Video interview with Gary Indiana
Gary talks about The Bar on lower Second Avenue and the forces that undermined this artist’s community.
Cinematography by Wally McGrady.
Text of the audio interview with Gary Indiana
Francie Lyshak: So this is an interview with Gary Indiana. It’s August 17, 2013. We’re here to talk about The Bar and Bill Rice’s studio. The general date range is late 70s to the early 80s. It’s not a hard line, but I’m especially interested in your memories of that community, who you were as an artist, the influence of that community on you and any memories you have, especially of people that can’t speak for themself.
Gary Indiana: I came to New York in 1978. I was not here before that. I had been living in California for a long time. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to do all these things. When I was young, I just didn’t have any faith that I could do anything of any value whatsoever. There were probably a lot of different reasons for that. When I was going to school in the San Francisco area and then later on when I was living in Los Angeles, nothing that I tried to do worked out in any way that gave me any feeling of being a worthwhile person whatsoever. There was a brief period between the time I left school and the time I went back to California where I lived in Boston. When I was there, I tried to publish some things. I wrote movie reviews and different things for a gay paper in Boston. In that little world, I suppose I got some feeling of accomplishment; but it was a very tiny world and it was very parochially gay people. That’s never been my thing particularly.
I went out to LA. I didn’t go to work in the film business or anything like that. I was working in LA in Watts in the 1970s. I tried various things. I was always making drawings and collages and writing little stories. Somehow the leap from that to actually doing something that you could put in front of a real public, I just never could take that kind of step. I didn’t know how to do it.
One of the things that I came across when I was living in LA, was a bookstore on Vermont Avenue, Chatterton’s Bookshop. Now it’s called Skylight Bookstore: It’s a Bookstore at the same location. Chatterton’s had been there forever. It was a great bookstore. I started hanging out there at some point. I got to be friends with most of the people that worked in the bookstore. I got my second job, my moonlight job selling popcorn at a movie theater in Westwood, through someone who worked at Chatterton’s and who also managed a movie theater.
Around 1978 or 1977 or somewhere in there, one item I came across was this kind of magazine that was a newsprint. It was like a punk magazine. Now I had actually written some things and done some interviews with David Lynch and people like this for a punk magazine in LA called No magazine. This thing was called X. There were only two issues of this thing that were ever made. One was called X and another one that came out later was called X movie magazine. So X had a lot of interesting things in it. It seemed like really interesting voices, interesting minds, interesting writers, interesting artists. It was this clumsy newsprint thing. I probably got the only two copies of this that even existed in LA. There were some things featured in the both of these issues that spoke to me, one of which was something about the Baader Meinhof people and when the hostage-taking thing happened in the plane at Mogadishu. They stormed the plane and were captured. Within 24 hours the remaining people were in Stammheim Prison and had suicided.
I was very emotionally effected by this. I was working in Watts. I was working with the poorest people in America every day and I was working for pretty far left lawyers. This was the Legal Aid. I had definite and very strong political convictions and ideals. I had a lot of sympathy for the RAF and the western terrorists. I understood them because I’d also studied Marcuse in Berkeley, and some people like him, about repressive desublimation and repressive tolerance–which is to say that we’ve made a society that seems to be one of infinite choices, infinite freedom. When you boil it down, it’s quite the contrary. It’s a prison of commodities and consumerism. Because look, the last couple of years in LA, during the day I’d work in Watts with Legal Aid and at night I’d work at the richest suburb in American and sell popcorn to movie stars. The contrast between these two things was really very congruent with what I believe politically and what I wanted to see changed politically–this horrible disproportion of income distribution, wealth distribution. I had very, very strong convictions, but I didn’t know how to do anything. Working in Watts as a paralegal was not a useless thing but it was certainly not anything important either. Anyone else could have done it and done it better actually; because I was kind of bad at the job. I was bad with filing and stuff like that. I still am.
Anyway, some of what I saw in X magazine had a relationship to a medley of aesthetics that I liked, beyond just experimental fiction. Some years later, after a lot of time had passed, a lot of what I did after I came to New York and what a lot of other people did was labeled as transgressive fiction. All these labels were put on it. I hate when you put a name on something that is a process, because it kind of stops things in their tracks. It makes you self-conscious about things that you shouldn’t be self-conscious about.
