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Glenn O’Brien is Dead & The Squares Are Back in Power: The Time to Party is Now

Glenn O'brien shot by Peter Ross
Glenn O'Brien shot by Peter Ross

“We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds, and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.” -Bukowski

In the past year, we’ve lost a lot of artists, icons, and legends in series of celebrity death waves the likes of which America hasn’t seen since maybe the 60s. The best of us have been dropping like flies. It weighs on the psyche, some more than others. The recent passing of writer, editor, and host of the bacchanal public access show TV Party, Glenn O’Brien, hit me harder than any. This came even to my own surprise. I spent the weekend mulling it over.

Maybe it’s because he wasn’t any household name, most people have never heard of him. Maybe it’s because I felt a closer bond to the understated legacy of O’Brien than say that of Bowie or Prince—figures of such demigod magnitude that they were untouchable. O’Brien was accessible. I’d catch an infrequent Instagram post or the occasional sardonic dig at Trump on Twitter. I looked up to O’Brien, and always will. For me, he’s canonized, and not in any awe, but in the sense that I relate to his early pursuits.

In A Time When Everyone Wants to be Everything to Everyone, Glenn O’brien was Nothing More Than a Writer

A writer who undoubtedly left his mark, but a writer. And like most writers, he was never given his real due. His writing wasn’t anything groundbreaking or revelatory- it didn’t carry the Gonzo weight of those like Hunter Thompson or John Gilmore. Rather, it was his wayward proto-punk ethos that cut to the core of me and for me. O’Brien’s hermaphroditic anima gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning, like I was all the time hearing his battle calls through that cheap microphone, waking up in a dog tent in the middle of a civil war field, and feeling jazzed, even with gangrene eating at my leg, because I was following an eccentric general I believed in.

related content: Between Enemy Lines- Hunter S. Thompson & The 2016 Election

He wasn’t keen on writing for the “square press,” as he called it. “I had already been through Rolling Stone and Esquire and Playboy,” he explained, “and I was trying to do something more artistic.”
He left behind a rich, underground legacy of editorial mischief. After being mentored by Warhol, he went on to give High Times magazine the illustrious reputation it still holds today, serving as editor-in-chief, and eventually being the first to use the editor-at-large tag when working in the office proved too confining. Though nothing packed a punch quite like TV Party, and O’Brien quickly cemented himself as the Ed Sullivan of the new wave scene.

“The country was ruled by television,” he said during an interview. “That was the means by which people where controlled. I thought of TV Party as people seizing television and using it for democratic purposes. I always thought freedom of speech didn’t really mean anything after the age of mass communication, because, y’know, in 1700, anyone could get up on a street corner and start yelling, but once you had radio and TV, the playing field wasn’t level anymore. The idea of public access was leveling the playing field.”

TV Party reached the height of its popularity in the chic, scuzzy days of bankrupted New York. It was something of a televised extension of the sheer kinkiness coming out of hip, underground nightclubs like The Mudd Club and Danceteria. TV Party brought sordid dissonance to the already-taken-for-granted crystal ball boob tubes that sat in every low-rent apartment in Manhattan. A renegade in black shades and a sports coat, O’Brien and his bands of miscreants laid to waste regularly scheduled programming. Even David Letterman cited it often as his favorite talk show. TV Party disturbed, baffled, offended, and it inspired.

“Glenn O’Brien’s hermaphroditic anima gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning…”

For the last several months, I had for some reason been looping old episodes of TV Party in the background- when I wrote, when I read, when I fucked, when I ate, when I slept. I wondered about this too. Maybe it was a symptom of the recent election. Maybe I was pining for that freewheeling camaraderie. Maybe it was something as simple as seeing Basquiat, Blondie, Iggy Pop, Kid Creole, the Brides of Funkenstein, and other numerous guests carouse on live TV like abandoned children left alone to play.

