The Public Servants (NYC, 1979-1981)

by Dave Mandl

NYC, early 1980: Punk legends the Slits are performing at rock haunt Irving Plaza tonight, and it's the musical event of the month. My friends and I are running a bit late; when we arrive, the opening band is already on and the place is packed. After ten minutes slithering through the crowd, the four of us manage to score a spot up front and start to settle in. Only then do I get a whiff of what's happening up on stage. What the...?

The first things I notice are the music stands. (Music stands? At Irving Plaza?) Standing behind them are two saxophone players dressed in dated jazz-hipster style, with hats and suit jackets and skinny ties. One of them is a tiny guy squonking hard on an even tinier soprano sax; flanking him is a giant nearly twice his height, sporting a huge walrus moustache and blowing on a massive baritone sax. To the left of this pair is the vocalist, a crazy old lady with wild hair dressed in a long shmate. She's wandering around the stage and rolling her eyes, and she's alternately moaning and rambling incoherently to herself and, um, yodeling. She's apparently lost down in the subway, and she's showing anyone who'll look the bottle of pills her doctor has just prescribed for her. Her delirious monologue is interrupted from time to time by the sax duo, who periodically stop honking to reply to her in unison in a kind of Mutt-and-Jeff Greek chorus.

Just behind the Subway Lady is the band's scowling guitarist: His hair's a bit too long, and he's firing off jazz-funk licks (jazz-funk licks?) on a very rockist Gibson Les Paul, which is being run through a phase-shifter or something. And the bass guitarist--he's playing a fretless bass (a fretless bass?), and during his break he uses an ashtray as a slide. And the band's playing in various strange time signatures, and they're all incredible musicians. It's just too good. Who are these people?

Even at twenty years old I wasn't the type to get overly involved in following bands, but the Public Servants nearly made a groupie out of me. They appeared at one of the most exciting times in New York's musical history and somehow combined pop, funk, swing, Beefheart, and avant-garde performance art, in a way that would have been unimaginable a couple of years before. They were great. Not the biggest clubgoer, I nevertheless caught them live every chance I could. A couple of years later, they'd vanished without a trace, leaving behind only a now-rare self-produced single ("Jungle Hotel" / "A Mistake"). Few people who were around at the time even seem to remember them. Every web search I've done has come up absolutely empty. I've never seen an article about them in my life.

This would all be unremarkable enough but for the fact that the Servants' members all went on to be or work with the cream of New York's experimental music scene: Phillip Johnston and Dave Sewelson on saxophones; Shelley Hirsch on vocals; Dave Hofstra on bass; Bill Horvitz on guitar; and Steve Moses (later replaced by Richard Dworkin) on drums. Their combined performing credits and discographies could probably fill this magazine, but would include the following: John Zorn (also an early Servants member), Wayne Horvitz (Bill's brother), Guy Klucevsek, Elliott Sharp, Anthony Coleman, Peter Blegvad, the Microscopic Septet, Bill Frissell, David Weinstein, Bobby Previte, Eugene Chadbourne, Myra Melford, Jason Hwang, Ikue Mori, Zeena Parkins, and Fred Frith. Former Public Servants have also done music for innumerable dance performances, film soundtracks, and theatre works.

The band members' musical backgrounds were predictably eclectic. Prior to forming the Servants, several of them had been playing in swing, dixieland, or bebop groups, but Johnston (primary Servants songwriter and co-bandleader with Hirsch) was also a big Captain Beefheart fan. Horvitz and Johnston had played improvised music together in California, where they also met Sewelson. Moses had played with No Wave pioneers the Contortions and an earlier band of James Chance's, Flaming Youth. Hirsch had, as a teenager in the early seventies, worked with a theatre group doing "experimental sound environments"--this after dropping out of school and travelling to San Francisco to study Japanese kabuki, only to find out that all women's kabuki roles are played by men.

When the Public Servants were formed, sometime in 1979, the planets seemed perfectly lined up. New York was in the throes of a movement, coming out of the more conformist early punk years, where scat-yodeling, or playing (sort of) jazz arrangements from charts, was suddenly OK. (Actually, according to Johnston an earlier swing band of his had been well received by San Francisco's punks, mainly because their repertoire included infamous thirties pot numbers like "Reefer Man" and "Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine?" "They liked the drug songs," he says.) It was a period when most musical rules were being broken and musicians with chops were gaining new respect--as seen, for example, in punk bands like the Raincoats and the Talking Heads, both of whom augmented their lineups with session players. The decision to go into a more pop direction with the Servants was further inspired by the fact that there were few jazz clubs but dozens of rock venues in New York City. As Johnston says, "You go where the work is--but in your own way." The band's breakup two years later was completely amicable--in fact most of them play together in various combinations to this day.

There is at least a glimmer of hope that a retrospective CD might someday appear and yank the group out of undeserved obscurity: According to Johnston, there are a handful of mid-fi cassette recordings and possibly more studio recordings floating around (though at this point he hasn't considered anything beyond best-of tapes for friends). A parallel that comes to mind is the legendary Wilde Flowers, the unknown Canterbury band whose members would go on to create the influential Canterbury Sound of the Soft Machine and Caravan. The group's original recordings were first released nearly thirty years after the fact, in 1994. After twenty years, maybe the world is ready for a full-length Public Servants release?

[Previously published in The Wire]

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