Retro Review: HARLEY LOCO Takes Readers Back to a Darker Side of New York’s Lower East Side inthe Experimental ’80s

Posted on: Apr 25th, 2013 By:

HARLEY LOCO: A MEMOIR OF HARD LIVING, HAIR AND POST-PUNK, FROM THE MIDDLE EAST TO THE LOWER EAST SIDE 
By Rayya Elias
Viking Penguin

By Clare McBride
Contributing Writer

I adore the ’80s—the colors, the androgyny, the everything. This is mostly due to watching VH1‘s I LOVE THE ’80s ad nauseum at a formative age, which also means that my vision of the ’80s is a particularly sanitized one. I didn’t realize that until I was watching PARIS IS BURNING (1990), the documentary about queer New York’s drag ball culture in the late ‘80s, and saw, briefly, the old Times Square. As much as I love the ’80s, there’s still much to learn, and that’s when HARLEY LOCO popped up on NetGalley for me. A memoir by a queer woman of color-cutting hair and struggling with drug addiction in New York in the ’80s? Sometimes the universe is kind.

HARLEY LOCO is the story of Rayya Elias. In the ’60s, when Elias was a little girl, her family fled the political strife in Syria for the (relative) safety of Detroit, where she grew up. Struggling with the conflict between the American culture she desperately wanted to fit into, her own sexuality, and her traditional family, she fell into drug and alcohol use at a young age. After high school, she began working in a salon and working on her own music, two occupations that eventually brought her to New York. Things were looking up—a girlfriend, a record deal—until Elias’ drug use got the better of her and she spiraled into addiction. It robbed her of her friends, her family, and her dignity, and her struggles to overcome her addiction were herculean.

This memoir opens with an introduction from Elizabeth Gilbert, author of EAT, PRAY, LOVE, praising both close friend Elias herself and Elias’ writing style to high heaven. I’ll be honest, it made me a little nervous. I’ve not read any Gilbert at all, but it did feel a little like someone quite popular assuring everyone that their friend was totally cool. It struck me as slightly nepotistic, which is sort of a poor way to start with a book. But, soon enough, we’re with Elias herself and, as promised by Gilbert, her writing style does feel natural and unforced, straightforward and human. This does mean that there’s very rarely moments of sparkling wordplay; my commonplace entry for this book is quite sparse (but, it must be said, present, which I can’t say for every book I read). But the plainness of the style makes way for Elias’ life.

And what a life! It’s absolutely stuffed with material—dealing with one’s sexuality in the ’70s, being a successful hair stylist in the let’s-call-it experimental ’80s, being a moderately successful music act at the same time in New York, negotiating two cultures, her jail time, struggling with toxic relationship after toxic relationship, and, of course, the all-consuming drug addiction and her multiple lapses.

Unfortunately, Elias’ jam-packed life doesn’t quite all fit into HARLEY LOCO. Her plain, natural style keeping out of the way of the content is admirable, but it also means it feels like a Cliffs Notes version of her life. Her relationship with the polyamorous Lana is examined in great detail, but the succeeding women in her life are written about in less and less detail, until she opens a chapter mentioning a girl she’d been getting serious with. Everything is touched on, but precious little is examined—she praises her own music without getting too far into the creative process beyond “magical” (a similar thing occurs with hairstyling), she glosses over returning to Syria in the midst of a seven-year struggle to get sober, and she doesn’t even go into enough detail about the fact that she shared a bathroom with Quentin Crisp. She’s got a fantastic handle on why she turned to drugs—there’s a passage where she compares walking into the hotel lobby of a nice hotel with her sister while she’s disgusting after spending weeks homeless and high to her experience in high school. It’s fear-based. Getting high is the only way Elias could relax. There’s a staggering moment when Elias gives you the number of years she spent strung-out versus years sober, and you realize she’s including her childhood. But this reflection doesn’t extend to the rest of the memoir, which ends with her final wake-up call and doesn’t examine the process of putting her life back together again. Given the rich material here, it’s frustrating.

On a much, much lighter note, it definitely served its function as a means of ’80s voyeurism. Elias finds her people among new wave and dark wave freaks, all intriguingly dressed, but it’s the Lower East Side you really get a feel for. Late in the memoir, Elias maps her own journey to get clean against how the neighborhood was cleaned up, and it’s a particularly rich and beloved background. Her style means that you don’t get too much into it, but you can catch the taste of it.