Glenn O'brien photo by Bobby Grossman

Glenn O’brien photo by Bobby Grossman

“That’s what I wanted to do… Live television. That’s the way TV was when I was a kid. It was exciting. Anything could happen. I remember watching Playhouse 90 and the U.S. Steel Hour in the fifties and a set might fall over, or someone would blow a line badly or a stagehand would accidentally walk in front of the camera with a ladder. I saw prizefighter Benny ‘Kid’ Paret killed in the ring live on TV on April 3, 1962 when I was fifteen years old and Lee Harvey Oswald shot and killed live on TV on November 24th, 1963. I knew live was where it’s at.” -Glenn O’Brien

Maybe it was the allure of that busted water mane of creative energy; that psychotic absurdism accentuated in black and white with shoddy graphics. Maybe it was just a big reminder to me of what’s really important in this world: friends, music, art, drugs and delinquency. TV Party transcended gimmicks or bullshit ‘branding’ moves. Hell, it transcended experimentation itself. It was a hip, collective declaration that defied fear in an increasingly fearful world. For instance, during an episode circa 1980, O’Brien declared,

“The thing about terrorism is that if you’re not going to get afraid—if you’re fearless—if you fear nothing, then terrorism… means nothing. Terrorism only appeals to the weak element. The sort of people who can be pushed around by suggestion, by innuendo (puffs a joint). But we here at TV Party can only be pushed around by a good time.” Glenn O’Brien

Maybe it’s just that talkin’ bout my own g-g-g-generation bums me out. With the advent of live broadcasts straight from our pockets, the playing field is leveled once again, and we can’t seem to get past banal, snot-nosed gossip. We’re all wrapped up in neuroses and hang-ups and being psycho-analyzed to the point of no return, still recovering from childhood pill cocktails to ever leave our apartments (or parents’ basements). The search for symbiotic inspiration—freewheeling comradery and creative whirlpools—is a hard road in the days of digitized “connection.” Since my move back to L.A. seven years ago, it’s felt like 40 years in the desert. Live shows always help, like a good shot of morphine, and nothing I take for granted. They’re about all the sacredness we’ve got left in this one-percenters’ paradise (until the city comes in and shuts it down).

I’m not a total pessimist. For reasons beyond my own understanding, I still reserve a lot of hope for our capacity to connect the old world (in which we grew up) with a new one (in which we’re sure to die). The few things that I do champion about “my generation” include: the current revival of underground garage rock; keeping these power-abusing piggies on their toes; a general distaste for transnational banking cartels; and the erosion of ingrained social norms.

Glenn O'Brien w/ Basquiat. Photo by Bobby Grossman

Glenn O’Brien w/ Basquiat. Photo by Bobby Grossman

“For the last several months, I had for some reason been looping old episodes of TV Party in the background- when I wrote, when I read, when I fucked, when I ate, when I slept.”

If we can all agree on one thing, it’s that we’ve inherited a shit storm of a world to deal with. We don’t have much luxury left to be wringing our hands over standup jokes, or models fucking on-camera. Maybe I give us too much credit, but I feel it’s beneath us. Besides, there’s plenty of pearl-clutching to go around from these heinous evangelical squares who have dug into America’s heartland like ticks. These morally-righteous, fundamentalist diaper-sniffers who think there’s nothing more important than forever living in 1955; who have gained political power the likes of which eclipse those foul years of Nixon and Reagan combined; and who, just the other day, were summed up in one sentence:

“They’d put Vladimir Putin in the White House if he promised to overturn Roe v. Wade.”

So, it’s vexing when, on most days, you don’t see much difference in hysterical outrage between the left and the right, and the complete lack of consistency coming from both sides. “Fuck ‘em, squares on both sides,” William Burroughs once wrote. Since when did telling people what to say and how to live become in our best interest? These bible-thumpers are doing plenty of that to go around—these militant soldiers of Christ who apparently think the best form of government to be a democracy, while they also believe Heaven to be a monarchy. As Alan Watts put it, “It is from, principally, white, racist Christians that we have the threat of fascism in this country.”

We ought to be freakishly scaring the bejesus out of these Happy Days squares with debauched taboos and lustful inclusion (tempting all that repression is sometimes more fun than the taboo itself). That was, after all, one of the first things rock ‘n’ roll accomplished, alongside integrating American youth. But really, we should be focusing this uppity, newfound sense of moral superiority of ours on how we’re going to steer the natural world, with its buckling ecosystems and dwindling resources, away from imminent disaster. A lot of these squares think that becoming stewards of the planet, and reversing our own toxification of it, means we’re somehow worshipping the devil.

