I arrived at the Heathrow Virgin Atlantic bag drop late. I was told I’d missed my plane and to go to desk 13 to discuss whether I could be transferred to another flight. The next person I talked to said that since my bag to be checked was well below 10kg, I could take it as hand luggage on my original flight, but that I’d have to run to the gate. I got through security in good time and made it to the plane by sprinting all the way. I was pleased to be the last passenger on-board and having avoided hanging around – all that queuing is such a drag!
I checked the in-flight entertainment and since all the film and music selections were complete and utter wank, decided to read Barry Graham’s new book The Wrong Thing instead. This turned out to be a smart move since I really dug Graham’s noir-style prose which was finely crafted and engrossing. A Mexican-American boy called The Kid who isn’t loved by his family gets into drug dealing, finds love and in loosing it winds up dead. All the trademark Graham interests are present too – from boxing to the unnecessary cruelty of capital punishment. On one level the book is a narrative essay illustrating how the law serves the rich and screws the poor.
Returning to my flight, I was travelling economy and since I’d last taken a transatlantic jaunt on Virgin they seemed to have introduced three classes of travel. I guess you get what you pay for and in premium economy they had more and larger toilets – the rich don’t just shit like you and me, they do it on a grander scale! The attendants got very pissed off with economy passengers who went into the premium economy bogs – they’d have probably had a heart attack if we’d tried to use the first class karzai! It wasn’t exactly service with a smile – when tea and coffee were being offered around and I asked for water, I was told I could only have a hot beverage. So I had to say I wanted a black coffee but to hold the coffee, so I ended up with a cup of hot water. Why I couldn’t just have a glass of cold water beats me… Likewise all the pep talk to passengers about safety is obviously absolutely nuts when Virgin make their female flight attendants wear high-heels. I saw one stewardess fall on her arse and I’m sure she wouldn’t have tumbled if she’d been wearing flat shoes.
Remembering I wanted to go for a heightened state of awareness on this trip, I decided to develop my paranoia and assume the guy in the seat next to me was an undercover cop. We didn’t say much to each other, although that may have been because he spent much of the flight asleep. I like to stay awake, not just because it seems safer when you’re simulating paranoia but also because it’s a way of easing into a new time zone. I finished Barry Graham’s book and had to move onto another less interesting one. I was pleased when we landed at JFK and I got to immigration. At first the immigration officer gave me a bit of a grilling, but when he asked what my job was and I told him novelist, he became very friendly. I always say novelist at immigration because it is both true and generally seen as less contentious than if you say you’re a writer (you might be a subversive journalist) or an artist (in which case you’ll probably be suspected of making porn).
I didn’t have to wait long for the express bus to Manhattan. I got off at 42nd Street and crossed the road to the Port Authority Bus Terminal. It was a short hop to Hoboken. On the way I checked the voice mail messages that had come in on my US cell phone while I was back in London for twelve days. Two of them were a regular series of bleeps – probably just random attempts to send spam faxes, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t pretend to be paranoid about them. When I arrived in Hoboken I saw immediately the place had undergone a massive change. The town looked nothing like it had when I’d last stayed there back in the eighties. It was Friday night and people were partying on the street as if having a good time was about to go out of fashion. Instead of local stores and down market chains like Domino’s Pizza, it now boasted branches of Footlocker and American Apparel, as well as a lot of trendy bars.
Tom McGlynn’s apartment building was now an anachronism, it looked as run down as when I’d first stayed there more than twenty years before. Going through the hallway and up the stairs there were still blaring TVs and shouted conversations in both Spanish and English. Tom has a rent controlled flat and he’d been doing it up, so it looked much smarter than when I was last there. We chatted for a couple of hours – mostly about Occupy Wall Street – and then crashed out. Tom’s take on OWS was really interesting because he was designing shelters for protesters to sleep in, so he was involved in some very practical discussions about how to keep the movement growing. But he was also keeping a close eye on the various elements involved in political discussions around the occupation.
Saturday morning was just a question of acclimatising to the hood. Last time I’d been in Tom’s flat there was a view of the Hudson River from one end, but new and expensive apartment buildings had completely hidden the water. After lunch it was time to head to Manhattan. We took the PATH rather than the bus. We got off at 9th Street and went to St Marks Books, which is still the best place to pick up texts in New York. From there we moved on to Bullet Space, an artists collective on the Lower East Side. I sat in on Tom’s meeting with Alex Rojas and Andy Castrucci about a group show they were including him in entitled Mob. When we exited Bullet Space we ran into Carlo McCormack on the street outside the gallery.
