Writer, Poet, Musician, Painter
Interview with Joe Vojtko
The Bar Project: Voices from an Artists community
Francie: I’m here with Joe Voitjko. It’s October 20, 2013. Were here to talk about The Bar, Bill Rice, his studio in the 70s and 80s, the effect of that community on you, who you were at the time, your memories of the people that were of importance to you, just your thoughts about that community and what the influences were on that community, what helped it, what hurt it, anything you want to share.
Joey: There’s just so much. I don’t know where to start. Bill was central to my whole life. He was my principal mentor, I would say, but not in any official capacity. Michael and I both have this in common. So a big part of our relationship for the past four plus years has been sharing our memories of Bill Rice. We are two orphaned sons of Bill Rice.
Francie: That’s in part why I’m doing this project. It hasn’t been documented yet what an incredible figure he was and the influence he had on this whole community of people. So I’m happy to hear from you about any of that.
Joey: I guess it was about twenty-two years old when I met Bill. I’m not sure of the year. It was either ‘73 or ‘74. I first met him at Phoebe’s on the Bowery, which was this one-lighted place in a neighborhood that was otherwise utterly dark at the time. It was very popular then. I used to go there with Kip Turner, who was Terry Robinson’s best friend at the time. That’s how I met Terry. We used to hang at Phoebe’s many times a week. We would see Bill come in with his entourage and Terry kind of filled us in on who Bill was. We spoke to Bill a couple of times there. At some point during that time, Terry and Bill became an item.
Very shortly after Terry started living with Bill, we came over for dinner. Bill took me through the studio. I was smitten. I thought, “Wow I’ve met my real first bona fide artist.” Everything about the work and everything about Bill’s demeanor just made me feel like I was meeting the real McCoy—not somebody who was planning a career in the arts. Once I was at a party at Ted Castle’s with Bill Rice. It was a room full of luminaries and glitterati. Bill and I were standing in the corner and Bill said, “Joey, these artists all think that art is a career.” He was always minimal. He was a minimalist all the way. I quoted that a zillion times; because for one thing, it made me feel included. This is because I can’t do that or I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know how to be true to what I’m trying to say and promote myself as a product or service at the same time.
Francine: You and me!
Joey: So that suddenly gave me credibility. I just thought, ‘Oh, it’s okay if you’re totally ill-equipped to sell yourself to the world. That made me feel that not only is it okay, but he was defining something for me. Bill was always defining something for me that I already knew, but he managed to somehow put words to it. Then I’d realize suddenly that this is a valid way to think. That’s who he was.
Francie: It’s a shared value.
Joey: Yes, it was a shared value, exactly. That’s why trusted him. He was only trying to have a good time and a good time to him meant exchanging ideas with people, getting goofy with people, feeling good and making art, preferably making art together. He would find a way to make art all together and have fun being creative and goofy. That’s why everybody trusted him, because it was so obvious that this guy wasn’t working a game. He wasn’t trying to get his name out there. That was laughable to him, that sort of way of thinking.
Francie: No, he wasn’t out for himself. He was never out for himself.
Joey: Never. When he introduced people he always made sure everybody knew who everybody else was. I came from a lower, lower, lower working-class background. After I came to New York and slowly, as I got to know people, I felt that everybody came from the middle class or the upper-middle-class. There weren’t too many blue-collar people like myself. There are a lot of people who were just as bad off financially, but they had come from a more privileged background than I had. My father could barely read. He quit school in the 5th grade to work in the coal mine. In New York I was meeting people whose fathers were anesthesiologists or schoolteachers. It was very, very different. Even when I met working class people, I always felt like they weren’t as down and dirty working class I was. It would be like, “Oh yeah, my father was the foreman in the factory.” This made a big difference. Where I grew up, the foreman of the factory was the upper class.
Bill was obviously so cultured, the old WASP kind of culture. I don’t know much about his background to tell you the truth. I know the basics, but I don’t know the specifics of what his parents were like or anything like that. All I know is that he seemed to embody both the upper class and the working class all in one, which was a remarkable thing. There are some upper-middle-class guys, especially intellectuals and gay guys, who are on a mission to shake hands with people on the other side of the tracks. They want to know a lot of black people and Hispanic people and Third World people, etc. Yet it’s done from an artificial kind of place. They don’t even seem to understand that they look like they’re talking down to the other person. Bill Rice had this way of crossing over the railroad tracks without any condescension or even scent of condescension. He was legitimately interested in people who were born out of privilege, because he found them more interesting. Bill was very sensitive to people that were born out of privilege.
