NEW YORK CITY, 1975: My First Year in Manhattan
In 1975, when I was 21, I moved to Manhattan. It was in its most interesting period since the post-war Folk and Jazz boom. This is my first year in The Big Apple.
I felt I was only treading water in Australia. Adelaide had few prospects for either a young artist or a young musician. It had launched a decent number of prominent people but had not managed to be large enough to retain or nurture many. Robert Helpman, Robert Stigwood, Rupert Murdoch, Jeffery Smart, were all born in South Australia but had to move away to thrive. I was compelled to go and somehow the door had been opened up. I had the financial backing of the $4,000 Australia Council grant I'd received only a few weeks before. Because of the favorable exchange rate in 1975, it became almost US $5,000. That was a good amount of money, even for New York at that time. I was enrolled at The School of Visual Arts on 209 East 23rd St.
In early August, 1975 I boarded a UTA (Union de Transports Aeriens) Boeing 747 from Sydney, Australia, to Los Angeles. I had a four hundred-dollar, one-way ticket. There was a four-hour stop in Tahiti where we were taken on buses, to a shady beach for a couple of hours to sip cool drinks, then on to Los Angeles. I lost myself in Patrick White's novel, ‘Voss’, about explorers venturing into the vast Australian outback. The eerie lost-ness of White’s characters was very relevant to my current situation, un-anchoring myself from all that I knew, to face the unknown prospect of America. A frightening and exciting proposition.
Landing in Los Angeles I passed through customs with no problem having secured a student visa. Disorientated and jet-lagged I still had a seven-hour flight to New York. My conversations on the flight to New York consisted of warnings about the crime in the city. I landed at JFK, collected my bags then found a taxi to take me to my pre-booked hotel in Times Square, The Times Square Motor Hotel. (Without Internet, I must have had the assistance of a travel agent to secure my booking). The taxi ride was about forty-five minutes during which the white New Yorker driver realized I was a young, green newcomer to New York and proceeded to set me on edge.
'Watch out for black guys wearing sneakers.' He said. 'They wear sneakers so they can rob you and run fast.' He said, matter-of-factly.
It was eleven am, a very warm, humid day with hazy skies over Manhattan. The huge city appeared like an artificial mountain range in the distance. Next, the Twin Towers and the Empire State Building defined the skyline, assuring me where I was, in the land of Midnight Cowboy. I'd watched this movie when it was released in 1969 and it had a profound impact on me. Somehow it served as an educational tool. The Yellow Cab pulled up in the heart of sleazy Times Square, featured so prominently in ‘Midnight Cowboy’. My hotel had recently been used to house Manhattan's mentally ill. As I alighted from the cab and grabbed my bags a prostitute approached me.
'How about a good time Honey? She propositioned.
I wearily answered, 'No thanks'.
All I wanted was a good rest, not a 'good time', whatever that involved, at 11 am.
I checked into my room, locked the door, unpacked a little then showered. I climbed on the bed in the old hotel room and switched on TV. It was so different from the more formal, sedate fare served up on the Australian tube. It was sharper, more insistent, engaging and seductive. The commercials were even fascinating. I watched for a while before falling into a very long sleep.
Sixteen hours later I woke up totally dehydrated and disoriented.
1975 was a low point for Manhattan. Mayor Abe Beame was having difficulty managing a city that was falling apart. A large portion of Manhattan's middle-class found Manhattan too violent, too run-down. They were leaving in droves, for the suburbs, to Queens, Staten Island, Long Island and Upstate New York. Tax revenue plummeted and basic city bills could not be covered. The Rolling Stones who were ensconced and enamored with Manhattan wrote an ode to New York in their song, 'Hot Stuff', from their 1976 ‘Black and Blue’ album.
'All the people in New York City
I know you're going broke, but you're tough,
Yeah, hot stuff, hot stuff.'
A statement of power and wealth, the Twin Towers, dominated the city. They were opened in 1973 and featured in Dino De Laurentis' movie, King Kong in 1976.
