A shape-shifting rock ‘n’ roll oddity who helped spearhead the glam rock movement in the early 1970s, David Bowie could be seen haunting various downtown locations such as Mercer Arts Center and Club 82.
Jackie Curtis loved the limelight and couldn’t have been happier than when Lou Reed immortalized her in “Walk on the Wild Side,” his best-known song: “Jackie is just speeding away,” Reed sang, “thought she was James Dean for a day.” (Friends and acquaintances tended to use both “she” and “he” pronouns when describing Curtis, which was fitting for someone who insisted, “I’m not a boy, not a girl, not a faggot, not a drag queen, not a transsexual—I’m just me, Jackie.”) “Sometimes he’d kind of have a James Dean style, but ragged,” playwright Robert Heide said of Curtis, “and other times Jackie would dress as Barbara Stanwyck. She would look really good in a red wig or that kind of thing.” Jackie wasn’t the kind of drag queen who tried to pass herself off as a woman and instead developed a sui generis style—as Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlin learned when she would drop by Wagner’s apartment dressed either as a man or woman. “What Jackie did was more like performance art,” Melba LaRose said. “I never thought of him as a woman. He went back and forth so many times. When I met Jackie, he was a little boy with a shopping bag. He had bangs. He was very cute.” “That was the beginning of pansexuality, and David Bowie picked up on that,” said Tony Zanetta, who worked with the glam rock singer. “I find a lot of similarities between Jackie Curtis and David Bowie.” Noting that Jackie had the same DIY aesthetic as John Vaccaro’s Play-House of the Ridiculous, Zanetta added, “Jackie Curtis’s tattered clothes look was do-it-yourself, number one. Like at Warhol’s Factory, it was about how, if you wanted to be an artist, you just basically said you were. Like with punk, if you wanted to be a musician or you wanted to be in a band, well, you didn’t really have to learn how to play an instrument. So Jackie Curtis, the Ridiculous, and punk are all connected.”
From Chapter 17 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
With his eye on breaking David Bowie in America, his manager Tony DeFries hired Pork performers Tony Zanetta and Cherry Vanilla to work at the New York offices of MainMan, his management company, alongside photographer and scenester Leee Black Childers. Zanetta became president of MainMan, Childers was vice president, and Vanilla directed publicity. They had absolutely no business experience and were fairly irresponsible, but no matter—DeFries was selling an image one couldn’t learn about in business school. “MainMan was definitely about Tony DeFries wanting to make money,” Zanetta said, “but I was there because I liked David Bowie and I liked what he was doing.” MainMan’s new president became friends with Bowie and toured with him during the Ziggy Stardust era, which further fueled his Warholian infatuation with stardom and image-making. “Once I admitted that to myself,” Zanetta said, “it kind of freed me and the whole world kind of opened up, especially rock ’n’ roll.” Andy Warhol, however, did not receive Bowie quite as enthusiastically. When he paid a visit to the Factory, the artist muttered something about liking his shoes, but things got more awkward when Bowie played him “Andy Warhol,” a rather corny track from his Hunky Dory album. Silence. While visiting New York, Bowie also connected with Iggy Pop, who signed a management contract with MainMan, and Bowie finally got to know his musical hero, Lou Reed.
From Chapter 24 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Pork debuted on May 5, 1971 at La MaMa before moving to London’s Roundhouse theater with the Amanda Pork character now played by Cherry Vanilla. Her character appeared naked throughout the show and shot up a speed-like substance called Vitameatavegamin (a classic reference to I Love Lucy). She also rolled around in a bed with two pretty boys named the Pepsodent Twins who wore high heels, and also powdered their pubic hair blue and green. The onstage action was controversial, but it was nothing compared to the cast’s offstage antics. “That outrageousness really flowered in London when we went to do Pork,” Tony Zanetta said, “because we were like Ingrassia. We were really loud, really vulgar exhibitionists. We like to attract attention to ourselves.” David Bowie, who had long worshipped Warhol and the Velvet Underground, attended the Roundhouse production of Pork, but when he invited the cast to one of his concerts the Americans were not impressed with what they saw. Zanetta had been intrigued by The Man Who Sold the World album cover—in which Bowie wears a dress that made him look like Lauren Bacall—but in person he was far from glamorous. “He just looked kind of hippie-ish when he came to see Pork,” Tony said. “He had long, stringy hair.” As Jayne County recalled, “We’d heard that this David Bowie was supposed to be androgynous and everything, but then he came out with long hair, folky clothes, and sat on a stool and played folk songs. We were so disappointed with him.”