He wouldn’t say this; because he didn’t like to ever admit to softness. He liked to present himself as grouchy and old. He didn’t like to be praised in terms of how sensitive he was. But of course he was incredibly sensitive, incredibly sensitive to other people. I think that Bill’s detractors saw his attraction to men of a different race as that of a ‘dirty old wasp who likes to pick up rough trade.’ Anyone that knew Bill knew that this was far from the truth. The truth is that he had this incredible compassion. He wanted to make people who the world had thrown away feel included and loved. I think it’s a Walt Whitman kind of thing.
Francie: Could you explain that?
Joey: The gay movement is always trying to claim that Walt Whitman was gay as the blade. I don’t think it’s quite that cut and dry. I think that most of what Whitman wrote, what we have evidence for and what comes through in his poetry, is that Whitman was interested in what the Greek philosophers called philia. There is the love of the person and the love of humanity. It’s the difference between those two things. It’s not that Eros isn’t involved.
Francie: That’s not the priority
Joey: That’s a secondary aspect. There really is this desire in Bill to not only touch base with the folks on the other side of the track, but to …… I’m floundering here.
Francie: I think Bill loved people who were interesting to him. A lot of people walk around and have these fixed ideas of who will be interesting to them. Bill didn’t. Bill did have ideas, but his ideas were not the norm. I’ve found it shocking that he included me at all. Bill gave me recognition. Bill had a profound effect on me too. I’m still shocked today that he showed any interest in me at all. This is what I’m hearing from everyone. He had a phenomenal mind and heart. He was just open in places where everyone else was closed. It was a privilege to be a recipient of that attention, or maybe he just loved people who were lovable to him. He chose us because maybe we had a quality that was worthy in his mind. I don’t know. He was remarkable.
Joey: I think he was really choosy actually. I think basically that Bill was a total pacifist. He did not believe in any kind of physical violence. He tried to be as apolitical as possible because it was all so repellent to him. I saw him as a leftist personally; but he would never let himself go deeply enough into it to really articulate where he stood politically. I perceived him as a leftist, but as an extreme leftist like an anarchist; because he really found the middle of the road argument between the left and the right irrelevant. This is because it was an argument between the center left and the right—which is what our two political parties represent and that whole discussion is really irrelevant. They’re talking about things within this system that are so poisonous to begin with. How can you choose which thing is right in a system that is pure poison to begin with? I think he saw the system as poisonous and it seems so absolutely next to impossible to change it. So the only thing that you could to is to build a small community of your own, where you value the roles people play in the way that a just and fair political community would. I think he created the world like that.
Francie: He made a ‘good’ world in a way.
Joey: Right, he was creating the world as it should be, where it didn’t matter what class you came from. It didn’t matter what color your skin was. It didn’t matter who usually associates with whom. You could see this play out at parties. There were lots of people who were the center of social circles in downtown Manhattan; but the social circles were always extremely limited to one kind of person. So I would go to parties in Soho or Tribeca that was for all middle-class white painters. Then I’d go to other parties in the East Village that was all punk rockers. At Bill’s parties you got a couple of old lady poets, you got a couple of people dressed like zombies from some punk rock band, you got some old black jazz musicians and you got a couple of street people. It was such an amazing group of people to get together in one room. They all did seem to have one single thing in common which was that they were all creative. They were all trying to do something. They were all working on a project for themselves on the side. At the same time they could barely keep up paying the rent with some stupid job they were holding. They were doing some project on the side and most of the time it wasn’t getting done because nobody had any money. So it was a lot of dreamers, but the dreamers weren’t there because they were doing nothing. They were there because they were poor.
Francie: They were people that had a vision, an honest vision. They weren’t marketing themselves for a career.
Joey: There were definitely some very foolish people who trickled through the group every once in a while. Its not like I loved everybody. Generally I liked the people that he seemed to like a lot. Very few of the people that he liked a lot did I ever dislike. For years he really did function as my father. I would have a bad week. It would be Friday night and I would be dashing out to go to The Bar because I needed to tell my whole week to Bill Rice (who was always so ready to listen to you.) It was amazing, as if you had to take a number and it was a psychiatrist’s couch. I would often get there and there’d be a number of people who were surrounding him at the time. I would patiently wait it out for two hours until finally there would be the moment that he would give to me and we would go off alone. Then I would be able to tell him everything that happened that week. He literally gave me advice like a parent would, about my life and my art. He’s the only person I really trusted.
Francie: He was very generous in many ways. It must be how he advised you that made him trustworthy too?
Joey: Well he was just so honest. You just trusted him. He was so funny and his humor always communicated much more than the specific joke of the moment. The humor had a subtext to it. If you spent enough time in his presence and you were there for the jokes as they happened throughout the evening, you could begin to read the subtext in a way where you could really make out his basic philosophy of life and what he thought of people in general.
Francie: Do you want to tell me what that is?
