TONY ROCKS

It's easy enough to make romantic claims for an artist like Tony Conrad. He's one of those guys. Ur-Sixties. Quintessential cult figure. Resident outsider. Rebel angel. The minimalist who came in from the cold. He's got the kind of immaculate credibility that can't be bought and can't be sold. [And how else, otherwise, could he have persevered?] Rumbling under the cultural radar since the Kennedy Era, Conrad is at once first cause and last laugh, a covert operative who can stand as a primary influence over succeeding generations, while pretty much conducting most of his business in obscurity. That is, until about 10 years ago, when the Table of the Elements label finally blew his cover for good. And because he'd kept such a low profile, when Conrad did pop up, the impression made was a good deal more spectacular by sheer dint of surprise. Who, exactly, was this guy?

It was an unusual weekend in Atlanta, Georgia, when people began to ask—again. Conrad was having one of his first "coming out" parties, and despite some of the odd circumstances, it could not have been staged more memorably. The Manganese Festival, which doubled as a kind of avant-garde debutante ball for Table of the Elements, went down April 23 and 24, 1994, at the exact same time as Freaknik, the "spring break" for students from the circuit of predominantly black colleges. Atlanta became an urban version of Daytona Beach for three days, with traffic grid locked, boom boxes shouting, and provocatively ample derriere-shaking for mile after mile along Peachtree Street—the main stem that runs into the heart of "The City Too Busy To Hate."

The festival was sequestered in a complex of art galleries off an industrial side street intersecting Peachtree (and thus, cut off in such a way that anyone who managed to drive in could not possibly hope to drive back out until the traffic jam subsided many, many hours later). This was ideal, for anyone hoping to maximize the singular nature of the experience. You could check out any time you liked, but you could never leave. Perfect for a first encounter with Tony Conrad. He cut a curious figure, Tony did, in his bowler hat and his shorts, prowling the premises with a video camera, documenting the goings-on as if at some family reunion. In a sense, it was: The gathering tribes included Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley from Sonic Youth, electric harpist extraordinare Zeena Parkins, avenging Japanese guitar hero Keiji Haino, the anarchic artistes of Faust—Conrad's long-ago collaborators on "Outside the Dream Syndicate"—and the then-unknown, now-ubiquitous wonder boy Jim O'Rourke. Pioneering British improv trio AMM was in the house, as was New Zealand's rare-to-such-shores Gate. This was an unusual assortment of performers, a Lollapalooza for fringe-dwellers, and a model for further electrical storms—such as the All Tomorrow's Parties festival—that would light up the skies into the new millennium.

By the time Conrad finally came to perform, sandwiched between the jet-engine decibel bath of Haino and the ritualized freak-out of Faust, even those not in the know were primed for a paradigm shift. The city was in a gridlock, as surely as if suffering a collective panic attack or celebrating a coup d'etat. What better moment to pump up the volume, and tune in to those strange frequencies?

"Tony Rocks" (excerpt)
Steve Dollar
New York City
August, 2003