When compared to Wayne County, both Lou Reed and David Bowie seemed as transgressive as the era’s most chaste pop act, Donny and Marie Osmond. While working for MainMan, Tony Zanetta cooked up a plan to manage County. With the New York Dolls monopolizing the downtown rock ’n’ roll spotlight with their own drag act, Zanetta figured that the only way to set County apart from her peers was a full-blown theatrical show. This led to Wayne at the Trucks, staged at Westbeth Theatre. “The Trucks” refers to one of Zanetta’s favorite downtown hotspots—a gay cruising area at the end of Christopher Street, by the Hudson River, where delivery trucks parked at the piers. He and County came up with the idea of setting the show at the Trucks while having lunch: “Well, it should be kind of Gidget Goes to Hawaii,” Zanetta said, “like, Wayne Goes to the Trucks.” They rented a theater for a week for rehearsals and one performance, and brought in Tony Ingrassia to direct the show. At the beginning of the show, County clicked the heels of a couple fabulous platform boots—with a realistic looking penis that curled up in front, like Persian-style “genie” shoes—it cued her offstage band (the Backstreet Boys) to start rocking. Play-House of the Ridiculous musicals usually placed the musicians to the side of the stage, an idea that County borrowed for this show and was later adapted by Bowie. “In a way,” Zanetta said, “Wayne at the Trucks was a little bit of a rehearsal for Bowie’s Diamond Dogs tour, because Bowie wanted to do this theatrical tour but we weren’t sure how to stage it.” As Blondie’s Chris Stein recalled, “It was one of the first times that a rock show was done with a band out of sight. Many people think that was a big influence on the Diamond Dogs tour, where Bowie was onstage with a band behind a screen.”
The Mercer Arts Center was the brainchild of air-conditioning magnate Seymour Kaback, a theater lover who turned an old downtown building into a large maze-like arts complex with several theaters and concert rooms. In addition to two three-hundred-seat theaters and two two-hundred-seat theaters, Mercer’s had an art-house cinema, jazz lounge, bar, restaurant, two boutiques, and the Kitchen—an experimental film and performance venue housed in the hotel’s old kitchen. All the rooms in Mercer’s emptied into a central gathering space that had an all-white design, which some people called the Clockwork Orange Room. “Whatever you were going to see,” Tony Zanetta recalled, “you would run into other people who were going to see something else. That’s what made it more interesting. So maybe you were going to see One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and I was going to see Wayne County or the New York Dolls. We would be sitting in the same room before or after the show, but we might not have been in that room otherwise.” On some nights, David Bowie could be seen slouched in a bright red plastic chair next to a massive antique mirror, absorbing the atmosphere. Eric Emerson invited the Dolls to open for the Magic Tramps at Mercer’s, and they sent a jolt through the downtown scene by reminding folks that enthusiasm trumped technical proficiency. For drummer Jerry Nolan—who started out playing in Wayne County’s Queen Elizabeth before joining the New York Dolls—David Johansen and company returned rock ’n’ roll back to basics.
From Chapter 27 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Looking to bring in new customers, the management inverted its name from the 82 Club to Club 82 and began booking underground rock bands like the New York Dolls, the Stilettoes, Wayne County, and Television. David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Bryan Ferry would also drop by when it was operating as an after-hours club (County recalled that Club 82 was where Reed met Rachel Humphries, the transgender woman who was his live-in lover for three or four years in the 1970s). “It was basically geared to look like a scene from Liza Minnelli’s Cabaret,” Paul Zone said, describing its elongated stacked stage, glittery curtains, and fake palm trees. “It was for drag shows—so the stage was elongated—but it was basically a basement.” Blondie’s Chris Stein added, “The most impressive thing it had was a photo wall in back. There was a photo of Abbott and Costello with a bunch of drag queens, which I thought was utterly amazing.” The butch lesbian bouncer rocked a classic 1950s DA haircut and wore a white T‑shirt with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve, which added to the venue’s eclectic atmosphere. Club 82’s mix of theatricality and gender-bending made sense, given that it was located next to La MaMa. Off-Off-Broadway and underground rock audiences often overlapped during the first half of the 1970s, especially when local bands such as the New York Dolls or Wayne County and the Backstreet Boys began playing at Club 82. Aside from a few bands that played there, by this point it had evolved into a shoddy underground disco. “It was a basement club, and this was the age of disco,” recalled the Cockettes’ Pam Tent. “Lights and glitter everywhere. Alice Cooper was there, Jobriath was there, Lou Reed was there. Everybody who was anybody in New York would turn up the 82 Club, and we all would do cocaine and dance all night.”’
From Chapter 30 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore