Perhaps someday someone will make a film of my book Art After Midnight and explore the New York social scene born in the shadow of CB’s by freshman art students from around the world, converging at a time when world’s collided and paradigm’s began shifting in downtown New York City.
I selected Tseng Kong Chi as a primary photographer for my 1985 book, although I included all the great photographers who documented the scene, especially Harvey Wang, who took this photo of Tseng performing with Keith Haring at Club 57. I’m pretty sure this was before Tseng assumed his Chairman Mao identity, and that Club 57 was the lab where Tseng honed some skills. Club 57 was an orgy of creativity in action.
When they finally make a great film about this scene, it won’t be about Basquiat, Haring or anyone else, but the entire community because everyone who attended these ceremonies made a contribution. Like most movements, 50 stars were involved, but there were 500 in the audience, and the audience is just as important as the stars when it comes to birthing new movements because they add the necessary psychic energy to lift the movement higher. And Tseng was certainly one of those 50, so its wonderful the Grey Art Gallery has recognized him with a long overdue major exhibition.
Without Tseng, where would Borat be? If only I had a video camera back then and the foresight to follow Tseng around like he followed Keith—only Keith was chalking subway panels while Tseng was crashing the biggest old-money events in town with a self-created VIP name-tag and a non-speaking Mao persona. He even got photos with Henry Kissinger and Henry thought he was some visiting dignitary from China and not a performance artist. But this was performance art on a whole new scale.
Maybe you know this movement took massive energy from the collision of hip hop and punk? I like to think of Tseng’s work as 3D graffiti because it was all about getting up. When a writer starts, the first mission is to formulate a word, tag, nickname, message to be promoted. The Mao character was Tseng’s tag in a way and I think he remained mute because Tseng was shy and it took a lot of confidence for him to launch into these epic social scenes and remain in character.
The Grey Art exhibit includes an enormous print of a photo Tseng shot for the back cover of the book, inspired by a continuing series Tseng was working on, in which he was photographing Keith, Kenny, Bruno, Carmel, Ann, John, Min and a few others. He had a series of group shots taken just before some big ceremony or night on the town. I asked him to do the same thing for the back cover, only I wanted to include some other major characters in the book, like Patti Astor, Steve Maas, Animal X, Joey Arias, David McDermott and Peter McGough. I probably talked it over and we decided it should be kept down to a dozen to be manageable. And at the last second, Kenny Scharf dropped out, and although Jean Michel was invited of course, I didn’t realize including Jean could only be guaranteed if we’d taken the photograph at his place on Great Jones. There may be people left out of this photo still harboring faint grudges today, and I wish we’d just invited all 50 stars and made it like Sergeant Pepper’s. Next time I’ll know better.
As the objective reporter, I didn’t want to insert myself into the photo, so I didn’t even attend the shoot. In hindsight, another mistake. But Tseng did call me as soon as John Sex walked in the door. “He doesn’t have his hair up,” said Tseng, massively disappointed. I think we’d both envisioned John in the center with his giant pompadour. “Don’t worry,” I said. Later when I saw the photo, I noted Joey had come prepared to upstage John’s hairstyle with something more epic than a giant blonde pomp—black devil horns.
Between 1980 and 1981, a lot of emerging artists knew the Zeitgeist was changing and were experimenting with new media hoping to catch whatever wave might come along. For a year or two, Xerox art became the rage for many. In fact, Jean Michel Basquiat was doing it before he started painting on canvas, and the form may have even helped him segue from writing cryptic poems in the street to inventing his own image vocabulary based on opening up his inner child. Tom Forcade, the founder of High Times, by the way, was an influence on Jean’s teen years because Forcade was the most legendary character living downtown in the 1970s. Jean dumped a box of shaving cream on his high school principal, something that might have been inspired by Tom throwing a pie inside Congress during an investigation on pornography a few years earlier. One of Jean’s biggest boosters at the time (Glenn O’Brien) was momentarily Editor of High Times, and wrote the first major article on the new writers like Jean and Fab Five, although no one thinks of Jean as a writer today as he quickly backed away from that scene.
