Kramer Versus Kramer

Ex-Butthole Surfer mark Kramer turns both cheeks — BALL and Bongwater — to Ralph Traitor.

ONE FATEFUL spring night, BALL took the stage at CBGB’s — New York’s prime slum showcase for new “talent” — the way a crack(ed) commando unit takes an enemy stronghold.

It was a sonic assault, moving through space, through your head, through your preconceptions.

Stage left was bassist Mark Kramer, usually known by surname only, hunched over his instrument like a caveman hauling his club. He was like a Kafka’s famous beetle in Metamorphosis, and that’s cool. Kramer loves beetles. I mean, The Beatles.

BALL moved on their stomach, like an unwieldy, impassioned surrealist’s revenge on rock mediocrity. Native New Yorkers took BALL in their stride. Kramer is a fixture on the NYC underground — even a minor legend, having served under many flags, including those of Gong, Shockabilly, The Fugs, Half Japanese and, most notoriously, the Butthole Surfers.

And the roll-call of those who’ve been incarcerated at Noise Studios — which Kramer setup in the mid-’80s — reads like a Who’s Who: Pussy Galore, Gwar, Brian Eno, White Zombie, Mo Tucker, Live Skull, Thurston Moore. How does a guy survive hanging out with so many cool people?

Answer: by forming two of the bitchin’-est bands in NYC, BALL and Bongwater.

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KRAMER’S NAME is getting around as headhunter for Shimmy-Disc Records, which he set up in ‘87. A statement of intent, The 20th Anniversary Of The Summer Of Love, was dropped on April Fool’s Day of that year, a pseudo-psychedelic mindsplatter that heralded the outpouring of ‘60s-saturated insanity to come.

Shimmy-Disc deals in extremes, although Kramer’s fondness for surgical examinations of the ‘60s adds another dimension that is part love, part hate.

Kramer: “Shimmy-Disc is a clearing house through which an artist can pick up momentum. Each artist owes it to himself to try and escape obscurity and, at the moment, we are among the obscure.”

Obscure, yes. Ordinary, no. This owes a lot to Kramer’s own orientation, founded in his youth by a passion for King Crimson, Eno and The Beatles.

“My first heroes were The Beatles. I wore out those records in rapid succession; five Sgt Pepper’s, five White Albums, four ‘Hey Jude’s, four Mystery Tours, three ‘Let It Be’s. I hated the Stones. I thought Jagger was an asshole.

“These days I don’t think I have grown so much as changed. My field of vision has not widened much since the days when I passed quick judgement upon the old rocker in favour of harmony, intelligence and progressivism.”

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THIS BRINGS us to the abiding “mystery” of BALL and Bongwater, two bands that, despite different line-ups and intentions, achieve similar things. Boll bands maul and reconstitute rock ‘n’ roll’s past, present and future with maximum power.

BALL’S most recent head-trip, Bird, pays backhanded compliments to Bob Dylan and George Harrison. The beauty and bestiality of the album’s tracks lies in their outsized dementia.

BALL, drawing on ex-members of Half Japanese and other cult acts, has been termed a “supergroup” by some, but Kramer is wary of this.

“I am surprised by the acceptance of BALL… When people all get the same idea at once it makes me kinda suspicious. Call me crazy but, when I think supergroup, I think disaster. I think Wings. I think fascism. I think throw up.”

If BALL are rock ‘n’ roll heaven, then Bongwater have a hell of a band. Their celebrated four-sided monster, Double Bummer, crushes rock ‘n’ roll eagerly, with Kramer’s ‘found’ cut-ups scattered throughout and irreverent titles like ‘Lesbians Of Russia’ and ‘David Bowie Wants Ideas’.

“I see Bongwater as a festering boil on the face of all that is normal, a pox on the-already ugly features of ‘80s repetition. Bongwater is an ultra-light vehicle for moving forward and backward simultaneously, pinching the old while joyously birthing the new.

“With the notable exception of Paul McCartney, the face of pop music today seems to be in a constant state of inconstancy, leaving Bongwater to wonder aloud whether there will ever be a lack of subject matter to satirise. But, if there is no sense of tribute beneath the satire, we shall fall flat on our proverbial asses.

“Then all things turn from art-entertainment to art-bullshit. Bongwater has the unique power to manifest the perfect marriage of art and entertainment. There is craft in the use of the ‘blonder effect’ we enjoy so much. But if it’s incorrectly manhandled, it can easily leave us with our pants down.

“It is much more of a science than some may think, much less random than we have been accused of.”

Double Bummer has secured Bongwater a loyal college following.

“On its completion, I felt the record was a bit too personalised, that people would view it more as a celebration of Kramer rather than a celebration of life. But most people were able to find quite a lot to identify with. After all these years, that’s great. Now the future is wide open and beckoning.”

© Ralph TraitorSounds, 8 April 1989

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