Joey: A lot of what he did during the course of a night at The Bar would be to point out individuals as they came in. If it was an individual that he was curious about he might come over and say something about them. Other times he would just point to somebody and roll his eyes. He was able to say so much that way. Or he would make some snide little comment. It’s not like he was just full of love. He was very particular. That’s why you felt very honored when he backed you. He encouraged everything I did. He was very open about what he would encourage. Somebody wrote something about him and I really disagreed with it. They said that he was always encouraging young writers, poets and performers and that he was very generous about this; but that most of them were not really talented.
It kind of bothered me because basically what she was saying was that it was so wonderful that he had such a heart and he encouraged all these young people. Then she went on to say that most of them, however, just wrote some kind of chicken scratch gibberish. Well that doesn’t show much faith in Bill then. You’re saying that Bill was encouraging people who had no talent. I felt included in that, of course. I took offense to that. Actually, I don’t think she’s really equipped to understand American counterculture stuff.
I don’t think that I’m deluded. I don’t think Bill encouraged anybody that he didn’t really think had talent. I don’t think he would do that. He was too honest. The people who didn’t have talent, and there were many of them, are the people he was making snide remarks about. Like he’d say, “I saw her show” and then he’d say, “Oh my God!” I can think of lots of people we knew that were on the scene that he really believed were buffoons. There were a lot of people like that that. He would say, “Oh my God. I thought she would never shut up. She would grab my hand and she wouldn’t let go. It was like she was the vice of death Joey.” I don’t want to say that he had this incredible love of humans. No, I think he was very selective and that’s why you felt so good to be included; because you saw this man as the paradigm of what we’re all supposed to be and he was choosing you. I think in many cases he saw people whose talent was very raw and undeveloped. He wanted to encourage them to develop because he saw that they came from an underprivileged background where probably nobody did encourage them. So he was going to step in and encourage their work.
He really loved art, but he didn’t take art seriously. He just thought that art was this really fun part of life. That is the way I look at it too. I would rather be doing something creative than anything else. Yet, because I’m all plugged into trying to survive in this world (as the economy of the world collapses) and because I’m old and now I tire out so easily, I feel like my whole life is dedicated to survival and there’s no time for doing anything. When I do have time to do something, I don’t have any energy left now, because I’m recuperating from the workweek. I feel really imprisoned by that. I’m saying all this to throw more light on the whole issue of Bill’s attitude towards art or creativity.
Francie: Also you’re mirroring something I’ve heard from other people and it has to do with these forces that worked against all of us. Unless you are rich, you had to make money. We all had to figure out how to survive. I think there was something going on in the 80s and into the 90s where a lot of people got put into this vice (because of financial and economic changes that were going on in the culture, such as the devaluing of the arts, the defunding of the arts and the increasing costs of living.) So we were all forced to give up our time in terms of creative work. We had to serve other masters. I don’t think you’re alone in this at all. This is turning out to be an important piece of this discussion. There’s something culturally going on that is taking very talented people and pushing them into dark corners.
Joey: Yeah, that’s what’s happening. Everybody’s talking about it. For 25 years we’ve been saying “The yuppies are coming. The yuppies are coming.” Now we’ve suddenly woken up and noticed, ‘Oh, they’re here. They’ve devoured us.’ Now there are very few of us left. Most of us who are left are here because we have some kind of a rent-stabilized apartment and were just barely hanging on by the skin of our chinny-chin-chin. We’re all older and there are no younger people coming in to join the scene, because younger people can’t afford it—unless they’re sons and daughters of wealthy people, on trust funds, etc. That’s who’s filling up the city. So even the art scene that is beginning to happen is a really flaccid one, because it only contains members of the upper-middle-class now. You have a lot of Japanese girls whose fathers are investment bankers coming in—not that they’re not nice people or anything like that. It’s just that if art is only coming from one class of people, it’s bound to be kind of lame. I do think some of the best art comes from people who’ve come from a struggle. Not that the upper middle-class can’t produce a great artist. Obviously they can and I’m open to that. I’m not going to condemn this person because they came from the upper-middle-class, but it’s very limited isn’t it? It’s very limited
Francie: I could be totally wrong, but I think that part of the source for the vitality of this community was that it was happening in tandem with the feminist revolution, the sexual revolution and gay liberation. You not only had these individual struggles, but you also had these social and cultural upheavals that were affecting us. I think it added a lot of excitement and energy.
