Wednesday, October 21, 2015


Of all the bands I've ever known personally in all my years of hanging out with fellow musicians, the absolute, downright scariest of them all has to be, without a doubt, Missing Foundation. They were more than just a band, they were a full-on confrontation. Emerging in the lower east side of NYC at the dawn of gentrification, they were hellbent on trying to stop it, and they stopped at nothing. The spray-painted upside-down cocktail glasses which were prominent on virtually every corner of the East Village in 1988 were no mere stroke of self-promotional genius -- they were a genuine threat. Missing Foundation were at the forefront of the local anarchist movement, and made it clear they meant business.

I first met Missing Foundation one fine day in October of 1986. I was hanging out at the studios of WFMU radio on a Sunday afternoon in which they'd driven out to East Orange to play live on the air. I'd never heard of them before, but was immediately blown away by their brilliantly rhythmic noise-punk, made even more incisive by its scrap-metal percussion section. Oh, and during their set, lead singer Peter Missing banged a big gash in his forehead with one of the studio mics and used the ensuing blood supply to paint Missing Foundation graffiti on the walls of the station. Little did I know he was only hinting at what I would witness from them in future meetings. Anyway, my first encounter with them is actually up on Youtube, and you can see my very enthusiastic (and painfully skinny) self in the background in a quick shot or two.

Did I say Missing Foundation was dangerous? Any band whose frontman would paint graffiti in his own blood surely had to be. And in late '87, I experienced just how dangerous firsthand. They were playing at a squatted location in the heart of what was then the creepiest part of the East Village, Alphabet City. By then they already had two self-produced albums out and I was an even bigger fan than before. William Berger was equally as enthusiastic about 'em by then, and the two of us went down there together. I don't remember which one of us suggested we snap up front-row spots for the occasion. I do remember we both wound up damn near regretting it. The band came on and in an instant the atmosphere went from peaceful to violent. Scrap metal flew through the air as Peter Missing, using a magic trick he'd learned, literally set his hands on fire... and then headed straight for me and William with his arms outstretched. We both turned around to bolt out of there as fast as we could, but were faced with a sea of writhing bodies to get through. Somehow this sea finally gave way as the panic spread to the back of the house and we escaped without injury.

We ended up watching the rest of the, er, show from the street. Warzone was more like it. From outside we could hear all the crashing and smashing. People kept on getting tossed out of the place, then running back in to rejoin the fight. At one point someone ran out, went to his pickup truck that was parked just up the street, extracted a tire iron from its tailgate, then headed back inside swinging. At another, the bassist got tossed out, bass still in hand. When he re-entered, he tried to shut the door so that no one else could escape. It was simply the most frightening twenty minutes I ever went to see live in my life. And then, just as suddenly as it started... it ended. The band finally stopped playing, and life went on as before. In retropsect that could well have been the night's eeriest moment.

The word was spreading quickly among local club owners: don't book Missing Foundation, they're trouble. Despite this, CBGB booked 'em in April of 1988. I wasn't at this one, but I've heard several varying accounts of what happened, one saying that they set oil barrels aflame, then rolled them off the stage, another saying they knocked the club's famous PA to the ground, and one claiming a huge pool of blood had to be cleaned up afterward. I can't say which tales are true and which are false, but whatever went down, the band was now completely blacklisted from all NYC venues.

Now, it's only fair that I point out that, in spite of their onstage demeanor, the members of Missing Foundation were actually pretty nice guys offstage, especially Peter Missing. I can personally attest that they always greeted me warmly and treated me with respect whenever our paths crossed on the street, which was fairly frequently. I especially remember running into them at a favorite Mexican restaurant just a few days after the CBGB debacle. I also recall Peter attending a gig by Van Gelder, a band I played drums for briefly, at ABC No Rio and looking quite amused when our frontman tossed handfuls of exploding snappers into the crowd. I believe all MF really wanted was to make sure their message was heard -- a message that nearly three decades later stands as a spooky, prophetic warning of the imminent transformation of New York into a rich man's theme park. Their live shows were a sort of provocative performance art whose confrontational nature forced you to pay attention to what they were saying. Anyway, I don't recall hearing of anyone getting killed at a MF show, much though it often seemed likely.

Tompkins Square Park, with its mix of anarchists and homeless people, had become ground zero for the anti-gentrification movement, and clashes between police and park denizens became more and more frequent, until finally, on August 6, 1988, things exploded in the form of a riot. Police had a field night breaking up a huge demonstration and beating up protestors. With damning video and testimonial evidence mounting against the pigs, someone had to shift the blame somehow. CBS News reporter Mike Taibbi went to the east side, noticed all the MF graffiti, and concluded that they were to blame for starting the riot in Tompkins Square, in the form of a special Channel 2 News report which ran in three parts that November. This, too, can be seen on Youtube, and is a masterwork of yellow journalism. I'll let it speak for itself rather than say more about it here.

I will say that although all sorts of threats were made against MF afterward, neither band nor police were ultimately prosecuted. In fact, just six months later, in a truly remarkable display of defiance, the band returned to the very park where the riots they supposedly incited took place, and played a short but triumphant set without incident as the cops stood idly by. It was the last time I saw them live, and I remember shaking Peter's hand and congratulating him afterward. Shortly thereafter, the battle for control of the park ultimately went to the city. But Missing Foundation surely had their say in the end nonetheless. Ultimately they took off for Europe and left the east side to the rest of us. Peter Missing has recently returned to NYC with a new lineup of MF and their message is still timely, though to be sure, their live performances are a lot less dangerous nowadays. in fact, I'm told he teaches art to kids now. Hopefully with a little dose of anarchy.