My booking at the Times Square Motor Hotel was for three nights. I was overwhelmed by the reality of Manhattan, of Times Square. It looked familiar because of movies, but it was, in reality alien. People seemed taller than me, with more urgent business than mine. They moved fast, not noticing me. The number of steak places, pizza slices, beer and food joints, was everything one could want, block after block. I walked during daylight then retreated to my hotel before dark, speaking to no one. I took myself to see The Rockettes perform a matinee session at Radio City Music Hall, on Sixth Avenue and 50th Street. I watched the long line of beauties high-kick and dance their way through the pop numbers of the moment, culminating with their dance to Barry White's ‘Love Theme’.
I had a brief time to organize my next move. Times Square was too much of an assault on my small city innocence. I'd heard that there was short-term accommodation availability at Columbia University, on the Upper West Side. I contacted the university and successfully organized a ten day stay in the student dorm. This proved a good move, giving me the chance to acclimatize without too much sensual overload.
Clement Meadmore was the only name I had as a contact in New York City. He was recommended by David Dallwitz, my South Australian Art School teacher, mentor and friend. Clement had moved to New York City from Sydney in 1963 making a successful stand there, even becoming an American citizen. He made huge sculptures of twisted steel and bronze. Clement lived on the Upper West Side in a sprawling, comfortable apartment. I phoned him and he invited me to come visit for lunch. He had imposing, impressive stereo equipment, a large record collection and a piano. Jazz music played smoothly in the background. Clement fulfilled his obligation to his Adelaide friend David Dallwitz. He ordered a Chinese take-out for lunch, chatted to me for an hour, then, he handed me a 50-cent subway token, suggesting that this was the key to getting around Manhattan. He was right of course. Up till then I'd been walking everywhere or catching a bus. It was all above ground. It felt safer. I'd walked up and down the avenues and through Central Park. It was summer and I knew nobody. Central Park was refreshing and beautiful. Strains of the latest radio hits flowed from beat boxes, providing my soundtrack.
'I'm not in love
So, don't forget it
It's just a silly phase I'm going through'
10 CC echoed through the park.
'Me and Mrs Jones
We got a thing, going on
We both know that it's wrong'
Billy Paul followed.
Behind me, people were conversing in French, others in Italian, Spanish, Yiddish, New Yorkese. The familiar accents of home were not heard, I felt I was an observer, not really a part of all this humanity.
I liked the Upper West Side. It was so much more relaxed than the stressed-out Times Square zone. There were trees, places to sit and relax. There were friendlier corner stores, corner bars and no strip clubs, or XXX cinemas. I used my time in the Columbia University student accommodation to acclimatize to Manhattan. The grounds of the university were relaxing. The students weren't back. It was mid-August. I had my first Budweiser beer in the student bar. It was light, cold and refreshing. I talked to almost no one during my stay. I had to find more permanent accommodation and settle myself. My studies at The School of Visual Arts were due to start in less than two weeks.
I found a place to stay by looking at the School of Visual Arts student notice-board. An illustration student needed someone to share his one-bedroom apartment on West 79th Street. I got the fold-out bed in the living room. It was OK for a while but it wasn't going to work long-term. I didn't have much privacy. The neighbors were noisy, a single mother, who yelled at her son each morning to get out of bed and get to school. Her son complained. She yelled louder. At least I had someone to talk to now. My roommate came from Long Island. He showed me around the Upper West Side and took me once to hang out with his friends on Long Island. We didn't spend too much time together as we didn't have a lot in common. I impulsively purchased an upright piano after a couple of weeks. Being of the age where anything is possible, I decided I'd teach myself piano and play in small Manhattan clubs. I explored chords and floundered with melodies for an hour or two each day. I felt I was getting somewhere. One evening, over pizza, it was clear that my roommate wanted to share something with me.
'Can I tell you something?' he asked.
'Yeah, sure. What is it?' I responded.
'I think I'm gay'. he said cautiously.
I hadn't seen this coming. There were no signs, he just seemed to me like a reserved guy from the burbs. I answered to the best of my ability that it was what it was. I wasn't sure if I had anything to offer, except as an ear to hear. I didn't get the feeling that I was in his sights, but I was someone for him to test this possible new identity on. Still, this was a turning point, letting me know it was time to find my own place. I'd been there a month.
