Music

Fab 5 Freddy Remembers Glenn O’Brien, Downtown Icon

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I cannot stress enough how influential Glenn O’Brien was on my life. I went to Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn for about two semesters in the Seventies, and around that time I started reading Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. I became a huge fan of this column in the back: “Glenn O’Brien’s Beat.” Glenn would write about all kinds of music, from punk to disco to funk to reggae to dancehall reggae, and I would read his column and then I would go and get those records. And I would hear exactly what Glenn was writing about. At the time, I had a weekly college radio show focused on Caribbean music. We called it The People’s Beat, and had an idea to reach out to Glenn O’Brien: Maybe he would come and do an interview. And Glenn O’Brien responded yes.

We set up a date, and Glenn came to Brooklyn. We interviewed him at the station, and when I was walking him back to the train, I told him some of my ideas about how I was envisioning myself being an artist, how I saw these connections between graffiti and pop art. Glenn was totally encouraging. He told me that in a couple of months he was going to do a public access TV show on cable called Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party, and he wanted to interview me on it. Now, at the time in New York, cable was a luxury. For the outer boroughs — Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx — cable was something that other people had.

Two months later, I get a call from Glenn to come on his show. It was going to happen. So I show up at this funky little bar on 23rd Street in Manhattan called the Blarney Stone. There were all these cool new-wave, punk-rock folks, and we walked across the street to the studio, which was no bigger than your average living room. And it was very low-tech, very lo-fi; the video cameras we used were actually black-and-white. Glenn had explained he wanted his show to be like Hugh Hefner’s Playboy After Dark, which was like a very sexy cocktail hour on TV. At the beginning of each show, he would say, “TV Party is the television show that’s a cocktail party but which could be a political party.” You can see tons of it on YouTube. At the taping of the first show, which I also appeared on, the guy who was supposed to work the camera didn’t show, and Glenn was like, “Fred, man that camera!” And that began a change in my life.

This is where I met Debbie Harry and Chris Stein from Blondie. David Byrne. The B-52’s. Filmmakers, writers, poets, other painters, photographers. It was amazing. It led me to meet Charlie Ahearn and pitch an idea to him for a movie that connected all this rap and graffiti stuff: Wild Style. And the downtown scene connected to the new culture of graffiti/street art, rapping, breakdancing, and DJ’ing now known as hip-hop.

At almost the same time, Glenn was working on another movie, New York Beat (a/k/a Downtown 81). Glenn wanted it to center on a cool downtown guy, and in the end he chose Jean-Michel Basquiat, who I was very close with. Everyone in that film was friends, and a lot of the movie mirrors actual things that were happening around us. That’s why that film feels so much like a documentary at times. It felt so real. We walked those streets every day. All of that really started the wheels turning on a journey for me. The key players on our scene definitely wanted to make a big impact on culture. Cool is subjective, but confidence — the courage to be different and go against the grain — was a trait among leaders of the scene like Glenn. That’s what was going on with those in our creative circle. Glenn totally understood what our mission was and what we were trying to do. He had such an impact on me, on New York, and on culture at large.

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