Fun Gallery…the true story by Patti Astor

I was hoping to run into some old friends I haven’t seen in a while, like Fred, Futura and Zephyr, but none of them made it to Patti Astor’s book signing. The four of us belong to a very special group, you see, one that also includes Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. We all had shows at the Fun Gallery, although mine was the only photographic exhibit ever held at that gallery. (Only one photograph sold, btw, an Andre Grossmann blow-up of an early breakdance competition, which was purchased by Gary Pini for around $150. Last time I saw it, it was hanging over a fireplace in his townhouse in Brooklyn, although I haven’t been there in over a decade.)

Patti was a true Queen of the East Village during its glory days. The scene back then was divided between the older, more sophisticated Mudd Club crowd and the retro Club 57 crew, both of which were pursuing much different esthetics, although both worlds got suddenly pulled together when hip hop arrived. Patti and Jean-Michel were part of the core of Mudd Club, while Keith, Kenny, John Sex and Ann Magnuson were the emerging Club 57 stars. The Mudd Club was mostly on heroin at the time, while Club 57 much preferred mushrooms. Later cocaine took over everywhere.

Patti’s drug of preference, however, was probably Veuve Clicqout. At least that’s what usually emerged when a major ceremony of her’s was about to go down. Patti was the greatest master of ceremonies in New York at the time, which is why all these artists wanted desperately to show in her gallery.

Her book is a masterpiece of counterculture literature, and a way better guide to the era than what has been published so far (with the possible exception of my book Art After Midnight). I read it in one sitting and it really took me back to the period. Despite the emergence of AIDS right in our midst, the infusion of hip hop into the downtown scene was monumental. Fred Brathwaite was really the first person to catch onto the potentials of merging downtown with the South Bronx. He met Patti at a cocktail party and the rest is history. In the book, she refers to him as the “chairman of the board.” I had to read the book to discover they were also lovers for a brief time. One of my favorite scenes in the book happens after Patti breaks up with her husband Steven Kramer and moves quickly from Fred to Futura to Jean-Michel. Walking home late at night, Fred looks over at Keily Jenkins and snarls “You’ll probably be next.” “Really?!” says Keily. Not only was Keily next, but he was the one who actually stuck. Of course, Patti wasn’t there to see that conversation. She heard about it later from Keily, one of the many luminaries from that time period who died too young to comb his grey hair.

Charlie Ahearn, Michael Holman and me really stood out as the survivors as we all had a hand along with Patti in bringing hip hop to the rest of the world. I wish I’d taken a photo of the three of us, as our paths may not cross again for another 10 years.

My Brush with the Mob

Gary Indiana was built in the early 1900s. It started as a steel mill on the shores of Lake Michigan and the city was designed around the mill to house the factory workers. Gary was only 25 miles east of Chicago and a railway line connected the two cities. Soon there were many mills and a huge metropolis.

My mom grew up in Valparaiso, Indiana, which is very close to Gary. Her uncle Freddy was in charge of the numbers racket in Gary, and reportedly worked for the Chicago outfit run by Al Capone. But Uncle Freddy retired when the first big syndicate crackdown took place. His father (one of my great-grandfathers) had been a prominent rabbi in Chicago, and according to family legend, his dad never knew his son had become a gangster. My dad’s side of the family were mostly Germans who’d homesteaded in western Kansas after the Civil War and then drifted back to southeastern Kansas, a tiny town called Hepler. My parents met while attending Valparaiso University, a Lutheran college.

When my parents first began dating, Uncle Freddy would sometimes order his muscle to drive my mom and dad around. My parents told me about the parties at Uncle Freddy’s that they had attended. Freddy’s men also served as the bartenders and when they took off their jackets, they revealed their revolvers. No one messed with Uncle Freddy and his men.

Despite having a well-known local ex-gangster in the family, I never met any others and I don’t think the Jews in the USA ever created the sort of multi-generational crime families that were embedded in Sicilian society. We had some relatives that opened the Pink Pussycat strip club in Los Angeles, which became a favorite hangout for Frank Sinatra’s rat pack, though. The club even ran a school for strippers. My cousins went to California in the early 1960s, and even though they were underage, they were allowed to watch the floor show from backstage. Shortly after that, my cousin Tom bought a subscription to Playboy.

So that constituted my total awareness of the mob when I moved to New York around 1979. My first job in NYC was working as a reporter for Leo Shull’s Showbusiness, which really gave me a solid introduction to the seedy underbelly of Broadway (that’s Leo on the far left in the black shirt). From there I worked at several magazines, then the New York Daily News, and finally became a freelancer for a few years before I got hired by High Times. At first, that magazine was on the West Side near my apartment, but right after I got hired, they moved to 211 East 43rd St., which really disappointed me because that address was in the heart of midtown. I was riding a motorcycle at the time and midtown had zero parking for motorcycles.

However, on my first day to work, I decided to look around to see if I could find a free parking spot close to the office. I soon discovered a little horseshoe called Tudor City, a residential area hidden in the heart of midtown that allowed free parking on the street. I pulled into a spot next to a driveway and walked a block to work.

When Gary Pini heard about the location of my new office, he remarked there was a mob restaurant across the street. I never walked in the place. However, that night, when I went to pick up my motorcycle and drive home, someone had bumped my bike over. Fortunately, the damage was minimal. While I was picking the bike up, however, a black doorman appeared from inside the building and came out to talk to me. The upshot of his conversation was that there were some guys that parked here that I should not “mess around” with. I was too dumb, however, to pick up on his clues.

