New Yorkers are on edge, pre-occupied with the disturbing reality of completely random violence and unspeakable horrors, and that was in 1981. It seems rather inappropriate to review a film one has had quite a bit to do with (both the film and it's subject matter). It's not so much an issue of bias, favoritism and objectivity (you show me an objective critic and I'll show you somebody who has nothing to write about), but rather, can one truly see the forest from the trees?
Downtown 81 originally titled New York Beat, has an interesting history. Back in 1979, my friend Maripol, a Parisian designer, (credited with creating Madonna's first "new wavy" look) and her then boyfriend, Swiss aristocrat-ish Edo Bergoglio were fixtures on "the downtown scene." Which meant that they, like the rest of us, went out to the Mudd Club every night. And I mean every night! Maripol was the art director for the midtown Fiorucci store at the time that she and Edo figured it would be cool to make a film that captured the downtown scene in all it's glory. Not an easy chore.
We lived in our own world. We were an aristocracy who's only role in life was to be cool. We never really took becoming famous seriously. When I think of the people who impressed me the most for style and dedication to cool, I think of Tina LaHotsky, Gennaro Palermo, the Brooklyn Teddy Boys, John Lurie and his brother Evan, Rene Richard, Deigo Cortez, Glenn O'Brien, Viki Galves, Chi Chi Valente and Johnny Dynell and a whole host of people you've probably never heard about. But the person whom we all considered the prince of the scene, the ultimate arbiter of all things cool had to be Jean Michel Basquiat. And it's not like he tried to be cool, he just was cool. To try to get a sense of who Jean was by seeing Julian Schnabel's Basquiat would be a mistake. Jean was no one's victim. Jean ruled the scene and he was no one's fool.
Whatever pain he felt was all self-inflicted. Downtown 81 captures Jean far better because that's Jean up there on the screen. It may be just a "day in the life,' but that's all you'll really need (that's pretty much all you'd ever get from him anyway). But to place the label "film" on "Downtown 81" is another mistake. "Downtown 81" was an earnest attempt by people, not always in their right minds, to capture a scene that was slipping away the whole time.
Maripol wrote a rough treatment that Glenn O'Brien turned into a "sort of" script. Whether it has a three act story structure or not isn't important now. What's important is the Herculean effort it took for Maripol, Glenn and Edo (but especially Maripol) to reconstruct this lost gem.
What amazes me now is how The South Bronx, many parts of the East Village and Lower East Side looked back then. Blocks and blocks of charred, abandoned buildings that have all, of course, been rehabilitated, what considering the value of real estate in Manhattan. I can remember, back in the late seventies and early eighties, you could buy a building in the L.E.S. (Lower East Side) for a dollar, but only if you promised to fix it up. One dollar. The bloody things are worth millions now. There are these amazing shots of Jean, walking around the L.E.S., among these same derelict husks. He, like the buildings, appreciated with time.
Another amazing moment that makes Downtown 81 worth seeing is Jean's "hand." To be able to watch Jean sketch - to really see him doing it, not someone else and not the after effect, but Jean, in real time, drawing his "brutal" lines - is heart stopping. It is for me anyway, and I watched him sketch and paint in real life plenty of times. To see how he would awkwardly hold a pencil, in his right hand as if he were left-handed, is truly thrilling. And since his work is all about "the line," these far too few shots mean a lot. If only Edo, et al, knew the magnitude of what they were capturing, they would have gotten more of Jean drawing. But who knew? Well, Glenn O'Brien knew, in a way.
Edo had wanted Danny Rosen for the lead part of Downtown 81. Danny was on the scene, no doubt, had "mad cool" credentials, and would have probably done a great job. But Danny was no Jean Michel Basquiat. But O'Brien insisted on Jean as the star, because he felt that Jean was more interesting. This was a good year before Jean blew up (Danny Rosen is today, a fisherman in Ireland(!)
More than once, O'Brien had booked Gray, the band Jean and I founded, for gigs at the Mudd Club, The Rock Lounge, C.B.G.B.'s and had Jean on his infamous cable TV show, TV Party. In New York at the time the scene had a much more important underground connection to cable television and Glenn O'Brien's TV Party was the show to be on. You could only see it in parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, but that was good enough for us. Nowhere outside of downtown Manhattan mattered to us, anyway.