Of all these Xerox artists, Keith Haring was one of the most political, using Burrough’s cut-up technique to rearrange headlines from the rabidly right-wing New York Post to convey shocking messages (left). Haring was also very prolific. Anytime he did something, Keith usually went all-in, and his short-lived Xerox phase was no exception. Kenny Scharf might have been living with Keith at the time, although maybe they were just in school together but he also joined in with his own Xerox art.
Vapo Jet is the title of this piece, and it has to be one of the most phallic of all Kenny’s early work. The Fifties mom wearing Jetson-style sunglasses quickly became a recurring archetype in Kenny’s personal iconography. I wonder sometimes if my Xerox art collection is worth anything? None of the pieces are signed and it’s pretty easy to make forgeries, although I’ve never tried.
Keith eventually switched from cutting up Post headlines to inventing his own personal iconography, and that switch took place during the short-lived Xerox art movement. By New Year’s Eve 1980, Keith’s new vocabulary was fully formed (left). Meanwhile, Kenny went to soak up the vibes at Stonehenge that spring and made a color Xerox that shows him with Samantha and Bruno.
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.
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.
While perusing my photo files, I came across a gem: an illustration by Jean Michel Basquiat published in the SoHo Weekly News on October 5th, 1978. This may, in fact, be Jean Michel’s first published artwork.
The illo was signed by the young master himself using his graffiti tag “Samo,” short for “same old shit.” In this context, the tag seems to be a reference to our nation’s love of money.
This illo appeared two months before the famous Village Voice article that really introduced Jean Michel to most of the downtown scene. Both the illo with tag and the original Samo story were displayed as part of Boom Basquiat. Afterwards, I returned both items to Al Diaz, who had given them to me before anyone realized how valuable they would become.
I arrived at the Mudd Club right on time and went upstairs to view the opening of the new Mudd Club Art Gallery. The owner, Steve Maas, had recently taken over the downtown scene by creating the coolest club in town, one that helped focus the merger of CBGB’s crowd with the Soho art scene. My article on Futura 2000 had appeared that morning, my first cover story for the Manhattan edition of the hip new afternoon New York Daily News.
Futura had designed the headline himself and been paid around $100. While Futura was in the art room sketching the piece, a senior dude looked me in the eye and said: “We shouldn’t be promoting this.” It was my first inkling my reporting might be rubbing some of the old guard the wrong way.
I assumed we’d all be celebrating up a storm at the Mudd Club. Fred Braithwaite greeted me. When I asked if he’d seen the Daily News article, he pulled out a copy of High Times and showed me Glenn O’Brien’s much more in-depth article that ran for pages with lots of amazing color photos. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Fred were the major characters in his piece.
Somewhat deflated, I speed-read the article while thinking, “Shit, this guy beat me to the punch. I need to start reading High Times.”
Meanwhile, I notice a bunch of girls are looking at me funny. “That’s him,” one says. I can tell they are super pissed-off about something, so I ask them what’s up.
“You called our father an alcoholic! Do you know what if was like for him to read that!” snarled one, which cranked up the angry vibes on the rest of them.
I sought refuge behind the desk with Fred and whispered, “Holy shit. I assumed his dad was dead or he wouldn’t have told me.”
“Well,” said Fred, “he told you so he must have wanted it to come out, even subconsciously.”
It was the first time I realized the power of the media to cause intense emotional problems and how the unvarnished truth is not always the best option. The whole incident put a real damper on the celebration for me, and I went home early, although not before Fred gave me Bambaataa’s phone number, so I could interview him the next day. It was the beginning of a long trail I’d scout for the next four years, a trail I’d been put on by viewing a subway car called “Break” that I’d seen at New York/New Wave at P.S. 1, a train painted by Futura 2000. You can read the original Daily News article in my book Hip Hop: The Complete Archives.
