The National Post
How I got real in ’80s SoHo:; [National Edition]
When We Were 20
Elizabeth Nickson. National Post. Don Mills, Ont.: Nov 15, 2003.
It was a distinctly non-verbal culture. Jay McInerny and Tama Janowitz were late arrivals, and arguably never found another subject. It was all about how you looked, and what you made: music and art, design and fashion that threw the culture back in its face. Everything had to subvert. Andy Warhol, the Prince of Subversion, ruled. His photography, as it should be, is salted throughout [Patrick McMullan]’s book, his tongue rolled out lasciviously in the downtown salute, and he policed every party, every opening, endlessly searching. The desired reaction to elicit from Andy, whether because of your work or beauty or dress, was a sharp intake of breath through his teeth. Everyone wanted that. It was the ultimate accolade, albeit mysterious and usually not cashable.
South of 14th Street, when every night was an South of 14th Street, when every night was an event
There are a few indelible incidents from my first weeks in SoHo in 1980. One is this: I am walking up Greene Street, approaching two college girls who are sitting on a loading dock, rating everyone who comes by. “Real,” they pronounce, as a scruffy paint-spattered boy walks by in front of me. “Not Real,” they assert, as a gaggle of self-conscious tourists comes along. When it is time for my brief scrutiny, I am judged, loudly, “Not Real.” Then, muffled laughter.
My skin crawls remembering that embarrassment when I look at Detail’s photographer Patrick McMullan’s record of that time, so80s: A Photographic Diary of a Decade. Of course I was not real, despite my carefully chosen vintage flecked-tweed coat, and National Health clear plastic glasses frames. I was a thoroughly suburban Canadian girl, a year out of college, and everyone in the world was hip but me.
The other incident had me ending up at St. Vincent’s, the famous Greenwich Village hospital, provoked by too much excitement to gastroenteritis, and marvelling — despite my agony — at the catastrophic messiness, the extraordinary parade of people and the evident lack of funds,
Four years later, I belonged. A friend looking at a photograph of me in those days, said, “You look like you’d been hijacked.” If so, it was entirely voluntary. With my husband, I owned a echt hip vintage clothing shop in SoHo called New Republic. Staggering as it was to us, not only were we real, people wanted to be us.
When we dragged our bickering selves to the Odeon for dinner at 11 every night, after throwing all the workers and wannabes and customers out of our warehouse and store, we got the best table. Harvey Keitel would come over to continue his endless negotiations over the purchase of a full-length black-leather storm-trooper trenchcoat, a product so expensive and so rare and so apparently disgustingly desirable that a single sale of one would take care of our payroll for a month.
By then, St. Vincent’s was the AIDS hospital, sex had turned deadly and people we knew were starting to sicken. Uptown was beginning to encroach. Lofts that had rented for $500 a month were suddenly selling for a million. Dentists and stockbrokers were forcing the artists to move to Williamsburg and Hoboken, and chains were opening shops around the corner, causing a great deal of noisy despair. The boom was starting.
But in the meantime, it had been four years of the most extraordinary party. The SoHo Weekly News chronicled every performance and opening, and Danceteria and the Mudd Club (the latter across the street from our freezing un-insulated loft) were the top clubs for those who were “Real.”
Debbie Harry rained her incandescent beauty down on every party, the Ramones still played at CBGB’s, Chrissie Hynde slugged Ray Davies on the dance floor of the Peppermint Lounge one night, and dropped him with one blow. Madonna was everywhere, a virtual unknown, one of 5,000 club girls wearing lace and leather.
The Wednesday night Bowling Club was started by friends, representing the apogee of achievement to our minds, and Details launched itself on thick greige stock, shaped like a book, directed exclusively to culture south of 14th Street. Like the social world it covered, it was jokey, conceptual, unabashedly nonconformist.
Calvin Klein and Bianca Jagger and Halston ruled uptown, and Patrick McMullan shot them, too. But they were secondary, big ponderous stars who slowly rotated in their narrow spheres, eliciting endless homage from bridge and tunnel punters. Downtown, we didn’t care, we found them ridiculous and old. Downtown, celebrity was being created anew and it had nothing to do with commerce or Studio 54.
Even the punk stars were secondary to our chosen personalities, even David Byrne gave way to people of whom you have never heard: dominatrix and fur designer Larissa, the pneumatic Diane Brill, club impresario Rudolf, (Canadian) photographer Marcus Leatherdale, It- girls Terri Toye, Chi Chi Valenti, Cookie Mueller, the Bat Girls.
It was a distinctly non-verbal culture. Jay McInerny and Tama Janowitz were late arrivals, and arguably never found another subject. It was all about how you looked, and what you made: music and art, design and fashion that threw the culture back in its face. Everything had to subvert. Andy Warhol, the Prince of Subversion, ruled. His photograph, as it should be, is salted throughout McMullan’s book, his tongue rolled out lasciviously in the downtown salute, and he policed every party, every opening, endlessly searching. The desired reaction to elicit from Andy, whether because of your work or beauty or dress, was a sharp intake of breath through his teeth. Everyone wanted that. It was the ultimate accolade, albeit mysterious and usually not cashable.
We were all so young! Look at the photos. Even Andy was young in 1980. Patrick McMullan was a baby, Robert Mapplethorpe was an impish innocent. John Michele Basquiat looked like the wholesome middle- class black kid he was — it took him seven years to morph into the mad, semi-starved, smack-addled fashion freak whose brain was eaten by AIDS.
And that was the secret. This was a party thrown by and for the outcasts and freaks, the art-school classes of every suburban high school across America, Europe and, finally, Japan. If you were rich, you hid it or moved uptown. A good family counted against you. Talent, beauty and style, in descending order of value, were currency. And beauty had to be odd, multi-racial if possible, and always with a kink.
The early ’80s south of 14th Street birthed the beginning of design culture for the masses, the celebration of an aesthetic that did not depend on patrician values. And that alone was cause for a party. Every single night someone opened something, usually at a club, sometimes at a gallery, followed by a big dinner, followed by dancing. Most people went to bed at dawn and got up to work the next day. And there were a lot of drugs.
Heady. You had to be 20. If you were not 20 you would not survive, and many didn’t. On every fourth page of this book is a photograph of a fresh-faced creature from a solid family in Illinois who died 15 years later, at 35, in a walk-up tenement on the Lower East Side, grateful for his Time-Warner cable feed and the food truck from Gods Love We Deliver.
In the meantime, these kids remade the world. In her new book, The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness, economist Virginia Postrel traces how in this expressive age we are in the midst of creating a society of aesthetic plenitude and pluralism. The gradual transformation of the dull monoculture of ’70s suburbia was begun by the kids who lived and died in the pages of Patrick McMullan’s so80s.
|Black & White Photo: Billy Idol, Perri Lister, and Ron and Jo Wood at Lister’s birthday party at the Cat Club (1984),…; Black & White Photo: …Grace Jones at a dinner party in her honour (1984).; Black & White Photo: Madonna, Lisa Robinson and Steven Meisel at David Lee Roth’s birthday party at Area (1984),…; Black & White Photo: …Drew Barrymore, almost 11, at Pia Zadora’s party at the Palladium (1986),…; Black & White Photo: …Corey Haim and Corey Feldman at the Tunnel (1987).; Black & White Photo: Carmille Johnson, Cookie Mueller, Andy Warhol and Dianne Brill at Brill’s birthday party at the Tunnel (1984),…; Black & White Photo: …Chris Makos and Debbie Harry at Studio 54, (1980).|