In any case, it seemed to me from these two flimsy little newsprint magazines, that there were people in New York who were not laid-back, tripped out, California dreaming, ‘let’s go to the beach’ kind of people. There were people there who actually had some conviction. They were artists too. They were creative people; but they had at least some socially conscious raison d’être. When I saw these magazines it was during the last year of my life in LA, which was not an easy year. I was really souring on California and being out there. I thought, ‘If I ever leave here, I’m going to New York and those are the people I want to know.’ Then, I had a huge car accident. I was almost killed. The car was wrecked. I was suddenly faced with the prospect of taking public transportation to Watts every day to go to work. I couldn’t do that. If you ever lived in LA, you’d know why I couldn’t do that. It’s just not an option.
So I came to New York. I didn’t have any money whatsoever. I had $40 when I arrived. A woman, who was sort of an aspiring actress and who had been friends of mine in Boston, was living in a 6th floor walk-up, efficiency apartment on 86th Street on the Upper West Side. I shared the apartment with her for several months until I got a job. I didn’t know how to meet these people that I wanted to meet.
The only person that I knew beside this actress, who was not tapped into the downtown thing, was Evan Lurie. I had met him in Boston when I went back there for a vacation from LA. My parents were still alive then, living in New Hampshire. So I went up to visit them and I visited some people in Boston. An old friend of mine said, “There’s this really interesting guy that I met. He’s at this bar every night.” (This is a bar called Sporter’s on Cambridge Street in Boston.) “He’s there every night and I’m sure that you would be interested in him. Because he’s a fascinating person.” Well, this guy was Evan Lurie. So I met Evan at that bar. I don’t know how many times we had a conversation or what have you. Then when I was living with Kay Scott up on West 82nd St., I got a job at a market research place on Madison Avenue. It was right around the corner from this Argosy Bookshop where Evan worked. So we had lunch almost every day together and it was right across from Fiorucci’s too. So there was this whole other Mudd Club crowd of people hanging out at Fiorucci’s.
Then weirdly, there was this young woman who worked at the market research place. I can’t remember her name. She was lovely. She was really nice. She got an invitation to a party that was in one of those housing parks near Chelsea. She said, “I don’t think I’m going to go to this. You can go.” I was so bored. The only people I ever saw were these Upper West Side stiffs that I couldn’t stand. I was dating the guy who wrote Godspell, who was really a piece of work. Think of a bunch of show queens sitting around a piano bar singing, “Here’s to the ladies who lunch.” That was the quintessence of that whole experience.
Anyway this woman at work tells me where this party was. I went to it. It was in an apartment with a lot of people I had never met before. I met Walter Steading there. Walter Steading was in Blondie and later did a music thing with me when I was doing my cabarets. I love Walter. Walter Steading was showing a series of paintings at this party that he had done. They were all paintings of that pope who died 23 days after becoming the pope. You would remember this if you were Catholic. (I follow all these things because I’m a freak about stuff like this.) It was rumored that this pope, who was a good guy evidently, was murdered. I’ve studied up on it and it’s very possible to me. The reason he was murdered is because of this guy, Michel Sindona. He was the president of the Vatican bank and had done all these incredibly dirty deals with the Mafia and all these weird, illegal currency transactions. There was all this corruption with the Vatican Bank that this pope was going to clean up. Twenty-three days after he’s anointed the pope, he dies.
So Walter had done these incredibly funny and heartbreaking portraits of this person. The world had never gotten to know this guy. He was dead in no time. Walter’s paintings were exactly my humor. Walter had made these really, very good portraits of this murdered pope. I cannot really tell you who else I met at that party. I’m sure I met several people who were in the downtown world here. I have to just guess; because there’s a lot of connective tissue that disappears, just like the insulation on your hipbone disappears.
There was one other connection that was through somebody on the West Coast. When I was visiting here from the West Coast in LA, I met this filmmaker named Phil Tarley. He lived over on 5th Street or 7th Street between 2nd and 1st Avenue. Phil would come uptown and he met John Michael Tebelak, who was the guy that I was going out with who’d written Godspell. Phil was one of the people who got a glimpse into the stiff world that I was trapped in up there. He made some effort to get me downtown. I’m almost sure the first time that I went to The Bar was because of Evan or because of Phil.
Even when I was still living uptown (it was sort of after I ditched the genius of Godspell writer), I was living in some putrid basement apartment near Central Park. It was such a horrible place because the person who lived directly above me had no carpeting on the floor and walked around in heels all the time. There were low ceilings. There was constant banging. When I was still living in that apartment, I remember going to The Bar and picking guys up and taking them home with me. I must’ve established something of going down there to that bar. I wanted really to get away from the Upper West Side and come down here.