Elias mentions her music in the memoir, for obvious reasons (and in increasingly glowing terms), and you can listen to a few of her songs at her Website. Five of the songs are, although begun at different points in her life, completed fairly recently, but “Nothing Matters” is an actual track from circa 1985/1986. It’s a fascinating window into Elias’ life at the time; I recommend giving it a listen.

Bottom line: An interesting life is hurt by the author’s plain style in HARLEY LOCO—everything is so interesting, but there’s little actual reflection. An interesting portrait of the Lower East Side in the ‘80s, but other than that, I’d give it a pass.

This article was originally published on The Literary Omnivore and is reprinted with permission.

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Kool Kat of the Week: Nervous Curtains’ Sean Kirkpatrick Channels John Foxx and Magazine and Explains Why the Last Thing the World Needs Is for His Band To Be Funky

Posted on: Apr 3rd, 2012 By:

When Dallas band Nervous Curtains listed post-punk experimental synth groups Magazine and early Ultravox (John Foxx/pre-Midge Ure) as two of its biggest influences, it was enough to make us prick up our ears. They’re playing Drunken Unicorn this Thursday April 5, and after reading a bit more and listening to their cut Wired to Make Waves,” we were sold on making band founder Sean Kirkpatrick Kool Kat of the Week. Fortunately he was happy to grant a last-minute interview and open the door into the world of Fake Infinity, “where everything you know is wrong.” Read on to find out more about the band’s unique sound and influences and why you better get out Thursday night and see Nervous Curtains with us.

What’s the secret origin story behind Nervous Curtains?

I was playing piano, keyboards and samples in the band The Paper Chase for about 8 years. I wasn’t the singer or songwriter for that band,but I’d had this role in previous bands. I put out a side project solo album in 2007 so that I could get back into the pursuit of my own musical vision. I asked Ian Hamilton (synth, organ) and Robert Anderson (drums) to back me up for some local release shows in Dallas. We kept playing together and developed a sound that far surpassed what I had originally hoped to accomplish. In 2008, we named the band Nervous Curtains and recorded the material that would become our first album OUT OF SYNC WITH TIME (2010). In 2010, The Paper Chase went on hiatus, allowing me to focus on Nervous Curtains full time.

Can you tell us a bit about the world of Fake Infinity?

It’s a failed utopia, a place for all the big dreams that didn’t quite pan out. It’s the glimpses of euphoria that didn’t sustain in the long run. After the sex, drugs, and rock and roll, we’re left with a wicked hangover. This isn’t the glorious future we were promised and we thought we deserved. So what we do with it now is our own decision. It’s the end of something false but could be the beginning of something real and finite. Sonically, we attempt to capture this setting with a mix of otherworldly synthesizers and echo effects and very gritty and grounded rock and roll sounds.

Not a lot of people even know Magazine and Ultravox, especially the earlier John Foxx incarnation, nowadays. How did you discover them and why do they inspire you?

We used to do a cover of “Someone Else’s Clothes” off Ultravox’s SYSTEMS OF ROMANCE. John Foxx’s solo album METAMATIC is a big influence as well. I have been a fan of this stuff for a long time – at least 12 years. A friend let me hear the first Magazine album a few years ago. I’d been seeing the name forever but didn’t realize what they sounded like or that they had connections to all these other bands: The Buzzcocks, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, Siouxsie and the Banshees. It just blew me away. It felt like a band that was made just for my tastes. The songs are incredible. The synth and piano work is stellar. The lyrics are really something special.

We are avid record collectors and enthusiasts. We keep up with a certain amount of new bands, but a lot of the music that we really love was created in the 1970s and 80s. Fifteen years ago it took a lot of work to discover this stuff. I remember hearing Television, Wire, Gang of Four, Can and La Dusseldorf. Even just discovering that Talking Heads, OMD and Gary Numan had these really dense, well-developed albums – not just singles -felt revelatory. This was always discovered through making friends that were as crazy about music as I was. Now information is much more accessible. It’s so easy to find much more obscure bands through blogs, youtube, reissue labels, rampant mp3 sharing, etc. Recently I’ve been listening to Pel Mel, The Wake, The Chills, Second Layer, Pink Industry, Scattered Order, Sort Sol, Vorgruppe, The Lines,  Modern Eon.