Joey: Also, through the 80s, I somehow managed on low-paying survival jobs. I would work 40 hours a week at these low-paying survival jobs. The great thing about low-paying survival jobs is that you don’t have to take them with you once you leave the office. I have a more bourgeois job right now. There is so much you have to take home with you. I feel violated by the place. I have to participate in this place, where I’m rewriting the language of attorneys who are defending the villains who are destroying our world ecologically and financially. They make their millions by defending the billionaires who are responsible for the collapsing world that we’re living in. I am in a position where you have to read this shit and understand it enough to grammatically rewrite the sentences for them when they’re incorrect. You have to immerse yourself in this world and you just feel like you’re part of it.
I’m reflecting on Bill here too. The first time we spend any time together, back in ’73 or ’74, was when Terry Robinson, Kip and myself went to dinner at his place. At that moment in time he was working as a billing agent to bill the relatives of people who died of cancer. Can you imagine a man like Bill Rice having to do that for a living? That’s the horrible thing about capitalism. People say that it works if it’s not corrupt. They say that we can make it work, but it never works. Not only do you have to do a job that bores you and has nothing to do with your talents, the job is also going to ask you to participate in its particular schemes of evil. Almost every job we do asks us to participate in the evil. Bill Rice had to get on the phone and call people whose mother just died of cancer and say, “When are you going to pay your bill?” That’s a horrible thing to do. Anyway I got through all the 70s and the 80s on survival jobs at mom-and-pop organizations where I really didn’t have to ever set foot in the corporate world. That freed me enough. I had enough energy because I was young. I would get home from work and then I’d paint all night. Through my late 20s and through most of my 30s I would get home, then go to the studio and rehearse with my band.
Francie: Tell me something about your painting and your bands.
Joey: I got my fine arts degree in painting from a local college in Pennsylvania. I also did some printmaking and art historical research. I was originally intending to go to graduate school in Mexico at San Miguel de Allende, but I couldn’t wait. I just wanted to come to New York. So I came to New York with nothing but a dream and $300 in my pocket. Somehow I managed to stay. I pursued painting and at the same time that I was pursuing painting, I wrote poems. I never knew what to call them in fact, because I always thought the word poem was corny. It just didn’t seem to fit. In fact my big thing, even back in college, was to read them aloud. When people asked to read them I would say, “Oh, they are not for the printed page. They are for performance.” I continued to do that while I was painting. I had a loft in Brooklyn for five years.
I left Brooklyn because I was brutally mugged when I was coming home from work. I was working at an art gallery on Christopher Street at the time. I was coming home at 10 o’clock at night and I came out of the subway station when two guys attacked me with golf clubs. The attack resulted in a seventeen-hour brain surgery where they literally removed part of my brain. That changed everything in my life, because it took me a year and a half of rehabilitation to get over that trauma. It left me permanently scarred in a way. Every time I traveled, I was afraid. I couldn’t live in the neighborhood anymore where my loft was. This was terrible because it was a huge loft and I paid nothing for it. So I moved to Manhattan. I got this place in Chelsea. Ever since I got this place, I’ve regretted it. I should’ve held out longer, because I really wanted to be in the East Village. Every time I found a place in the East Village, it was all the way over on Avenue B and C. Avenue B and Avenue C in the early 70s was a really rough place. Now it’s got French restaurants; but in the early 70s it was a little scary. After having gone through the mugging in Brooklyn, I didn’t want to have to move to another dangerous place. I was trying to find a place on Second Avenue, but they all had those windows overlooking a brick wall. I’m from the sticks. At the house I grew up in you saw mountains in the backyard. So the whole idea of living in an apartment where the windows look onto a brick wall didn’t work for me.
I took the place in Chelsea and then I just gave up painting. There was no room. All of my ideas for painting were huge eight-foot canvases. I just couldn’t get myself to think in terms of doing 16” x 20” pieces. I didn’t have ideas that worked in that realm. At the same time I had been going to open mic poetry things. I was getting good receptions from the audience. People who would run the open mic places would ask me to do a planned event. Bill Rice came to one of those readings at the Village Gate in ‘74 or ‘75. After that he started introducing me to friends at The Bar saying, “Joey is a very talented poet.” I thought, ‘Wow, this is great.’ Every time he would introduce me, he would say, “He’s very talented really. You have to hear him read.” Who wouldn’t love somebody who does this for you? It was always so unsolicited. It always shocked you. He would come out with these incredibly supportive things—like all people should do for people, but almost nobody ever does. In the end, he was selective. He wouldn’t be doing it if he didn’t actually believe it. He was impressed and he was going to help you try to impress others.
Francie: And he spoke with authority.
Joey: Well, that voice! Who could not trust that voice. My goodness. Bill Rice was very essential to my work, because a lot of the opportunities that I got came to me through him. I was never a social butterfly, to say the least. I’m very awkward. I also always felt a little bit inferior, because I came from the wrong class.