I can’t remember at what juncture that happened. I also don’t remember when I met Bill Rice. The earliest memory that I’ve been able to find was in a kind of review at Theater For the New City. I can’t remember if it was one of the Halloween shows, but it was called Voidaville. He came out and did this character called The Depressionist. I don’t remember if I had met him before but I had no idea what he was like. When I saw this, I just totally fell in love with him, of course. Once Bill and I got to know each other we were definitely friends for life. There was no question about it. Bill and I understood each other, in a much deeper way than a lot of people that we both knew understood either one of us. Rather than be exclusive of other people, I would just say I had a unique relationship with Bill. Part of it had to do with the fact that we were both intellectuals. Bill knew history. I knew history. Bill knew more American history than I did. I knew more European history. But we knew about things. We knew about the history of culture. We knew about the history of pop culture. So there were a lot of things that Bill was preoccupied with that other people probably thought was quaint or interesting, but they didn’t ever get into it. I could get into it really deeply, because there were things related to it that I was interested in as well.
This is the thing, I miss him so because he was one of the few people I could talk to about certain things and now he’s gone. There were things that I will never be able to talk to anybody about, that I talked about with Bill. I can give you one example. Many years after I first knew him, (I think it was around the 9/11 time, so it’s quite late) I had been obsessed for years with this movie, The Shanghai Gesture by von Sternberg. I wanted to put the original play on, which was by a guy named John Colton who written it in the 20s. Bill actually had a copy of it. Not only that, I think I was trying to somehow put together a production of it in Baltimore with Sharon Niesp and Susan Lowe and all these John Waters people. When I was still mulling that over, Bill called me up and said, “Oh you know what I have, I have an old wax recording of Florence Reid and the musical they did of Shanghai in ‘21. (Ultimately I wrote a novel called Shanghai Gesture.) It was things like that. You know, sometimes especially as you get older there are fewer and fewer people that you can reasonably hope that will interest themselves in things that interest you, simply because you are interested in them.
There were many, many things that if I ran across anything related to them, I would save it for Bill. I would put it aside to share with him–books, lots of books. It was mostly Bill who introduced me to things. For instance, he introduced me to this writer, Thomas Beer who was really a celebrated writer in the 20s. Scott Fitzgerald liked him a lot. He was always published in the Saturday Evening Post. I still think he’s one of the funniest American writers ever. He’s been out-of-print for probably 40 years. It’s nonfiction/fiction mélange. It all comes from Dos Passos–the cross-section of society and the camera eye. It was called Mauve Decade. It’s about the 1890s. It was a fantastic book. I’m just giving you an example. There were many things that Bill put me onto that I was unaware of. I think I did the same for him maybe with some things. We were both very curious people. We had a certain kind of curiosity. Maybe we didn’t perceive that in a lot of people we knew. I don’t mean that other people had no curiosity. I just mean that we had a certain kind of curiosity, almost pedantic. Look at what Bill did for money. He went to the library to do research for Eddie Burns. Bill was used to dig into research. I’m the same way. I could get lost in research forever. That’s why I’m trying not to do too much of it; because it will take over my life. I get so fascinated with stuff.
So anyway, I met Bill I’m sure at some juncture around the time I saw The Depressionist. I remember when we started going to Phoebe’s. We’d go to Phoebe’s in the late afternoon and the early evening and eventually go to The Bar. In those days there were all these other things too. I can’t ever remember what some of these places were. There was a place called Princess Pamela’s. It was like a soul food joint that was maybe over on 12th Street. It was on the 2nd or 3rd floor of a building. Some of the big blues singers used to go there. At night we’d go there. We go to Club 82, which was a real sleazy dump. Also in the late 70s, you’d see people in The Bar, during the day especially, that were not gay–like John Lurie used to go there to play pool all the time or you’d see Tina L’Hotsky, who was the queen of the Mudd Club and lived in Bill’s building upstairs. She died a few years ago. She would go there in the early part of the evening en route to the Mudd club. All kinds of people were there like Jay J Mitchell or you’d see Edward Albee in there sometimes. There were so many people. I don’t really have any stories attached to a lot of them, except that I knew them socially there. There was Larry Mitchell. There was Bill Rice, Richard Morrison, Evan Lurie, Jim Neu. Oh Francie, so many people used to hang out there. Peter Hujar went in there a lot. Just a lot of people, a lot of whom I wouldn’t remember unless I walked into them. Also some of them are now dead.
Okay, I don’t know the exact sequence, but it might’ve been 1979 when I moved downtown. First I sublet an apartment on 1st Street with some former friends. You could find apartments quite easily. So I sublet this place on 1st Street. Of course we unfortunately sublet it from someone who didn’t tell me that he didn’t give the rent money to landlord. So we were there for some time and then suddenly of course we discovered that the rent wasn’t paid.