When I mentioned I was going to look for my own place, my roommate told me how hard it would be to find an apartment. When told how difficult something is, I often tend to do it just to prove it isn't that hard. Looking through the classifieds I noticed an apartment for rent on West 24th Street. $175 a month. This was a perfect location that was within walking distance of my art school. I found my way there. It was between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, an old, narrow building, seven stories high. I rang the superintendent's buzzer and was soon met by the owner of the building, Ken Diamondstone. Ken looked a little like Cat Stephens with his dark, longish, curly hair. I followed him up the six flights of stairs (no elevator) to the apartment for rent. It was in disrepair with plaster rubble on the floor. It was clearly not ready for renting.
'It will be another week or so.' Ken said. 'If you want it, you can have it then.'
I was impressed with the location, with the privacy, with the light and the space of the old apartment. I wanted it and wanted to move right in.
'How about I move in now and I'll clean up this mess and paint the apartment? You can give me some free rent perhaps in exchange?' I suggested.
Ken was surprised at my offer but he was not one to turn down free labour.
'That sounds like a workable deal! I'll give you two weeks rent-free to clean it up and make it live able.' he said.
We shook hands and I returned to West 79th Street to pack my things.
The big item I had to move was the piano I'd bought two weeks before. Reality hadn't kicked in. The 79th Street apartment was only one flight up with wide stairs. The 24th Street apartment was six flights of narrow stairs. Still, I was young, stubborn and without much experience. I booked a couple of movers to come by and collect the piano, which worked well. The problem came at the 24th Street end. Once the piano was unloaded, the impossibility of the task became instantly evident. The two movers gave it an initial try but it was clearly, not going to happen. The piano was then pushed back onto the street and the $50 moving payment was demanded. I paid it, then stood by the bulky, forlorn instrument, deciding the only option now was to sell it on the street. The street was moderately busy with passers-by. As people passed me, some would slow down and look at the piano and then me.
Once I saw there was a little interest I'd say, 'Hey, I'm selling this piano if you're interested at all?'
It didn't take more than thirty minutes and a dozen or so solicitations, to find a buyer. I got my $50 back, but lost my piano and my budding piano-bar career. The guy who bought it worked about three doors down the street and was able to push it to his building for safe-keeping and transport home later.
I was drained after moving into my new, but messed-up apartment and having to sell my piano on the street. I decided to take myself to lunch, nearby. I was hungry and tired. It was about 2 pm and hot. Being Manhattan, there are always lots of options. I found an Indian restaurant. The lunch-hour rush was over and I was the only customer. It was a small place. I sat down and ordered a simple Dahl and rice from the waiter who went back to the kitchen. Right after that, a man in a uniform hurried in to find the waiter. He went to the back and angry words were exchanged. The men were yelling at each other.
'Give me my money,' screamed the uniformed man who had just entered.
'Get out!' the waiter shouted back. 'You never got rid of the cockroaches!'
'I did my job. I want my money!' the uniformed man shouted back.
Suddenly it escalated. The waiter had a meat cleaver which he was waving at the uniformed man. He was really threatening him, then, chasing him out, towards the door as he yelled.
'Get out! Don't come back!'
I was invisible to them both, feeling transfixed but uncomfortable. I took the opportunity to slide out and look elsewhere for nourishment.
I discovered that there was an excellent, very cheap Hispanic cafe directly below me, on the street level of my building. It became my very regular eating place where I mostly feasted on simple, but delicious rice and beans.
Meantime I had the task of cleaning, painting and revamping my apartment. It took me a week but once it was done, I had a great large, private, sunny space to live and work in. My landlord, Ken came back to check on it when I'd finished. He was clearly impressed. He looked it over almost with disbelief that I'd worked so thoroughly and fast. I'd built my own bed, breakfast table and bench and even took the liberty to paint my floor enamel red and yellow. Ken visited me a few more times as I settled in and it wasn't long after that Ken brought up the possibility employing me part-time to do some odd-jobs in his buildings and even consider me later, to take on the job as superintendent of the 24th Street building.
