Remembering Basquiat

During the winter of 1979, I moved to New York City and was crashing in a loft below Tribeca with a friend of a friend while I looked for a cheap apartment and job. After a late dinner, my host took me to an after hours club on Houston street to show me my first taste of New York City nightlife. There was a bebop jazz combo performing and it was around midnight when we walked in. While I was standing at the bar, a young black man approached and asked me: “Are you sure you’re in the right place?” Until then, I hadn’t realized how out-of-place I looked in my button-down shirt and ski jacket, and I got very self-conscious. I’d just arrived from graduate school in the Midwest and it would take years for me to assimilate into a New York sense of style. I was so punctured by the comment that I never forgot the dude, although it would be several months before we met again.

Actually, my next encounter was with the art, not the man. One hot summer afternoon,  I traveled to the Lower East Side to interview Fab Five Freddy. At the end of the interview, Fred showed me a postcard for an opening at the Annina Nosei Gallery. “Wow, what a great painting!” I exclaimed the second I saw the image of two primitive figures with a roast chicken being placed on a table.

I didn’t know much about Jean Michel at the time, but I did know something about current directions in art. After years of the dominance and eventual dead-end of minimalism, there was an obvious yearning for color and imagery. I’d recently written the first magazine profile on Julian Schnabel for the now-defunct Horizon magazine and knew imagery was on the way back. But I was startled by the originality of that postcard. I think Fred was a little let-down by my sudden burst of excitement. I’d been looking at his work for an hour (he was hoping to sell me something) and hadn’t reacted so strongly to anything he’d shown me of his own. I got the impression Fred was feeling a bit overshadowed by his friend Jean Michel’s exploding talents. Like many graffiti writers at the time, Jean Michel was making the switch from writing on walls and trains to painting on canvas. But he wasn’t making “graffiti-style” paintings at all, rather he was creating an entirely original vocabulary.

In 1981, when Diego Cortez’s seminal “New York/New Wave” show opened at P.S. 1, I was most impressed by a photograph of a train painted by Futura 2000 and purchased a signed copy of that photo direct from Futura. It was at that show I decided to devote the next few years of my life to researching the origins of hip hop, which culminated in my book “Hip Hop” as well as the film “Beat Street.” Those projects took me to the South Bronx, far away from the Soho art world Jean Michel had recently invaded. However, as soon as I completed those projects, I began work on a book titled “Art After Midnight,” which was going to tell the story of the rise of the East Village art scene through the stories of its most famous practitioners: Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf. I already had solid personal relationships with Haring and Scharf, but knew getting close to Jean Michel was going to present a challenge. One of my closest friends at the time was a gossip columnist for the East Village Eye and also a rival of Basquiat’s. They apparently had some ongoing feud over some girl, a feud Basquiat eventually won.

I called my friend Mary Boone, who was now representing Basquiat. She agreed to take me to visit his studio (and home). A few days later, we arrived at Great Jones Street. I think the author Robert Faris Thompson (“Flash of the Spirit”) was there at the time. Basquiat seemed fully aware of my work on hip hop history and treated me with utmost respect. He brought Mary and I to the back room and showed us his latest work, a series of oil stick drawings on paper. The work was phenomenal. Mary had a great eye and tried to sort out the best pieces immediately to take and sell, but Jean Michel coyly put the best ones aside. He was keeping them for his own private collection. I could see he was pretty savvy about maintaining control over his legacy and finances. Before I left, we set up a time and date for me to come back and start interviewing him for my upcoming book.