“There’s a lot working against us, and we must take care in not becoming squares ourselves—for if you gaze long into a square abyss, the square abyss also gazes into you.”

Part of this would entail vibing with completely different mindsets altogether, adopting new paradigms and modes of thought, and shedding our programming handed down to us by older generations that never had to question what they were buying from the supermarket.

The last part is tricky. Where does it start? How do you get people to let go of the familiar, and embrace the exotic? Other than the pithy, self-help party proclamations of Andrew W.K., millennial morale feels pretty fucking low. And that’s our problem. We’re giving into anxiety. We’re giving into insatiable desires marketed to us on bloody 24-hour news cycles. We’re giving into cowering in solitude in our overpriced studio apartments, streaming our music from platforms that fuck over artists, shaking our fists at strangers through screens who say or do anything lewd, and bitching about our ‘economic viability.’ Worst of all, we’re giving in to our yuppy, square parents’ nagging instead of shucking off the obsolete morals of a doomed consumerist culture, hawking us meaningless trash manufactured from the bones of a dying world.

I always hark back to the words crooned by Thurston Moore in Sonic Youth’s “100%”:
All I know is you got no money/ but that’s got nothing to do with a good time.

Glenn O'brien & Fab Five Freddy by Bobby Grossman

Glenn O’brien & Fab Five Freddy by Bobby Grossman

If ‘our generation’ is to be summed up—and I loathe the idea of generational identity, since it only gives the adman more ammunition—it should be as one of creativity and innovation (beyond developing redundant photo-sharing apps). We are not a generation of employed productivity. Let’s let these machines work, and allow emerging tech to completely revolutionize our economy. We should put to bed the 20th century notion of commuting in cars (that none of us are buying) to these self-important corporate gigs that demand five years’ experience for entry-level positions, and that we give up the best years of our lives for maybe some health coverage and diminished wages.

Our task now is to play God: create. And we’re beating our heads against a wall pretending to live up to bygone standards. We’re on a runaway freight train, that much is true, but we’re still white-knuckling, instead of going with the flow, awaiting what lies down the track. Maybe we should stomp the accelerator, see if we can’t jump tracks, swerve into bloom, and create a world worth getting out of bed for.

Having a good work ethic is vital. But where do good ideas come from? In my experience, from firing the committee in your head, getting idle, and letting those hang-ups fall to the wayside. It’s shocking what arises, what you find yourself driven to do, whether it’s starting a band or a vertical farm. Despite what corporate projections tell us, we can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. Our problem isn’t overpopulation, it’s our lack of imaginative use of resources. We have all the growth we need. Unchecked capitalism did its job. Now it’s time to do our job—by not having one. It’s time to drop the #adulting act and get real—get down.

“We ought to be freakishly scaring the bejesus out of these Happy Days squares with debauched taboos and lustful inclusion (tempting all that repression is sometimes more fun than the taboo itself).”

I’m not putting down hustling. We gotta do what we gotta do.

Part of the reason TV Party fizzled out in the early 80s was because Glenn O’Brien had a kid on the way, and had to figure out a way to make some money.

We’ve all got to eat and live. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about attitude, about vision, about ethos, about solidarity, and living in the present moment so that we may consciously bridge a dead past with a vivid future.

*These aren’t abstract, idealistic notions either. There are very real solutions being talked about all around the world. I highly recommend picking up How Soon is Now? From Personal Initiation to Global Transformation.

I realize this homage turned into a rant about the uncertainty of life in this foul year of our lord, 2017. But, for good or ill, this is what Glenn O’Brien’s breadth of work stirs in the forefront of my mind. If O’Brien’s example has taught us anything, it’s to reclaim our own experience, take it out of the hands of faceless cultural engineers, and put it back out into the world “alchemized” in our own image. O’Brien was able to do this, and with the help of the creative allies, they leaned on each other, and in the decades that followed—out of a freak-filled public access think tank—came artistic endeavors equivalent to space flight. We all should be so lucky. I think we can go further. The good news is we don’t have much choice.

To Glenn. To the Party.

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