Then I had to find the next apartment. I found a place over on St. Mark’s Place. I actually know the address now, but for a really weird reason. It was at 109 St. Marks Place. I would never have remembered that. We were only there for three months or something; but the weirdest thing happened to me in Romania. This particular address and the fact that I had lived there was a piece of data that my bank had collected about me from “available public records.” They asked me as a security question if I’d ever lived at this address. That was 32 years ago. I said to the guy, “Why the fuck do you know that? I don’t understand this. I didn’t have an account with your bank. I only lived there for three months. Why do you know this about me?” Anyway that’s my current obsession, this surveillance shit.
Anyway I found this basement apartment. We all moved in. It was a really horrible apartment because when we went there after we signed the lease, it was full of insects, every kind of insect. We had to bug bomb. The room that I had was right over the furnace and this constant horrible heat was coming up through the floor.
By this time, Bill and I had decided that we wanted to do something. It was probably the summer of 1979. It could’ve been earlier, but I don’t think so. We started to do these things in the backyard of Bill’s studio. I think one of the first pieces we did was this play called Red Tide. It was with George Terrese Dickinson, Kip, the black guy who used to be around, Terry Robinson, Bill Rice, Larry Mitchell, Marylou Fogarty, Maggie Estep and me. I don’t remember who else was in it. It was a play that was set on an island where there was a nuclear reactor. Of course Three Mile Island had just happened recently. It was a comedy of course. Oh yeah, there was also a filmmaker named, I think, Alan Fitzpatrick. (He made this interesting film about Arthur Bremer who shot George Wallace.) Alan made a film of me and Evan singing, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” It was a silent film. The play began with two women, Mary Lou Fogarty and Maggie Estep, taking down sheets off a clothes line. The first thing was this projection of Evan and me singing the song. Then they came out and took the sheet off the clothesline and then the play began. Well it was very episodic. It was a typical play that I would write at that time about some really inbred, ridiculous Tennessee Williams type southern family, living on an island where there was a nuclear reactor, their servants, the whole thing. The thing is we decide, or I decided that it would be a great idea if we taped all the dialogue and simply walk through the play, pretending to speak it but having it amplified coming from behind the audience. So that’s what we did. However, we failed to realize that we needed to put cues where people came in and out and when they started talking. It was a theatre play that was like a film that slowly going out of sync. (Laughter.) It was really funny.
Oh yeah, and the other thing I remember is that none of us had ever had a fucking dime–really, not one fucking dime. I would collect pennies in this US mail bag that I’d come by somehow. It was under the sink. Jackie Curtis used to manage this bar called Slugger Ann’s. Well I was friends with Jackie and Margo Howard-Howard, Don D and a lot of the Warhol people. Jackie would call me up. He’d be down there taking care of the bar. Jackie calls me and says, “Listen I need to ask you about something. I can’t discuss it over the phone. Could you come down?” I said, “Yeah sure.” So I go down and walk over to Slugger Ann’s and there’s two people in the bar. One is some sailor who’s passed out at the end of the bar. The other one is some drunk who’s talking to himself and Jackie. I say, “What’s so confidential you couldn’t say it over the phone from here?” Jackie says, “Do have any money, any money at all.” I said, “ Jackie, I’m broke. I never have any money but I especially don’t have any money now. The only thing I’ve got is this big sack full of pennies.” He said, “Can I have them?” So I bring it down to Slugger Ann’s–it must’ve weighed 50 pounds, all pennies. That was the level that we all lived on.
I remember that for the first play, which was called Red Tide, I had like $14 to somehow buy all the props. There was a little novelty store on 2nd Avenue between 4th and 5th Street. It had all this weird, party stuff, like a novelty store. One of the things they had were these colored plastic tubes that you could whirl and they made this whirling sound. So we got a bunch of those because there was a native uprising in the play. We decided that the native uprising would be these people spinning these things. I don’t remember what else we got. Fourteen dollars even then didn’t go very far; but that was how we did that play. We did a bunch of little evenings or belle musettes. People would read. Bill would play the piano or somebody would come play the piano. We’d have a very intimate kind of thing but eventually a lot of people were coming to this.
That went on for a few years. One night we did this medley of different things. One of the things was a piece of this play that I had written. The plays I would write then would be taken from some movie that made a big impression on me when I was a kid and I’d put that together with another movie. So, for instance like the southern ones, I would put Persona with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In Red Tide there was a whole thing about Elizabeth Vogel who was this catatonic. It was a combination of I Walked with a Zombie, Persona and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Big Daddy. I had started to do this thing that was partly based on Sunset Boulevard and partly based on this really cheap chick flick called Where the Boys Are with Connie Francis, Sandra Dee, Yvette Mimieux. (She’s the one who gets creamed in traffic.) I put this together with these circus freaks, these deformed women like alligator girls at the sideshow. It was called Alligator Girls Go to College.
