East Village Story

The notion of six degrees of separation is commonplace in a smallish city like Buffalo, but even in a place as massive as New York City, the idea holds up. Everyone and everything is likely to be six or fewer steps away (through associations) from any other person in the world, so that a chain of people can connect any two people in a maximum of six steps (degrees).

A recent article from The Weekling sparked a flood of recollection about an era when a certain creative buzz drew so many of us to lower Manhattan and what follows here is just a small piece of East Village Story.

Actor/Musician Richard Edson tells about his days as the first drummer for Sonic Youth while also working with another band named Konk during the transition of Punk to New Wave and beyond. He writes about the late 1970s early 1980s lower Manhattan art and music scene that has become mythologized and often glorified.

There seems to be a mass unleashing of stories by all sorts of people, not only high-profile book memoirs, but social media has become a storied ground for blog posts and memoirish status updates. In the last couple years, Richard Hell, Cindy Lauper, Patti Smith, and Kim Gordon have brought to life in their books the last gasps of the downtown Manhattan in the late 20th century before cultural and economic shifts scattered us about. I especialIy go for the New York stories, as I was there from 1979 to 1992 and now view that time now as a kind of alternative graduate school for endurance as an artist (and person). 

A memoir a largely a narrative composed from personal experience, not the same as an autobiography (an accounting of historical details), but a recollection of a particular point of view about that personal history–a truth that is apart from fact or fiction. Gloria Steinem’s memoir is about how her life has revolved around travel, though she does not drive. Memory is slippery in its association with remembrance and nostalgia and some notion of grabbing for what is long gone, but it is also a lens for clear-seeing and wisdom that comes in roundabout ways.

Back to Edson’s article…I met him during the Summer of 1980 at the new club called Danceteria. Either Devo or Tuxedo Moon (maybe both) were playing that night and I was wearing a dark green one-piece work suit from the army navy store on Canal Street. He was a drummer and freelance photographer for the Soho Weekly News.

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The Soho weekly paper was the go-to source for bands and arts events downtown–even more so than the Village Voice. Lena Lovich and Roland Barthes made the cover of this one–her song Lucky Number received a lot of airplay at the time. I actually had a copy of his book, A Lover’s Discourse, but reading it was not easy. I had been in the city just about a year–worked in Soho (for Gretzinger Design) at Broadway and Broom. Mostly, I tried to absorb as much as I could to find my direction. I had a Pentex K-1000 camera, Sanyo boombox, 13-inch black and white RCA television, and $225 a month rent-stabilized apartment.

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Edson’s article mentions Konk’s Austrian guitar player named Florian and a dancer named Judith–when they broke up, Edson dated her for brief time. So I perked up when I read this bit of social history and recognized a slice of my own story—evidence of the tangle of intersecting people, places, and scenarios that often make little sense. I went to Judith’s apartment one evening with Edson—it was across the street from the Indian restaurants on Sixth Street, just down the block from where I lived.

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A few people were gathered there and she served us drinks before heading out to art openings. I do not recall exactly where we went, but I do recall the turn of events. By the end of the evening, Florian and I had lost track of Richard and Judith—or maybe the boys planned it that way. Who knows? Enjoyed hanging out with Florian just fine. That was an exceptionally casual time. I saw Richard and Judith around town a little after that, but it was easy in those days for people to drift away and ever see them–or simply notice them from afar and wonder a bit with no need for hellos or small talk. There was a highly cultivated culture of “cool” that preserved anonymity and privacy and allowed for mystery–almost opposite of the sharing culture of overexposure we have now.

That Fall, Reagan was elected and John Lennon was shot. Sigh.

A few years later Edson turned up in Jim Jarmusch’s early film, Stranger Than Paradise. Other movie and television roles followed as various eccentric characters.

So many were on the verge of the next thing. I used to see Vincent Gallo at art openings back then when he was painter (before Buffalo ’66) standing off by himself in a trim shiny suit. Edson also wore suits–the look of another trendy band of the moment,The Lounge Lizards. The East Village was like a campus where I saw a lot of the same people on the streets without actually being  acquainted. There was and no way to look up personal info about anyone. It was all word of mouth, unless someone happened to get written up in one of the local papers (East Village Eye or Bomb). A sense of being part of a common creative experience was felt–even just walking down the street. Edson captures some of that in his article.

The six degrees of separation law applied to most of us who had no particular notoriety. We went to our jobs and we made things, and generally tried to stay attuned to what was happening. People aspired to more without talking about  “goals,” the mark of the soon-to-come self-improvement 1990s era.

I would see Jean-Michel Basquiat and David Byrne in the Laundromat around the corner. A girl I knew was staying in Cindy Sherman’s loft before her photography was known much and I was there with her one afternoon when she pointed out “Cindy’s art,” the now-famous doctor and nurse self-portraits propped on a desk in cheesy dime-store frames. Lauren Hutton and Malcolm McLaren sat at the table next to me one night at Kismoth, my favorite Indian place down the street. Such moments were common and the energy that fueled the creative scene came from the way so many parallel paths crossed over to intersect and connect–even if briefly.

December 2015


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