I hadn’t seen McCormack since 1989 and we chatted about our mutual friend Jon Savage, as well as the Billy Childish opening that I’d missed since it had taken place a couple of hours before I arrived at JFK. Tom and I headed up to White Columns so that I could check in with the gallery and see how my show there had been going. When we arrived we were told we’d missed Billy Childish and Steve Lowe by minutes – they’d been in together to see my retrospective before heading on to the airport. From there we moved around the corner to Snice for coffee and burritos. After our refreshments, we made out way to Murray Guy on West 17th Street for the opening of Ann Lislegaard’s show TimeMachine. A cartoon creature projected onto mirrors stuttered segments of The Time Machine by H. G. Wells… It grooved us and I’m sure it would appeal to the kids too!
When Tom headed back to Hoboken, I made my way to White Columns for an Eileen Myles reading of prose, poetry and a long extract from an essay she’d contributed to the SF MOMA catalogue for The Air We Breathe: Artists & Poets Reflect On Marriage Equality. I’d been to see Myles read at Apexart two weeks earlier, but had to miss her performance because she was on last and the event ran late. White Columns had bought me a yoga mat for my performance there a couple of weeks earlier, and since it was still in one of the offices, I decided to take it away so that I could practice my headstand reading in comfort. I quickly discovered that in New York guys use yoga mats as ‘babe magnets’. On the subway four girls aged about twenty started to hit on me by initiating a conversation about yoga. Once I was safely back in Hoboken, Tom introduced me to two Canadian friends who’d come to visit him – Mary and Larry. I’d only been away from the US for twelve days but during that time the clocks had gone back an hour in the UK. Now I was in the east coast for the weekend when the clocks went back there…. It seemed like I was in a time slip.
Sunday morning was a chance to run through the stuff I was planning to do on Thursday for the Performa live art festival – including my headstand reading. After lunch I headed to Brooklyn… I took the PATH to 14th Street in Manhattan, changed onto the L train and then changed once again to the G train. I’d heard the G train was really infrequent but I caught one quickly and arrived early at Tim Beckett and Charlotte Jackson’s pad a couple of blocks from the Bedford Nostrand subway stop. You could see the area was being gentrified but it still had more of the old time vibe than anywhere else I’d been since I’d arrived in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area.
Next to turn up at Tim and Charlotte’s was Ron Kolm. As more people arrived – including Carl Watson and Maggie Wrigley – it became an old school East Village writers meet with me as the overseas guest of honour. When Darius James walked in with Norman Douglas, it was great to see DJ for the first time in five or six years. When I complimented Charlotte on the music she was playing – a lot of Model 500 among other things – and asked her how she had picked a bunch of my favourite tunes, she told me that this was easy to do, since she’d been checking the links I posted on my Facebook page. That really helped raise my state of awareness by making me paranoid that every intelligence and police agency in the world knows I like sixties soul tunes and old school house!
Shortly after this John Farris arrived and he had real presence. I’ve not read his novel The Ass’s Tale but will try to make up for that omission in due course. I ended up sitting with Darius, Norman and John for a long time: and rather than trying to give a flavour of the conversation here, it’s easier just to direct you to an online interview of Norman’s with John. Following much chat, chow and drinking, everyone settled down to watch a rough cut of the documentary about voodoo that Darius was scripting and presenting. The movie went down a storm, with everyone impressed by the classy cinematography… and the way Darius explained some of the finer points he was wanting to get across as the footage rolled… After the screening most people split, and once again I had no problem getting a G train. I was back in Hoboken by 11.30pm.
Monday morning was another chance to hang in Hoboken and practice for my performance… At lunchtime I headed into Manhattan to meet with Darius, Tim, Tom and Mary in The Old Town on East 45th Street. Tom and Mary had gone into town with Larry ahead of me – but Larry then went off in search of famous baseball sites in Brooklyn. I was travelling alone and everyone else arrived late. I had a bet with myself that Tom and Mary would arrive before Tim and Darius, and when they did I took out the 100 bucks I had in my left pocket and placed the notes in my right pocket. The Old Town was a traditional bar with booths and ultra-retro toilets (or maybe they’d just never been refitted). We talked about writing and the stuff Darius was doing, so voodoo was on the agenda too. Tom and Mary left before me, so Tim and I walked Darius down to Grand Central Station well after dark, then went our own ways. I’d planned to go to to both Occupy Wall Street and MOMA that day, but ended up spending all of it in The Old Tavern before heading back to Hoboken. After eating everyone at Tom’s settled down to a Roger Corman produced piece of trash in the form of a DVD of Sharktopus… I was laughing so much at the movie that I forgot I was supposed to be paranoid, so that rather blew my attempts at heightened perception for the day!