There really were people out there who try to trip you up like that. We like to think, ‘It’s the East village, it’s intellectuals, poets, punk rockers, existentialists: Class doesn’t mean anything here.’ You know, fuck that! It’s not true. There are a lot of people out there who are still pushing class. When you came from the lower working class, people would ferret that out of you in conversation. Then they would use it against you. They would use it to manipulate you. Class exists everywhere in this society. It definitely exists within bohemia. The very people who would do that kind of manipulating, would deny that they were at all class conscious. Their manipulating might not even be done consciously. It’s just sort of an indoctrinated thing that’s been integrated into the way they approach all social situations. They might not even be aware that they’re trying to control the other person through class differences. They might not even be aware that they’re trying to control the other person. People aren’t aware of themselves in general. I’m very aware of class.
Francie: It’s like a filter. People see everything through it and they don’t know it’s in front of them. You’re talking about something very profound. People are living out their lives interpersonally in a way that they are not conscious of. Yet it dominates their every interaction. That’s very profound.
Joey: Yeah, I think most of us are running on automatic most of the time anyway.
It gets right back to Bill Rice. One thing that we all identify in Bill is that he knew himself. Most people don’t have a conversation with themselves. I was aware that this man was very sure of who he was. He knew exactly where he was and that made me trust him. I meet a lot of people and after I’ve talked to them for a while I think, ‘Gee, this one has not had a conversation with herself in 140 years.’ That’s what it feels like to me sometimes. You see the automatic behavior going on. Class definitely plays a big part in all of this. There were a lot of people who came from the East Village scene—musicians writers, painters—who were successful very quickly without any struggle whatsoever because they were the right class. They were wealthy enough to have gone to RISD or wealthy enough to have gone to Bennington or Sarah Lawrence. They met the right people when they were there. In addition, they met the right people through their teachers. They met other students whose parents were ‘somebody’ and their own parents also introduced them to people when they moved to the big city. They were told to look up this person, “Oh I’m a friend of Leo Castelli’s, blah blah blah.” They very quickly got on track. Having a career wasn’t about struggling to find their way in. It was about finding a place to work, then producing something and getting it marketed. They already came here with all the connections
Francie: Also maybe they didn’t have to have full-time jobs.
Joey: Time is the biggest commodity. The rest of us were exhausted as we were working our full-time job. We had to give up sleeping hours or social hours in order to continue making work. One of the reasons I couldn’t make it as an artist in any of the things I was trying is because it requires socializing and socializing takes time. If you’re working full-time and your producing your art the rest of the time, when do you have time to hang out and make friends? However, if mom and dad are paying for your rent and you just have a little ten-hour a week part time job you’re thinking, ‘Well I work for a living.’ Well, not really! Really you’re just making some pin money. I knew a lot of people like that. They insisted, “Well I work for a living. Well I struggled for a living.” No, you didn’t cause you had things given to you. Time more than anything. You have to have time or big balls. I don’t mean that in any kind of insulting way. Some people that we know did not come from privilege. But they looked at these jobs (the jobs that the rest of us took like ass holes) and they said, “I am not going to fucking sit here on the phone and sell them Sweet Pickles Preschool Program.” So they just used their wits. Their wits sometimes involved couch surfing and sometimes involved just throwing a tantrum until somebody did something for them. David Wojnarowicz and Lydia Lunch both made successes of themselves. They both are incredibly talented and deserve the success they had, but they just wouldn’t take ‘No’ for an answer. They pushed themselves on the world in ways that you or I couldn’t.
Francie: It’s not in my makeup.
Joey: I don’t criticize them for that. In fact, more power to them. I wish I could’ve done that. But I didn’t know how. In Cindy Carr’s book about David Wojnarowicz, she says David worked at a telemarketing firm. David felt that, ‘A person like me can’t do this.’ I’m thinking, ‘Well I’m a person like you and I can’t do this; but I’ve been doing it for forty years.’ Maybe it’s about belief in yourself. You know what I mean? Maybe I didn’t believe in myself enough to just push myself on the world.
Francie: I asked myself the same question.
Joey: Some of it is just throwing caution to the wind and being fearless. You and I would be thinking, ‘If I do that then I might end up homeless.’
Francie: Yes, I was raised with that depression mentality, that you’ve got to make money. There was no backup plan for me. I had to do it on my own.