My neighborhood was known as Chelsea. One block away was the famous Chelsea Hotel. Between my block and The Empire State Building was ‘the flower district’ and ‘the garment district’. Warehouses bustled with workers pushing trolleys of flowers or racks of clothes into waiting vans. My block had a mix of warehouses and apartment buildings. The closest supermarket, Key Foods, was on Eighth Avenue and 26th Street; this area had housing projects and a larger Puerto Rican mix to it.
Art school began at the start of September. It was a fifteen-minute walk from my place. I walked down Sixth Avenue to 23rd Street, crossed Fifth Avenue, Broadway and Park, past the Flat Iron Building and over to Third Avenue. Initially, I had been given only one year’s credit towards my four-year fine-arts degree. Within a few weeks however, the lecturers conceded that I deserved to be put ahead to third year. The large bustling institution made me feel both inspired and sheltered from the enormity of life outside. I had a world to focus on and a structure to follow.
The School of Visual Arts had an amazing staff of established artists to choose to learn from.
Donald Kuspit taught art history, Louise Bourgeois and Joel Shapiro taught sculpture. Students could choose a teacher whose work related to theirs’. For drawing, I had Herbert Katzman, a fabulous draftsman. I chose Sylvia Mangold a solid realist, for painting class and for another, John Button. These established artists all had major galleries in New York. John was an inspiring teacher, full of energy and enthusiasm. His own work was a painterly realist style, depicting mainly city scenes. He featured skies inspired by Rothko and Casper David Freidrich. John was genuinely thrilled with the progress his students made. He built them up and gave them a sense of self-respect and achievement. He introduced me to the work of other important and influential painters such as Alfred Leslie, John Moore and Philip Pearlstein. He was full of information and encouragement. I never missed a class of his. It took me back to the joy I experienced when I first attended David Dridan’s classes at St. Peter’s College, when I was thirteen.
During this settling-in period I wandered further afield, mostly walking, venturing downtown to explore The Village, Bleecker Street, Washington Square and discover Bleecker Bob's records on West 3rd Street. St Marks Place also had great record stores, bars and clothing shops. I'd lunch at Mamoun's Falafel on MacDougal Street for a couple of dollars. I still knew almost no one in NYC, so my days were spent quietly discovering Manhattan by myself. I discovered a huge record fair one weekend and saw a new band promoted on a large television screen. They were a nervous and nerdy bunch called Talking Heads.
I'd heard that Frank Sinatra was to perform in the city. I was a huge fan. I inherited this from my dad. Just before I flew out of Australia, I spent a few days with Pam, an art school girlfriend in Adelaide. We'd spend hours together listening mostly, to Frank, to his recent (1973) album, ‘Old Blue Eyes is Back’. It was our soundtrack, washing over us as the time for me to go pressed down. Here was my opportunity to see Frank in person and it wasn't all that hard to secure a ticket. He was appearing at The Uris Theatre on 51st Street for several nights. The venue was relatively small with perfect view and sound from any seat. The concert itself was a dream. Count Basie led his huge orchestra, Ella Fitzgerald opened, then Frank came on. The whole experience was one of utter perfection and professionalism. The power and precision of Basie's orchestra was incredible, then, the wonderful vocals of Ella were added to lift things to astounding heights. When Frank took the stage, it peaked with pure charisma and musical command. Ella joined Frank after he'd sung a dozen songs, including, Let Me Try Again, Something, Didn't We and Send in The Clowns. Together they performed, ‘The song Is You’ and ‘They Can't Take That Away From Me’. It was simply the best live musical experience I'd ever witnessed, and still it remains, to this day, even though I'd seen such incredible acts as The Who (Adelaide,1968) Led Zeppelin, (Adelaide,1972) and The Rolling Stones (Adelaide,1973).
I bought a turntable and began collecting albums. Music kept me company. Being alone, I listened to vocalists singing melancholy songs; Eydie Gorme, Sinatra and Tony Bennett. Art school had begun and my social situation slowly improved. My first friend was a dark-haired, hip young painting student named Steve Pollock. Steve was sharp-dressed and quick-witted. He was an upwardly aspirational guy. He noticed that I was not the typical art student from Queens or Long Island, that I spoke and dressed differently and he wanted to see what made me tick. He was the first to strike-up conversation. We soon found out we had a lot in common musically.