I asked Kay, who I had lived with uptown, if she would come down and read this part—to actually read the whole text of Alligator Girls and just assume all the parts. So she did. I think that night René Ricard was also reading. There were quite a variety of little things performed when we did that evening. Steve Mass, who I ran the Mudd Club, and this guy Rudolph were there. Rudolph was opening up a nightclub. There were nightclubs opening and closing all the time. There was the Interferon, Peppermint Lounge, Tin Pan Alley, Limelight. All these places were around. Some of them stayed open a long time and some closed. I went to the Mudd Club almost every night for about a year at least. I met a lot of people. I had kind of a schizoid existence in the East Village. The thing is, I had my East Village friends and the people I knew from The Bar and from that micro world. Then there were these other people that I knew– Tina L’Hotsky was a vector. She had brought Steve Mass to this evening. Anyway, this guy Rudolph was supposed to open this nightclub called Pravda, apparently with a huge amount of capital investment. I think it opened and closed the same night. I don’t know what happened. He and Steve Mass were both there at Bill’s that evening. Steve Mass and Rudolph both asked me if I would put this play on at their club. I’d only written part of the first act. I had to finish it.
For Alligator Girls there was a very, very long rehersal period. In the meantime I had done a performance at the Mudd Club with with Viva, Jackie Curtis and Taylor Mead. This was written up in Rolling Stone. It was written up in a bunch of different places. So suddenly I have a slight public existence. It was the beginning of that. I had been doing various things. But through the Mudd Club you’re written up in the New Yorker, written up in Rolling Stone. It was what cranked up this thing, this persona, whatever. So that was before we put the play on there.
Francie: It shows the influence on your career. You are doing these things with Bill Rice and then suddenly you begin to become a public figure.
Gary: I couldn’t even say why. I didn’t have a double life. Very typically, I would spend the first part of the night with these other people and in the later part with the people around here. Sometimes they interacted but not that often. There was a very distinct difference between people that I knew through the East Village crowd and people I knew from other things. For instance I don’t think Bill ever met Walter Steading until 2002.
Walter was one of the first people that I met and through him other people, like Debby Harry and people like that. Anyway to return to the East Village part, I did spend almost every night at The Bar. The Mudd club was more of a weekend thing. Nobody went on Monday night to the Mudd Club. That was more the weekend and not every night. I say every night; but it wasn’t every night–far from it in fact. It just felt like every night before it was over.
Anyway, so I don’t remember how we managed to do Alligator Girls. I know that various people contributed. These people were artists that I knew from the other world that I lived in. At that time they were not particularly well-known artists. They now have been famous for decades; but at that time they were not necessarily famous. Most of them however were well-off. That’s the secret of the art world. Everyone thinks, ‘Oh they are starving in a garret.’ Most of the people that made it in the art world from the 80s had trust funds. They came from some kind of well-off background. I wouldn’t say most of them, but plenty of them. I do know that some of them had to be waitresses or had to be illustrators or do some porno work. I know they had jobs. Most of those people didn’t start from zip. The only people I know who started from zip was Barbara Kruger. She’s probably the only one who actually appreciates what she’s been given. She doesn’t need more, more, more. But anyway I keep going off the track.
I went to The Bar a lot. I probably went there a lot with Phil Tarley actually. I would go there and see Bill Rice every night at The Bar. We hung out. The Bar was like a really wank version of Cheers. On any given night you’d go into The Bar and you knew who you were going to see most of the time–Jay J Mitchel, Michael Oppedisano, a raging pest (may he rest in peace), Tina L’Hotsky on her way to the Mudd club, this one and that one. You’d see all those people and it wasn’t primarily a place that you wanted to get picked up or pick somebody up. That wasn’t the primary purpose of The Bar. The primary purpose of The Bar was to talk to friends and get drunk. That was essentially it and ancillary things related to that.
When we were doing the theater plays, not only cell phones hadn’t been invented, but a lot of us didn’t even have a telephone. I remember once somebody that we worked with on one of the plays was doing costumes. She didn’t know the people in the group. I think maybe she was waiting to fit people for costumes at a rehearsal and everybody showed up. Nobody was even told when it was or where it was. They just all knew it was going to be there. She said, “You people must be telepathic.” I got this place at the beginning of 1980. It’s so hard to convey to people now how, in those days, if I walked between here and Houston Street I knew every single person I saw. I mean every single person. There weren’t that many people on the street in the afternoon in the East Village. You just didn’t see that many people. Either I knew them by sight or I knew them. There were so fewer people here. Even though none of us had money–we couldn’t take cabs anywhere, or anything like that–it was sort of easy to pull people together in the same place, at the same time. Part of it was because we didn’t have cell phones and people couldn’t change everything fourty times. It was like, “Okay, next Monday, eight o’clock, there.” That was it. You wouldn’t hear from the person again until then.