The next morning, I drove my bike back to the same location and pulled in between two cars, not wanting to park next to the driveway again. When I got off my bike, three dudes exited their vehicles at the same time and approached me.

“You can’t park here,” one of them said. These three guys did not look particularly intimidating. They certainly weren’t dressed in suits or expensive clothes.

“Why not?” I said.

“There’s not enough room,” he answered.

I looked around. There was plenty of room for my bike and I wasn’t really blocking anyone so I just said, “Hey, there’s plenty of room,” and just walked away off to work.

Many hours later, when I came back to ride home, I discovered the seat on my motorcycle had been completely slit from front to back. The knife had cut as deep as possible, so the seat was basically destroyed in a very violent fashion. I was thinking how dumb it was for those guys to do that since I knew who they were and what their vehicles looked like. My immediate thought was to whip up some concrete mix and stuff it into their three tailpipes.

When I got home, I went up to my apartment and got a needle and thread and some glue. I sewed the seat up (it took a hundred stitches at least) and then glued the thread so it wouldn’t come undone and the seal would remain water-tight. That night I realized my real situation. See, those three guys, they were obviously wise guys. I’d been warned by the doorman, and warned by them, and unless I got my act together, I was probably going to get kneecapped or worse.

So the next morning I parked on the other side of Tudor City and nowhere near where those guys kept their cars. I never saw or heard from them again, but it taught me an important lesson. When dealing with wise guys, make sure you read all the signals.

The Monks of Mayhem

I already told you about how Iving Azoff—the most powerful person in the music industry—got his start as Bob Nutt’s associate at Blytham, Ltd., in Urbana, Illinois, in 1967.  (And thanks to an original Blytham business card sent-in by Guy Maynard, we now know Irv had a short-lived predecessor in that role named Dan Dailey.)

Gary Pini is another important character in this story, and he too would eventually rise to great heights in the record industry, producing dance music singles and early rap records. The photo shows Gary on the Quad at the University of Illinois. In the background you can see the round building we used to sneak into via the Steam Tunnels that ran underneath the entire University campus (see my book, 1966). Gary is the one who took me to see the John Cage installation at the Stock Pavilion.

Gary was going out with Caroline, who lived in a house at 1003 South Third Street with three other girls (Paula, Elke and Claudia), one of whom was an occasional lover of Jim Cole’s, which is why Cole spent a lot of time at that house.

John McNaughton

Cole’s brother had an immaculate used Cadillac with minor issues parked in the driveway. After a few beers, Cole’d go into Destructo-Mania and jump out the second floor window onto the hood or roof or trunk, inflicting as much damage as possible with his booted feet. A sledge hammer often played a role in this game and the car was soon transformed into a worthless pile of junk. Bob Brandel removed the dashboard for use in an art class but flunked that project. “Why are you in school?” asked his professor. John McNaughton had a similar art class and the moldy mattress he pulled out of the Boneyard Creek so disgusted his professor that McNaughton flunked his assignment. But those two practically unknown masterpieces now constitute perhaps the finest examples of the short-lived Destructo-Mania Art Movement and would probably sells for millions at Sotheby’s if anyone could find them.

Bob Brandel

Destructo-Mania had to end, however, since that particular lifestyle is not really sustainable. But it sure went out in a blaze of glory. A bunch of people were tripping and drinking beer late one night when Tony Byrnes sat in a chair and it broke accidentally, spilling him onto the floor. Everyone froze for a second and then broke into laughter and couldn’t stop. This accident had a somewhat inspirational impact on Cole, who pretty soon smashed the nearest object with his foot. Of course, this produced gales more laughter and it sort of escalated out-of-control from there. In order to keep the laughter going, objects were ceremoniously brought into the center of the room and ritualistically sacrificed. This was Destructo-Mania of the highest and most spiritual power. No object was spared by these Destructo Monks. The girls ran around in a frenzy, moving their sacred pieces into rooms under their control, trying to save whatever they could. Small things like cups and dishes went quickly, obviously, but then even the largest pieces of furniture were eventually stomped into submission by the Monks of Mayhem. And before you knew it, virtually everything in the house was turned into a broken pile of junk on the living room carpet! At this point the Grandmaster of Mayhem himself, Jim Cole stood atop this glorious pile of destruction, armed with a jack-knife and matches delivering the final coup-de-grace, some by sword, others by fire. By this time, however, dawn was breaking and the girls were teary-eyed, so weary were they from trying to hold back the Monks. No longer could they feed this sacred fire of destruction, as there was nothing left to destroy. So they decided to help clean-up the mess they’d created and dragged the carpet with all the junk out the kitchen door and into the backyard.

Jim Cole and his chopper.

This house was surrounded on all sides by the most clean-cut fraternities and sororities. In fact, the backyard was really a huge park used by fraternities for touch football games and frisbee throwing. The carpet was dragged to the center of this immaculate field where Cole set the mess on fire. I don’t know if the Fire Department ever arrived, but I’m sure the neighbors must have wondered where that huge smouldering pile of junk came from when they woke up hours later. The next weekend, I’d kick an empty beer bottle, trying to set off another round of Destructo-Mania, but the girls threw me up against the wall, threatened to punch me out, and announced the next person who tried to break anything was getting tossed out permanently. It was the end of Destructo-Mania.

Another detail completely missing in all ’60s films and docs: many of us were riding the new super-cheap Jap bikes. You could get a used 50cc model for $50. Here’s Cole (above) with his chopper. Larry and I had similar bikes, as did a few others in our scene.

(Excerpted from Magic, Religion and Cannabis.)