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.