glenn o'brien - book covers - tribute

Rebel on the Payroll – A Tribute to Writer Glenn O’Brien

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Beginning around the late 1940s to the mid-1950s, and landing right in the middle of the McCarthy era, the impact of the emergent Beat Generation on post-war America’s youth was perceived as a threat to mainstream society. The Beat movement offered to teens and young adults a cultural perspective and lifestyle viewed and was feared by those in the mainstream as subversive.

Looking back, Allen Ginsberg wrote how the Beats “as a social phenomenon didn’t start until about 1958 or 1959, and so there’s all that literature when it surfaces and becomes public.” [1] The books he refers to are regarded as canonical works of the Beat Generation: Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road (1957); Allen Ginsberg’s breakthrough book of poems Howl (1956) (subsequently banned in San Francisco, the publisher went to court in a 1957 censorship trial and won); William Burroughs’s 1959 novel Naked Lunch (also banned until the publisher of Grove Press, Barney Rosset, won that case in Supreme Court); and Gregory Corso’s socially critical and sarcastic book of poems, Gasoline (1958). The influence of these books both solidified and disseminated the Beat Generation’s literary attacks on the mainstream status quo.

The broader Beat milieu was comprised of a coterie of little-known musicians, writers, artists, and searching youths assembling in low-rent districts typically perceived as underground communities in coffee houses and tenement lofts–places where jazz, rock n’roll, abstract painting, pot smoking, free love, and new literary styles of self-expression were practiced and created. These Beat communities were generally associated with New York’s Greenwich Village, San Francisco’s North Beach, and Los Angeles’s Venice Beach.

It was also during the 1950s that the public’s idea of the Beat Generation as an anti-social malaise was shaped by stigmatizing and exploitative Hollywood films. While two films of note, The Wild One, 1953, and Rebel Without a Cause, 1955, genuinely attempted to portray young adults caught up in the new mode of alienation then sweeping through the post-war generation, the media’s commodification of the Beat image reduced it to a parody of rebellious-and-outrageous behavior. Most films on the Beats either remolded them into insensitive criminals or zany figures of ridicule known as beatniks.

The term beatnik was first coined by Herb Caen, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. In his April 2, 1958, column, Caen fused the term “Beat” with “Sputnik,” the name given to the Soviet Union’s first space satellite. Caen’s slanderous inference was clear; the Beats were communists. The label also implied Beatniks were less social rebels than effetes who protested mainstream society by avoiding it. Commercializing the beat image even more, network television adopted and introduced the beatnik figure into its programming in an effort to keep up with youth trends. One of the most popular of these programs was The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, a weekly evening sitcom televised on CBS from 1959-63.

Based on a collection of eleven short stories written by Max Shulman and published in 1953, the show centered on a Midwestern college town and campus. The hero is Dobie Gillis, a baffled campus Romeo who has difficulty scoring with women. Gillis’ best friend is Maynard G. Krebs, a beatnik portrayed by the actor Bob Denver, usually dressed in a torn sweat shirt, dirty jeans, tennis shoes and who begins his sentences with phrases such as “Like,” or “Hi, Big Daddy.”

Originally, the character of Maynard G. Krebs did not appear in any of the original magazine stories published in 1951. But as the Beat Generation became ubiquitous by 1959, the Krebs character was added to the show, very clearly embodying a beatnik style, giving the show an off-beat appeal and targeting a teenage audience.

In 1960, I sometimes watched reruns of Dobie Gillis, at eight o’clock A.M., before going to school. Although I was too young to know about the Beat Generation or what a beatnik was, I was still intrigued by the comical, anomalous figure of Maynard G. Krebs and how he spoke and dressed. There was no one like him in my world.

But to a twelve-year- old Glenn O’Brien, Maynard G. Krebs was viewed as “a model of cool . . . . his first beatnik.” That O’Brien still saw and felt the pull of the Beat sensibility in a commercially, corrupted distortion like Krebs was a testament to the strength of the Beat Generation’s appeal. “In Krebs,” he said, “I saw the spirit of Dizzy Gillespie, Satori, the essence of Beat shone through the satire.” Soon afterwards, O’Brien “discovered jazz and the Beats; forms of the avant-garde that transcended the pop kicks of teenage culture.” [2]

In his 1996, essay The Beat Goes On, O’Brien paid homage to the Beat Generation and the televised messenger of countercultural hipness Krebs represented for him and his generation. “The Beats,” he said, “are still our heroes, but we live in a gone world and look back on the adventures of the Beats as a sage, great legendary adventures from a real gone world.” [3] O’Brien’s “heroes” were a key influence on his career as a counterculture commentator and social critic, satirist, and “style guy,” who promoted alternative modes of music, art, and culture to the mainstream.