Thursday, October 15, 2015


This Saturday, October 17, is Cassette Store Day. In honor of that fact, and also the fact that my Illuminated Paths release "Ray Zinnbrann's Time Tunnel 1983-1988" is now both streamable on Spotify and available for purchase on Amazon, allow me to relate how it all began for me so many years ago, when I never thought my music would ever become playable in any form beyond the mighty cassette tape.

I was making home recordings long before I knew how to play an instrument or had any friends who were musicians. It was a very tentative process in the beginning to say the least. First I tried improvising my own lyrics to whatever instrumental recordings I had lying around, but I didn't like that. Then I tried just singing acapella, again making it up as I went, but that didn't seem to fly either. So finally I got an old beat-up guitar at a garage sale and without even learning to play it first, finally made up "songs" I delighted in driving my family crazy with. It was even better and more annoying sounding if my elementary school friend Zoltan or my 2-year-old cousin Jamey was around to bang on a piano while I banged on my guitar. We also had a big toy drumkit my mother had bought me at Toys-R-Us at our disposal; Mom still regrets the purchase of those drums to this day.

Just before I turned 17, I took a few lessons from my high school punk friends and finally learned how to play guitar well enough to write real songs at last. I wasted no time in getting to work, with nothing but a cassette deck, a cheap beginner's guitar and a very early fuzztone (pictured above) my aunt's brother gave me. I discovered quite by accident that if I plugged my headphones into one of the input jacks on my tape deck that it functioned as a microphone. I plugged my guitar directly into the other jack and I was set.

In February 1983 there was a huge blizzard which dumped over two feet of snow in North Jersey. To occupy myself while snowed in, I started recording these new songs I'd been writing. By the time the storm passed, my very first demo tape was complete. Calling myself Ray Zinnbrann for the first time, I made a few copies of it and passed them around my high school. One student I'd blessed with a copy proceeded to play it on a boombox on her school bus, not knowing it was Not Safe For School. I still wish I'd been there when she played the song that ended with me insulting the school's dean of discipline by name. She said it got a huge response!

At this time, the local NJHC scene was first being championed by WFMU DJ Pat Duncan. He delighted in turning the station into a weekly local punk party during his Thursday night program, playing seemingly any tape his guests would throw at him. I so wanted to be on the show myself, but for some odd reason the folks I knew who went to these little on-air meets were reluctant to deliver tapes of my music to Pat. Then came the fateful evening when one of them needed a ride there one Thursday night and asked me to do the honors. I accepted most willingly and made damn sure to bring a tape to hand to Pat myself. He aired it, and I was officially in. Now knowing exactly where the party was, I began attending Pat's show religiously, bringing tapes whenever I had new recordings to share. I would get the occasional compliment (and the occasional criticism) here and there, but my big moment came when I made a song about a female scenester I'd developed a crush on at Pat's shows. That song, "I Found Love at WFMU," got enough requests in the summer of '84 to finish at a respectable #40 on Pat's Top 100 list at year's end. My first brush with fame!

Irwin Chusid, the outsider music champion whose show followed Pat's at the time, picked up on the buzz generated by "Love at WFMU" and invited me to accompany him on a spoof of Suicidal Tendencies' "Institutionalized," which quickly became a follow-up smash and in fact still sees occasional WFMU airplay to this day. With a "crossover hit" under my belt in record time, I moved to expand my base beyond the hardcore scene in earnest. In early 1986 I met William Berger, who had just launched his "Lo-Fi" program spotlighting the now-growing home-taping scene, and found that he, too, craved a taste of Ray Zinnbrann. Soon I was giving all my new tapes to him, winning continuous airplay and appreciation. By then I had "progressed" to recording tracks on a boombox, then playing them back on my good deck while I did additional things over them with another tape going in the boombox -- now I was multitracking.

Two years' worth of "Lo-Fi" contributions and networking with other artists who had sent their music to the show led to the formation of the greatest music scene I have ever had the pleasure of being a member of. On February 10, 1988, we took it to the streets when "Lo-Fi Night" took place at the Lismar Lounge in New York. It was then that I finally got the chance to see for myself just how deeply my music had resonated. After years of making music exclusively in the bedrooms and basements of my hometown, I made my official live debut that night in front of a crowd of fellow "Lo-Fi" artists and admirers who greeted me with a thunderous ovation, sang along to my songs and left me feeling like I had "arrived" at last. I went on to collaborate with other Lo-Fi artists (most notably Jurassic Jet Screamer and the deeply missed Terry Folger) and carve out my own little path of musical mayhem that I strive to keep going till I die.

All of which brings me back to the start of this blog entry. The musical journey I have just related would not have been at all possible if it had not been for cassettes. And I never saw this glorious cassette revival coming either. The next generation is now seeing for themselves just how we did it, and embracing it with the same sort of passion, and it makes me very proud. Cassette Store Day is the wonderful antithesis of that bloated monster Record Store Day, and it honors a format that will always mean more to me than vinyl ever did (except maybe when said vinyl had music I'd made on it). They were inexpensive to produce then and still are now. And as we celebrate this Saturday, well, you may want to buy yourself some cassettes. Like this one. Or, perhaps, this one...