Joey: We were talking about that outing to Staten Island before. That was a very magic time. I remember everybody had such a good time that day. For months, maybe even years afterwards people would refer to it, ‘Oh that magic day on Staten Island.’ It was all about your show. I don’t know who organized it; but we were all supposed to meet in Battery Park, at that war monument by the Staten Island Ferry terminal. There must’ve been five or six cab loads of us coming from different places waiting for everybody. It was an amazing time because a big section of this circle of artists came to that show. It could be as late as ‘80. I remember Bill Rice, of course, and Rick Morrison, Larry Mitchell, Leslie Leroux and Dean Weeks. You really should try to find her because Bill meant so much to her and he really loved her too. She was a very important part of the circle at that time. I didn’t ever really make it into the circle. That’s because I lived in Chelsea instead of the East Village. So I always felt like I was on the outside of the circle instead of within it. However, I felt like I was an honored guest because Bill liked me and he was obviously the king.
Francie: What about The Bar? Do you want to say a few words about The Bar?
Joey: I always hated alcohol. Although I hated it and have no use for it personally, tons of people that I love do love it. I’m not going to be judgmental and I wanted to hang there because there was nothing else like The Bar. It was a gay bar, but not really. Certainly there was cruising that went on there, but that was not the main purpose and that wasn’t the main reason it was popular either. Basically I’m one of those people who hated gay culture. I felt like I ran from my working class community in Pennsylvania, where everybody was horrible and homophobic and racist and everything. When I came to New York I realized I hated the gay community just as much. I didn’t fit into what you were supposed to be. What they considered gay culture was not my culture. I wasn’t an opera fan. I hated disco. I liked music that was not considered ‘gay’ music. I liked rock ‘n roll, folk music and jazz. This was all thought of as what straight boys liked. I didn’t like glittery ladies in gowns. That meant nothing to me. I thought the attraction to it was stupid. I had no interest in it whatsoever. The Bar presented the possibility of meeting other people who were gay and who also didn’t fit into that kind of gay culture. We weren’t going off to Fire Island every summer. It was a very different group of people that you would meet there. It was the only place where you would meet these people in New York City. Aside from that, it was also in general a center for underground art of all kinds. You’d meet straight artists there too who were there just because it was a hip place to be. All kinds of people wandered through there, like Robert Wilson. Not that I was there to meet famous people. I was there mainly because of Bill and the possibility of meeting other people (who weren’t cookie cutter versions of what you were supposed to be to be a faggot in New York City.) I had no interest in that and I didn’t think of myself as gay first. I hated that too. I always felt that I don’t want to be a ‘gay writer.’ I want to be a writer who happens to be gay. I want people to think of my work as applicable to everybody, not just to the gay experience. I even hate the word. That bar was filled with people who were like that. For example, Evan Lurie was the head of a little movement called Fags Against Facial Hair. This was so great because at that time in the West Village every gay man appeared like the guy on the cover of the Brawny Paper Towels package. They all wore a plaid shirt and jeans. I just thought, ‘Oh my God. What the hell is this?’ So I thought Evan’s movement was such a witty thing.
It was a nice place to be. It was the only bar in town that had a rock ‘n roll jukebox. There were the old queens bars, where the music was all Judy Garland and Mel Torme. Then there were the other bars that played continual disco music. I couldn’t bear disco music. I just couldn’t bear it ever. I still can’t stand it. As soon as I hear that beat, it’s so depressing to me. Not only did The Bar have rock ‘n roll on the jukebox, but it was the hippest (music by all the people that came from that area, like Patty Smith, the Ramones and the people who played CBGB and the Pyramid Club). It was really great stuff. When I hung out at bars I was so shy. I was just standing around, not cruising or anything. I was just waiting for something interesting to happen, waiting for a conversation to begin with somebody. So if I’m going to do that (and be sitting there drinking a beer, when I don’t even like beer) I want some good music at least. I don’t want to sit there and listen to annoying music. Later on, when they got the fancier jukebox, Bill Rice had them add a jazz menu too. Bill was always playing Dinah Washington, who was his favorite, along with Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, Noel Coward and Cole Porter.
Francie: Do you want to say something about your music?
Joey: I did a big project. I started putting bands together around ’81. There were three different configurations of bands. One was called Dead Beat. One was called Oh Oh Oh. The third one was also called Oh Oh Oh, but with different configurations of people. Each of the three bands had a different style going for it. The first band was really loud and noisy and atonal, more like a piece of performance art than a band—because none of us knew what the fuck we were doing, we were just making a lot of noise. The second band was more like structured pop songs. The third band was a more sophisticated kind of thing. Each piece was like a surrealist soundscape.
Each band was a joke, of course. We would get it together, start writing material and we’d find a way to rehearse. At one point we had a very cheap deal sharing a space in the basement of Westbeth. Another time we would just rent by the day at the music building up on 39th Street. We always had a different place. Once we rehearsed in a place on Second Avenue called Perkins. It was very funny because on the street level there was a Korean greengrocer. To get to the studio you had to ask the guy to remove a crate of oranges. Underneath the crate of oranges was a trap door. You went downstairs. Then you went through a long narrow passage between two buildings. At the end of the passageway you arrived at the entrance to this little building built in the alleyway that was the music studio. I rehearsed every Sunday underneath the orange crate. It was like entering a secret Alice in Wonderland world.