Francie: I have a couple more questions. What was it about The Bar particularly that drew you to it? There were a lot of places to drink. There were a lot of places to hang out. Why The Bar? What was it about that community in particular that drew you back over and over again? My second question is really about identifying the forces or events that assaulted that community and eventually led to its dissolution.
Gary: The answer to the first question was that this was the place where the people I knew went. Also I think I chose The Bar partly because it was not a parochial gay bar. It wasn’t like a bar that you would typically find on the West Side in 1978, which would be all-male, leather chaps, clones. The Bar was more of a neighborhood bar, even though it also functioned as a gay bar. Straight people went there. It wasn’t a gay, gay bar. If you wanted to pick somebody up, The Bar wasn’t the first place you would choose to do that. That is because mostly the people from the neighborhood went there. On any given night, there weren’t huge numbers of people in there who were not there regularly. It was mostly people who were known to each other.
I was thinking about what you said earlier this morning, when you quoted Richard Morrison. He said that there was a kind of secret language or coded language. For me, it was more that we all kind of knew each other pretty well and we all sort of knew what each other was like. So if somebody who was completely out of our camp came in there, we might find them amusing in a certain way.
One event that I wanted to mention was when William Friedkin was making the film called Cruising, around 1981. At that time there were all these demonstrations against the film over in the West Village. I’m not sure why, but there just were. When Friedkin took over The Bar to film for two or three days, he put up all these things up to make it look like a West Village gay bar. He put rows of hubcaps on the wall. He changed things around. When they were finished using the place as a film set, the people that owned the bar just left everything that way. That actually changed the whole character of The Bar. It didn’t change it entirely, because the same people went to The Bar. But suddenly a lot of people who had never gone to The Bar, now went to The Bar. It became more of a pickup place. It became more like a West Village bar. It was something that we were all very disturbed by, because somehow it turned into a place that was more like the others.
Francie: Well, when new people come into any group, it changes things, especially if you had an influx of people.
Gary: Yeah, I think it became a much more characteristically gay bar at that point. You had this very artificial thing happening.
Francie: That speaks to the question about the forces that begin to erode that community.
Gary: The other reason that I was there every night was because I had a drinking problem. (This is a little bit of a difficult subject for me.) That was one reason for being there, quite aside from ‘la vie de boheme’ and having friends there. It was true that there were people there that I wouldn’t see otherwise. I would see Bill Rice a lot at his home, in the garden and at the studio. Around that time my life kind of shifted in terms of where I spent the majority of my time. I started working at various things. My social sphere expanded and the Mudd Club was part of that. Professionally I was doing other things. I wasn’t writing plays or directing them anymore. I wasn’t putting things up in Bill Rice’s garden. It got to the point where I could only see Bill Rice, Larry Mitchell, Richard Morrison and a lot of other people at The Bar.
I remember going to the bar right up into the 90’s actually. But then what happened? The Boiler Room opened. Suddenly there was a place where all these younger people went at night. Dick’s Bar opened. Dick’s Bar had been Jackie Curtis’ aunt’s or grandmother’s bar. Jackie died and the bar was sold. I remember being taken there by Ron Vawter. The guy who owned that place was a sicko. I really thought he was weird, creepy guy. I don’t remember his name. It did become popular gradually as another place to go. Dick’s Bar became part of Bill Rice’s itinerary.
Francie: By the way, Gary, I don’t mean to interrupt you but I think we all had drinking issues. We were all putting it away a lot.
Gary: Yeah, it turned out ultimately that I was not an alcoholic; but that alcohol plus drugs was my escape valve. Drinking was easier, legal and more sociable than a lot of the drugs I was taking. There is always that factor to remember, because for me a lot of the estrangement and detachment from the scene in the East Village had to do with drinking issues. Also, I had to get serious about what I was doing in life, to make a living—like you said about yourself becoming a therapist. When I was 20 years old, I could drink all night and go to work the next day. When you get older, you can’t. You just can’t. You can’t be serious and be intoxicated with one thing or another all the time or even very frequently.
Francie: So that pulled a lot of us away. We had to work. We needed an income and to do something that we felt was worthwhile. We also couldn’t get loaded every night and do that at the same time.
