Brion Gysin :: Junk

Brion Gysin was an interesting guy. Born in England, he decamped to Morocco as a young man and hung out with Paul Bowles before flying to to Paris where he joined a community of writers like William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg and where his cut-up technique found full bloom in Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. Later in life, he’d work with musicians like Steve Lacy (1981’s Songs) and French producer/musician Ramuntcho Matta. Gysin passed away in 1986. 

In the early 1980s, Matta and Gysin worked together on a musical project that mixed Gysin’s poetry with the world funk rhythms Matta had absorbed while living in New York City. The result was 1983’s Junk, a 7” single that faded soon after release. Later more from these sessions appeared on Ramuntcho Matta Presents Brion Gysin, and then on a CD called Self-Portrait Jumping, both of which mixed them among some unrelated music. But in the last few years French label Wewantsounds went back to the original tapes for Junk, a record that finally puts all this music all together for the first time. The resulting album just came out in late January.

This new version of Junk is something of an archeological expedition: it mixes alternates and an instrumental alongside an acoustic demo and a handful of tracks released in Gysin’s lifetime to create a record that never was. It’s an interesting, if short listen that mixes the ideas flowing out of New York with Gysin’s poetry and French singers. 

The album starts off with the “Discomix” version of the “Kick”. It definitely seems like a 12” single, going on a few minutes longer than the original single. Here trumpeter Don Cherry plays some shrill trumpet lines over a slick funk groove; one can definitely hear a Miles Davis influence at work. Meanwhile a voice raps about the need to “kick the habit,” probably a sly reference to heroin – notably, Cherry was an addict at the time. 

Two other versions of this song are on Junk: a shorter, alternate mix and an instrumental. I assume that the alternate take was actually the one released back in the mid 1980s: it’s about the same length. Cherry’s horn seems a little bit more upfront in the mix and the groove doesn’t push quite as aggressively. The instrumental version isn’t quite instrumental – there’s still backing vocals – but without the rap it’s a lot easier to hear Cherry’s accents to the track. It’s a pretty nice listen.

From there it’s “Sham Pain” which opens with Matta’s jangling guitar line and a nice groove anchored by Fil Mong’s bass. Little splashes of sound accent the track while Gysin sort of raps – it’s not exactly a linear poem, but one more interested in wordplay and riffing off the sounds of words and punning. Taken as a whole one can easily hear some of Matta’s NYC influences, especially the music coming out of Sugar Hill Records and via Bill Laswell. 

Alarm bells ring all over the intro to “Junk,” another anti-drug song from Gysin’s pen: “junk is no good, baby,” he sing-speaks. The music settles into a nice afrobeat inspired groove that’s not too far from “Kick,” but minus Cherry’s trumpet. It’s more of the same on “Stop Smoking,” which is Gysin’s anti-tobacco song: “Nicotine is mean!” he shouts in a phlegmy voice between coughs. On this he’s joined by Elli Medeiros, formerly of French punk band Stinky Toys, who sing-speaks puns about coffins/cartons. The idea continues with “Baboon,” a slower number where Gysin goes into what one assumes is free association, this time over a slower, almost early Talking Heads kind of rhythm. 

From here we get into the weeds somewhat. Two other women join on “VVV”: No Wave musician Lizzy Mercer-Descloux and singer/actress Caroline Loeb. It’s a short one, running under two minutes, but packs a lot of sexual innuendo into its running time. This one wasn’t on the original vinyl, but was on the CD and comes from the same sessions. And finally there’s “All Those Years,” which sounds like a Matta demo. The lineage of this one’s a little harder to suss out: the 1993 CD implies it was recorded in 1992, but perhaps it has its roots in the same sessions and was only mixed in the 90s. Sonically it doesn’t really fit in with the rest, though.

Overall, Junk is an interesting slate of music. There’s definitely enough 80s downtown funk here to please anyone who owns a Material record or two, but it’s hard to shake the idea that it feels a little padded out with the alternate mixes and odds and ends. I think it would have worked better as a 12” single with just a couple of these songs, but maybe that’s nitpicking. But for me, both the extended version of “Kick” and the title track are good songs, and anyone with more than a passing interest in either Gysin or Matta will be glad to have this on hand. | r milner

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