Don Christensen

“A Pretty Tough Beat”

Like his fellow Raybeats, Don Christensen didn’t spend his youth soaking up the rays and riding the waves – after all, there is no surf in Nebraska.  But, he did spend a good portion of it pounding out surf music on the skins of his drum set.  Prior to that, though, he entertained the thought of going the way of Bob Dylan.         

“There was a big folk music scene going on, and I was caught up in it for a while,” Christensen remembered about that time period in the early 1960s.  “I went to a music store to buy a banjo and I ended up walking out with a set of drums.”         

Don Christensen beats the skins

Apparently, his interest in the folk scene wasn’t as sincere as he originally thought, but his interest in rock ‘n’ roll was certainly evident.  Within three months of purchasing his drum kit, he could play “Wipe Out” better than any other drummer in the area, making him a favorite catch for local bands.         

After finishing high school, he attended the Kansas City Art Institute, where he worked on his painting and explored his musical horizons.         

“I lived in a boarding house on the fringes of the black neighborhood,” he recalled.  “Most of the tenants were jazz musicians.  We used to have jam sessions in the living room.  That’s where I learned about playing backbeat.  It was different than playing in a cover band in high school.”         

He spent a couple of years playing with a white blues-rock band that went under a variety of names, the Cadillacs and the New Action Army among them.  According to Christensen, they were dubbed “the MC5 of Kansas City.”  Because of their affinity for playing “black” music, they were given an opportunity to perform at a rally to generate support for the release of an incarcerated Black Panther (which one, Christensen can’t recall).  It was a move that didn’t come without a price: In a day when musicians’ unions were still segregated, they found themselves unable to join either of the local musicians’ unions – the black musicians’ union wouldn’t accept them for the obvious reason of skin color, and the white musicians’ union blackballed them because of their appearance at the rally.         

Don with the Raybeats, early 1981

Despite the blackballing, Christensen’s band found themselves at one of the Kansas City Art Institute’s spring festivals opening for blues legend Muddy Waters.  “To this day,” Christensen said, “that’s still one of the highlights of my music career.”         

Despite the fun he had making music, Christensen didn’t view it as a way to make a full-time living.  He was still interested in art when he ventured to New York City in the summer of 1971.  Half of his drum kit was stolen upon his move to the city (he was in the process of moving it into his apartment when it was heisted), which may have diminished his interest in drumming if not for an ad that ran in the Village Voice: “It said, ‘Guitar player looking for his Keith Moon.’  I’ve never been a Keith Moon fan, but I answered the ad.”  And he was back in the drummer’s seat again.           

A few years later, he met a cab driver from Florida named Bob Musial who had a band called the Loose Screws.  Many of the musicians were brought to New York from Musial’s native Florida, but the guitarist and bassist, Jody Harris and David Hofstra, respectively, were from Kansas.  The latter-named gentlemen, Harris in particular, would play important roles in Christensen’s musical undertakings over the next several years.  After the dissolution of the Loose Screws, Christensen found himself working with Harris in a band led by James Chance, a founding father of the No Wave scene.          

“At the time, I was playing in a rock ‘n’ roll cover band, and James came down to see us perform,” Christensen recalled.  “During a break, he came up and asked me, right in front of all the other members of the band, if I wanted to join the Contortions. I said, ‘Yeah.'”         

Christensen was once again reunited with Jody Harris and he found a new ally in bassist George Scott, someone he had actually met before that at a record store where Scott worked.  He viewed Scott as a musical “visionary,” a great collaborator who was very supportive of new musical endeavors, including Christensen’s.         

Christensen's first impLOG single, "Holland Tunnel Dive"

“It was because of George that I did the impLOG singles,” Christensen said in reference to the trio of discs he did in the early 1980s on Lust/Unlust Records, the first being a solo venture called “Holland Tunnel Dive.”  “I was messing around on a four-track with a drum machine and guitar boxes, just doing crazy stuff for my own amusement.  When I played it for George, he said, ‘You gotta make a record!’  So I did.”         

Scott also invited Christensen to help him form the Raybeats.  It was a project that would keep Christensen busy for the next five years, four years beyond Scott’s death.           

Following the dissolution of the Raybeats, Christensen scored soundtracks for approximately fifteen short films by Faith Hubley.  He helped found the recording studio the Living Room, eventually selling out his part of it.  His long-time association with Philip Glass led him to help build The Looking Glass Studios in Lower Manhattan, and, for the past several years, he has been running Orange Mountain Music, a record company created for the purpose of helping those who study Glass’s music.         

Don Christensen poses on the beach, It's Only A Movie photo session, 1983

Also, in the early 1990s, Christensen got back to one of his early loves: painting.  He has had exhibits in New York, Miami and Philadelphia, and he has a painting studio in Brooklyn.  And, to top it all off, he has, in many respects, come full circle musically.  He occasionally gigs with a reunited James Chance and the Contortions; they did a summer tour of Japan in 2005.  Then there’s the Band of George, a group that includes Christensen’s Loose Screws’ alumnae Bob Musial, Jody Harris and Dave Hofstra, that gigs about once a month.               

Christensen enjoyed his time in the Raybeats.  Among other things, it provided him with an opportunity to work with some good musicians and explore some new horizons that instrumental music had to offer.  And it also allowed him to win over a fan following so loyal that it still persists.           

“To this day,” Christensen said, “people still come up to me — I may run into them at the grocery store or wherever — and tell me what a great time they had at one of our gigs.”         

And to think he almost bought a banjo.


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