Gary: I’m just trying to be somewhat chronological or historical about this. It seems to me that things didn’t breakup all that long ago. It wasn’t before the East Village suddenly I had this art gallery thing around 1985. That didn’t impact the real estate values until a few years later. It was a gradual change. By the time they started gentrifying the East Village most of those galleries, if they survived economically, had moved to Soho. The ones that survived Soho are in Chelsea now. This was such a dead area, if you compare it to the rest of the city. Demographically the whole city has gotten grossly overpopulated. But this was a backwater, the same way that some sections of Queens or Long Island City are backwaters now. They would be very desirable to live in if you were in your 20s or 30s. I think that it was not until the late 80s that a lot of places started to disappear, like Club 82 or Princess Pamela’s. Dick’s Bar didn’t fold until probably twelve or thirteen years ago. Eileen’s Reno Bar moved out of that little space between Eleventh and Twelfth and moved into a place that is now the Hungry Poppers. It’s a strait neighborhood bar. All those places, one by one, just slowly disappeared. You still have Phoebe’s but it’s changed totally. Those where the places where you went in the evening or at night to find the people that you knew.
Francie: Those were the gathering places.
Gary: That was something that disappeared here. It happened elsewhere to the people I knew in the art world and the people I knew in certain other spheres of the city. Let’s put it this way. Once money came into everything, once everything in the city became about money, money, money, their weren’t places anymore that people just gravitated to on a regular basis. It just slowly evaporated.
Francie: Because people had to leave?
Gary: No, because some people got rich and some people didn’t. Some people left town. Some people died, don’t forget. There was that as well. A really significant part of that whole story is that, after a certain moment, people started dying in huge numbers from AIDS. That decimated the whole community over here. There’s no question about it. That was maybe the most dramatic thing and the most depressing thing. Also, I think spiritually it was a huge downer for everybody. It’s hard to reconcile trying to live this artistic life with the fact that you don’t know if the people you were talking to were going to be alive or dead the next week.
Francie: It brought a whole different spirit into things. Death was everywhere.
Gary: Fear also, a lot of fear. Certainly, the libidinal drive was gone that was behind a lot of the whole scene over here—whether or not it concretized in terms of actually having sex with people, being able to or just thinking about it. That was gone. It just went. People were terrified of this thing happening to them. Of course they were also freaked out, grief stricken that this happened to people they knew. You’d hear things every time you left the house. ‘This one had a seizure down in Chinatown. That one was carried off by pneumonia over the weekend.’ It was like one of those things that was really hard to assimilate or regard as normal in any way at all.
Francie: It was a trauma to the whole community.
Gary: It really was a trauma, to the whole world actually, eventually. I remember one of the people, who has now somehow inserted himself into the whole Act Up history. I saw him in front of the post office on Fourth Avenue early on during this whole period. He was moving to Paris. He said, “I’m getting out of here. This AIDS thing!” Well somehow, the way the history is inscribed now, he was here the whole time and he was organizing with Larry Kramer. I don’t know how that happens, but it does happen.
Francie: Hopefully its guilt.
Gary: That was the other thing. A lot of us got involved in Act Up meetings and that stuff. It became a thing. I don’t know how Bill processed all this stuff, but Bill was quite a bit older. I think Bill was 50 when I met him.
Francie: Didn’t one of his boyfriends, one of his early, most beloved boyfriends die? I don’t know if it was from HIV.
Gary: It was.
Francie: Well, Bill wasn’t one to chat about his feelings.
Gary: No he wasn’t. That’s why I said that I don’t know how we processed it—because he didn’t talk about it. One thing Bill and I had in common is that we’re both New Englanders. Bill was much more of a New Englander than I am—yankee, stiff upper lip, not effusive emotionally.
Francie: Well that tells me a lot. I always thought of Bill that way. That was very much part of his character.
Gary: He was very much Vermont. I was New Hampshire. It made me kind of slightly less reticent. Also, I didn’t know how to process all that shit—between being terrified for your own life and wanting to have empathy for other people. That was a real struggle for me at that time. I just thought that people are not supposed to die at my age. They’re just not. And there was apparently nothing to be done about it, until Larry Kramer and a bunch of other people decided there is a way that we can actually force the government to put money into research. I can’t say I was much of an activist either. I went to Act Up meetings. I went to a march on Washington.
It was a very peculiar thing. The epidemic gave a lot of focus to people who didn’t have any previously. I had plenty to begin with. My focus was never there necessarily. An illustration of this is Mark Harrington, who later became a very important activist in terms of lobbying the FDA and getting drugs approved and everything else. He really trained himself to be a scientist practically. When I first met him he was a hanger on, and the worst kind of hanger on. He was like Michael Oppedisano, if you remember him. He would just cling to the edges of groups of people who were friends—hoping for a snatch of gossip that he could carry in his teeth from one group to another, like a lamprey or something. It’s terrible to say that of somebody who I now think turned into a terrific person.
