Anthony Haden-Guest hit a bum note when his lifetime’s possessions were given away — so he called on a few pals who could sing all the right tunes for a benefit for himself
JAMES CHANCE WANTED a fifth of Bailey’s Irish Cream. Well, I would see to it that the creator of the Contortions, the legendary beasts of New York punk, would get just what he wanted. Michael Holman of Gray just wanted some ‘drinkable red wine’. That too would be taken care of. Alex ‘The Countess’ Zapak asked for ‘a man I can rely on, funding for work without carrot dangling, hoop jumping and humiliation. Also a green card, a green cigarette (only AFTER the show) and a standing ovation.’
I should explain that it was up to me to organise the green room for the line-up of artists at Public Storage Blues, an evening at the Hiro Ballroom in the searingly hot Maritime Hotel on 16th Street and 9th Avenue. It had seemed a challenge because the bill was edgy and tiptop. It included Walter
Steding, the painter and violinist who had formerly had a video produced by Andy Warhol; those dynamoes of in-your-face stand-up comedy, Reno and Penny Arcade; Holman, who had re-formed Gray, the band he had started with Jean-Michel Basquiat; my American cousin Matthew Katz-Bohen, who plays keyboards with Blondie; Lorraine Leckie; Glenn O’Brien; the multiple threat Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky; Aliens, a young power-rock duo; and the disco great Nile Rodgers of Chic. Stuart Braunstein from WIP (it stands for Work In Progress), the club of the moment, was MC-ing.
Actually their needs as a group were modest, aside from the Countess, but her wish-list was conceptual since she was holed up in London, sorting out her visa, and her pre-recorded performance was to be on-screen. Indeed the great Nile Rodgers said he didn’t need anything special whatsoever. Holman’s wines were indeed provided by New York Vintners — a ’97 Italian Rosso — and were soon proving very drinkable indeed. I was told that a crowd was forming outside, and that they were getting antsy. I went out. I said that Public Storage Blues was about to begin.
PUBLIC STORAGE BLUES, I should say, was a benefit. Which I was throwing for myself. A bit bold, right? Well, right and wrong. The back story is short and ugly. Since moving to Manhattan in the late Seventies I had lived in an elderly brownstone on 80th Street and Park Avenue. When I decided to spend more time in London two and a half years ago I sold my flat to an upstairs neighbour, packed up my belongings and moved them into storage unit 2003 in a facility called Public Storage in Long Island City, Queens.
There I crammed the sizeable space with crated books — including many signed and drawn in and plenty of first editions — personal papers, antiques, antiquities and some pretty damned good framed art, a few pieces of which were bought from dealers, such as a Graham Sutherland, but mostly acquired from artist friends, like Ross Bleckner, Ashley Bickerton, Donald Baechler, Joe Coleman, Mary Corse, Milan Kunc, the Marcia Resnick, Richard Hambleton and several who are no longer with us, including Dan Asher, Eduardo Paolozzi, Helmut Newton and James Lee Byars.
Public Storage, which I would later learn is one of the thousand largest corporations in the US, thenceforwards billed me monthly via my UK email address and would let me know if late charges were due — as they were in late 2009. I telephoned to let them know I was returning to New York at the end of December and would settle up.
I duly called them in the first week of January. My stuff was gone. I had owed Public Storage $1,350. They had sold everything to a single purchaser for $650 or so. I was able to discover — with no help from Public Storage, of course — just who had bought it. I was told I could buy back what remained (the furniture and clothes were long gone) for six figures.
I am suing. And I have an excellent lawyer, Jay Russ. Also, after such a stretch in New York, I have friends, including many of the above performers. Appalled, they gave their time for free. Hence this benefit: Public Storage Blues.
I had a terrific producer, Phil Painson, himself a musican and DJ, and everything was set when Nile Rodgers suggested a last minute change. I had asked him to read from his new biography, Le Freak, but he asked whether he could perform some of his songs instead and explain just how he came to create them. He made this request almost diffidently.
‘Yes, Nile,’ I said. ‘Absolutely. That would be great.’
Rodgers is a dazzling performer, a true star. Great was the mot juste.
Matt Katz-Bohen had to go on early, so he and his wife Laurel kick-started the evening with What I Heard, a song he wrote for Blondie’s last album, Panic of Girls. I had been a bit concerned because I was minus a performer: Melissa Errico, a superlative Broadway singer who now has an album out on which she performs with Michel Legrand, was having an operation. I needn’t have worried about the line-up, though, because the place was soon chock-a-block, the pace soon giddy.
LORRAINE LECKIE WAS soon belting out her material, some based on lyrics of mine, including Everywhere Man, a song about that peculiarly New York phenomenon, the professional gatecrasher. I looked around but saw none, a tribute to the pros working the door. Who did I see? Tim Hunt of the Warhol Foundation, one of my committee, was on hand. Debbie Harry was there, supporting Matt. Michael Zilkha, whose ZE Records had put out the Contortions. Numerous other faces from my past, present, doubtless my future.
The presence of Lorraine’s angel-sized husband, Billy Leroy, the force behind Billy’s Antiques and Props on Houston, prompted a momentary melancholy thought. Billy’s, a shrine of the Lower East Side, was closing shortly, a victim of rising rents and the gentrification of the Bowery. And, come to that, this was to be one of the last events in the soon-to-close Hiro Ballroom. History in New York can whip past on rollerblades. And history can be trashed, as mine was. But history can be rebuilt, too.
Pictures form. Reno, berating the crowd for talking over the performers. The mastery and humanity of Nile, the gee-whiz talent of Paul Miller. Then suddenly things were getting crowded. Glenn O’Brien, former editor of Interview, roasting me with a bilious barrage of jokes lifted from the Milton Berle playbook. Blake Sandberg and Samm Cohen of Aliens powering through some numbers with a wonderful video by the artist Martha Colburn playing on-screen behind them.
From crowded to perhaps a teeny bit overcrowded. Walter Steding, whose slot kept being changed, performing a piece which he said was based — inspired would, I think, be too lofty a word — on seeing me dance with a couple of eye-popping girls at WIP. My dancing is… vigorous — Private Eye used to describe it as ‘The Baby Elephant Dance’ — and I remembered that particular evening rather too well. It resulted in a hernia. That is not a joke. Walter played with the band Crazy Mary. They were brill.
AT LAST IT was time for James Chance. The punkmeister was playing with Robert Aaron, a musician who can play any instrument you heard of, doubtless including a conch. Michael Zilkha, watching from in front, said of Chance, almost abstractedly, ‘He’s on a different plateau.’
Well, that was almost it. Was Public Storage Blues fun? You bet. Did it work out as intended? That too. You see, it was not a benefit in the usual sense of the word. The artists, bless ’em, performed free but most of the door was swallowed up in production costs and there had been no remote possibility that Public Storage Blues would raise the moolah for a buy-back.
It was intended to focus attention on the indifference of a major corporation towards the rights of this particular customer. I am, moreover, just getting started. Indeed, I was so enthused that at the end of the event I leapt off the stage like a gazelle. Oooomf!
Nothing was broken, but my left thigh and calf were soon ballooning and I hopped about on a stick for three weeks, more or less to the hour. The story that quickly went viral in New York was that I had done a stage leap but nobody had, uh, caught me. It’s a funny story, and it’s a pity to spoil it, but actually I had planned not just to leap like a gazelle but to land like one, too.
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