Glenn would have his friends, like Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, Jean, (me) and all kinds of people, weirdoes, beats, artists, etc. on the show, and allow squares to call in and make fun of us as he would sit there on camera, playing cool, with a mix of Warholian dumbfoundedness. I remember some "Goomba" calling in and calling Jean "Buckwheat." Jean laughed it off, claiming that few people were as cool as Buckwheat (the black kid star of the 1930's "Little Rascals" series). Unsatisfied, the mean-spirited caller asked Jean, "Hey, aren't you the guy who stole my gold chain in the subway the other night?" Jean was hurt. You can see it in his face. My heart broke for him at that moment. I think he knew he'd have to find fame with a much narrower, more selective audience. Music was out, art was in.
You can see Danny Rosen in Downtown 81, he's the guy hanging out with Jean as they smoke a joint in the back of a limo, outside of a Kid Creole and the Coconuts concert at the Rock Lounge. Kid Creole and the Coconuts by the way, were a spin off of the far more interesting disco band, Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, who's mid-seventies album by the same name is arguably one of the greatest disco albums of all time. The mid-seventies Savannah Band, featuring August Darnell and his hipper, but more tragic brother, Stoney (who just died recently), as well as Corie Days on vocals and Andy Hernandez (aka Coati Mundi) on vibes, not only captured a big band disco sound (I begrudgingly admit was pioneered by Bette Midler in the late sixties, with her "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy From Company B," an ode to 1940's swing music). In America at the time, (pretty much only in New York, San Francisco and L.A.) we were sporting 1930's, 40's and 50's thrift shop gear, and though Bette Midler kicked it off, it was Savannah Band, and their original New York fans that made the look cool. This retro fashion aesthetic carried over into the early eighties as we wore thrift shop suits from either the 30's (baggy, bummy) or the sixties (sharp, sharkskin, new wave, edgy). (I actually pioneered the new wave sixties sharkskin suit look, and even brought it to London in the late seventies, shipping authentic - but never been worn - American sharkskin suits, sold at shops on King's Road, but that's a whole other story.)
So anyway, Maripol, Edo and Glenn O'Brien decide to make a film, capturing the day in the life of a typical downtown New York artist. He would be a painter, with a band, struggling on all fronts - except with the ladies. It's rather simple. The film starts with Jean being examined by doctors in a hospital. Had he o.d.ed? He's released and goes wandering the concrete canyons of New York with his ax (a clarinet). He tries to go home but can't, he's locked out of his dilapidated apartment, due to no rent money. (We, Gray, wrote a sad, dergey song, Jean named "The Rent." Nothing to do with the film, of course, just a small point of interest).
He tries to convince his landlord, played by Giorgio Giomelsky, the one time manager of The Rolling Stones, that one of his paintings will easily cover the rent. Giorgio doesn't believe him of course and throws him back out on the street, but not before Jean grabs the painting, which he ends up selling to an Italian aristo (played by Daniela Morera, in real life, Italian Vogue editor and a Mudd Club regular, too). Of course he buys pot, then drops by Gray's funky rehearsal studio to see what's up with our up coming Mudd Club gig. Of course he finds me, tied up in a chair. We had just been robbed of our band equipment, and Jean spends the rest of the film looking for the equipment and for Anna Shroeder, a stunning German model who had given him a ride earlier in the film (he actually forgets to untie me and leaves me there, helpless - that was so Jean).
Anna was also a fixture on the scene, and had her own band, etc. She moved into my 10th street apartment when I vacated it in '81 (my next door junkie neighbors kept breaking in and stealing everything, even my spaghetti). I heard she had some problems coping with reality for a while. Join the club. I hope she's ok, now.
So Jean spends the film going here and there, looking for this and that, and in the end gets his wish. It's almost too strange how prescient Downtown 81 was in predicting Jean's stardom, without ever intending to. Downtown New York, and specifically the East Village and the Lower East Side have been, for at least the last eighty years, maybe longer, a place for bohemians, looking for a community of like-minded people. A place where they would be tolerated, maybe even appreciated. I believe that we (the "early eighties posse") were the last of this noble tribe. And we were defeated by our own success. We made life on the edge (partying all night at the Mudd Club, wearing cool thrift shop gear, creating theme worlds with Hollywood production values, having wanton sex, doing far too many drugs and basically having too much fun with too many celebrities) appear so attractive, we were inundated by kids who, rightly or wrongly, believed they were entitled to the same fun.
