recording, pressing and gifting copies of his cathartic
"Jump Back" to his neighbors surrounding the World Trade
Center in the immediate wake of 9/11.
But long before the microtonal guitarist/composer became
the toast of Manhattan's avant garde, he was a Notekiller.
An instrumental outfit formed during Philly's punk '70s,
Notekillers turned free Branca-esque primitivism and dire
droning minimalism into tangled-guitar twanging pop found
its way into the brain of a young Thurston Moore. The
Sonic Youth guitarist put his money where his mind is by
releasing Notekiller sessions recorded between 1977 and
1980 on Ecstatic Peace. This includes "The Zipper," a
single Moore told Mojo magazine was essential to
Sonic Youth's beginnings.
Don't know it?
Few do. Even within the local esoteric music scene,
First and his Notekillers went unknown. They released one
single before splitting up.
"I didn't do much hanging in Philly" says First. "The
only players I had relationships with were those met
during my time with Cecil [Taylor, free jazz pianist].
Elliott Levin's a shining example."
Other than Levin and a few locals with whom he still
plays, First's Philadelphian past was limited to David
Carroll, the Bar Noir owner who booked the band, and his Notekillers.
Raised in the Rhawnhurst area, the now-50 First started
playing with bassist Stephen Bilenky and drummer Barry
Halkin when he was 13. They'd hit the coffeehouses of the
Northeast with a precocious form of "jammy/jazzy/Latinish
rock" inspired by Love and Spirit. "We started out loners
and losers and ended up being the band by the end
of high school."
A serious player fascinated with drones, minor modes
and Indian ragas from an early age, First became
acquainted with microtonality through Charles Ives'
quartertone piano duets. He went the free-jazz route:
playing with Taylor in 1973, studying with legendary
instructor Dennis Sandole on Spruce Street. Sandole, once
a teacher to John Coltrane, stressed an avid
experimentation — microtonal tunings, fractured
off-the-fret-board techniques, simultaneous
chord-melody — that factored into Notekillers sound.
Add in extensive string bending, the energy of motoring
minimalism and the frenzy of the burgeoning punk movement
and you've got what First calls "NK's arsenal."
In 1976, the trio, along with percussionist Thomas
Johnson and soundman Richard Bloom began Notekillers with
First focusing on the "pop" experience, one as
experimental as anything he'd ever attempted.
"A great song is a wonderfully elegant solution to a
mathematical equation, but it's a limited set of sensual
gestures designed to elicit a pleasurable, even elevated,
response," says First. "Notekillers used to have an
expression, "same animal, different cages.' That's my
motto for whatever framework I'm exploring."
Theirs was a solitary notion born of alienation. Why
else would you form an instrumental punk act unless
you didn't like anyone? Back then, if you couldn't
find even a bad vocalist, you just didn't want one.
"Whenever you add vocalists and lyrics, the music
becomes "about something,'" according to First. "You lose
direct experience. A lot of energy in 1976 was about
getting rid of rock's over-inflated ego and
pretentiousness. But there was still that guy in the
middle in all these bands saying "look at me!' We saw it
as the ultimate radical expression of punk sentiment to
get rid of that guy altogether."
They took their "first dozen or so song parts" to David
Carroll who booked them repeatedly at Hot Club and
Artemis. Years of intense six-nights-a-week rehearsals and
too-few gigs amounting to little money led First to two
things: hand and wrist problems before the term "carpal
tunnel" was invented and a single.
"The Zipper"/"Clockwise" was recorded on a four-track
reel-to-reel in the basement of a beauty salon owned by
Bilenky's father. They made a thousand copies. First has
no idea how many sold. He can only account for a dozen.
But two people who got them were Ed Bahlman from 99, a
Manhattan record store and label that handled ESG, and
Thurston Moore who used to hang at 99. Interesting it was.
Their music was like rubbing two sticks together until
achieving combustion — a layered flux of flange, drone,
microtonal morass and hard sharded rhythmic plinking whose
sound was a precursor to that of the Edge, PIL's Keith
Levine, Lee Ranaldo and Moore. Despite gigs at CBGB and
Maxwell's, "The Zipper" couldn't rescue the band from
self-implosion when it came out in 1980. "We made gallant
efforts to keep going because it was what we always
wanted, but it came a little too late. Funny considering
all we had to do was wait another 23 years for this
Fast forward those next 23 years of First's musical
life: AIDS-crisis opera (The Manhattan Book of the Dead),
prestigious grants from John Cage's Foundation for
Contemporary Performance Arts, that "Jump Back" single and
his selfless distribution of it to his WTC-area neighbors.
In 2003, long after First dismissed it, Thurston Moore
named "The Zipper" a fave in Mojo, not knowing who
Notekillers were except to say they were mind-blowing and
from Philly. "The article lists the 45's catalogue number,
so clearly his was more than just a fond memory. I wrote
to Thurston to tell him it was me," says First, who oddly
had shared performance evenings with Ranaldo and Jim
O'Rourke (both of Sonic Youth) and appeared on an album of
Phill Niblock's with Moore.
"Thurston's first question was if we had more stuff.
Luckily, we did, but not a lot — some reel-to-reel tapes,
cassettes. I hadn't listened to them for years." Not only
did First realize that much of what he'd formalized, years
later, could be found within those Notekillers session. He
also found that he wanted to experience "NK" again, old
songs and new. "I'd like to expand — bring in my laptop
electronics, get more involved with guitar effects; all
the things it would have been nice to do 20 years ago had
there been the luxury of more flexibility and
Twenty eight years after their start, First wants you
to know one thing about Notekillers: "We walk the line
between playing dumb and being dumb."
Notekillers play with Clare Machado, Janet Bressler,
PsyOps and Large Marge, Sat., June 26,  9:30 p.m., Tokio
Ballroom, 122 Lombard St., 215-922-2515.