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March 24th, 2006
Fri, Mar. 24th, 2006 08:35 am

Yesterday I went to see The Downtown Show, a terrific survey of transgressive and avant garde art, writing and fashion from the period 1974-1984, held at NYU's Grey Gallery in Washington Square. There were photographs of the Lower East Side looking like a bombsite, early publications by people like Lynn Tillman and Kathy Acker, clips of Spalding Gray in early performances by the Wooster Group, clothes worn by Madonna, photographs of Keith Haring, political protest art by Nancy Spero, a soundtrack of bittersweet rock records by Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine, and much, much more (I'm going to go back and see it again, I only saw half of it).



I came away from the exhibition feeling like someone who'd missed the early, vital episodes of a cult TV show. This was amazing backstory. These were the pioneers, people I knew as affluent middle-aged folk with slightly fusty lofts, restored to their youthful funk and rage. For instance, I'd met writers Tillman and Acker in their later years, in London; Lynn at a restaurant in Soho, Kathy at a wedding reception in Chelsea. They seemed to me like middle-aged, eccentric bohemians. Rather than screaming lines from Rimbaud at the top of her voice, Kathy Acker (whose "Blood and Guts in High School" I'd read in college) talked in shy, measured tones about property prices in Brighton.

Well, Kathy is dead now. She died of breast cancer. The photographer Kaucyila Brooke made an exhibition of pictures of her clothes, which was shown at the Berlin Biennial in 2004. Looking at all those 1980s designer clothes, slightly the worse for wear, felt very like looking at The Downtown Show: fascinating and sad, a generation of mavericks in fast-motion, some dying quickly, others wilting slowly, having conversations in restaurants about selling their papers to universities. When she died, Kathy joined Keith Haring and the other early departees from the Great Generation of Downtown (many, of course, were gay and died of AIDS). She was joined, in turn, by Spalding Gray, who jumped off the Staten Island ferry.



I spent a while watching videos of early productions by The Wooster Group, featuring Gray as a sarcastic doctor. What made the black and white, late 70s video tapes fascinating was the fact that I was due, at 8pm, to see The Wooster Group of 2006, over in a warehouse in Dumbo, performing Eugene O'Neill's play The Emperor Jones. Crossing the East River, I also crossed, in ultra-rapid motion, thirty years. There they were in the lobby, the ageing Great Generation who hadn't died of cancer, AIDS or suicide; the Wooster Group audience. The fifty- and sixty- and seventy-somethings still up for experimentation, still living in lofts. Still, perhaps, shocked and appalled by the conformity of the young. Avant grizzlies in beards and berets. People who remembered when Downtown was punky and funky. People who could tell you a story or two.



And up on the walls all around the lobby were posters for events like "Fire at Keaton's Bar and Grill, a jazzy song cycle" featuring Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, and Debbie Harry. "The room is smoky and the jazz is jazzy," says the New York Times. Here and there you could see younger names: Antony, the Tigerlillies -- the avant-cabaret acts the grizzlies have embraced and endorsed, people who remind them of downtown theater and their youth.

We filed into the theatre (the ticket-tearers were the only young people in there). "The Emperor Jones" was terrific, a lovely layering of ostranenies, blackface and kabuki and video art and cheesy music that suddenly went Indonesian, and weird gongs and drums, and -- my favourite moment -- the transition from stylised speech to a weird, delicately evil sort of Aubrey Beardsley synchronised dance sequence. The costumes were great, very Laura Ford. The weirdness inflamed my imagination and reminded me of my own attempts at avant-estrangement on my last couple of albums.

But I couldn't help wondering what it means when "experiments", repeated and improved (this was a revival of a 1998 production featuring Willem Dafoe), lead to sure-fire success. And I couldn't help feeling that some sort of whisky-warm avant-grizzly glow suffused the whole place, the feelgood glow of convergence and reassurance and affluence. The great generation of Downtown was coming home, slowing down in their fustifying lofts, preparing their papers, issuing their box sets. I remembered the somewhat lacklustre Robert Wilson production I attended last year at the Lincoln Center, where Lou Reed was sleeping and Laurie Anderson sat with a fixed smile on her face, because of course she loved it. To be honest, I felt a bit sleepy myself. And I smiled a fixed smile, because of course I loved it.

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