Ken offered me the job as superintendent of the building. This entailed being available for any of the tenants' emergencies, listening to their complaints concerning their apartments and note any faults they encountered. It was my job to sweep and mop the six flights of stairs and the hallways. I had to put out the trash each week and keep things generally tidy. Ken still wanted me to pay $25 a month after all these tasks. I guess he just wanted a little extra pocket money. Still, my monthly financial load had decreased considerably. I was aware that after all my expenses, the flight, the rents, the art school fees and my day-to-day existence, I would need to find ways to make extra money. My comfortable pool of grant money was gradually diminishing. My first job, outside my building, was as a janitor for my art school. There was a permanent team of about five janitors and elevator operators that were assisted by a couple of students who needed part-time work. The permanent janitors and elevator operators were all black. They were slow and steady, not letting anything much ruffle them. I enjoyed my conversations with them. One guy, about fifty, took more of a liking to me. He told me about how he enjoyed his weekends and his love of a big bottle or two, of Ballentine beer. He got to hear a bit about Australia. He had the idea that Australia didn't like back people. It seemed to derive from the soldiers' experiences he'd heard of in the Second World War. I'd hoped I'd given him a better impression.
Towards the end of the year, my art school girlfriend and fellow Sinatra lover, Pam, had arranged to visit me. Pam had relations in Chicago, so she visited them first, then caught the train to New York to see me. Our time in Adelaide had been intensely close for the few days before I flew out. We had been tentatively checking each other for a year or more before that. We even wrote to each other when I lived in Sydney a few months. Our connection was a strange, dreamy one, partly poetic. It wasn't my normal romantic connection. Pam was very much a dreamer and in-the-head, while I am mostly more physically and primally attracted to a lover. Before Pam arrived, I wasn't sure where our relationship was headed. I wasn't sure what Pam expected nor was I sure what I wanted. I did know that I was glad to leave behind the limitation I felt in Adelaide, in Australia. I felt some fear that if things became serious with Pam, I would be surrendering my new found independence. I'd be rejoined to something Australian and something that was possibly limiting. When I met Pam all these fears manifested. I froze. I shut down, unable to verbalize my feelings. I went cold. It must have been awful for Pam. She wasn't able to open me up to talking about it and I simply didn't understand what I was doing. We never got close, nor made love, even though we slept together in my bed. It became unbearable after a couple of days. I felt terrible on every level. I had to ask Pam to stay at a hotel for her last couple of days in Manhattan. I saw her to her hotel, gave her a hug and a kiss and never saw her again until several years later when we caught up for an afternoon but still, never discussed what had happened. I was uncomfortably affected however and wrote and recorded a song about the experience called ‘Smile or a Tear’.
'You haven't changed a bit since you've been gone
But as I took your hand
I knew we didn't stand a chance
Something happened that I can't explain
Something very strange
And I can't put the blame on you
I hurry 'bout my day
From the fact that you're here
And I can't raise a smile or a tear
When I'm home, feel alone with you'
Strangely, for someone 21 years old, in 1975, who'd been in four pop/rock bands, I'd become immersed in the music of crooners and jazz singers. I was trying to write and sing songs that were the turf of Sinatra, Bennett etc. This genre wasn't on the radar for audiences my age, at that time. I had the chutzpah to head to a mid-town piano bar and ask the piano guy if I could sing a song. He was fine with my request and I chose ‘L-O-V-E’ to sing as the words were so easy to remember.
“L is for the way you look at me
O is for the only one I see….”
A couple of people came in from the adjoining room, curious as to who was singing.
My brother Stephen visited me in December 1975. I had just turned 22. Stephen was 26. He. It had been lonely sometimes in this massive city so I appreciated the company, even though my brother and I were never very close. During my first year in New York I had considered leaving and perhaps moving to Italy. After that I began to feel part of the city and moving wasn’t on my radar. Stephen’s interests were mostly things of pleasure; food, alcohol, movies, sex and luxury. Stephen delighted in the raw, sleazy and looseness of Manhattan. On my corner, a half a block from my building, was ‘Billy’s Topless’, one of the multitudes of topless bars around Manhattan. It was peaking around the time of a New York Post headline, in 1983, “Headless Body in Topless Bar”. With my brother’s encouragement visits to the dark side of Times Square, the more ‘wholesome’ Billy’s, along with other similar bars, became commonplace.
