TV Party: The Sublimely Intolerable Show

Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party blew the dust out of New Yorker’s air ducts for four odd years from 1978 to 1982. The hour-long live, unscripted show took advan­tage of New York’s early-ish cable access world — a world man­dated by a deal that cable net­works could have their lit­tle monop­o­lies as long as the pub­lic was granted free access to a cer­tain per­cent­age of air­time. It’s a deal still going on all across Amer­ica today, and after watch­ing a lit­tle TV Party, you’d be a damn fool not to get involved. You see, TV can be fun, and you can make it! As for TV Party — essen­tially a show­case for what O’Brien and friends thought of as cool — it’s not for every­one. But those who like bizarro tele­vi­sion, the down­town New York scene of the day, or cult movies and TV with a cap­i­tal C (Liq­uid Sky or Robin Byrd’s porno talk-show, for instance) will get a seri­ous kick from this exper­i­ment in ‘social­ist TV’ — the TV show that’s a party, but it could also be a polit­i­cal party.

The Sub­limely Intol­er­a­ble Show aired Jan­u­ary 8th 1979, with O’Brien (writer, Warhol-ite and once New Wave gad­about) loosely hold­ing the reins — flog­ging the horse or let­ting it stum­ble down rocky inclines, how­ever he, his guests, audi­ence or callers saw fit. Aired in black and white, the night’s guests included Comp­ton Mad­dox and John Moses play­ing weird gui­tar tunes, Klaus Nomi singing opera, and Andy Sher­noff cov­er­ing the Beach Boys, (backed by Tish and Snooky of Manic Panic fame). Down­town direc­tor Eric Mitchell plays a clip of his movie Kid­napped while plug­ging the New Cin­ema The­ater, direc­tor David Sil­ver and Kate Simon do ‘White Peo­ple Talk About Reg­gae,’ and finally Deb­bie Harry, Chris Stein (also of Blondie and later offi­cial co-host of TV Party) and Richard Sohl help O’Brien with the viewer call-in seg­ment while pass­ing a joint.

Accord­ing to O’Brien’s TV Party web­site, David Let­ter­man once told Paul Scha­ef­fer on air that “TV Party is the great­est TV show any­where, ever,” and for those of us now corn-fed on the GMOs that are Two and a Half Men and their ilk, it’s hard to argue. The show thrives on O’Brien’s heart­felt dif­fi­dence (hard to man­age, true) and an anything-can-happen dan­ger­ous­ness that’s impos­si­ble to fake. It appears effort­less because in many ways it was, semi-professionals aided and abet­ted, and total ama­teurs did lit­tle things like; oper­ate cam­eras and run sound. In fact the first five or ten min­utes of Sub­limely Intol­er­a­ble have no sound at all, noth­ing but ran­dom pops (as peo­ple scurry to fix the prob­lem) and (also accord­ing to the TV Party web­site) Jean-Michel Basquiat typ­ing super-graphics like “Oh no! No sound! Fuck!” Top-notch scen­ester enter­tain­ment makes up for defi­cien­cies O’Brien encour­aged. Mad­dox and Moses’s pre-ironic ironic num­bers bub­ble dan­ger­ously, with O’Brien and Deb­bie Harry et al danc­ing in lab coats. Klaus Nomi’s unearthly soprano aria and equally alien demeanor are stun­ning and bizarre. Sher­noff is cool enough — while point­ing out how even the most insipid Beach Boys song comes with a super-sharp chord pro­gres­sion — and direc­tor Mitchell seems baf­fled and is baffling.

White Peo­ple Talk About Reg­gae rides a dan­ger­ous edge; the audi­ence mocks, Simon and Sil­ver seem defen­sive talk­ing about the ‘music of uplift­ment,’ and then a joint starts mak­ing the rounds. The joint stays for the ‘viewer call-in’ seg­ment which always closed the show. It’s emblem­atic of the off-the-rails genius of the show. Sure, the tech­no­log­i­cal aspects are junk, and per­for­mances or inter­views hit-or-miss, but let­ting uncen­sored live callers on the air is pure gold. O’Brien and crew are unas­sum­ing in their great­ness — they’re the cool kids at school who’ll actu­ally accept you (even though you know you’re a total geek) just because they’re self-secure — shin­ing as they wade through call after call ques­tion­ing their sex­ual prac­tices and eth­nic­ity. This stuff is not for the eas­ily offended, but it’s a tes­ta­ment to the power of a slick hand will­ing to let the chips fall wherever.

The first 10% of this show sums up what we don’t get on TV any­more. Tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties. TV Party was live and impro­vised, and this meant casual dis­as­ter. This early episode gets off to an artis­ti­cally ago­niz­ing start–the sound per­son is late, over­dos­ing on drugs or both. Or it was the bro­ken down equip­ment. Once the sound kicks in the show gets lively. Comp­ton Mad­dux, a droll singer song­writer, is backed up by Deb­bie Harry and Glenn; the unique futur­ist soprano Klaus Nomi does one of his post-modern arias; Adny Sher­noff, of the Dic­ta­tors, plays the Beach Boys’ “Be True to Your School” backed up by pom pom girls Tish and Snooky, the Manic Panic design­ers. Down­town leg­end direc­tor Eric Mitchell announces the open­ing of the now famous New Cin­ema the­ater and shows a clip from his film “Kid­napped” with Arto Lind­say, Dun­can Smith and Anya Phillips. Brit direc­tor David Sil­ver and pho­tog­ra­pher Kate Simon do the “white peo­ple talk about reg­gae” seg­ment. Blondie’s Chris Stein and Deb­bie Harry and the Patti Smith Group’s Richard Sohl drop in to smoke a reefer and take calls from all the cra­zies in cable land. Chris explains all this isn’t chaos, it’s art.