They showed up in droves during the 1990's and basically made it economically impossible for us to carrying on as usual. And no one had explained to this new generation that the fun we were having was the results of a lot of hard work. We worked hard for our fun, at the expense of everything else, like career building. And we did such a good job at making it all look so easy, that all the new comers thought it was just a natural part of life in New York. They had absolutely no idea they'd be called upon to create their own scene, and so when they couldn't find one, they waited around for one to happen. Unfortunately, people, far less interesting then we, filled that subcultural void and the new comers were too stupid, or too uninteresting themselves to know the difference, and now, New York is kinda lame. They killed the goose that laid the golden egg. Sad, really.
Every night that I can, I still go out, looking for that party that reminds me of "back in the day," and every night I'm disappointed. It's futile, but, for some reason, I keep doing it. It's like riding on a 14th Street cross town bus and when you get to 5th Avenue, you can't help but look south to see what we all know is no longer there. "Downtown 81" conjures all those memories, and it does something more. It forces the "absolute hip" generation - my generation - to take a critical, objective, un-biased look at ourselves. Were we really "all that?" Were we as hip as we thought we were? Can you tell by the clothes? Our conversation? The way we danced? There's this small, but interesting scene where Jean runs into Fab Five Freddy and Lee Quinones (both Mudd Club Regulars) having a hip hop party, with just the three of them, a hip-hopish girl and a DJ. Almost as stirring as watching Jean draw is watching Jean dance, which he does for just a moment in this scene. Jean danced like a T-Rex, keeping his hands small, close to and in front of his chest, while making larger, jerky moves with his waist and legs. A Tyrannosaurus Rex is the best way to describe it. The film should get an Academy Award for that moment alone.
Then there's these crazy scenes, like Steve Mass, the owner of the Mudd Club, playing a strip joint patron, who has a drink thrown in his face by a stripper, played by the equally infamous scenester, Cookie Mueller, star of many early John Waters films. DNA, featuring Arto Lindsay, Tim Wright, and Ikue Mori performs in a recording studio, and is a great, "art rock' scene, where you get a pretty good idea what it would be like to sit through a DNA concert.
I wish Gray had had a scene where we performed live. We always made it a wild production, like playing in an "ignorant" geodesic dome, made from haphazardly joined construction scaffolding and where we'd all be strapped in at 45 degree angles. I really believe Jean nixed the idea of Gray performing, because it would have given us a little too much attention, taking it from him. That was so Jean.
What also impresses me about Downtown 81 is how well Jean performs as an actor. There was a lot of talk at one time about how Jean didn't like the film, or at least the idea of the film (he never had a chance to see it, and he never wanted to see it released). If this is true, and I think it is, it's because Jean was concerned that the film might, in some ironic fashion, upstage, and thereby upset and possibly derail the artist/painter career he was building. That was the most wonderful thing about Jean, he knew, with absolute certainty, that he would become a famous painter, and he wanted nothing, no potential screw ups, no fateful errors, nothing, standing in his way.
The film is as much about the 1981 Downtown, Mudd Club Scene, as it is about the mercurial ascension of Jean. The film is almost more a footnote to Jean's career than it is a film. Without a strong story line, and many vaguely set up and unresolved subplots, Downtown 81 is less a film and more a cinematic document about a special time in New York history. Judged as the latter, it fairs very well, indeed.
The sound track. Here's where my involvement in the film truly compromises my objectivity as a film reviewer. Nick Taylor, Justin Thyme and myself, all former "Old School" Gray members with Jean, created three tracks for the film. "Drum Mode" is a haunting, minimalist John Cage/Stockhausen inspired piece, that's heard over the opening scene, where Jean is inside and then leaving the hospital. Our track, "So Far, So Real" opens the film, and we did a track called "I Know," used during a fashion show scene. Kid Creole and the Coconuts do a track, "Me No Popeye" featuring Coati Mundi, that's as fresh now as it was then. James White and The Blacks perform a heavy jazz/funk inspired number on stage in the film at the Peppermint Lounge. There might be more musical performances, but those are the highlights.
I last saw the film in the summer, pre-9/11, so I can't remember if there's a beauty shot of the Twin Towers or not, I think there is. It doesn't matter because when you look at the film, you sense their presence, you know they're there. And like the "scene," back in the day, you know they're gone.