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NOWNESS / YouTube.com

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In the introduction to SOAPBOX, one of his books of essay collections, O’Brien wrote how he always wanted to be an essayist: “I also thought it was very important to be funny, because how else can you be taken seriously.” [4] Interestingly, Krebs used irony, slang humor, and television itself to ridicule the square world. Perhaps as a young O’Brien watched Krebs go into his comedic attacks on society, they influenced his style of humor and irony, becoming his trademark as a writing professional.

During the sixties, O’Brien “attended public-and-parochial schools in Ohio and New Jersey, and the Jesuit-run St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland; he studied philosophy and literature at Georgetown University and film at Columbia University Graduate School of the Arts. The film critic Andrew Sarris, recommended him for a job working on Andy Warhol’s magazine Interview. In 1970, O’Brien was hired as an assistant editor and in 1971 , he was made Editor & Art Director.” [5]

By the time O’Brien was settling into his job at Interview, New Journalism had set a high bar for avant-garde magazine culture. Writers such as Hunter Thompson, Terry Southern, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Paul Krassner, Ken Kesey, Joan Didion, Eve Babitz, Gloria Steinem, Leroy Jones, James Baldwin, and Eldridge Cleaver employed black humor, outrage, and irony in their articles and books to expose social and political trends, and corruption, and espouse radical new lifestyles and sexual mores. Their writing(s) appeared in some of the frontline journals of the sixties and seventies: Evergreen Review, Ramparts, The Realist, Ms., Rolling Stone, Esquire, Oui, Playboy, New York Magazine, and certainly MAD Magazine.

After working for magazines such as “Rolling Stone in 1974, to Articles Editor at Oui magazine with the Playboy Corporation in Chicago in 1975, O’Brien returned to New York in 1976, accepting a position as Articles Editor of High Times. [6] He began writing his music column for Interview, “Glenn O’Brien’s Beat,” from 1977 to 1990. O’Brien became well-known as a hip culture critic, but he also grasped that “to be a successful essayist writing essays isn’t enough, you have to find a venue, invent a venue, because otherwise it is a sort of ‘will write non-fiction for food’ situation where you’re handing out your work in subway platforms.” [7] It was around this time that O’Brien first encountered Public Access Television, a relatively new televised medium unfettered by commercial concerns, which would provide him with a new venue.

In 1978, O’Brien made a guest appearance on a public access television program, If I Can’t Dance, You Can Keep Your Revolution, hosted by Coco Crystal. Crystal’s format was divided between scheduled guest appearances and/or improvisational surprises showcasing countercultural figures, public-service announcements, and pot smoking, among other things. In the T.V. Party documentary, O’Brien relates how he appeared on the show, and on the following day was recognized by someone who mentioned seeing him on the program.

A Maynard G. Krebs-style lightbulb went off in O’Brien’s head and the idea for his own public-access television show originated. However, another version of his show’s origin appears in an article O’Brien wrote for VICE magazine: “My friend Chris Stein, the guitarist of Blondie, lived in a Midtown penthouse around this time and had cable. I often watched it with him while smoking Rasta-sized joints. One night it just hit me and I called him up and said, “Chris, we have to start a public-access show. People are actually watching this shit instead of Bonanza.” [8] Probably, both accounts are true, and through the outlandish medium of public access T.V., he could now create his own generational venue as a Beat-style countercultural pioneer.