The whole thing was so dysfunctional. With each one of these bands we rehearsed four or five days a week, for hours every day while holding down steady jobs. Then after six to eight months we would do just two gigs and then the band would break up. After a while I felt like this was ‘Joey’s Folly’ because nothing ever seemed to work. With the final configuration, instead of going around and performing it, I decided that I’m just going to put all my energies into making a product. At that point I saw that lots of other bands had started out when we started out; and they already had a recording contract and a record or two. I’d been floundering all that time and had never gotten anywhere. David and I put all of our attention into putting together a project. It started out to be just an LP length thing. Because I am who I am, it kept growing and growing. It finally turned into a projected 4 LP set, which was this big, long almost three hour song cycle.
We recorded with Wharton Tiers, who was the recording engineer of era, because he did groups like Sonic Youth. He was very important. He used to be one of the Theoretical Girls along with Jeffrey Lohan and Glenn Branca. Wharton went off and became a sound engineer and also had a couple of side projects on his own as a composer. Jeffrey Lohan went off on his own and Glenn Branca went off on his own and started an amazing career. Wharton would remain the principal soundman for Glenn throughout many years in many different episodes. Because so many of the musicians in my project worked with Glenn Branca, there was a bit of a Glenn Branca type of sound going on in my project too. But my project was about words and performance. It was less about music and more about a theater of sound. Wharton himself said that we had utilized more tracks on one recording then he thinks anyone in the history of recording has ever used.
I had these visions of creating this enormously dense field of sound, upon sound, upon sound. It was not like the minimalist stuff that Glenn Branca was doing, because it was about words too. So it was this profusion of words—words coming from one speaker and different words coming from another speaker, with a background chorus at the same time, on top of layers and layers of music. So it was a cacophony kind of thing. Being that it was so strange, of course, it wasn’t going to be the easiest thing to market. At the time I was at least a lot more visible than I became. Thanks to Bill Rice again I met Lydia Lunch and Lydia included me in lots of her programs that she put together for clubs all over the city. That gave me exposure. Instead of performing to twenty friends, I was performing to a house of one to three hundred. So I had a little bit of exposure at the time.
Everything seemed to be going okay when we finally got it done. It took us five years. It should not have taken us five years, but the setbacks were usually financial. In the end it was this four LP set. Of course by the time we finished, LPs were on their way out. CDs had come in, so it would have been maybe a 3 CD set. We had already talked informally to a couple of people from a couple of different labels and they expressed interest in it. I was in the process of putting together a promotional package. Again, without money, this was a difficult thing to do. Computers hadn’t even come into play. Almost nobody had them yet. It wasn’t like you could print things out easily. You had to go to a Kinko’s in order to get decent color Xeroxes of something. I was putting together this promotional package that was going to have pictures of us within a whole graphic design. I made this little booklet that opened up. It was covered up with a polka dot fabric. I spent a lot of time on it. Then we had to figure out how to get copies of the package, which we were going to be giving to prospective people. It took several months to get to put the whole package together. This would be 1990, when we completed it.
In 1991 we performed part of the project, about an hours worth. A lot of the music was on an ambient tape that we would play and then we produced additional sound on stage. It was like an American Bandstand performance of it because most of the music was on tape. Mariam was there playing violin. David was there playing the percussion, which was a mostly a big heavy pipe. Ivan Goliad, a filmmaker, did slides so you had this clicking slideshow going on behind us when we were doing it. I was doing my words thing. This was with Lydia Lunch again in 1991 at the Knitting Factory. We did two performances. Who knows how it was accepted. There were lots of people there. They seemed to applaud.
Immediately after that show David was diagnosed with AIDS. Everything was put on the back burner. From that point to his death was four and 1/2 years. After that there was about 5 years of my being stark raving mad, where I ended up in a mental institution. I wasn’t really stark raving mad; but I was seriously depressed. I couldn’t quite put my life back together again.
Francie: There’s something called traumatic grief.