Was "the scene" as cool as I remember it? I think so. It must have been. But memory can play tricks on you. Memories are like dreams, ever shifting, ever changing. It's asking a lot for Downtown 81 or any film to fully capture a "scene." Just look at Julian Temple's Absolute Beginners. Last summer there was a city-wide "art" campaign, in which hundreds, perhaps thousands, of life-size, fiberglass cows, painted and decorated in a variety of supposedly different and clever ways, representing this ridiculous idea or that and were placed in highly visible locations around the city. I was - and still am - appalled. The campaign began in the Midwest, Kansas City I think, where beef is king. Then the fiberglass cows cropped up in various cities in the west, before finally ending up in New York. Say what you want about New York's former Mayor Ed Koch, but he would never have allowed such an affront to New York sensibilities. Just the idea that New York would embrace an art campaign that originated in Kansas is embarrassing enough, but cows? Sorry Dorothy, you ARE still in Kansas.
New York and London have been engaged in a "friendly" competition over which is the world capital of new cultural. The crown has been tossed, usually begrudgingly, back and forth over the Atlantic for some time now.
In the early eighties, in the days of "Downtown 81," New York was "hands down" heavyweight champion. We sported a crown, drawn by Basquiat, as we entered the ring, with a cocky stride, to a throbbing hip-hop beat. Today - 9/11 aside - New York is on the ropes, maybe even down on it's knees. In the attempt to clean up the city, Mayor Giuliani, the rube who had a hissy fit over the Saatchi & Saatchi "Sensation Show" (yet another abject embarrassment) has made New York so antiseptic - fun and cool have been nearly wiped clean.
Giuliani enforced a certain cabaret law (which had been ignored for nearly a hundred years) that only allowed dancing in bars and clubs that had a license. It totally put a damper on Downtown nightlife. Just the idea of it was offensive. How could this be happening in the greatest party city in the world? Not only did this ridiculous law kill a huge portion of underground nightlife, over almost ten years it effectively culled the spirit of a generation. Eventually, the kids coming up had no idea there had been anything different.
Of course there were still plenty of dance clubs around, but the idea that the "theys" could get away with such absurd social engineering, and especially since it was aimed at us counter-culturists helped to take the wind out of our sails. It's the nightlife that's always been the lynchpin of New York subculture. Without it we are disoriented, crippled, nearly blind.
What to do? Well, Giuliani has finally left, serving two debilitating four year terms. Maybe the next Mayor will recognized New York's cultural importance and responsibilities. But like the way Viet Nam galvanized a generation, maybe 9/11 will end up, ironically, transforming the city. I heard this club kid say last weekend, with impressive confidence, that New York was coming back, with gusto, Spring, 2002. Watch out. Could happen. It would be so New York.
In the last ten years more than a dozen exhibitions on the Downtown New York art scene of the 70s and 80s have been mounted, all making their point with varying degrees of success. The latest addition to this cottage industry is 'The Downtown Show, The New York Art Scene, 1974-1984', a collection of more than 450 works of art and other artefacts, presented by New York University's Grey Gallery and Fales Library.
The show does not claim to be the definitive record of the Downtown scene. But it doesn't explain its glaring omissions, and neither does it justify its problematical proposition, that the period (1974-84) was one in which art was politically defined. The exhibition lacks the truthfulness of critic Rene Ricard who, in his famous 1981 article 'Not About Julian Schnabel', declared 'What do you say in a radically apolitical time when nobody knows what politics are after the hyper-politique of the 60s? ... I don't have a clue as to this period, if this is a period at all, so it would be futile to project anything. I don't consider this a personal shortcoming.'
The show is organised into eight groups, titled: 'Interventions', 'Broken Stories', 'The Portrait Gallery', 'Sublime Time', 'Salon de Refuse', 'The Mock Shop', 'De-Signs' and 'Body Politics,' characterised by phrases like, 'how artists took their art to the Street'; 'fresh look at the innovative and disjunctive narrative techniques'; 'a collective communal portrait', and 'artworks concerned with sexuality and identity'. Say what!? Are we talking about the same scene? This all sounds to me like they're forcing the Downtown scene into pseudo-intellectual constructs, much easier to package then the truth. Frankly, all we cared about was looking good, making great art, dancing all night, getting high as often as possible, getting laid as much as possible and becoming famous as fast as possible. Many of the important artists, writers, bands and filmmakers who made the scene – like Basquiat, Schnabel, Talking Heads, Karen Finley, Patti Smith and Eric Mitchell – are included, but the exhibition is busy, over-thought and under-represented; hard to dismiss but even harder to like.