When O’Brien’s T.V. Party was first televised on December 18, 1978, it was broadcasted exclusively from New York and unleashed a scene of creative, downtown madness: experimental music, performers, and a send-up of mainstream television itself. O’Brien recalls, “The show ran on Channel D and Channel J, and was quite popular with the kids. We lucked into following the Robin Byrd Show for a while, and so inherited an audience of horny guys. We also got a big high school following thanks to smoking a bunch of pot and talking shit.” [9]

O’Brien’s own version of a Beat Generation included Basquiat, (then known as SAMO), David Byrne, David Bowie, Blondie, filmmaker Amos Poe, and painter and musician Walter Stedding, among many others. The show appeared from 1978 to 1982, and as O’Brien wrote: “The show never officially ended—Chris got sick and almost died, I got married and decided I needed to make some money, some people went to rehab, some left town, and some died of AIDS, which had just appeared. It seemed like suddenly everything was changing, and it just got to be longer and longer since the last show. We had a good run fucking up television, though—cursing, getting high, advocating subversion, and being party desperados.” [10]

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TVPartyLive / YouTube.com

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I spoke with Alan Kaufman, editor of The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, regarding O’Brien’s career as a writer and innovator of his cable television show. Said Kaufman: “The articles O’Brien was writing at the time did not subvert the magazines, or the journalist genre in the way that Hunter Thompson or Paul Krassner’s writings did. O’Brien’s mainstream articles were in-step with the popular journalism of the decade, heavily seasoned by New Journalism and hip in a pop style. So, going on cable television was a big departure for O’Brien; his personal rebellion against the hollow television programming of the day and maybe even his own writing career. When T.V. Party was launched, cable access television was a familiar medium, but though O’Brien’s innovations, a new style of radical, chaotic hilarity was introduced, subverting the very premises of television and giving it a strange new face. T.V. Party caught not just a fantastical moment in downtown culture but framed and critiqued the future of what our technological society has become today.”

When T.V. Party petered out, O’Brien continued writing for mainstream magazines such as ARTFORUM, GQ, ESQUIRE and DETAILS.  He co-wrote Madonna’s SEX BOOK, and was a creative director of Barneys New York. He also edited an anthology titled THE COOL SCHOOL, 2011, a collection of fifty-seven articles, riffs, poems, novel excerpts, and memoirs by various beat writers, jazz musicians, music critics, hipsters, friends, and artists of his generation. It is worth reading the pieces in this collection as they offer an insight into how the Beat and hipster scene(s) triggered O’Brien’s cultural antennas. “The underground seems to be trying to come around again,” he wrote. “I can dig that and I sincerely hope that these cool artifacts aid and abet a cool front moving in. I don’t mind if it starts out totally fake, with a beard and a tattoo and a copy of Kerouac carried for effect. Hey I started with Maynard G. Krebs and his goatee and it worked for me.” [11]

O’Brien died in April 2017. A third collection of articles from his ARTFORUM column LIKE ART, was published in February 2017. Read together, these three essay and article collections, THE COOL SCHOOL, SOAPBOX, and LIKE ART, provide excellent forays into O’Brien’s countercultural development as a writer and television visionary.

Currently, an exhibition titled GLENN O’BRIEN: CENTER STAGE, is open at the OFF-PARADISE PROJECT SPACE in lower Manhattan.

For a review of the show, click here.

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Erik La Prade

C 2019

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ABOUT ERIK LA PRADE

Erik La Prade lives in New York.  His interviews and articles have appeared in Art In AmericaThe Brooklyn Railartcritical, and others. His latest book is NEGLECTED POWERS. Last Word Press. 2017. Some of his poems currently appear in J Journal.  He has a B.A. and M.A. from City College.

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IMAGE CREDITS

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FOOTNOTES

[1] Ginsberg, Allen. Reading List. The Best Minds of My Generation. A Literary History of the Beats. With a foreword by Anne Waldman. Edited by Bill Morgan. Grove Press. New York. 2017. Pg. 23

[2] The Beat Goes On. Beat Culture and The New America, 1950-1965. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. 1996. Published by Flammarion. Curated by Lisa Phillips. Pg. 169.

[3] The Beat Goes On. Beat Culture and The New America, 1950-1965. Pg. 178.

[4] Author’s Introduction. SOAPBOX: Essays, Diatribes, Homilies and Screeds, 1980-1997. Published by Imschoot Drukkerij Joz. 1998. Pg. 9.

[5] Glennobrien.com/site///#bio.

[6] Ibid.

[7] SOAPBOX. Author’s Introduction. Pg. 9.

[8] The Story of Glenn O’Brien’s ‘T.V. Party’. Glenn O’Brien. NOISEY. Music by VICE. Nov. 14, 2014.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Introduction. THE COOL SCHOOL: writing from america’s hip underground. Edited by glenn o’brien. A Special Publication of THE LIBRARY OF AMERICA. 2013. Pg. XVIII.