born Against toured Europe. Our unpleasant promoter terminated contact one week in, and the band arrived at venues without any idea who we'd be sharing the bill with. In Karlsruhe, in southwest Germany, we arrived to find Missing Foundation. I remember being surprised at their politeness, and lack of menace. The only intimidating member of their entourage was roadie Sid, the former lead singer of Italian hardcore band CCM, known for slicing himself onstage with broken glass. After some polite negotiations, it was agreed that Missing Foundation should headline.

Bands performed at one end of an arched, torch-illuminated vault in a squat basement. While loading equipment down dimly lit, ancient stairwells, two members of their party conferred in stage whispers about the night's explosives. I'm still not sure if this was done for our benefit, or as a prank at our expense. When it came time for MF's set, they sealed themselves into the space with a sheet of plywood. After a long wait, Sid removed this with great drama - the stone from Lazarus's tomb - to reveal the band members frozen in place for five impressively awkward minutes. In the hands of almost any other band, the moment would have been bad art. Their set was loud, enjoyable, and not memorable for violence or explosions. The only sour note came later, when Sid threatened our young squatter hosts with decapitation if MF weren’t paid another twenty Deutschmarks. In the morning, both bands parted cordially. I never saw them again.

1988, as we now know, did not equal 1933. Koch eventually begat Guiliani, but Guiliani also begat Bloomberg. And although the city has undergone some improbable changes - The Crackdown, The Boom, The Attack - it still doesn't much resemble Nazi Berlin. In 1990 the band mystified their fans by signing a deal with Restless Records, owned by Capitol/EMI. I only heard one defense offered by Pete Missing, and it came to me second hand, and thus unverifiable; "People say we sold out. But what did we sell out to?" I'll never know if that quote was real, but its elegant evasion has lifted me from many a funk over these long years, and at the very least I need to thank them for that.