Nervous Curtains perform at Lola's in Dallas.

One of the words you use to describe the band is “synth-pop.” To many, that conjures up images of early ’80s Brit pop bands like Flock of Seagulls and Duran Duran, but Magazine and early Ultravox produced a darker, more gritty version. Can you describe what you’re going for those folks who might be confused?

Well, to be fair, I generally use the term “post-punk synth rock.” I don’t use the term “synth-pop” in describing Nervous Curtains to avoid the types of connotations that you allude to. We are trying to take past influences and create something new, exciting, slightly dark and dangerous with them. Too many bands that use synthesizers are just creating a purely retro pop sound, and we are not interested in this.

What other classic bands or sounds does Nervous Curtains count as influences or inspirations?

Polvo, The Minutemen, Echo and the Bunneymen, Harmonia, The Kinks, ZZ Top, Roxy Music, David Bowie, Tuxedomoon, Thin Lizzy, Slayer, Sonic Youth, early Simple Minds, Flying Lizards, early New Order, Bedhead, John Cale, The Birthday Party, Chrome. We’ve been listening to a lot of funk music and afrobeat. This is probably more inspiration than influence. It’s important to proceed with caution in these territories. The last thing the world needs is guys like us trying to be funky. That said, we love Fela Kuti, Tony Allen, Orchestra Polyrythmo de Catanou, James Brown, Stax Records, etc. Oh, we listen to a lot of metal too. Classic, doom, black, stoner, thrash.

I love the way you describe “It’s the End of Eternity” in your bio, i.e. ‘the song is a landscape
where discarded metal bakes on the broken concrete foundations of abandoned buildings and carefree summers of youth have given way to oppressive heat waves.” You obviously take time and care in composition. What’s your process like?

That song took me probably over a year to write. It’s a result of enduring the cruel and merciless Texas summers. Summers used to feel so fun and carefree. Now I associate them with doom and dread. I drive around and see everything just withering and dying in the heat. Buildings that once looked new and full of promise are collapsing in the elements. It took a while to figure out how to capture all that without getting too literal or being too much of a downer. I eventually found a pattern that worked for this and it led to a resolution that lightened up in the end. That resolution is like the first Fall morning when you walk outside and there’s a chill in the air. It’s such a relief after enduring the brutality of a heat wave. I write the music and lyrics and bring them to the band. We arrange the songs together and work extensively in getting our parts and the dynamics to come together as a whole. Then, sometimes things change and evolve in the studio or through playing live. It’s the nature of the creative process.

What song have you done that most encapsulates the band’s vision and why?

I can’t narrow it down to one song. Fake Infinity as a whole encapsulates our vision. It touches on a wide range of styles and influences while maintaining what I see as a singular vision.

What’s the alt music scene like in Dallas right now? Is Nervous Curtains one of a kind or part of a movement?

We don’t see ourselves as part of a scene. We do what we do and have a decent following for it. Sometimes we fall between the cracks. We’re too synth-y for some of the rock crowd and too pop/rock for the art/synth/electronic crowd. But that allows us to appeal to a wider range of folks. There are some interesting acts using keyboards in the Dallas [area] that we fit well with such as Pinkish Black, New FumesDarktown Strutters, and Diamond Age. But there are plenty of good bands, and we like to play with all types of acts.

Nervous Curtains at City Tavern in Hampton, TX.

What do you have planned for your gig this Thursday at Drunken Unicorn?

We’re very excited for our first Atlanta show. I always had great experiences at the Drunken Unicorn with my old band. We’ll be playing most of the new album and maybe a song or two off our first album.

What’s next for Nervous Curtains?

We’ve been so consumed with supporting this album and will continue to do that for quite a while. We’ve got this two-week East Coast/ Midwest tour, then some shows in Texas and the surrounding states throughout the following months. We’re making a lot of videos and doing whatever we can to get people to hear this record. Doing all this plus booking the shows handling everything else is so consuming that I have not had time to write any new songs. At some point, we’ll have some time to work on some new stuff, I’m sure.

NOTE: All photos are courtesy of Nervous Curtains.

 

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