We planned a drive down to Miami, Florida over the Christmas period. I didn’t have a car of course, but there was a little company I’d heard of called AACON, that connected drivers with cars that needed to be delivered across the country. The car was free to drive but it had to be delivered to its owner within a certain timeframe, in this case, three days. We were allocated a 1974 Dodge Dart. It took a bit of adjustment to get used to the American roads and rules, but we settled in remarkably smoothly. On Christmas Day we arrived in Atlanta, Georgia, had lunch at a Chinese restaurant, then headed to a bar near the motel we’d chosen. The bar was a local hangout and looked a little rough. As we pulled up so did another car. A couple of guys climbed out and one pulled out something, longish, wrapped in a towel and hid it behind a bush outside the bar before entering.
We clearly stood out from the regulars, so much so that within seconds of walking through the door, we heard someone say loudly,
“You guys are from ‘New York’ aren’t you?”
It didn’t matter that we were from Australia, it was New York that was the enemy down South. All eyes were on us and one of the regulars approached us then invited us to a ‘party’. Stephen and I knew something felt all wrong. One of the guys who’d hidden the long object outside, encouraged us to follow him to the party. He went out and retrieved his mystery object and put it in his vehicle. We kept them thinking we were going along with them, finished our beers, then to our car and quickly zoomed straight to our motel without incident.
We made a successful journey to Miami, delivered the car then caught a Greyhound Bus back to NYC, an excruciating trip lasting over two days. My brother stayed for a couple of weeks before heading back to London where he was starting to establish himself in the Law game.
For the first year, Steve Pollack was my most consistent friend. He lived in a loft space on the lower, far East side, an area not considered desirable by the regular Manhattan inhabitants. It was gradually being discovered by artists however. Steve had moved into a loft vacated by painter, Janet Fish after her career was rising and she'd discovered better quarters on Spring Street, in Soho. Steve and I often met in Washington Square. We'd sit on a bench, watching all the activity around, making plans, while sharing a joint purchased from one of the dealers on the street, or in the park itself.
'Nickel bags, dime bags, uppers, downers!' the dealers offered, as prospects passed.
Lou Rawls new hit, 'You'll Never Find' serenaded the park dwellers. Steve had a job nearby, on Sixth Avenue, at Bagel Nosh. It was a pretty cool job, in a large, relaxed environment full of tempting food which sometimes, Steve managed to get me free samples. Somehow, the manager knew the prominent music promoter, Sid Bernstein. Sid first brought The Beatles to America and he managed The Young Rascals. I'd brought an acetate of my Australian recordings with me to New York. Through Steve's connection to the Bagel Nosh manager, I was asked to submit my recordings to Sid Bernstein for consideration. He was handling a Scottish band called The Bay City Rollers and was looking for new material for them to record. I had a song I'd written about the woman, Nicki, who pounced on me in Adelaide when I was in Slim Pickens. It was called 'Hold Me, Roll Me'. Bernstein liked the song but it didn't make it into the recording studio for the Rollers. The close connection to fame however encouraged me. I felt it wouldn't be long until something big did connect.
Steve introduced me to a young friend of his named Jesse Chamberlain. Jesse was seventeen or eighteen. Steve said he was a fabulous drummer. He lived downtown, in the warehouse district, 67 Vestry Street, in a sprawling loft with his dad, John Chamberlain. John was well-established in the American art world, a famous sculptor. He didn't so much sculpt, as crush pre-existing forms, mostly car bodies. In John's huge studio area of the loft were a pile of car door-panels, hoods and side-panels in various colors and states of deterioration. There was a large crushing machine next to the car body parts. This was where John fed the sections and panels into. He could manipulate the amount of crushing with relative ease. The front half of the loft was the open living area. The building housed another artist on the level below, Marisol, the French-born Pop sculptress. Jesse had his drums set-up in the basement area of the building and was very keen to play with any musicians. He could switch between rock, jazz and funk effortlessly. He had his mind made up to be part a successful band and was anxious to begin his journey. We jammed and got along well. Jesse knew some other musicians and with their help we recorded a couple of my jazz songs at a small 8-Track studio called Right Track Studios. The recording session was done on a warm night in the Spring of 1976. Jesse recruited the assistance of a brilliant piano player. Steve played both bass and guitar. Steve's sister, Annie, played flute. I had a bit of a crush on Annie. She was easy going, talented and good looking with a curly blonde mane. I did my best Sinatra/Billy Holiday inspired vocals and felt rather pleased with the final mix. Somehow the musical team who played with me also had confidence in the project. I submitted the finished tape of two songs to New York record producer, John Hammond. I received a polite rejection letter a couple of weeks later and decided that my jazz days were over, before they even got started. Who was I to bring ice to the Eskimos? New York had the greatest jazz singers and players in the world. I needed to reset my direction.