When I returned a few days later, Jean Michel was still in bed and had forgotten about the appointment, but he agreed to get up to see me. After a short wait, his studio assistant led me upstairs to his bedroom. He had a bottle of very expensive Bordeaux and a joint going. He offered me a glass of wine. “It’s a little early for me to start drinking,” I said, “But I’d love to take a hit on the joint.” There was a huge stack of records next to a turntable, and the room contained hundreds of videotapes and a large projection TV. It was really hard to get Basquiat to open up about his childhood, so I began talking about the club scene, specifically Club 57. I was working on a preliminary thesis there was a stylistic divide between the mostly European sensibility of the Mudd Club and the pop/camp culture of Club 57. When Jean Michel said he didn’t really grasp the appeal of the Club 57 aesthetic (“Why do something old and bad?” he said), I jumped on that comment and began pursuing that line of questioning aggressively, which immediately made him suspicious and paranoid unfortunately. Then the phone rang. The second he picked it up, I knew it was Andy Warhol. “I’m doing an interview,” he said, “but I’ve already said too much.” By the time he got off the phone, he’d already decided to end the interview. “It’s like the end of mystery,” he explained. “I can’t do this.”

I was pretty crushed. I’d envisioned several long interview sessions and felt it was unlikely I’d ever be invited back, which I wasn’t. Several months later we crossed paths again briefly at a Kenny Scharf VIP party at Area. I was celebrating the arrival of the proofs of a color insert for my book, “Art After Midnight,” which included double-page spreads on Basquiat, Haring and Scharf that looked spectacular. I put the layouts on the bar and  Glenn O’Brien and Jean Michel both inspected them. I could tell Jean was pleased with his layout. I was hoping the book might resurrect a relationship. Later that evening, I bumped into Jean in a remote corner of the club. He was alone and seemed strangely isolated for such a celebrated figure.

Last night I watched “The Radiant Child,” Tamra Davis’ loving documentary, now available on Netflix on demand, which is where I see most films these days. It’s a very powerful film and the most well-rounded biography of Basquiat I’ve come across. I was a little bugged by the title at first since its taken from a Rene Ricard Art Forum article. “Radiant Child” is a reference to a Keith Haring icon and has nothing to do with Basquiat. I wish Tamra had come up with a different title. But her film is the best introduction to Basquiat around and I strongly recommend it. After watching the film, I felt compelled to write down these memories.

The Importance of John Cage

Some people wonder how I turned out the way I did growing up in a middle-sized town in Central Illinois. They don’t seem to realize Urbana, Illinois was a hotbed of counterculture activity during the 1960s. And I think I know a possible reason why.

After Jasper Grootveld launched the Provo movement and started creating “happenings” in Amsterdam, a handful of other artists in the world began pursuing similar concepts. There was Andy Warhol on the east coast, doing multimedia happenings with the Velvet Underground as his house band. There was Ken Kesey on the west coast doing acid-drenched multimedia happenings with his house band, the Grateful Dead. And then there was John Cage, artist in residence at the University of Illinois, who, for a few years, was organizing the biggest and best multimedia happenings in the world in my hometown of Urbana.

In order to understand the impact this undoubtedly had, consider the way energy fields work. For example, if a forest is attacked on its perimeter by a predator insect, hundreds of miles away, trees on the other side of that forest will almost instantly start producing chemicals to fight the insect invasion. Similarly, if a group experienced with meditation technique holds a meditation in a town square, violent crime can go down in that town for several days after the meditation. This has been proven by science. Similarly, the events (ceremonies) John Cage instigated in Urbana helped turn my hometown into a haven for counterculture thinking and creativity.

Cage staged a “happening” at the Stock Pavilion that included one of Smitty’s Blasters.

On March 19, 1965, “Concert for Piano and Orchestra,” was performed, the first John Cage production at the U of I. It was conducted by Charles Hamm, with Ellsworth Snyder on piano. (Snyder would go on to become the first person to write a PhD thesis on Cage five years later.)  At one point during the performance, Snyder crawled under the piano and began banging the bottom with a mallet. Some conservative members of the audience began screaming with rage. One even began throwing folding chairs onto the stage in an attempt to stop the performance. Suddenly, the violinist smashed her violin over her music stand, an act worthy of a Who performance. From there the concert turned into a complete melee, with the audience out of their seats and the performers improvising general chaos.