I already knew what I was wanting to do, what I intended to do, what I was doing to a limited degree in the early 80s. Being gay never became the focus of my work. That was not my subject. It might be personally very important to me. It might be very moving and meaningful to me, but not my subject, not what I would write about, not what I would make art about.
Francie: You’ve always had a very broad vision, broad interests.
Gary: I would just say I’m analytical on a different scale of things. (That sounds condescending.) I was trained in school to think about certain things. That’s what I think about generally, a more global perspective on things than people who find a particular speciality.
Francie: Maybe it’s your New England manner. One’s sexuality is a very personal kind of subject.
Gary: It was never an issue for me. It really wasn’t, once I acknowledged that ‘Okay, I’m a homosexual. That’s it. I’m attracted to men.’ I never concealed it in any way whatsoever. It never was an issue for me, except when I was growing up in a small town in New England. It was not really an issue after that. Also, I could never be in a gay pride parade for example. It was not something that was a source of pride or a source of shame. It was just what it is. I understand people who need to refer to themselves in that kind of very emphatic way, because maybe they felt abject before. I always felt abject for other reasons. I never felt abject about that.
Francie: Wealth distributions for example? You feel very passionately about that.
Gary: Yeah, absolutely, income disparity, rich and poor. Those were things that became very meaningful for me very early, due in part to coming from an immigrant family. The years I was in LA I had in front of me this complete illustration of how capitalism works. I was in the poorest ghetto in the country every day. Then I went to the richest suburb in America every night. That’s what I did for a living and it cemented a worldview that I had already formed in university. It always seemed to be the basis of everything. Of course that’s only one way to look at the world. I have to say, I’m not a sentimental person. I don’t sentimentalize these things, except of course in my heart I do. Those are things that you can analyze in an objective way and even concretize them in statistics. To me that was always important.
Francie: The last question that comes to my mind is about the fact that you have prospered as a writer, you have kept your art alive and you are very active. A lot of people have drifted away and have not prospered. Any thoughts on what kept you in the battle for your voice?
Gary: I would cast it in totally negative terms in that I didn’t know how to do anything else. I didn’t! I am constitutionally incapable of holding a job. I am. I have really terrible problems with authority, with having a boss or having anyone tell me what to do. So I had to figure out a way to survive doing what I wanted to.
I read part of this book a few years ago that I want to get a copy of, called Born Losers by Scott A. Sandage. The premise of it had to do with the concept of ‘losers.’ Capitalism produces ‘losers’ in huge numbers compared to the ‘winners.’ This concept didn’t actually exist in America until around the time of Emerson. After the Industrial Revolution, it really kicked in. I’m unsure of that too, because I read a history of the War of 1812 recently. That author said that even before the revolution in 1776 a lot of colonists from every walk of life fled to what was called Lower Canada. They did this because they were disgusted by the greed and the corruption that was already everywhere in American life. I can well believe that. I think what happened to our community, in broad strokes, was due to the force of deregulation and of the safety net being completely unraveled by Ronald Reagan. Then you throw in AIDS and these other things. Ours was this ecosystem that was actually very fragile. It didn’t seem to be at the time, but it actually was. It just sort of died. I saw it in other parts of my social existence in the art world.
Francie: So it’s not unique to our community?
Gary: It was in the whole country, but especially Manhattan. It happened in Manhattan most nakedly; because Manhattan, along with Los Angeles and Washington, is the fulcrum of American capital. It became so clear here. I would never imagine in 1980 or even 1985 that I would one day repine for my old slumlord who used to own this building.
Francie: What happened?
Gary: He turned it over to his brother. His brother turned it over to this really horrifying management company. He was a real slumlord, a classic Jewish slumlord. You would call him up and he’d say, “Oh I’m not going to do that. I don’t have to. You’re responsible for that.” But he was somebody who wasn’t going to throw you out of the life boat. He was replaced by this banshee from hell—a woman who works for Cooper Square Realty. I don’t know what test tube she was developed in. This is somebody who lives to make other people unhappy with every breath.
It’s about money. It’s about wiring people, especially people born after Reagan came into office. They’ve been taught that money is everything, everything! Nothing else is important. Personal aggrandizement, personal success is the only thing that’s important. We weren’t brought up in that world. So that’s what I think really happened essentially. I wouldn’t wanted it to be 1979 again, but at the same time I don’t like things the way they are now. I don’t know anybody that does, except for people I wouldn’t piss on if their guts were on fire.