20 Years Later and Without Basquiat, Gray Hits the Bowery


Founded by artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Michael Holman in 1979 at the height of Downtown New York’s No Wave moment, the legendary band Gray played only a handful of shows at places like the Mudd Club before losing focus sometime around 1981. Basquiat performed on synthesizer, clarinet, drums, and guitar, and a young then-artist Vincent Gallo was a member for a time. One memorable performance included the band enmeshed in a huge scaffolding structure they had built, called the “Ignorant Geodesic Dome.”

It was with much circumstance that Holman and original member Nick Taylor reinstated the Gray moniker after 20 years for the recording of a late-arriving debut album utilizing unheard source material and then a christening of the project last Thursday at the New Museum.

The music Gray made in their original incarnation is difficult to describe, except to say it was clearly out-there. Glenn O’Brien wrote in Interview that Gray was an “easy listening bebop industrial sound effects lounge ensemble”; Basquiat claimed the band performed on “instruments hiding in boxes.” And until recently, apart from a few tracks on the soundtrack to O’Brien’s ode to post-punk Manhattan Downtown 81, no recordings were publicly available.
The updated, Basquiat-less version of Gray executed last Thursday would have listeners believe that its combo of experimental strategies and street beats predicted the turntablism and trip-hop popular in the 1990s. Holman and Taylor­-in matching pinstripe suits, no less-performed from behind 21st-century DJ equipment, overlaying industrial samples and hip-hop rhythms with jazzy flute and guitar solos. A video montage of Basquiat footage, degraded film stock and newer testimonials by O’Brien and Fab 5 Freddy flashed behind them. During one number, the live sound of Holman ripping strips of masking tape off the head of a snare drum roiled through dubby delays.

Event organizer Ethan Swan described the Gray sound as “ignorant dubstep,” explaining, “They were making what sounded like dubstep without knowing it was an established genre of music already.”

The finale, a mock opera over a drum circle, featured the excellent tenor Robert Mack as the young Basquiat, re-enacting in song a prank call between the artist and the intake worker of a suicide hotline. “We literally improvised with the conga players,” Mack told me about the work’s composition, “saying ‘we like this, we don’t like this’ in order to lock things down.”

Was this an accurate reconstruction of Gray or the new music of Holman and Taylor, combined with documentary elements? A post-performance after-party in the penthouse of the museum sponsored by Hennessy­­—new bottles designed by street artist KAWS were the tie-in—offered an opportunity for discussion. The aroma of weed filling the room, Paper magazine editor and expert on the era Carlo McCormick offered, “if [employing Basquiat’s name and image] can make ten more people listen to it or get them a gig here, that’s all fine but what they’re doing is very much in the present.”

When I tell Jimmy Carbonetti of the band Caveman that the original Gray didn’t use samplers, he says, “Well they were there!” On the museum’s roof deck, Holman gazed out over the Bowery below and the starry sky above: “It’s about the future man, it’s about taking the best of the present, past, and future to create something new.”

Basquiat biographer Phoebe Hoban offered Holman her congratulations before going on record: “I don’t know if Basquiat would have done a Hennessy ad,” she said. “He was an artist with huge ambition and an agenda. Graffiti was just one way for him to start out. He always wanted to be inside the gallery walls. And he was a poet, that’s what he was writing on those walls.”

Photo by Linda Covello.