Despite intense opposition from some elements of the faculty, Cage would continue to stage performances at the University for several years, culminating in his grand finale, “HPSCHD,” which was held at the Assembly Hall, the largest indoor venue in Central Illinois. It involved 208 tapes running through 52 tape-players, 59 amplifiers and loudspeakers, 6,400 slides (5,000 from NASA), 64 slide projectors, 40 films, 8 motion-picture projectors, 11 100’x40′ silk screens, and a 340′ circular screen made by Calvin Sumsion. The show included a lot of black light and fluorescent astrological designs. It lasted about five hours and the audience was encouraged to participate in the show in every way possible. About 8,000 attended, many of whom stayed for the entire five hours.

If you go to Urbana, you won’t find much counterculture activity today. But thanks in large part to John Cage, this wasn’t the case between 1965 and 1969.

43rd Anniversary of 420

A  group of students at San Rafael High School in California became known as “The Waldos” because they could be frequently found sitting on a wall in the school yard they’d made their regular hangout spot. They could also be frequently found imbibing cannabis and were widely known as the school’s biggest potheads.

One day in late spring 1971, someone approached the Waldos in the schoolyard during lunch hour with a piece of paper on which had been scrawled a map of Point Reyes Peninsula. “My cousin is in the Coast Guard and he planted this patch of marijuana,” he said. “But he thinks his commanding officer is onto him, so he says anybody can go pick the patch.” The Waldos were very excited indeed. This called for an almost immediate “safari,” which is what they called road adventures. They especially loved Mexican safaris as they almost always produced weed. But it was never free like this! One or two Waldos had an after school activity, so they couldn’t meet immediately after school. And they had to meet as close to the parking lot as possible, so they could quickly pile into one car and head for the patch. So it was decided to meet at 4:20 pm at the statue of Louis Pasteur at the entrance to the parking lot. And for the next few hours, whenever they spotted each other in the hallway, they gave a little salute and said the words, “Four-twenty, Louie,” to remind each other not to miss the appointment. When they met at the statute at 4:20, they smoked a joint, piled into their car and headed off to seek the pot patch.

Younger kids in the high school picked up on the ceremony and began holding annual events at 4:20 at the top of Mt. Tam, but when they began making flyers and distributing them at local Dead shows in the Bay Area, the rangers shut down the April 20th ceremony.

But one of those flyers came to my attention when I was editor of High Times, and I immediately made 4:20 a central part of everything I was doing, which included The Freedom Fighters, the Cannabis Cup, the WHEE! festivals, and my daily routine at High Times.

Charlie Manson’s OM War with Wavy Gravy

After serving 22 months in the Army, Hugh Romney attended Boston College on the GI bill and ended up studying the newly emerging improvisational theater movement (created by Viola Spolin). After college, he moved to Greenwich Village to become a comedian and was initially managed by Lenny Bruce while sharing an apartment with Tom Paxton and becoming close friends with Bob Dylan.

Before long, Romney moved to California and joined Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters. But when Kesey fled to Mexico under threat of arrest, fellow prankster Ken Babbs hijacked the magic bus Further, leaving the rest of the Pranksters stranded in Los Angeles. Romney soon discovered a nearby hog farm in the mountains was looking for a caretaker. In other words, a free place to stay. He set up a commune and called it The Hog Farm, which overnight became one of the most famous of the 1960s hippie communes.