The Bunker. William Burroughs’s New York Apartment

Built in 1884, the for­mer YMCA build­ing at 222 Bow­ery located three blocks from CBGB was home to both William Bur­roughs and Mark Rothko. From 1974 until his death in 1997, Bur­roughs rented an apart­ment at 222 Bow­ery, which was nick­named “The Bunker.” The build­ing itself is a sturdy-looking brick chunk, that would blend into nearly any down­town block.

Together with the Hotel Chelsea, the build­ing was to New York what the Beat Hotel was to Paris: the spot where artists and writ­ers hung out, crossed paths, mis­be­haved, hooked up. It was Gysin’s crash pad when he was in town. And unlike the Beat Hotel, it’s still an artist enclave.

Things were always intense when Gysin was in town. There were vis­its with Allen Gins­berg and Blondie. Keith Har­ing and Jean-Michel Basquiat were always around, stop­ping by with their expen­sive pot after din­ner, get­ting Gysin high, and hang­ing on his every word. But it was Bur­roughs who was most affected by Gysin’s pres­ence. The two had known each other for decades, going back to their time as expats in Tang­ier in the fifties, and “Brion brought out a very somber, self-conscious Bur­roughs,” says Stew­art Meyer, a nov­el­ist and Bunker habitué.

John Giorno agrees: “When William was asked, ‘Did you ever love some­body?,’ he always said, ‘I’ve never respected any­body more than Brion Gysin in my life.’ That was his word for love. He had lovers, but some­how Brion was on another level. They were gay and never had sex together, but in a cer­tain way Brion was William’s lover.” Meyer says Bur­roughs was painfully con­cerned with Gysin’s per­cep­tion of him. “William could not paint while Brion was alive, though he had wanted to. He did not want to over­shadow Brion in that area, because he had already over­shad­owed him in every other area.”

Dur­ing and after World War II, the artists started to move in. First came the French Cubist Fer­nand Léger; painters James Brooks and Wynn Cham­ber­lain arrived soon after. In the late 50s, Rothko rented an aban­doned gym at 222 Bow­ery to work on his infa­mous Sea­gram Murals, the ones whose story is told in the Broad­way show Red. Awarded the com­mis­sion to paint the murals in 1958, Rothko famously reneged on his deal with Sea­gram and Sons.

Rothko handed down his space to the second-generation Abstract Expres­sion­ist Michael Gold­berg in 1962. Lynda Benglis, secured her loft in 1974; the sculp­tor and painter Lynn Umlauf, who later mar­ried Gold­berg, came in 1977.

The build­ing at 222 retains ves­tiges of Bur­roughs’ era. He returned yearly until his death in 1997, and since then, Giorno has pre­served the Bunker, adding a Bud­dhist med­i­ta­tion shrine oppo­site the kitchen. Burroughs’s type­writer is still here, as are the Gysin paint­ings he prized. Giorno accu­mu­lated three apart­ments in the build­ing, and he and his part­ner, the artist Ugo Rondi­none (whose HELL, YES! sculp­ture hangs on the New Museum’s façade), still hold eccen­tric, inti­mate din­ners. But their world is van­ish­ing fast. The top two floors have been bought and are rented out at mar­ket rate.

Jean-Michel Basquiat — The Radiant Child

For those need­ing an intro­duc­tion, Jean-Michel Basquiat was an Amer­i­can artist who began as an obscure graf­fiti artist in New York City in the late 1970s and evolved into an acclaimed painter by the 1980s.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radi­ant Child (which you can see in its total­ity at the bot­tom of this post), is a doc­u­men­tary by Tamra Davis who was a close friend of the artist. In 1986, Davis sat down with him and filmed an inter­view, and only two years later, he was dead from a heroin over­dose at 27. Over twenty years later, Davis unearthed her footage and turned it into the feature-length Radi­ant Child.

The title of the film comes from a 1981 Art­fo­rum arti­cle by poet and critic René Ricard, who helped take Basquiat’s work from the streets to the gal­leries. By the time Basquiat became a rec­og­nized artists he was already “famous for being famous” due to the impact his graf­fiti work as SAMO had caused in New York city at the time. Both Basquiat and con­tem­po­rary Keith Har­ing took graf­fiti to the level of high art.

Through­out his career Basquiat focused on “sug­ges­tive dichotomies,” such as wealth ver­sus poverty, inte­gra­tion ver­sus seg­re­ga­tion, and inner ver­sus outer expe­ri­ence. Basquiat’s art uti­lized a syn­ergy of appro­pri­a­tion, poetry, draw­ing and paint­ing, which mar­ried text and image, abstrac­tion and fig­u­ra­tion, and his­tor­i­cal infor­ma­tion mixed with con­tem­po­rary critique. 

He pio­neered noise rock with his band Gray, his first pub­lic work under his own name, dur­ing a time when he was just “sur­viv­ing.” As he puts it in the film, he was “liv­ing place to place… look­ing for money on the floor of the Mudd club,” plan­ning on “being a bum” for the rest of his life.

Form my impres­sions of the movie I can say that Basquiat had a charm­ing per­son­al­ity and was a hum­ble indi­vid­ual in search of love and accep­tance like many of us sim­ple mor­tals but he had the guts to go the extra mile, only to find him­self empty at the end of the road. Watch the doc­u­men­tary, it is a lot of fun.