Don't get me wrong, this scene was crucial to art history, and there are a few good pieces in this show, but the way it's been put together is downright weird. Already NYU boasts that its Fales Library has 'the world's largest archive focusing on the scene'. For what purpose? Is it strictly academic? Or might we be seeing future books, tours, merchandising and intellectual property schemes that exploit its so-called 'Downtown Collection'?
The curators have chosen the enactment of the 1974 Loft Laws (which made it legal for artists to live and work in the factory lofts), and the 1984 re-election of Ronald Reagan (signalling America's steadfast march towards absolute conservatism), as the defining parameters of the exhibition. But why? New York artists have been wrestling with real estate issues, and reacting to (or ignoring) greater American politics for decades. And in view of the curators' general choice of artists, 1974-84 seems way too arbitrary, adding to the clutter and confusion. Better parameters might have been 1978 – the year that Julian Schnabel blasted onto the scene with his broken plate paintings – and 1988, the year Basquiat died, not long after the deaths of Keith Haring and Andy Warhol. The one Schnabel in the show isn't a broken plate painting, but rather a 1974 painting, titled Draw-A-Family, which out of context, could almost have been made by anybody, and by no means captures Schnabel's historic impact four years later; a curatorial decision that is symptomatic of much that is wrong with the show.
Most, but not all, of the remaining paintings, photographs, sculptures, written material, videos and artifacts – as they are presented here – aren't particularly engaging either, and they aren't even particularly emblematic of either the scene or the chosen artists' better works. The two Basquiats in the show, the Harings, Kenny Scharfs (some pictures, some painted found objects) and a David Salle drawing are all average, and on it goes.
Hip Hop culture and graffiti art are unaccountably, almost entirely, excluded from the show. There is one half-decent undated token graffiti drawing on paper by Rammellzee, and that's it. Hip Hop culture had an enormously significant role in the Downtown scene, especially after 1981, and I see no valid excuse for its near exclusion. In 1981 Ricard, who was pretty much the scene's major voice (also unrepresented in this show), had written that 'The most accessible and immediately contagious productions in these shows (the 'Times Square Show', exhibitions at the Mudd Club, the 'Monumental Show', the 'New York/New Wave' show at PS1) were those of the graffiti stylists. The graffiti style, so much a part of this town, New York, is in our blood now.' Indeed, the absences of Hip Hop culture in the exhibition is made all the more striking and obvious by the over-representation in the exhibition of punk rock music, film, flyers and artifacts. Similarly the exhibition all but ignores crucial venues like the Mudd Club, The Roxy or Danceteria. Could it be that our scene, as it really was, was too hedonistic and apolitical to be packaged for academic discourse? Hey, they didn't call it Fun Gallery for nothing.
I feel a perverse need to protect and defend our libertine, sybaritic, 'ignorant' behaviour from the maws of political correctness and revisionist sanitizers. When Reagan was voted into office, then re-elected four years later, we just shovelled on more makeup, and shovelled in more drugs. And sure the ape-masked Guerilla Girls' protests, over the near exclusion of female artists in New York galleries, were valid. But they, individually, would never have risked being labelled 'party killers' by exposing their faces?! People were dying of AIDS – we were dying of AIDS – but do you think we took to the streets with the West Village Act Up crowd? It's not that we were dumb, we were just too hip to be overtly political. Our politics was the politics of aesthetics. Sure there were a few souls who were engaged in local politics and community issues, but they were in the minority.
We weren't proud of it, but we kept on fucking and sucking until we were exhausted, sans prophylactics. If someone stopped the music, we'd find someplace else to dance. Death was just another step, paved with good intentions, along the road to fame and immortality. When we were careful, it was to make sure they spelled our names right. That's the problem with the show for me. They're trying to force our round peg of throbbing abandon into their square hole of hyper-political consciousness, and it just won't fit (not that we were beyond giving it a go back in the day!). Politics, schmolitics, where's the party?
The Downtown Show: The New York Art Scene, 1974-1984
tours to The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh from May 20 to September 3 and the Austin Museum of Art, Austin from November 11 to January 28 2007.
Michael Holman has been performing with his band Gray (founded with Jean Michel Basquiat) off and on since 1979. His club, Negril, was home to Hip Hop's DJ Afrika Bambaataa, Grand Wizard Theodore, DJ Kool Herc, and the RockSteady Crew. He currently works as a film scriptwriter.