I was a reporter for the New York Daily News and a contributing writer to Horizon magazine, when I attended Diego Cortez’s New York/New Wave at P.S. 1 in Long Island City. Many in the press detested that ultra-hip show, but I was blown away. It celebrated the CBGB punk scene, East Village art, the re-emergence of image, and the recent flowering of graffiti that was taking place in New York. There were several huge rooms covered floor-to-ceiling with art and photography. It was the cutting edge of the underground, and the first time Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibited. Basquiat was the sensation of the moment, his paintings already sold to the de Menil collection. But one room was devoted to photos of spray-painted subway trains, and one of those photos absolutely floored me. I’d only been in New York for a few years, and when I arrived, I assumed the city paid artists to paint those murals on trains because so many of them looked like they were part of a set out of Disneyland. One train in the exhibit especially stopped me in my tracks: it was called “Break” by Futura 2000.
Kurtis Blow had just achieved the first certified-gold rap record with a song called “The Breaks.” At first, I thought Futura’s train was an homage to Kurtis Blow. But then it occured to me there were subcultural undercurrents running through both rap music and graffiti, and that this probably represented an authentic cultural movement that had not been acknowledged in the mass media. (At this time, I knew nothing about break dancing, but that element would surface within days.)
I bought “Break” from Futura and he signed and autographed it to me (it still hangs prominently in my bedroom). Futura introduced me to Fab Five Freddy, who gave me Afrika Bambaataa’s number after I told him I wanted to research where this culture had actually started.
Over the next few weeks, I interviewed Bambaataa several times. He was extremely helpful, and even opened up his archives for me to peruse. Bam had written a book-length report on the history of the Black Spades while in high school, and he let me make a copy. Most important, Bam gave me the telephone number of Kool Herc, and indicated it all started with him. Back in the ’80s, every minor hip hopper in New York was spinning tales about “how it all began” and 90% of these stories were complete fabrications. But Bam only spoke the truth and he never exaggerated about anything. In fact, Bam seemed to be operating on a higher plane of existence, and was obviously a spiritually-charged being. Even better, he became famous and successful beyond imagination while I was working on the story, releasing a monster hit called “Planet Rock,” which created the electro-boogie sound and transformed hip hop and dance music in general.
I got fired by the Daily News, but that was okay, because now I was onto the biggest story of my life, and I knew it. I spent several weeks researching the story, which I eventually submitted to the Village Voice, and titled: “The Pied Piper of Hip Hop.” Keep in mind, at this point in time, the words “hip hop” had never appeared in print anywhere and were not even well-known to most people inside the culture. The story was mostly about Bambaataa, but it covered many of the major developments in the history of the hip hop, including who did what first.
The Village Voice sat on the manuscript for weeks, and I kept calling Robert Christgau, the music editor, leaving messages every other day. I just wanted him to accept it or reject it, so I could submit it to Rolling Stone, and I couldn’t get an answer. I was terrified another writer was going to break the story of hip hop before I did. Finally, Tulani Davis called and said she wanted to publish the article and would edit it.
I went out on a limb in the article and said hip hop was going to become the most significant cultural movement of the decade, and I can’t tell you how many people found that comment ridiculous in 1981. Even in the East Village, there was intense resistance to recognizing the value of rap music in some quarters. Rap was viewed as a ghetto fad that had no significance for the rest of the world.
Sadly, there was always something mysterious about Bam as he was typically surrounded by teenage boys, and there never seemed to be any women around. Decades later, several boys would come forward with accusations of sexual abuse and one of them ended up murdered as a result.
Monica from Tommy Boy Records wanted me to check out the Fun House. “Arthur Baker and John Robie are hanging out there all the time,” she said. After writing the first story on hip hop in the Village Voice, Monica felt I should turn my attention to the way break dancing was spreading out of the South Bronx and into the other boroughs.
