By Andy Mannix
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"When I started, no one but me wanted to hear this," he says. "But noise is nothing new. People are always listening to noise, whether they know it or not. They're listening to pink noise, and they're listening to white noise. There was a time when people called saxophone 'noise.' I don't see the cut-off point. I can't."
Despite an arid environment that allowed Yonkers's most visionary work to go unseen and unheard, he was far from alone. Deep beneath local rock's thick mantel lurked musical rabble who shared Yonkers's unwillingness to distinguish noise from music, and his talent for appreciating the nuances that united them.
One of them was Milo Fine. The son of a jazz and classical musician, Fine was a trained percussionist and an inveterate contrarian who played in rock outfits like the Newrotics and tried in vain to reconcile the wild time signatures of free jazz with the Doors songs his bandmates wanted to cover, and was growing rabidly disillusioned by rock's willingness to approach the precipice of new sound but refusal to take the tumble.
"I was always looking for arcane sounds," Fine says. "Not just for the arcane, but for what else was possible. What was next. I wasn't buying the hype. I wasn't buying the bullshit. I wasn't buying the liner notes. I was buying the sounds."
For musicians like Fine and Yonkers, who didn't aspire to fame and fortune, booking and recording prospects in the late '60s and early '70s were dim. When he speaks of it now, he nearly spits the words, as if their presence sours his mouth.
"It was ridiculously difficult to get gigs," says Fine, laughing bitterly. "Shouting about the man and then actually challenging his values? The folk singers couldn't make the connection. There was no audience for exploration. None."
By 1970, Fine was careening into free improv drumming, set afire by works like Captain Beefheart's "Trout Mask Replica" and John Cage's cartridge music. Yonkers's performances now included double-neck guitars. He would douse himself in talcum powder before taking the stage and affix window fans to his guitars, which would inflate enormous balloons as he performed.
The decision to collaborate was a snap. Fine and Yonkers were mutually suspicious of hit songs, always drawn to the B-side of a record. They were curators and pack rats of sounds that managed to go unheard by the listening public at large. Within a year, their musical suspicions had the force of conviction.
"It's a conditioned value," says Fine. "Say you're a baby sitting in a cradle with an AM radio. If the station gets tuned to static and an adult comes into the room, their vibe and their attitude towards that sound is that it's bad. Then they tune it to a Top 40 station. Their energy changes. What does this do to the blank mind?"
The collaboration was brief—a 1971 spine injury put an end to Yonkers's band life for nearly 20 years. But in one another, Fine and Yonkers found kinship, united in their conviction that the line separating the factory steam whistle from the 12-bar blues was an aural mirage.
"Sound is music," he says resolutely. "Music is sound."BY 1993, EMIL HAGSTROM had been running noise shows on WMMR for a couple of years, and recording guitar feedback with contact mics. He was a reclusive kid, the kind to seek the shadowed back row in a crowd, who never raised his voice above a whisper on the infrequent occasion that he spoke at all.
But on this night, he was loading dozens of belt-driven turntables onto the 7th St. Entry stage. He'd salvaged them on the cheap from the Salvation Army just for tonight. His band, Cock E.S.P., was performing their second show, and Hagstrom wanted to make it memorable.
When it was show time, Hagstrom began smashing the turntables, throwing them to the floor and stomping them, the amps bristling with noise of the most harrowing frequency. When an amp shorted out and stopped working, Hagstrom hoisted it into his arms and threw it on the floor before a stunned audience. In five minutes, the tempest had passed.
"The first show was pretty tame," says Hagstrom. "It just felt better this way."
By the '90s, noise music was enjoying a small boom. Local labels began to sprout—Fusetron, Sunchip, and EF Tapes made the Twin Cities a depot for thousands of handmade cassette tapes that were rerouted by mail-order catalog to listeners across the country in a vast, thriving circulatory system. They called it harsh noise, drone, power violence; the sounds were apocalyptic—vast overtures of eroding guitar feedback, the shrill whine of handmade synths that grind like a lumberyard buzzsaw, and implosive bursts of oppressive quietude that approached inaudibility.
It was a time before Radio K's empire of the airwaves, when a campus station called WMMR broadcast free-form programming in a tight ring that barely encompassed the campus dorms. In a lineup of specialty shows, noise artists like Merzbow and Throbbing Gristle were piped into the headphones of anyone close enough to catch a signal and willing to leave the dial untouched. Sonic Youth was infusing punk and classic rock with endless cascades of feedback and discord, having just released their seminal album Goo for Geffen records.
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