While I’d certainly read his name before — after all, it was very hard to walk into a record store and not notice album covers emblazoned with legends like Scraping Foetus Off the Wheel and/or You’ve Got Foetus On Your Breath — I don’t believe I actually heard the music of J.G. “Foetus” Thirlwell until 1990 or so.
I was “working" at the time for a tiny independent music magazine run by an erstwhile contributor to SPIN (where I’d previously been interning). The New York Review of Records — as it was called — was run out of this editor’s Upper East Side apartment, a relatively cramped affair given the sheer volume of records he’d amassed. This ultimately being the last gasp of the 1980s, vinyl was still the reigning medium of recorded sound, while compact discs still came in long boxes, accompanied with an air of rarified newfangledness (oh how that would change). In any case, this “office” received tons of packages a day, usually stuffed with promotional LPs. One afternoon, I ripped open one of a hundred cardboard boxes and pulled out the Butterfly Potion e.p. by Foetus Inc.
Garishly decorated in typical Foetus fashion (all of the man’s releases boast striking — if not retina-immolating — cover art), this 12” single offered only three songs. My curiosity piqued, I decided to forego the title track and cued up the vinyl onto one of its provocatively titled b-sides, “Free James Brown [So He Can Run Me Down].” I let her rip….
Gleefully loud, rude and offensive, Foetus’ signature brand of cacophonous industrial caterwaul flooded the tiny apartment (much to the pronounced chagrin of one of my co-“workers,” and quite probably the neighbors), and I was instantly converted into feverish Foetus fandom.
Equally as prolific as, say, Prince or Frank Zappa, there are practically more releases by J.G. Thirlwell — under myriad Foetus aliases, to say nothing of pseudonyms like Clint Ruin, Wiseblood and/or Steroid Maxiumus, to name but three — than can be quantified. I sought out the tidy compilation Sink from 1989 as my thorough introduction into the artist’s sprawling catalog. If you’re curious, I’d highly recommend doing same, although Thirlwell has also gone onto release dozens of records since then, so it’s quite far from comprehensive by this point.
I went on to see Foetus perform live a few times in the early 90’s, notably at Irving Plaza, The Limelight and The Palladium (with The Unsane and Cop Shoot Cop opening). I vividly remember Foetus dry-humping an amplifier at the Limelight show during a skewed cover of “I Am the Walrus.” (See him cover it a few years later via this link). At the time, Foetus reveled in confrontation not unlike the variety practiced by peers like James Chance, Lydia Lunch and GG Allin. He seemed like a genuinely dangerous and unpredictable character.
Given Foetus’ purposefully provocative aesthetic, it would probably have been easy to write him off without recognizing his dizzying talents as a musician. That might explain why in more recent years, he’s left more of the cartoony shtick to folks like Trent Reznor and Al Jourgensen et al. and concentrated more on cinematic instrumental music. Put simply, Foetus seems tirelessly hungry to explore new sounds.
So why am I talking about all this now? Well, my friend Aleph put up a clip from a documentary released in 2009 called, simply, “NYC FOETUS.” I regret to say that I’d never heard of it, but am completely captivated by the notion of it. While an Australian ex-pat, Foetus has credited New York City as his primary muse. Here’s a clip of that documentary.
In more recent years, I’ve actually met Foetus a couple of times. I’d become friends with Tod [A] of Cop Shoot Cop and Firewater back in the early-to-mid-90’s, and he and Foetus were old compadres. It was at a Firewater show at the Bowery Ballroom some time around the turn of the century, I believe, when after the show, Tod wanted to introduce me to J.G. Thirlwell, who was also in attendance. I earnestly attempted to demure as, honestly, I was feeling a little out of my depth and — quite frankly — I’d consumed considerably more than my fair share of beers that evening, if you smell what I’m cookin’. But, Tod was insistent and dragged me over. To make a long, cripplingly embarrassing story short, upon being introduced to Mr. Thirlwell — who is surprisingly shorter than I’d imagined — I somehow managed to drop my full pint of beer. It hit the Bowery Ballroom floor, soaking Thirlwell’s pant leg in the process. It was not a high point for any of the parties concerned.
Oh, sure. I can look back on it now and lau…..no I can’t.
Anyway, I’m now consumed with finding the rest of that documentary.
For posterity, here’s Foetus’ “Verklemmt” from 1995, easily one of my favorite “NYC videos”…brace yourself and enjoy….