Remembering Rene Ricard

renegof2I wonder how many people had their lives changed by Rene Ricard? I arrived in New York City in 1979 and was struggling to find a job in journalism while snooping around the art scene for something to write about. Then I read an article called “Not About Julian Schnabel” in ArtForum and pretty soon, I was doing the first magazine profiles of Julian Schnabel and Mary Boone. I still have those interview tapes around here somewhere.

But it was Rene’s next article that really set my brain on fire. It was titled “Radiant Child” and was all about the rise of Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and how hip hop culture was about to transform the world.

Of course, Rene didn’t use the words “hip hop,” since virtually nobody outside the South Bronx knew those words in 1981. Funny how I got a chance to see Rene just a few days ago, at what I imagine was his last public performance, a reading for an East Village Eye party. Before he left the party, Rene came over to me and said, “Your Voice article on Bambaataa, that introduced the words “hip hop you know!” he said. “I know, I know,” I replied. Rene and I were on that scene longer than almost anyone else from downtown, except for Fred Brathwaite, Patti Astor and Charlie Ahearn. But it was Rene’s Radiant Child article that opened my eyes that a real cultural revolution was going on. And Rene was the first to understand the revolution concerned not just music, but gesture, movement, dance, fashion and art as well. There was a whole new style emerging from b-boy culture, and Rene was the first to pick up on that.

When I published my book Hip Hop in 1984, I included a picture of Rene and also gave him props for his groundbreaking essays in ArtForum. This made Rene my friend for eternity. Seems like he had some enemies in the art scene at the time, probably because he was famous for throwing hissy fits at gallery openings. He knew how to make himself the center of attention and some people were a little afraid of him because he was so moody and confrontational.

Rene’s most famous scene happened at Jean Michel’s Fun Gallery opening. Paul Simon showed up unexpectedly and was interested in buying the best painting in the show, something that would have saved the gallery at the time. But Rene had already asked Jean for that particular painting and when he saw Simon wanted it, he started screaming and bolted from the gallery. Seconds after he departed we heard what sounded like a car accident outside. No one was sure if Rene hadn’t just run out into traffic to commit suicide, but we later found out he was okay.

I was really touched by Rene’s last reading just a few days ago, as he read his poem about Stephen Crichlow, who was Futura 2000’s best friend when he unexpectedly died from a heart attack at a very young age. Rene rented a limo to take a bunch of people to the funeral service in Brooklyn. I don’t think anybody ever gave Stephen much props, except for Rene. Stephen was a young photographer who’d been following the hip hop scene and his death was an unexpected blow. What Godlis was to the CBGB’s, Cricholow was to the Fun Gallery, but today hardly anyone remembers him. Leave it to Rene to keep his memory alive.

Apparently Rene died of cancer and was about to undergo chemo, which is sad for me, because had I known he was suffering from cancer, I would have sent him to Colorado to take some cannabis oil, which might have saved his life.

Madonna and me

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.

Excerpted from Hip Hop:  The Complete Archives.