The first night I arrived at the club, Randy, the lighting guy, offered to introduce me to Madonna right off the bat. At the time, she was the girl friend of the house deejay, Jellybean, and already had a reputation as a voluptuous siren. I probably said, “naw, that’s okay.”
See, I was just finishing my book on the origins of hip hop, and I’d already heard the electro-bubblegum sound Madonna was working on. In the early stages of any new cultural wave, its often very hard to distinguish the truly talented, from the talentless opportunists (who always rush in). Aside from the bubblegum melody, Madonna’s voice didn’t sound all that impressive to me. But, then, I’d never met Madonna in person—or seen her perform.
That night Madonna came up behind me and started talking to me like we were old friends. I was wearing a Levi vest that East Village artist Ellen Berkenblit had customized with one of her iconic punk ponys in white marker on leather. Ellen was a very obscure artist, but one Rene Ricard was currently gushing over. Rene was already famous for “launching” Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
“Ellen, right?” she said.
“Uh, yeah.” I mumbled, keeping my full attention elsewhere.
Madonna wasn’t one to stick around where she wasn’t wanted. (That night she would tell someone I was probably gay.)
Actually, I’d already decided to base my Fun House article around a girl named Alyse, and the Juice Crew. I had this feeling Jellybean wanted a story mostly about him, and Madonna. Maybe I was channeling the responsibilities of power regarding my status as a Village Voice cover-story writer. I’m sure I came off as arrogant at best.
Later that week, however, I got to see Madonna perform on stage at the Fun House with her backup dancers. She was amazing and captured my full respect immediately. She obviously had a gift for choreography and oozed with youthful sex appeal. I knew right then she was going to be a star. I suddenly wished I could turn that unfortunate first encounter around, and wondered if that opportunity would ever present itself.
Unfortunately, any plans along those lines were dashed forever the day my Fun House article appeared on the cover of the Voice, because the police raided the club early that evening. It just happened to be Jellybean’s birthday, and Madonna had a huge party and special command performance planned, so I’d become very unpopular in some circles. A couple of rumors came down the grapevine: “Madonna hates you” and “The Fun House is going to have you knee-capped.” Apparently, the club didn’t like the references to illegal substances included in my story. Some felt those comments were the reason the police felt compelled to make the raid in the first place.
“Steve Hager’s story on the Fun House is still remembered as a classic,” Baird Jones would write later in his gossip column. “Although when the expose got that illegal club busted, Steve had to lie very, very low for a few months.”
I did run into Madonna a few weeks later in the basement dressing room at Danceteria. She looked through me like I didn’t exist, while effusively welcoming my sidekick, German photographer Andre Grossmann. She even let Andre follow her home and take pictures of her in her own environment, until she had to throw him out because he wouldn’t stop taking pictures. At the time, Andre probably had no clue he was going to make a lot of money off those photographs many years later.
I was super disappointed with the layout and production of my first book, Hip Hop, so I brought in my own personal art director (Flick Ford) to lay out my second book, Art After Midnight: The East Village Scene.
Hip Hop was about the South Bronx in the 1970s, but my second book was going to be about how the punk movement and the hip hop movements collided in the East Village in the 1980s. The book has been out-of-print for decades and copies in good condition sell for over $100, so it’s about time it was released as an ebook at an affordable price. When it came out, a lot of critics thought it was a bit lightweight because it concentrated more on nightlife than art criticism, but many artists, including Kenny Scharf and Ann Magnuson, have recently told me it remains the definitive document of the Mudd Club and Club 57 era. The book is now available at Amazon, Smashwords and iTunes.
During the winter of 1979, I moved to New York City and was crashing at Eddie Korvin’s loft in Tribeca, then a desolate area. Eddie had hooked up with my girl friend’s older sister, and after we both graduated from college, we migrated to Eddie’s, hoping to carve out a life in New York City.
