If the New York art scene from the eighties had to choose an MC, it would probably be the legendary downtown figure Glenn O'Brien. With his spontaneous, chaotic, pot-fueled live television party/talk show, TV party
(1978-1982), he created an arena of ultimate cool whose frequent guests included The Clash, Basquiat, Fab 5 Freddy, Blondie, David Byrne, and Robert Fripp.
A regular at Warhol's Factory, O'Brien launched his writing career with a music column for Interview
magazine, with Warhol as his mentor. He'd eventually become the publication's director. Later on, his innumerable creative projects would include editing Madonna's infamous Sex
book and writing and producing the Basquiat film Downtown 81
. O'Brien was a seminal member of the anarchic set of 80s New York cultural icons whose aristocratic tastes met bold rebellion, and to whom style, rage, and imagination mattered the most. Jeremy
and I had the chance to sit down for coffee at his Bond Street apartment crammed with books and Basquiats.
Alexandre Stipanovich: How did you come to live in New York?
Glenn O'Brien: I grew up in Ohio, but I lived in the New Jersey suburbs of New York for awhile when I was a kid. I always was dying to get back to New York. I went to college in Washington, and then I came here in 1970 to go to Columbia grad school. It was a good school but at the time, the film department didn’t have any money, so we never got to shoot very much film. It was before video. I wanted to make movies. I wanted to be a screenwriter, basically.
AS: Were you rebellious, angry, or both?
GO: I was rebellious but not angry.
AS: Because there's a lot of energy on TV Party.
GO: Yeah, but it’s not anger. It’s comic rage.
AS: Where was the show shot?
GO: It was shot at a public access studio on 23rd Street that had a live feed to Manhattan cable TV. We used to rent it. You’d go in and give them money, and they had the camera, the lights, the switchboard, and all that stuff––but everything was broken. I mean, it was all really cheap. And the guy who owned it was real eccentric.
There were all these other ridiculous shows filmed there. Do you know The Robin Byrd Show
? It’s like, porn actors doing exotic dancing. And it’s still on. There was also Tele-Psychic
. And there was a cocktail piano show where you could call up and ask the guy––John Wallowitch––to play Broadway showtunes, and he would play them. He was actually a friend of Andy's.
AS: You have a fascination with oral history. Do you see yourself as an anthropologist of the city?
GO: No. I see myself as an essayist. "Anthropologist" makes it seem very academic, you know?
AS: What's keeping you busy these days?
GO: I’m writing a book of political essays and a memoir, and I’m editing a book for Library of America––this collection of “hipster writing.” Then I’m working on some commercial projects. The best one is a film I just did with Steven Meisel for Dior jewelry that turned out really well. And I work on advertising with Jean-Baptiste Mondino. I also have a column in GQ every month.
AS: What do you think about the creative scene today versus that of the 80s?
GO: It’s hard to say. Every time is creative, but back then it was a reflection of the economics of the era because it was cheap to live here. Now, New York is the center of the art world in terms of the market, galleries, and institutions. But it’s not quite as much the center of art production as it was. When I moved here, you could live very cheaply, so it was attractive for young artists, musicians, and writers. Today it’s just more difficult, there’s more financial pressure. And I think there was a lot more going on––in music, anyway.
AS: Do you think rebellion and emotions are fading?
GO: I don’t know. It seems like it’s a transitional moment because there aren’t that many great venues for people to play in. I think live music is really important, and it doesn’t seem so important anymore. New York is very business-like now. I heard Björk was complaining about that—how there's no place to go to see music. I guess there are places, but it’s not as easy as it used to be.
AS: In TV Party, there seemed to be a sense of experimentation with new talent.
GO: There was more of a sense of community and more collaboration. I think there’s still a lot going on, but people are more separated.
AS: It's interesting that you're working on political essays, because you've always been interested in politics though culture.
GO: Yeah. Thinking about TV Party
got me on the path of writing this book. ‘Cause I think a lot of the ideas that we talked about are still relevant.
AS: Would you say television is a political device?
GB: It is a control device. That’s why this time for me––the Internet and the decline of the big TV networks––is so exciting. Because you can dissent. It’s like, “We decide whose book is going to get published. We decide what movies are going to be made.” And you can do it yourself, and distribute it yourself.
AS: What have you learned from Andy Warhol, your mentor?
GO: Andy would take every job that was offered to him, and then he tried to do everything as if it were art. He didn’t really discriminate between a painting and a TV commercial. It was just to do everything to the highest level that you can. But I learned a lot of other good things from him. Like, he had a certain kind of discretion. He could be negative while appearing to be positive.
AS: What has your history as an art collector been?
GO: Well, almost everything I have is from somebody I know.
Jeremy Liebman: How did you feel about Julian Schnabel's film Basquiat?
GO: Oh, I hated it. Actually, that movie is what made me put out Downtown 81
. I had kind of given up on it, and when I saw Julian’s work, I thought, “Shit. I’ve got this footage of the real Jean-Michel looking great and being cool. I’ve got to get it out.” The film had no sound––it was lost in Italy. After going through warehouses looking for it and never finding it, we dubbed the whole film.
JL: You re-dubbed it in 2000?
GO: Yeah, I guess it was ’99 or 2000. And, obviously, Basquiat wasn’t around, so we tried to figure who could do that.
AS: Who did?
GO: Saul Williams. Do you know him? He’s in that fantastic movie Slam
. It’s about a young guy who gets busted for dealing pot, and he gets sent to a really heavy prison, and he makes his reputation in jail by poetry. Really good.
AS: You recently did stand up at a benefit for Anthony Haden-Guest.
GO: People think it’s a disgrace to be the town drunk, but in New York it’s a real accomplishment. I don’t know how I felt about it, but people laughed a lot. It was good. And I did it with a sax player, my friend Robert Aaron, in the style of Jack Kerouac and Zoot Sims. They did this record called Blues and Haikus
. So I would tell a joke, and Robert would answer it on the sax.
JL: I was reading the interview that you did with Bad Day magazine. You were talking about how you started doing another guy’s record as a performance piece.
GO: Yeah, I only meant to do it one time, you know? And then it turned into a two- or three-years career. I still do it once in awhile. Serge Becker asked me to do a night at Joe’s Pub about a year-and-a-half ago. I sold the place out. But I also did that with musicians. I had James Chance and a drummer, with James playing piano. It was fun.
JL: Do you have a favorite joke?
GO: Yeah. You know, everybody thinks that the art world is a very cold and heartless place, but I was walking down the street the other day and I ran into Larry Gagosian, and he looked really sad. I said, “Larry, what’s wrong?” He said, “Oh, it’s a tragedy. One of my best friends, I found out that he died." I said, “Was it sudden?” He said, “Yeah, it was terribly sudden.” I said, “Well, what did he have?” He said, “Well, he had a nice Picasso, he had a couple Basquiats…”
Photos by JEREMY LIEBMAN