Directed by Declan O’Brien, Sharktopus is one of those “so bad it’s good’ movies that came out last year. Corman has nice cameo as a mean spirited beach walker, and Eric Roberts looks like he was method acting being a drunk. We were speculating on the dinner conversation between the Roberts family when they meet up, with Eric’s more famous sister Julia talking about her latest A-list Hollywood productions, and Eric announcing he’s in Sharktopus. The monster isn’t in the least bit scary but there are plenty of laughs and girls in bikinis – including a group of ‘babes’ doing yoga sun salutations on the beach as the half-shark/half-octopus creature attacks….
Tuesday was another morning of hanging in the hood and working on my act. After lunch I went to Manhattan to meet Mark Bloch on the Lower East Side. On the way I dropped in on This Is What Democracy Looks Like – an Occupy Wall Street themed show in an NYU building on Washington Place. There were handmade signs and printed ephemera from OWS. When I hooked up with Mark we rapped about art and politics, in terms of the latter mainly OWS. After coffee and a snack we moved on to the Billy Childish show at Lehmann Maupin’s 201 Chystie Street space. Billy’s canvases have got bigger as he’s got more successful but otherwise his painting hasn’t changed much in 30 years. The clean white cube space and uncluttered hang also signalled that 30 years of hard graft have finally paid off to make him an ‘overnight success’. Upstairs there was a nice display of Billy’s records and publications… The layout was not dissimilar to my current White Columns show, which perhaps isn’t surprising because Matthew Higgs curated both exhibitions.
With Mark I moved on to the NYU Grey Gallery back in Washington Square to see Fluxus and the Essential Questions of Life… There were lots of familiar works but the tight curatorial categorisation seemed to work against the original iconoclasm of the movement. The curator Jacquelyn Baas has a reputation as being the hippest young expert on Fluxus and related currents, so I guess a lot of people like her methods of interpretation, but I didn’t go for her division of works into categories such as ‘change’, ‘danger’, ‘death’, ‘god’, ‘love’, ‘nothingness’ and ‘sex’. To undermine the conceit each category had a question mark after it – so I guess that’s an admission it wasn’t going to work for everyone, and for me the theming just got in the way of the work. Downstairs there was a selection of time related New York art to contextualise the Fluxus material. Between rapping and seeing two shows, Mark and I had used up most of the day… and when my old Neoist/mail art pal went home, I wandered around downtown in the dark. I’d intended to go and see the Fluxus show at MOMA that day after not making it the day before, but I was fated to miss it…
After hanging in Hoboken on Wednesday morning, I took the PATH train to World Trade Center rather than along the 33rd Street branch. Going into the station amongst the construction on the Ground Zero site felt eerie, although I guess you’d get used to it if you did it all the time. For me it provided a stark reminder of the stupidity and futility of terrorism – and let’s not forget that terrorism is always vanguardist and thus always anti-working class, regardless of who is responsible for it. I headed on up to Broadway and while there took another look at the Occupy Wall Street demonstration. It almost felt like I hadn’t left since I was last there nearly three weeks earlier. I had my luggage with me – including the yoga mat for my headstand reading – and a woman engaged me in a conversation about where I did yoga classes. Because I was getting hit on rather than participating in political debates, I split. After leaving OWS I checked into Hotel 91 on East Broadway, then rushed out to visit noted Ray Johnson expert Bill Wilson at his Chelsea home. Tom McGlynn had got there before me – after coffee and a long conversation with Wilson about Johnson and his playful aesthetic, the two of us headed north to call on Ben Morea. Among other things Tom and I talked to Ben about OWS. His take seemed to be that we weren’t yet in a revolutionary situation and so right now we shouldn’t act as if we are in one – the important thing was to push in that direction.
Tom and I moved on to the Sherrie Levine and David Smith opening at the Whitney. Smith’s sculpture made us think of Cy Twombly on acid. The Levine show was a great hang and a real time trip back to the eighties. I liked both exhibitions but the opening party left me cold – like so much museum hospitality these days, it seemed aimed at trustees and businessmen who like the illusion of moving in the art world but wouldn’t want to do it for real. The opening had attracted mostly suits and very few artists. A swift exit and a walk of a few blocks enabled us to hang with Nicholas Towasser of Dissident Books at Mid-Town Bagels. After drinks and a chat, Tom and I headed south again – me to East Broadway and Tom to Hoboken.