Eddie was easily the coolest dude I’d ever met, running his own recording studio (Blue Rock) in SoHo. His step-dad was a famous European actor and chef, and he showed up for dinner one night with Eddie’s mom. Julia Child’s name came up frequently, and it was the first time I realized Julia was an OSS operative posing as a gourmet chef. Eddie’s stepdad had begun his career in film and theater by producing an anti-Franco documentary prior to the Spanish Civil War. When asked who her favorite amateur chef was, Julia replied “Charles Korvin.”
The greatest singer-songwriter from my college town (Thom Bishop) was also in attendance that night. I was a listener, not a talker. Nothing much happened with the tracks I watched Thom lay down at Blue Rock, including a haunting cover of “Endless Sleep,” but in 1987 Profile records released his album “Restless State of Grace.” More recently, under the pseudonym Junior Burke, he released a fantasy novel, The Cold Last Swim that opens with James Dean shooting Ronald Reagan on live television and gets weirder from there.
Eddie was quite the talented chef himself, and aside from Blue Rock, was the American agent for Chateau Gloria, a delicious red wine from Saint-Julien that was always available in abundance at Eddie’s, along with super kind bud, and, sometimes, a few lines of cocaine.
After dinner, Eddie guided us to an after hours club on Houston to provide me my first taste of New York City nightlife. There was a bebop jazz combo performing in a basement bar when we walked in. While I was standing at the bar, a black approached me and smirked: “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 a year or two 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. I took off the ski jacket and rolled up my sleeves.
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 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 titled “Break,” and purchased a signed copy 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 the book “Hip Hop” and 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, 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 over some girl. In fact, there weren’t many scene queens from that time that hadn’t enjoyed Jean’s affections, however momentary.
I called my friend Mary Boone, someone whose rise in the art world I’d helped promote. She was now representing Basquiat and agreed to take me to visit his studio (and home). A few days later, we arrived at Great Jones Street.
The African art scholar Robert Faris Thompson (“Flash of the Spirit”) was just leaving when we arrived. Basquiat ushered us in, and seemed fully aware of my work on hip hop history and treated me with utmost respect.
He guided us 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 pick out the best piece immediately, but Jean Michel coyly put it aside for his private collection. I could see he was pretty savvy about maintaining control over his finances. Before I left, we set up a time and date for me to come back and interview 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 first growth Bordeaux and a joint going. He offered me a glass of wine. “It’s a little early for me,” I said, “But I’d like 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?”), I jumped on the comment and began pursuing that line of questioning, 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 2010 documentary on Netflix. It’s a 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. (In 2018, an even better film by Sara Driver, Boom For Real, explored Jean’s formative years with more precision.)
I could not fathom Jean’s attachment to Andy Warhol, whose lust for fame and fortune was guided by his devotion to rightwing dictators and Catholic causes. Warhol’s career was brilliant, of course, but based partially on vampire-ing ideas and energy from Jack Smith, Edie Sedgewick, Marisol, and ultimately Jean Michel.
It was like a scene out of Orwell’s Animal Farm watching Jean take on the lifestyle of the plush-safe he’d once satirized and condemned.
Jean would have had a long, prosperous and fully illuminated life had he stuck with pot and beer, but he quickly moved to cocaine and cabernet, and after he wrecked his nose, fell into smack, which soon dominated his life. It’s important to convey this trajectory to the youth so they understand the dangers of intoxication.
I acted as a messenger between Jean and Club 57, where he used to hang out. Once he got rich and famous, he also got isolated. But I told John Sex how much Jean respected him, and he tried to reconnect, traveling over to Jean’s with Wendy Wild and Dino. When they arrived, Jean was huddled with a phone in the corner. They stayed for an hour or two, but never spoke to Jean, who never put down the phone or left the dark corner he was in. He was trying to order some heroin. Rockets would have been one of the calls.
The crown was the central icon shared by NYC’s greatest writers, so to claim that history had zero to do with Jean Michel Basquiat’s use of crowns is absurd. The deep meaning sprung from graffiti, not the Little Rascals King Features cartoon logo.