Great books about music inspire readers to become listeners. Successful tomes of photojournalism do more: They transport audiences to other places and times. New York Noise: Art and Music from the New York Underground 1978-88 is a companion to a popular series of post-punk and No Wave CD anthologies, and it's published by record label Soul Jazz, but it definitely falls — or rather, leaps — into the latter camp of coffee-table offerings.
What made the New York City downtown scene celebrated here so thrilling was rampant cross-pollination among disciplines. Photographer Paula Court emphasizes this tenet, albeit with a light touch, in "The Kitchen Outing, 1980," as notables from the realms of music (Kim Gordon, Rhys Chatham), art (Cindy Sherman), and theater (Eric Bogosian) play volleyball in shorts and sunglasses. Poets, painters, punks, and poseurs receive equal time. The action conveyed by a shot of the Raybeats rocking the Peppermint Lounge is just as thrilling as one of a rubber-limbed Frank Maya twisting through a performance piece at La MaMa.
Yes, the usual suspects pop up — Madonna, Basquiat, Burroughs, Warhol — but most of those immortalized remain cult figures. Some, like James Chance and the Bush Tetras, continue to work the margins and influence newcomers. Others barely had a chance. These 208 pages include portraits of many scrappy aspirants lost to the AIDS epidemic: Cookie Mueller, Keith Haring, Arnie Zane, John Sex. Performing at Danceteria circa 1985, the late Ethyl Eichelberger looks equal parts Dolly Levi, David Bowie, Greek tragedian, and organ grinder. Who could be her equal today?
Despite the fact that contributors David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, and Cindy Sherman are billed prominently on the jacket, text here is minimal, mostly a handful of quotes about the economic climate that spawned this scene. No matter: Court's images speak volumes. New York Noise succeeds as art by mirroring the vibrant way of socializing and creating that inspired its subjects in the first place.