Thursday at noon I had to check in at Westport, the former strip club that was hosting my reading that night. I carried my yoga mat there without incident – I guess women don’t hit on men in the streets of New York that much in the morning. We ran through the technical requirements of the night and everything was sorted in an hour-and-a-half. The venue was still laid out as a strip joint and all the readings were taking place from a catwalk with multi-coloured spot lights. I tried to make a meet with Lee Wells but our timings were out, so I wandered around downtown before going back to Hotel 91 to shower and rehearse before my show…. I got a call from Lynne Tillman who said she’d had to take a friend for emergency admission to the hospital, so she wasn’t going to make the reading.
I left the hotel just after six and got to Westport on Clarkson Street before seven – having walked from one side of Manhattan to the other. With Performa curator Mark Beasley we had a hurried rehearsal of Lynne Tillman’s text More Sex, with Sadie Laska from the band Joe and Sadie’s Trip reading it. She sounded good and it looked funny with Mark holding up a laptop for her to read from. We didn’t have a printer so this was the only way the story could be accessed. Tom McGlynn and Ben Morea turned up early, so I chatted with them – and sorted out the reading order with my fellow performers Jarett Kobek and Ken Wark when they arrived.
At eight – and not a minute before – people were allowed into the venue. It quickly filled with hipsters and I shredded one of my novels, then stood on my head to give a recital from Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie – I always work from memory rather than with copies of my books. Jarret followed with a storming reading of a new piece and a section of his most recent novel Atta. He says it’s difficult to read from his Semina novel Hoe #999 (edited by me), so he didn’t do any of that – much as I’d have liked him to do so! Ken was up next and read from some of his expansive writings on the situationists, then ended with a great call and response piece about Occupy Wall Street. Sadie read Lynne’s story from her new collection Some Day This Will Be Funny – with Mark holding the laptop. She was even better in front of an audience than on her run through. I finished off the readings with more party trick pieces – a passage from 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess with my ventriloquist puppet Mister Dog, and several pages from Defiant Pose (with OWS in mind). Then Joe and Sadie’s Trip played raw and loud psychedelic music…
People seemed to have a good time, and a couple of women engaged me in conversations about yoga, since they’d seen me stand on my head – although I kick up with more force than a yogi would use…. The Performa crowd left for other places and by ten-thirty Westport was filling with a different breed of hipster – the type who were regulars at the bar. My plan had been to move on to Ear for drinks – but that was closed for renovations, so we ended up at Milady’s at 162 Prince Street. I’m told this is one of the very last regular bars left south of Houston, and that it gives you more beer for your dollar than plusher places. Tom McGlynn, Tim Beckett and Charlotte Jackson got there before me – they’d called me on my cell to say Ear was closed and had already decided we should go to Prince Street instead. I arrived with Jarett Kobek, Eve Blackwater, Ken Wark and Christen Clifford. Lee Wells and Katie Hofstadter Winton came later. There was much drinking and talking – and, of course, Occupy Wall Street was among the subjects covered….
I walked back to Hotel 91, buying falafel on the way. As I waited for the lift to my room a woman asked me where I’d been doing yoga – she was with a friend and both were about my age. I told the two women I’d been doing a reading standing on my head on the catwalk of a strip club, which was why I had the mat with me. I don’t think they believed me but they were obviously amused by what I was saying, and seemed disappointed that I got out of the lift before them without suggesting we go to my room or for a drink somewhere nearby…. I took the yoga mat back to White Columns the next morning and left it there. Matless I found myself left in peace by women looking to meet a new boyfriend.
On Friday I went for lunch with Lynne Tillman at Snice. Lynne’s sick friend had improved in the hospital overnight. Lynne herself was on top form, talking in an upbeat way about her writing and her recent visit to Japan. I was really glad to catch up with Lynne – who I’d first met at a post-opening party for Susan Hiller when I’d been in New York back in 1989. Having done my gig and met up with Lynne, I felt my current mission in New York was accomplished. We had so much ground to cover in our conversation that I didn’t even get around to talking to Lynne about Richard Nash – whose innovative approach to publishing seems to have done a lot to raise her profile. I’d invited Nash to my Performa reading but he told me he was out of town that night….
Next time I visit the Big Apple I’m gonna make sure I’m not carrying a yoga mat around with me. Being hit upon by around a dozen women who didn’t know me from Adam because of my yoga mat – it’s like a sign saying you’re a ‘sensitive’ man – rather ruined my attempts at raising my state of consciousness through self-induced paranoia…. I just didn’t feel lonely and alienated enough after being flirted with to get into the proper noir mood! Oh well, here’s to me actually achieving a heightened state of awareness next time I’m in the city!
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!