Laurie Towers is a self-taught musician, active in performance for some four decades. As an electric bass guitarist, her markedly melodic approach earned her the description “rhythm-stirrer” by one concert reviewer and “bass wizard” by another. These days, she performs most often with the post-punk, neo-Beat duo Flames of Discontent. Towers’ recording credits include the eponymous CD by “Amina Baraka & the Red Microphone” (ESP-Disk 2017) as well as “Revenge of the Atom Spies” (2007) and “I Dreamed I Heard Joe Hill Last Night (2005) by Flames of Discontent, an EP by Radio NOIR (2011) and various silent film scores with the Dissident Arts Orchestra (2010-18).
Electric Bass Underground: NYC’S LAURIE TOWERS AND MUSIC IN THE #METOO ERA
By Jackson Gold, Il Progressivo Muse’ blog 2018
Laurie Towers is a bassist within New York City’s “downtown” scene of free improv, new music and punk-laden experimentalism. Over the past twenty-five years she’s brought her R&B-driven counterpoint and chops to venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn, sharing the stage with an array of musicians in the nexus between rock, jazz and the avant garde. Towers also made her mark in the upstate artists’ community of Woodstock NY where she was referred to as a “bass wizard” in a ‘Woodstock Times’ review. As a member of the Red Microphone, she recorded with revolutionary poet Amina Baraka for the legendary ESP-Disk label. Also a successful business owner and host of her feminist radio show, Towers’ tenacity and activism have guided her journey, offering a model of empowerment for women in the arts and more.
“I began playing bass for spite. I know this sounds odd, but it’s true”, states Laurie Towers. “There is no better inspiration for accomplishment than having someone tell you that you can’t”. It could be said that Towers’ inspiration for accomplishments well beyond the musical have been achieved for similar reasons. Child of a single mother, she learned early on about the pride in staring down the odds and the strength required to do so.
An accomplished cartoonist since childhood, Towers was raised in a home which embraced creativity. “My mother was an avid reader and loved music. She raised my brother Larry and I with an awareness of literature, song, visual art, film. We both endeavored in many art projects, though for years I was focused on drawing and working on my own comic strip. I recall being 11, 12, 13 years old and getting up in the middle of the night to draw the cartoon strips or single-cell frames that came to mind. Charles Shulz was my idol and it was my goal to become a professional cartoonist. I sent dozens and dozens of samples to newspapers over several years. I still have all of my rejection letters—they only convinced me to persevere”.
As a teen, both Towers and her brother began playing guitar, each seemingly trying to outdo the other in the next bout of creativity. After purchasing a pair of inexpensive electric guitars, they began working on favorite rock and pop songs, with Laurie singing lead and playing rhythm guitar. Soon, Larry began playing bass and his sister was not far behind. She made her stage debut in a rock band at age 17. Struggling with technique, she sought informal tutelage from her brother who, due to sibling rivalry, did all he could to dissuade her growth. “He told me I shouldn’t touch the instrument till I learned to read music. So I spent months studying reading and basic music theory. Then when I tried playing again, he said I needed to have a feel or music was meaningless!”.
Refuting the discouragement, Laurie set out on a singular self-taught course of study of the bassists that inspired her. “Carol Kaye was a studio musician who recorded with most everyone in the 1960s and ‘70s. I grew up with those songs so once I’d learned that she was the genius bottom groove, and recognizing that it was a woman bassist, I was driven to play”, Towers explained. “I bought Carol Kaye’s set of books and cassette tapes as a foundation and absorbed it all”. She also carefully followed the work of James Jamerson (famed Motown bassist), Jack Bruce, Larry Graham (of Parliament-Funkadelic), Paul McCartney, and others. By the time she discovered the expansive jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius, Towers was on the path of lead bass concepts and spent hours at a time racing over scales, modes and arpeggios. With a broader palette, she began delving into jazz in all of its forms, becoming particularly moved by the work of Charles Mingus and Charlie Haden. “Their brilliance of arrangement and their passion remains utterly compelling”.
Towers somehow found the middle ground of this amalgam and, ignited by the burgeoning underground in New York’s bad old 1980s, sought out other creative, inspiring female musicians. “It was important to me to work in all-female bands—this was a militant stance against the male-run music industry, especially at that time. Rock was a boys’ club and women were relegated to sounding either like the Go-Gos or the Slits: cutesy or catharsis. I knew there was room for women who have a vision and technical skill, but also write singable songs”. After spending several years in more than one band, sometimes nearly coming to blows with lead guitarists who had little patience for her busy, melodic basslines, Towers embarked on several recording projects before taking time out to focus on her other passion: fitness. “As a woman, I needed to be strong, both physically and emotionally. I began working out with free weights and found that my gait and posture as well as focus and especially my confidence improved drastically”. As an outgrowth of her commitment to health and fitness, Towers studied at the Swedish Institute of Massage Therapy and Allied Health, attaining the status of licensed massage therapist. Over a 20-year period, she single-handedly built her midtown Manhattan practice focused on rehabilitation for professional dancers, athletes and actors. “Physical Advantage P.C. is my brand, and I currently have thirteen locations with therapists dispatched in New York and New Jersey”. Her office on 57th Street is adorned with walls full of the sixty or so domestic and international periodicals and blogs she’s been featured in, including New York Magazine, of which she’s won the annual ‘Best of” poll multiple times.
However, “music never left me”, Towers adds, “It has been a constant source of creativity and communication”. Working in tandem with her husband, writer and musician John Pietaro, she founded Flames of Discontent, an ensemble of protest music. The pair recorded two CDs and performed and performed for anti-war rallies at West Point Military Academy, political events for progressive politicians and I.W.W. centenary concerts, among other Leftist events.
The Red Microphone, a free jazz quartet featuring saxophonists Ras Moshe Burnett and Rocco John Iacovone, was organized by Pietaro as a vehicle of revolutionary music, poetry and activism. Towers’ pulse carried their first recording in 2010, “Brecht Breakdown”, and the many performances after. In 2016, the band recorded ‘Amina Baraka and the Red Microphone’ for the legendary avant jazz record label, ESP-Disk, and embarked on a series of performances with the radical poet, widow of Amiri Baraka, including Left Forum in NYC and Woodstock’s Colony Cafe. “Amina responds so well to the bass that we had an immediate and meaningful connection when we made this record”. Among the cuts was a powerful Baraka-Towers duet dedicated to the late violinist Billy Bang.
Towers has also been a member of the Dissident Arts Orchestra from the start. Creating downtown-style improvised scores to silent films. On Halloween, the Orchestra crafted a unique soundtrack to the FW Murnau terror classic ‘Nosferatu’ with Towers’ pulsating, throbbing fretless bass offering the vampire a voice to be reckoned with.
Capping off her rebel yell for women’s rights, Laurie Towers created ‘She’s Raising the Bar’, a weekly podcast, in 2012. As its producer and co-host, she’s engaged an array of woman actors, writers, vocalists and entrepreneurs and broadcasted her show live from the NYC Women’s March, in the heat of battle.