Joey: Yes, it was more than just enduring the death of a partner. It was enduring the very torturous, surrealistic death of a partner, because David’s body turned into something that looked like it was a monster out of Hollywood, out of a Hollywood horror movie. He was such a beautiful man. We felt so alone. Both of our families were hostile to us throughout this time. Then we finally lost the battle and I was there alone without anyone to even grieve with. I just barely pulled myself together, because I just couldn’t get out of a fetal position for a year. I had run out of every bit of money. I had wrapped up pennies and everything. I was just on the verge of starving to death. Then miraculously I somehow got it together to pretend that I was a proofreader and went to these agencies and took their tests. I don’t know where I got the strength, because I was still crazy as a loon. I didn’t see anyone socially. I passed their tests and I was booked at these law firms and pretended that I knew what I was doing when I didn’t. I successfully faked my way through it and got myself a bourgeois job. It was a lower income bourgeois job, but more money than I had ever made. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
I ended up at the mental institution for a few months, where I met this black guy named Kevin. It turned out that he lived in New York City. We were in southern New Jersey by Princeton at this institution. We continued to be friends when we both got out of the loony bin. It turned out he was dying of AIDS. So once again I was in the position of being the primary caregiver for a person dying of AIDS. I missed the last years of Bill Rice’s life and I feel very bad about that. The reason I missed it is because I was a few blocks away in Rivington House taking care of my friend Kevin, who was dying of AIDS at the same time that Bill was dying. When I wasn’t working, I was taking care of Kevin. He was just abandoned and living in this public housing place for people with AIDS. That took its toll on me when he died. It wasn’t as dramatic or traumatic as David’s death; but it was like reliving the David thing one more time—to have to be the person taking care of the dying person once again. So that was another period of estrangement and grief. Finally I woke up from that a few years ago. I realized that basically I’m like Rip van Winkle. I’ve been out of the world for twenty years. Twenty years ago I was about to release my big project to the world and all of this happens. Shit happened. It’s twenty years later. I’m an old man now. This is what happened to me.
Francie: That’s amazing. It’s just wonderful that you survived.
Joey: Or maybe not. (laughter)
Francie: No, it’s wonderful that you survived and amazing that you survived. It sounds like you were on the edge of not surviving.
Joey: Yeah. Somewhere in that time is when I did the art criticism for four or five years.
Francie: Oh really, during all of that?
Joey: It was through Ted Castle, who was also a very close friend of Bill Rice’s. In fact I had three Thanksgivings and two Christmases where my only guest, besides myself and my boyfriend, were Ted Castle and Bill Rice. That was in the 70s. Ted thought it would be very therapeutic for me and it would be a way for me to be to get creative again. So he introduced me to this guy who was starting this magazine called Review. The guy was a freak. He was a gay man but this card-carrying Republican–an arch, arch conservative. He was the kind of person who talks about welfare loafers and all that kind of stuff, but he was gay. He had those kind of contradictions that I don’t understand, like black Republicans and gay Republicans. That’s who this guy was. Oddly enough, he loved my writing. So he would feature me on the cover of this thing. I am thinking, ‘What’s not to like here?’ This guy lets me write what I want. He doesn’t make me edit anything out. If he asked me for a three-page article and I produced a twelve page article, he prints every word of it. He usually puts me on the cover. I’m thinking that this is the best training you could possibly have as a writer, to be given this kind of freedom right up. The only freedom he didn’t give me was around deadlines. I would go crazy at deadlines. I would somehow have to go to work at my 13-hour overnight shift and complete a big assignment, which was often like twenty pages long. I would go crazy with lack of sleep and he’d be hounding me to put the article out. At any rate I wrote something like twenty-five big articles for him and it was fun. I really enjoyed it and it helped me. I had never written in that way before. I wrote poetry and fiction. The whole idea of writing in a much more formal way like that was good training for me.
Francie: I have to say that you’re such an amazing writer, for the record. You’re one of the most amazing writers I have ever read.
Joey: So then what happens is that the editor disappeared. He just disappeared! Before Ted Castle died, we tried to find him. We wrote friends. We emailed people. Nobody seemed to know what happened to him. Just one day he was no longer at his phone number. There was somebody else living in his apartment and he was just gone. He had AIDS for around twenty years, so we assumed that he died; but it was so weird how nobody seemed to know what happened to him. He’d had something like sixty different people writing for him. Some of them would only submit an article every five months. Others would write for every issue or every two weeks, but he had over sixty regular writers. So of course we didn’t know all of these people. That’s a lot of people. So there might be somebody out there who knew what happened to him.
Of course, it didn’t pay me anything. He always promised he would pay us but he never paid us. Even if he had paid us it was going to be $200 an issue. So I realized, ‘Oh gee I’m earning $.03 an hour here. I’m doing good.’ (laughter) That’s why I didn’t pursue art criticism. I kind of proved to myself that I could do it, but it was never going to earn me money. Also I thought, ‘I don’t want to be known as an art critic. I want to be known as a writer or a singer-songwriter or a novelist or a poet. I don’t want to be a critic. I don’t even like critics.’ I always try to make my things not like criticism but more like an analysis, like an art historical text. It was good exercise for me to do those things. I wrote a couple of things that you and I liked.
So now I’m trying to become an artist again.