Jesse reached out to find more musicians and soon introduced Steve and me to an Englishman named Andy Gray. Andy had a vision, sort of a working-class rock guy writing simple songs. Andy naturally seemed to assemble the band around him. He gave the band the name, Endgame. Andy sung the songs (mostly his) and played guitar. He was a passable player, not outstanding. Steve played bass, Jesse drums of course, Annie joined us with flute and I didn't really fit. Normally, the role of lead singer went to me but with Endgame, Andy took most of that action. He would have been happy if I was out of the picture but I sort of came with the drummer and the bass player and he awkwardly tried to fit me in. I got to sing a couple of my songs as well as sing backup and play a bit of flute. The person who takes on the job of leader of a band usually bares most of the weight as well. This is often why bands fall apart so easily. One carries most of the responsibilities and the rest act like bratty children before long, resenting the leader. Andy organized some little gigs downtown. At one wine bar Andy handed me Steve's bass guitar and told me to just play the next song while Steve played guitar. Having never played bass before and being very rudimentary on regular guitar, I fumbled my way through the short song, turning a deep beetroot color. It was awkward and typical of Andy's direction with Endgame, haphazardness. He got us a spot at CBGB on a Sunday audition night. Bands who did well on audition night were given a real booking. I was allowed to sing a couple of songs, one of which was a jazz-tinged original called, 'Too Many Movies'. Jesse's dad, John Chamberlain was in the crowd and said later it was his favorite song from our set.
Endgame limped on for a few more weeks. Somehow, Andy managed to contact David Byrne, suggesting that we might be the perfect opening act for The Talking Heads, who were now big business. Byrne turned up at our Vestry Street rehearsal room to watch us perform a few songs. Andy sung all the material. Byrne sat patiently through four or five numbers then he left after saying something non-committal. Endgame had come to the end of its game.
I became closer friends with Jesse. He lent me a bike to get around Manhattan. I was invited over to his loft sometimes even when we weren't playing music. His dad was dating Frank Zappa's ex. One time, he played the video of the popular porn film, ‘Deep Throat’ on his big television. Being well ingrained in the New York art scene John was a popular guest. He invited Jesse and me along to a big party thrown by Arman, the French/American artist who combines found objects of one kind to create a piece, such as: cars, violins, etc. As a treat to his teenage son, John broke out his supply of cocaine to share with us before we headed off to the party. I'd never tried cocaine before and was wary. I realized it was a quick high and could be easily addictive. John made some lines with the white powder, rolled a twenty-dollar bill and handed it to Jesse, then me. Something told me this wasn't a drug I wanted clinging onto me. The effect was fast, making me feel edgy and sort of above things. It was a ride that lasted until we reached the party. I felt disconnected from the arty New York guests but enjoyed the strange experience anyway. New York was full of drugs, they surfaced more, the longer I remained.
Walking one night with Jesse and Steve, back to Jesse's Vestry Street warehouse, on an almost empty street, a car cruised past us. Jesse responded to the vehicle's presence by giving a loud,
Surprisingly, the car's occupants reacted. The car braked, then reversed to within close range of us. Out sprang two angry thugs, striding towards us. I was in a frozen state, perhaps having flashbacks to violent family confrontations. Steve and Jesse instinctively ran off. One of the thugs hovered over me as I looked at him, not moving. He loaded his fist and plunged it into my right eye. I should have reeled backwards, but somehow held my ground and stared him down. He decided more force was needed and ran back to the boot of his car, producing a tire iron. That was it. This looked really serious now. I ran to find my sensibly, cowardly friends. I ran to the local diner to find my stressed-out friends. The next day my eye blacked like cat-fish on the grill.
