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.
Patti Astor has an incredible sense of ceremony. She was way cooler than me, but our trajectories weren’t that far off: Patti emanated out of Cincinnati and the SDS, and me out of the anti-war movement in central Illinois. We were both into experimental theater and film, although she became an underground star, while I had to go into journalism to survive. Eventually Patti’s career as an actress was eclipsed by her role as a master of ceremonies.
In fact, her ceremonies were peerless at the time. Patti knew how to surf the zeitgeist and could manufacture “juice,” which is what the emerging hip hop kids called telepathic energy and star power.
The East Village art scene was pretty complex and dynamic, but I seem to remember a time when Patti was dating Jean Michel and I guess everyone considered them the King and Queen at that point. Patti had divorced Steven Kramer, who was another incredible artistic force at the time in his own right. It takes a tribe to make real culture happen. And when that tribe forms, these magical creatures appear to channel the energies of the group, creatures like Jean Michel, Fred, Patti.
I remember sitting in back of the Fun Gallery with Fred and talking about Congo Square. Fred knew the real history of the counterculture. It started in the one place where slaves gathered on Sundays in New Orleans, a site that quickly spawned the most fascinating cultural eruption in North America. The French slaves from Haiti had merged with the local Native Americans to create multicultural forms of song, fashion, dance and gesture based on spontaneous improvisation and freedom of expression. Soon people from all over North America were traveling to New Orleans just to visit Congo Square on a Sunday and watch the incredible ceremonies that unfolded every weekend.
What those visitors found were dance circles. Sometimes many would form, but at other times, when something really immense was going down, there would be only one circle and one or two dancers in the center. Some of these dances were considered wildly erotic in their day and I’m pretty sure the drum section was probably the best in North America at the time. Many of the dancers wore shells and bells that added a musical element to their performances.
Congo Square is the birthplace of blues, jazz and rock’n’roll. And the thing that always struck me was how close those Kool Herc parties in the mid-1970s were to the vibe and spirit of Congo Square. In one case you had these slaves who only had one day off, and in the other you had these teens in the South Bronx, a place recently branded as the worst slum in America. And part of the baptism of this oppression includes the birth of new styles of song, dance, fashion and gesture? And the fact Jean-Michel was Haitian just seemed to fit right in.
At the height of the East Village scene, Patti was constantly throwing these soirees, and you never knew who was going to be attending, just that the mix would be wild and fantastic. Often the point of these events was to sell some art on the spot to save the Fun Gallery, but real collectors were strangely somewhat short in supply at the time, although I’m sure many regret that absence now. I remember being at one of these events, when I was single, and I suddenly found myself in nose-to-nose direct eye contact with the most amazing dark-haired goddess. And believe me, I’ve met many amazing, totally amazing goddesses and usually I can command some sort of instant rapport, or even a semblance of normal behavior, but, in fact, in this case I was just a deer in the headlights, speechless. Meanwhile, she stood there staring me back, not saying a word, but certainly not showing intimidation, quite the opposite, in fact, this girl radiated tons of self confidence.
I remember thinking at the time, I guess she knows I’m the famous Steve Hager who wrote Beat Street and has the first book on Hip Hop ready to come out any day now. But the next day, I was talking to Patti and she asked me if I’d met Phoebe. I was like, Phoebe? Yeah, Phoebe Cates.
That’s when I realized the incredible goddess I essential blew off by not being able to speak a single word, was an actual emerging movie star. And the funny thing is, I also stupidly blew off the blonde goddess Madonna at the Fun House (but that’s another faux pas, and one already covered on a different blog).
I began plotting my next move and spending a lot of time thinking about Phoebe Cates, which wasn’t hard since she had a movie being covered daily on the newly created Entertainment Tonight (a show I embraced at first but have come to hate for creating the template that destroyed the media). Of course, I returned every afternoon to the Fun Gallery, but that was nothing new, as checking in with Patti and Bill had been part of my daily orbit for weeks. And then D-Day arrived. I walked into the Fun Gallery and Phoebe and a girl friend were lounging in bean bags looking at some Fab Five paintings that Bill had set up for them.
But for some reason I veered over to the desk and found myself on the phone talking to Kenny Scharf. I’d just come from the office of Vanity Fair and been given an assignment to write about a different gallery in the East Village, as the editor didn’t want to give the Fun any juice even though he knew that was my personal headquarters. I didn’t tell Kenny about these politics, I just said, “I got a gig with Vanity Fair,” hoping I said it loud enough for Phoebe to hear.
I don’t remember much on the rest of the moment, just that I never tried to introduce myself (and I think Bill offered to do it for me) and probably just slunk out of there eventually and then wandered around in a mindless daze of indecision. I thought I’d see Phoebe around again, but in fact never did. A few years later, she would marry Kevin Kline and move into Hollywood royalty. Years later, I discovered Kenny had told a bunch of people that I’d been hired as an editor at Vanity Fair and was embarrassed after a bunch of them told him that wasn’t true. In fact, I never “worked at” that snooty magazine and that one little gallery review probably comprised my entire output in their pages. But that was okay, because I’d soon take over High Times.