Charles Manson drove out to the Hog Farm one day in the late 1960s. He arrived in his all-black tour bus. Manson had already made contact with one of the Hog Farmers, Shirley Lake, whose daughter Diane would eventually join the Manson family. After arriving at the commune, Manson gave Romney the title to his black bus and then tried to seduce Romney’s wife Bonnie Jean (today known as Jahanara) in a nearby shed. He was undoubtedly planning on merging his family with the Hog Farm and usurping Romney as the leader of the commune. Romney managed to break up the seduction and Manson retired to his black bus with his female followers in tow. Sensing Manson was channeling the wrong vibes, Romney gathered his troops and began an OM circle next to the bus. The OM circle is an ancient ceremony from India that may have originated with the original Soma cults. I believe it’s the best way to harmonize a group of people and ward off negative energy. The OM circle initially became popular with the Brotherhood of Eternal Love in Laguna Beach, and was later taken up by Allen Ginsberg, who used it as a force field to protect himself and others during the riots in Lincoln Park during the Democratic convention in 1968.

Suddenly, Manson burst out of the black bus, holding his throat, choking, followed by his female followers who were quite alarmed. They tried to stop the OM circle, as they believed it was killing their leader. Manson began leading his group in an evil OM to ward off the vibes coming from the Hog Farmers. Eventually, Romney was able to persuade Manson to drive away and not return. The following year, Romney would change his name to Wavy Gravy and become famous as the emcee of the first Woodstock festival. Manson’s family would soon become the most famous serial killers in the world.

Today, Wavy remains a master of improvisational theater, which involves a deep understanding of spirituality (telepathic energy). Improvisation can unblock energy clogs and release deep inner insights. If you ever get a chance to attend a Wavy Gravy improvisational workshop, jump at it. You won’t be sorry.

Manson, meanwhile, died on November 19, 2017, in a maximum security prison after numerous parole hearings refused to release him. When he entered prison, Manson listed his religion as “scientologist.” He kept an E-meter at his ranch. Some believe Scientology was created by military intelligence as a brainwashing and mind control operation.

The British offshoot of Scientology (The Process Church) ran an operation to capture prominent rock bands into their fold and became perhaps the scariest of all the creepy vibe masters that began to infest the counterculture immediately after it took hold of the younger generation, who’d just wiped away years of conditioning and propaganda with just one acid trip.

Ron Stark was affiliated with The Process Church and he went on to become the biggest connection for the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. Ron Stark, the Process Church, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, these are all fascinating threads I hope to get into in future posts.

 

Energy comes in flavors

Spirituality is just another name for energy, and energy comes in flavors.

You can channel and amplify different energies, depending on what sort of spirituality you’re looking for.

The hippies of the 1960s weren’t called “The Love Generation” for nothing. That was the energy flavor we were seeking to amplify and share, and we learned a lot about how to manifest that energy.

Mainstream culture is dominated by what I call “warrior” energy. The biggest ceremony in the United States is probably the Super Bowl. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking sports isn’t “spiritual.” Everything in life is spiritual.

If you put all the energy flavors together in one big energy stream, that’s god. God is the energy that flows through all things. It’s like an OM circle. When you are chanting an OM, there’s no bad note. You can’t sing off-key. That’s because the OM embraces every note.

Most ceremonies seek to harmonize energy fields. In sports, any team plays better when they are harmonized. And they all have ceremonies to help with that process. When they stand in a circle, put their hands together and chant the team slogan, they are performing a ceremonial ritual designed to harmonize. There’s really little difference between those types of sports ceremonies and an OM circle. (Although I believe the OM circle is actually the fastest and easiest way to harmonize a group of people).

Proof of God’s Existence

Religions are all rivers flowing to the same sea.

All matter is made of energy, and energy systems can harmonize (tune up). When you hug or kiss someone, your two energy fields (auras) are joined into a single field. Likewise, when you sit at family dinner, the family can harmonize into a single energy field and that’s one reason why family dinners can be crucial in raising well-adjusted children. The earth is a self-regulating energy system. Since my definition of god is “everything” and I believe there’s an energy field created by everything, I have no doubt of god’s existence. In Native American terms, the Great Spirit flows through all things. It makes no difference what name you put on this energy field, the fact it’s there is proof that it exists. I can’t really accept the concept of god as a white-haired gentleman who sits in the clouds with angels around him and sends people to heaven or hell.