I'd worked hard during my first year at The School of Visual Arts where I was credited with two years towards my four-year bachelor of art degree in painting. It was inspiring to be living in New York City amongst so much purposeful creativity. It seemed every waiter was a musician, or an artist. The commercial galleries I regularly visited were on 57th Street, a twenty-minute walk from my 24th Street apartment. Marlborough, Fischbach and Frumkin Galleries were my favorites because they exhibited the figurative artists that I admired and, in some cases, knew. Alice Neal, Alex Katz, Lois Dodd, Neil Welliver, Janet Fish, Al Leslie, John Button and Philip Pealstein.
I had been obtaining excellent results in all my art classes. John Button particularly encouraged me. He told me about an opportunity available to young artists over the coming summer. It was a program called The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, based in Maine. A nine-week program running from mid-June to August; that had been running since 1947. It took sixty young artists, from across the country, housed, fed and taught them. The fees were beyond my reach but John said that two scholarships were available to students attending The School of Visual Arts. I applied, then waited. To my shock and delight, I received news that I had been awarded one of the scholarships.
It was the only way I would have been able to attend. Once I'd received the news that I was accepted, John took me to meet a fourth-year painting student who'd received the School of Visual Arts, full scholarship to Skowhegan. He was a serious looking guy named Hilary Zarycky. Hilary wore a button-down, casual shirt, his black hair was combed back into a tidy style, revealing a large forehead. His workman-like, realist paintings were of the city. Hilary regarded me skeptically, not sure what was expected of him from this third year, foreign painter.
I hadn’t left the buildings and streets of Manhattan in nearly a year, apart from a brief drive to Florida. It was arranged that I’d get a lift with two other students. The trip to Skowhegan took several hours. I had no idea how beautiful the country was through New England. Reaching the grounds of The Skowhegan School, on Lake Wesserunsett, I felt very blessed. I had my own studio space and shared a room with one other student. I had the summer away from my part-time jobs and the hot streets of Manhattan just to paint. Visiting that summer was a figurative artist Willard Midgette. He gave a slide presentation of his large-scale, unromantic, city scenes, featuring life-size figures. The scenes were candid and every-day. They showed people descending escalators, coming through revolving doors, city people. He recently had a long residency in New Mexico, where he painted an extensive mural on the walls of a purpose-built private gallery space. I made sure I talked to him after the presentation. I expressed my excitement and admiration. I wanted to know about the New Mexican situation. He was a studious looking man, about forty, dressed like a college professor. He lived and worked in Brooklyn with his wife, Sally and their children. He suggested I stay in touch as there might be some for me work in his studio.
Also teaching that year was the charming Paul Resika. Paul was an expansive, charismatic character who painted in a simplified, semi-abstract manner. When he like a student’s work he would exclaim enthusiastically,
‘Simply marvelous work!’ sounding very much like an Englishman. His opera-singing wife accompanied him that summer. She could be heard practicing as he worked outside by the lake.
1976 was The Bi-Centennial year and that July Fourth we drove into the town of Skowhegan where I witnessed my first July Fourth fireworks celebration.
The summer was packed full of hard work, love affairs, cock-tail parties, arguments, summer-stock theatre, debates, music, sunshine and swimming. Every Friday night we had a party in the school’s hall. I sometimes danced with a hot young artist from Manhattan, Eleanor Sisto, to Earth Wind and Fire. She was a dark-haired, self-assured, Robert Crumb-proportioned beauty but I was not in her sights. I had been in the US for a year and had not yet had a lover. I was randy, but lacked confidence. Instead I drank too much beer with my new friend, Hilary, who was the other scholarship winner from the School of Visual Arts. Neither of us saw any action that summer but we became firm friends.
I did win a prize for painting; a $50 Utrecht certificate for art materials. That meant a lot on my small budget.
The end of summer 1976 marked the end of my first year in Manhattan. My Skowhegan experience was over and it was back to art school for the fall.